Review: Raffles Players’ College Play

By Hu Fangda (12A03A)

Raffles Players put on two plays, More by Haresh Sharma, which was also their Gold with Honours SYF piece, and Block Sale by Eleanor Wong last weekend.

Sean Cham and Uday Duggal

The thing with works of Singapore drama is that the writing tends to be very straightforward with little wriggle for creative interpretation. The plots are mostly simple, characterization is equally ordered with balanced development, and imagery, if used, is generally about as subtle as a blow to the back of the head. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing; the specificity does give local drama a distinctly Singaporean feel and allows the clear portrayal of local issues such as our obsession with the property markets without dancing around with coy allegory. For directors working with a piece of local writing, the trick is to present a fresh take while respecting the author’s intents. This was the case with Block Sale by Eleanor Wong, for which the Players did an admirable job.

Ian Teoh as the narrator (or “the boy with the greasy hair”) took a little while to settle into his role; his opening joke involving Dolly Parton and a particularly titillating part of the female anatomy was received rather disappointingly by the audience, but he soon gained traction and delivered his loud, showy role with much energy and vigor. However, what I felt was the distinction between Ian as Eddie Tang, property consultant and Ian as game show host could have been worked on more; the kind of energy that did the latter justice seemed exaggerated in the former. Given a choice, I would definitely prefer Ian, the narrator. Like the Health Promotion Board would say: moderation is key. All in all, however, for a first, it is remarkable work.

Ian Teoh

However, the actors who really stole the show were Jonathan Lee and Caitlan Miew. Caitlan displayed an astute awareness of physicality and milked all of Eleanor Wong’s clever epigrams for all they were worth; who can forget: “Your pee won’t get into your tea!” She was spot-on as the arrogant, pompous socialite, and turned the character into someone the audience loved to hate, displaying a lot of potential. Jonathan Lee, already an experienced actor, delivered the goods as usual and rendered a fully textured, nuanced performance. He avoided the dangerous pit of stereotyping and type-casting that permeates much of local drama, making sure not to portray Peter Lee as a standard Machiavellian villain, but a real person who felt true terror at the prospect of losing everything he had worked for.

Jonathan Lee and Caitlan Miew

Yanning Xu displayed a remarkable emotional range and swiftly transitioned between her part as next-of-kin to her ailing Grandma Chan and her high-intensity role on the nebulous game show. However, better voice work would have helped: as Mr Geoff Purvis, Literature tutor, shared with us, “There is a tendency in Singapore drama towards melodrama and a lack of clarity. So you must be able to enunciate well.” Jillian delivered a biting rendition of the obstinate grandma who proclaims that “I will be carried out in a coffin” but nevertheless asks all the important questions of the play; “When will we ever have enough?” However, her physicality as a senior citizen was a bit too over-pronounced, with the stiffness of her body and her exaggerated limp and hunchback.

All in all, Block Sale was well received by the audience. Feng Yu Hui (12S03N) said, “I think the acting is typical of Players’ high standards.”

Unlike Eleanor Wong’s, however, Haresh Sharma’s works typically require the director and actors to give their creative minds a good workout. His play More is conceptual and is hence open to numerous and variegated interpretations. Here it was superbly handled. The blindingly white set was an excellent reflection of the cold, sterile nature of the wacky outpatient clinic. Then again, with Natalie Hennedige as your director, you can hardly go wrong; the NAC doesn’t just stand at a junction and hand out Young Artist Awards to anybody who passes by. The ensemble work in More was tight and well-executed, and the symbolism powerful and impactful, such as the cast’s rush to the top of the centrepiece when the play opened.

Of particular note was Bjorn Lee Varella’s performance. While just hearing him say “sian” is enough to justify an entire paragraph on its own, he perfectly captured his character’s journey of self-discovery, such as when he vocally doubted the life credo of wanting more, more, and more. Fellow doctor Cheryl Foo responded to this with shock and horror, the degree of which reminded this reviewer of the time he told his mother of his intentions to pursue a Master’s degree in playwriting. An amusing exchange between the two also highlighted the absurd one-upmanship common in Singapore:

Bjorn: My daughter’s studying in America.
Cheryl: My daughter’s studying in America and doesn’t want to come back.
Bjorn: My daughter’s studying in America and doesn’t want to come back and; my wife is leaving me tomorrow!

Ho Yan Lin’s role as the earthly Ah Huay provided a nice contrast between her simple desires “to be happy” and the rest of society’s mad-cap race for the top at whatever cost. Her simple needs and wants – to have somebody enjoy her chicken soup – provide welcome relief from the frenzied scramble up the socioeconomic ladder that consumes the rest of the characters.

A quick survey of the audience showed that the production as a whole was well-received by the audience. Joshua Chan Yangle (12S06C) enlightened us with his comment: “It’s too sick already.” Matthew Soh (13S03O) said that “the SYF piece was eye-opening and spectacular” and Greg Yap (12S03A) found Island Life an “enjoyable experience”. This production sets the bar high for the next Players production come next semester.

I’m definitely going to chase that playwriting M.F.A now.

Photos by Chew Siu Farn (13S03E)

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