Theatre review: The power of two, For Better Or For Worse

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 22, 2013

Review Theatre

FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE

Checkpoint Theatre

Drama Centre Black Box/Wednesday

Young Singaporean playwright Faith Ng made ripples three years ago when she penned the family drama wo(men) as an undergraduate, which was staged to critical acclaim.

And it is encouraging to note that the 25-year-old is no one-hit wonder. This script she has just unfurled captures moments of a Singaporean marriage that manage to be both exquisitely and excruciatingly real.

For Better Or For Worse, a title taken from a line in the conventional exchange of wedding vows, is directed by Claire Wong and stars Julius Foo and Jean Ng (both below) as the middle-aged Gerald and Swen.

Both in their mid-50s, the couple have weathered decades of life together - for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health. They have a daughter, Samantha, and a small dog, both of whom we never see. Neither do we see any of the other supporting characters that the duo interact with, including fickle friends and Samantha's fiance Aaron.

The stage has room only for the husband-and- wife pair - and they fill it well. From their every expression, from an arched eyebrow to a stifled sob, we glean the story of their lives.

Actors Foo and Ng, who are long-time friends, demonstrate an easy chemistry on stage. They bicker and tease each other in the well-worn rhythms and patterns of Singlish, which playwright Ng does her best to replicate.

Together, they worry about pesky in-laws and their daughter's imminent wedding, fret over flat downpayments and retrenchment woes ("You just have to trust God," Swen insists), and breathe new life into the minutiae of Singapore living.

Jean Ng is deeply compelling as the lonely housewife locked into her gender identity, wanting to be a dutiful wife and mother as traditional society expects of her, but longing, at the same time, to crash through that glass ceiling. She veers from smouldering bravado to aching vulnerability in a nuanced performance.

Foo is not quite as colourful in comparison - he is an earnest but blustery Gerald, stumbling over quite a few flubbed lines.

But put them together and they are largely magnetic, whether they are watching a soccer game on TV or ironing out an argument in the car.

It sometimes seems, however, that playwright Ng is desperate to throw every possible marital problem that she can find into the path of her characters, expecting them to surmount everything from gambling debts to infidelity. Some scenarios, real though they might be, seem far-fetched when they take place in rapid succession.

This deluge of problems makes the play sag in the middle, and I think Ng could have sacrificed several shouty, soapy conflicts and trimmed the work by about 20 minutes without losing her grip on the heart of the play. The playwright, who is on the cusp of getting married, seems to have poured her hopes and fears about getting hitched into this one work.

But she does get her point across. Marriage can be terribly laborious. Nothing quite goes as planned and life gets in the way of love.

And there are plenty of situations that Singaporeans will find familiar enough to laugh and cry with. For instance, when faced with the need to calm her upset daughter, Swen asks, tenderly: "Do you want me to make you some Milo?" Sometimes, the quietest snapshots of Singapore living, the moments that we take for granted, make the most powerful scenes on stage.

This honest portrait of a marriage, with its peeling walls and cracked floors, still makes you want to stick with it - for better or for worse.