24 July 2015

The LKY Musical

book by Tony Petito
story by Meira Chand
lyrics by Stephen Clark
music by Dick Lee
Metropolitan Productions
Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

One of the biggest local theatre productions in recent years, The LKY Musical is the inaugural production by Metropolitan Productions, sweeping us through a quarter century of Singapore’s history through the eyes of the country’s founding Prime Minister.

We move from Lee’s student days at Raffles College in 1941 to the Japanese Occupation and his studies in the UK before he returns to Singapore to champion independence in 1965. The plot ticks off the key events one would expect of the period. However, by trying to fit everything into a neat dramatic arc, Tony Petito’s book and Meira Chand’s story tends to broad-brush some of the nuances of history, going for efficiency rather than emotional weight.

Photo Credit: Metropolitan Productions

One wishes for a slightly more balanced representation of characters. For instance, Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman appears as an insouciant poker player while politician S Rajaratnam seems little more than an industrious scribe.

Adrian Pang carries the show as Lee, capturing the man’s fears, frustrations and unwavering tenacity in pushing for change. While Pang catches Lee’s distinctive inflections and gait, there is a sense that he is dutifully performing a role rather than truly inhabiting it; this is a good performance but perhaps not a great one.

It is a shame that Lee’s wife, the formidable Kwa Geok Choo (Sharon Au), is but a footnote in the narrative instead of being central to the story; she is mostly huddled by a table listening to the radio. Au also proves to be the cast’s weakest link, with brittle delivery and pitiful singing skills.

Photo Credit: Metropolitan Productions

There are standout performances by newcomer Benjamin Chow as charismatic trade unionist Lim Chin Siong and funnyman Sebastian Tan as rickshaw puller and loyal family friend Koh Teong Koo. Edward Choy and Tan Shou Chen also provide good support as PAP stalwarts Goh Keng Swee and Toh Chin Chye, respectively.

Dick Lee disappoints with a score that is vast and varied but ultimately vapid; one would be hard pressed to recall a single distinctive refrain. The melodies in the second half almost blur into a mix. Indeed, one wonders if there is any real point in having the characters sing instead of speak the dialogue; the neatly choreographed numbers and rhyming lines somehow push authenticity to the side.

Director Steven Dexter keeps the pace tight and delivers the requisite spectacle one would expect, though some scenes, like a mantra about glorious economic progress and a lurid, National Day Parade-like number complete with the national anthem, are decidedly stagey. The three-storied set by designer takis, upon which multimedia projections are superimposed, evokes a sense of grandeur that echoes the powerful emotions on stage.

As a tribute to a man whose actions speak far louder than words, there is only so much that a piece of theatre can do. The LKY Musical reminds us of the difficult journey behind the country we have today and even if it does not throw up anything groundbreaking, this is a sleek, serviceable history song that is bound to satisfy.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

*This review was written for TODAY and published on 27 July 2015.

27 June 2015

Another Country

curated by Alfian Sa'at and Leow Puay Tin
W!LD RICE
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore

Hot off the heels of its high-octane production Public Enemy in April, W!LD RICE explores the tenet of peace by examining our relationship with our closest neighbour, Malaysia. Another Country is a new and rebooted version of their hit production ten years ago called Second Link: The Singapore-Malaysia Text Exchange. The concept is simple but engaging: five Malaysian actors perform a selection of Singaporean texts followed by five Singaporean actors who take on a variety of Malaysian texts.

Another Country is an enticing mix of old and new. Apart from Lim Yu-Beng and Gani Abdul Karim who were part of the original Second Link cast, the production features a new mix of faces from both sides of the Causeway. Alfian Sa'at steps in to curate the selection of Singaporean extracts (this was previously done by Eleanor Wong and Alvin Pang) while Leow Puay Tin continues in her role as Malaysian curator. Ivan Heng, who had originally directed Second Link, here directs the Singaporean performers while acclaimed Malaysian performer Jo Kukathas helms the Malaysian contingent. Another fun fact: the Malaysians wear black outfits and the Singaporeans wear white, reversing the colour scheme used in Second Link.


The first half of the production (titled Sayang Singapura) stands out due to the rich and thoughtful selection of texts. While the Singaporean selection in Second Link had mainly featured plays, poetry and novels from established writers, Alfian pulls together an almost entirely new set of literary treasures and spreads his canvas wide, throwing in amusing colonial accounts of Singapore, letters and petitions by members of the public, little-known songs and bittersweet meditations on national identity. Each extract is also presented in chronological order, captioned and accompanied by evocative visuals, helping audiences appreciate the context of the works.

We have a good mix of the familiar and the unusual - an extract from Kuo Pao Kun's seminal multi-lingual play Mama Looking For Her Cat performed entirely in Tamil and Hokkien stands out and other pieces such as Arthur Yap's 2 mothers in a hdb playground and Claire Tham's Highway immediately resonate with the audience by bringing key Singaporean traits to the fore. Kudos to Alfian for also keeping the selection up-to-date and including works from recent years such as Haresh Sharma's politically-charged Gemuk Girls, Tan Tarn How's insightful Fear of Writing and Amanda Lee Koe's charmingly nostalgic Flamingo Valley.

There is strong work by the Malaysian ensemble and Anne James and Ghafir Akbar stand out for their engaging performances. One is particularly taken by the stirring extract from Gopal Baratham's novel Sayang, which in many ways captures the soul of this first half: the unique admixture of joy and grief one feels when confronted with the Singapore Story; a narrative that is largely monolithic but which contains so many rich, multifaceted aspects should one take a closer look.

Photo Credit: Wong Horng Yih, W!LD Rice

The Malaysian selection is titled Tikam-Tikam: Malaysia@Random 2 and rather than proceeding in a chronological fashion, the audience gets to choose the order in which the extracts are performed by picking pieces off a giant board. Naturally, not all the texts can be performed in the allotted time span of one hour so each performance will invariably be different. While this charming randomness presents a nice contrast to the neat, structured tour through Singapore's literary history, I note that very little has changed on the Malaysian side. Indeed, more than three-quarters of the extracts in Tikam-Tikam are the same ones presented in Second Link and there is not much of a sense that something new has been provided for the audience to chew over.

The Singaporean quintet dive into the material with relish and despite the obvious difficulty of working with a new sequence for each show, the scenes are executed with polish, panache and effortless pace. Classic pieces from Hikayat Abdullah and Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals) go down well and there are many extracts that explore folklore, culture and politics not just exclusive to Malaysia but which are representative of both countries. In general, the tone is far more jovial and relaxed than the first half and the actors have a lot of fun with the material. Sharda Harrison and Siti Khalijah are a delight to watch; the former's rendering of Sir Stamford Raffles' crisp, British-accented Malay and the latter's portrayal of a kindly but ignorant American grandmother when faced with "Asiatics" are highlights of the evening. 

Interestingly, while I felt the Malaysian selections in Second Link has been far superior, they somehow paled in comparison to the Singaporean ones this time round. This may well be because the Singaporean texts were far more diverse but one cannot ignore that fact that the overall production is fairly long and one's attention begins to slide by the second half. I also rather lamented the exclusion of Huzir Sulaiman's hilarious Atomic Jaya from the Malaysian mix; this had proven one of my favourite extracts in Second Link and I felt that the extract from Stella Kon's Emily of Emerald Hill selected here - which is likely to be the text most recognisable to Singaporean audiences - was not quite the best one from the play.

Photo Credit: Wong Horng Yih, W!LD Rice

Another Country ultimately emerges  as far more than the sum of its parts. It reminds us that while Singapore and Malaysia may be two nations with different politics, economies and societies, our hearts beat as one. And this is perhaps best summed up in the beautiful ronggeng presented by all ten performers as the finale piece: instead of merely dancing around each other, let's hope that "our hands would clasp" and we genuinely engage with our neighbours, viewing them not just as another country but, hopefully, an extension of our own.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

07 June 2015

Tribes

by Nina Raine
PANGDEMONIUM!
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore

It's been a while since PANGDEMONIUM! have delivered a play that truly makes an impact. Their glittering 2013 season saw two critically acclaimed productions - Rabbit Hole and Next to Normal - back-to-back, both Pulitzer Prize winners confronting dark and difficult issues. Despite strong production values and solid acting, I've felt that their last couple of productions have been slightly marred by the choice of script. With this excellent production of Tribes by British playwright Nina Raine, they have returned to the zenith of fine theatre making in Singapore.


Tribes premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2010 and chronicles the lives of a dysfunctional family living in Cambridge, England. Father Christopher (Adrian Pang) is an acerbic academic obsessing about language, mother Beth (Sue Tordoff) is attempting to write a mystery novel, son Daniel (Gavin Yap) is a sarcastic young man working on his thesis and daughter Ruth (Frances Lee) is a fledging opera singer hopeless in relationships. At the centre of this bickering, noisy family is youngest child Billy, who is deaf. He has grown up with his family members largely ignoring his disability and has managed to get by through lip-reading.

It is a credit to Raine that Tribes is no token story about a boy battling a world without sound and ultimately finding himself. The fundamental theme that emerges is the importance of communication and how all of us are simply looking for a group of people, a tribe, to achieve that vital human connection. When Billy reveals to his family that he has just met a wonderful young woman called Sylvia (Ethel Yap), who has grown up in a deaf family and is herself slowly losing her sense of hearing, old allegiances are threatened in the face of this newcomer and Billy gains a new lease of life when he finds himself very much the centre of attention rather than being left on the sidelines.

Tracie Pang and her creative team handle the topic of deafness with great fidelity. Thomas Pang and Ethel Yap have spent the past few months learning sign language with experts in order to authentically portray their characters and inhabit their world. A conscious attempt has been made to reach out to the deaf community in the play's publicity drive and three sign language interpreters have even been brought in for selected performances to allow the hearing impaired to enjoy the play.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM!

The cast, a superb ensemble of six, turn in compelling performances and are thoroughly engaging in their scenes. Veteran actors Adrian Pang and Sue Tordoff convey the tepid undercurrents of a marriage between two middle-aged people with riotous honesty. Gavin Yap and Frances Lee, last seen together in PANGDEMONIUM's Fat Pig, make a delightful pair of squabbling siblings whose weapons of choice are the words they use to puncture each other's egos. Yap in particular makes an admirable transition as his confident, witty façade cracks to reveal a desperate shell of a man who is enslaved by the voices in his head.

The show, however, is carried by Thomas Pang in his stunning professional stage debut as Billy. Pang joins the ranks of actors such as Seong Hui Xuan, Eden Ang, Mina Kaye and Frances Lee who have been nurtured by PANGDEMONIUM! and have emerged as fantastic young actors in the entertainment scene today. Pang displays that rare ability to convey powerful emotions without saying very much and what he does say makes everyone stop to listen to him. The scenes in sign language between him and Yap's character feel entirely organic and his emotionally-wrenching outburst in the second half lacerates the soul.

Ethel Yap likewise makes a very strong impression as Sylvia and succeeds not only in portraying someone who cannot hear what they sound like but the unimaginably painful transition from a world of hearing to one of complete silence. She impresses with her fluent signing and one truly feels for her withered self-confidence as she reveals her pains of turning into a handicapped person whom people look at askance.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM!

Tracie Pang's taut direction drives the play and each scene is handled with her characteristic sensitivity and attention to detail. The entire opening sequence, where loud, overlapping conversations zigzag across the room with increasing intensity, converges on the image of Billy, who feels so utterly alone though he is in a room surrounded by people. Music is beautifully integrated between the scenes in a manner that reminds one of the rich aural transitions in Gruesome Playground Injuries and the use of surtitles capturing words both spoken and sometimes unspoken is heartfelt and hilarious.

Wong Chee Wai impresses once again with his large, fully-realized set that looks like it stepped right out of a lifestyle magazine. However, there are some spaces here that hardly seem to be utilised. Save for the central dining table where most of the action happens, the sitting room, kitchen and staircase areas are rarely used and one feels that the very breadth and scope of the space sometimes engulfs the powerful emotions being explored. Raine's writing also dips slightly in the second half of the play where she throws in one plot point after another without a satisfactory resolution. I didn't quite see the need to delve into Billy being investigated at work, barely a scene after he takes the monumental step of getting a job in the first place.

But these remain minor cavils in an otherwise delightful and thoroughly affecting piece of theatre about the limitations of language and the sound of silence. With Tribes, PANGDEMONIUM! reminds us that when learning to understand one another, actions speak so much louder than words.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

01 June 2015

Goodbye Flying Inkpot

Today we bid goodbye to a veritable institution in Singapore's arts landscape: The Flying Inkpot Theatre & Dance. It's been an absolute pleasure writing for them over the past four years and contributing over 50 theatre reviews to the site.

Check out the wrap articles published today in both ST Life! and TODAY about the Inkpot's amazing 19-year journey. Very pleased to be interviewed by Mayo Martin for the TODAY article (extract below).

Selected members of The Flying Inkpot team: (clockwise from left) Kenneth Kwok, Karin Lai, Jocelyn Chng, Naeem Kapadia, Selina Chong and Matthew Lyon. Photo Credit: Jason Ho.
*****

“Among The Flying Inkpot’s most recent batch of writers are Naeem Kapadia and Karin Lai. The pair, who also contribute to TODAY, were theatre bloggers before the website gave them the opportunity to expose their writing on a more established platform.

The former had worked and studied in the United Kingdom before joining the website upon his return in 2011. “It sounded like a great platform for normal working people to write creatively about the arts scene. Inkpot has definitely helped me to fine tune my own writing about the Singapore theatre scene, which I was not very familiar with previously. It’s also been nice meeting theatre practitioners in Singapore and learning more about the theatre ecosystem and the various parties who come together to put up a production,” said Kapadia, who had contributed 50 reviews in a span of four years.

Lai said that joining The Flying Inkpot had also given her an audience. “One thing it did was to create possibilities for dialogue. I (previously) didn’t have an audience for my thoughts. Over time, friends and friends of friends that I met would have read something I wrote up about a production and I could engage in conversations with them about it. The Inkpot helped give me an audience and I am very grateful to it for that.”

Both said they will continue writing about theatre, but they also recognise how the arts (and arts writing) landscape has changed.

“The Inkpot has always stood apart from the mass media as its more serious, considered, older cousin,” said Kapadia. “One of the dangers of today’s social media-obsessed generation is that every theatre company, practitioner or reader is simply looking for that juicy, bite-sized blurb about a play. The days of good, old-fashioned reviews seem to be dying out and I sincerely hope that won’t happen.”

Lai pointed out how the arts criticism scene in Singapore is changing rapidly, citing how “lifestyle” blogs and companies now also offer reviews, which are seen as mere “content” to draw page views. With The Flying Inkpot’s strictly non-commercial stance, they were not beholden to any interest, resulting in a “culture of brutal honesty”.

At the same time, she wondered if changes in performing arts scene has had some effect. “In some ways, the increased competition between companies for audiences and the advent of social media has made the Inkpot’s unique culture harder and harder to sustain,” she said. Echoing Kapadia’s point, she said there was a tendency of some companies to expect faster reviews and to simply look for “the quotable one-liner”. “The kind of considered and yes, more academic, review that Inkpot was known for has been drowned out by the need to generate ‘buzz’ — to get good messages about your production out there, quickly and consistently. I have my doubts about how good developments like these are for theatre criticism in Singapore, but I can understand the commercial pressures that have led to their development even as I regret them.””

- Mayo Martin, TODAY, 1 June 2015

07 May 2015

The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate "S" Machine

by Tan Tarn How
The Esplanade: The Studios - fifty
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

Who are we as a nation? In our relentless quest for excellence, do we need a soul? How do we go about cultivating this?

Tan Tarn How's The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate "S" Machine, both biting satire and black comedy, seeks to confront these hard questions. The no-holds-barred script had its own battle with censorship when it was submitted for a performance license back in 1991; former media licensing authority, the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit, found objectionable content in 36 out of its 67 pages. Fortunately, when the National Arts Council took over, the script was approved uncut and finally staged to critical acclaim in 1993. The play is now hailed as a landmark of Singapore political theatre.

Twenty years down the road, the issues Tan explores in Lady of Soul remain as pertinent as ever. The local arts scene may have become far more diverse and confrontational and the political arena more nuanced but one cannot deny the invisible hand of authority and conformity which still exists in a very real form. One should just look at the ongoing debacle about teenager Amos Yee who made a controversial YouTube video or the decision by the Media Development Authority to close down website The Real Singapore for publishing prohibited content. Have we been conditioned into accepting a pleasant, whitewashed state of affairs that dances to the tune of the powers that be and prevents true freedom of expression?


It's somewhat a pity that this superbly topical script is let down by a rather saggy production by Zizi Azah in the final of five full-length revivals held in conjunction with The Studios' massive Singapore theatre retrospective, fifty. Zizi infuses the play with plenty of colour but despite edits to tighten the pace and update the references, the scenes hang together clumsily and overly hammed-up performances detract from the biting political commentary at its heart.

Lady of Soul centres round earnest, idealistic civil servant Derek (Prem John) who has been put in charge of the Committee for the Creation of a Vibrant Nation. The play mercilessly lampoons government bureaucracy and culture: meaningless stock phrases, the endless string of committees and sub-committees which amount to nothing and ministers who are slavishly devoted to observing form rather than substance in their policies.

Much of the humour derives from Derek's quest to cultivate the nation's "soul", which leads him to meet three characters: a proponent of the arts, Sham (Farez Najid), a communist, Alban (Lian Sutton) and a flighty brothel owner, Lady Soh (Rizman Putra). Various concepts of the "soul" are thrown around by the group, the most raucous being the idea of raw, physical pleasure as exemplified by the titular Ultimate "S" Machine supplied by Lady Soh.

Tan cleverly blends the personal and the political in his writing and the covert homosexual relationship between Derek and another civil servant is hinted at, giving Derek yet another layer of secrets that he feels trapped behind. His anguish at having his report ultimately tossed aside in favour of something along official government lines is an apt metaphor of the silencing of individuality in the face of authority. Zizi's choice of leaving us with the image of a bound, helpless Derek is a powerful and sombre one.


Zizi is alive to the facetiousness and witty allegory in Tan's writing and dredges this to the very surface, giving us plenty of laughs. The cast includes a good mix of well-known and new faces but over-the-top performances make things feel like a comedy sketch show. Stage veteran Gene Sha Rudyn plays the Minister like a gnome on steroids - all flailing hands, bulging eyes and fake laughter. As Derek's two assistants, recent theatre graduates Shafiqah Efandi and Dominique De Marco are energetic and amusing but prove slightly tedious in their transitions. Rizman gets the lion's share of laughs as a feathered, sequinned Lady Soh and plays up the raunchy element of the character to death. The overt bawdiness tends to outstay its welcome though - there's enough in the dialogue not to rely on cheap physical gags.

Wong Chee Wai's backdrop of translucent screens effectively sets the stage for a rich explosion of light and colour in the opening sequence which features various silhouetted figures. However, this image is never really used again and seems more of a dramatic flourish than anything. While the minimalist props work well in opening up the acting space, it also gives rise to a jarring emptiness.

Lady of Soul is a play that continues to provoke debate. While one may argue that parts of the play have dated since they were first written and the commentary lacks nuance, it's important to recognize the deeper message that Tan astutely identified all those years ago. We need to find a way to breathe life and soul into our glittering nation but this is something which has to develop organically, without the aid of a machine, checklist or humdrum nationwide campaign.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5