>MR BENG by Drama Box

>reviewed by Chong Tze Chien

>date: 13 jun 1999
>time: 8pm
>venue: wtc auditorium
>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.


Ah Bengs seem to receive a lot of attention nowadays. With their media alter-egos such as Phua Chu Kang and Glen Ong riding on the crest of the popularity wave, it seems forthcoming that the subject of 'bengdom' will also be taking the limelight on our local stage. As Mr Beng (Sebastian Tan) cheekily remarks in a self-reflexive moment, a supposedly elite event such as an arts festival needs Ah Bengs to construct their sets, thus commenting on the ineradicable presence of Ah Bengs.

The story charts the rise and fall of Chow Kok Beng, a young contractor who seeks to rid himself of the image of being 'beng' after having fallen in love with an English educated rich brat, Peach (Beatrice Chia). He falls prey to Peach's urgings to change his lifestyle and to discard his 'beng' friends for the finer things of life such as dining in French restaurants and speaking better English. Unknown to him, Peach is only putting on an act of loving him so as to destroy him both financially and emotionally.

>>'There were times when the Hokkien lyrics did not flow smoothly with the rest of the English and Mandarin lyrics, rendering some songs awkward'

The lengths to which Peach would go to get her revenge are as disconcerting as Beatrice Chia's sometimes over-the-top posturing. Since her quest for revenge (for something so trivial) is employed as the key dramatic action, MR BENG's plot line suffers from a certain amount of lameness. The weakness in plot is further compounded by cardboard characterisation. An English-educated member of the elite, Peach is portrayed as hopelessly evil. Even her gay friend and accomplice, Gregg (Darren Seah), is appalled by her under-the-belt-tactics and switches sides to help the bengs and lians. Cutting a lone figure on stage, Peach is reminded by Beng that for adhering blindly to anything western, she will be forever be a slave to western culture. As such, an underlying suggestion of East-West dialectic surfaces, with the west portrayed as evil and the east as good. Even as Beng rants that crows are unjustifiably prejudiced against for their outer appearance, the book written by Otto Fong is also guilty of making uninformed judgments.

That is not to say that the musical does not have its gems. MR BENG is a madcap concoction of a musical, whipping up a refreshing mixture of Mandarin, English and Hokkien songs. Backed by high production values, the cast was competent with strong vocal performances by Sebastian Tan and Darren Seah especially. Whatever they lacked in vocal prowess, Leanne Ong and Tan Beng Chiak (as Beng's confidant and mother respectively) made up for in the acting department. Many times, the cast brought the house down with the witty use of the Hokkien dialect. Synonymous with 'bengdom', the dialect added colour and unabashed cheekiness to the songs and dialogue. More often than not, it lifted the songs from mediocrity.

On the other hand, there were times when the Hokkien lyrics did not flow smoothly with the rest of the English and Mandarin lyrics, rendering some songs awkward. In this respect, the musical failed to stand as a truly multilingual one. The use of the Hokkien dialect was relegated to a comic device. It served no further purpose other than being a mere token of an Ah Beng's speech pattern. Thus the notion of multiculturalism within the same race was not explored by MR BENG. The end result, like Ah Beng's fashion sense: clashing colours.