Land of Smiles

Edinburgh Festival Fringe Scotsman review (theatre): Land of Smiles at Assembly George Square Studios (VENUE 17). Review by Susan Mansfield

Emma Gable, a young attorney from Indiana, arrives in Thailand with starry-eyed ideas about how she can change the world by helping to fight sex-trafficking.

But before long, she is painfully aware that the situation she expected to be black and white is nuanced
and grey.

If you thought (as I did) that a musical about sex-trafficking sounds like an unpromising juxtaposition of subject and medium, you will find your doubts dispelled by Erin Kamler’s thoughtful production, informed by extensive interviews with activists, NGOs and sex workers, which tackles some pertinent questions at the heart of the subject.

Emma is assigned the case of Lipoh, a young woman seized in a police raid on a brothel. She is believed to be underage, giving Emma’s NGO grounds for a possible conviction, but she insists she is 18, working consensually, and wants to get back to work.

A member of the oppressed Kachin minority in Burma, her life in a Thai brothel is as much bound up with political resistance as gender-based exploitation, and the “right” thing to do soon becomes very unclear.

Beautifully performed by a cast of six women, Land of Smiles shines light on the various agendas at work in anti-trafficking campaigns. The NGOs need to satisfy their donor – the Thai government, which wants to improve its rating for tackling the problem.

While acknowledging that sex trafficking is real, it suggests that some anti-trafficking campaigns do more harm than good, providing little more than an excuse for the West to meddle in another country’s issues.

To tackle these themes in a piece of theatre would be bold. To do so in a musical, balancing some challenging questions with a moving personal story and some beautiful songs, is nothing short of remarkable.

Until 25 August. Today 1:35pm, more info

Originally published in The Scotsman

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