Cynical but honest look at reservist life

Timothy Nga (centre, with moustache) stars in FRAGO.
Timothy Nga (centre, with moustache) stars in FRAGO.PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN

REVIEW / THEATRE

FRAGO

Checkpoint Theatre

Drama Centre Black Box/Last Friday


Seated in the audience of the Drama Centre Black Box, actress Cerys Ong voices a woman frustrated by her boyfriend's refusal or inability to explain what happens when he is on reservist.

Get The Straits Times
newsletters in your inbox

FRAGO aims to bridge that chasm between those who have to serve in the army and those who need not. The limitations some women face if they choose to serve is summarised in a character played by Jo Tan.

FRAGO is the first full-length play from Checkpoint Theatre's associate artist Lucas Ho. It is about a group of men with full-time national service at least a decade behind them and how different the reservist experience is.

Some pick up old friendships, others have nothing to say to each other despite their similar ranks. Some are feeling the pressure to settle down, another misses his newborn. The war game they are assigned feels like play. Reality regularly intrudes in the form of insistent phone calls from bosses or loved ones.

FRAGO is army cant for "fragmentary order" and for viewers who have no experience of the SAF, the glossary in the programme booklet is necessary but impossible to read in time with the dialogue.

In another Checkpoint Theatre production involving foreign language, The Good, The Bad And The Sholay (2015), physical theatre and choral performances from the cast bridged the gap in understanding, so viewers remained focused on the action. In contrast, FRAGO offers slow, deliberate actions in the background for the first 45 minutes and it is easy to tune out during some scenes.

  • BOOK IT / FRAGO

  • WHERE: Drama Centre Black Box, Level 5 National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street

    WHEN: Until July 23, 8pm (Tuesdays to Fridays), 3 and 8pm (Saturdays), 3pm (Sundays)

    ADMISSION: $45 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: Rating: Advisory 16 (some sexual references and coarse language)

The action and plot speed up once the men make camp, laying iron pickets and unrolling concertina wire during their battle exercise. Still, the 13 characters played by 11 actors are not all fully fleshed out in the two-hour run time of the play. Chong Woon Yong, Derrick Tay and Tan Sieow Ping make immediate impact as a trio of enlistees whose friendship runs the smooth track of sexual boasts and crude humour. Stanley Seah is fabulous as the hang-dog outsider.

Other relationships do not get time to develop, notably Adib Kosnan's tentative camaraderie with his superior, played by Timothy Nga. Scenes such as Ong's monologue could have been sacrificed to give the men more play.

The lone female officer played by Jo Tan is a silent but pivotal point in this play about masculinity. She begins and ends the play with a tough calisthenics workout, always pushing to be better than the men so she can earn their trust and respect. The men's exit from reservist is a natural return to their real lives. Her exit from the armed forces, for lack of career options, is a tragic casualty in the fight for gender equality.

Michael Chiang's Army Daze has been Singapore's most enduring portrayal of life in national service, even after three Jack Neo films on the theme of Ah Boys To Men.

Chiang's sequel shows next month, but FRAGO feels like the cynical, realistic follow-up that Singaporeans can truly relate to. The humour is understated but always honest. There is casual racism, more shocking because it is low-key. If it feels like a character is echoing the playwright's sentiments about new fatherhood, rather than his own, the sincerity of the feeling is unmistakable.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2017, with the headline 'Cynical but honest look at reservist life'. Print Edition | Subscribe