Who Would Have Guessed?
So you see what happened was Baba Lim Chin Boon's daughter, Rosalind, had a baby with her angmoh husband, Michael, and this old-fashioned man didn't approve (you know how it was in those days) and there was a heated family squabble, and the couple actually died. Now around the same time a baby girl called Emma was found at the foot of the Raffles Hotel by an English couple, and they brought her back to England and raised her. Well, twenty years have passed, Baba Lim is dying, and Emma has returned, and Baba Lim's second wife, Ming, and daughter, Alice, are nervous this might be Rosalind's child come home to claim her inheritance after all these years.
The only thing is Rosalind had a baby boy, not a baby girl. And the only one who knows the truth is their maid, Swee Neo...
First produced in 1997 as an intimate, evening entertainment to mark the 100-year celebrations of Raffles Hotel, A Twist of Fate has grown into something much bigger, with new songs, a new cast featuring West End and Broadway talent, and a majestic set weighing three tonnes and soaring ten metres high.
In spite of this, the play has retained its intimacy, perhaps because at its core, it is a story about familiar domestic squabbles, spiced up with plenty of humour and intrigue, like a Cluedo game - Singaporean edition.
The entire cast was very good. Sheila Francisco as Ming was particularly endearing in the role of the Peranakan matriarch - a self-professed victim with a dying husband and a daughter lacking the common sense to stay away from the kitchen boy. I've heard it said that it's a bit disconcerting the SRT could not find a true-blue Peranakan woman to play the role, but to be fair, this is explained away in the script (she was a gift from the Filipino Business Association).
Others too deserve special mention. Emma Yong played Alice, daughter of Lim Chin Boon, with characteristic girl-next-door charm. Michael K. Lee as the trusted lawyer Richard had a powerful voice but a somewhat diminutive presence onstage. As Uncle Albert, Adrian Pang's comic genius was evident throughout. And Laura Michelle Kelly in the lead lit up the stage like a brilliantly plumed songbird that would make any man's heart flutter.
The weakest in the ensemble was Eleanor Tan, who seemed so pre-occupied at times with trying to play an older character that she left the role somewhat bland. It is a shame for Swee Neo to be played this way. As the keeper of many of the plot's secrets, there is surely great potential to colour up the role.
The music was good, if not exceptional. The musical style made some sense. The bulk of the action in the play was set in the 1930s and the Shanghai cabaret-type melodies fit the mood of the period quite well. There was also a nice mix of serious and lighter songs. The song Killing Chickens was a riot of laughs, though sung slightly out of tune. The ensemble song At Midnight had a lovely Pink-Panther-ish feel. And Kelly's song Who Am I was simple but haunting, with a poignant refrain that fit the context of the story very well.
The book by Steven Dexter and Tony Petito was rock solid. Not only did the plot have enough twists to impress even an Agatha Christie connoisseur, but the characters were nicely fleshed out, and the writing was sharp. The final twist, with the heir to the Lim Chin Boon fortune turning out to be the most unlikely character, caught me pleasantly by surprise.
I especially enjoyed the healthy shots of humour that pervaded the entire play. Like the feathers and sound effects as Ah See went about his chores killing chickens off-stage. Or Alice's declaration of undying love for Ah See that spilled out as the hilarious line "I don't want pigs, I want chickens." In one particularly amusing scene, various characters plot mysterious meetings at the witching hour of midnight. Uncle Albert bucks the trend by suggesting a meeting at 11pm, only to re-schedule because the timing lacks oomph.
I think what impressed me most about this musical was the relative simplicity of the entire piece. No forbidding Chinese Empresses or haughty Admirals. No cast of thousands. A spectacular double storey colonial bungalow on a revolving stage for a set, but even then, more functional than lavish. In essence, just eight people and a cleverly thought-out web of secrets.
It's not often all the elements of good theatre blend together so well in a Singaporean musical. And I don't know if it's the allusion to Raffles Hotel, or the Peranakan furniture, or the way the Beng kitchen boy makes it good in the end, but there's something very authentic about the whole story. A Twist of Fate is about as close as you can get to the theatre version of a smooth Katong laksa. This one, I think, can travel.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /