Getting along Kumar's way

Kumar's Living Together
International Festival of Arts
Multi-purpose Hall, Block 464 Upper Serangoon Road/Thursday

A mother is bouncing her sleepy baby on her knee, all smiles. Her grinning husband wades through a thick crowd to join her. In front of them, an elderly couple are fanning themselves with paper fans bearing the SG50 logo, their shoulders shaking with laughter.

And at the centre of this public amphitheatre in Upper Serangoon is comedian Kumar, who has just sent hundreds of audience members and passers-by into fits of laughter with a set of witty observations about the Hari Raya festivities.

The Singapore International Festival of Arts opened this week with two shows that could not have been more different from each other: the "high-brow" appeal of Nanyang, The Musical, inspired by pioneering Nanyang-style painters the likes of Cheong Soo Pieng and Georgette Chen; and Kumar's Living Together, a set of accessible comic sketches about community and communal living that will tour Singapore's "heartland".

The Boom Boom Room veteran might be known for his salty stand-up routine, but Living Together is incredibly sweet at its core.

At its opening on Thursday night, in a wedge of open space surrounded by blocks of HDB flats, it had the cosy feel of a campfire.

The comedy is all very straightforward; it doesn't promise profound revelations or answers to difficult questions, just good ol' digs at Singaporean culture.

Koh Chieng Mun, Zaliha Hamid, Sharul Channa and Shane Mardjuki each riffs on family relationships, foreigners, the CPF, social media and other Singaporean quirks, taking turns to banter with Kumar who holds court and draws his own conclusions in between.

The show is far from perfect and sometimes ends up reinforcing the stereotypes it wants to break, whether it's the pretentious expat-wannabe or the over-eager foreign transplant.

But the overall result is a pleasant enough evening with solid laughs from the crowd, even if the humour does not scale side-splitting peaks and the performers are still figuring out the mechanics of how to connect with an audience in this format.

Because Kumar is such a natural at the stand-up medium, so accustomed to gauging the mood of a crowd and hitting that sweet spot, his cast members can't quite keep up with him.

Sure, certain portions of their performances will strike a chord, but a single ad-lib from Kumar is often enough to garner more guffaws than their entire routine.

Their carefully scripted acts constantly rub up against Kumar's more free-flowing, improvisational comedy, which means that he will always come off as spontaneously funny - the best kind - while their humour feels too practised and almost clinical.

But there are some good moments. Radio and TV personality Zaliha, in character as a gregarious makcik, Madam Maimunah, talks about her fear of holding her husband's hand early in their marriage, worried that she might get pregnant.

To uproarious laughter, Kumar (who sometimes performs in drag) lets loose a razor-sharp comment about this childhood misconception: "My mother told me, don't hold girls' hands - so I go and hold boys' hands."

There is the odd anti-intellectual comment from Kumar, as if those living in the heartland might not have the stomach for any "sophisticated" form of entertainment, but the easy appeal of the show is clear, as is Kumar's message: We may not always get along, but the least we can do is try and make the best of it.

Living Together has its earthy charms and is best served to a relaxed, warmed-up audience sitting shoulder to shoulder beneath the stars, an audience that may very well have taken the lift down from a nearby block and invited their neighbours along.

This article was first published on August 8, 2015.
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