>autumn tomyam by action theatre

>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date: 21 apr 2002
>time: 8 pm
>venue: dbs arts centre
>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.


What boundaries does love know? That is the question at the the heart of Desmond Sim's AUTUMN TOMYAM, a bittersweet tale of a retired American diplomat, Joe, who falls in love with a 19-year old Thai massage boy. His family leap to the conclusion that this is no more than lust, or infatuation - but Joe insists on the possibility of true love across the social and cultural gulf that divides him from his inamorato.

This family - his sister Anna and ex-wife Marge - betray a wide range of prejudices, constantly assuming that the Thai boy Tid is all wrong for their Joe. The theme of payment runs through the play, with virtually all the characters attempting to buy Tid off - but then, we are asked, is this any different from the regular allowance he receives from Joe? The economic gap between them is nicely illustrated when Tid first meets the obtuse Marge at his lover's house, when she assumes that he is a delivery boy and attempts to tip him.

It does not help that Joe spends most of the play alternately patronising and worshipping Tid, calling him things like "you little monkey", while simultaneously claiming that their relationship is "special" - sounding for all the world like Humbert Humbert claiming that his Lolita was a willing partner in her own seduction. Sim's script intelligently dissects a love that is less than perfect in many ways, and then allows for the possibility of its being true anyway.

>>'Sim's script intelligently dissects a love that is less than perfect in many ways, and then allows for the possibility of its being true anyway.'

Most of director Ekachai Uekrongtham's strong cast have returned from the first season, with Karen Tan replacing Tan Kheng Hua (who's off being an animal on a farm somewhere), and doing so with distinction. Her Marge is luminous, both powerful in the office and vulnerable to the slings and arrows of late middle age. Her love for Joe, to whom she was married for twenty-six years, is as authentic as it is illogical.

John O'May is very watchable as Joe, conveying dignity upon a man who could all too easily appear foolish or base - like, as Marge puts it, "one of those men in Pattaya who gets arrested for fondling little kids." Sandy Phillips lends strong support as Anna, although she sometimes allows her character's eccentricities to obscure the thought and emotion beneath the kooky persona.

The real problem comes with Tid and a Vietnamese immigrant, Sang Minh, played by Edwin Lai and Annie Ferrao respectively. Both do a credible job, Ferrao in particular emoting for all she is worth, but cannot help the fact that their parts are badly underwritten. We are never sure who or what Tid really is feeling or thinking, and Sang Minh's part could be cut from the play without any loss.

The script needs tightening in other ways - there are too many clunky bits of exposition, in which actors make long speeches beginning "For twenty-six years, I've been…" or "When I was in Thailand…" There are also breaks in logic, in particular in a scene when Sang Minh is due to be deported for supplying false information to the customs department - she is hauled off by an official, but a few scenes later, without explanation, she is back at Anna's having dinner apparently problem-free.

This is a pity as Sim has assembled a group of engaging characters and given them a fascinating situation to grapple with. It is unfortunate that the words he gives them to speak sometimes ring false or feel inadequate. Action theatre has given this play a superb production, with a set that elegantly creates one stage picture after another, allowing each scene to flow into the next fluidly. The cast and direction too are excellent - with a more polished script, this production could run and run.