by Faith Ng
Checkpoint Theatre
Drama Centre Black Box, Singapore

After dissecting private, familial issues in wo(men) and For Better or For Worse, rising local playwright Faith Ng turns her gaze to the public world in her latest play, Normal, which confronts the thorny theme of education in Singapore.

Normal delves into the lives of two Secondary Five students in the Normal (Academic) stream of a fictional all-girls school. These girls are defined by their position in the relentless educational landscape: all because of a "mistake" they made at the age of twelve when they sat for their Primary School Leaving Examinations, they have to spend an extra year in secondary school. They are viewed as the school's black sheep: lazy and troublesome creatures who have to be endured. Over the course of the play, dreamy, mild-mannered Daphne (Audrey Teong) and her confident and rebellious best friend Ashley (Claire Chung), confront these prejudices amidst the arrival of idealistic new form teacher Sarah Hew (Oon Shu An).

Normal taps into something deeply familiar to anyone who has been through the rigid education system in this country, where children are streamed based on their abilities from an early age and constantly told where they stand in the grand scheme of things. It questions whether academic merit is the only true benchmark of an individual or whether one should be valued for other skills. Daphne, who is passionate about art, is bluntly told to abandon her pursuits as they would amount to nothing. Her creative side does not win her any favours with her mother who compares her with a neighbour's clever son at every opportunity.

Ng constructs dialogue that is both poignant and authentic. She accurately depicts the coarse, casual way teenagers speak to each other and the exchanges in the Methodist school setting have a strong ring of familiarity. This is nicely contrasted with the conversations amongst the staff who either bandy around stock phrases like History teacher Lynette Ang (Zee Wong) and image-conscious principal Mrs Lim (Karen Tan)  or, in the case of prim discipline mistress Miss Wong (Noorlinah Mohamed), invoke God with an unnerving regularity.

The production is carried by the strength of its leads, both fifth-year theatre students at the School of the Arts. Teong and Chung brilliantly convey the nuances of these characters and have an infectious chemistry on stage. Chung, in particular, is luminous as wild child Ashley whose difficult personality masks her deep love for her ailing grandmother and commitment to her diffident best friend. It's rare to see such strong, unaffected performances from young actors in their first ever professional stage outing and one looks forward to seeing them on stage again. There is also great support by Oon and Noorlinah who provide the play with alternately funny and tender moments; a scene where they attempt to "out-pray" each other at morning assembly is especially memorable.

Photo courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

While the dialogue and acting shines, the plot of Normal feels underdeveloped. The audience is told almost everything about these characters in the first half of the play, leaving little new ground to be covered as the action progresses. We never learn what happens to Sarah Hew and why she apparently decides to leave the school after the harrowing incident involving the girls. The character of Marianne, an overachieving prefect and all-round model student (played with wonderful restraint by Lim Shi-An), is also rather wanting. It's important to acknowledge the pressures afflicting those even at the top of the educational pyramid but apart from a moving monologue towards the end, this character is never explored in any depth.

Ng's treatment of the play's theme also proves disappointing. One wonders why she chooses to set the play in 2004. While this may simply reflect the time that Ng herself was a student in the Normal stream, it ignores changes in the education system that have taken place since then. The emphasis on streaming has lessened and become far more nuanced in the past decade, with a greater focus being placed on grouping students according to specific abilities instead of pure academic merit. Indeed, following recommendations from the Secondary Education Review and Implementation committee, there have been active steps over the past few years to provide better resources, prospects and an overall learning environment for students from the Normal stream.

I am rather bewildered by the play's tagline "Every school is a good school". This is an initiative that has only gained currency in the last two years - a conscious attempt by the Ministry of Education to promote each school as a place which generates a positive and holistic learning environment for its students, rather than being tied to academic rankings and other achievements. I would have liked to see the play interrogate whether this approach has truly made an impact on the day-to-day life of students in the Normal stream and sought to level the playing field between them and their counterparts in the Express and Special streams. By remaining anchored in a world before these developments, Normal presents an incomplete snapshot of today's education scene; it is clearly rich and authentic but comes across as somewhat dated.

Photo courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

Eucien Chia's clean and functional set design comprises mesh backdrops that resemble three large chalkboards, allowing us a glimpse of corridors and giving the space depth while grounding us in the school milieu. The colour yellow is juxtaposed against a palette of browns and greys, providing visual pizzazz. Director Claire Wong does a masterful job in orchestrating the action on stage and keeping the pacing tight. I am however less enthused by her decision of using a chorus of schoolgirls throughout the narrative to sing, chant and mimic various school sounds. Creative as this is, it detracts from the simple, naturalistic staging, something that has been a hallmark of Wong's direction in the past. Having someone mimic the ticking of a school clock in the background is a great exercise in physical theatre but ultimately proves distracting.

Ng is a gifted chronicler of the Singaporean voice and her sensitive, unflinching look at education makes Normal an important play that will resonate with audiences of all ages. However, it would have served Ng well to make the script more relevant to the times and perhaps fine-tune the plot. One cannot help but feel that Normal does not quite match the quiet, unassailable thrust of her previous plays.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5


Popular Posts