Ugliness runs through Anchuli Felicia King’s play. White Pearl is a scathing, gleefully nasty corporate satire set in the Singapore headquarters of an Asian skin-lightening cosmetics company. A horrifically racist advertisement is leaked and quickly goes viral, causing international outrage and internal company panic.
Moi Tran’s sleek set soars up to the roof of the Royal Court’s main stage and, along with Natasha Chivers’ white-and-pastel lighting, neatly offsets the murky machinations within the CleardayTM conference room, emphasising the void at the heart of the play. This turns out to be both its biggest strength and biggest flaw.
King’s aptitude for sharp and acidic writing is evident. Her dialogue fizzes and pops off the stage with surprising force. She has a particularly good ear for sending up commercial buzz words and business speak. Some of the biggest laughs come from Priya’s (Farzana Dua Elahe) attempts at corporate chumminess (“Feel free to chip in on this!”). King’s ability to craft a tightly-controlled yet ambitious narrative that slyly and effectively suggests the creeping complicity of every character in the company is impressive too. “You are epic level heartless right now,” one of the characters delightedly tells her boss halfway through. “I love it.”
But the play is very heavy on plot and the dialogue can often feel over-expositional in an effort to maintain the unrelenting and furious pace of the piece. King’s short, muscular scenes are effectively disorientating, but they tend to better serve (the occasionally slightly contrived) plot than they do the characters.
It’s a real shame, considering the weight of the topics being explored here – colourism, intra-racial racism, and cut-throat corporate culture – and the rarity with which they are discussed in UK theatre. The way in which these ideas have been flung onstage can feel glib, something that isn’t helped by King’s lightly sketched characters. There are occasional glimpses of something deeper, but often you’re left wishing that the breathtaking cruelty of these women could be interrogated with more rigour.
The performances are, however, uniformly excellent, particularly Kae Alexander’s vibrantly funny Built and Kanako Nakano’s sweetly naive Ruki (and it’s a joy to hear and see non-native English speakers front and centre at the Royal Court). But Nana Dakin’s direction fizzles when it comes to the larger group scenes, and King’s precisely modulated power-plays aren’t allowed to flourish. The most emotionally satisfying scenes are the smaller, quieter ones, (which are few and far between). They allow for much-needed moments of tenderness amid all the exhausting cold-bloodedness. This is an impressive and ambitious play, no question, but there’s a hollowness at its heart.