>ASIAN BOYS VOL. 1 by The Necessary Stage

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 30 nov 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the necessary stage black box
>rating: **1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Christmas is coming up and, as sure as there'll be fake snow in Disneyland, I know that Uncle Joe will, as always, get me a pair of paisley socks: cheap, cheerless and probably already worn. It's such a family tradition that it renders the ubiquitous New Year calendars almost unnecessary: one can measure time in ugly socks.

But what if, one glorious year, he decided not to get me socks, and he got me a car instead? Well, of course I'd be ecstatic. Galvanised by gratitude, I'd be especially nice to him - make sure he got the best cut of the turkey, compliment him on the quirky jaunt of his Santa hat, and I'd spend the next few days cruising past his flat, jovially pipping the horn and waving. I certainly wouldn't complain. Faced with such overwhelming and unexpected generosity, any quibbles I might have on the quality of the carriage in question would seem the rankest and most cynical ungratefulness. It would be impossible to point out that the windshield was cracked, for example, or that Peugeots are so Old Economy. Nay, even were the wheels to fall off in front of me, a grouse is what I couldn't muster.

It's like this with ASIAN BOYS, TNS's latest offering. Not that they are Uncle Joe, of course - far from it; but there has been a definite avuncular scrooginess from the Powers That Be in Singapore towards minority audiences, which you don't need to look further than the fiascos of 'Talaq', 'The Vaginalogue' or last year's 'sex.violence.blood.gore.' to observe. So it seems a miracle that a play so clearly written "for the community" (and I don't mean Marine Parade) has been passed for public consumption. But just when the censors have stuck the red ribbon on their gift horse, I'm going to be the ingrate who examines its dentures.

>>'It's certainly not bad. A lot of it is funny, some of it is thought-provoking and all of it is provocative'

Do not get me wrong - I'm very glad that this play exists, I'm just not sure what it exists as. I hope this doesn't betray an obsessive's desire on my part to put things neatly into boxes: the problem was that ASIAN BOYS was speaking to two discrete audiences. On the one hand there was the bethonged near nudity, the dildo waving, the strongly implied anal fingering, the in-jokes and the full-rectal (I suppose that must be the opposite of full-frontal) from Mark Richmond - these were calculated to appeal to those in the know, those who can take such ironically meant stereotypical behaviour with the requisite pinch (and tickle) of salt. On the other hand, there was the wordy deliberation about many aspects of gay life which are taken for granted and passé for the queens of this fair island. In these parts, the play adopted a tone which, although not quite preachy and certainly not aiming to proselytise, was both didactic and quasi-educational, and seemed to be intended for a demographic much less accustomed to debauch.

As this is the International Day of the Analogy, I'll add another one: it's like throwing people out of a plane and then phoning their mobiles to tell them how the parachute works; for those who are new to the experience, it'll all be a bit too much, and for those who've jumped a thousand times, the ringing tone will be an annoying distraction. Perhaps this accounts for my feeling as I watched that I'd seen and heard too much of it before, while the one older gent who walked out halfway may well have thought that it was all far too new.

This situation was exacerbated by my expectations for the production. Looking at the downright naughty shots in the programme and on the posters and listening to the thumping pre-show Sunday-night-disco-music, all of which suggested a celebration/subversion of the icons of SM campery, I anticipated the kind of performance that can only be described as a "romp" - the kind of attitude-free, morally absent entertainment that pretends to be nothing more. But the tone of the posters and pics and power pop was only sporadically recreated in the show itself, weighed down as it was by issues of racism, ageism and internalised homophobia. I'm not saying there isn't room for a work dealing with these topics in relation to gay life; I'm just positing that they didn't fit in here.

It reminds me of a "friend", who once told me about a porn video he had purchased back in the UK where such things are more or less legal. It was supposed to be the "hardest" thing on the market at the time, and its publicity was all glossy stills of muscle-bound hunks in leather behaving really rather suggestively. But it appears there had been a price to pay for its much vaunted "hardness": miraculously unmentioned in its advertising, the vid's running time was largely taken up by a goateed doc in a lab coat lecturing about safe sex practices. The makers had done a deal with the censor: the more inches they wanted, the more Doctor Condom got to strut his funkless stuff. One wonders whether, directly or not, TNS had done a "deal" of this kind, upping the talk and downing the sleaze, so as to get ASIAN BOYS past the censors intact where the earlier and rawer 'sex.violence.blood.gore' had only got through with cuts.

Speaking of which production, 's.v.b.g' was a prime example of how TNS can do an excellent romp when they try, and 'This Chord and Others' from earlier this year, proved again if proof were needed that they are great at a more educational approach - but here, they couldn't quite manage two at the same time.

If these ideological objections were my only ones, I would be happy to call a spade a spade and bury the hatchet. "Merely a matter of taste," I would opine, inspecting my uncle's Peugeot's fluorescent pink paint job, and I would proceed to polish it to such a pinkness that chemical sunsets got jealous. But there was more grist for my whinging mill: the production simply was not as well-polished as TNS shows pride themselves on being. Which is not to say it was amateurish, simply that it didn't have the sparkle, the zest, the feeling that its actors all go down the pub together and know each others' deepest secrets that has become the company's hallmark. The highly talented cast was not much better than all right and the direction occasionally got held up. The script relied too heavily on hackneyed double-takes and drawn-out running gags ('A Whole New World', 'I Will Survive') which were only really funny the first time. I may be concentrating on the negatives, but its hard not to when you've seen it all done so much better before by the same people. (The sets and sounds were rather fabulous, but then there's that old thing about "books" and "covers" to take into account.)

Despite my reservations, it's hard not to believe that this is an important step for Singapore (and specifically gay Singapore) theatre, away from the guilt, lament and anger which have been its mainstays so far. And it's certainly not bad. A lot of it is funny, some of it is thought-provoking and all of it is provocative. And quite frankly, I still can't believe they allowed it to go on. Catch it before it is banned!

>See also James' review.