>joined at the head by luna-id
>reviewed by matthew lyon
>date: 21 nov 2001
I've done the bitchy title thing again. I don't mean to, but every so often the urge just builds up inside me and I have to let it out. Bear with me, though, as there's a reason for this.
JOINED AT THE HEAD by luna-id does not classify easily into the traditional genres of theatre. Not quite a tragedy, neither can it be said to be a comedy - and you can just forget about history and pastoral. No, the genre that this play fits best is that of "American plays about cancer sufferers that try to make you laugh and cry and spend a lot of time talking directly to the audience". And thinking about that genre, one other play springs straight to mind: Margaret Edson's 'W;t', performed to significant acclaim last September by ACTION Theatre. Granted, the plays are not identical, but when you perform JOINED in the very same Jubilee Hall that ACTION Theatre used, you are just begging for a comparison.
So here is that comparison. 'W;t' enjoyed high production values, a versatile, classy-looking set, secure direction, a strong supporting cast that contributed to the play and, most crucially, an impressive central performance by Sandy Philips, who may have injected more craft than soul into her portrayal of a cancer-stricken Literature professor, but who nonetheless fulfilled ninety-nine percent of the role's requirements with aplomb.
JOINED AT THE HEAD only needed to be half as good as 'W;t' to consider itself a moderate success. Sadly it wasn't.
AT THE HEAD only needed to be half as good as 'W;t' to consider itself
a moderate success. Sadly it wasn't'
Just so you know what's going on, here's the story: twenty years after their high-school romance, teacher and amateur musician Jim (Gerald Chew) invites famous writer Maggie Mulroney (Kate Naughton) to visit him and, she soon founds out, his cancer-stricken wife, also named Maggy (Anna Belle Francis). The women vaguely knew each other at high school and they now re-forge a stronger connection. Eventually, Maggy dies, but not before Maggie has Found Out Important Truths About Herself TM.
Christian Huber's direction was a catalogue of oversights comparable to sitting on a bench with a wet paint sign, coupled with uncomfortable misreadings of the play's mood. First, the former, which must needs take the form of a list of questions that might have been asked before I asked them.
Why didn't Jim, who was supposedly an amateur musician, have a guitar? Instead, he just sang a cappella to his old flame like some weirdo on the MRT, even though there was a specific reference to him "playing".
Why was the crystal salesman dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and tie? Obviously, he was a denizen of one of those slightly flaky new age establishments you see more of in the West than in Singapore and there is no way in this whole wide world he would be dressed up so dapper.
Why did the landlady (Jasmine Koh) speak with a Scottish accent when she was supposed to be Irish? Not that it was a bad Scottish accent (although a little too reminiscent of Mrs Doubtfire), but if you've managed to navigate as far as Scotland, you might as well go the remaining couple of hundred kilometres and get it right. Incidentally, no one else really tried to "do an accent", which made the sudden appearance of an incorrect one an even greater threat to the suspension of disbelief.
Why was an extremely un-restauranty table allowed to linger half on stage and half in the wings, drawing the eye away from the actual restaurant scene? It served no apparent purpose and was never used nor referred to (unless it was a misplaced props table).
Why was no music played in the restaurant until, from the ether, 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' struck up and someone intoned, "They're playing our song"? The line is enough of a cliché even without such blatant telegraphing.
And since we're still in the restaurant, Huber suffered the waiter (Jay Españo) to mug and cavort like a poor man's Chaplin, ruining the (aforementioned) mood of the scene and going for the cheapest laughs imaginable - ones were that were surely not intended by the script.
This cheap laughs syndrome pervaded the evening, with the play's intrinsic subtlety abandoned in favour of bold case histrionics. It was a malady that the supporting cast were particularly prone to, and often the effect was like the wackiest character form '3rd Rock From the Sun' stepping onto the set of 'Ed' and asking where they keep the rocket fuel.
However, even the principals were subject to it. Kate Naughton as writer Maggie generally managed her lines with integrity and intelligence, but every so often there was a distinct and sudden sea change as directorial gravity temporarily pulled her away from her more sensitive portrayal and into clumsier territory - into, for example, an inopportune scream or some over-exuberant physicality.
Gerald Chew didn't need any direction to persuade him away from subtlety, but his rather binary interpretation of the steadfast husband at least didn't get in the way.
And Anna Belle Francis attacked her role with an unusual amount of energy - not just for a woman suffering from cancer, but also for a woman supposedly overshadowed by Naughton's more dynamic character. Her vivacity was in places appealing, but it was invariably accompanied by hyperactive hand movements that made it seem like she was swatting imaginary flies. To be fair, there were moments where these gesticulations hinted at her cheerleader past, but one couldn't help thinking that such manual abandon would snap the wrists of a woman so brittle that her husband cracked one of her ribs while (gently) making love to her.
Also, Francis never listened or spoke to the actors on the stage with her - she always addressed the audience, or rather some invisible camera several metres above the audience's eye level. Consequently, it was difficult to believe that the two Maggy(ie)s had formed any bond at all.
A final word, and not a positive one, must go to Doreen Tan's set. It was neither realistic, symbolic, aesthetic nor particularly useful. The supposedly swanky parts didn't look posh and the purportedly rundown parts didn't look shabby. It all just looked like Ikea had made a delivery but no one was quite sure where to put the stuff yet.
But part of this is down to how it was used, and such superfluous blocking as a scene where the principals seemed to chase each other around the sofa throughout a casual conversation, coupled with such bankruptcy of imagination as a supposed street scene where the passers-by handily posed centre stage before moving on - none of this helped the set look good.
JOINED AT THE HEAD suffered because no one seemed to have thought about it hard enough. And no matter how straightforward your play, that kind of thing shows through.