by Jean Tay
Sight Lines Productions
DBS Arts Centre, Singapore

There are few issues that unite us as powerfully as property. Rich or poor, old or young, we all need a roof over our heads. And if the public conversation in recent months over escalating home prices and oversubscribed units for new housing developments is any indication, this is a topic that many people feel strongly about. Throw in a story about a woman opposing the impending en bloc sale of her flat and her son, an ambitious property agent hankering after a bigger and brighter future, and we have a winner: a play that truly captures the Singapore zeitgeist.

Jean Tay's light-hearted drama was originally staged in 2008 at the height of the en bloc fever. This assured revival by young theatre company Sight Lines Productions reveals the play to be as timely as ever. It was only recently that concerns over the exhumation of graves at the historic Bukit Brown Cemetery to make way for the construction of roads made headlines. The parallel storyline about a civil servant trying to persuade a corpse in an old cemetery to relocate thus gains an added potency.

Director Derrick Chew has assembled a fine team of actors who bring both energy and vitality to the script. Amanda Tee displays versatility in her assortment of roles, switching between confident career woman, carefree young mother and gossipy housewife with ease. Benjamin Kheng excels as a yuppie real estate agent but appears rather stiff and unconvincing in his attempt to inhabit the role of a taciturn Singlish-speaking husband. While the actors bounce off each other and display great chemistry, some of them need to be more sensitive to comic timing. There are many delightful lines in the play that would have gone down so much better had they factored in the audience's reaction.

One of the strengths of Boom is Tay's fantastic ear for dialogue and ability to authentically render a whole assortment of Singaporean English variants. On one end of the spectrum, there is the articulate, standard English of the mostly overseas-educated civil servants. On the other end, we have the earthy, everyday dialogue between Boon and his mother, which freely mixes Singlish with Hokkien phrases. The play strikes a chord with us because of its familiarity. We know these people. We see them all the time.

At the heart of Boom is the story about a mother and son navigating their tenuous relationship. Veteran actress Fanny Kee and Andrew Lua both turn in natural, incredibly relatable performances in this central pairing. Lua holds his own in displaying both the childish petulance and emotional maturity of Boon, the Singaporean everyman treading that precarious line between respecting the past and embracing the future. Kee, the only member of the cast from the original 2008 production, perfectly conveys the sense of a generation clutching on to sepia-toned memories that are slowly slipping away. Tay highlights how these memories have the capacity to almost physically seep into our homes; the mother insists that the walls have absorbed her sweat over the years. Her final monologue about the gleaming perfection of a Singapore car park and uncontrollable urge to muck things up is one of the play's most poignant moments, a savagely funny yet heartbreaking indictment of the so-called Singapore Dream.

Photo Credit: Sight Lines Productions

I'm not entirely convinced about the scenes lampooning the bureaucracy of the civil service. This is a side of Singapore that certainly deserves to be featured, contrasting the high-handed approach of the decision-makers of our country with the everyday people whom their decisions affect. Yet, despite the cuts that have already been made to the original script, one feels that this arc does not need to be explored in so much detail. A scene where the civil servants go about replying to letters from aggrieved citizens with meaningless stock phrases is amusing but doesn't really add anything new. The exchanges between the two junior colleagues in the staff pantry also feel superfluous.

The main character of this parallel plot is Jeremiah Dhillon (Erwin Shah Ismail), a bright-eyed scholar at the fictitious Ministry of Land who is tasked with reporting on the exhumation of a graveyard but ends up taking a personal interest in one of its inhabitants. I've seen Erwin flex his acting muscles in both Spring Awakening and Romeo and Juliet earlier this year and he is slowly and surely discovering his place on the Singapore stage. His performance is easily the most entertaining one of the evening and the runaway crowd-pleaser. That being said, I found his Jeremiah somewhat too gauche and tentative for my liking. I get the sense that Erwin seems to be holding back and performing a role rather than truly inhabiting it and his gestures can appear quite mechanical. He tries to defuse this awkwardness through comedy, a strategy which didn't work so well in Romeo and Juliet with his annoyingly flamboyant Mercutio but which fortunately succeeds here due to the sheer comic value of the situation he finds himself in: a slightly nerdy guy talking to a corpse.

Chew and set designer Wong Chee Wai have done a fantastic job with the visual treatment of the play and I loved the way the set resembled a giant mirrored tomb, with little pockets of life (or in the case of Vincent Tee's talking corpse, death) appearing inside and around it. The scenes amongst the civil servants are cleverly presented at the upper level, distancing the actors from the stage and emphasizing the gulf between them in their ivory towers and us on the ground. The set also incorporates Boon's flat at its lower level and allows it to be neatly tucked away, contributing to a smooth, clean aesthetic. Boom can be a tedious play to sit through with its numerous scene changes but the deft transitions allowed the story to be carried forward effortlessly.

Photo Credit: Sight Lines Productions

On a final note, there was one aspect to the narrative that I felt was somewhat sidelined in this staging. We learn that the real reason Boon wants to get away from his childhood home is to escape the painful memory of being chained to a tree by his father as a punishment. This introduces the idea of nostalgia being a double-edged sword, meaning different things to different people; what the mother sees as a symbol of the heady, romantic days of her married life is seen by Boon as nothing more than an awful reminder of his childhood torture. Yet, Chew places the tree, an important visual metaphor, in the background of the set. The chaining incident, recounted through a flashback, is only seen in silhouette. Most importantly, when the adult Boon decides to chop down the tree, the scene changes too quickly and we barely get to see him destroy it. This destruction is something that needs to be seen or at least intensely felt, much like the awful sounds of chopping heard at the end of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.

It's great that a new company like Sight Lines has chosen to stage Boom from the scores of plays out there. Indeed, this is a play that is resolutely, endearingly and unabashedly Singaporean and it's important to have this celebrated on the stage. It may be only their sophomore production but I think I can safely say: this is one theatre company to watch.

The Crystalwords score: 7/10

*This review was written for The Flying Inkpot.


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