Theatre Review: Pioneer (Girls) Generation is a cheeky take on active ageing

Sassy seniors rule the roost in The Necessary Stage's newest play, Pioneer (Girls) Generation, rescuing a saggy plot with their good-natured sincerity and showing a side to ageing that one rarely encounters in the theatre.

The play began on a rather sombre note on Thursday night, as playwright Haresh Sharma led the audience at the National Museum of Singapore's Gallery Theatre in observing a minute of silence to remember Singapore's late founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who died on Monday.

The first line of the play was: "Do you remember what Lee Kuan Yew said last time?". With an ongoing memorial happening nearby at the Padang, it gave the play a jolt of sombre reality.

But it soon morphed into a rambunctious comedy that left the packed audience, many of whom were silver-haired themselves, in stitches.

The story follows the exploits of a cheeky foursome of 60-somethings (played by three graduates of The Necessary Stage's Theatre for Seniors programme - Thomas Lim, Irene Ong, Padma Sagaram - and veteran TV and stage actress Catherine Sng) living in a high-class retirement home.

Despite having retired, they do not cease to live their lives out loud - they make bawdy jokes, perform lapdances, curse and (gasp!) even have sex with each other behind closed doors.

Their interactions at times made me feel slightly uncomfortable, but that seemed to be the very intention of Sharma and director Alvin Tan.

When Sng's Paula flashes her bare breasts at a TV camera crew to protest against rising fees at the retirement home, her brazen act has the effect of metaphorically grabbing you by the collar, as if to say "Yes, we exist!".

But not everyone appreciates the seniors the way they want to be appreciated.

While they appear to have happily checked themselves into the retirement home to enjoy their sunset years, there are cracks in the facade - Ong's Susie longs for a visit from her son who lives in America; Sagaram's Marilyn rarely sees her grandchild, and her offers to take care of her fall on deaf ears.

The episodes referencing their backstories, while brief, give the play its emotional centre, hinting at greater tragedies that we are not privy to.

But these active agers do not let anything get them down. Faced with money troubles when the home's management increase their monthly fees, they try to form a K-pop band to put on a charity concert.

The play's title is a riff on this effort, fusing the now-familiar term "pioneer generation", for Singaporeans born on or before 1950, with the popular, leggy K-pop group Girls Generation.

Those curious about what this mash-up sounds like need only stay till the end for a brilliant pay-off.

Coming from Sharma, who penned incisive plays such as Fundamentally Happy and Off Centre, this play is not without its social commentary.

For example, Sagaram's Marilyn says that she only has 10 years worth of CPF to support her stay in the home. What will happen after 10 years? "I kill myself lah", she says, and her cheeky face draws laughter, obscuring the darker sentiment.

But where the plot falters are the unnecessary scenes involving some of the bit characters played by younger artists Dwayne Lau and Audrey Luo. We did not really need to see Lau in a silver-haired wig as Jeyaretnam, Marilyn's illicit lover, to ponder on the moral implications of her dating a married man.

But Lau and Luo pulled off several other comedic roles with aplomb. In particular, Lau's turn as the Filipino retirement home manager and Luo's depiction of a cranky Chinese news anchor were laugh-out-loud funny.

Despite some first-night jitters, the whole cast worked hard to portray complex, full-bodied and emotional beings, who just so happen to be pushing 70, earning the audience's cheers at the end.

Old is gold? It is not quite the case for Pioneer (Girls) Generation, but silver is not such a bad colour, either.

Only limited tickets left for Saturday 3pm at $27 each. Go to www.facebook.com/thenecessarystage for info on ticket availability.

nabilahs@sph.com.sg