On opening night of Kim’s Convenience, as the Grand Theatre’s red curtains rose up to reveal Julia Kim’s marvellous set design, the crowd promptly erupted into spontaneous applause. The detail and the realism of designer Kim’s store design was truly momentous. Did it look exactly like the set of the CBC TV show many have come to know and love over the years? Not exactly. But it did offer a shockingly delightful likeness to the ordinary Canadian corner store that many of us see as an important marker of our daily lives. Kim’s design hit just the right tone for the play’s opening moments, reminding audiences that our every day is worth celebrating, right down to the last Bounty chocolate bar.
Because Ins Choi’s play has a healthy production history on stages across Canada and a successful run on television as a popular sitcom, finding a unique way of presenting this contemporary classic is a tall task. Ultimately, it’s the two main artists at the helm of the Grand’s production that mark this as an important moment in this play’s production history. Playwright Choi himself takes on the lead role of Appa, the owner-operator of the store. Esther Jun, who played Appa’s artistic daughter Janet in the original production, now leads the team as the play’s talented director. By including Choi and Jun in these new roles, the Grand’s production manages to bring audiences back to this play’s inception and highlight its impressive journey over the years. I love that these choices remind Canadian audiences that theatre created in this country has the potential to cultivate its own lore.
I was one of the lucky ones who saw the original Toronto Fringe production way back in 2011, and the buzz that year was palpable. I remember getting emails from friends and colleagues with tips about how to try to sneak into the packed, sold out houses at the Randolph Theatre. Now, all these years later, Esther Jun has gone on to become a stage director of some renown and the play’s life beyond the Fringe is the stuff of Canadian theatre legend. I suspect that audiences will pack the Grand to see this well-executed new production.
Choi is radiant as Appa, delivering on the audience’s desire to spend a little time with their favourite world-weary, hard-working immigrant father with a heart of gold. Choi masterfully hits all of the play’s snappy jokes (he did write them after all!), but what stands out is the humanity in his performance. Appa’s emotional vulnerability can sometimes get lost in the laughter of other productions, but Choi ensures this story’s patriarch has a wonderfully complex inner life. That’s the strength in this retelling overall. The extra time the piece takes to slow down the sitcom speed allows for the family’s complexities to emerge.
It’s been mentioned before but certainly bears repeating in 2023 that Kim’s Convenience is a play with jokes heavily reliant on racial stereotyping. As Jun says in one Grand promotional video, “Kim’s Convenience is a love letter to immigrant parents,” and the play doesn’t shy away from the generational and cultural clashes embedded in their experiences. At times it’s difficult to know whether the audience is laughing with or at the culturally specific quips, but ultimately this production admirably balances out the broad humour with complex human emotions. This is helped by strong performances by Emeka Agada and Kelly J Seo, who find success in performing both the humour and the humanity as the story’s young lovers Alex and Janet. While Appa’s wife Umma and son Jung have very little stage time in the play (in contrast to the sitcom, where they are leading characters), Vicky Kim and Leon Qin capably round out the cast. Jareth Li’s evocative lighting design midway through the story reveals another world hiding in plain sight throughout the rest of the show.
It is in this balance that we also see director Jun’s steady hand. She ensures the jokes land and that the audience gets to see the important moments of growth throughout each character’s journey. In productions such as Little Women and Les Belles Soeurs at Stratford, Jun has revealed a rare talent for getting that difficult balance expected between the past and present just right. Here she manages to both satisfy the original mega-fans and give new audiences something to cheer about. She nurtures the existing love people have for a work’s past life and asks what this work says to audiences in this specific moment in time.
With a strong production like this, it’s easy to see how Choi’s play has managed to continue entertaining audiences for over ten years.
Kim’s Convenience runs at the Grand Theatre in London until Saturday, November 4th. Tickets are available here.
Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.