It Was the Worst of Times
"It's almost impossible to watch this play and come away disliking it," journalist Adeline Chia said in her review of this show (Straits Times, Friday, 21 November). Good thing you added that "almost", Chia, because lo and behold, I'm one of the select few who came away not only disliking this play, but actually loathing it.
What's odd is that the two of us critics mostly agree on the same positives (skilful caricature acts) and negatives of the production (much too long at 2 ½ hours with no interval, phenomenal surtitle malfunction). The key to our disagreement, it seems, is the fact that I'm horribly turned off by the moralistic undercurrent of this production - this show centres on FM 100.3 Mandarin DJ Huang Wen Hong and his pet moral aphorism: "Big doesn't have to be the best." (In fact, that's the Mandarin title of this play, Da Wei Bi Jia - the rather nonsensical English title is a playful mistranslation of this.) So while Ms Chia can view all the flaws and triumphs of this production and come up with a net positive assessment, I just can't - I distrust its lecturing style, I find its cloaking of values in the garb of entertainment objectionable and insidious.
Mind you, I didn't start out uncharitably. I was willing to forgive the rather lacklustre song-and-dance routine that opened the show - Huang in a tux, singing complaints about how we're such an overachievement-oriented society, with four unlikely showgirls draped in feather boas kicking away at his side.
No, it was immediately afterwards, when he started lecturing the audience, that my hackles rose. "Big doesn't have to be the best," he kept saying, making self-deprecating jokes about how he's lowly regarded as a DJ of Singapore's smallest radio station, drawing up ideographic charts on the blackboard, poking fun at the "big" size of zaftig showgirl Goh Seok Ai, even drumming up some absurd national legend about the Big Master, Big Malaysia, the Little Red Dot and a parrot. It became evident at one point that Huang was never actually going to provide proof for his statement - he was just going to keep making tangential jokes about bigness and smallness until the cows came home. I didn't get it and I didn't like it. What was the point?
Then suddenly, almost out of nowhere, a series of cabaret sketches began - Huang announced that he was waiting for the arrival of the Big Master himself, the head honcho-VIP for the occasion, but had discovered he'd been delayed, providing the opportunity for a series of zany personalities to mistakenly wander onstage: a Geylang geisha, a TV actor specialising in minuscule roles, a rabid fan of Huang, each playing out his or her own disconnected story.
Most of this was pretty funny stuff, workshopped by the cast to show off their versatility in comedic acting. Huang wasn't always as good a clown as his chorus girls, and the dancing was, as a rule, mediocre. Yet there was something vital missing - a sense of coherence, both within and between the pieces - the absence of which robbed the show of a necessary integrity.
Look at the very first sketch, for instance. Jo Tan's geisha character, Momoko, was pretty hilarious - she spoke Mandarin (and occasionally English) with a wonderfully tortured Japanese accent, switching with manic speed between her mincing gait and her memorised gamut of sexual positions. However, she only served to introduce the tale of a big Geylang pimp played by Huang, boasting to us of the grand expansion of his industry that's allowed him leverage even with the government (it's only due to his influence, he announced, that the jammed streets of Geylang are still free from the ERP surcharge.)
Then suddenly, this grand exercise in bawdiness and the irreverent transformed into a moral story: Momoko re-enacted a confrontation scene between the pimp daddy and his wife, revealing that he was afflicted with impotence. The pimp then described how he managed to cure himself by downsizing his business, regaining a personal connection with his customers (once again played by Tan). Thus, he concluded, biggest is not the best! Small is OK!
From a critic's perspective, this routine makes no sense. An unexpected revelation of erectile problems, a character's breaking of form to play multiple roles, and the very idea that you can cure impotence by firing half your staff and keeping your business small - it doesn't add up. Nor is it terribly rational to imagine a traditional Japanese prostitute in Singapore's seediest red-light district. It smacks of a cop-out: a certain number of Drama Box's audience are mainland Chinese, who might take offence at the appearance of the more typical Geylang prostitute, who hails from mainland China.
There's another big problem with several of the acts: they're terribly dependent on inside jokes. The calefare actor's claim to fame is a role in which he says "nasi lemak"; you're not going to get this unless you remember a similar role in the Channel 8 variety show Gao Xiao Xing Dong which involved a man saying "Alamak!". And the appearance of Da Hong Hua, a fan of Huang's radio show who accused him of cruelty and stalked him, was only a big laugh for members of the audience who're regular listeners of the show.
Still, the primary issue for me is that I simply couldn't buy into the idea that these sketches were supposed to be meaningful as well as funny. I felt amused, but not terribly sympathetic when the calefare actor mourned the fading memory of his elderly mother, who now mistook every major star on TV for him. So I was severely irritated when Huang returned over and over again to his theme of championing smallness - though Chia read this as humility and self-deprecation, I saw it as a kind of ostentation: a defensive celebration of moral superiority drawn from his own powerlessness.
So I was supremely turned off by the time we arrived at the penultimate sketch: a strange monologue by Huang, acting as a private eye spying on unfaithful spouses. This was an act with no comedy value whatsoever - its moment of epiphany was based on his taking a photograph of a taxi driver weeping while talking on the phone to his lover. "I have captured a man at his weakest moment," he told the audience, then explained how he's found a way to redeem himself by taking a photograph of the blue sky every morning before work.
For someone who'd been enjoying himself so far, this might've worked - an unexpected deviation into pathos, relief from laughter. For me, however, this was the most aggravating segment yet, bearing no connection to main theme of the show, yet suffused with that awful flavour of didactic morality that makes me want to bash my head into a wall of spikes. I might actually have responded well to the scene if placed in the context of a different play, but here I felt the production hadn't earned the emotion it was trying to provoke - it was trying to push buttons that I didn't have.
Plus, it was coming at the end of a long night of loosely bound acts that could've used a whole lot more tightening and editing. I couldn't wait to get out of the theatre at the closing reprise.
There's something odd I observed during curtain call, just before I escaped to freedom. The front few rows and the circle seats were clapping wildly, whereas in my row - where all the comps were allocated - almost no-one was clapping. I'm not sure what this means in terms of a demographic breakdown, but my main point is that this was a divisive show: one that you either got or you didn't get.
At the end of the day, I'll have to hand it to Huang: he does have some great showmanship skills. His off-the-cuff patter was terribly engaging for most of the audience (thus running afoul of prepared surtitles) and included some great anecdotes about the way small companies like Drama Box and small stations like FM 100.3 are abused by larger entities. I'm especially impressed by how he took special care to give a shout-out to the third row of circle seats - no wonder they gave him his applause when he came out to bow.
I wasn't the intended audience for David the Best! But as always, The Flying Inkpot believes it shouldn't have the final word on a production, so we'd love to include the comments of those who agree or disagree with us on this site. Technical assessments aside, the verdict on this production is heavily dependent on the taste of the reviewer. The jury's still out on this one. Have your say.
David the Best! is actually the worst show I've ever seen by Drama Box. The production is a rojak of theatrical genres - cabaret, stand-up, melodrama, surrealism and farce - with very little unifying theme save for the presence of FM 100.3 DJ Huang Wen Hong and the hazy idea that "big is not the best".
Quite a few good moments pop up, mostly in the form of brilliant comedy scenes by the main man and/or the four supporting actresses, most of whom excel at caricature. I'm also impressed by the way Huang played specifically to the oft-neglected third tier of audience members, and continued bantering with gusto even after his head mike went bust. But the man doesn't really have the physical charisma to fuel a big stage act (not surprising, considering that he's got a career in radio), and all there were far too many pointlessly moralising moments and sappy appeals for emotion. Plus the fact that we're cooped inside the theatre for two and a half hours without a loo break. Do us a favour, director, and tighten.
By the way, don't even think of watching this play if you don't speak Chinese. The surtitles are out of sync and you will not be privy to Huang's puns and off-the-cuff improv speeches. Word to the wise.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /