White Pearl review – a racist ad, and a bracingly funny corporate satire


White Pearl is a little gem. It is the work of Anchuli Felicia King, of Thai-Australian descent, and turns out to be a fizzing satire that in 90 minutes takes on a wide range of subjects: corporate hypocrisy, the base values of the beauty business, the frenzy of social media and, not least, mutual suspicion between westernised and homeland Asians.

The setting is the Singapore headquarters of a cosmetics firm created by women as an alternative to Asian corporate culture. However, when a joke ad – showing an evil woman’s skin turning black as she applies the eponymous skin cream – goes viral, you see the company is as toxic as any other. The instant reaction of the boss, an Indian-Singaporean, is to seek a scapegoat. Her eye falls on a raw recruit from Shanghai, terrified for family reasons of being sent back to China, and on the South Korean chemical consultant who takes her side.



Minhee Yeo and Momo Yeung (Xiao) in White Pearl by Anchuli Felicia Kin. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

You may wonder how the implicitly racist ad ever got past the drawing board, but King uses it brilliantly to expose corporate contradictions. The company bases its beauty products on the belief that women hate the way they look, and claims to be organic while engaging in animal testing and is rife with inter-Asian rivalry. One of the running gags involves the boss’s refusal to admit that anyone from Korea is not the product of a despised despotism.

This is satire at its sharpest, revealing the gulf between high ideals and debased practice. Nana Dakin’s production, while using hi-tech projections to show the ad’s global impact, is rightly focused on individuals. Farzana Dua Elahe, as the head honcho, radiates the snooty hauteur of someone who uses her British education as a weapon. Kae Alexander is suitably guilt-ridden as a Thai-American seeking to extricate herself from a relationship with a French photographer skilled at dissemination, via YouTube and by other means. Minhee Yeo as the South Korean chemist also shows that you can be an office Machiavel and still have a good heart. This is a bracingly funny play that, like Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, shows women are no more immune than men to capitalism’s insidious corruption.

At the Royal Court, London, until 15 June



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