Theatre review: Gruesome Playground Injuries' bittersweet love story draws tears

Review Theatre

GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES

Pangdemonium Productions

Esplanade Theatre Studio/Last Saturday

Boy meets pretty girl. Boy is besotted with girl. Boy spends entire life making sacrifices for this one girl who pushes him away but secretly loves him too.

If this sounds a little like the plot of cloyingly romantic movie The Notebook (2004), you would not be too far off, except that the boy in question is enormously accident-prone and the girl is deeply wounded inside.

Gruesome Playground Injuries, directed by Tracie Pang, flips over that darker underbelly of love and sacrifice in a play that leaps back and forth in time, tracing the anti-love story of Doug (Alan Wong) and Kayleen (Seong Hui Xuan) from age eight to 38.

They meet for the first time in their school's nurses' room after Doug falls off the school roof and ends up with an ugly gash on his face, and Kayleen is curled up with a stomachache. Through the years, they come together and fall apart, physically and emotionally, picking up plenty of injuries along the way.

It has been a brutally emotional year for Pangdemonium, and the theatre company has not let up with the punches in this final show of the season.

Unfortunately, it does not quite score a theatrical hat-trick after its wildly acclaimed productions of Rabbit Hole and Next To Normal. The problem lies a little more with the choice of script than the performance itself.

American playwright Rajiv Joseph has constructed what feels like a male fantasy of the ultimate sacrifice, of a man loving a broken woman his entire life, fulfilling some sort of desire to be a protector or knight in shining armour.

Doug is not exactly a success when it comes to defending Kayleen from the bitter realities of life, but the sort of boy (and eventually, man) he embodies is one who might seem incredibly romantic to some and painfully unreal to others.

His character dispenses some of the most syrupy lines in the play, as he declares Kayleen to be some sort of angel and healer of wounds, throwing out lines such as "I wish I could do to you what you do to me" with great frequency.

Seong, 26, and Wong, 28, are at their best in portraying the on-stage couple in their late teens and early 20s, perhaps because these are the life experiences most vivid in their minds. At the extremes of eight and 38, they are not half as convincing, either over-acting or lacking the sort of rough-edged world-worn resignation that comes with time.

The actors chalk the year in which each scene happens onto the stage floor but without this indication, it would have been difficult to differentiate many of their stages of life. The characters' later years, in particular, begin to blur into each other without appearing to have gained any maturity or wisdom from their 20s.

One might argue that both characters remain vulnerable and child-like their entire lives, but I think as we age, there is the tendency to gather layers and shells that mask these traits.

Joseph also sprinkles Kayleen's conversations with an over-generous helping of the phrases "you're so stupid" and "shut up", which quickly truncate any conversations that might have been opportunities to excavate the couple's relationship and their personal histories.

I appreciated the bittersweet ambiguity of each fragment in time, but instead of conjuring up a sense of the enigmatic and developing my curiosity, these shreds of scenes made the two characters feel two-dimensional instead.

That is not to say that the play is devoid of emotion. There are plenty of scenes where the actors dominate the stage with raw, bloody emotion and you might find yourself tearing up despite yourself, particularly when the two teenagers discuss sex, boundaries and broken hearts in a scene circling around the idea of lost innocence.

They are framed by a beautiful set designed by Philip Engleheart, featuring various potentially dangerous items suspended from above. These range from rusty saws and axes to a broken bicycle and garden shears.

Pang also weaves in a smart conceit, in getting the two actors to do their make-up and step into new outfits (and with that, new chapters of life) in full view of the audience.

This whirlwind of a play has its problems, but it also has its triumphs and might leave your heart with some scars and scratches along the way.