>beautiful thing (mandarin) by toy factory theatre ensemble

>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date:12 jan 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: the toy factory theatrette
>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.


W!ld Rice recently made a splash with their production of 'Blithe Spirit', which transposed the action of the play from the home counties to Bukit Timah. Toy Factory goes one step further with BEAUTIFUL THING, British playwright Jonathan Harvey's award-winning drama of a gay romance between two working class teenagers. Not only has the play been forcibly relocated, rather like residents in the path of a new MRT track, from the Thamesmead council estate to the HDB heartlands, but it has been translated into Mandarin.

The themes of the play - homosexuality, the redemptive quality of love - are universal enough to cope with this treatment. In fact, the love affair between the adolescent Jamie and Ste (Mingquan and Weibin in Chen Yao's free translation) is even more forbidden in Singapore than in the more liberal United Kingdom. The script is loaded with references locating it firmly in this country - from roti prata to local TV programmes - and the racial diversity of HDB estates is played up by making one of the characters Malay.

>>'When Mingquan produces a six-pack of beer from the fridge the bottles are already open; another character has lotion rubbed on him from a transparently empty bottle'

Not enough attention, however, has been paid to differing cultural mores - in particular it is startling to see characters sitting around the common corridor smoking marijuana. Maybe in South London, but Ang Mo Kio? The translation is overly literal in places: a joke based on the 'Oklahoma!' show tune 'I'm Just A Girl Who Can't Say No' does not work in Chinese, and nor do several puns on the word "queer". Subtlety also falls by the wayside in the process of adaptation: Harvey's line "I think you better go" becomes something like "I want you to go. Go! I want you to vanish, like this bag of rubbish!"

These jarring notes apart, the production flows smoothly. Goh Boon Teck's taut direction efficiently delineates the relationships between his five characters - neighbours, relatives, lovers. He is aided in this by a strong central performance by Chermaine Ang as Mary, Mingquan's mother. By turns slutty and maternal, she captures both the steely barmaid who has been through a string of boyfriends, and the vulnerable single mother behind this facade struggling to cope with the revelation of her son's sexuality.

Also good are Pua En as Mary's spineless lover, and Nur'is Yiana as Chanel, the drug-addled Teresa Teng-obsessed Malay neighbour. Her lines, delivered in a mixture of English and pidgin Mandarin, are surprisingly effective, and reflect the linguistic mixture most Singaporeans converse in. Joe Pang and Pierre Goh are less successful as the young lovers. They are touchingly awkward, as befits fifteen year olds on the brink of love, but there is no chemistry between them. Even the last scene, which sees them slow-dancing together, is curiously passionless. Pang also does not let his character develop, failing to show the self-awareness and maturity which you would expect to accompany the acceptance of his homosexual identity.

The weakest aspect of the show lies in its production values. Toy Factory's usual ability to create a workable space within their small premises has let them down on this occasion, and the stage looks cramped most of the time. Props are also a disappointment: when Mingquan produces a six-pack of beer from the fridge the bottles are already open; another character has lotion rubbed on him from a transparently empty bottle.

Harvey's play is very specific to its own place and time, and it is a significant achievement for Toy Factory to have successfully shifted its action to Singapore. It is a pity, then, that this accomplishment is marred - the missing ingredients are a wider stage, a more thoughtful translation, and above all, two male actors able to convince us that they are actually in love.