[Theatre Review] Dark Room Sheds (More) Light on Prison Life

Photo: Crispian Chan

Photo: Crispian Chan

n.b. I would like to inform my readers that I am currently a project-based intern with Checkpoint Theatre for their upcoming production, The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco. However, I strongly believe that this does not affect the integrity of my critique. Views expressed are my own.

Dark Room
Edith Podesta
28 April 2016
Esplanade Theatre Studio
28 April–1 May 2016

Two years ago, I was profoundly affected and had my pre-conceptions about ex-prisoners challenged by Dark Room x8.

The memory of its impact makes me apprehensive about watching this iteration. What should one expect of this second staging? More importantly, having been made aware of my prejudices, will Dark Room still have an impact?

I am happy to report that most of my impressions of the first iteration apply to this one as well.

In the midst of my apprehension, I forgot a simple truth. Regardless of what one knows, there is a sort of power in having someone stand in front of you and tell you a story. And the stories told in Dark Room—that of the prison system, and how it affects the individuals—need to be retold again and again.

While there are some changes in the main ensemble (Nelson Chia, Timothy Nga, Erwin Shah Ismail, Ian Tan, Mohd Fared Jainal, Noor Effendy Ibrahim, Oliver Chong, and Pavan J Singh), the performances by this batch of actors are equally stellar. The complexities of script are deftly handled as the show organically shifts from poignancy, to hilarity, to the downright painful.

Chris Chua’s set, which consists of three structures that can be cleverly configured into the prison cells and walls, is a much welcomed addition. It vividly impresses on the audience the small space that the prisoners inhabit, and its possible psychological impact.

That said, this fuller rendering also has its excesses.

Director and writer Edith Podesta took on the audiences’ earlier feedback by introducing the perspectives of a female inmate (Shafiqhah Efandi) and the parents (Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin) of the prisoners. However, they are tokenistic at best.

Apart from learning two new facts,—female inmates man the call centre, and yard time is not a regular occurrence—the female inmate does not add anything to the show. Podesta also does the character an injustice by not giving her an identifiable personality which is present in the male characters.

Similarly, the parents’ perspective only focuses on their sadness, and the difficulties of visiting their child in prison. All these are not really new insights and could be easily imagined by the audience.

Additionally, certain sound effects by Darren Ng—such as the banging of the judge’s gravel— are too literal and gimmicky. This takes away the gravity of the text which can be competently conveyed by the actors.

Finally, the ending which has the characters repeatedly imploring the audience not to judge too quickly risks being overbearingly didactic.

Despite all that, the beauty of Dark Room is that the issues raised in the piece will always be pertinent. This gives Podesta countless opportunities to re-stage it, and find the right balance for the show.  What remains is for her to trust her artistic instinct and be very selective of which suggestions to bring on board.

Resources on Dark Room

Dark Room in residence @ Basement Workshop, Centre 42

Other Reviews

“Edith Podesta and The Studios’ Dark Room is an immersive and intimate retelling of life in Changi Prison Complex” by Karin Lai, Today

“Prison Tales Retold” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

“Struggling with the Outside from the Inside” by Alisa Maya Ravindran, Centre 42 Citizens’ Review

“Chained and Connected” by Beverly Yuen, Centre 42 Citizens’ Review

“Dark Room by Edith Podesta at The Studios” by Corrie Tan

“Architecture of Empathy” by Dumbriyani

[Theatre Review] The Joy of Playing Dress-up

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Photo: Albert Lim KS / Courtesy of W!ld Rice

The Emperor’s New Clothes
W!ld Rice
21 November 2015
Drama Centre Theatre
10 November–12 December 2015

There is a difficulty in adapting the popular tale by Hans Christian Andersen as a pantomime. It needs to have wonderful costumes, it has to be fun, and—most importantly—it must not be pretentious as the main point of the story is to mock the pretentions of society.

W!ld Rice excels on all counts.

Nathan No Surname (Benjamin Kheng) and Khairul No Surname (Sezairi) are orphans who become tailors. They are commissioned by the  ministers in the hopes of getting them to create a wonderful outfit for the vainglorious Emperor Henry Lim Bay Kun (Lim Kay Siu) for free. Khairul eventually convinces Nathan that they should take it as it is a good exposure for their business. They later find out that the Emperor arrests all who take the attention away from his outfit during the National Dress Parade (NDP) and decide to teach the Emperor a lesson with his “new outfit” for the 50th NDP.

Nothing is safe from satire as Joel Tan’s witty script references Lee Kuan Yew, lawsuits against foreign media, incompetency of the ministers, ISA, banning  musical instruments during Thaipusam, mediocrity of Mediacorp dramas, SG 50, and absurdity of national day parades.

With Tan’s clever employment of puns, acronyms, and Singlish, the audience experiences a bellyache of laughs throughout the two hours. The greatest merit of this sparkling script is that it does not belabour the various criticisms that it puts across. This makes the play snappy while packing in quite a lot at the same time.

Additionally, its injection of self-deprecating jokes such as mentioning Ivana Heng, the crazy theatre director who designed a rainbow outfit for the Emperor, or the Emperor asking his Minister of Retribution (Andrew Lua) to keep tabs on Sam Willows (a band that Kheng is part of) makes it all the more delicious.

Director Pam Oei pulls out all the stops and makes her cast showcase whatever talent they have or even acquiring new ones just for the show. Most of them sing, dance, and play instruments live on stage.

Benjamin Kheng’s anxious Nathan is a nice contrast to Sezairi’s laidback Khairul. Aside from their singing which they are known for, their dancing is tight and there is a wonderful synergy between them as we can easily believe that they are “brothers from another mother.”

Lim Kay Siu (Emperor Henry Lim) brings out his youthful and vain side as he preens and poses throughout the show. Audrey Luo (Empress Jeanette How) plays the melodramatic caricature of local actress Jeanette Aw to the hilt. This could not come at a worse time as Aw is currently facing criticisms about her inability to sing in Beauty World.

Other notable performances include Siti Khalijah Zainal (Nafisa bte Jasmani, Minister of Finance), Andrew Lua’s  (Wong Bok Siu, Minister of Retribution), Benjamin Wong and his counter-tenor vocal range as the aptly named Aplhonsus Kan Sing Low, Andrew Marko as the Thai fashion reviewer, and Candice de Rozario as Arppeggio Chong.

Julian Wong keeps our toes tapping with his catchy tunes that range from joget music to the moving, ballad-like “Open Up” when the tailors and the Empress confront the Emperor. Set designer Eucien Chia adopts the comic book aesthetic by having skyscrapers pointing inwards. The monochromatic set allows costume designers Phisit and Saxit from Tube Gallery to unleash a largely neon palette onto the stage.

All these elements make for a fun, energetic, zany, and hilarious musical that calls on the powers that be to reflect on their style of governance and perhaps renew their commitment to serving the people.

With Singapore celebrating her Jubilee and witnessing a heated election, I could not think of a more befitting production to end the year. If only we could nudge our ministers into the theatre.

Other Reviews

“The Emperor’s New Clothes pantomime has audience in stitches” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

“Time Out Singapore: ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ Review” by Gwen Pew, Gwen Pew (originally published in Time Out Singapore

“The Emperor’s New Clothes: Revisiting SG50 Through the Wittiest Musical” by Sheryl Teo, Popspoken

“Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ at Wild Rice” by Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam, BlogCritics

“The Emperor’s New Clothes: A Treat For All Ages” by Reuel Eugene, Reuel Writes

“The emperor’s new clothes” by Jes, Jesme

“Review: The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Jordan Chia, Youth.sg

[Listing] The Emperor’s New Clothes by W!ld Rice

Emperor's New Clothes

Once upon a time, in a kingdom not so far away, ruled a vain and pompous Emperor, who was crazy about his clothes, himself and little else. So obsessed with fashion was he that he decreed that the 50th anniversary of his reign be celebrated with the most extravagant National Dress Parade of all time. But, as he primped and preened, he neglected his citizens, who could only get his attention by complimenting him on his appearance.

One day, two cheeky tailors decide to teach him a lesson. Presenting the Emperor with an eye-popping ensemble literally woven out of thin air, they convince him that only the smartest and most competent people in the land can see it.

What can be done to stop the nation’s biggest wardrobe malfunction? Why won’t the Emperor’s courtiers and the aristocracy speak up? Is there anyone who’s brave enough to tell the naked truth?

This holiday season, W!ld Rice puts a Singaporean spin on Hans Christian Andersen’s timeless tale about the ultimate fashion victim. Directed by Pam Oei, The Emperor’s New Clothes is a brand new musical with a razor-sharp script by Joel Tan and a sparkling score by Julian Wong. Its stellar cast includes Lim Kay Siu as the Emperor, Benjamin Kheng of The Sam Willows, Singapore Idol’s Sezairi Sazali and Siti Khalijah Zainal—all playing musical instruments live on stage!

Fun and laughter never go out of fashion. Don’t miss the most hilarious, heartwarming musical of the holiday season!

Catch The Emperor’s New Clothes from 20 November – 12 December at the Drama Centre Theatre. For ticketing information, please visit Sistic.