>THE TAI TAIS by NUS Theatre Studies Programme

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 12 oct 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: universtiy cultural centre
>rating: **

>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.


No introductions, let's just get started. After all, I'm busy, you're busy - everyone's busy. Except the Tai Tais, of course; but these extravagant ladies of leisure, the subject of a play by NUS Theatre Studies Programme, have more than enough time to craft an intro of their own.

In a cast of twenty, the acting was generally weak and few among the many sparkled. The most common problem seemed to be the compulsion to render each line as an identically inflected drawl, replete with exaggerated eyebrow movements. This was to portray the Tai Tai-ist syndrome of indolence, I suppose, but it was also made to serve for bitchiness, irritation, disappointment, and whatever other emotional shadings found their way into the script. There are always exceptions, of course. Adelina Ong, playing the lead, proved a delightful one. Her unique naturalness made her instantly likeable and her emotional moments overshadowed the others' simply because she didn't overplay them.

Meanwhile, Christie Chua (the young daughter) and Nur Ashikin bte Abu Bakar (the nanny) showed how character acting should be done: big without being ridiculous, and archetypal without sacrificing range of expression. No mean feat, especially when, like Chua, you are swaddled in a ludicrous pastel-pink girl's cardigan.

>>'I'm not much of a feminist, but this play puzzled me. '

I haven't read Clare Boothe Luce's The Women, the 1936 play on which THE TAI TAIS is based, so I can't say how much of it was used, altered or ignored. Nonetheless, the privilege of the adapter - the duty, in fact - is to keep the good stuff and chuck the rest. Now have you seen those adaptors (electrical this time) with the thousand little metal connecting bits so that they can fit any possible appliance, but most of which turn out to be redundant? That is the adaptor this adaptation resembled. It was misshapen, with several parts only precariously connected, and much of it seemed unnecessary.

Nine people are credited for script adaptation in the programme and the honest impression received (whether it be truth or not) is that each one had fought for the inclusion of their lines, and each one had continually succeeded. As a result, we were presented with an endless onslaught of new and insignificant characters, each given substantial stage-time to air unasked-for grievances or to comment banally on the main action, each one slowing the already-slow progression still further.

I can understand that a student theatre group would want to be inclusive, allocating a part for everyone, but whereas a story can bear the weight of a handful of whimsical intrusions, its axes buckle under a bucket load, and perhaps it would have been better to have staged two productions instead.

Having said this, the investment of manpower in sets and wardrobe paid off nicely. Elegant salon followed elegant salon interrupted only by neatly impressionistic shop interiors, and things were kept simple and effective to show off the beautiful costumes. The too-beautiful costumes. Or rather, the perfectly aesthetically-judged costumes draped over too-attractive young women. Tai Tais would certainly be able to afford such clothes, but even assuming an exercise regimen that would leave Cindy Crawford gasping, there's no way they'd look like that in them. And with the exception of, again Adelina, there was not enough conspicuous maturity on display to counteract this appearance of youthfulness.

I'm not much of a feminist, but this play puzzled me. It claimed to be a social satire (which serves a corrective function, to paraphrase the - by the way - excellently entertaining programme) and this objective was met when the lifestyles and opinions of its more unlikeable characters were held up to righteous ridicule; but the one sympathetic character, Christina, seemed to share the same mindset, and it was unpleasant to have to stomach such trite would-be aphorisms as "the only security for a woman is to find a good man" from her as well. (Perhaps I misquote, but you get the gist.) With Christina endorsing the others' waffle, the play trod too fine a line between misogyny and irony, and cut its feet.

The argument goes that you need lowlights to appreciate the high - troughs to see the peaks. Peaks there may have been in this production, but too few and far between to form a mountain range, and the intervening ground was rather marshy. To mix my axioms, less may not necessarily be more, but too much is still undoubtedly too much.