>FAMFEST 2001 by The Necessary Stage
>reviewed by matthew lyon
19 apr to 6 may 2001
Family. Love 'em or hate 'em, you gotta put up with 'em, 'cos hacking them to death stains the carpets. Actually, this is only true back home in the degenerate, unfilial West. Over here, family ties are strong - based on respect and obedience - and you don't have carpets.
Celebrating this most endearing, most enduring of institutions last month were those community-spirited folk at TNS with the latest in a long and lengthening line of festivals, FAMFEST 2001. Masterminded by Yap Ching Wi, it concerned itself with artistic accessibility and community-building and it promised, "This Festival Is About You And Your Family".*
Now, in the family of arts, theatre is merely a scruffy, fey cousin, but it's the cousin we at the Inkpot have chosen as our fetish, so although FAMFEST found it within its bosom to embrace a whole caboodle of disciplines, from video-art to talk shows(!), this reviewer has eclectically decided to ignore those that did not fit his brief, which leaves the following dramatic entities: a double bill of Haresh Sharma's LATE NIGHTS and WAITING, and Natalie Hennedige's DREAMING UP A PRINCE.
>EARLY TO BED, EARLY TO RISE.
I am (un)reliably informed that LATE NIGHTS was a touring assembly play in a former life, and unfortunately, this one-acter about the tensions found in your average Singaporean family (father,mother, teenage daughter) retained a few too many of the niggles associated with the genre. The characters were social stereotypes with witty lines, and the plot did little other than allow them to air their grievances. This they managed credibly and indeed, thanks to a refusal to over-simplify (as seen in its open ending), the play avoided much of the obviousness that educational theatre is prone to. But it still never rose above just dialogue to achieve true theatre, and while I'm sure it would be effective as the stimulus for a discussion or a workshop, none ensued. Left to stand on its own dramatic feet, the show proved to have weak ankles.
And, come to think of it, if actors be the heart of a production, this one should take more exercise. The cast here was adequate, certainly, but looked under-rehearsed, as only the bare bones of true characterization were showing above the obvious and over-stated, and there was a worrying inability to deal with the mood-swings the script demanded. Nonetheless, in a cute little gimmick where the characters exchanged clothes, they did an entertaining job of imitating each other, and in an equally cute one where they interviewed each other, they struck the right balance between talk show and real life.
Not that the set helped in this department. Ostensibly attempting a reasonable amount of realism, its furniture was too conveniently linear and unrealistically spread out on the substantial stage of the Marine Parade CC Auditorium. You just couldn't believe it was the interior of somebody's flat, especially with the cyclorama randomly flashing away at the back and the lighting in general being far brighter than the play's title dictated - and I don't care how many Ikea standing lamps you buy.
LATE NIGHTS' lighting being too much belies the fact that the show was largely not enough. Not enough thought, not enough substance. And not enough to be good, but at least, not enough to be bad.
Love 'em or hate 'em, you gotta put up with 'em, 'cos hacking them to
death stains the carpets.'
In WAITING, a diverse trio of dish-jugglers serve up invisible food to imaginary diners in a top-class restaurant while trying to get on with the far more important business of their lives. There is uber-camp wannabe journalist, Mark Richmond, trying to clear his study ambitions past his authoritarian father while taking the pasta out of the foreign customers. There is harassed working mum Sean Liow balancing her job with the needs of her work-shy husband and infant "boy-boy". And there is assistant manager Annie Ferrao, cajoling her staff into actually doing something while putting on a brave face for the punters.
The first thing you noticed about this play was that the actors were extremely good. And the second thing was that the script was extremely good, too. Oh, and the third was ditto the direction. After that, you could pretty much stop noticing and sit back and enjoy.
Oh, go on then, there is one negative point, so I might as well get it out of the way now while you're still paying attention: much of the acting was "on the phone" or talking to the aforementioned imaginary diners who, for existential reasons, failed to reply. When talking to such non-entities, it's important to leave enough time for them to say their inaudible piece, and the cast/director didn't. There, that's it, I've said it - back to the main point.
I don't think I can remember seeing three such strong and well-matched performances on one stage at the same time. All were flawless, and Sean Liow, particularly, was astonishingly good. Or rather, she would have been astonishingly good, if her role had had the potential to astonish: it didn't and nor did the others, as none was particularly difficult. Not that this should take any credit away from the actors, after all, it's almost as easy to do a simple role badly as it is a difficult one - it's just that these were not the kind of parts you get awards for.
Which makes the script sound bad, doesn't it? Well, I refer you to my second paragraph: it wasn't. In fact it's probably fair to describe it as perfect. Everything you want from a play - motivation, characterization, resolution (anything ending in "-tion", basically) - everything was present and entirely correct. It had all the hallmarks of the traditional well-made English play (Ayckbourne, Stoppard etc) even considering that the dialogue was fluidly and authentically Singlish. It's just that the ground is so well-trod here that again, it wasn't particularly difficult.
Playing to your strengths is a major part of art and entertainment, so from an audience standpoint and - why not? - even from a critical one, I'm saying that something of moderate difficulty done brilliantly deserves at least as much praise as something hard done crap.
>SWEET DREAMS, SWEET PRINCE
This modern fairy tale deals with the innocence of a BGR touched by the greasy hand of pre-legal sex, and then invites the audience to play "what if?" As fellow Inkpotter, Judy, has already covered this one - look, here's a link! - and since I agree with most of what she says, I don't feel the need to get deep, but it's certainly worth mentioning that the quality of the cast here was comparable to that of WAITING. Again, the roles weren't rocket science, but it was nice to see an ensemble - albeit a small one - with all the skills they required to do the job at hand. Am I being cynical or is this all too rare an occurrence?
The play proper itself was also very strong - extremely tight, polished, well-scripted and very funny. Moreover, it said what it wanted to say - or rather asked the questions it wanted to ask - with as little contrivance and as much honesty as possible. Where the honesty quotient decreased somewhat - and through no fault of the playwright - was in the second, interactive half. On a personal note, it was an eye opener for this liberal westerner to see values so conservative so readily expressed and indeed taken for granted. This guaranteed that I keep my trap shut all the way through the playback session for fear of being seen as an evil and alien influence, and it was only after a while that I realised the views coming from the audience were perhaps not as typical of modern Singapore as I had imagined. It seemed a sympathy (group noun?) of social workers had pretty much taken over the proceedings, and while they had as much right as any to be there and offer their opinions, one suspects they were not the intended audience, and they did rather frighten off the bright young things who might otherwise have brought the spark back.
Still, beggars can't be choosers and you never know who's going to turn up on the night - and the fact remains that DREAMING UP A PRINCE is an ideal example of the kind of thing it is, which was performed (at least on the nights Judy and I attended) under less than ideal circumstances.
*(Am I the only paranoiac to have interpreted this as a threat along the lines of "We Know Where You Live"?)