Theatre review: Family Duet is a raw and quietly heartwarming work

Review Theatre

FAMILY DUET

spell#7

Esplanade Theatre Studio/Last Friday

Face it: If you are sharing the stage with two arrestingly adorable six- and eight-year- old actresses, there is no competition for your audience's attention. Your co-stars won the moment they set foot on stage.

In this case, husband-and-wife theatre practitioners Paul Rae and Kaylene Tan are happy to let their daughters do the scene-stealing.

The irrepressible Lola, eight, and Summer, six, are the backbone and fireworks of this production, the duet begat by the original duet.

Family Duet is the latest instalment of Rae and Tan's autobiographical Duets series, in which they have bravely thrust a magnifying glass to their lives.

It is a raw and quietly heartwarming work - a barrel of laughs for the children in the audience, whose reactions to the work were sometimes funnier than the scenes themselves - and also a tender study of parenthood and the transformative journeys that families must face together.

The Esplanade Theatre Studio is transformed into a sort of fantasy playground, with fairy lights draped from the ceiling and bright strips of coloured tape lined up across the floor. Audience members are welcome to play a spot of badminton or hula hoop with the cast before the show begins.

Through a series of vignettes and scenes that fade and nestle into one another, the Rae-Tan family flesh out what it means to be a tightly woven sextet, which includes Rae's mother, Fiona Rae, and Tan's mother, Eleanor Song.

Those unfamiliar with the previous Duets might find this very specific snapshot of a family vaguely alienating, but the group tackle the subject with such heart and honesty that it is difficult not to enjoy and be entertained by what they bring to the floor.

Rather disarmingly, Lola declares, at the show's opening: "The first time I was on stage, I wasn't even born."

It is clear from the get-go that the two girls have an inextricable relationship with the stage, one that permeates the work right from the family introductions to a whimsical allegory later on in the show.

This bit of very imaginative playacting is made even more poignant when one realises it was likely created for the children to transition a little more smoothly from their beloved old home into a new condominium.

One of the most sensitively crafted moments involves Rae waking Lola for school - a rib-tickling routine of passive-aggressive rebellion and a universal hatred of teeth-brushing that parents might find familiar. But behind the laughs, the hard questions linger: How does one invest in children who are sure to leave, sooner or later? What is the "right" way of bringing up a child?

The girls have a penchant, or should I say talent, for ad-libbing punchlines. Their personalities come quickly to the fore.

Lola has a concentrated seriousness and sheer commitment to the performance (not a single missed cue), a perfect foil for Summer, with her extraordinarily infectious energy and love of the spotlight. Summer seems quite aware of her effect on the audience and the laughs she can wrangle from a single line (halfway during a scene, she declared, "I deserve a treat, don't I?").

The adults fare well too, despite the competition. Song, in particular, delivers a touching monologue about her own sister, bringing the audience back to the wartime era.

The work does drag its feet in the middle, where protracted song-and- dance scenes come across as long and muddled, little more than a showcase for Lola and Summer's gleaming stage presence. Some scenes are also just too sweetly saccharine and overwhelmingly cutesy, especially when the girls play to the gallery subconsciously.

But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise charming experiment in involving the whole family, from age six to 66, in the process of theatremaking.

Summer was right - they definitely deserve a treat.

corriet@sph.com.sg