Chinese Whispers review at Greenwich Theatre, London – ‘fascinating but unfocused’

Ian Kelly, Dermot Agnew and Mark Farrelly in Chinese Whispers at Greenwich Theatre Ian Kelly, Dermot Agnew and Mark Farrelly in Chinese Whispers at Greenwich Theatre
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Sir Edmund Backhouse represents one of the more curious characters spawned in 19th-century England. A gentleman con artist who, after being sent down from Oxford, proceeded to carve a fraudulent career as Britain’s go-to guy in Peking. Fluent in Mandarin, Backhouse was able to insinuate himself into the fringes of a burgeoning world market, brokering phoney trade deals by posing as an insider with both East and Western governments. To add colour to the history, Backhouse was also openly homosexual boasting a string of fictitious high-profile lovers and a taste for writing equally fictitious erotic literature.

On paper, Backhouse’s story is pure theatre and immediately brings to mind Seiriol Davies’ How To Win Against History, a musical about the comparably eccentric Henry Cyril Paget. Although not a musical, Ian Lindsay and Jeremy Cantwell’s script is far from a formal drama, with the fourth wall collapsing regularly and a pantomime feel to Pete Shaw’s colourful set. However Lindsay’s unsettled direction never quite seems in sync with either performances or the script. This is a remarkable story that begs an imaginative telling but the staging, performances and direction are rarely up to the challenge.

Mark Farrelly conjures up an intriguing Backhouse: charismatic when there’s money to be had. but petulant when dividends are expected. But it’s practically impossible to portray the character in a sympathetic light. His relationship with Owl Young’s cheery Factotum might have been an opportunity, but it is never fully explored beyond a playful slap on the backside.

Fascinating theatrical story let down by unfocused direction