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The Secret of Laughter


I Theatre


Ng Yi-Sheng






AGF Theatre, Alliance Française




It's the March holidays. You're looking for somewhere to dump your litter of bratty schoolchildren. Why not try a children's play? It's educational, it's entertaining, and you'll win kajillions of karma points for making an investment in the theatre industry. Hell, it's "recommended for children from 4 to 16 years of age and grownups with a sense of humour". You could buy a ticket for yourself, right?
Unless the show is The Secret of Laughter. In which case, drop off the kids, then stay in the car and wait till it's over. Don't follow them in. Maybe they'll have a good time; you won't.

Honestly, I have no idea how the crowd of rugrats in front of me could stay focused on the stage for sixty minutes. Possibly they were still entranced by the novelty of live theatre, so they weren't picky about it's being done poorly. I as an adult was constantly annoyed by how the play moved slowly and clumsily through its many scenes, with neither the simplicity and spectacle of storytelling for youngsters nor the dramatic developments that might characterise more mature theatre. And worst of all, very little of the show was funny. How can one advertise a show with the word "laughter" if the secret is that there is hardly any of it?

I'll have to grant that the premise of The Secret of Laughter was pretty risky. The director and four actors chose to devise their own hour-long fable out of the obscure and lengthy Persian tale of The Three Princes of Serendip - a story of three questing brothers whose triumphs are gained only by accident, while distracted from their original mission. The sadly predictable product, when dramatised, is an overlong narrative without much sense of unity or direction in its many episodes.

Even more to our misfortune, the devisers largely attempted to replicate the highfalutin seriousness of the historical text instead of radically reinterpreting the piece to give it a comedic or juvenile flavour. Why couldn't the three princes, each more noble and gifted than the next, have been accorded distinct and vibrant personalities instead of just different-coloured tunics? And just witness the verbosity of the actors, who each address the king as "my liege" and announce to the audience, "Meanwhile, quite by coincidence, the Emperor of Persia was walking in a bazaar where many merchants were plying their trade." Whatever happened to "show, don't tell"? If you've got a man in a turban bargaining with silk merchants, surely all you have to do is yell out, "Cut to Persia!"

I should be grateful that the company wasn't consistent with such formal nonsense: midway through the show, an episode in India featured a comic queen who danced bhangra in celebration after a prince had defeated a malicious, giant, foam-rubber hand in a game of Scissors, Paper, Stone - a hilarious scene that, for once, made us laugh. A similar moment occurred later when two palace guards used their spears as microphones to act as sports commentators at a king's deer-hunt - once again there was that rare, much-needed laughter that buoyed the production up.

The show also received an injection of energy every time a monster or fabulous beast appeared - out came the lone extra, splendidly decked out in Venetian masks and sequins and assorted other cryptozoological accoutrements (the audience favourite was definitely the golden garuda on rollerblades). Still, these little explosions of brilliance served to underscore the otherwise bare stage, empty of all but a very basic set, and the poverty of the actors' costumes, mostly simple affairs that facilitated transformations from one character to the next. There seemed to be a Brechtian motive behind this: in one scene, the sole actor onstage changed her vestments from those of a queen to those of a slave while she narrated events. But the actors themselves weren't performing with precise enough movements, nor with sufficient quickness of reaction or command of body to reclaim the performance space as another world. For a lot of the play, the stage felt hollow in spite of the story being played within it.

It feels wrong to speak so ill of a children's play which appeared to be generally well-received by its child audience. But I've seen children's theatre put on by The Necessary Stage, The Finger Players and The Stage Club that's set a decent standard for quality children's entertainment. I've given I Theatre an extra half a star in view of the appreciation of their target audience, and that's plenty. Children's theatre doesn't have to look bad from an adult perspective, and there's no sense in lowering your artistic standards just because your spectators happen to be short. Really, in the end, if a play's not good enough for you, it might not be good enough for your children.

"Honestly, I have no idea how the crowd of rugrats in front of me could stay focused on the stage for sixty minutes"

More Reviews of Productions by I Theatre

More Reviews by Ng Yi-Sheng

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.