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The Canterbury Tales



The Stage Club


Ng Yi-Sheng






DBS Arts Centre



Passionate Pilgrims

Some people go the theatre to feel sophisticated. In fact, I think that's the rationale behind most of the whole arts-in-education shebang: that if you send your kids to see plays, they'll grow up to be cultured and urbane, exactly the right sort of company to meet at a cocktail reception.

The Canterbury Tales, however, is anything but refined. Sure, it's adapted from the verses of Geoffrey Chaucer, a 14th century poet whose works have tortured many a Junior College student foolishly expecting English literature to be written in English. But the script is crude, ham-fisted with its humour, and heavily dependent on slapstick and sex for its laughs. And in this production of it, the acting is often mediocre or uneven. It's an amateurish effort all round - and yet it doesn't matter because, ladies and gentlemen, this show is fun.

Certainly, a lot of the fun is derived from the stark difference between the expected dryness of the material and the rousing locker-room high jinks which make up the meat of this play. These are present from the opening scene. Peter Lugg plays Chaucer, reading from the barely comprehensible original Middle English text and projecting an absolute cipher of a personality, but then on comes the gigantic cast, carousing and joking, headed by Barry Woolhead as host who addresses the audience directly in rhyming couplets and urges volunteers to draw lots to see which character should tell his story next. This is followed by the cast rushing into corners to don baldricks and doff wimples and move sets in order to play a multitude of odd medieval characters in a selection of the raunchiest and most sensational of Chaucer's tales. Energy, crowds, audience participation, wacky costumes and sets, and sex - if that's not a recipe for successful theatre, I don't know what is.

This sense of fun is able to tide over the many flaws of the script, including the lameness of some of the jokes, which when not directly turned into bathos were often dated (mad cow disease???) or repetitive (several times a couplet would be completed - at the last moment - with the more polite "sucker" rather than "fucker", or with "chest" instead of "breast", a gag which isn't really funny even the first time). And while a few actors were excellent - Barry Woolhead was a great narrator, and Candice de Rozario was hilarious as a stripteasing hag in The Wife of Bath's Tale - many more were clearly untrained: a certain number were able to act with their voices but not with their bodies, and a few were utterly unconvincing in their roles. For instance, the haughty, hypocritical Prioress just didn't have the stage presence or the voice to carry off her role.

All this could have made me wince, and yet it didn't. There's a certain genuineness and unpretentiousness to this production that makes you forgive everything it tries. Was the rhyming clumsy? Who cares! Did the director try, with painful obviousness, to emotionally manipulate you into an "awww" by having the narrator propose to a barmaid? Let's close one eye and get on with the play - just watching the actors miming coitus by jumping up and down, trampoline-style behind sheets, grinning all the while, makes you appreciate the silly innocence that makes this drama a treat.

The original meaning of amateur is one who loves, and that is what you get from this play - a sense of the love of theatrical production, sophisticated or otherwise, by non-professionals onstage. In saying this, I'm not forgetting the discipline behind this artlessness, especially evident in the directors' management of such a large cast.

Theatre, ultimately, isn't about refining the cultural palate; it's about making your subject come alive, whether you're talking about the proto-existentialist ennui of Baudelaire or the angst of division over the Straits of Johor. What The Canterbury Tales does is resuscitate a canonical poet whose unpopularity with students is pulling him off the A-level syllabus. The erudition of the subject doesn't translate; rather, what triumphs in Chaucer and in this production is the fun of storytelling, regardless of register.

"Energy, crowds, audience participation, wacky costumes and sets, and sex - if that's not a recipe for successful theatre, I don't know what is"


Co-ordinating Director: Phil McConnell

Directors: Barry Woolhead, Nick Perry, Phil McConnell, Blair Earl

Musical Director: Peter Stead

Stage Manager: David Hickham

ASM: Jennifer Woo

Lighting Design: Hilary Richardson

Costumes: Hilary Richardson

Sound: Lily McConnell

Make-up: Bronia Birkbeck

Cast: Peter Lugg, Barry Woolhead, Angela Barolsky, Raihan Harun, Paul Robson, Steve Armstrong, Lee Siew Cheng, Albert Simsensohn, Gary Gan, Helen Williams, Claire Curran, Cecile Taymans, Adelynn Tan, Peter Davey, Elizabeth Tan, Warren Bullock, Navneet Jagannathan, Sally Anderson, Steve Clark, Deborah Berger-Borth, Siti Maryam and Candice de Rozario

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