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Production

The Office Party

Company

The Singapore Repertory Theatre

Reviewer

Kenneth Kwok

Date

28/11/2008

Time

8.00pm

Place

DBS Arts Centre

Rating

***1/2

Wine and Regret

The raucous office Christmas party is a distinctly British tradition. This is not to say that we Singaporeans don't enjoy a bit of wine with our festivities but in Britain, it is practically a legal requirement that full-on drunken debauchery must usurp customary British reserve, and wildly inappropriate sexual shenanigans between co-workers must ensue... only to be deeply regretted the morning after.

The Singapore Repertory Theatre's production of John Godber's The Office Party relocates (inconsistently) the action to Singapore so some of the cultural resonance is lost. Still, the play works. It helps that the setting is a funky advertising firm and it is an international cast that populates the office cubicles of Chapman and Howard. In any case, one suspects that the general spirit of things is less alien to Singaporeans than some may think. Even in the civil service, Christmas parties can be a hoot - remember the Media Development Authority's infamous senior management rap video from last year? There must have been an open bar during the shoot...

The play takes a while to get the party started - indeed I felt as if I'd turned up too early when it's all awkward introductions and over-polite small talk. Sure, the first 45 minutes, which map out everyday office life, enable the play to set up the central will-they-or-won't-they romance between everyman Andy (Jason Chan) and office newcomer Jo (Wendy Kweh). And they also serve to establish the personalities of the supporting cast: Bob, the blustering letch (Michael Corbidge), Pippa the ah lian receptionist (Cynthia Lee MacQuarrie), Lee, the over-enthusiastic young designer (Shane Mardjuki), Patty, the worn out senior executive (Susan Tordoff) and, of course, Gavin the pompous boss everyone loves to hate (James Shubert). But the play suffered because the script had too much ground to cover and it took some time for it to get round to all of the different characters. And unfortunately, director Tracie Pang did not have a firm handle on her large group of actors. At one point, Tordoff was left standing inelegantly in the middle of the office while waiting to see Gavin when she should have simply sat down on the edge of a table or in one of the empty chairs around her.

The play's beginning was also rather jarring because the actors appeared unsettled. One of the challenges of playing with such a diverse cast of actors is that it can look as if they are performing in different plays - and I think Pang could have done more to bring them together as a cast. Instead, the timing was off in places and the interactions between characters came across a little uneasy and forced.

Thankfully, once the actual night of the party arrived, the script was more focused and purposeful. This helped to chart a course for Pang and her cast as they moved from the shamelessness of the Girls Just Wanna Have Fun-singing office party to the after-party chill where everyone's hats and masks are stripped away. The palpable fun they were having at the height of the party - such as when Bob photocopied his arse and faxed it to a rival ad agency - was infectious because it felt much more like a shared experience, more relaxed and genuine. And later I was really drawn into their bittersweet conversations about wasted opportunities and how life can take us to the most unexpected places.

It took me a while to get used to Corbidge in Party because I've not seen him like this before, playing a beer-guzzling lout who's always talking about the ladies and football. At first as it all seemed very put on, but I must say he won me over as the night wore on and he settled into the role. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for Shubert or Mardjuki, neither of whom I ever really warmed to, coming across as they did as fussy and self-conscious throughout. I thoroughly enjoyed both in the SRT's The Write Stuff, a project which staged plays written by primary school students, but here I felt their cartoonish over-acting distracted from their performances. Lee Macquarrie had a similarly oversize role, but whether she was playing up her butter-wouldn't-melt naivety or her kittenish sexuality, she performed with a naturalness and ease that made her a pleasure to watch.

Another actress I enjoyed was Tordoff who had previously caught my eye in small roles in The Dresser and The Pillowman. What makes her introspective character particularly poignant here is that the audience knows that her keen awareness of the emptiness of her own life is something she allows to surface only for this one night - come the dawn, she will put the mask back on and soldier on as before. The actress invests this performance with the tiredness and sense of resignation that it needs for these contours to come into focus. In some ways, she is the true heart of the play. This is not to detract from the extremely endearing lead performances from both Kweh and Chan. Their roles are not particularly challenging but they require likeability and chemistry so that we root for them to get together. This is a crucial element in the success of any romantic comedy and, luckily, both have charisma to spare and tackle their roles with winning confidence and charm. Chan proves there is life after Power Rangers Ninja Storm while Kweh's performance has me hoping that the London-based Singaporean actress who won much acclaim for her Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream here last year will find her way back to the Singapore stage more often. If nothing else, she still owes us for Masters of the Sea.

First Impression

The first 45 minutes leading to the main event are shaky - it takes a while for everyone's timing to get in sync - but don't reach for your coats just yet: once the party gets going, so does the play. It quickly becomes the booze-fueled, Girls-Just-Want-To-Have-Fun-singing raunchfest you'd expect, thanks in no small part to Michael Corbidge and Cynthia Lee MacQuarrie's over-the-top turns - although it is the nuclear meltdown the morning after that I find most compelling as everyone's party hats and masks are stripped away. Wine and regret make for interesting bedfellows.

Central to all the raucous shenanigans in this yuppie rom-com is the will-they-or-won't-they romance between everyman Andy and office newcomer Jo, and it is to the credit of Jason Chan and Wendy Kweh's endearing performances that you root for the couple all the way.


"I was really drawn into the characters' bittersweet conversations about wasted opportunities and how life can take us to the most unexpected places."

Credits

Playwright: John Godber

Director: Tracie Pang

Production Designer: Philip Engleheart

Lighting Designer: Suven Chan

Sound Designer: Darren Ng

Production Manager: Suraya Ab Rasid

Stage Manager: Grace Low

Associate Lighting Designer: Yo Shao Ann

Wardrobe Manager: Vivianne Koh

Production Assistant / Wardrobe Assistant: Engie Ho

Hair / Wigs: Ashley Lim

Makeup Artist: Haslina Ismail

Assistant Sound Designer: Guo Ningru

Assistant Stage Managers: Chan Silei, Victoria Lim and Pang Su Li

Technical Manager / Lighting Operator: David Sagaya

Stage Technician: Alberta Wileo

Set Assistant / Prop Master: Jed Lim

Sound Operator: Joyce Gan

Staging Crew: Mohamed Anuar and Jude Chan

Cast: Jason Chan, Michael Corbidge, Wendy Kweh, Cynthia Lee MacQuarrie, Shane Mardjuki, James Shubert and Susan Tordoff

dits

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.