Theatre review: Dim Sum Dollies serves up affectionate zingers on local history

From left, Pam Oei (In red), Denise Tan (in purple) and Selena Tan (in pink). -- PHOTO: DREAM ACADEMY
From left, Pam Oei (In red), Denise Tan (in purple) and Selena Tan (in pink). -- PHOTO: DREAM ACADEMY
From left, Pam Oei, Hossan Leong (standing), Denise Tan and Selena Tan. -- PHOTO: DREAM ACADEMY
From left, Pam Oei, Hossan Leong (standing), Denise Tan and Selena Tan. -- PHOTO: DREAM ACADEMY
From left, Selena Tan, Pam Oei (on the floor) and Denise Tan. -- PHOTO: DREAM ACADEMY
From left, Selena Tan, Pam Oei (on the floor) and Denise Tan. -- PHOTO: DREAM ACADEMY
From left, Pam Oei, Selena Tan and Denise Tan. -- PHOTO: DREAM ACADEMY
From left, Pam Oei, Selena Tan and Denise Tan. -- PHOTO: DREAM ACADEMY

The opening of the latest Dim Sum Dollies show, The History Of Singapore - Part 2: The Growing Up Years, was overshadowed by a Media Development Authority advisory slapped on it.

The authority rated it "Advisory 16: some mature content", citing the script's "satirical socio-political references, which would be more suited for a mature audience" - the first time a Dollies show has been given a classification of any sort since the popular cabaret trio's inception in 2002.

But to this reviewer, there was nothing in the revue which warranted that rating. The show's commentary was significantly more tempered than most opinions online, and the Dollies prefaced the whole performance by pointing out that their version is not meant to be fact.

The "satirical socio-political references", in this case, include nods to Operation Spectrum in 1987 - the detention of activists accused of Marxist activities - allusions to allegations of gerrymandering over electoral boundary changes to Aljunied GRC in 2011, and jibes at a leader paving the way for his son to take the throne.

The Dollies began by saying that "since 1965, our textbooks kena a lot of liquid paper", and for the next two hours, they waded through the waters of Singapore's history with a zippy, zany melange of brassy showtunes, well-aimed potshots and a side of sauciness.

Creator and writer Selena Tan and her two co-Dollies Pam Oei and Denise Tan were on point, delivering the big numbers with aplomb, while always maintaining a nudge-nudge-wink-wink connection with the audience.                                          

The tackled history in chronological order, picking out the milestones such as the late opposition politician J.B. Jeyaretnam's Anson by-election win in 1981 (Hossan Leong giving us a rockstar take on Queen's We Are The Champions, complete with a hammer-shaped guitar), our obsession with mascots and the rise of the two integrated resorts.  

The show is packed with sly hints, which you have to work hard to spot sometimes. During a Lion King-esque scene, attended by a menagerie of animals, a trio of penguins holding hands made an appearance, as they did on the cover of the children's book And Tango Makes Three, which the National Library Board had controversially tried to yank. On a Le Dynasty Hair Salon sign, the "a" in hair was artfully flipped, turning it into an "e".

The Dollies also wove their brand of cheeky irreverence into current pop culture, belting out Frozen's Let It Go as Goh Chok Tong began his term as Prime Minister in 1990 - "Mr Goh never bothered me anyway!" - and as a bunch of kebaya-clad aunties busting out a hip-hop dance to Meghan Trainor's hit song, All About That Bass, which was all about that political base, no trouble.

Sometimes though, the satire did feel a bit heavy-handed. The delight in shows such as this are the sneaky pokes, and the knowing exchange between the performers and the audience, without someone having to explain the joke.

So, when three fruits were locked up in a Cold Store, accused of a Sunkist conspiracy ("wah, for a moment I thought they said Marxist") to harm a Spectrum of local fruit, with a constant overemphasis on the word "detain", it felt like a joke gone on too long.

But despite all the jibes, joking and fault-finding that the Dollies did, it was all done with an undercurrent of affection for this tiny island. In typical Singaporean fashion, our country is something that we grumble and complain about, but still love, warts and all.

That is something which needs to be understood, and that is also what makes this Dim Sum Dollies show important.

Instead of policing what should be shown on stage, it would be more forward-thinking to acknowledge and discuss our nation's ups and downs, our past and the fact that we are not perfect. Singapore has come a long way from some of the murky areas sketched out in the musical, but there is still much further to go.

lting@sph.com.sg

Book It

Dim Sum Dollies' The History Of Singapore - Part 2: The Growing Up Years

Where: Esplanade Theatre

When: Now until Dec 23. Tues to Sun, 8pm; Sat and Sun, 3pm. Additional show on Mon, Dec 22, 8pm

Admission: Tickets at $58, $68, $78, $98, $128 and $138 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)