Pain in raw world of a girls' school

Claire Chung (left) as the school's enfant terrible and Audrey Teong (far left) is her gawky best friend in Normal.
Claire Chung (left) as the school's enfant terrible and Audrey Teong (far left) is her gawky best friend in Normal.PHOTO: CHECKPOINT THEATRE

Normal returns under the direction of Claire Wong as a profoundly poignant look at the Normal Academic stream

REVIEW / THEATRE

NORMAL

Checkpoint Theatre

Drama Centre Black Box

Last Thursday

Claire Chung (left) as the school's enfant terrible and Audrey Teong (far left) is her gawky best friend in Normal.
Claire Chung (left) as the school’s enfant terrible and Audrey Teong (far left) is her gawky best friend in Normal. PHOTO: CHECKPOINT THEATRE

Checkpoint Theatre's revival of Normal holds up a mirror to the ugly side of meritocracy.

The play by Faith Ng, which had its first run in 2015, returns under the direction of Claire Wong as a profoundly poignant look at the Normal Academic stream and the stigma faced by those the education system boxes up and sets aside.

Idealistic English teacher Sarah Hew, played with an earnest vigour by a fresh-faced Julie Wee, is assigned a Normal Academic form class at the fictional Trinity Girls' School.

At Secondary 5, her students have watched their peers move on to junior colleges and polytechnics.

They have had years to internalise society's lack of faith in them, from mothers who hide their report books under the bed when relatives visit to teachers who single them out to have their bras checked for hidden cigarettes.

Ng's script puts a human face to school stereotypes with rebellious student Ashley and her gawky, fanciful best friend Daphne, played once more by Claire Chung and Audrey Teong, who made their debut in the 2015 production.

Chung shines as Ashley, the school's enfant terrible, whose unruly swagger masks a brittle soul. Teong complements her as slow, sweet Daphne, for whom good results remain painfully out of reach no matter how hard she tries.

Ng is careful to balance her sympathies, rendering with complexity the authority figures that harry the girls. Chio Su-Ping reaps the most laughs from the audience as inordinately pious teacher Miss Wong, who means well for her students, even at her most cruel. But the real revelation is Lim Shi-An's porcelain-faced prefect Marianne,who, at too young an age, chose to be the one who leaves others behind.

While Ashley and Daphne handle much of the emotional meat of the play with gut-wrenching efficacy, it is Marianne's monologue that finally breaks the heart.

Eucien Chia's spare set and Lim Woan Wen's lighting do much with little, creating classroom blackboards and school corridors from mesh screens, behind which an ensemble of schoolgirls array themselves.

The ensemble provides the soundscape of school life, from classroom chatter and cheerleader chants to the peal of the school bell and the pledge at morning assembly.

All this works towards evoking the raw, effervescent world of a girls' secondary school, where eating cup noodles with an egg is the height of canteen luxury, and where every slight is felt with the intensity of an open wound.

As the streaming system comes under scrutiny in Parliament and the Ministry of Education prepares to roll out changes for the Normal streams, Ng's play is a timely call to look behind numbers and name tags and see children in all their myriad ways of being.

•Normal runs until April 16, but tickets are sold out.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2017, with the headline 'Pain in raw world of a girls' school'. Print Edition | Subscribe