>TOP OR BOTTOM by The Necessary Stage

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 9 aug 2004
>time: 8pm
>venue: jubilee hall, raffles hotel
>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.

>>>>>truly madly queerly

Assuming you have neither a prosthetic nose nor a painful and protracted terminal disease, the surest way to strike Oscar acting gold has always been to turn on the waterworks. Sadly, this often means that more humorous or lyrical performances are unfairly sidelined (Bill Murray was robbed for 'Lost In Translation'! I demand a recount!); but I suppose the Academy does have a point - performing a Big Breakdown Scene with truth, unselfconsciousness and emotional transparency is pretty darn tricky.

What is remarkable about Hossan Leong in The Necessary Stage's TOP OR BOTTOM is that he didn't choose between comic and tragic: he chose both, turning in a performance that was honest, clever, moving, funny, poised and panicked, and that was compelling to watch, even when he was doing nothing more than staring out at the audience, catatonic from depression.

But I have made a boo-boo. Reviews aren't supposed to start with the acting, they're supposed to start by telling you the plot. To do this, I will have to give away a major plot twist, which shouldn't bother you too much, because the run has ended (but if it does, send all complaints to me and I will duly ignore them). TOP OR BOTTOM is the studious younger brother of 'Mardi Gras', which was performed recently in the same venue, and the play opens to reveal most of the latter play's characters with one conspicuous absence and a large white coffin. Straight away we surmise that the absent character, Ben, the protagonist of 'Mardi Gras', is the stiff in the box. But we surmise wrongly, for it soon revealed, in a disconcerting 'Sixth Sense' moment, that the character of Clement (played with sensitivity and composure by Rody Vera) is really a ghost and can only be seen by Leong's character, Faith. What follows is a 'Truly Madly Deeply' setup, where Clement's ghost and Faith's concerned friends try to help him get over his loss.

But that's not all, for TOP OR BOTTOM is as jam packed as its elder sibling, and we also get side-plots about married gay policeman Brian's attempts to find God and lose his homosexuality, about transgendered Hope's affair with a pilot and her consequent neglect of her boyfriend Faith, about fag hag Su Marican's recent divorce and her hopes for her young son - and on top of all this we have flashbacks, fantasy sequences and multimedia.

>>'It's great to see TNS back on form'

Most of the side-plots are just dressing: they add flavour, but they are rather fattening and you don't necessarily want to eat all of them; but the flashbacks and fantasy sequences add something special, letting the play take on a more presentational, surrealistic mode.

In one such scene, Leong and Vera sing (beautifully, I might add) a pop duet as Barbara Streisand and Elton John respectively, and in another, the characters morph into twisted sitcom archetypes of bratty children and sadistic parents. Such segments serve to leaven the play, which might otherwise be weighed down by the unflinching exploration of grief which forms its core. Happily, they also manage to avoid seeming irrelevant either by throwing light on how the characters' histories affect their present-day motivations, or at least by opening a window on Faith's less-than-stable mind. But they do suffer slightly from Leong's inability to sustain a heightened mode of performance: whereas the other actors (even Paerin Choa, who isn't particularly good) are able to abandon naturalism and become larger-than-life caricatures, Leong remains real, lower case, three-dimensional.

Perhaps I'm being unfair - perhaps this is not due to Leong's limitations as an actor, but due to the director's intention to keep his protagonist real while the madness spirals around him. If so, it's the wrong intention, sacrificing too much energy and pace for too little gain in terms of emotional complexity. But this makes the presentational segments sound bad when at worst they were mildly flawed, and in fact, Alvin Tan's direction was generally of a very high calibre. In one particular set piece, Tan plays (I think) Rufus Wainwright's 'Oh, What A World' ("Why am I always on a plane or a fast train...") over a beautifully paced silent sequence where Faith's friends take turns to visit him as he lies defeated and unresponsive on his sofa. The song's enigmatic, hypnotic insistence proves the perfect dramatic amplifier for Leong's wonderful acting, and proves that Tan can use music with brilliance - never mind the pig's ear he made of it in 'Mardi Gras'.

Also adding to the mood were several evocative and highly technically proficient pieces of video projection by Brian Gothong Tan. He showed us lyrical but troubling dreamscapes (a confusing mess of neon trails, a pursuit through a forest, a fall into a black hole in the sea) which aestheticised Faith's depression, making it seem simultaneously disturbing and a welcoming refuge from reality.

Of course, all of the above would have been for nothing without a script perceptive enough to encapsulate and depict grief, restrained enough to avoid drowning in it, and dextrous enough to lift the mood when required. This Haresh Sharma supplied. Perhaps there was a little too much repetition in places, but perhaps that's the point: we shouldn't leave thinking bereavement is easy.

It's great to see TNS back on form after a 2003 that was at best middling ('Oh Man!') and at worst woeful ('Revelations' - I think Li Ling was rather generous). Hopefully the upward trend will continue in their remaining shows this year.

Note: Matthew Lyon acted in The Necessary Stage's 2002 production of 'godeatgod'. He remains nothing more than a pawn of the TNS junta, echoing their every decree.