>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 23 oct 2004
>time: 8pm
>venue: jubilee hall, raffles hotel
>rating: **1/2

>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.

>>>>>for better, but mainly for worse

Desmond Sim likes his rent boys. 2001's 'Autumn Tomyam' saw him paying by the hour for a Thai masseur, but in 2004, three years older and wiser, it appears Sim is ready to commit - albeit on a sale or return basis - to a hubby for hire.

The plot - no, wait a minute, before I start talking about the plot I must apologise: silly me! I naively assumed that the programme would contain the characters' names, as has every other programme since the beginning of time. How foolish of me not to realise that that's old hat now, and the discerning reviewer should scribble the names on the back of his hands and not wash them till his review is good and finished. I shall know better next time! So anyway, the plot concerns a nameless angmoh businessman (played by Graham Harvey) who wishes to start a husband-for-hire service in Singapore, but who needs the support of successful "customer consultant" Gina (her name is in the programme if you read the small print, and she's played by Deborah Png) in order to secure investor backing. He employs a nameless debt-ridden jiltee (Robin Goh) to be her spouse-on-demand who will impress her so she can impress the would be backers.

All well and good, only this isn't what the plot is really about. The plot is really about the relationship between Gina and her nameless mother (Loke Loo Pin) and how Gina learns to accept her mother's interference in her life as a form of care, and not as the bloody-minded meddling she has always perceived it to be.

Having two plots should be no handicap. Just watch any rerun of 'Friends' and you'll see that even with only twenty-three minutes and three commercial breaks there's enough time for a main story and a subplot, so what more a full-length play? But the problem is that Sim seems to think he only has one plot, or at least if he recognises he has two then he's playing favourites. You see, about two thirds of the way through the play, Robin Goh's character, which one would assume is pretty pivotal, him being the hubby4hire and all, just disappears - poof! - just like that. What appeared to be the play's main premise, and an interesting one at that, is abandoned long before its resolution and significantly before the end of the play. This is very strange.

The mother/daughter storyline is thus thrust unexpectedly into the spotlight; fortunately, it thrives. Sim has spent a lot of effort working out his female characters' motivations and the nature of their relationship with each other. This shows through in his dialogue, which is precise enough for us to see that the mother can be simultaneously harmless and infuriating, and that Gina's longing for independence is both a genuine desire and a stubborn façade.

>>'HUBBIES4HIRE certainly has its richer moments but the poorer ones interfere too much and leave it more in sickness than in health. Sign a prenup'

Sim's words are greatly assisted by two sensitive performances from well-cast actors. Loke is her normal deadpan self but seems to be leaning on the punchlines less than usual, giving her performance a level of truth she rarely achieves. She shows similar restraint in portraying the pain she feels at her daughter's apparent heartlessness: we the audience notice her subtle gestures of frustration, but we can easily believe that her headstrong daughter would miss them entirely. And later, Loke deals particularly well with a moment that requires her momentarily to abandon all her defenses and admit that she needs love just as much as the daughter she tries endlessly to matchmake: having hired her own "hubby" (Harvey), she is bullied into conceding that she misses the warmth of her late husband's arms around her, and she steps briefly, almost reluctantly into Harvey's embrace, making him a surrogate for the love she lost. This is no great romantic moment, replete with flailing arms and a run across a sunlit meadow, but it is true and it is touching.

By contrast, Png's performance could not be called subtle, but then subtlety is not required of her; if anything, she is not quite blatant enough to portray a woman whom other characters describe as a veritable virago. But in scenes where her mother is meddling in her life, you can truly feel her hackles rising; and in another scene, where she explains the sense of panic and humiliation she feels at being a partnerless divorcee at her cousin's wedding, something deep shows through, and you want to comfort her.

The men are not as good, but then they are not as well written. Going by recent form, Sim is better at writing women. In 'Autumn Tomyam', a play ostensibly about a male homosexual relationship, the Thai rent boy, Tid, was the theatrical equivalent of a doodle, and his older lover, Joe, was at best a competent sketch. The play survived largely on the strength of the character of Marge, Joe's sister, a warm, pulsing character, complex enough to reward interpretations from two very different actresses (Tan Kheng Hua in 2001 and Karen Tan in 2002). In 'Tomyam', the male roles' flimsiness for some reason didn't seem to matter as much as it should have, but in HUBBIES, the problem was glaring: the men were a mess.

One of the main problems with Robin Goh's character was that when he abruptly disappeared, I didn't really care. Sure, we had been fed nuggets of his backstory - he was left at the altar and deeply in debt thanks to his ex's wedding day jitters - but none of it ever came alive, and it just felt like Sim was mechanically imparting the necessary information to his audience. The rest of the time, the character seemed to serve the purposes of the script: he was charming when required, stroppy as needed, and fell in love (more or less) on cue; he never seemed to do anything for his own reasons.

Some of this is surely due to Goh's performance. I got the idea from the dialogue that Goh's character was supposed to find it difficult to be a hubby4hire. Perhaps he felt humiliated but had to hide his humiliation to succeed in his new job. Perhaps he harboured a great bitterness towards his ex-fiancée and, by extension, to all women. But I felt, watching Goh act, that after the performance he would probably go home, make his Mum a cup of tea and light some aromatherapy candles. He was the perfect, pliant SNAG; he was eye-candy: he could have been replaced by a photograph.

But at least he wasn't painful; Graham Harvey was. Granted, Harvey had a ready excuse in the quality of the character he was playing: the main thing about the character was that he was an angmoh entrepreneur attempting to start up a rent-a-spouse firm in Singapore. This was also the only thing. Oh, no, I forgot - his wife had died some time back. Boo hoo. Harvey then seized on this non-role as if it were Macbeth and the director had called for extra sound and fury. He stomped around the stage, noticeably shaking it; he pressed his face up to Png's on one line, retreated a couple of metres for the next, then pounced in for the kill on the third; he whacked tables for emphasis at every punctuation mark; he grinned like they'd got his medication wrong. Instead of beefing up his part, the above antics only served to underline its paucity, so as well as the sound and fury, we got an extra significance of nothing.

Worse still, Harvey played a scene in the latter part of the play so misguidedly that I am still in mild shock. He and Png are late for a play and, stuck in the foyer waiting to be allowed in by the ushers, he lets slip the aforementioned revelation about his wife's death. At this point, I laughed. Please understand, this was not cruel laughter - I honestly thought the intention was to be funny. You see, the play had occasionally veered towards farce deliberately in the first act, and now with such an unnecessary development and with Harvey grimacing and galloping around the stage like a drunken mime, I thought it had finally taken a step across the line. I actually thought it was a brave choice and might pan out quite nicely. Imagine my growing horror as I slowly realised that this burlesque was to be taken seriously.

As it happens, this theatre foyer scene resulted in more than one faux pas. Thoranisorn Pitikul's set was in many ways to be praised. It was a clean, functional affair, whose components - sofas, filing cabinets and suchlike - slid on and off the stage laterally atop castor-mounted platforms, thus providing quick changes between living room, office, and the various other scripted locations. As well as being efficient, this slide-a-set trick (also seen in Pitikul's design for 'Tomyam') had the bonus effect of making the set changes seem like the progressing panels of a comic book, and this suited the play's rather fragmented nature, making even the briefest, most underdeveloped of Sim's scenes seem succinct rather than deficient. What let the design down was that Pitikul had decided to frame his set in a second proscenium made out of cardboard-concrete breeze blocks. This gave the whole set a harsh, intimidating, institutional feel. So when Gina, in the theatre scene, complains about the implacable ushers, saying, "This is a theatre, not a state prison," the irony was uncomfortably delicious.

Which leaves the direction (the lights and sound being entirely as they should be). It was too frenetic. This was not a physical piece - it almost entirely revolved around different combinations of two people talking to each other - so director Darren Yap's attempt to turn every scene into a dance number was an odd decision indeed. For the first half of the play, it seemed that no one was allowed to stand still for more than five seconds at a time. As I have mentioned, Harvey took this to heart, bounding about like a jackrabbit, and Png and Goh seemed to get into the spirit of it too. Thank God for Loke's detached stillness or I fear I would have had quite a headache.

HUBBIES4HIRE certainly has its richer moments but the poorer ones interfere too much and leave it more in sickness than in health. Sign a prenup.