Theatre review: Nostalgia-rich Quarters spreads itself thin

There is a sobering moment in the multi-language production Quarters, when a character laments that the new Housing and Development Board flats proposed by the government - the play is set in the 1970s - would lead to less interaction between neighbours.

The new flats would give families their own private kitchens and toilets, but this seemed to be of little comfort to the residents of the Public Utilities Board workers' quarters, the word which gives the play its name. Theirs was a world of unlocked doors, shared televisions and squabbling over who gets to use the toilet first in the morning - and that was how they liked it.

Moments like this were where Quarters, staged by Indian theatre group Avant Theatre & Language, could have shone.

Instead, playwright Arivazhagan Thirugnanam eschewed a main dramatic plot and a protagonist, choosing to let the quarters itself take centrestage. Sadly, this risk did not seem to work, and made me feel every minute of its almost three-hour-long duration.

Taking place from sunrise on the eve of National Day to sunset on the nation's birthday, it details what might have taken place in these living quarters of old, down to almost painful minutiae.

We see children being ferried to and from school on a trishaw, their fathers leaving for work in the morning and coming home in the evening, lovers flirting and squabbling.

All the while, we are treated to the same view of the common area outside the quarters - but what goes on outside and behind closed doors might well be juicier.

What also bogs the plot down is the playwright's decision to give each character some development - a valiant effort, but try multiplying that by more than 30 characters and it ventures into speed dating territory.

Nonetheless, Quarters does have some redeeming qualities, and the audience in the packed Victoria Theatre seemed to respond favourably to it during opening night on Friday.

There was the realistic two-storey set: when characters disappeared behind closed doors, it was not hard to believe that they were retreating to their homes.

The lighting and scene transitions at dawn were especially beautiful, as the shops, their roofs light-dappled, raised their shutters and opened for business for their sleepy customers.

Director G. Selvananthan, also the artistic director of Avant Theatre & Language, did an able job orchestrating the movements not only of the large cast, but of bicycles and even a trishaw.

The depiction of the mix of races in post-independence Singapore was enjoyable to watch and the mix of Tamil, Hokkien and Malay used onstage was refreshing, though laggy surtitles marred the experience somewhat.

There were also some interesting narratives, such as Ayub (a solid effort by veteran actor R Sommasundram), the ever-reliable Indian-Muslim shopkeeper who quietly toils for the residents even as it takes time away from his family; an interracial teen romance; and an apparent theft that causes the neighbours to doubt one another.

But these were not developed to their full potential, in favour of other scenes that seemed to belong to a soap opera (there is a scene where one character's mother dies and she responds in histrionics, complete with chest pounding).

In this Golden Jubilee year, the nostalgia of Quarters was welcome, even if one was aware that the glasses came rose-tinted. With some judicious editing, the trip down memory lane could have been so much more enjoyable.

nabilahs@sph.com.sg

Quarters

Where: Victoria Theatre

When: Saturday, 7.30pm

Admission: $25 & $30 from quarters.peatix.com. Students, full-time national servicemen and senior citizens with Pioneer Generation cards get a $5 discount by calling 9899-3002