Drama review: Cook A Pot of Curry

Curry buddies: (From left) Neo Swee Lin, Rishi Budhrani, Noorlinah Mohamed, Judee Tan and Nelson Chia deliver a wonderful performance.

SINGAPORE - Wild Rice/Lasalle College of the Arts, The Singapore Airlines Theatre/Last Saturday

When playwright Alfian Sa'at's Cooling Off Day premiered in the heat of general election fever two years ago, there was an overwhelming sense of "yes, that's me" in the audience - as if a mirror had been held up to the Singapore populace and refracted into the audience.

It was quick-witted and incisive, and critics cheered the docudrama's ability to capture that swirling cauldron of taut emotion and heated debate that was Singapore on the verge of a vote.

In Cook A Pot Of Curry, that shared sentiment is still apparent. Alfian has his finger on the Singaporean pulse and he is deeply, insistently aware of what drives the ordinary Singaporean trapped in a crowded MRT cabin or worried sick about the rising cost of living.

If Curry had been Alfian's first attempt at verbatim theatre, of collecting myriad views and giving them a context and a framework, it would have been a much more revelatory experience.

But coming on the heels of Cooling Off Day, Curry, unfortunately, emerges the lesser cousin. Yes, it is the resurrection of a winning formula. But formulae are nonetheless somewhat predictable.

The real-life curry incident was reported in the newspapers in 2011: A couple from China had complained about the smell of curry being cooked by their Singaporean Indian neighbours. This acts as a catalyst for the work and is also where the play gets its name.

Exactly as before, Alfian places a series of interviewees on stage who expound on the nature of immigration in Singapore. Some are uncomfortably xenophobic and racist, as much as they claim not to be, and others toe the line of moderation. Most of the vitriol seems unevenly directed at migrants from mainland China, while those from South-east and South Asia are treated with more sympathy.

This is a populist play, and many of the visceral reactions that Singaporeans have had to the recent influx of immigrants and the population White Paper are deafeningly familiar. The characters mourn a disappearing country and a vanishing identity, mostly through what they feel is a dilution of their own culture by a tidal wave of foreigners.

Director Glen Goei does well with his absolutely watertight ensemble of Rishi Budhrani, Nelson Chia, Noorlinah Mohamed, Neo Swee Lin, Najib Soiman and Judee Tan. They are expertly cast and deliver wonderful performances as they cycle through a huge range of characters. Neo, for instance, does a pitch-perfect and heart-stoppingly hilarious impression of beloved actress Daisy Irani, capturing her every inflection and gesture with a sense of genuine delight and respect.

But Curry feels, more often than not, like a platform for the same grievances that have been aired over and over again. Yes, these issues are pertinent and recognisable, but they are often meandering polemics that perpetuate the sort of toxicity that many Singaporeans are trapped in, and by. In a sense, it feels like yet another addition to the stream of protests at Hong Lim Park, albeit a very well-staged one with excellent comic rhythm.

There are two sets of triggers in this piece that will set off two very different demographics: Those who endorse the binary of foreigner bad, local good; and those who are concerned that this is the only binary that exists without going a step further or deeper.

That is, until Alfian unveils several vignettes that are touching meditations on nationhood, through which he asks: What is the nation? Do we have a post- colonial hangover? Is the idea of nationality still relevant? Is the national anthem? When did it become us versus them? What is this wariness of "the other"? It is these scenes that, I feel, form the soul of the play, and that go deeper into the grey areas of migration and nationhood that are in much need of critical discourse and excavation.

And it is the ingenious, show-stopping finale that engages the audience most. Without giving too much away, the play forces the viewer to make a choice before making a very pointed statement about a prominent national symbol.

This is a good pot of Curry, but I think it could have been left to simmer just a little longer with more meat on its bones, instead of constantly stirring it for the sake of stirring it.