13 July 2014


by John Logan
Blank Space Theatre
The Studios 2014
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

This latest offering by Blank Space Theatre is a biographical drama about Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko. Set in 1958 and 1959, it delves into the life of this intensely private but volatile man who spends his days holed up in a studio, creating immense pieces of art for a prestigious restaurant commission. As one looks closer at these rectangular blocks of colour, one learns that the worlds of history, philosophy, music, mythology and spirituality are inextricably etched into its luxuriant surface.

John Logan’s Tony Award-winning play is superbly revived in this gripping black–box production by Samantha Scott-Blackhall, whose last production at the Studios in 2012’s Freud’s Last Session garnered rave reviews and multiple Life! Theatre Award nominations. The unlikely pairing of the real-life character of Rothko (Daniel Jenkins) and Ken (Gavin Yap), his fictitious, mild-mannered assistant, is a catalyst for great drama and we are drawn into the verbal pyrotechnics that unfold before us as these two men dissect the nature of art while trying to come to terms with their own identities.

So much of a play like this depends on the characters and we are treated here to a truly spectacular performance by Jenkins, one that is both mesmerising and empathetic. Shuffling around on stage with a prosthetic nose and somewhat dubious-looking hairpiece, he speaks in a clipped New York drawl and alternates between intense brooding and equally spine-chilling moments of lucidity as he explains his convictions, theories and fears. For all this arrogance, we sense that Rothko’s ultimate fear is to become redundant, to be but a footnote in the annals of art history in the face of a younger, more experimental wave of newcomers.

Gavin Yap, who has turned in solid performances in Wild Rice’s The Importance of Being Earnest and PANGDEMONIUM!’s Fat Pig, is also no pushover. While his character is largely a sounding board for Rothko’s opinions, he displays tremendous skill in conveying the quiet determination of a young man who wants to matter and make his voice heard. This comes to a head when he finally confronts Rothko and the latter's pretension in agreeing to paint a series of murals for the ritzy Four Seasons restaurant - a place that represents the very temple of consumerism which he despises - leading to an chastened Rothko to remark: “Today, you’ve existed”.

One cannot help but feel that the Logan's script occasionally comes across as a thinly concealed art lecture and is deliberately bombastic in its swathe of ideas. This is of course a function of the character it explores and indeed, many of the lines uttered by Rothko in the play are actual quotations taken from his life. Yet, Rothko's numerous monologues can prove a little trying, especially when there is so little provided by way of counterpoint from Ken.

Scott-Blackhall excels in manipulating the full size of the stage and creating rich visual tableaus. In a beautiful scene, Rothko and Ken apply a base coat of red paint to a blank canvas while listening to music, working so perfectly in sync that their brushstrokes almost resemble a dance. The scene transitions - relaxed yet fluid - are also handled well and we are constantly engaged in the trajectories of these two characters throughout the play.

Equal credit goes to the excellent production team. Set designer Wong Chee Wai creates a perfect reproduction of an airy, high-ceilinged New York studio loft, complete with paint-splattered wooden floor and painting paraphernalia scattered around. The life-sized reproductions of Rothko’s work that were specially commissioned for this production are also to be commended; it is difficult to appreciate the context unless one gets a sense of the scale of these works and the intensity of the solid blocks of colour. The stage is also beautifully lit by James Tan, allowing us a glimpse into the sequestered world that the artist creates for himself. Light is depicted as both an ally – adding an element of mystique and romance in its soft shadows – and as an enemy – when Ken turns the lights fully on, the paintings somehow diminish in intensity under the harsh glare.

Red is a play that opens our eyes to the fragile and fractious world of the artist. Like Ken, we too feel compelled to see something in these magnificent works and as the iridescence of the final scene descends upon us, we realize that there is truly an element of magic that lies in these creations.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

20 June 2014

Another Country

by Julian Mitchell
Trafalgar Studios, London

There's a dreadful homogeneity that attracts public schools in England and Julian Mitchell's 1981 play, famously adapted into a 1984 film starring a young Rupert Everett and Colin Firth, remains a harsh reminder of the polarising effects of a world of privilege.

The setting is a fictional boys' public school in 1930s England and the spotlight is on two particular misfits: the suave, flighty and openly gay Bennett (Rob Callender) and the serious, academically-inclined Judd (Will Attenborough), whose Marxist views fly in the face of the world of privilege that confronts him.

Mitchell's theme is that English public schools were a prime breeding ground for the so-called generation of 'Cambridge spies' who betrayed their country during the war. The character of Judd certainly leaves us in no doubt that he would turn against the moneyed establishment he opposes and even the carefree Bennett is quietly pulled away from apathy at the hypocrisy of the people he is surrounded with at school and the realization that he will always be excluded from the world he desires to be a part of. Indeed, the homosexuality that causes a student to commit suicide early in the play is revealed to be tacitly accepted as a way of life by many of the students, despite the official line that such actions are to be condemned.

Another Country is also a sentimental study about friendships forged in a home away from home and the codes and rituals so common in public schools. There is a tender moment when Judd comforts a tearful junior rattled at the death of a fellow student, reminding us that many students look up to their seniors as role models and surrogate parents in the unfamiliar and often harsh boarding school environment. In an equally gripping sequence, the harsh strokes of Bennett being caned sound out, reminding us of the realities of corporal punishment for misdemeanours.

Jeremy Herrin’s production, a Chichester Festival Theatre transfer, is buoyed by a young and energetic cast. Callender in particular turns in a superb performance as Bennett, bringing a perfect mix of sexy nonchalance and rakish charm that keeps one's eyes on him throughout his scenes. Attenborough provides an earnest though somewhat plodding presence as Judd with his constant devotion to his books. There is also fantastic support by Julian Wadham as a flamboyant visiting academic.

Peter McKintosh’s wooden set - which easily converts into a dormitory, office and cricket field - conveys the grandeur and tradition that comes with a venerable institution and the production is sensitively lit by Paul Pyant. We are reminded as ever of the pull of the outside world intruding upon the little space created by these individuals as they navigate their nascent ideological battles.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

18 June 2014

A Small Family Business

by Alan Ayckbourn
National Theatre (Olivier), London

Close to 30 years after it first premiered at this theatre, Ayckbourn's A Small Family Business remains a canny thesis on the world of capitalism and its effects when the lines between business and family blur. Adam Penford's revival moves along at a brisk pace even if it feels more like a well-structured farce instead of a black comedy whose laughs reveal a rotting heart.

The action centres around the honest, well-meaning Jack McCracken, who has just left his old job and been appointed as the managing director of the family-run furniture business. As he starts delving into the goings-on in the company, he rapidly discovers that theft, fraud and other dubious practices are rampant and all his family members have been carrying on as if nothing is wrong while quietly lining their pockets.

Ayckbourn once again demonstrates a knack for finding humour in odd situations and we follow the bewildered Jack as he uncovers layer upon later of deception in the family - from his teenage daughter's bizarre shoplifting to his sister-in-law's liaisons with a bevy of shady Italian businessmen to his brother-in-law and business partner siphoning away money to fund his dreams of being a chef. It's both funny and quietly horrifying that none of these characters seem to regard their actions as being wrong.

Nigel Lindsay endows Jack with the right mix of self-righteous indignation and weary resignation as he inevitably feels himself falling deeper into the web of deceit that has been so meticulously spun around him. There is excellent support from Ayckbourn veteran Matthew Cottle as the waspish private investigator Benedict Hough and and Nicky Wardley as Jack's vixen like sister-in-law with her colourful sex life.

Even if the editing could have been tighter, the play crackles along and Lindsay is alive to Ayckbourn's ear for comedy and rip-roaring one-liners. The opening scene, which sees Jack trying to have sex with his wife while being unaware of the guests in the next room waiting to surprise him, is marvellously choreographed. In another memorable scene, a heated argument in the kitchen is promptly silenced by a character poking her head out of an alcove like a cuckoo clock to shush everyone because her beloved dog is trying to sleep. Set designer Tim Hatley provides a perfect cross-section of a two story suburban home, deftly balancing scale with intimacy.

Like many of Ayckbourn's plays, there is a streak of darkness that hangs over the action and if Lindsay's production falters slightly, it is in treating many of the laughs at face value instead of using them to reveal the corrosiveness at the core. It is worth remembering that A Small Family Business is, after all, a morality play, a clever satire on the ethos of individualism and economic progress that infected the world of Thatcherism during which it was written.

Indeed, the final image of the play is of Jack's teenage daughter sobbing alone in the bathroom as her father proudly toasts to the future of the family business. Will all the money in the world help to overcome the emotional estrangement she feels from her family members? Will Jack ever regain his once steadfast morality and integrity? We are reminded that material success and domestic bliss make reluctant bedfellows.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

24 May 2014

Playwrights Galore (2014)

Time for this yearly round-up: here's the updated list of all playwrights from whom I've seen at least three plays. Joining the list for the first time is Henrik Ibsen.

William Shakespeare (15)
-Twelfth Night (x4)
-Romeo & Juliet (x3)
-The Taming of the Shrew (x3)
-A Midsummer Night's Dream (x2)
-The Tempest (x2)
-Othello (x2)
-King Lear (x2) 
-Macbeth (x2)
-Julius Caesar
-Richard III 
-Much Ado About Nothing 
-A Winter's Tale
-The Merchant of Venice

Alan Ayckbourn (10)
-Absurd Person Singular
-Table Manners
-Living Together
-Round and Round the Garden
-Bedroom Farce
-Taking Steps
-Season's Greetings
-Snake in the Grass
-Life of Riley
-Relatively Speaking

Haresh Sharma (8)
-Mixed Blessings
-What Big Bombs You Have!!!
-Off Centre
-Gemuk Girls
-Best Of
-Poor Thing 

Alfian Sa'at (6)
-Cooling Off Day (x2)
-Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1
-Landmarks: Asian Boys Vol. 2
-Hansel & Gretel
-Cook a Pot of Curry

Noel Coward (5)
-Present Laughter
-Blithe Spirit
-Private Lives
-Design for Living
-Hay Fever

Harold Pinter (4)
-The Lover (x2)
-The Dumb Waiter
-The Collection

Irfan Kasban (4)
-94:05 (x2)
-Genap 40

Neil Simon (4)
-The Prisoner of Second Avenue (x2)
-The Odd Couple (female version)
-Lost in Yonkers

Tom Stoppard (4)
-Rock 'n' Roll
-The Real Thing
-Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Arther Miller (4)
-The Man Who Had All the Luck
-The Crucible
-All My Sons
-Death of a Salesman

Tennessee Williams (4)
-Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
-The Glass Menagerie
-A Streetcar Named Desire
-Sweet Bird of Youth

David Mamet (3)
-Glengarry Glen Ross

Anton Chekhov (3)
-The Seagull
-The Cherry Orchard

Peter Shaffer (3)
-Black Comedy
-White Lies

Chong Tze Chien (3)
-Rant & Rave (x2)
-Real Men, Fake Orgasms

Henrik Ibsen (3)
-Hedda Gabler
-The Master Builder
-An Enemy of the People

03 May 2014

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

by Jim Cartwright
adapted by Adrian Pang
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore

PANGDEMONIUM's second production of their 2014 "Misfits" season, Jim Cartwright's 1982 play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, is both unexpected and unexpectedly moving. It's the tale of a sweet, painfully shy girl called Little Voice who spends her days listening to old records of singing sensations such as Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf and impersonating them with uncanny accuracy. Her voice is discovered by a seedy talent agent dating her mother and leads to Little Voice being persuaded to perform at a local nightclub, to both delightful and devastating consequences.

The script has been adapted by Adrian Pang by transplanting the setting to 1974 Singapore and this works incredibly well. The period setting is no mere excuse for retro kitsch; it creates a wonderful parallel between Little Voice nervously trying to find her way in the world and a newly independent nation like Singapore finding her feet. Kudos to director Tracie Pang for delving wholeheartedly into the material and delivering a story that not only sticks true to the original, but coats it with a rich local flavour. Where the production falters is in its length and plot; there seems to be little ground that has not been covered by the end of the first half and the tragedy and vicious confrontations that erupt towards the end seem contrived. Tighter editing would certainly have helped.

Rising local actress Mina Kaye truly comes into her own with a stirring, soulful and robustly empathetic performance as the titular character. She conveys the jittery diffidence of the almost mute Little Voice with tremendous heart and stuns the crowd with her vocal prowess when she morphs into a diva tossing back song upon song with panache. There is also great support by Shane Mardjuki as her love interest Billy, an equally shy and awkward telephone installer who, quite literally, brings light into her life.

One finds it far more difficult to warm up to Mari, Little Voice's drunk and overbearing mother. Part of the problem is that her brash, vulgar and money-minded character has barely any redeeming qualities. Denise Tan milks the lewd gestures and drunken antics to death, resulting in a performance that tries too hard for laughs and ends up feeling entirely one-dimensional. The consistently crowd-pleasing Siti Khalijah is somewhat incongruously cast as Mari's earnest friend Fatimah fresh from the kampung. One wonders what makes Fatimah stick by Mari's side when she is so self-absorbed and dismissive towards her all the time.

Adrian Pang provides slightly more nuance as talent scout Ray Say. Behind the swagger and oily lasciviousness, we sense that he is nothing more than a failing, middle-aged man trying his best to succeed in life in the only way he knows how. Stand up comedian Rishi Budhrani also does a terrific job as the larger-than-life nightclub proprietor Mr Boo and his knack at comedy works well in warming up the crowd and keeping the energy levels high.

Set designer Eucien Chia neatly conjures up the two worlds that Little Voice finds herself embroiled in with his rotating set. On one side is the sparkly night club Boo-gis Wonderland, complete with a live band that provides solid musical accompaniment throughout the show. The other side is a meticulous reconstruction of the split-level flat which Little Voice shares with her mother. Once again, one appreciates the attention to detail in the production design such as the garish period furniture and the stained tiles in the kitchen.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is a solid and enjoyable production that reminds us all that everyone has the ability to break free of their physical and emotional restraints to realize their true potential. After commenting numerous times on PANGDEMONIUM's reluctance to adapt plays into a local setting, I'm pleased to say that they have certainly kept us waiting for a reason. This is a funny, warm and entirely organic adaptation and I'm keen to see them try this again.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5