Clocking in at almost three hours, Melbourne University Chinese Theatre Group’s, adaptation of an Agatha Christie tale feels a colossal undertaking that never breaks a sweat. Immediately setting a dark tone, the play strikes a noir chord with an eerie soundscape and darkened set, save for the few scattered candles and a probing torch. We are given glimpses of gothic set pieces and portentous blocking by this intelligent lighting design. This is the ultimate tease – a come-hither finger manifested in dramaturgy.
Right as the simmering tension reaches boiling point, the lights come on; a rush of relief is all too brief, cut short by a dead body. The play continues along this dark, broody style, weaving a complex thread of intertwined storylines in a clever whodunnit. In particular, younger brother to the victim, Jan, played with intelligent comic timing by HaoCheng Han, manages to counter expectations and fuel the mystery of the play. His buoyant characterisation sits at odds with the rest of the cast, but never feels out of place. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the dour YiFan Zhang delivers a solemn performance with a subdued style. Only at the finale does her quiet pain transfer to a tragic outburst. She breaks down and earns a heartrending conclusion to the play.
Despite maintaining a consistently tense atmosphere, The Unexpected Guest’s languid style feels bloated and begins to drag over the course of its long scenes. The glacial pacing develops an effective slow-burn style, but ultimately feels miscalculated and exhausting. Subsequently, when the play comes to an end, the narrative resolution feels obscured by the sheer length of the piece. Even though all the threads to the play are tied up, it feels somewhat dissatisfying.
However, The Unexpected Guest succeeds in crafting an air of mystery and dread, giving an enthralling piece of theatre with near-unbearable restraint. The sole set is diverse and can immediately feel gothic, clinical or plaintive, depending on lighting design and blocking. Overall, the play runs too long and lingers too frequently, but for the most part, MUCTG’s new play is an exciting piece of intelligent theatre.
MUCTG’s production of The Unexpected Guest ran from the 24th-26th of May in the Union Theatre