[Theatre Review] SRT Right at Home with Children’s Theatre

peter-rabbit

A Peter Rabbit Tale

The Little Company, Singapore Repertory Theatre

25 February 2017

KC Arts Centre—Home of the SRT

24 February–14 April 2017

There could not be a better choice to celebrate The Little Company’s 15th anniversary than a tale of Peter Rabbit feeling ill at ease in his own home and seeking out a new life to lead, only to find out that home is where he truly belongs.

While the Singapore Repertory Theatre did not start out as a children’s company, the string of hits by The Little Company—especially with its most recent and stunning staging of Charlotte’s Web—has shown that it is completely at home with children’s theatre.

By entrusting a whole musical to a cast of young actors, safe for the lead, A Peter Rabbit Tale serves as a confident declaration of its expertise.

Such a bold statement is certainly not hot air as the actors prove that performing for children is not a matter of being energetic while portraying good or bad guys. The actors in the supporting roles display a wonderful sense of versatility at every turn.

One should admire the contrasts between Benedict Hew’s playful portrayal of Benjamin Rabbit and the prim and proper Thomas; Siti Maznah’s doting mother and the rock goddess of a Mrs Tiggy-Winkle; and Yvonne Low and Ng Yulin playing Peter Rabbit’s cutesy sisters as compared to the adventurous pair of squirrels. Of course, there is never a dull moment with Joshua Gui as the titular character as he hops along on various adventures, trying to fit into the environment and lifestyles of different animals.

However, the show did suffer from a few minor weaknesses: the volume of the microphones is a little soft; Alison Neighbour’s set could have been a touch more elaborate than a carpet of green and several brown poles as trees; the sequences in which Peter Rabbit gets into trouble could be slightly more intense; and Sarah Brandt’s book could have given Peter Rabbit more material to realise that home is the best place for him to be.  

That said, these are trifling faults and one’s enjoyment is not adversely affected in any way, even for a pedantic audience member such as yours truly.

Happy Birthday to The Little Company indeed.

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[Theatre Review] Polarities Disguised as a Spectrum

prism-publicity-photo-2t

Prism

Toy Factory

23 February 2017

Drama Centre Theatre

23 February–5 March 2017

In the programme booklet, playwright Goh Boon Teck emphasised that “this is not an anti-development play.” However, one is forgiven if one thinks otherwise after actually enduring the show.

The premise of the play is simple, and it ostensibly allows the audience to tune in to the debate. Aman is in charge of facilitating the demolition of Surrounding City, a place that was built as a sanctuary from the ravages of progress. In the course of attempting to convince the current inhabitants to vacate the place, his interactions make him question his job and the merits of progress as prescribed by the authorities.

But burrow deeper and one does not find a debate, but a simplistic rant.

 First, a character decries the demise of culture: What happened to our traditional dances? Where is our traditional Asian clothing? Next, Aman encounters problems in his marriage. In a drunken stupor, he meets some of the inhabitants and is convinced to forgo rationality and indulge in his desires, as if both aspects can be so cleanly demarcated. Very much later, we are presented with a list of nations that were once colonial powers, and we encounter another binary; the colonial experience is completely bad, unlike the diversity and the cultures of Asia. This is followed very quickly by a litany of problems that plague Southeast Asia—Mrs Marcos and her shoe collection anyone?

Taking the trajectory as a whole, we are given the impression that the purity of Asia is soiled by modernity and Western influences. And this is meant to raise questions in an audience that is sitting on cushioned seats, watching an over-the-top performance in a state-of-the-art facility?

To compile the problem, the lack of rhetoric is coupled with a presentation of a society that is incoherent. Instead of giving thought to how the people of Surrounding City function, all we have is an anarchic celebration of diversity. The inhabitants hark back to abstract ancestors and practices without really elucidating what they will lose should the city be demolished. Furthermore, the walls of the city are brutish and they already look post-apocalyptic even before the demolition begins.

Additionally, Rei Poh’s direction seems intent on spending copious amount of time building up a disconcerting atmosphere, only for it to go nowhere. After all, there is only so much blocking and impressive technical effects can do to fill up a thin script.

To top it all off, Fir Rahman’s portrayal of Aman is cautious and tentative. After the first scene, one already senses that he is unconvinced about the merits of the government’s plans. When he recites the statistics about the building materials needed for the new facility, there is hardly any conviction and Fir fails to convey the significance of such precision. As such, his pivotal change of heart leading to his final soliloquy is not stark enough.

That said, if one can bear the whole show, one may catch certain artistic choices that bring delight. A stunning and exquisitely subtle moment occurs just before Aman is left alone for his final soliloquy. A door is thrown open and wads of cash are blown on to the stage as compensation to the inhabitants of Surrounding City. One of them picks up a stack and fans it out into a circle, signifying that the monetary compensation is nothing more than an offering to the dead.

Casting my eyes on the programme again, I cannot help but wonder why Rei Poh took the trouble, when the few hundred words in his directorial message about his neighbourhood engulfed in a sea of concrete is more impactful than the show.

Other Reviews

“Dystopian drama lacks insight” by Helmi Yusof, The Business Times

“Haunting tales of change” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Review: Toy Factory’s “Prism” refracts social reality” by Akanksha Raja, Arts Equator

“Enduring Prism’s lamenting angry lecture on urban change” by Christian W. Huber, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“Review: Prism by Toy Factory” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] More of a Roundabout

crossings

Crossings

Young & W!ld

15 February 2017

Centre 42 Black Box

15–19 February 2017

The latest batch of Young & W!ld trainees, under the tutelage of Rodney Oliveiro and Serena Ho, is almost half of the previous batch. This piqued my interest when I found out that Crossings is a double-bill as I had two assumptions. First, this is probably a deliberate choice rather than an expedient way to ensure everyone gets a chance to perform (a problem faced by most training programmes). Second, it fits the main theme as the audience will get to go down two different paths and have two different experiences due to the choices of various characters.

Alas, I am wrong about my first assumption.

In The Mother, The Son, and the Holy Ghost,  YouTuber and social justice warrior (SJW), Vix (Jasmine Blundell), decides that it is her calling to prevent an elderly lady (Natalie Koh)—suffering from dementia—from being kicked out of her house by her son (Aeron Ee). This is despite the fact that said lady accidentally caused her death.

What ensues is a cross between a comedy of errors, and a supposedly poignant story of the difficulties a caregiver has. Unfortunately, any potential that this piece might have is cut short, and the convenient ending feels like an apology for delaying the entrance of the actors in the next piece.

Such an apology is an utter waste as Jasmine Blundell is annoying but endearing as Vix. Aside from her engaging performance, she deliciously plays up every antic that popular YouTubers do in their videos. Natalie Koh pairs well with Blundell as the elderly woman. Koh strikes the right balance in portraying an elderly lady without resorting to the feeble stereotypes. Together, they could be an unlikely duo going on wacky adventures.

Unfortunately, the piece is derailed by the son, Boon (Aeron Ee), who is stiff and yells in every scene. Compared to Ee’s vein-popping histrionics, a pantomime dame feels Chekhovian.

Arbitrio starts off with another odd character. We encounter a Moses-like figure (Mel Bickham), seemingly at an audition, reciting Bible verses. In his desperate attempt to impress the unseen panel, he unfurls a story he has written about the twist and turns of a marriage.

This odd premise keeps the audience in anticipation for a good plot twist or revelation, but it does not materialise. While one’s interest is buoyed up by a series of jokes and wordplay, the trajectory of this piece feels like riding a donkey around a roundabout. The paper-thin dialogue is filler before an opportunity to put in the next punchline arises.

Additionally, the premise of an author figure writing and changing the story is puzzling. Does it mean that the choices of the characters do not really matter? Isn’t that going against the idea of the characters being at a critical crossroads in their lives?

Nothing seems to be carefully considered and promising aspects that the actors (Alison Bickham, Mel Bickham, Sharmaine Goh, Krish Natarajan) could have worked with—such as Chris (Krish Natarajan) being a bigot as he fumes about his friend coming out as gay just before his wedding—are not factored into the later scenes. Coupled with generic portrayals, and the intrusions of the author figure preventing the audience from being emotionally attached to any of the characters, Arbitrio is arbitrary.

While there is potential in this batch—and every bit of it should be encouraged—one should not let it discount the fact that this showcase is, on the whole, ho-hum.

Other Reviews

“We cross our bridges and we come to them and burn them behind us” by Casidhe Ng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“Review: Crossings by young & W!LD” by Nigel Choo, Bakchormeeboy.com

[Theatre Review] Actor – Utterly Brilliant

Photo: Ruey Loon

Actor, Forty  <<员四十>>

The Necessary Stage

Commissioned for Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts 2017

5 February 2017, 3 p.m.

Esplanade Theatre Studio

3–6 February 2017

What could be more narcissistic than staging a solo show about one’s life and career? At best, it is an extravagant CV. At worst, it is a navel-gazing alternation between woe-is-me and look-at-me.

To avoid that trap, playwright Haresh Sharma creates a character which can be described as a version of Yeo Yann Yann in a nearby possible world. For sentimental readers, Yeo plays a character that could have very well been her, had the stars aligned a wee bit differently.

This blend of fact and fiction is not merely a device to avoid criticisms of vanity, but it also allows inter-textual possibilities that capture a slice of the local and regional theatre, television, and movie industries of the ’80s and ’90s. To ground the play in the reality of the character, Sharma ensures that some of these references also reflect the main difficulty of the character dealing with the difficulties of having a child at 40, and how best to balance between motherhood and her acting career.

As such, we have a deliciously complex play that is shot through with meta-theatricality. One could spend hours teasing out the dynamics of life imitating art and vice versa within the reality of the play, and the references to the different roles that we play in various aspects of our lives.

Yet, at another angle, the show is Yeo’s performance CV. Every second of the show is solid proof that, given some time, there is absolutely nothing that she cannot do. Her energy and flexibility disguises her age, while her virtuosity celebrates decades of hard work and experience.

She seamlessly transits from a comical to a poignant moment as if she were casually throwing on a scarf. With Sharma’s writing and Alvin Tan’s direction being quite relentless in this aspect, a lesser actor—or any other actor for that matter—might end up tying a noose with that scarf.  She also manages to breeze through a whole range of characters, and display a sense of ease with a whole spectrum of acting styles.

Underlying all these is a keen sensitivity which is also manifested in the way she handles Cantonese, Hokkien, Mandarin (both standard and a colloquial way of speaking that is unique to Malaysians), and English. At this juncture, it is important to acknowledge Quah Sy Ren’s robust translations as we are predominantly hearing his words throughout the show.   

In the press conference scenes which bookend the show, Yeo’s character teasingly admonishes the press for being nosey about her personal life, but requests them to give the movie as much coverage and as many positive reviews as they can. Usually, I will bristle at such blatancy, but Yeo and The Necessary Stage (TNS) have stripped me of any reason to do so.

Indeed, Actor Forty is a splendid celebration of Yeo’s career and TNS’ 30th anniversary. The company now finds itself in the unenviable position of trying to match this show for the rest of their 2017 season. But of all problems that one could have, this is one that is most welcomed.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: Actor, Forty affectionately welcome Yeo Yann Yann back to local stage after hiatus” by Adeline Chia, The Straits Times Life! 

“《演员四十》写给新加坡剧场的一封告白” by 邹文森, Lianhe Zaobao

“Nobody will write a review for you” by Jocelyn Chng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“一人分饰多文化的困惑 | REVIEW: ACTOR, FORTY” by Wong Chee Meng (黄子明), Theatrex Asia

“Actor, Forty” by Naeem Kapadia, Crystalwords

“[Review] Huayi Festival 2017: Actor, Forty by The Necessary Stage” by Nigel Choo, Bakchormeeboy.com