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Production

Big Fool Lee

Company

Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble

Reviewer

Amos Toh

Date

02/08/2007

Time

8.00pm

Place

The Drama Centre

Rating

***1/2

A Voice from the Past

Big Fool Lee is a glorious throwback to the heyday of Rediffusion and broadcasting superstar Lei Dai Soh, when streets would come to a complete standstill to listen to him tell stories over the public radio loudspeakers, and taxi drivers and hawkers would woo him with free rides and packets of chee cheong fun to spin a tale in cabs or outside their stalls. As with Titoudao, Toy Factory has created a lively, inspiring interaction between current audiences and the cultural relics of our past.

At its heart, this production is an ode to the allure and art of traditional Cantonese storytelling. Lei's soothing and evocative voice registers in almost every sequence of the play. His silky smooth Cantonese pervades the hubbub of everyday life at a village square in one scene, and captivates a hodgepodge of characters - housewife, samsui woman, beggar and hawker - in another. Lim Keng San's intricate set elevates these scenes, providing a lively backdrop for playwright Koh Teng Liang's sketches of a generation that lived through a voice.

Toy Factory's latest also illuminates the power of broadcasting personalities in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, when radio was the entertainment medium of choice. In Big Fool Lee, Lei is a ubiquitous figure, reaching out to the public through an exhausting schedule of charity concerts and fundraising events. In a concert raising money for the victims of the Bukit Ho Swee fire, he not only obliges the rich merchant who places an outrageous bid for him to tell a story, but also gamely engages in a gaudy song-and-dance routine much to the crowd's delight. As much a radio icon as a celebrity everyman, Lei's generosity, charm and breadth of spirit elevated him to hero status in the eyes of an adoring public desperate for a role model.

Koh also demonstrates how Lei harnessed his celebrity to inform and soothe the public during national crises. A montage of violent war scenes (which also re-enacts the brutal murder of Lei's brother) culminates in Lei's defiance of the Japanese to continue broadcasting from a rickety radio outpost. Jeffrey Low's Lei keeps up a determined stream of Cantonese while a single spotlight is trained on him on a darkened stage. Low displays rare strength and delicacy as he speaks with a vividness that turns remote yesterdays into today's news. A look of bone-deep sadness seldom leaves Low's face as he speaks. We realise that the stories he tells distract him from his own tragedy in the same way they distract his audience from their hardships.

In his careful script, Koh also scrutinises the personality behind the persona, evoking the conflict between an uncompromising artist and a husband saddled with family obligations. Immersed in his art, Lei had little time to care for his schizophrenic wife, Ah Foon, let alone his mistress and true love, Ming You Hao. Big Fool Lee is as much about these women as it is about him: their lives and fortunes are inevitably intertwined with his. As Ah Foon, Koh Wan Ching is an excellent counterpoint to Low's reserve, throwing herself into hysterics and periods of great withdrawal. In one scene, she writhes and thrashes about on stage after Lei scolds her for almost dropping their child. The reaction she provokes in Lei is revelatory. He tries to calm her down while struggling to keep his anger in check, his frustration tempered by a deep sense of responsibility and concern.

Leelian Chua's portrayal of Lei's mistress is touched with elegance and pathos. In a poignant sequence that marks the decline of radio and Cantonese, a composed Chua weathers one of Lei's tantrums and painstakingly teaches him to read in Mandarin. Ming also fought battles of her own she largely kept private. She struggled to overcome a gossipy public, a suspicious Ah Foon and Lei's long periods of absence. In a fleeting display of vulnerability, Ming lashes out at Lei after he is late for dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year. For a brief moment, her stately demeanour cracks and her eyes well with resentment; her secret love too much to bear.

Playwright Koh also finds dramatic energy in the very enervation of the Cantonese dialect. In Big Fool Lee, this decline is played out with frenetic pace. A tidal wave of Speak Mandarin campaigns (replete with bright red banners celebrating the language swooping onto the stage), Chinese television serials and radio programmes dominate the latter half of the play. The stark irony of these sequences was not lost on us in the audience: the very language that displaced Cantonese in the past now finds itself threatened by English.

Unfortunately, this sprawling three-hour production suffered from a tendency towards excess. Director Peter Sau tried too hard to pair Lei's life story with a modern playwright's struggle to stage a play about him, rendering several sequences choppy and unfocused. Rants against the government, and existential sequences involving characters from Lei's stories were also distracting. The ending plodded on for too long, dragging out the protagonist's death and indulging in too many spiritual antics. Lei's favourite characters, Sun Wu Kong and Justice Bao, made unnecessary appearances throughout the play, engaging in slo-mo opera and wushu displays. By the third hour of Big Fool Lee, the audience's restlessness was palpable. With more rigorous editing and cleaner direction, these lengthy periods of weakness could have been avoided.

Nevertheless, these problems did not detract from Big Fool Lee's ability to find heightened reflections of the present in the past. This play not only rues the loss of an important cultural medium, but also exposes how swiftly it was lost. Along with Titoudao, it is continuing evidence of Toy Factory's skill for sustaining a vital dialogue between an ancient art form and contemporary culture. I left the theatre, moved and enthralled.


"Along with Titoudao, it is continuing evidence of Toy Factory's skill for sustaining a vital dialogue between an ancient art form and contemporary culture"

Credits

Cast: Jeffrey Low, Leelian Chua, Nelson Chia, Gordon Choy, Qin Zhan Bao, Darius Tan, Koh Wan Ching and Lee Swee Har

Aritstic Advisor: Goh Boon Teck

Director: Peter Sau

Playwright: Koh Teng Liang

Producer: Justin Wong

Production Manager: Yeo Hon Beng

Stage Manager: Cynthia Sim

Choreographer: Gordon Choy

Set Desiger: Lim Keng San

Lighting Designer: Suven Chan

Sound Designer and Composer: Philip Tan

Radio Broadcasting Designer: Leelian Chua

Costume Designer: Vivianne Koh

Hair designer: Lim Chin Leong

Multimedia designer: Noktheepen Amata

More Reviews of Productions by Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble

More Reviews by Amos Toh

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