Review: Tokyo Rose at Southwark Playhouse

Based on the true story of one of America’s most controversial trials, Tokyo Rose is a new musical written by Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin, directed by Hannah Benson, and performed by an all-female cast. It follows the life of Iva Toguri, an American woman who was wrongly convicted of treason in 1949, having been accused of broadcasting enemy propaganda to American troops during World War II. The show follows her from her teenage years, documenting her fierce devotion to her country, and the betrayal of that devotion by a victorious US government determined to root out traitors at any cost. In doing so, it confronts the audience head on with the racism that continues to play a significant role in the American justice system to this day, and questions to what extent we should allow our identity to be defined by where we come from.

Photo credit: Steve Gregson

Born in the USA to immigrant parents, Iva (Maya Britto) is reluctant to embrace her Japanese heritage and proudly declares herself to be American through and through. After graduating from UCLA, she’s sent to Japan to care for a sick aunt (Kanako Nakano), but finds herself trapped when war breaks out and she’s unable to return home. When she refuses to give up her US citizenship, the Japanese authorities confiscate her ration card, and she’s forced to leave her aunt’s home and take a job as a typist to survive. Not long afterwards, she gets recruited as a broadcaster at Radio Tokyo, where she teams up with POW Major Charles Cousens (Cara Baldwin) to discreetly lift Allied troops’ spirits, whilst ostensibly doing the opposite.

Even for those unfamiliar with the Tokyo Rose story, it’s clear from the opening number that this is a tale of extraordinary injustice, and that the villain of the piece is America itself. Comparisons with both Six and Hamilton are there for the taking, but Tokyo Rose soon carves its own path, with William Patrick Harrison’s score quickly moving on from the perky pop style of the opening number and ramping up the intensity as Iva’s peril deepens. This can at times become a bit overwhelming, with key pieces of dialogue drowned out by the music (the testimony of two prosecution witnesses is almost completely lost, even in the cast recording) and occasionally the score feels more like a showcase for the cast’s vocal talents than it is a vehicle for the plot.

Then again, when you have a cast as good as this, there are worse things that could happen. Maya Britto plays Iva with a compelling mix of vulnerability and determination, and her solo number in Act 2 – at the moment Iva realises she’s been betrayed by the country she’s risked everything for – is truly stunning. Kanako Nakano is captivating as Iva’s frail aunt, and Lucy Park skilfully balances comedy and tragedy in dual roles as Iva’s jovial father and her colleague George, whose relationship with the US is far more complex than Iva’s.

Photo credit: Steve Gregson

The show’s plot remains relatively faithful to the historic events they depict, and in trying to cover everything ends up perhaps a shade too long (the production has been expanded since its Edinburgh debut in 2019). That said, it’s a fascinating story with enough twists and turns to keep us hooked, and horrified, until Iva finally gets justice. Nor is Tokyo Rose just a retelling of history, but a challenge to expose and confront the anti-Asian xenophobia that continues to pervade western society. By focusing on the viewpoint of Iva the woman rather than the actions of Tokyo Rose the legend, the show opens a far more nuanced discussion about race and identity, which contrasts starkly with the one-sided rhetoric presented at her trial.

Earlier this week, an article appeared in the Telegraph asking if Britain really needs more musicals. All I can say to that is, if they’re as exciting as this one, why on earth wouldn’t we? While it’s not quite perfect, it certainly has the potential to be; this ambitious, energetic show is definitely one to watch.

Tokyo Rose is at Southwark Playhouse until 16th October, then continues on tour. For full details of dates and venues, visit https://www.burntlemontheatre.com/tokyo-rose

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