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Bound Feet Blues – A Life Told in Shoes review at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London – ‘warm, genuine narrative’

Yang-Mai Ooi in Bound Feet Blues. Photo: Sheila Burnett Yang-Mai Ooi in Bound Feet Blues. Photo: Sheila Burnett

The set of Bound Feet Blues is very clever and subtle and captures the attention before writer/performer Yang-May Ooi arrives on stage.

A gently sloping platform with steps on one side curves around the stage and a wall of white streamers hang equally measured from floor to ceiling. But, on closer inspection, the streamers look like bindings and they are wrapped tightly around the platform itself. They look pretty but they have a purpose – to encase the undulating platform.

Yang-May Ooi, barefoot and dressed in black, has a calming presence and tells her story – and that of her female ancestors – with animation and humour. Had an actor presented her words instead, this would have been a completely different show – here, presentational polish is sacrificed in favour of a warm, genuine narrative.

When Ooi describes the process of foot-binding, as experienced by her great-grandmother – and plenty of relatives before her – the scene is shocking, disturbing and frustrating. She knows how to press the buttons of a British audience and the acceptance, obedience and submission she describes towards the foot-binding tradition is almost insufferable to hear.

It’s an insightful, sometimes upsetting account delivered by a woman who clearly appreciates the era she was born into. Yet Ooi has some unsettling examples of how, even today in the West, daintiness in a woman is often celebrated and a ‘beauty is pain’ culture still exists.

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An entertaining narrative about a Malaysian woman’s unpredictable life, interspersed with unsettling stories about the women who came before her and the impact they had