>spilt gravy on rice by drama lab and the singapore repertory theatre

>reviewed by kenneth kwok

>date: 25 feb 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: the 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.


In an interview for the programme of SPILT GRAVY ON RICE, Malaysian playwright Jit Murad talks about his "odd and otherwise useless ability to daydream anytime, anywhere", resulting in "scenes [being] played out in my head" which "months or years later … fall into place [after] a larger unifying theme makes itself known".

And this came across in this play, which, while ostensibly about five very different siblings with five different mothers returning home on the occasion of their father's death, often felt more like a series of vignettes strung together by the simplest of storylines. Brothers Zakaria and Husni singing karaoke with transsexual bar hostess Michelle; tai-tai Zaiton and her actress-wannabe best buddy Hortense in a spa; interpretive dancer Willow Gomez performing writer Kalsom's latest script; two angels passing (you had to have been there). Often it felt like the sums of the parts were greater than the whole, the contrivances of the narrative often holding the play back rather than pushing it along - one example being the extended scene in the elevator and another being the penultimate scene where each sibling was possessed in turn by their father's ghost.

And so what stood out was not the much-buzzed-about commentary on Malaysian politics but the rich characters and the hilarious set pieces that Murad placed them in. Despite quite a bit of the play being in Malay and therefore lost to some audience members, myself included, the audience was hooting and roaring with laughter as each scene of this madcap family drama played itself out. The strength of Murad's humour is not only in his wit and insight but also in the sincerity and respect he affords each of his characters. No matter how rough or ridiculous they may be, he makes them so identifiably human and real.

>>'The strength of Murad's humour is not only in his wit and insight but also in the sincerity and respect he affords each of his characters.'

However, the cast as a whole was a little too unpolished to quite carry the material sometimes, and it therefore fell flat or sounded a little too ham-fisted in places. The cast had a lot of homespun charm which did suit the nature of the play and it was refreshing to see a cast of actors that didn't all act like they had been trained in the RSC, but their ability to work the stage could have been improved, although I believe some of the responsibility should also be placed on the director. Bright spots included Dato' Rahim Razali as the stately Bapak and the energetic Soefira Jaafar as Zaiton with strong support from Benjy, Bernice Chan, Elaine Pedley and Eijat who played their roles with just the right amount of camp and flamboyance so we laughed with them and not at them.

Production values lacked the slickness of say, your latest touring musical extravaganza at the Esplanade, but were solid and I was particularly impressed by the set design. It would be wrong to say that the single square structure on stage merely "doubled" up as anything because really, it was used in a whole host of imaginative ways which involved it opening and closing to function as a single room, a house, the inside of a car, the doors of an elevator, etc.

If forced to talk about the political weight of the play, I'm still not sure that the satire of the issue of succession in Malaysian politics and that of middle-class mores are what give the play a social cachet beyond its entertainment value. For me, the play is politically charged because of the way it represents the modern Malaysian. In a time when the world in increasingly split into Us and Them, it more than ever seems that we are falling back on categorisation by stereotype, and it is refreshing to see a different representation of Malaysians, or, rather, a presentation of a wider and more accurate range of archetypes - especially (to paraphrase Murad in a recent interview with The Sunday Times) that of the moderate "urban Malay" and not just the "superstitious rural" one (to say nothing of those who fall somewhere in-between). We have here the old Bapak figure and Kalsom, the no-nonsense, driven, young professional; Zakaria, the wild child Mat rocker and Zaiton, the wealthy Tai-tai; the transsexual prostitute, Michelle; the dutiful son, Darwis; even the effeminate "fag", Azri, and the straight-acting gay-professional-next-door, Husni.

English-Language Malaysian theatre company Dramalab brought in this time by the Singapore Repertory Theatre has received numerous accolades in Malaysia and has performed in Singapore before ('Gold Rain and Hailstones', 1999, 'A Flight Delayed', 2000). The next time they make the trip across the causeway, I strongly recommend you give their taste of homebrew a try.