Sushi Girls (Theatro Technis)

Hidden off Camden High Street is a former church which boasts a plaque reminding us of a public sewer running underneath, and this is the Theatro Technis, a laid-back venue with a friendly vibe.

I was invited to review Sushi Girls, the new play by Tony Leliw, a play described as a comedy about Japanese exchange students staying with a London family.

Rina Saito as Shizuko and Shina Shihoko Nagai as Ichika
Rina Saito as Shizuko and Shina Shihoko Nagai as Ichika

Anton (based loosely on the writer), isn’t sure about foreign students, and refers to Ichika and Shizuko as “Itchy and Scratchy” before they arrive, assuming they will be quiet and polite. He slips into the Cockney idiom at times of stress.

Anna, the wife, is more pragmatic, thinking of the money they will bring in to their home. When the students arrive, Ichika seems stereotypically Japanese, wearing a kimono and bowing to her hosts, but Shizuko is spoiled, a brat in Gucci heels, dismissing both hosts and house and planning to spend her money on frivolities like a £900 ‘Golden Burger’ and tea at the Ritz.

Rina Saito as Shizuko, Kate Winder as Anna, Shina Shihoko Nagai as Ichika, Mark Keegan as Anton
Rina Saito as Shizuko, Kate Winder as Anna, Shina Shihoko Nagai as Ichika, Mark Keegan as Anton

With two sets side by side (dining room and students’ bedroom), a garden suggested by lighting and sound effects, and off-stage kitchen and bathroom, the staging makes the most of the floor space – although the pacing between scene changes needs to be tightened up a bit to keep things moving.

Act one has more than a hint of 70s sitcom in its culture clashes and stereotypes on both sides, Japanese and English. However the characters of the students are well-defined, and these are good leading roles for Rina Saito and Shina Shihoko Nagai.

Shina Shihoko Nagai and Rina Saito
Shina Shihoko Nagai and Rina Saito

In act two we follow Itchika’s fortunes when she decides to make a new life in England, and the play moves from the comic into the tragic – for me, a scene of mistaken identity didn’t work, but Nagai and Keegan excel in a King’s Cross plot which involves a mysterious man, a ball, a fight, a moment of reflection, and a touching song about a butterfly.

Sushi Girls isn’t quite what I expected, as the Cockney aspects of the student’s adoption of English is peripheral, and the growth of all the characters to accept and understand each other seems to transcend the comedy, but I enjoyed the piece, and was particularly struck by a bit of direction where a hug from one of the girls to the other was mirrored later on in a different context.

Ultimately, Sushi Girls is about friendship, family, and in its ending, just a little bit of fishy fantasy.

Sushi Girls ran at Theatro Technis from 25-27 July. Photo credits by Anna Lukanina.


Sushi Girls – preview and Q&A

Sushi Girls, a new play by British-Ukranian playwright Tony Leliw opens at the Theatro Technis next month from 25-27 July.

It features a company of four actors: Mark Keegan (Anton), Kate Winder (Anna), Shina Shihoko Nagai (Ichika) and Rina Saito (Shizuko). It also features songs and sounds as if it will be an intriguing addition to this summer’s fringe theatre scene.

YouTube trailer for Sushi Girls

The play is based around Leliw’s experience of over two decades as a host family welcoming foreign students to London, who have come here to study English.

The play is “a rollercoaster of linguistic and cultural mishaps” and a tug-of-war between one student, Ichika who wants to study and stay in London, and the other, Shizuko, who does everything to sabotage the trip to be back with her boyfriend in Tokyo.

Sushi Girls poster

I asked Tony to tell me a bit about Sushi Girls, which I will be reviewing on the 27 July.

What should an audience expect when they come to see Sushi Girls? How would you describe the show?

It’s not very often when you go to the theatre, that you see two native Japanese actresses land major roles in a British stage play. So for this reason, our play is more out of the ordinary than others.

Being professionals, Shina and Rina speak with Japanese accents when talking English. When they converse with the host family they have a heavy accent, full of grammatical mistakes and mis-pronounciations, while when chatting amongst themselves, they speak clearly and properly, except when they do cockney, which is a whole new ball game.

Without giving too much away, our audience will be blown away when they hear the girls speak with a cockney accent, picking words up from Anton the host father, and host mother Anna getting annoyed, ‘when they rabbit and pork’ and don’t speak ‘proper’..

I am hoping our audience will be partially made up of foreign students, who will in a subtle and fun way learn about British culture, while our domestic audience will pick up on a few Japanese habits and traditions.

For those coming to our opening night (Thursday, July 25, 7pm), the first 50 will be offered a free shot of sake from Tom and Lucy, who run the Kanpai London Craft Sake Brewery. They will also get a chance to meet a Pearly King and Queen. Other Japanese beverages may be on offer from theatre barman Leo.

Why did you decide on the Theatro Technis as a venue? What do you particularly like about it?

I grew up in Islington, and as Camden is a neighbouring borough, I believe you should support your local nstitutions, otherwise they will fade and disappear. I did my first play You What? He’s Ukrainian at Theatro Technis, so it feels a bit nostalgic coming back.

Theatro Technis is on the doorstep of central London, so is easily accessible. It has a good bar, decent dressing rooms and an amphitheatre atmosphere with 120 seats. The theatre is run by a Greek family, George and Aris Eugeniou and his team of volunteers. As the Greeks invented drama, it seemed the perfect venue for my play.

Playwright Tony Leliw outside the Theatro Technis with the poster for Sushi Girls
Playwright Tony Leliw outside the Theatro Technis with the poster for Sushi Girls

Who are you aiming at with your publicity, social media, trailer etc. How can interested potential audiences spread the word further?

People who have studied abroad, been away from home, experienced a foreign language or culture, or are from a different country now living here, will relate to this play.

I specifically put this play on during the holiday season to attract tourists and foreign students. Equally, in this country is a whole group of host families who will be able to share in some of the experiences featured in the play.

I have targeted English language schools. Those that have been receptive so far include: Lemy School in Harrow, International House London in Covent Garden; and Tti School of English in Camden, who have made students aware of our play. I have also promoted my play through a Sushi Girls page on Facebook, created a dedicated website, Twitter account and shared information with the APL – UK Host Family Support Group.

I am hopeful we will attract a large Japanese following. The Japanese Embassy in UK has included our play in its Japan-UK Season of Culture and our play has been listed by The Japan Society of the UK. Nestle Japan have allowed us to use their Matcha KitKat logo on our poster.

Doki Japanese Tableware in Harrow, my local dry cleaners and Chinese take-away Ming Sing, have put our posters up. Sophie’s Japan Blog interviewed me and our director Antti Hakala. During our last rehearsal we put up a promotional video on YouTube called ‘Sushi Girls coming to London’.

I hope that those that can’t make it will tell their family and friends and share any information we put into the public domain through various social media channels.

Sounds as if you have covered all the bases! What’s next for you after Sushi Girls?

I would like to revisit my last play UktheNuke. It’s a political satire on recent and current political events in Ukraine. It’s about a super hero, set in the future, who liberates his country after it gives up its nuclear weapons and is invaded.

UktheNuke reclaims his country’s territory by making his enemies nuclear weapons redundant with his army of hackers.

Thanks to Tony for sending through his answers!

You can follow the social media accounts associated with Sushi Girls on Facebook, Twitter, and the show also has a dedicated website.