Theatre Review: ‘Orange Polar Bear’ (Birmingham REP)


Orange Polar Bear
by Sun-Duck Ko and Evan Placey
Birmingham REP

Review by Georgia Kelly

Perhaps one of the best pieces of theatre you will see this year is lurking in The Door theatre at Birmingham REP. Collaborating with each other as well as with groups of students in both Birmingham and Seoul, writers Evan Placey and Sun-Duck Ko and Director Peter Wynne-Wilson have created a visually stunning production that distils the issues facing young people growing up in 2018.

Orange Polar Bear was developed from working with those two school groups on opposite sides of the world, asking them questions and listening to their ideas, reacting to their similarities, and their differences, to create a story of two teenagers united by their isolation. Jiyoung with her father and grandmother in their apartment in Seoul, dealing with her mother’s absence and her friend’s popularity. And William in a London flat with his mother, an immigrant woman who buys him coco pops to make him more British, and his quiet school life that soon starts to change. As they navigate a breadth of issues (and we can all relate to one if not more) they think of each other, the boy and the girl they do not know but feel somehow. Who feels the same as they do.

The story of William and Jiyoung and their families and friends have an immense resonance. We’ve all been where they are, even if we’ve forgotten. Placey and Ko have accomplished an impressive feat: an intelligent and warm distillation of virtually every growing pain. Helped in no small part by the talent of the cast and crew.

Engaging and moving, Rasaq Kukoyi and Minju Kim shine in the lead roles, with a formidable ensemble carrying them through London buses, Seoul apartment blocks, and school rooftops. Special mention must go to Cheongim Kang for her mesmeric turns as a fifteen-year-old girl and an elderly grandmother.

Utterly absorbing lighting and projections will leave you transfixed on the stage, the blank canvas of the space transformed in the blink of an eye. An incredible marriage of technology and performance; interactive, vivid, and enthralling.

It’s difficult to put this production into words. Undeniably, the teams behind ‘Orange Polar Bear’ have created something truly beautiful. An unflinching look at how growing up in a world consumed by terror, global warming, austerity, beauty standards, and the otherness of adults makes the youth of today anything but “snowflakes”. Clear-cut and uncompromising, capturing the complexity of young lives today with deceptive simplicity, ‘Orange Polar Bear’ matches it’s excruciating moments with humour and, ultimately, hope. I cannot possibly do this incredible production justice in just one page, it must be seen.

Orange Polar Bear is playing in The Door theatre at Birmingham REP until 10th November.