>waterloo stories by action theatre

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 26 jul 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: the room upstairs, 42 waterloo street
>rating: see belo

>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.


The superstitious in most parts of the world have only two zodiacs to choose from: there is the monthly one (Scorpio, Pisces, etc.) and the yearly one (Snake, Dragon, and so on). But we in Singapore are blessed with a third - thanks to ACTION Theatre, we have another way of measuring time and destiny, based on their annual themed plays. So it was that 2000 was the Year of Canvas (which produced 'Painted Stories'), 2001 was the Year of Furniture ('1 Bed 3 Pillows'), and 2002 was the Year of Juice ('Fruit Plays'). Now ACTION's latest work is upon us and entitled 'Waterloo Stories'. But what does the Year of the Street have in store for us?

> 'Treading Water': 1/2 star

Someone else's mother once said that if you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all. My mother never said that. Nonetheless, I feel inclined to be brief, because dredging up the memory of this play is not a pleasant task.

For a start, the term "play" doesn't really fit. For the most part, what the actors (Amy Cheng and Kat Sim playing prostitutes praying at the Kwan Im Temple) were saying rarely approached anything you could call dialogue. Largely it seemed to be a semi-reconstituted version of two separate interviews that the playwright, Lee Chee Keng, had perhaps conducted or imagined with a couple of sex workers. And they were really boring interviews. I would have said that Cheng and Sim were speaking at cross purposes, except that I could divine no purpose to what they were saying - certainly, I rarely got the impression that they were speaking to each other, or to me, or to anyone in particular. They were simply mouthpieces with nothing of interest to say.

Which left one to focus on the way they said their empty words. There is no point blaming the actors for what resulted. Indeed, there is no way of judging whether the actors were any good, because any human being can accomplish equally well the painfully monotonous dirge-speak that director Krishen Jit had decided should be the way they talked. I have heard more nuance from text-to-speech computer programmes.

And while the actors droned their banal lines (in a variety of accents), they moved around. Sometimes they carried each other in a way perhaps chosen for its inefficiency and ungainliness. Sometimes they didn't. I daresay they did other things as well, but to be honest, I can't remember, because it is hard to pick out specific memories from the turgid morass that passed for the play's action.

Was there meaning in any of this? Only in as much as there is meaning in anything at all. So was it aesthetically effective in any way? No, it was ugly and dull, ugly and dull, ugly and dull.

And also, I think, thoughtless. Perhaps the only saving grace of the production had been Thoranisorn Pitikul's set, based on a motif of handprints on red paper. The red suggested the Chinese temple in which the women prayed, and the handprints highlighted their humanity, resulting in a simple but clever union of the divine and the mundane. Or rather it resulted in this until someone came along and stuck two utterly inappropriate pastel peach Ikea chairs on it. Then it resulted in the ugliest and most thoughtless aesthetic clash I have ever seen in theatre.

I said I would be brief, so I shall end with this: the play was an egregious mess from start to finish and, in my opinion, insulted its audience by not considering what they might be able to get from it. If this is treading water, I'd rather drown.

>>'An egregious mess from start to finish. If this is treading water, I'd rather drown'

> 'People Say Got Ghost': **1/2

In this new script from Jonathan Lim, two actors rehearsing a play (called 'Waterloo Stories' - oh! it's so clever already!) catch a glimpse of a girl who shouldn't be there. With little sympathy from their director and lighting designer (who appear only in unaccredited and rather over-deliberate voiceovers) they decide to investigate her origin while struggling to get the show ready for opening night.

This setup meant that we had two things to watch: there was the framing narrative, which involved the actors (Jonathan Lim and Edward Choy) arguing with the director and each other and seeing the ghost girl; and there was the play-within-a-play, where the actors rehearsed their lines.

And, rather like a student production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', the play-within-a-play was the most entertaining part, not - as is the case with the bard's effort- because it was lower in tone than the rest of the play, but rather because it was higher: wittier, more assured and sharper.

In these embedded segments where Lim and Choy's characters were rehearsing their play, there was a real rhythm in the writing, which the pair's considered performances were able to reveal. And despite these embedded segments taking up so little page space in the script (they lasted just long enough to be interrupted by the ghost girl), they covered more thematic ground than the rest of the piece put together, with interesting questions posed about patriotism, mortality and nostalgia, to name a few. If only the rest of the play had bothered to follow up on them.

These segments also demanded a more presentational style of acting, which the cast was better able to supply. When they switched back to the main narrative, the acting veered towards the naturalistic, but never quite got there. It looked as if the director had decided to make these parts "real", but had failed: we were still seeing actors acting on a stage, and there was no danger of our confusing them with the stars of the latest reality TV series.

Or even with the semi-real actors from 'The Blair Witch Project'. Which brings up another problem: it was not scary. Not once. Not chilling, not tense, not gross, not spooky, not even jump-inducing; and this is the difference between theatre and film. With the right play, theatre is capable of instilling a state of profound psychological horror, but I've never had a play scare me in that visceral or supernatural way that a film can do - although I've seen many that tried to do so. (I suppose this is because it is easier to suspend one's disbelief with film; in a theatre, you are too close, and you can see what is real and what isn't.) Perhaps it's possible for plays to be scary - 'The Woman in Black' at least made me jump - but it is obviously very, very difficult. And this begs the question: why attempt something that you are clearly not going to pull off?

I am, of course, assuming that the play was trying to be scary. I have no evidence to support this assumption and I may well be wrong; but frankly, if it wasn't supposed to be scary, then I don't know what it was trying to be. If a comedy, then it was a little too light on the laughs. If a character study, then fleshed-out characters would have been a welcome addition.

And yet despite not having much to say, the play went on. I think the audience noticed it was dragging, because when a fifteen-minute interval was announced, everyone laughed. I can't speak for everyone else, but I laughed too, and I did so for three reasons: firstly, the announcement was abrupt and unexpected; secondly, it destroyed whatever suspense the play had been labouring to build; and thirdly, I couldn't imagine how the play could possibly last another half hour after the interval finished. In fact, I was so convinced that the performance must be drawing to a close that I suspected the interval announcement to be some kind of joke, and I didn't leave my seat until everyone else had exited.

This is not to say that watching 'Ghost' was painful (as 'Treading Water' had been); indeed it was never hard to watch and some of it was quite pleasant. Case in point, a cameo solo by Leow Puay Tin as an ice seller was professionally executed and reasonably engaging, but it seemed to serve little purpose other than to add mood; and since the mood it added was not really that of the play proper, or even the play-within-a-play, one wondered how it had managed to creep into a script that was already dramatically flabby.

Just as every fat person has inside them a thin person trying to get out, there exists somewhere within 'People Say Got Ghost' a play that is well worth watching. It just needs to lose some weight and find a focus. And if Lim ever decides to dump the framing narrative entirely and expand the play-within-a-play, I'll certainly be buying tickets.