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Production

Boom!

Company

Singapore Repertory Theatre's Stage Two

Reviewer

Kenneth Kwok

Date

21/09/2008

Time

8.00pm

Place

DBS Arts Centre

Rating

***1/2

Neither Boom nor Bust

Even before the recent financial upheaval in the United States, how we make and spend money had dominated newspaper headlines and coffeeshop talk in Singapore for months. First, there was the property boom last year. People became millionaires overnight. Singaporeans were buying apartments at sky-high prices not because they actually wanted to call these places home but simply as investment opportunities. Then the bubble burst. The price of everyday items began to rise. The Straits Times quickly lost interest in which estates had the greatest en bloc payout potential and started surveying supermarkets to find out where households could buy the cheapest bag of rice.

Against this backdrop, a story about a Singaporean family trying to decide whether to sell their ramshackle apartment for a profit is extremely timely. And anything Mediacorp can do (the En Bloc drama series), local theatre can do better, right?

Playwright Jean Tay has always had a way with metaphors and so it is not surprising that Boom soon reveals itself to be more than just about how people are influenced by wealth or the lack of it. Initially, it does appear that property agent Ah Beng (Sebastian Tan) is trying to convince his aged mother (Fanny Kee) to sell the family home simply because of the money it can bring them and the change of lifestyle which that offers. But we eventually discover that Ah Beng actually wants to leave the apartment behind because of the bad memories he has of his childhood days, the most scarring being the time he is chained overnight to a tree in the garden by his father. His mother, on the other hand, is unwilling to leave precisely because of her own memories of the place: it is where she started a new life as a young wife and mother in the 1970s; and though her husband abandoned her many years ago, she still believes that one day he will return - and how will he find her if she is not there?

The tension between Ah Beng and his mother is a metaphor for the age-old conflict between those who want Singapore to be a gleaming city of skyscrapers and those who prefer the homespun, rustic charm of yesteryear. For example, the tree, which is represented physically onstage, reminded me of the old tree in the middle of Braddell Road which became the subject of much debate when the government wanted to chop it down to expand the road. The play speaks of the enduring war between the old and the new, the past and the future, the idealism youth and the pragmastism of experience - and it is clear from the cynical ending where Tay's sympathies lie. She even introduces a sub-plot about a civil servant, Jeremiah (Chua Enlai) from the Ministry of Land who has to exhume a corpse because the land is being returned to the government. It is clearly an attempt to emphasize how human emotion and dignity can sometimes be crushed under the onslaught of efficiency. She seems to be saying that we have forgotten that right before pledging to achieve "prosperity and progress for our nation", we also pledge to achieve "happiness".

Tay's wonderful ear for dialogue and cast of colourful comic characters such as the neighbourhood gossip and Ah Beng's colleagues make the philosophizing go down a little easier but, as the play progressed, I wondered why she bothered with the overt message-making at all. There are funny moments, for example, the opening musical number where Ah Beng is reminded by his colleagues to use words like "cusp" and "orioles" when trying to close a deal because they are not just selling a property but a lifestyle - but Tay is not adding to the conversation, she is merely re-presenting it. Instead, where I found Boom to be dramatically powerful was in the simple family narrative that Tay had set up so convincingly.

Ah Beng and his mother come across as authentic characters, fully realized and instantly recognizable. Tay is aided here by Kee's impassioned, lived-in performance and a very sincere and endearing one from Tan who shows that he can do more than cabaret and outsized comedy. Together, they make every scene they share stir my memories of conversations between my mother and me as well as those between my mother and her mother. Tay illustrates so accurately the great gulf of sadness that can eventually develop between child and parent when the day comes that the two no longer dream the same dream. Worse, as we see in Arthur Miller's Death of A Salesman and Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, one dream can even end up savagely butchering the other. The playwright also manages to render so movingly the mother's love for her husband and everything that represents him (including the apartment he bought for her) and how her love endures beyond time, beyond hardship, beyond betrayal. In doing so, she captures how utterly inspirational but also unspeakingly sad such an unconditional love can be.

However, Tay needs to have more faith in her own writing and also in the audience. All her explicit speechifying and exposition and self-conscious alluding to wider sociopolitical themes are, in fact, unnecessary and distracting. I would have been quite happy if the entire Ministry of Land arc lampooning the civil service had been done away with. The play's wider concerns are already built into the story of Ah Beng and his mother and need minimum signposting, and the tragedy of these very human characters is what really forms Boom's beating heart.

In terms of the staging, director Tracie Pang had some strong ideas. Working with set designer Wong Chee Wai, she created a split-stage space that allowed for a lot of movement and some nice visual surprises: when Jeremiah approached what looked like a mass of rock in a graveyard, a sudden change in lighting dramatically revealed the decaying corpse of Ah Beng's father (Zachary Ho) underneath. For every good idea though, another backfired. The imposing figure of the tree was very striking but I'm afraid the dramatic moment when Ah Beng chopped the tree down was unintentionally comic because of the way the tree (presumably made out of fabric and decorated netting) fell - or rather collapsed in a heap. Similarly, the surreal tone Pang adopted for a couple of the Ministry of Land scenes to satirize the bureaucracy of the civil service was not always successful: there was an uncomfortable scene in which Chermaine Ang as the Director of the Ministry of Land had to awkwardly (and inexpicably) chase Chua around the office by rolling her swivel chair in starts and stops after him. Her greatest misstep, though, was in how she handled the transitions between scenes, some of which were uncomfortably long, presumably because of the ensemble cast's costume changes. For these, she simply resorted to constant blackouts after very short scenes, which was extremely jarring, or had Ho make inexplicable noises onstage that pretended to have some relevance but were quite clearly there just to kill time.

Speaking of the ensemble actors, both Ang and Brendon Fernandez fell off the radar suddenly a few years ago but seem to be making a comeback in the local theatre scene and their returns are most welcome. While Fernandez was a little hit and miss (side note: no self-respecting gay man would have had a haircut like the wig Fernandez wears as Jeremiah's flamboyant Ministry of Land colleague), he excelled as one of Ah Beng's yuppie colleagues. For her part, Ang turned in one winning performance after another as a no-nonsense bureaucrat, a gossipy old woman, a homely young mother in the 1970s and a 21st century property agent. She has a vitality that is always a pleasure to watch on stage and I hope, this time, she sticks around.

First Impression

There's an excellent 90-minute play tucked away in here. At the core of Boom is a stirring story about an elderly woman who is unable to give up the past because it means as much to her as the future does to her son. Her love for her husband and everything that represents him including the ramshackle apartment her son wants to sell, endures beyond time, beyond hardship and betrayal, and is movingly rendered by playwright Jean Tay and an impassioned Fanny Kee. Tay has a wonderful ear for dialogue and invests this simple family drama with heartfelt emotion and easy, unforced humour. It is disappointing, then, that Tay and director Tracie Pang do not have enough confidence to let this story stand on its own. Instead, they overload the audience with a sub-plot about the bureaucracy of the civil service and quite a bit of unnecessary explanation (as if worried that the audience will not "get it") and theatrical flash, resulting in a series of extremely short, overwrought scenes particularly in the first half of the play which add little other than to extend Boom's running time to a gratuitous two hours. They distract from what would otherwise have been a truly masterful piece of work. Still, definitely worth watching.


"Tay illustrates so accurately the great gulf of sadness that can eventually develop between child and parent when the day comes that the two no longer dream the same dream"

Credits

Playwright: Jean Tay

Director and Costume Designer: Tracie Pang

Set Designer: Wong Chee Wai

Lighting Designer: Yo Shao Ann

Sound Designer: Darren Ng

Stage Manager: Toh Lin

Cast: Chermain Ang, Chua Enlai, Brendon Fernandez, Zachary Ho, Fanny Kee and Sebastian Tan

More Reviews of Productions by The Singapore Repertory Theatre

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.