Cafe by Joel Tan serves a dark, macabre brew in The Twenty-Something Theatre Festival

Playwright Joel Tan.
Playwright Joel Tan.PHOTO: WILFRED WEEGEE PHOTOGRAPHY

Cafe

Joel Tan/ The Twenty-Something Theatre Festival

Black Box, Goodman Arts Centre

Thursday (June 16)

What is a real macchiato versus a Starbucks' sweet treat, the merits of chicken and waffles over waffles and maple syrup - one expects hipster concerns to crop up in a theatre festival celebrating millenial talents. But something deeper and darker is brewing in cafe, the second headline act of the new Twenty-Something Theatre Festival.

Jasmine Xie and Zee Wong play former schoolmates, now well-heeled office workers, whose disposable incomes and woes contrast sharply with the concerns of the three cafe employees serving them.

Joshua Lim plays a former convict with a newborn to support. Ellison Tan Yuyang is an inept barista with a memory problem. Erwin Shah Ismail is the manager whose forced joviality over dwindling supplies and a disappearing chef rivals Wong's deliberate dismissal of the terrible storm outside.

Cafe pits the upper middle-class against those struggling on the lower rungs of Singapore's ladder of success. It presents, perhaps, Singapore as a comfortable hipster cafe proof - for a while - against the raging storms in the world outside.

Erwin and Wong's characters want to maintain the appearance of all being well in their respective worlds but, inexplicably, mud piles up on the cafe floor. The barista counter is slowly denuded of cups and coffee machine. In a true sign of the apocalypse being now, there is no cellular reception, let alone Wi-Fi.

Playwright Joel Tan's sense of humour is as black and intense as the coffee his characters order and this is echoed in the set design by director Chen Yingxuan and Sara Chan. Petrina Dawn Tan's lighting and Ryann Othniel Seng's sound design create a menacing storm that brings out the darker undertones of the banal dialogue between Wong and Xie. Pity that the background noise also overwhelms the actors' lines for much of the play.

The play could easily have been 20 minutes shorter, as it spends far too much time on the individual worlds of customer and staff, when the real pay-off is in the interaction between both.

Wong is phenomenal as a desperately lonely, catty, customer who has all the trappings of financial success but little emotional well-being. Her talk of water dispensers and former schoolmates' babies plays out disturbingly against Xie's fixed smile and increased nervousness about conditions outside.

The best scenes pit Wong against Lim, who tries at one point to sell her kitschy toys to supplement his income.

It is an experience familiar to many in the audience, who cringe and feel guilt about being willing to pay for a latte but not a keychain. Wong refuses to buy anything and then demands he refill her water glass. The irony is heavy enough to sink the viewer's spirits but not enough to puncture the character's bubble of entitlement.

One comes away vowing to be much nicer to waiters and maybe even start a collection of kitschy keychains.

akshitan@sph.com.sg

book it

Cafe by Joel Tan

Where: Black Box, Goodman Arts Centre

When: 3pm and 8pm June 18, 8pm June 19

Tickets: $35 from chopecafe@gmail.com, $37 from 20something-cafe.peatix.com