Review: Kim’s Convenience at Park Theatre ★★★★
At long last, the hilarious and heart-warming play that inspired the Netflix phenomenon arrives in the UK. Hamish Hutchison-Poyntz reviews Kim’s Convenience.
“What is my story? This store is my story.”
Look – before we start this review, I need to make a confession. As a Canadian theatre kid living in London, I couldn’t help but be excited to see this show. Conversations about the linked and complex relationship between British and Canadian identities aside, I can’t deny feeling a lot of pride for this deeply Toronto show, or the tv-show it inspired – one of the rare Canadian tv-shows to get an international following. There’s something deeply comforting about walking into a theatre to see a set meticulously filled with ketchup chips, cliff bars and OLG lottery posters (although I’ve got a bone to pick with whoever slapped those absurdly British Haribo boxes on the shop counter). Although the play’s been popular in Canada, performed across the country over the last decade, I’ve never had the chance to see it. With London finally recognizing it for the impressive show it is, I was extremely curious to find out how it lived up to its hype back home, and how it would come across to a London audience.
Produced by Park Theatre and Adam Blanshay productions, this European premiere of Kim’s Convenience brings the play that inspired the hit Netflix sit-com of the same name to the UK. The play is written by Ins Choi and directed by Esther Jun, who played Jung and Janet, respectively, in the original 2011 Toronto production. It follows a day in the life of the Korean-Canadian Kim family, and their corner store in 2011 Regent’s Park, Toronto. As Mr. Kim (or Appa to his family) opens the shop, he’s given an unexpectedly large offer to sell it – prompting him and the entire Kim family to examine their lives, their relationships, and the legacies they want to leave.
The play is hilarious, filled with laughs as the Kims navigate their years of messy family dynamics, alongside the quirks of daily store life. While I loved some of its shout-outs to Toronto life (I loved seeing and hearing the Toronto Star, OCAD, and all the great TTC stations pop up), you don’t need to be Canadian to laugh your butt off at this show. It’s impossible to ignore the charm of the Kim family. The show sweeps the crowd into the neighbourhood institution of its convenience store, letting us journey through the quiet and chaotic moments of its residents’ lives. However, Kim’s Convenience isn’t afraid to explore its characters’ darker sides, and the ways they inflict their own hurts back on each other. It deftly weaves between laughs, and its characters’ deep frustrations with their choices and lives, creating an honest portrait of a family navigating its future.
This production sees Choi return as Mr. Kim (Appa), who steals the show as the hilarious, conflicted, angry patriarch struggling to do the best he can for his family, while navigating his own hurts and history. Alongside him, it stars Namju Go as Mrs. Kim (Umma), Jennifer Kim as Janet (their daughter), Brian Law as Jung (their son), and Miles Mitchell as Rich, Mr. Lee, Mike, and Alex. Jennifer Kim’s performance especially shines, thrilling and entertaining the audience as she works through her complex relationship with her dad, and works to build her own life in the city at the same time. Her increasingly tense exchanges with Choi’s Appa go from delightfully funny to seat-grippingly tense, leaving us gasping for breath.
The show is also a fascinating exploration of immigrant Korean identity. While I can’t comment on the authenticity of this exploration, pride in characters’ Korean heritage and the ways it informs their identity is a key part of the show. Appa and Umma speak to each other entirely in Korean, which feels like a beautiful recognition of their relationship in a theatre scene dominated by English text. There’s also a particularly beautiful moment of this near the end of the show that I don’t want to spoil, but which revolves around two characters connecting over their love of Korean history. It’s worth reading through the play’s program to appreciate some of the context for this. Both Choi and Jun have some great words about what the play’s meant in their own lives, and the exploration of East and South East Asian identity in British Theatre by artist Vera Chok is an excellent examination of why it matters so much that this show is being performed in London.
All that said, however, the play feels like it’s starting to show its age just a little. It’s a committed, four-wall realist drama, and sticks tightly to that style without offering too much in the way of formal shakeups. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that the play’s single-day plot, played out over just eighty on-stage minutes, sometimes feels a little rushed in a way that’s at odds with its realist style. Its characters make what feel like some very big changes for one day, and the show’s shorter run-time means it occasionally feels like we’re missing moments of those characters moving towards these personal transformations.
Then again, that might just be me wanting to spend more time with this wonderful show. It’s well worth a watch, and I highly recommend checking it out – even if just to receive Appa’s iconic “Okay – see you!” yourself.
Hamish Hutchison-Poyntz is a theatre practitioner, writer and reviewer, and aspiring director/producer. He recently completed his MA in Theatre and Performance at Queen Mary, University of London, specializing in the use of games and participatory theatre to respond to the climate crisis. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, he now lives in London’s East End. Besides theatre, he loves games, spooky audiodramas, and good cats (which is to say, all cats).