[Theatre Review] Ploddy Todd

Sweeney Todd (Jett Pangan) and Mrs Lovett (Lea Salonga)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group
Presented by Singapore Repertory Theatre
3 December 2019
Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands
28 November‒8 December 2019

We all know that Mrs Lovett has the “worst pies in London”, but at least she could tell us what is in them.

The same cannot be said of Bobby Garcia’s production of Sweeney Todd.

In the programme notes, he states that he drew his inspiration from Hitchcock’s thrillers and wanted to create a scary atmosphere filled with suspense. He also wanted the visual aspects of the show to “subtly comment on the industrial revolution” when technology and automation took over “home made [sic] manufacturing”.

The result?

A production that borrows its vehicles from Grease and wardrobe from Rent. Set designer David Gallo then sprinkles the vehicles all over, while costume designer Rajo Laurel refashions the slum dwellers as sloppy American teenagers—his idea of deconstructing Sweeney Todd.

The show then starts with the characters spending five full minutes exploring the set with torch lights only to remind the audience to put away their mobile phones—scary and suspenseful indeed.

Worse still, most of the major action is carried out on the back, the bonnet, or inside a utility vehicle. Mr Todd’s barbershop is on the back of a utility vehicle while Mrs Lovett’s pie shop is on the stage. Todd’s victims simply get up from the chair, slides off the side of the vehicle, and walks into cage-like oven on stage right.

As if that cannot get any worse, the utility vehicle has to be manually moved by the ensemble as the floorboards crackle, even in the quieter moments.

Vehicles borrowed from “Grease”, costumes borrowed from “Rent”

Continuing the theme of incoherence is Jett Pangan as Sweeney Todd. Rather than being hell-bent on revenge for his wrongful conviction and the loss of his wife, Pangan’s Todd comes across as a bored teenager in a math class. His sudden outbursts of anger are completely unmotivated. To top it all off, his accent zips across continents at a pace that would put the Concorde to shame. It varies between faux-British, American South, and a sprinkle of the Bronx. His only saving grace is that he could carry a tune, albeit in a very studied fashion.

This is in stark contrast to Lea Salonga’s vivacity as Mrs Lovett, and she maintains her cockney accent impeccably. Her eccentricities are endearing and the way she plays up the comical aspects of Mrs Lovett is refreshing. Mrs Lovett’s pies may be half-baked, but Salonga’s performance is anything but so. One feels sorry for her in “A Little Priest” as Mrs Lovett imagines the various victims that would be used in her pies. Salonga gives everything she got and hits every joke only for it to fall flat when it comes to Pangan—imagine trying to bounce a tennis ball off a soggy pile of mud.

An imperious baritone voice is quite suitable for Judge Turpin (Andrew Fernando), who sentenced Sweeney (then known as Benjamin Barker) while taking the latter’s daughter, Johanna Barker, as his ward. Unfortunately, Fernando cannot seem to shake off his opera training, resulting in some lyrics and spoken text being garbled by the plummy timbre of his operatic baritone voice.

Nyoy Volante’s Adolfo Pirelli, Todd’s competitor who knows of his past, is delightful dainty and one relishes his camp posturing.

Gerald Santos tries his best with the accent as Anthony Hope. He succeeds by delivering his lines with two different types of inflections, thereby giving us a forgettable performance. This is slightly improved when he is with his love interest, Johanna Barker (Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante), who has a pleasant singing voice, and Sondheim ought to be chastised for not giving her more music.

The ensemble as chorus commenting on the story is decent. They serve as the glue that is just about strong enough to prevent this slap-dash production from collapsing into a junk heap.

At the end of it all, one goes away not being spooked one bit, but wishing Mrs Lovett and Pirelli got together and do a thigh-slapping revue instead.

Other Reviews

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street review at Sands Theatre in Singapore – It’s bloody and awful, but not bloody awful” by Andrew Leci, Robb Report Singapore

“Review: Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment, Presented by Singapore Repertory Theatre” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Interview] Director Phillip Zarrilli and Playwright Kaite O’Reilly on Lie With Me

Come November, the graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) will be presenting the Asian premier of Kaite O’Reilly’s Lie with Me.

Originally set in London, this production will be localised to look at contemporary life in Singapore through glimpses into the lives of eight young people, exploring issues such as the evolving ‘rules’ of sexual encounters in a ‘swipe right’ culture, and the ways in which people survive and form genuine relationships in an increasingly unstable and consumerist society.

To find out more about the show and the creative process, I spoke to O’Reilly (KOR) and director Phillip Zarrilli (PZ).

Continue reading

[Interview] Crossing Lines with Director Koh Wan Ching

In the latest public showcase by the graduating cohort of Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI), they will be presenting a line could be crossed and you would slowly cease to be, a new play by Australian playwright, Andrew Sutherland.

According to him, the play “attempts to untangle difficult concepts of futurity and futurelessness against the imminent existential threat of climate futures. From the natural to the interpersonal, the play contends with the deep exhaustions and ambivalences of witness and memory.”

To find out more about the play, I spoke to the director of the production, Koh Wan Ching. 

In your previous work, precise purpose of being broken, there is a scene in which you highlighted our insatiable consumption of plastic. How has that process of creating that work made you more aware of environmental issues?

For precise purpose of being broken, I had to collect hundreds of plastic water bottles to be used as props. Rather than partnering up with organisations that had an easy supply of used bottles, I decided to see if it was possible to accumulate the bottles I needed by doing tiny beach clean-ups along East Coast Park. The speed at which I began to accumulate bottles was shocking, and it became clear to me day by day that the so called environmental concern I was addressing is more rightly described as environmental crisis.

What is your process of working with playwright Andrew Sutherland?

Andrew and I worked sporadically together; I read his plays and poetry and followed his development as a theatre-maker, performer, and playwright. The seed for this project was planted two to three years ago, when I asked Andrew to write some texts with the stimulus: rising water, furniture and two women. Although this particular project did not take off, the texts he had written stayed with me until I was given an opportunity to direct this showcase by ITI.

I asked Andrew what most occupied him at the moment and what he would most want to write about. Likewise, I shared with him what kept me up at night. We exchanged articles and readings, notes, songs and videos. I think we built between us a well of thoughts, feelings, memories, stimulus and provocations that Andrew then drew upon to craft into a play.

ITI students in rehearsal (Photo courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute)

As you are working with students from ITI, will the show incorporate any intercultural elements?

The process that I try to bring to all my projects is one of exploration and experimentation. We spend a lot of time in the beginning of the process making compositions and devising assignments in and around the piece. We present these compositions to each other and thus develop a collective memory of movement vocabulary, sounds, objects, and imagination. These will then go on to inform the design, staging and blocking of the piece. In building up this rich and diverse store, the students negotiate their training and their contemporary bodies and sensibilities.

In the process of researching and directing this piece, have you discovered any interesting or shocking facts?

Definitely. I asked the cast to choose research topics they are interested in and we do weekly research presentations on a wide range of topics such as animals being affected by human action, costs of food production, lives of sea turtles, different types of lightning, and many more. 

While climate change affects everyone. Different cultures will have different relationships with the environment. In the course of working with a diverse cast, were there any differences that came to the fore which you found interesting or challenged your own perspectives?

In terms of the main question of the piece: What does it mean to face futurelessness and the environmental crises? We have gained a broader outlook and perspective by looking at them from different countries and societies.

For some of the cast, environmental issues may not be the most pertinent thing they want to speak about, as they currently face challenges far more pressing in their societies. But when we look at environmental concerns in less restrictive ways – it is not just about plastic in the ocean and using less plastic in our lives – we begin to see the ways that climate crises are linked to inequality and social justice. People who are the least equipped for climate adaptation and the least responsible for carbon emissions can be the most vulnerable to extreme weather events. Their food and water safety and supply can also be compromised by climate change. These issues are inter-connected. 


a line could be crossed and you would slowly cease to be runs from 5–7 September 2019 at the Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets from Peatix.

[Theatre Review] The Last Generic Hurrah

La Mariposa Borracha (The Drunken Butterfly)
Creatives Inspirit
27 July 2019, 3 p.m.
Gateway Theatre Black Box
26‒28 July 2019

With a hospital hallway being projected onto a blank triptych, low beeps of medical machinery, and a digital display showing that a lift is out of order, one looks forward to how patient X (Shanice Stanislaus) will escape from the hospital and put on her final performance.

Unfortunately, the plot does not take much precedence after the prologue, and the show alternates between scenes when X is ill and a variety of dance sequences by the clown troupe (Snider played by Yazid Jalil, Tommy Wildfire played by Tan Rui Shan, and Z played by Dennis Sofian) as they try to carry on with the “show”. Thus, we see X struggling with different aspects of her sickness, and the dance sequences seem to cheer her up—to find the joy and love in laugh amidst life’s darkest moments.

Once the audience gets the basic premise, the show feels as if it is running on two tracks, and one learns to expect a fun bit, followed by a poignant bit, and that is it.

While it is enjoyable to watch the whimsical troupe and the larger ensemble (Krish Natarajan, Nicole Kong, Andrea Joy Alingalan, Alvyna Han, Zalifah Ibrahim, Carol Ee, Prema Latha) indulge in their inner disco divas; boy band heartthrobs; or Zumba junkies, these do not go beyond the idea of celebrating life.

Overall, Stanislaus, who also wrote this show, and director Alvin Chiam do have some good ideas: the heart-breaking phone call between X and her mother; and X perched on the ladder during a dance scene as Tommy passes her the balloons, making X the image of tragic clown as she bears the burdens of her illness. But they seem to be occasional moments of inspiration, rather than entry points into exploring an issue.

While the show could have been conceptually stronger, it is buoyed by the principal cast. The audience interaction with X is quite amusing, as Stanislaus has a wry sense of humour. Yazid Jalil puts on an engaging performance as Snider. While he may be the strict “master of punctuality” of the troupe, it is interesting to track his reactions throughout the show, as they betray a kind heart underneath a stern exterior. Tan Rui Shan’s Tommy is a ball of energy that keeps on giving. Dennis Sofian’s Z is endearingly earnest, and his sense of loss when X’s illness worsens does highlight the difficulty of caregiving.

Ultimately, the team needs to dig deeper and see what exactly it is about illness and caregiving they are trying to explore, while having both aspects of the show in a tighter weave. Apart from it being fun, what other potentials do the dance sequences have?

The drunken butterfly need not be in a hurry to take flight. It should take more time and consideration to plot its trajectory before doing so.

[Theatre Review] A Boatload of Artful Ingenuity

Photo: Bernie NgFirst Fleet 《第一舰队
Nine Years Theatre
21 July 2019, 3 p.m.
Far East Organisation Auditorium, Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre
18‒21 July 2019

Those who are familiar with Nine Years Theatre’s repertoire might be surprised by director-writer Nelson Chia’s decision to write an original Mandarin script inspired by Thomas Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker (1987), and the subsequent play based on the novel by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Our Country’s Good (1988).

With both works appearing in the late 1980s to a limited reach, they could hardly be considered classics. However, Chia’s literary script and masterful direction truly makes a case for it to be considered so.

First Fleet revolves around the voyage taken by the first batch of British convicts and their accompanying officers to Australia to set up a penal colony. Governor Arthur Philip (Hang Qian Chou) tasks Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Timothy Wan) to rehearse a play with the convicts as a form of rehabilitation, to the sneering disapproval of Major Robert Ross (Mia Chee). Also wading into the debate are Father Richard Johnson (Jodi Chan), Dr John White (Shu Yi Ching), and Judge David Collins (Neo Hai Bin).

For a country that prides itself on the Magna Carta and how Britannia ruled the waves, First Fleet is a searing indictment on the seeming values and accomplishments that our former colonial masters hold dear.

Throughout the course of the play we see the officers debate the merits of punishment and rehabilitation; find out the backstory of the various convicts, which is a critique of the bluntness and corruptibility of the justice system (one sees poignant parallels to Edith Podesta’s Dark Room); see the potential of theatre espoused within the plot and staging; and receive a valuable acting masterclass.

Chia not only manages to fit all these themes into the show, he boldly exercises some artistic licence to reiterate his stance as an artist, while enhancing the audience’s experience of the show.

He departs from the original text by having the convicts rehearse Moliere’s Tartuffe. This is not merely a cheeky nod to the company’s production in 2015. Rather, this allows Chia to have one of the convicts, Lady Anne Sheldon, ask why they are presenting a French play when they are English—a common query that Chia faces himself whenever he stages a translation of a classic foreign play. In the show, Lieutenant Clark speaks about empathy and the value in the message of the play, regardless of provenance.   

Additionally, the fact Tartuffe is a comedic farce lends itself easily to the actors presenting a highly stylised acting. This is not only paves the way for Lieutenant Clark to coach his actors on naturalistic acting, in which characters act on inner motivations, it also provides comic interludes for the audience to take a breather from the darker themes in the show.

Whether you are viewing the show from port, starboard, bow, or stern, there is a stunning level of attention to every detail in the show.

Photo: The Pond Photography

Undoubtedly, First Fleet is incredibly demanding on the ensemble. Not only do they have to double up as the convicts,—the blind witch, Liz Abraham (Mia Chee); the man who avenged his brother, Henry Mason (Hang Qian Chou); the hangman, William Paterson (Neo Hai Bin); the aristocrat, Lady Anne Sheldon (Jodi Chan); and the maid, Mary Beckman (Shu Yi Ching)—they have to manoeuvre the sails and perform movement sequences as transitions. The nuances in the actors’ body are amazing to watch as they endow the sails and boxes with a certain amount of weight that is actually not there.

Kudos to Chia, in working with Lim Chin Huat (movement coach and set designer), to block movement sequences that adds visual interest and complement Lim’s nautical set design by creating the feeling of a rocking boat. Furthermore, the sudden tilt of the kerosene lamps that were attached to metal poles, and suspended from the top, in conjunction with the movement of the actors’ bodies is nothing short of astounding sorcery.

There is also an additional layer of gestural language in which the actors signal their roles by rubbing their wrists or looking at their palms when they are playing convicts, or clench their fists and clutch their coats when playing the officers.

This is, and I actually mean this literally, layered on by Loo An Ni’s wonderful costumes as the skirts, vests, and capes of the convicts turn into military coats by inverting them. What puzzles me is how she manages to provide a strong structure to the shoulders of the military coats without any obvious bulges indicating the presence of shoulder pads when they are turned to skirts or capes. Sartorial enthusiasts will also appreciate her designs that are vaguely appropriate for the 18th century while having whimsical details that are quite fashion forward, such as the steel grey faux leather shoes with diagonal zips running across them.

Add other details such as Gabriel Chan’s lighting design that carves out the cramped space of the lower deck, and washing the stage with a tinge of light blue to create the expanse and coldness of the upper deck; Ng Jing’s inclusion of a didgeridoo as a base drone in the soundscape, while having percussive elements on top of it to create tension; the slight wave-like effect when the surtitles are flashed on the screen; and the serifed font to differentiate the text of the play that the convicts are rehearsing from the dialogues of the characters—we get an extravaganza of theatrical languages that is diverse as the Tower of Babel.

Rather than descending to utter chaos, Nelson Chia—by some miraculous means or sheer ingenuity—ties them all together and brings us on a theatrical voyage that I have not experienced in years.

Of course, one cannot review this show without speaking about the ending. My colleagues may have expressed surprise and delight, but they have done you, my gentle readers, a disservice for not relaying the full impact of the scene.

Unlike most audience members, I am familiar with the auditorium and went into the show fully aware that the audience is seated on the stage of the auditorium. I half-expected the rest of the auditorium to be revealed as it would be a missed opportunity otherwise. However, as the expected come to pass, and we see the sole kerosene lamp on a seat in the auditorium with constellations projected on the ceilings, it is breathtakingly beautiful. As the convicts go into the auditorium and clamber over the seats, there is something cinematic about that and the seats turn into the rocky terrain of New South Wales in an instant. I had to take a moment to catch my breath even as the lights went up and we are ushered out of the venue.

Fun fact: Had the stars aligned slightly differently, Nelson Chia would have been a naval officer. If Mr Chia promises similar experiences in the future, the Republic of Singapore Navy can definitely do without an officer. In fact, it is in the national interest that they do so. 

Other Reviews

“First Fleet more than another colonisation play” by Ong Sor Fen, The Straits Times Life! (Behind paywall)

航向希望的港口 ——观“第一舰队” by李连辉 , 剧读 (originally published in《联合早报》)
[Title Translation: Towards a Port of Hope—Watching First Fleet] by Li Lian Hui (pinyin transliteration), Lianhe Zaobao

“Doesn’t God dream of forgiving our sins?” by Idelle Yee, Centre 42 Citizens’ Review

“Review: First Fleet (第一舰队) by Nine Years Theatre” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

“Experience Meta-tea-trical Magic with First Fleet” by Cheryl Tan, Popspoken

“剧场与艺术的力量 —— 观《第一舰队》” by 张棋汶 , 剧读 
[Title Translation: The Power of Theatre and Art—Watching First Fleet] by Zhang Qi Wen (pinyin transliteration), Ju Du

“Looking away for clarity: ‘First Fleet’ by Nine Years Theatre” by Nabilah Said, Arts Equator

[Theatre Review] Grinning and Bearing It

Happy Waiting
Grain Performance & Research Lab
12 July 2019
Stamford Arts Centre Black Box
12‒13 July 2019

Even if you were unfamiliar with the works of Samuel Beckett, you might know the famous pronouncement that his most famous work, Waiting for Godot, is a “play in which nothing happens […]”

Unfortunately, modern adaptations or productions styled after Beckett takes that too literally and conveniently forgets the second half of that quote by literary critic, Vivian Mercier, “[…] that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats.”

Happy Waiting, written by Beverly Yuen and directed by Bernice Lee, is one such stunning example.

Taking the general premise of Beckett’s Happy Days, Happy Waiting sees Vicky passing her days in a mound; going through her daily routine of getting ready, making breakfast for her husband, and hoping her husband returns home for dinner. In between, we see her recall the past; engage in inane chatter; and finding and losing things. Unlike Beckett’s original, we don’t get a clear presence of her husband except for punctuations of dance sequences by a man only known to us as Bobo (Neo Yan Zhong).

The existential conceit is clear: we trap ourselves in a mound of obsession, desires, wants, and hopes in a general landscape of meaninglessness.

But why would audience be glued to their seats? How dreary it is to trudge through an arduous day, only to be told that we have gone through life and trap ourselves?

What makes Beckett different from Yuen’s adaptation is the presence of danger and humanity. In Beckett’s original, things go wrong or could go wrong—the woman’s parasol catches fire and the presence of a revolver throughout the play is menacing. It is within this shadow, that the woman tries to make the best of what she has and, in the process, reveals the fragility of humanity. The process of getting on, and the mention of a certain Mr Shower asking what it means painfully reminds us of our struggle of making sense of it all, and our need to have our existence acknowledged. And yet the looming possibility of things changing for the worse keeps us where we are.

By contrast, Happy Waiting is absolutely sanitised. There is no threat and nothing actually goes wrong. Vicky (Sonia Kwek) simply grates on one’s nerves as she prattles about, trying to please her husband by cooking his favourite things or recreating dates that they used to go on. Without any further context and external impositions, we simply see her as stewing in her own pathetic self-pity.

What of the performance? The decision only to show the actor’s legs and hands for most of the first part may be a nice touch and change from the original, but it is undermined by Kwek’s inability to imbue more flexibility in the movement of her limbs. We soon fail to see the nuances of character that is supposed to be endowed in her stiletto-adorned feet. Kwek’s general portrayal is a caricature of a Stepford wife, rather than a woman who either truly believes everything is fine or has talked herself into believing so. Her saccharine chime of the day being great rings hollow, and one digs one’s nails deeper into one’s skin every time she says so.

Heap on the usual cheap devices of opening one’s mouth but not being able to say anything, or indicating the presence of tragicomedy by laughing till one cries, and you get bouts of exasperated sighs in the audience (many were heard on opening night) or a lady to my right investigating the split-ends of her hairs.

The slight saving grace is Neo Yan Zhong’s dancing as he displays versatility as he replicates tap dancing in silent movies by merely shuffling his feet; turn into a ghoul that only grunts; or a flamboyant Latin dancer, complete with big sheer ruffles around his neck.

That said, that are other elements that seemed to be added to the original: the play seems to take place over seven days (seven days of creation?); recurring motif of butterflies (an allusion to the Butterfly Lovers?); five baubles (our five senses?) suspended over the main opening of the mound; and the mound looking like a skeletal structure lying over red lights in a  blackout. But all of them are conceptually hazy, and end up being window dressing of a superficial absurdist play.

To be charitable with these elements is merely to create another mound; to justify that one cannot happily wait to recover the 90 minutes that has just been lost. The joke is already on us.

Other Reviews

“Review: Happy Waiting by Grain Performance & Research Lab” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

“Review: ‘Happy Waiting’ by Grain Performance & Research Lab” by Jeremy Lee, The Mad Scene

[Theatre Review] “Flowers” Offers a Subtle but Refreshing Scent

Flowers
Drama Box
1 May 2019
74 Jalan Kelabu Asap
1‒5 May 2019

Partly due to the current zeitgeist, and partly a coïncidence of production timelines, there have been a slew of shows eager to address issues of gender, harassment, and abuse since last year. A common approach, at least in the shows I have caught, is to state various facts and declare the need for reëducation.

Apart from it being an experiential installation rather than a conventional theatre performance, Flowers (conceived by Han Xuemei in collaboration with playwright Jean Tay, lighting designer Lim Woan Wen, and sound designer Darren Ng) is refreshing because it is more intent on asking questions.

Set in a house within the Holland Village area, audience members are given a cassette player as they listen to a recording of a monologue delivered by Ann Lek, and they wander about a two-storey house for 70 minutes. The monologue details the fraught relationships a woman has with her parents and brother; the known but unspoken violence her father unleashes; and the different expectations placed on her and her brother.

The audience is thus cast as voyeur, investigator, and confidant all at the same time, as we are allowed to open any door and drawer within the house. The quotidian artefacts soon take a life on its own, telling not just the history of the inhabitants, but becoming symbolic extensions of the monologue. For example, the numerous photographs from Officer Cadet School in the brother’s room do not merely tell us that he has served national service, but it also echoes ideas about masculinity and expectations placed on young men.

As such, the physical act of exploring the house parallels the self-reflection that one undergoes. This is enhanced by the evocative, but reticent monologue. If you are expecting a dramatic recount of a violent episode, you will be disappointed. However, the suggestions within the monologue gives one space to fill up the details, perhaps from your own experiences.

This also expands the notion of violence, and how it can be coloured and complicated within a familial dynamic.

The master stroke of the piece comes when, while wandering about, you suddenly chance upon an actor playing the father. He never acknowledges the presence of the audience, but potters about the house, cooking, washing dishes, watering the plants, and watching television.

This sudden inclusion opens up an opportunity for confrontation or reflection. I found myself silently observing the father for any traces of violence, or, at the very least, impatience. My endeavour failed and I soon wondered what I was hoping to achieve.

Why should there be a clear-cut cause and effect? Is the father necessarily a monster, even though he committed a heinous act?  Does the mother have any agency in this dynamic? Where does the buck stop? Do we all also enact violence in our moments of impatience? How do we stop the perpetuation of violence in all its guises? Is it simply a matter of education?

In the cacophony created by stomping on soap boxes and declamations from high horses, the gentle prodding and a space to pause and reflect, as offered by Flowers, may just be a start towards a more productive and sympathetic solution.

Other Reviews

“Drama Box’s Flowers quietly challenges misogyny” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“The Wars We Fight in Silence — FLOWERS: Review” by Cheryl Tan, Popspoken

“FLOWERS” by Jocelyn Chng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“Review: FLOWERS by Drama Box” by Bak Chor Mee Boy