>belly of the carp by 3.14 company

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date:24 jan 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: dbs arts 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.


They can see you coming in this country if you're a tourist. Case in point, my first trip to Sentosa: how was I to know that you don't need a cable car to cross to that retirement village for political activists when a bus or a boat will suffice? And how could I have been equipped to refuse the lady at the cable car ticket counter when she offered me a "Singapore Discovery Tour" package for the meagre fee of nearly three times my monthly salary? At any rate, she managed to sell it to me and I found myself led (by Roy, with a Disney smile and danger in his voice) into the 'Images of Singapore' museum, one of those waxworks affairs (only this one looks more like plastic) where you can listen to The Singapore Story TM through the speakers as the animatronics vaguely wave their limbs at you. I abandoned the tour after about eight minutes.

Now if they'd only shown BELLY OF THE CARP in there instead, I might have been tempted to stay. Indeed, Roger Jenkins' stage adaptation of his own prize-winning book must be eligible for some kind of grant from the tourism board if the company is willing to relocate it to Sentosa - it's just the kind of fare tourists lap up: locally flavoured but spoken in standard English, informative, wholesome, non-threatening, and unobtrusively patriotic about the country in question.

The play, if that is what it is, tells the story of the strip of land we now call Boat Quay, from its Rafflesian beginnings as a busy dock all the way to its current incarnation as a dining and nightlife hub, via a fair dose of Japanese occupation in the war. Said story is told in dramatic/poetic monologues, which leave just enough time to establish who the character is and roughly what he wants to say before he is swept up in the tide of history, never to return, and a new speaker takes his place. This ever-growing legion of characters is portrayed by a mere sextet of actors, all earning overtime for schizophrenia and going through costumes like swords through a magician's assistant.

>>'Occasionally a spotlight would reflect off Gene Sha Rudyn's omnipresent and often inappropriate smile, and I would suffer the toothpaste equivalent of lens flare'

And the actors for this run were rather strong - as would be expected of such established artists. They all brought presence and purpose to their roles and generally possessed enough range to differentiate the large number of parts they were playing. Moreover, each of the cast had his or her own special turn - a character that we were sure to remember above the others on our way out of the auditorium. For Gene Sha Rudyn it was a punkahwallah with a laconically rhythmic approach to life; for Karen Tan it was Mah Chu, God of the Sea, resplendent in gold weave and indifference; a deadpan Wendy Kweh was great fun as a dance bar hostess seducing sailor Lim Yu-Beng with a sexy sneer and a firm grasp of the cha cha; Tony Quek caused a few giggles in gravity-defying drag as Isabella Bird, an English traveller; and Catherine Sng... Well, perhaps not everyone had their own special turn after all, which is not to say Sng was a weak link, just that there were not quite enough memorable parts to go round.

In fact, the only roles I could remember with any clarity as I exited were those which had made me laugh. Jenkins' occasional attempts at pathos failed to register on the emotional oscilloscope, although they were, at least, never embarrassing. This was mainly because the actors didn't have enough stage time to establish any emotional bond between the audience and their fleeting characters; and also, perhaps, it was because Jenkins' characters were two-dimensional at best.

The significant remainder of the roles, neither comic nor tragic, passed by pleasantly enough, but one couldn't help suspecting that one was being edutained; nor could one shake off the feeling that a cast who should have been stretched by the demands of a multi-role show did not appear to have been particularly challenged.

However, it is perhaps in the limitations of the script that the problem lay, for the direction was efficient and the staging especially was fluidly effective. Considering that for the most part, there was only one person on it, the stage never seemed too big, and transitions and crowd scenes were managed with a sure hand. Lu Ping's set proved versatile, both in the number of shapes it could be persuaded into and in the way it added to the atmosphere of any era it attempted to portray, be that the 1890s or the 1990s. The set was assisted by highly competent lighting from Suven Chan, which brought it smoothly from sepia to Technicolour, and which had only one flaw: occasionally a spotlight would reflect off Gene Sha Rudyn's omnipresent and often inappropriate smile, and I would suffer the toothpaste equivalent of lens flare.

Professional, solid, comfortable... I am reminded of the concept behind Gary Ross' 1998 film, 'Pleasantville', in which two present day teens get stuck in a black-and-white 50s soap where nothing ever goes wrong, but nothing ever goes wonderfully, sublimely right. BELLY OF THE CARP was pleasant. Now, if you're one of those folks who think that the 90s brats in the film ruined that nice little town by infecting it with their unsightly emotions and their vulgar hues, then this show should suit you to a mildly sugared Lipton. And if not, you'll find nothing to offend you and much to interest you, if mildly. Pleasantville: a metaphor for Singapore? Perhaps... and most certainly if this production is to be believed.