>beautiful thing by toy factory theatre ensemble

>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date:3 feb 2002
>time: 8:30pm
>venue: toy factory theatrette
>rating: ***1/2

>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.


>>>>>STRANGE FRUIT

As bilingual as Andrea de Cruz, Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble is probably the only group around who could pull off something like these back-to-back productions of the same award winning play, first in Mandarin then in English. Bravely, they have eschewed the temptation to make these carbon copies of each other - apart from sharing the same set and basic text, these two shows have nothing to do with each other.

Unlike Goh Boon Teck's localised Mandarin version, Beatrice Chia's production is carefully not located anywhere specific. The place names in Jonathan Harvey's text, so redolent of their own particular corner of southeast London, have been carefully excised, and the British colloquialisms Americanised ("spots" and "slag" become "zits" and "slut"). This may make the play more "international" or "universal", but smacks of dumbing down and loses the rich social context against which Harvey's characters move, and which lends them depth.

>>'The Mandarin production was always just a step away from Channel 8 melodrama; the English version is more nuanced, darker, going in for measured performances and daringly long pauses'


The backbone of the play is the same: the homosexual love affair between two teenage boys, Jamie and Ste. Caleb Goh and Kevin Murphy are touching in these roles, tentatively recreating the awkwardness of first love and balancing their mutual desire with a very real fear of those around them finding out - their working class neighbours and schoolmates. While capturing the angsty frustration of his character, Goh strays over the top, so much so that at times he appears to be playing a whiny twelve-year-old. His excesses are particularly painful when set against Murphy's restrained, broody performance.

The rest of the cast is excellent. Janice Koh is edgy as Jamie's barmaid mother, Sandra, struggling to cope with both her son's situation and her gormless artist boyfriend (Mark Richmond, a masterpiece of self-centred stupidity). Rounding off this motley crew is Emma Yong as their school-dropout neighbour, Leah. Obsessed with Mama Cass, she sets herself on a self-destructive trajectory that culminates in a tragicomic drug-fuelled scene in which she tries to become the late American singer, with a pillow stuffed down her shirt and lovely deep south accent.

It is a pity though that Yong does not actually sing, but only lip-synchs to Cass classics.


Chia is obviously not one of those directors who feels herself bound by the text. Always keen to push the envelope (her last collaboration with Toy Factory was called 'Shopping and 'F***ing'), she has actually upped the occurrences of the word "cunt" in Harvey's already expletive-rich text. Her changes sometimes add to the production (notably a segment featuring a recorded interview with Cass), but at other times are of questionable value. Lines are changed around seemingly at will, and more seriously, the end of the play is altered so that instead of moving away as they do at the end of Harvey's version, symbolising a new beginning, Jamie and Sandra stay put so that ultimately nothing seems to have materially changed.

That aside, Chia has shaped her material well. Whereas the Mandarin production was always just a step away from Channel 8 melodrama, the English version is more nuanced, darker, going in for measured performances and daringly long pauses. Goh aside, the cast is uniformly good and inhabits the stage well, so that the small space that seemed cramped in Goh Boon Teck's version feels just right here. It never completely pulls together, though - perhaps because the hacked-up text has ends dangling, perhaps because of Goh's overplaying - but what there is, is truthful, moving, and - well - beautiful.