City Night Songs

Checkpoint Theatre and NUS Stage
NUS Arts Festival 2012
University Cultural Centre Theatre, Singapore

This is the third of Checkpoint Theatre's collaborations with NUS Stage for the annual NUS Arts Festival. Checkpoint's previous productions of wo(men) (2010) and The Good, the Bad and the Sholay (2011) were very well-received, showcasing plays by breakout student writers under the mentorship of its Joint Artistic Director Huzir Sulaiman. City Night Songs departs slightly from its predecessors by being a completely organic work: written, composed and performed by seven actors through a workshopping process of eight weeks. It’s a truly ensemble piece of theatre which showcases the cast's artistic talents across various disciplines - acting, singing, dancing and playing musical instruments - and is a celebration the urgent, colourful voice of youth.
Photo Credit: NUS Arts Festival/ Checkpoint Theatre

The action kicks off at a shisha bar in trendy Haji Lane and revolves round the lives and loves of seven friends. There is a distinct international vibe to the ensemble: we have characters from Surabaya, Hong Kong and Mumbai. I liked the fact the actors made use of their ethnic backgrounds and nationalities to lend their characters a unique flavour. They freely break into their native language in speeches and in the middle of songs. There is a clear attempt to capture everyday speech and the script is unapologetically colloquial, giving it both contemporary flair and comforting familiarity.

There is very good work by Oon Shu Ann as bar manager Denise. Oon is adept at both comedy and more poignant scenes and exudes a naturalism that makes her immensely watchable. Skilled choreographer Gani Abdul Karim displays an amazing lightness of feet in a tender dance sequence and conveys the complexity of being pulled in two different directions when dealing with the object of his affections. 

Amongst the five students, I was particularly impressed by Joel Tan. Tan has already distinguished himself as a playwright with gay drama Family Outing staged by W!ld Rice at last year's Singapore Theatre Festival. Here, he displays his considerable musical talents on the keyboard, trumpet and trombone. Tan also shows a flair for comedy; when telling a friend off for being too frigid, he heartily exclaims, "You are like a badly made har gow: skin too thick and the prawn inside still frozen." Ivan Surya Tjahyo, as a cheeky skirt-chaser, and Judy Au, as a feisty Hong Kong girl, are clear crowd favourites who steal their scenes. However, they also seemed content to play their characters as stock comedy-types, which worked well enough but gave them a rather one-dimensional feel. 

Director and dramaturg Huzir makes good use of space and is able to bring out both the rousing camaraderie of big scenes involving the whole cast and more intimate moments with a single character. A group trip to a gay bar derives much of its comedy from the cast playing off unseen characters. An amusing rant by Oon about choosing a partner in a relationship (likening it to a choice between two rival brands of chocolate spread) is delivered simply but powerfully on a chair. The director also uses the ensemble to support an individual actor in their scenes; I enjoyed the scene where Tan's character delivers a bitter monologue to an unseen lover after a one night stand while the rest of the cast echoes his feelings though a series of stylised movements.

Photo Credit: NUS Arts Festival/ Checkpoint Theatre

One downside of the collaborative approach to City Night Songs is that there is some unevenness in the tone and texture of the script. There seems to be a disconnect between the way a character is portrayed in one scene compared to the next. Nessa Anwar's character, Aisha, is an example. Aisha is a candid, sharp-tongued Malay girl who frequently says the first thing on her mind. At one point, she breaks into a long, impossibly articulate monologue about a group of bikers speeding in the night. I can see why it felt important to include such a speech, providing a glimpse into a unique Malay subculture. However, it felt forced and artificial when verbalised on stage. 

In the same vein, a lot of the characters are given a key scene, usually in the form of a monologue, to express their inner thoughts and feelings. These tend to work with varying degrees of success. Oon's emotional spiel against her absent boyfriend was far more evocative than the sudden revelation by Naveen (Nishant Jalgaonkar) that he was dying of blood cancer, an overly dramatic plot point that did not really seem warranted (I actually ended up laughing because it reminded me of a scene right out of a Bollywood film).

On a more practical note, City Night Songs is a play that could have done with some trimming. It stretches out to nearly three hours and one wonders what the point is of dragging out a relatively thin plot to the length of a full-blown musical. The play sustains itself with comic gags and crowd-pleasing scenes, but the dramaturg should have been more ruthless in his edits. Cutting out a song or two and reducing the number of lengthy monologues would have made the narrative a lot tighter.

Photo Credit: NUS Arts Festival/ Checkpoint Theatre

One has to applaud the cast for composing and performing all the songs, with each actor given the chance to lead at least one number. However, some of these come across as entertaining rather than polished. There are problems with pitch and musical coordination. Still, by and large, the cast acquit themselves reasonably well and in a play that features so many artistic talents, one is inclined to be indulgent. My favourite song of the evening happened to be the very last one, The Best We Can Do, a simple, understated duet between Tan and Oon about two siblings feeling lonely on Chinese New Year. The simple, jaunty melody and tongue-in-cheek lyrics brought out the teasing yet tender dynamic between the characters, both thwarted by love but trying their best to move on. 

The closing sequence is beautifully done with the characters sitting on a beach, watching first light wash over them. We get the sense that each of them have gained a new beginning after the turbulence of the night. And this is perhaps where City Night Songs is at its best - as a sweet, joyous and life-affirming paean to love and loss in our teeming urban metropolis.

The Crystalwords score: 6/10

*This review was written for The Flying Inkpot.


Popular Posts