Time Out Singapore: ‘Normal’

6 Apr 2015: Back to the old school

Photo: Joel Lim / Calibre pictures

Photo: Joel Lim / Calibre pictures

‘I had a silly fight with my husband a while ago. He made an offhand remark like, “Why are you so stupid?” and I totally snapped. After I calmed down I thought about why I was so angry, and it occurred to me that I was carrying a lot of baggage from my past,’ confesses Faith Ng.

And then, all the unfortunate memories of the time she spent as a Normal (Academic) student came flooding out – like having a teacher lambast her for being ‘stupid’. But rather than let the unhappy thoughts eat her up, she channelled her angst into a play, simply titled Normal. Following two Secondary 5 Normal (Academic) students, Normal is an examination of those who have fallen through the cracks. And yes, it does get personal. She interviewed old classmates and former teachers, and about half of the work is based on actual events.

‘I’m usually quite fast at finishing the draft for a play, but this one took me two years to rework, and I had so many breakdowns!’ says Ng. But seeing it brought to life by the cast under Checkpoint Theatre’s co-artistic director, Claire Wong, made it all worth it. ‘[The way it looks on stage] wasn’t like what I had imagined at all. It’s so much better!’ she smiles.

And while she admits that she didn’t like school, little moments of compassion pulled her through. ‘My twin sister, who was in the Express stream, would slip me notes during breaks with messages like, “I hope you’re doing okay today!”’ Ng recalls. ‘There should be ways to define who we are other than how we do in exams.’

Time Out Singapore: ‘Theatre Memories’

31 Mar 2015: The two ladies behind the Theatre Memories project tell Gwen Pew why now’s a good time to start documenting the shows on our stages

Actress Karen Tan getting her portrait taken.

Actress Karen Tan getting her portrait taken.

Singapore’s theatre scene is celebrating the nation’s golden jubilee in a big way, and many companies are putting on plays or adopting themes that have a particularly strong local flavour. In April alone, many of our most respected theatre practitioners are celebrated in Esplanade’s The Studios: fifty series. But what about the people who make the magic happen?

Well, they’re the reason that two UK-based Singaporeans are putting together a project called Theatre Memories, which applauds the hard work that people in the performing arts community have been putting in to light up our stages month after month. ‘I came up with the idea as I felt a personal urge to pay tribute to the people who have shaped the theatre scene here in such a short period of time,’ says Jennifer Lim, an actress and filmmaker.

At the heart of their project is a series of video interviews that the team conducted with 50 key players in the field, from big-name directors and actors to the best hair stylists and costume designers. Fifty, as the pair admits, is an arbitrary number, but it’s as good a start as any when they’re faced with such an enormous task. ‘It’s not an exhaustive list, but a representation of the industry right now,’ Lim is quick to point out. They started the project by coming up with a huge list of names, and then talked to other industry professionals to whittle it down to a more manageable number.

‘The performing arts are so transient and ephemeral, and things get lost so easily, so we’re hoping to keep their legacy alive through the memories of these 50 practitioners,’ explains Annie Jael Kwan, a producer and curator who’s collaborating with Lim on the project. By asking them a set of specific questions like what their first experience of theatre was, how they think the scene has changed since they first started off, and more light-hearted ones like how they would explain the Singapore stage to a Martian, Kwan and Lim ended up with hours of footage that not only present an overview of the theatre landscape, but some very personal stories, too.

What struck Lim most about the scene’s evolution is its gradual professionalization and the diversity of the types of local productions.

And Kwan strongly agrees, adding that ‘diversity’ can also be interpreted as cultural. ‘We interviewed T Nakulan, the managing director of the Ravindran Drama Group, and he told us about how Andy Pang directed their production of Pazhi. The show is in Tamil, and Pang doesn’t speak a word of it,’ she recalls. ‘But he just used a translated copy of the script and went with it. The funny thing is that he apparently started picking up some Tamil along the way!’

Theatre Memories is presented to the public through two main avenues: the edited footage is stored at the National Archives and accessible to anyone, but if you’re the more hands-on type, then head on over to their eponymous exhibition at The Arts House this month. Visitors will be taken on a journey through five sections of the building, including the box office and the Play Den, and, through props, given a sneak peek of life behind the bright lights of the stage.

Acknowledging that it can at times be difficult to pique people’s interest in the performing arts, Lim and Kwan are nonetheless confident that if they make the space intriguing, people will come. They’re convinced that the project is an important homage to where Singapore theatre now stands. ‘I hope that through Theatre Memories, we can throw off the shackles, stop thinking that we need to “catch up” to what the West is doing, and see that our works are just as good,’ adds Lim.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Titoudao’

Gwen Pew finds out more from Toy Factory’s founding artistic director, Goh Boon Teck, about what’s in store for the company’s 25th anniversary

Titoudao

2 Mar 2015: In 1990, an 18-year-old boy named Goh Boon Teck decided that he wanted to set up his own playground, a place where he can go and have fun every day. He called it Toy Factory. More than two decades later, that boy’s dream bloomed into one of Singapore’s most renowned bilingual theatre groups. ‘Twenty-five years just flew by. I wasn’t really counting,’ says Goh when we met him. ‘It’s a milestone, but it’s just part of the journey.’

Instead of celebrating the anniversary with a brand new play, however, Goh dug into the company’s illustrious repertoire to bring back one of their most beloved works. First staged in 1994, Titoudao is what he describes as Toy Factory’s ‘best armour; the most precious child’. It’s won a string of awards and toured to cities such as Cairo and Shanghai, but ultimately, Goh picked it because it’s a work that’s close to his heart.

For starters, the story is based on the life of his mother, Madam Oon Ah Chiam. Born into a family of ‘too many girls’, as Goh tells us, she and her sister were sold into a Chinese opera troupe called Sin Sai Hong – they were Singapore’s oldest opera group at the time, but closed last year – to lessen her family’s financial burden. Although Madam Oon fell in love with the stage and still performs wayang today, her personal life was fraught with poverty, inequality and other struggles. Titoudao, which is named after the comedic male character with whom Madam Oon became associated, throws both her public and private lives into the limelight.

The play will be restaged for the fifth time, and Madam Oon has watched every single production. But it hasn’t been easy, Goh recalls: ‘She used to cry each time because it brought back painful memories. But her tears have finally dried.’ She’s even the vocal coach for this performance, giving her son notes after rehearsals.

This time, though, Goh has given Titoudao a facelift – only the script remains the same. The hair and makeup, for instance, are inspired more by the Taiwan and Hokkien styles of opera as opposed to the Beijing style, which means there’s ‘a lot of blue eye shadow and sequins!’ Goh promises. But the main difference is the brand new cast: Audrey Luo stars in the lead role, supported by Timothy Wan, Daphne Quah and Trey Ho, among others. Goh encouraged them to adopt a different perspective, and jokes that he had to ‘act stupid’ to draw out fresh ideas from them.

There’s another reason Goh wants to restage Titoudao. ‘We should bring it back every few years to remind people that the traditional arts still need saving,’ he says, adding that he hopes the younger generation can relate to the cast, all of whom are younger than 35 years old. ‘If the actors can perform it, the audience can understand it.’

Goh wishes more youths would seek out wayang performances after catching Titoudao, which he considers an introduction to Chinese opera. ‘I try to go to as many Chinese opera performances as I can with my mother. It’s like our bonding activity,’ Goh smiles. ‘Culture is very important. It’s in our blood, and you cannot change the blood that’s in you.’

Time Out Singapore: ‘Circle Mirror Transformation’ Review

Gwen Pew had bags of fun at Pangdemonium’s first play of the year, where she got to go on a six-week journey – condensed into 90 minutes – with a cast of colourful characters at a community centre acting class

★★★★☆

Circle Mirror Transformation

Photo: Crispian Chan

 

6 Feb 2015: The last time we saw a Pangdemonium production, it was one that revolved around a paedophile-murderer. But as powerful a piece of theatre as Frozen was, we’re also grateful to be able to sit back and let the laughter ripple through our bellies at their current show, American playwright Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation. It is, of course, a very different kind of play – nobody dies, for starters – but the performance is no less impressive, and beautifully demonstrates just how versatile the company is.

Here, we’re taken to an acting class at a community centre in Vermont, America, led by a kind, hippie lady called Marty (Neo Swee Lin). We join her four students as they embark on a six-week course, and get to know them as they get to know each other: the recently divorced carpenter Schultz (Adrian Pang), recently single actress Theresa (Nikki Muller), moody high schooler Lauren (Selma Alkaff), and Marty’s happy-go-lucky husband, James (Daniel Jenkins). Plenty of hilarity ensues as they start playing acting games like conveying meaning using only varying tones of one word, or reconstructing someone’s childhood bedroom by taking on the role of furniture and trees. In between the laughs, however, the cracks in each of their lives start to show through.

That helps to breathe a third dimensional backstory into the characters, and the cast is more than capable to take them on. All five of them embodied their roles with such ease and naturalness that it almost feels like the play was written specifically for these actors. From the awkward shyness they felt during the first week of class to the unspoken bond that had formed between them by the sixth week, they brought the whole spectrum of emotions to life. Pang, as usual, has his comedic timing down pat, while Muller encapsulates the confident woman with deep trust issues brilliantly. The old-couple chemistry between Neo and Jenkins is great to watch, and we could hardly tell that it’s Alkaff professional stage debut with her stellar performance as the emo, but ultimately lovely, Lauren.

The only problem we have with it is that we’re left wishing that the script had given the actors more to work with. By the end, we’re just getting to understand the weight of their baggage – all of them are complicated, and some hint at very dark things indeed – but they’re never explained fully enough to really make an impact, or a point. We’re unsure what the take away is after all the revelation, which is a shame as the characters are so fascinating and intricately developed. Yes, we appreciate the open ending, but we would have loved for the plot to let us delve deeper into the characters’ personal worlds – worlds that the cast clearly invested a lot of time in fleshing out during rehearsal.

Acting aside, Wong Chee Wai’s simple set is functional, but it’s strongest when combined with James Tan’s lighting and Brian Gothong Tan’s multimedia design in the final scene. We also never get to find out much about the American life outside the acting class, and Pangdemonium wisely didn’t make an attempt to localise it – they never do – but perhaps that’s not the point of the play, because ultimately it’s more about what it means to be human, regardless of where you are. So go, and laugh, and appreciate the dialogue and the sheer prowess of the actors. The show runs on for an hour and a half and there’s no intermission, but don’t worry, you’ll be in very good company.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Pigeons’ Review

Buds Theatre’s latest production hopes to bring the issue of race to the foreground, but while it’s a good watch, Gwen Pew wishes that certain aspects were better executed

★★★☆☆

Pigeons

30 Jan 2015: Buds Theatre had good intentions when they decided to stage Suhayla El-Bushra’s play, Pigeons, which first made its debut at London’s Royal Court two years ago. The whole thing is set in the streets and homes of a rather grubby English city, but its anti-racism message is a universal one. Indeed, in Singapore, it’s true that despite the government’s emphasis on racial harmony, there are still a lot of issues relating to race that don’t often get discussed. So we applaud them for attempting to deal with them head on.

The overall execution of the hour-long play is good. The lighting is suitably moody, the accent used by the protagonists is believable, and the chemistry between the cast is palpable. Centred on the friendship between two boys – Ashley (Ebi Shankara) and Amir (Khairul) – the play comprises a series of montages for the audience to piece together their relationship. There’s the time when the two boys stole a car, crashed it while they’re deliriously high and started dancing and laughing in the middle of the street; there’s the time when Ashley was happily played chess with Amir’s father (Jamil); there’s the time when Amir got together with the ‘town bike’, Leah (Rebecca Lee), and Ashley partially forced her to pleasure him when Amir was out, which led to a rift between the boys. Following the fall out, Ashley was approached by the sinister Carl (Lian Sutton), who recruited the young man to join his anti-Muslim gang. Things, of course, get ugly.

We enjoyed the production, but there are a couple of pretty major flaws. Firstly, while we’re all for racial equality when it comes to casting, it’s clear that the playwright had meant for Ashley’s and Carl’s characters to be white. In this case, the former is played by an Indian actor, while the latter is played by a Eurasian. They’re great actors, and conveyed their parts convincingly, but the multicultural cast means that the visual impact of racism at its worst was somewhat diminished. Amir no longer looked like the outsider, and all the talk of immigrants being the dirty, ever-present pigeons of society becomes a bit strange. Of course, we can say that this underlies the fact that ultimately, we’re all the same, and therefore we shouldn’t be racist – but if that’s what they were trying to say, then that message wasn’t very clearly sent across either.

Secondly, while the ending shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, it’s unfortunately confusingly executed here. Without spoiling it for those of you who have yet to watch it, there aren’t any clear visible cues to show exactly what happened. There was a climax, but no denouement. And while we’ve seen performances where the decision to not have a curtain call made sense, this isn’t one of them. When the lights abruptly came on, nobody bowed, and nobody clapped. We were simply told to ‘exit the theatre this way for our own safety’, and no one was quite sure whether that was part of the performance, or the signal for the end of the play. It wasn’t until the staff handed out feedback forms outside the door – and we double-checked with them that this was not the intermission – that we headed home, somewhat bewildered.

Ultimately, this is an ambitious choice of a play that could have used a stronger direction from Claire Devine in order to bring out its full impact and implications. That said, the dialogue is witty, the script is heartfelt, and the actors are great to watch. We just wish that there were more meat for us to sink our teeth into.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Cats’ Review

The famous meow-sical may no longer be the most cutting-edge of shows, but the production that’s currently in town is nonetheless a valiant effort, says Gwen Pew

★★★☆☆

Cats

16 Jan 2015: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s feline-themed musical ran for 18 and 21 years on Broadway and in the West End respectively. If the show were a child, it technically reached legal drinking age on both sides of the Atlantic. Based on a collection of cleverly written poems by the great TS Eliot called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the musical is set on the night of the ‘Jellicle Ball’, where the tribe of cats – known as the Jellicles – assembles and sees which one of them gets chosen to be reborn into a new life. It’s easy to see why it was so critically acclaimed in the 1980s – the staging is imaginative, the songs are fun and, in the age before the internet, it’s an excellent way for people to come together and express their love for cats.

But in the 21st century, when our attention span has been shortened to 140 characters and we’re constantly bombarded with fresh information, the three-hour show – which sees little action and doesn’t have much of a plot to speak of – now seems outdated. Indeed, Lloyd Webber has already revamped it and the revival just opened in the West End last month.

If you’d like to see the original version, however, this is probably your last chance: we heard that the production that’s currently showing at MasterCard Theatres – a joint venture between BASE Entertainment and Lunchbox Theatrical Productions with Lloyd Webber’s The Really Useful Group – may well be its last world tour.

And all in all, this is a pretty good rendition of the classic. The set – a junkyard that oozes a raffish charm thanks to the strings of fairy lights threaded from stage to stalls – is worthy of any stage in London or New York. The costumes and make-up, too, are breathtakingly flamboyant.

But of course, this is ultimately about cats, and the cats are great on the whole. This is especially the case for the most famous of them, including the charismatic bad boy Rum Tum Tugger (Earl Gregory), the magical Mr Mistoffelees (Christopher Favaloro) – who performed a brilliant choreography for his song – and Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat (Jarryd Nurden). The star of the show is definitely Grizabella (Erin Cornell), whose performance of ‘Memory’ fully lived up to our high expectations, her voice filling up the entire auditorium with piercing emotions. They are well-matched by the rest of the cast, too.

There are some aspects that could be stronger, however. The singing very often gets drowned out by the live band, which is a shame as the poetry of the lyrics is lost to those who are unfamiliar with them; the parts where all the cats sing or talk simultaneously are especially difficult for the audience to catch. Certain scenes could also have been explained more clearly: it’s not immediately obvious, for instance, that the characters onstage were cockroaches and dogs in ‘The Old Gumbie Cat’ and ‘The Awful Battle Of The Pekes And The Pollicles’ respectively. And the appearance of the fearful criminal cat, Macavity, is a bit of an anticlimax, as it took the crowd a while to realise that he made his entrance in the box seats, and his time onstage was brief.

Still, it’s worth a watch if you’re a musicals fan – or a cat lover – who has had Cats on your theatrical bucket list for far too long. By the end of the show, you may not ‘understand what happiness is’, as Grizabella sings, but a new show has begun, and you might as well enjoy the memory while you can.

Time Out Singapore: Theatre Highlights of 2015

Get your cultural calendar out and start planning – Gwen Pew rounds up the theatre highlights of 2015

Tribes

Pangdemonium’s ‘Tribes’

5 Jan 2015:

Plays

We’re a little older, a little wiser, but growing up is not always smooth sailing. The question of loyalty is explored in an original production of You Think, I Thought, Who Confirm? by Yellow Chair Production (Apr-25; Drama Centre Black Box). And The Necessary Stage’s Pioneer (Girls) Generation (Mar 26-29; National Museum of Singapore) is a witty observation of growing old in Singapore, while Wild Rice’s Public Enemy (Apr 9-25; Victoria Theatre), takes a hard look at society when the characters’ personal lives affect the decisions they make as professionals.

The themes of honour, passion and vengence will also appear in the epic wuxia tale, Legends of the Southern Arch (Mar 27-Apr 12; Drama Centre Theatre), The Theatre Practice’s 50th anniversary production.

For something a little more light-hearted, look to Asylum Theatre’s staging of The 39 Steps (Apr 23-May 10; Drama Centre Black Box). Dim Sum Dollies returns with a restaging of The History of Singapore Part 1 (Jun 4-21; Esplanade Theatre), while Pangdemonium will get you giggling about a dysfunctional family in Tribes (May 22-Jun 7; Drama Centre Theatre).

SIFA2014

‘Mystery Magnet’ from SIFA 2014.

Festivals

Starting the year with a bang, we’re treated to two festivals this month alone – including the M1 Fringe Festival (Jan 14-25) and KidsFest (Jan21-Mar 1). The Esplanade has a busy 12 months ahead with its array of festivals, but the one that excites us most is The Studios (Apr 2-May 10). Helmed by playwright-director Chong Tze Chien, it restages five landmark local plays, and features dramatised readings of 45 other works.

The Theatre Practice will bring back the Chinese Theatre Festival (Jul 9-Aug 2) with six shows from Singapore, Taiwan Hong Kong and China, while the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Jul 31-Sep 21) returns with the theme of ‘Post-Empire’; it features new works by local companies such as Wild Rice, Cake Theatre and Teater Ekamatra.

Besides those, Yellow Chair Production’s initiative, Tampines Theatre Festival (May 29-31), brings several schools together in a collaborative performance; Drama Box’s Scenes – Forum Theatre (Jul 3-10) celebrates the company’s 25th anniversary by paying tribute to the art form they use to engage the community; and Monologue Festival (Jul) by Teater Ekamatra invitets playwrights and directors to present monologues.

Dream Academy and Resorts World Theatre's 'Great World Cabaret'

Dream Academy and Resorts World Theatre’s ‘Great World Cabaret’

Musicals

We’re all set to warble along to ‘Memory’ as Cats (Jan 9-Feb 1; MasterCard Theatres) slinks into town, and Base Entertainment will have at least two more musical offerings in the form of Singing in the Rain and Saturday Night Fever (dates TBA; MasterCard Theatres). And since this year is SG50, there are quite a few shows dedicated to our city, starting with Dream Academy’s Great World Cabaret (Feb 19-Mar 17; Resorts World Theatre).

The Capitol Theatre will reopen in April with a newly commissioned production, Singapura – The Musical (dates TBA; Capitol Theatre), which looks back at the struggles of a family during the turbulent pre-independence years. Not to be outdone, Meira Chand and Dick Lee will also stage their collaborative work, called LKY (dates and venue TBA), which is about, well, LKY. And speaking of the Mad Chinaman, we’re excited about the return of his 1998 musical, Beauty World (Nov; Victoria Theatre); too.

This year is also a big one for Toy Factory, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary with two shows: the multilingual Titoudao (Mar 5-15; Drama Centre Theatre) and December Rains (Aug 28-Sep 6; Esplanade Theatre), the latter of which is performed in Chinese. And since it’s never too early to start looking forward to Christmas, Dream Academy’s Crazy Christmas (Dec 10-19; Esplanade Theatre), will be back after taking a break in 2014.

The Little Co's 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears'

The Little Co’s ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’

Kids

Never mind the benefits of introducing theatre to the young ‘uns – because what’s bad about having someone else entertain the kids for once? I Theatre has four shows lined up for the year, starting with Aesop’s Fables (Feb 26-Mar 21; Jubilee Hall, Raffles Hotel), which features eight of the Greek storyteller’s tales. Other shows on its calendar include The Gingerbread Man (May 20-Jun 7; Jubilee Hall), Little Star (Jun 3-19; Alliance Francaise Theatre) and The Enormous Turnip (Nov 17-Dec 6; SOTA Drama Theatre).

The SRT’ junior arm, The Little Co, is bringing back the popular Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Mar 11-29; DBS Arts Centre) – except this time, it’s in Chinese. The Theatre Practice is also staging a musical in Chinese, The Wee Question Mark and the Adventurer (Jul 9-19; Flexible Performance Space, Lasalle), which follows a young man on a quest to find his father. And if your kid loves dance, then bring them along to Singapore Dance Theatre’s Peter and Blue’s Birthday Party (Jul 2-5; Esplanade Theatre Studio), which Peter and his friends go on a journey that culminates in a surprise at his birthday bash.

Singapore Dance Theatre's 'Sleeping Beauty'. Photo: Nicolethen Studio

Singapore Dance Theatre’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Photo: Nicolethen Studio

Dance

The Singapore Dance Theatre is bringing back two classic pieces, Sleeping Beauty (Mar 12-14; Esplanade Theatre) and Swan Lake (Dec 3-6; Esplanade Theatre), while more contemporary ones will be staged at Ballet under the Stars (Jun 12-14; Fort Canning Green), Masterpiece in Motion (Aug 21 & 22; Esplanade Theatre) and Passages (Oct 30-Nov 1; Goodman Arts CEntre). continuing its mission to examine the human condition through contemporary dance, THE Dance Company will present a Triple Bill (Apr 2-4; SOTA Drama Theatre) featuring works by three acclaimed Asian choreographers – Sun Shang-Chi (Germany/Taiwan), Xing Liang (Hong Kong/China) and Jeffrey Tan (Singapore) – as well as a restaging of the well-received 2012 da:ns Festival commission piece, Silences We are Familiar with (May 28-30; SOTA Drama Theatre).

We’ll also see the fourth instalment of Maya Dance Theatre’s RELEASE series (Mar 13 & 14; 10 Square Orchard Central), which features an array of performances by emerging choreographers from Singapore, India, South Korea, Malaysia and Isreal. Looks like 2015’s gonna be a cracker for lovers of the stage.

Time Out Singapore: ‘The History of Singapore Part 2’

The Dim Sum Dollies are staging their official comeback show with Denise Tan replacing the late, great Emma Yong. Gwen Pew chats with the group’s newest member

Photo: Dju-Lian Chng (The Primary Studio)

Photo: Dju-Lian Chng (The Primary Studio)

10 Dec 2015: It’s 8pm on a Thursday night, and Denise Tan is tired after a long day. She spent the morning and early afternoon hosting Lunchtime Jukebox on Gold 90.5, and rushed over to rehearse for the Dim Sum Dollies’ comeback show straight after that. Comfortably curled up on a sofa at the Dream Academy HQ, however, her bubbly energy immediately resurfaces once we ask how rehearsals were going.

‘We’re doing choreography right now! I love choreo!’ she gushes. ‘I’ve always loved dancing. It’s fun and it burns calories, so what’s not to love?’ Denise had already been practising with the two original members of the Dollies – Selena Tan and Pam Oei – for a few weeks before we met, and most of the show had already been created. ‘Selena is sort of the Mama Dolly, so she came up with the main concept,’ Denise explains. ‘But it’s very much a collaborative process.’
The most recent full Dollies show in 2007 – The History of Singapore Part 1 – took us from the birth of Singapura all the way to 1965, and as we approach our city-state’s 50th birthday next year, it’s only apt that the Dollies now take a look back at how far we’ve come since 1965 in, well, The History of Singapore Part 2.

‘The story pretty much wrote itself as it’s based on facts. But while I don’t want to give away too much, let’s just say it won’t be anything like what you’ll get in your history textbook,’ Denise grins. ‘I’ll give you a hint, though. We’ll be making references to all the government campaigns held throughout the years while dressed as various local fruits, chickens, schoolgirls, mermaids and other characters.’ In fact, there will be so many costume changes that Denise even jokes that ‘the real show is actually happening backstage’.

The production also officially marks a new chapter for the Dollies, as it’s the first complete show they’ve staged since their third original member, beloved actress Emma Yong, tragically lost her battle with cancer in 2012. Denise has succeeded her and made several appearances with the group since then, including last year’s edition of Crazy Christmas, stepping into the big shoes Yong left behind with grace and the same wicked sense of humour.

‘I guess it’s kind of a big deal, but it’s also not,’ she says, referring to the upcoming show that will solidify her status as the newest addition to the Dim Sum menu. ‘We want to carry on Emma’s legacy. She had insisted that the show should go on.’ She adds that while she does feel a bit of the pressure, it’s not the first time that she’s shared the stage with Selena and Oei. ‘We’re all friends. I’ve worked with both of them since I started out in the late 1990s.’

Of course, things were very different when she first hit the scene. She made her professional debut as a member of the ensemble in the 1998 restaging of Beauty World – where Yong starred in the lead role of Ivy Chan – getting paid just $300 for three months’ work. ‘Pretty much no one in the cast was a full-time actor back then, so rehearsals would only start at 5 or 6pm, after everyone was done with their day jobs. And there was no welfare system in place for the actors. There’s no way the companies would even provide you with tea or biscuits,’ she laughs, gesturing towards a cupboard filled with snacks and drinks at the Dream Academy studio. ‘If you want biscuits, you bring your own! The kids coming out from the arts schools these days have it much better. That said, I loved it. I always found the theatre to be very embracing of differences. I used to be short and round, but I never felt out of place.’

Having experienced the tougher days of yesteryear has made Denise a tough cookie, and she now has little trouble switching between her various roles. It does, however, explain her fatigue. ‘It’s a bit better now. When we first started rehearsals, I was filming for a TV show and doing radio and rehearsing here every day,’ she says, almost in disbelief. ‘Thankfully, the filming’s done now. They say curiosity killed the cat, and I can tell you curiosity definitely almost killed this cat!’

Denise is unlikely to take a breather for the remainder of this year, though, as the Dollies’ show will be running until mid- December, and they’ll also be taking part in MediaCorp’s New Year’s Eve concert.

‘Maybe next year, I’ll go on a holiday. Maybe,’ she hesitates. ‘I’m not really a beach kinda person, but maybe I’ll go to a mountain, get some peace. And just sleep.’

Time Out Singapore: ‘Why Do We Do What We Do?’

Sharda Harrison - WDWDWWD

10 Dec 2014: ‘If I were an animal, I would be a humpback whale because I love the ocean,’ Sharda Harrison muses. ‘Whales are intelligent, graceful and gentle. I consider myself a very refined animal anyway, and I would like to imagine in my crazy mind that, in some sense, I am a whale.’ It’s an apt starting point to our conversation, as she has always grown up around animals. With Bernard Harrison – the former chief executive officer of Wildlife Reserves Singapore – as her father, Sharda spent most of her childhood in the Singapore Zoo, and was taught to love and care for our environment.

‘I’m not against the consumption of meat, for I would be a hypocrite to say that, but my father always said that if you have to eat an animal, make sure you can kill it,’ she explains. ‘We are living in fast times. We eat meat on a massive scale, which has led to us treating animals as though they don’t have a conscience or feel pain, and I wanted to explore the question of why we do what we do.’

And that is precisely what she’ll be doing this month. Taking that question as her title and starting point, she devised a solo show simply titled Why Do We Do What We Do? It is produced by Pink Gajah Theatre – a company she runs with her mother and brother, film artist Sean Harrison – in collaboration with literary arts group Word Forward, with whom Sharda has worked for a few years.

The performance tells the story of a disgruntled zookeeper and her two tiger charges, the spirit of a cow that had been slaughtered for meat, a chicken that stumbles into a predator’s den, and other characters. ‘This is a show that questions the collective conscience,’ she says. ‘The Japanese have a ceremony where they thank the fish for being a source of food. Have we forgotten the sacred ways of the land, earth and sky as we move towards higher skyscrapers and bigger economies?’

While she acknowledges that we might not want to confront these ideas, it’s why she set up Pink Gajah in the first place. ‘The name of the company means “pink elephant”, and the subject matters we talk about are like the pink elephant in the room – no one wants to talk about them,’ she shares. ‘We want to start exploring all the topics that have been forgotten or that currently need to be addressed so we may reflect, remember and learn as a society.’

Time Out Singapore: ‘Mamma Mia!’ Review

It’s been ten years since the international touring production of Mamma Mia was last in Singapore, but the feel-good musical has lost none of its sunny sparkles as it returns this month, say Gwen Pew.

Mamma Mia

23 Nov 2014: If you’re looking for a place to escape from the rainy days we’ve been getting lately, look no further than the Grand Theatre at Marina Bay Sands – it’s dry, cool and eternally summer in the production of Mamma Mia that’s currently running there. Ten years after its last performance here, the multi-award-winning musical has lost none of its sparkles, and still delighting the crowd with an infectious playlist of Abba songs and feel-good vibes.

The international tour features a cast from the UK, and they certainly do not disappoint. Just in case you need a recap, the story is set on an idyllic Greek island, where 21-year-old Sophie (Niamh Perry) finds out the names of the three men who could be her father after sneakily reading her mother, Donna’s (Sara Poyzer), diary, and invites all of them to her upcoming wedding. Chaos ensues, but of course, love prevails.

The songs are an absolute treat. Poyzer didn’t quite make some of the high notes during the performance we attended, but that could easily be forgiven in the grand scheme of things, as the performance is overall top notch. The star of the show is no doubt Perry, who captures Sophie’s youth and heart with boundless energy and a big, bright voice, but she is well supported by the rest of the troupe: the big group numbers are a sight to behold, and show just how strong the chemistry between everyone is. It all culminates nicely in Sophie’s hen party, which gets heated up with an electrifying performance of ‘Voulez-Vous’, complete with blasts of colourful flashing lights.

The set is pretty much identical to the production in London’s West End, and just as effective and elegant, yet never over the top. The 1970s platform heels and big-sleeved, neon-coloured outfits donned by Donna and her girl band The Dynamos – composed of the hilarious duo Rosie (Sue Devaney) and Tanya (Geraldine Fitzgerald) – are nothing short of fabulous. And by all means, bring the kids, but another thing we love about this production is that it makes plenty of cheeky references to something a bit more grown up – the ‘dot dot dots’, as Donna puts it in her diary. It keeps everyone from the little ones to the young at heart entertained.

By the time the cast performed their final renditions of ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Waterloo’, a big chunk of the house was up on their feet, dancing and singing along, which is never a bad sign. And so, if it’s an afternoon or evening of light-hearted fun that you’re after, then go ahead and lay all your love on this show, and bring out the dancing queen (or king) in you.