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Production

Never the Sinner

Company

The Stage Club

Reviewer

Kenneth Kwok

Date

23/02/2006

Time

8.00pm

Place

DBS Arts Centre

Rating

***

Crazy in Love

In 2002, I saw an Anglo-Chinese Junior College production of Oscar-nominated screenplay writer John Logan's Never The Sinner, about two young men who kill a young boy for what appears to be no reason other than sport. Their subsequent trial for murder and the issues raised about the ethics of the death penalty were less incendiary to the Ministry of Education, however, one suspects, than the depiction of the two killers as gay lovers but the production won Best Play at the inter-school Singapore Youth Festival nonetheless. Kudos to the judges for recognising the high production qualities and nimble acting by both the young leads.

But despite the best efforts of the cast and crew, the faults of the script, which is based on a true story, remained. To be fair, it is intelligent and comprehensive in dealing with the issues of the play. Unfortunately, it is often didactic, clunky and derivative of many other plays and films as well. It also veers from a psychological thriller to a historical account, from a courtroom drama to a romance, never quite finding its groove. The Stage Club's recent production likewise failed to truly lift the script and in fact, arguably, exposed its faults even more because of its understated staging. The earlier production I saw was helped by a flashy set and the clever use of lighting (e.g. a row of fairy lights all around the stage) to flesh out certain themes (e.g. sensationalism in the media) but also add much-needed theatricality to the proceedings. Here, however, a plainer set and more naturalistic presentation weighed down an already leaden script. The blocking, for example, which was very static, did not help the spells of lengthy speeches.

The cast was also a mixed bag. The ensemble of Steve Armstrong, Chris Chua and Blair Earl was solid but only as individuals. Together, they all seemed, most distractingly, to be in different plays, with Armstrong's wildly over-the-top subpoenaed doctor and Chris Chua's low-key reporter being two ends of a very wide spectrum. A very sensitive performance from Phil McConnell as the lawyer defending the two young men did alleviate matters. His beautifully calibrated performance struck just the right note, bringing a certain softness to his character which gave it much-needed heart. You immediately warmed to him and believed in the passion behind his strident words in defence of the boys. The same could not be said for Maureen McConnell's prosecutor, Roberta Crowe. I liked her immensely in the Stage Club's recent run of Talking Heads but here she was overly insistent and one-note and lacked the shading that she has brought to previous roles.

This play lives or dies by its two central actors though and this is where things get truly complex. I was impressed by the technical skills of both Paul Hannon and Hansel Tan (who was also, interestingly enough, in the 2002 student production). They had clearly studied their roles thoroughly and they brought their characters to life most admirably with attention to details like little gestures and mannerisms. Hannon, admittedly unbelievable as a nineteen-year-old, also displayed a powerful charisma onstage while Tan, in his first production outside of youth and school theatre, showed a lot of potential and intelligence as an actor. However, what the two actors lacked - and this was unfortunately fundamental to the success of the production - was a chemistry that made you abhor the horrific actions of the young men while still believing in them and their relationship and wanting them to be acquitted. Unless the audience is drawn to emotionally invest in the characters, the play becomes little more than an exercise of reason. Sadly, save the little asides during the courtroom scenes when the two boys would whisper to one another and nudge each other conspiratorially, the two men, supposedly so crazy in love, moved mostly as if entirely on cue and there was an awkward stiffness and clockwork motion in their interactions. It would have been nice if they had relaxed a little more into their characters and also each other.

Still, even if I found the production as a whole less than inspiring, it remained a solid presentation of a script that was still reasonably moving at the end and provoked me into thinking deeply about human nature. What drives someone to kill another human being? Can murder ever be rationalised? - even if it is the murder of an insect or animal, or in retaliation for the murder of another or, perhaps more topically, even in the context of war. Why are some murders sanctioned but others not and do these distinctions made by society really change the nature of murder so it can somehow sometimes be tolerated or accepted?


"Even if I found the production as a whole less than inspiring, it remained a solid presentation of a script that was still reasonably moving at the end and provoked me into thinking deeply about human nature"

Credits

Director: Daniel Toyne

Stage Manager: Dennis Oh

Lighting Design: Allan Davidson

Costumes: Hilary Richardson

Sound: Lily McConnell

Set Construction: David Hickman, Guy Robbins

Cast: Hansel Tan, Paul Hannon, Phil McConnell, Maureen McConnell, Blair Earl, Steve Armstrong, Chris Chua and Emmanuelle Le Bris

More Reviews of Productions by The Stage Club

More Reviews by Kenneth Kwok

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.