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.

Time Out Singapore: The Cast of ‘Tribes’

18 May 2015: You can argue that all families are dysfunctional, but the one in Pangdemonium’s latest production, ‘Tribes’, might just take the cake. Gwen Pew meets the clan


Christopher (played by Adrian Pang)

Age 55 and proud of it
Occupation Writer
Personality People say I’m pompous, pretentious, prejudiced and basically a prat, but they’re just being nice.
Life goal To get my bloody kids to get jobs and move out of my house.
My biggest problem My older son Dan is too dumb to realise that he’ll never be a writer, my daughter Ruth is too deaf to realise she’ll never make it as an opera singer, and my younger son Billy is too blind to see that he’s got the brightest future – and he’s the one who’s actually really deaf!
Fun fact I am learning to speak Mandarin and I know how to say ‘Get a bloody job, you useless bugger!’ – although I have a feeling that last bit gets lost in translation.
My best line ‘He’s a c**t!’

Beth (played by Susan Tordoff)

Age 60
Occupation Aspiring writer
Personality Calm with an edge of exasperation.
Life goal To be permanently calm and finish my book.
My biggest problem My husband, and my kids being back at home in spite of the fact that they had all moved away (which is also secretly my greatest pleasure).
Fun fact I play the ukulele.
My best line ‘People do things for the people they love.’

Daniel (played by Gavin Yap)

Age 27
Occupation I don’t see why that should matter. I mean, what do you do? Is it important? Didn’t freaking think so.
Personality Some people might call me self-absorbed, crude, vulgar, perverted, bitter even. But personally, I think I’m just a brilliant human being.
Life goal To get a blowjob from Helen Mirren. Or maybe Kristin Scott Thomas. I don’t know, they tend to change. I wouldn’t mind writing a book, either. Maybe win a Pulitzer…
My biggest problem I live with my family.
Fun fact I can fart the theme song of EastEnders.
My best line ‘I’m sorry, something about your voice, I just stopped listening.’

Ruth (played by Frances Lee)

Age 24
Occupation Aspiring opera singer
Personality I’m a hopeless romantic. I live for the stage, and I live for love. And I would die for love.
Life goal To star in Puccini’s La Boheme at London’s Royal Opera House. I’m working on my Italian and French as we speak.
My biggest problem I actually cannot stand my family. They do not understand me, and aren’t even remotely supportive of what I could achieve as an opera singer.
Fun fact Fun? Okay. My love life is in shambles, my family is in shambles, and my career is honestly not taking off as fast as it should be. Besides that, I’m having fun.
My best line ‘Dan. I want my pen back. I know you stole it, you thieving little sh*t.’

Billy (played by Thomas Pang)

Age 22 going on 23
Occupation University graduate. Unemployed for the time being, but looking.
Personality Uh… Yellow? Strawberry? I dunno. People say I’m a good listener.
Life goal To be a film director.
My biggest problem Missed opportunities. It’s sometimes hard to communicate with people who don’t or won’t listen. As in, people who don’t work as a team, or even just small things.
Fun fact I can eat peanut butter and jam with anything. Dare me.
My best line ‘When I met her, something just clicked in my head. It was like a light being lit in my mind.’

Sylvia (played by Ethel Yap)

Age Late 20s
Occupation Events organiser at a charity for the hearing impaired
Personality Outspoken, opinionated, well-read, witty, vibrant and fiercely independent.
Life goal To achieve my fullest potential before my hearing loss completely consumes me.
My biggest problem My gradual hearing loss, and potential in-laws who are completely crazy.
Fun fact I am a pretty accomplished pianist. Or I used to be, at least.
My best line ‘I’m not deaf yet, though. Just… in denial.’