Reviewer: Walter Chan
Performance: 9 April 2015, 8pm
What happens when you lose the rat race?
“Sadness is for us,” broods Secondary 5 student Ashley (Claire Chung) bitterly, as the play escalated to its climax. At that point, you feel the entire weight of the world on her tiny shoulders, and wonder what has happened to her to stoke such a cynical and abject attitude. After all, she seems like a normal girl.
Yet the word “normal” is exactly the subject (and title) of playwright Faith Ng’s newest play. She delves into the murky depths of Singapore’s meritocratic education system, exposing the political incorrectness that lies at the heart of it all: praising the best, and screwing the rest.
Ng’s script does not pull any punches; at times achingly honest, at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. With the protagonists who are Sec 5 girls Ashley and Daphne, she has crafted two memorable characters that are beautiful yet fragile. As the play details their struggles (that never seem to end), the girls are pulled in different directions, until life tears them apart. They become what one teacher condescendingly describes: broken Barbie dolls, abandoned and unwanted.
Director Claire Wong takes a practical, scaled-down approach with Normal, with a keen eye for detail. The soundscape crafted by the ensemble is also noteworthy, though it brings back echoes of another all-female production staged one year ago. (Hint: Wong was the lead actor.)
But praises must go to Claire Chung and Audrey Teong (making their professional debut as well, may I add), who portray Ashley and Daphne with mettle and tenacity. They carry the weight of sadness in their performance, but never show it on their faces. Therefore, it is truly a heart-rending moment when the play draws to its melodramatic denouement at the end: these girls have earned our tears.
Despite this, Normal, like its characters, remains rough around the edges. Perhaps it is the irregular pacing of the script – it was definitely shorter (and less nuanced) than the version presented at a public reading 2 years ago. Or perhaps it was opening night jitters showing in the ensemble’s lack of precision – just milliseconds apart, but definitely noticeable. I hear rumours of a re-staging swirling around (and deservedly so); I would love to see the “uncut” version.
I shall end by getting on my soapbox: Singapore theatre has perennially been plagued by a deluge of plays that tackle the thorny issue of Singapore’s education system. So, what makes Normal special? To put it frankly, it is the voice of the downtrodden; the voice of the forgotten; the voice of the invisible. And through characters like Ashley and Daphne, they can finally speak, loud and proud.
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ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
NORMAL by Checkpoint Theatre
9 – 19 April 2015
Drama Centre Black Box
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Walter Chan has recently starting dabbling in play-writing, most usually writing ‘for fun, but hopes to develop his hobby into something more substantial in the future.