Theatre review: Travel With Mum is a heartwarming tale of a son's devotion

Hong Kong's The Nonsensemakers brought to loving life a sweet, if moralistic, production based on a true story about a deeply filial man who built a tricycle with a special back seat to take his 99-year-old mother on a trip around China. -- PHOTO: ES
Hong Kong's The Nonsensemakers brought to loving life a sweet, if moralistic, production based on a true story about a deeply filial man who built a tricycle with a special back seat to take his 99-year-old mother on a trip around China. -- PHOTO: ESPLANADE 

When your feisty 99-year-old mother says she wants to go on a trip around China - do you go?

If you are loyal farmer Wang Yi-Min, the answer is yes, and you build a tricycle with a special back seat to bring her around in, from your home in Tahe on the northernmost tip of the country, to the far west of Tibet, a distance of over 30,000 km. Even if you are 74 years old, as he is.

This sweet, if moralistic, production about a deeply filial man is based on a true story, brought to loving life by Hong Kong's The Nonsensemakers for the Esplanade's Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts.

The journey is not easy; travelling is physically challenging, they encounter detractors, and even fall ill. But, like a true modern day parable, they soldier on.

The husband-and-wife founders of the theatre company, Jo Ngai and Rensen Chan, play mother and son respectively with the clever use of detailed masks, some astonishingly well-studied mannerisms, as well as a few choice props. Set against the wonderful use of folksy live music, with percussion (Chung Sai Ying), guitar (Alfee Heun) and harmonica (Lee Chun Lok), this intimate show is irresistibly heartwarming.

Ngai is captivating as the elderly granny who turns 100 halfway through their journey, apple-cheeked and wrinkled, mouth ajar in a perpetual toothy grin, her back hunched but her spirit ramrod straight. The stage lights up whenever she enters it, whether gently chastising her son, or stubbornly insisting that she did not, in fact, wet herself. She is full of a child-like wonderment and curiosity at the world, the wrinkled little dynamo who keeps her son pedalling.

Travel With Mum deals so tenderly and sweetly with mortality that you forgive the preachy detours it takes along the way, which include less effective attempts to introduce other characters struggling with "family duty", who all eventually learn from this duo's adventures and their deep love and affection for each other.

It is also to the show's credit that they do not go easy on the mother and son after they become a media sensation, and the play grapples with this sudden, blinding limelight and fleshes out the convictions and principles they stand by, and when they are tempted to compromise.

The ensemble cast does capably, but it is the husband-wife duo of Chan and Ngai who steal the show. Their chemistry is so palpable, so stirring, that you feel for their aching bones; your heart lightens when they make it through a particularly arduous leg, or when they meet a good samaritan or kind soul.

Even though death hovers constantly overhead, Ngai's infectiously optimistic Granny makes no bones about it; she declares that this is possibly her last trip, she keeps sampling the seawater because she cannot believe that it is salty, and she steals the show during their first TV interview when her son is too shy to speak.

Swirling dust is a key image in many scenes in the production - a reminder, perhaps, that we all become ashes in the end and go back into the same earth we have pedalled and walked upon.

Perhaps that is the same pull that this elderly granny felt, to connect with cities and landscapes she had never visited, to touch the sand and look up at the stars.

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

book it

TRAVEL WITH MUM

Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio

When: March 1 (Sun) at 2.30pm and 8pm

Admission: $35 from Sistic (does not include booking fee; call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)