Review: A Game Not Lost, Pit, VAULT Festival ★★★★☆

by Jim Keaveney

Isabella Leung as Ching Shih. Photo: Paradise Photo

We are sitting with one of the most feared and powerful women of all time, Ching Shih – or 鄭石氏 as she was known in her homeland – for a game of Mahjong, the Chinese tile-based game. Ching, played by Isabella Leung, is waiting for us as we enter, greeting members of the audience and striking up a conversation. We are her guests tonight and the game of Mahjong we play against her parallels the twists and turns of her life in an exploration of femininity, sexual prowess and destiny.

We track her story from her origins as a lowly peasant to prostitution, using her sexuality as a tool, to pirate captain of the Red Flag Fleet in Qing Dynasty China where she uses feminity as a weapon. Leung delivers an accomplished and assured performance, perfectly capturing Ching’s arrogance, and she is utterly devasting in her sorrow at a key moment in the show. Anfy Loues’s lighting raises goosebumps with a stunning sea-storm that echoes around the Pit’s brick walls; the VAULT’s space is the perfect setting.

The link between the game of Mahjong and Ching’s life quickly dissipates; it’s a nice opening but the show struggles to maintain the surprise of the fictional game (that we’re not really playing) against Ching with the much more interesting and more fascinating story of Ching’s life that is playing out alongside it.

Dorothy Kay’s play moves quickly under Zhui Ning Chang’s direction as we speed through Ching’s life, sometimes to a fault as we attempt to make sense of the expanse of Ching’s long and storied life. As with most of the VAULT Festival’s shows A Game Not Lost comes in at just shy of one hour long, and though we leave enthralled by our pirate captain and her captivating story, it feels there is more to explore here and we depart wanting just a little more. I have no doubt we will see another life to Kay’s play beyond this year’s festival.