Theatre review: Three Children & Hokkien Me

SINGAPORE - It is always thrilling to see the debut of a new Singaporean theatre company. What makes this debut particularly exciting, however, is that it involves a revival of two local classics: Leow Puay Tin's Three Children, last staged in 1992, and Ovidia Yu's Hokkien Me, dating back to 1995.

Of the two, Three Children is the more complex and intriguing work: a tapestry of stories about the urban Chinese poor of Malacca, re-enacted in the childish games of two little girls and a boy (Rosemary Chan, Ling Poh Fong and Darren Guo).

With its non-linear narrative, shifting characters and mysterious undercurrent of angst, it is a challenging piece even for established theatre-makers.

Fortunately, director Luke Kwek tackles the script with real passion and inventiveness.

Taking the cue from previous productions, he has enrolled his actors in Chinese opera classes and incorporated the art form's distinctive movements into the work.

His set is wonderfully evocative: The children play using minimalist props, such as a table, stools and a mountain of white canvas shoes, dim light shining through shophouse windows hanging above.

Admittedly, some opera movements often seem boxed in by the small space, and the narrator (Mark Cheng) remains as an awkward outsider to the action.

Still, the energy and chemistry of the actors make this an eminently watchable piece, all the more noteworthy for its ambition.

Hokkien Me is more problematic.

Performed by Sophie Khoo, this one- woman play describes the struggles of a Cantonese woman who marries a Hokkien banker, battles to win her mother- in-law's respect and finally saves the family from bankruptcy.

The story is simple and compelling, though burdened by truisms about how "life is like Hokkien mee".

The obstacle here might be Khoo herself, who lacks the experience and confidence required to play a charismatic, mature storyteller.

Instead of pausing occasionally to let her words sink in, she marches relentlessly through the script, steamrolling through many an opportunity for emotional modulation.

Fortunately, by the monologue's middle, the theatregoer's irritation abates - the power of the story takes over, and the actress and the character become one.

As a whole, Three Children & Hokkien Me marks an auspicious beginning for the new theatre group. Its members display a rare sensitivity and awareness of their dramatic heritage, as well as the drive to perform difficult, elaborate plays.

Will they bring these attributes to their future productions, which will include original works? Only time will tell.

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