>oh man! by the necessary stage

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 6 nov 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: marine parade community club 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.

>>>>>OH WELL...

The problem with putting on a show about what real men want to say is that real men don't want to say anything until you dig very deep and then they hit you. And I get the feeling that the team behind OH MAN! didn't dig deep enough to get a smack in the face. Instead of revelations and explorations, we pretty much got the contents of a feminist comedian's joke book: men are uncomfortable with homosexuality, men compete for no reason at all, men don't want their fathers to know they visit porn sites - everything but leaving the toilet seat up.

Having said that, it could be a pretty funny joke book at times. When scenes were supposed to make us laugh, they unfailingly did (with the exception of an uncomfortable intro from Randall Tan which proves he'll never do stand-up). Particularly amusing were the lists of "ten things that men can't do" that cropped up every now and then, accompanied by infectiously silly choreography and chanting. Sheikh Haikel had a good time selling clichés like the male inability to ask for directions or change nappies, and newcomer Errol Lim reached slightly deeper but with equal humour in his list of ten things men secretly want (my favourite was "to rule the world").

When the play turned serious, it was less sure of itself. A scene in a hospital waiting room approached the line between touching and saccharine, some might say from the wrong side; and another scene where an old man had died, leaving a son and a grandson behind him, tried so hard to be a tearjerker that my eyes felt unsafe in their sockets. To be fair, these vignettes had their merits and were poignant at first, but they went on too long and repetitively and got too close to melodrama.

Cleverer was a scene which brought on an adulterer and a wife-beater and gave them enough rope to hang themselves. Lim Kay Tong was disturbingly convincing as the wife-beater and Haresh Sharma's writing got under the skin of his characters and the issues they personified. My only quibble with this scene was that it was telegraphed as "Men on Trial". Oh, the drama. Can we save the trial scenes for the school shows, do you think?

>>'The crane was an inspired touch, but it must be said that Tobin didn't use it nearly as much as a giant pneumatic phallus should have been used in a play about men.'

A couple of scenes were downright painful, and unfortunately for him, Micheas Chan had the misfortune of being in both of them. The first was a monologue - of the type that could either be a true story or not - about a dog. Call me an unfeeling old git, but even if it is true, I'm not particularly interested in the non-recent death of someone else's dog.

And the second was worse. If a group of secondary school students had scripted the coming out scene (earnest son, Chan, to unyielding father, Lim Kay Tong) that appeared late in the play, I might have commended them for their open-mindedness and social conscience. But since it was scripted by Haresh Sharma, who really should know better, criticism is more in order. The dialogue in this scene was the kind of clunky, personal-is-political dogma that companies like TNS were doing to much better effect over a decade ago. No doubt the reason for the scene's inclusion was that OH MAN!'s target audience is heartlanders ripe for a liberal education. But the coming out scene said nothing more insightful to its audience than the New Paper has in several "Gays Are All Right, Really" articles since PM Goh made his pink proclamation. And anyway, the audience on the night I attended was more ang moh than ah beng.

This troubles me. Perhaps I am wrong, but TNS's output seems to have diverged lately down two increasingly different tracks. The community/fundraiser track has led us from the good-natured humour of 'Close - In My Face' to the populist drivel of 'Mardi Gras' to the cheap laughs and banal polemic of OH MAN!; and the "serious" track has led us from the smart but impenetrable anarchy of 'BOTE' to the incomprehensible, unrevelatory pretension of 'Revelations'.

It was not always thus. Contrast the coming out scene from OH MAN! with the "Gays Can Change" scene from 'Abuse Suxxx!!!' back in 2001. While the former was cringeworthy, didactic and derivative, the latter was cutting-edge, clever and open. And 'Abuse Suxxx!!!' as a whole pretty much proved the point that a two-track approach may be unnecessary as it was both critically well-received and also attracted large audiences.

Because here's the thing: no doubt director Sean Tobin knows better, but I question whether a "community audience" actually exists in Singapore unless you go and perform at the void decks or in the schools. Certainly, every time I go to see a community theatre piece at a fixed venue, I see a disproportionate number of cosmopolitans and westerners. An audience for good theatre does seem to exist, however, and while I think community or educational outreach is an excellent thing, I'm not sure whether it is suited to full-scale, stationary productions.

But I digress for even longer than usual.

Probably the best bit of the evening was Kumar's stand-up section in the middle (his third for TNS by my count). There has been a lot of talk lately about developing world-class acts for global consumption, à la Ong Keng Sen. I don't really see the point in that; it seems to me like building a house and then shipping it off to Japan. Kumar is probably not for global consumption - he's just too local - but he is a world-class act, managing to be very funny, very biting and very warm all at the same time. I'm not quite sure he fitted into the play's structure here (more space was made for his routines in 'Abuse Suxxx' and 'Close - In My Face'), but I wouldn't have parted with him for the world, global or otherwise.

Proving that he can get a laugh out of the lamest of lines, Kumar explained the sparsity of the Chong Tze Chien's set - a giant crane, three TVs and a couple of chairs - by saying that the company had run out of money after paying Kay Tong, but the set was perfectly serviceable despite its frugality. Indeed, the crane was an inspired touch, but it must be said that Tobin didn't use it nearly as much as a giant pneumatic phallus should have been used in a play about men.

Perhaps this was indicative of a larger problem: while OH MAN! could talk the talk and have a laugh, I got the feeling that it was considerably more mouth than trousers, and sometimes when it needed to stand up straight and tall, it got a bit floppy. Oh man.

Note: Matthew acted in TNS's play 'godeatgod' in 2002, so you shouldn't believe a word he says.