Swimming with Sharks

adapted for the stage by Michael Lesslie
based on the screenplay by George Huang
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore

Who doesn’t love the Hollywood satire that offers us a glimpse into the glamorous world of movie-making? The glimpse we get is, however, rarely positive: this is an industry that is manipulative, money-grubbing and morally bankrupt. Swimming with Sharks, a stage adaptation of the 1994 film of the same name written and directed by George Huang, crystallizes all these traits in Buddy Ackerman, a foul-mouthed, womanising movie mogul and boss from hell that everyone just loves to hate.

Throw in Guy, a wide-eyed film school graduate trying to make his mark in the movie world as Buddy’s new assistant and Dawn, a sexy indie producer bent on promoting art house films, and we are in for an interesting swim in the shark-infested waters of showbiz.

PANGDEMONIUM has never shied away from staging edgy plays that are both entertaining and darkly comic and this latest production is right up their alley, with plummy roles that are a riot onstage. Yet, Michael Lesslie’s script is not a particularly strong one and I suspect it tries a little too hard to follow in the footsteps of the silver screen version which famously featured Kevin Spacey as Buddy. The first 45 minutes play out like a male version of The Devil Wears Prada, with Buddy belittling and humiliating his gormless assistant at every opportunity, spewing lines like “You’re happy. I hate that.” and “If you were in my toilet I wouldn't bother flushing”. In what feels like about five seconds, Guy starts dating Dawn and then faces a major dilemma. Buddy offers him a leg up in the movie world if he manages to get hold of a sizzling new script from Dawn that Buddy wants to produce. Meanwhile, Dawn, who despises Buddy, is determined to produce the film with a rival exec. Who will Guy choose to betray, his boss or his girlfriend?

All this seems intriguing enough. Then, things take on a macabre and rather far-fetched turn towards the end, where sadism and violence make an appearance in a bitterly ironic nod to the gruesome movies Buddy loves to make. Expect envelopes, lemon juice and a kettle (yes, a kettle). Ultimately, Guy makes his away up in the company, but only at the cost of becoming another version of his despised mentor: a duplicitous corporate villain who cares for no one but himself.


Adrian Pang brings a withering contempt to Buddy, a man whose barbs are just as sharp as his suits. While he has a lot of fun with the character, it’s hard to get truly excited about this performance. If you’ve seen Pang on stage recently, you will begin to realize that a lot of his roles these days feel the same. Sardonic quips. Physical comedy. Exaggerated facial expressions. Buddy is a character where doing less achieves so much more. Lines like “You are nothing.” would have been far more effective as a cold whisper rather than through angry, shouty browbeating. Think Alan Rickman’s Snape in the Harry Potter films, stealing all his scenes without even having to raise his voice.

Television host George Young is spot-on as Guy, the ingénu who gradually learns the dark rules of the game. This is definitely one of the most impressive stage debuts I have seen and Young makes a perfect transition from gawky newbie to slick corporate player. He is seen to be constantly slouching and bending his knees at the start of the play, almost in an attempt to make himself smaller and more diminutive. Young also pulls off a very convincing American accent and is thoroughly believable in the role, never quite playing for broad laughs but still charming the pants off everyone with his charisma.

Unfortunately, Janice Koh’s otherwise solid performance is let down by a script where her character, Dawn, is quite poorly defined. She starts off as a dragon lady determined on getting her views across. Then, she morphs into a flirty older woman working her charms on Guy and finally, we see her as the bitter girlfriend. It’s hard to grasp what the point of this character is. Does she have to be the clichéd love interest? Or is she meant to offer a female perspective to the male-dominated world of Hollywood? Koh is also not adept at rendering the accent and her constant lapses into a Singaporean inflection make the character that much harder to sell.

Amongst the supporting cast, Daniel Jenkins lends gravitas as the president of production whose job Buddy is clamouring to get and there is good work from James Shubert as a motor-mouthed outgoing assistant. I was less convinced by Shane Mardjuki’s turn as an indie movie director who tries too hard to milk his five minutes of stage time with cooler-than-thou antics.


Director Tracie Pang does a good job of managing the stage action and works with multimedia designer Brian Gothong Tan and set designer Ian Bailie to treat us to a shiny, elegant slice of the movie industry. Film extracts are used in between scenes to great effect - I particularly enjoyed a clip of The Graduate which played immediately following the scene where Dawn makes a move on Guy - and even the scenery (from the Hollywood sign to a bar to a rainy night) is conjured up entirely through a giant digital backdrop, suggesting the omnipresence of the world of celluloid. In a memorable sequence, Guy recites all the Academy Award Best Picture winners in reverse chronological order in perfect sync with the movie posters being projected on the background, giving us a simple but poignant ride down cinematic history. Bailie’s split-level set is impressive and I liked the fact that Buddy literally lords it over everyone else from above. My only cavil was the fact that the upstairs railing tended to block out the actors’ faces at times and made us feel more distanced from the action.

There’s no denying that Swimming with Sharks is a wickedly entertaining corporate thriller with great production values. Yet, for all its bang (no pun intended), this romp through the world of Hollywood does not have a lot of bite and at a run time of nearly three hours, this is one ride that goes on for far too long. The plot is not especially complicated and one does not need to listen to quite as many speeches to figure out what’s going on. Tighter editing would have certainly helped.

The publicity materials declare Swimming with Sharks to be a cross between The Apprentice, The Hunger Games and Speed-the-Plow. I suppose the first two parts are true but part of me wishes that PANGDEMONIUM had just gone for David Mamet’s superb play instead: it has the same theme, same number of principal characters and is far more succinct, subtle and scathing. In fact, I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes from that play: “Life in the movie business is like the beginning of a new romance – it’s full of surprises and you’re constantly getting fucked.”

I’m sure Buddy Ackerman would agree.

The Crystalwords score: 6/10

*This review was written for The Flying Inkpot.


  1. Naeem, I love your reviews and you're spot on about Adrian Pang! Sadly, while many think he's an amazing actor, I find he can only play ONE type of character and only has a couple of expressions!

    From The Blue Mansion to The Pupil to Swimming, he plays his characters the SAME - arrogant and cocky - and that seems all he can do.

    Adrian doesn't have a variety of expressions either, always relying on his arrogant pout to portray his characters (he's only got 2 expressions - smiling or pouting!), which does get boring and tiring after awhile.

    George Young surprised me as he's a far better actor than Adrian. He at least showed a variety of expressions and could play both nice/naive and cunning/manipulative/scary with equal measure.

    Janice Koh in my opinion was just like Adrian - not much expressions, very limited acting chops, - more hype than actual talent in my view.


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