Time Out Singapore: ‘Tribes’ Review

2 Jun 2015: Pangdemonium’s latest offering gives a voice to the deaf community while keeping things funny and lighthearted

★★★★☆

Photo: Crispian Chan

Photo: Crispian Chan

Over the last couple of years, Pangdemonium has been building a reputation for being a company unafraid to stage plays that deal with difficult issues. But with English playwright Nina Raine’s award-winning play Tribes, the cast and crew take things up a notch and achieve something truly hard-hitting, comical, and tender at the same time.

The play opens with a barrage of swear words as Christopher (Adrian Pang), his wife Beth (Susan Tordoff), their son Daniel (Gavin Yap) and daughter Ruth (Frances Lee) hurl barbs at one another over dinner. No one takes it too personally – that’s just the way they are. Meanwhile, the couple’s other son, the hearing-impaired Billy (Thomas Pang), sits quietly. He tries hard to follow the conversations flying over his head like missiles, but is usually brushed off with a ‘nothing, Billy’ when he asks what everyone’s fussing about.

It takes a while to get used to this high-strung family. Most of the first act is loud and brash, and with it comes a bit of over-acting as the characters attempt to make it clear that Daniel is a whiny 20-something, Ruth is an emotional wreck, Mum is exasperated and Dad is an a**hole.

In those early scenes, the characters seem to be mere caricatures who provide laughs but little depth, and the constant F-bombs soon start to feel as though they’re dropped for the sake of it. But then Billy’s girlfriend, Sylvia (Ethel Yap), enters the household, and her sweetness sparks a change in everyone. Not only does she give Billy a voice – quite literally by encouraging him to learn how to sign, as she’s on her way to becoming deaf, too – she also brings out a softer side to his rowdy family.

The cast shines after this point. They flesh out their characters well and show that beneath their colourful language are people who care for one another. Thomas deserves special mention: he’s making his professional debut with Tribes, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell from his nuanced portrayal of the sweet yet isolated Billy. Ethel is another outstanding actor – she’s able to convincingly balance Sylvia’s bitterness and frustration about losing her hearing with her inherently loving nature.

Thanks to Tracie Pang’s expert direction, watching this group of actors is, indeed, like catching a glimpse of a tribe. We may not always agree – or even fathom – their way of dealing with things, but the chemistry that binds them together is apparent. And it doesn’t hurt that the set is a sight to behold. It may not be as loud or visually complicated as those in a few of Pangdemonium’s other shows, but Wong Chee Wai’s design nonetheless provides, in its own quiet way, a cosy backdrop for this dysfunctional family.

It’s evident the production achieves what it set out to do: give a voice and soul to a community that is largely ignored by the public. There are a lot of words that get tossed around here – either hilarious or hurtful – but by the time the curtain falls, we find that even when speech is taken away, so much can still be said.

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