Girls & Boys
by Dennis Kelly
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore
PANGDEMONIUM returns to live theatre after a whole year with an emotional juggernaut of a play about one ordinary woman and her not-so-ordinary life. Dennis Kelly's monodrama, which took the West End and Broadway by storm, is harrowing, hilarious and utterly human.
Nikki Muller plays an unnamed working-class woman who tells us about her life as she packs up her apartment. We play the role of an unseen guest as she chatters about how she met her husband in a RyanAir queue in Italy and fell for his oddball charm, their married life and two beautiful kids. From the outset, the play is set up like a romantic comedy where we are presumably talking about a failed relationship. The narrative flits from past to present and there is a sense of foreboding that suffuses the narrative but this does not quite prepare us for the emotional jolt that the play ultimately delivers.
Kelly's text digs deeply into the topic of gender. Our protagonist is a modern career woman who breaks into the film industry and achieves a degree of success but still has to deal with casual sexism every step of the way. Indeed, we see that this affects everyone. We learn about her older female boss who had to adapt her mannerisms to command the respect of her subordinates and still felt judged for being a woman in authority.
The idea of men wanting to control women and acting out when things don't go their way is subtly referenced throughout. Muller's character recounts a conversation with an elderly researcher where he notes that the concept of male achievement is flawed; there are just as many undocumented examples of male failure out there. We are told about the daughter who likes to build things but the son who keeps destroying them. Most shockingly, we discover the lengths to which a man will go to assert his dominion on others.
As a monodrama, so much hangs on the performance of the sole actor and Muller, who has been seen in local productions like High Class, Circle Mirror Transformation and The Effect, acquits herself extremely well. She is alternately charming, funny and vulnerable as she gives us a glimpse into her life, gradually revealing herself as the broken husk of a woman she has now become. Muller is also great at accents and displays a knack for one-liners. “Paris is just Manchester with wider streets!” she declares at one point.
|Photo Credit: PANGDEMONIUM|
Director Tracie Pang allows the moments of comedy to bleed into the darker elements and keeps the action taut. It is a credit to her that the harrowing climax takes one genuinely by surprise. Pang has always excelled in ensemble shows where she allows her actors to play off each other and deftly orchestrates the tension in each scene. This, however, comes across less clearly in a monodrama such as this where we only have one actor trying to fill the space. There is a constant sense of Muller throwing her lines at the audience and not quite waiting to receive the energy back. This makes for an occasionally tedious experience as she rattles off page after page of dialogue without giving us time to process her words.
Set designer Wai Yin Kwok gives us a stylish, open-plan living room filled with cardboard boxes but one wonders why the entire set is superimposed within a white frame. Could this be trying to reinforce the idea of being boxed in and trapped? The white base forms a neat canvas for James Tan’s lighting design, subtly echoing the moods of the protagonist, but strikes one as being a little incongruous.
Girls & Boys marks the welcome return of a cherished player in our local theatre scene. The play is by no means an easy watch but tells its story with great humanity and heart, leaving one nourished and moved.
I discuss this production in more detail in the Arts Equator theatre podcast, together with playwright, poet and editor Nabilah Said and theatre educator Matthew Lyon.
The Crystalwords score: 3/5