[Theatre Review] A Classic That Should Not Be Timeless

The latest staging of Off Centre harks back to the original.

Photo: Tuckys Photography

Off Centre
The Necessary Stage
7 February 2019
Victoria Theatre
7–17 February 2019

Much ink has been spilled on Haresh Sharma’s Off Centre ever since its first staging in 1993. The reviews have two common threads: the play being on-target about mental health issues, and the tragedy of the play still being pertinent after so many years.

To add, it is also a sophisticated play which touches on issues of different economic backgrounds, societal expectations, Singapore’s competitive school system, and national service, without being tedious. Furthermore, the several instances in which Vinod or Saloma questioning the audience directly might be a little shocking for audiences back then, who are probably  used to having the fourth wall in place.

All of that is brought to the fore in the latest staging by The Necessary Stage, as director Alvin Tan stays true to the original staging, except for having a slightly more elaborate set by Wong Chee Wai.

Abdulattif Abdullah (Vinod) and Sakinah Dollah (Saloma) reprise their roles to much aplomb. Apart from the difficulty of embodying behavioural ticks brought on by severe depression and schizophrenia respectively, they have to constantly toggle between being in character and stepping out to narrate or address the audience. The ease at which both actors achieve this seem to signify that their characters are not too far from us.

Apart from their technical flair, both actors handle the emotional scenes with a great deal of sensitivity, giving the seemingly simple words much nuance.

While I would have liked for the play to be updated in terms of references and staging, I acknowledge the merits of being faithful to the original staging to mark the show’s anniversary and being a reference for students taking their O and N level exams.

Undoubtedly, most of us would feel uncomfortable about how relevant the play still is, but what is more troubling for me is that it is not as hard-hitting for the modern audience as it probably was for our counterparts in 1993.

With a more theatrically sophisticated audience, the direct questioning seems a little crude. Furthermore, both Adulattif and Sakinah seem to direct them at a general direction rather than directly at a particular audience member.  Thus, as Saloma pleads with the audience at the end, one is filled with dread that nothing is going to change.

Being timeless or evergreen is a compliment when describing most plays, but it is certainly not so for this one. One hopes that the play’s concerns will be deemed as dated and irrelevant by the time a theatre company considers another restaging.

Other Reviews

Off Centre is still spot on” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

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

“[Review] Off Centre overwhelmed by nostalgia” by Sam Kee, ArtsRepublic.sg

“Review: Off Centre (2019) by The Necessary Stage” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

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[Theatre Review] Lavish Panto-fusion

monkey_goes_west_2016_pic_5

Courtesy of W!ld Rice

Monkey Goes West

W!ld Rice

29 November 2016

Drama Centre Theatre

18 November–17 December 2016

W!ld Rice is well-known for adopting the pantomime, and infusing it with local references and jokes. With Monkey Goes West, the company pushes the envelope by adapting a Chinese legend into a British theatrical convention, while bringing in Asian practices such as martial arts, Chinese opera, and shadow puppetry as narrative devices.

The plot revolves around Ah Tang (Joshua Lim), a teenager who has lost his mother and has to live with Uncle Moo (Darius Tan), Auntie Fanny (Chua En Lai), and their spoilt child, Xiao Hong (Kimberly Chan). Feeling unloved and missing his mother on her death anniversary, he runs away from home and goes to Haw Par Villa.

Falling asleep, he falls into a dream state and he finds himself assuming the role of the monk in Journey to the West as he supposedly attempts to travel from Haw Par Villa to Jurong West with the help of his disciples: Wu Kong (Sugie Phua), Pigsy (Frances Lee), and Sandy (Siti Khalijah Zainal). Knowing that any journey made within Singapore’s borders is physically unimpressive, playwright Alfian Sa’at cleverly turns it into one of self-transformation.

First staged in 2014, this ambitious show could have gone the way of most fusion cuisines; a hodge-podge of ingredients that form a veneer of the exotic, but they do not go together and one is left with an odd aftertaste. What keeps this production together is director Sebastian Tan’s methodical conceptualisation of where the elements should go.

Alfian manages to serve up a delicious fare of innuendos, satire, and jokes which send the audience rollicking in their seats, while offering an important lesson of self-control to the children. Having entertained the audience and building up their expectations for most of the show, he falters toward the end with a slightly trite resolution in order for the moral of the story to be delivered. Additionally, the headstrong nature of Sandy which is in the original tale and key to the moral of the story is not apparent.

With the script being resolutely steeped in the pantomime tradition, Elaine Chan’s music enhances that with its offering of cabaret-style tunes with the occasional Chinese motif. The songs were well thought out and it gives space for every cast member to display their vocal chops.

The Chinese opera sequences and shadow puppetry figure in the fight scenes as the disciples, mainly Wu Kong, have to battle various monsters and demons (Darius Tan, Chua Enlai, and Kimberly Chan double up as King Bull, Princess Iron Fan, and Red Boy respectively) along their journey. There, these practices are left as is with traditional Chinese percussion playing in the background. As it impossible for the actors to ramp up the intensity of the Chinese opera sequences without years of training, movement coach and fight choreographer Gordon Choy circumvents this limitation by introducing farcical sequences that play to the actors’ strong sense of comic timing.

Top it off with Wong Chee Wai’s lavish sets, sleek transitions, dazzling stage effects, and some of the most versatile actors in the industry, Monkey Goes West is a sheer treat for the senses.

With this show being a milestone for W!ld Rice’s pantomime tradition, one wonders if it is possible for the elements from different cultures to be more intertwined without it being an incomprehensible pastiche. All the more reason to look forward to Mama White Snake, W!ld Rice’s next pantomime which draws from another Chinese tale, Madam White Snake.

Other Reviews

“Making fun (of)” by Jeremiah Choy, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“An ‘A’ Production — Artistic, Amusing, and Adept!” by Beverly Yuen, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

Monkey Goes West: Embark On The Happiest & Funniest Journey To (Jurong) West” by Reuel Eugene, Reuel Writes

“[Review] Monkey Goes West by Natalie Danielle, Campus Magazine

“Review: Monkey Goes West by W!ld Rice” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] The Reviewer Reviewed

Photo: 36frames/ Courtesy of W!ld Rice

Photo: 36frames/ Courtesy of W!ld Rice

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.

My Mother Buys Condoms

W!ld Rice, Singapore Theatre Festival 2016

24 July 2016, 3pm

Creative Cube, Lasalle College of the Arts

14 — 24 July 2016

Prior to watching My Mother Buys Condoms, I face a common problem that is familiar to any critic. Having accumulated a sleep debt, I was afraid of not being able to give it my full attention, and assess the best that I could. Playwright Helmi Yusof, who is also an established arts journalist and critic for The Business Times, makes my job easy by peppering his debut play with witty punch lines; puns on swear words; and hilarious comedy of errors sequences.

Unfortunately he offers little else, especially when it comes to exploring the sexuality of an older woman.

The set-up of Raju (Ramesh Panicker), an air-conditioner repairman, taking English classes from retired literature teacher Maggie (Lok Meng Chue) because he wants to read crime reports in the newspaper is improbable. Additionally, the acceleration of events to the point when both of them fall in love makes it seem as if Maggie loves Raju simply because he expresses an interest.

Such a shallow plot could be forgiven if Helmi intends for it to be a convenient device to give more space for Maggie to deal with the conflict between her desires and the social mores of society. Yet, when it comes to it, all Maggie does is to ask, “Why not?” She does not offer an argument, or try to show the flawed logic of her detractors. Instead, she is like a petulant child who asks why regardless of what is said to her.

Coupled with Wong Chee Wai’s intimate set and Julian Wong’s mawkish musical interludes, the feel of the whole show is reminiscent of a popular local ‘90s television sitcom, Under One Roof.

That said, one must not downplay the craft and skill of comedy. Helmi does have a neck for comedy, and this is enhanced by the actors’ (apart from leads, Elnie S. Mashari, Joshua Lim, and Seong Hui Xuan also deserve commendation) ability to keep the comical scenes snappy and energetic.

While My Mother Buys Condoms indicates an encouraging prospect of critics being able to traverse both sides of the footlights, it should not pretend to aspire more than what it is—a light diversion better suited for a variety show.

Other Reviews

“My Mother Buys Condoms: Let’s talk about sex and seniors” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Grey Pride: A Review of ‘My Mother Buys Condoms’, by W!ld Rice” by Ng Yi-Sheng, The Online Citizen

“Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘My Mother Buys Condoms’ by Helmi Yusof” by Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam, Blog Critics.

“My Mother Buys Condoms: Love, Sex And Senior Citizens?” by Reuel Eugene, Reuel Writes.

“Sex, ageing, and the courage to be happy” by Alisa Maya Ravindran, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“My Mother Buys Condoms” by Dawn Teo, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews