Theatre review: In-law tensions in finely wrought family drama The Karims

(From left) Rusydina Afiqah, Adib Kosnan, Dalifah Shahril, Farah Lola and Rafaat Hamzah play a squabbling family in Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims). PHOTO: CHECKPOINT THEATRE

Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims)

Checkpoint Theatre

Online, Wednesday (Sept 29)

Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims) was to have been a return to live theatre for Checkpoint Theatre. But the pandemic has forced yet another production to go digital.

The good news is that director Claire Wong, perfectionist that she is, was not content to simply plonk a camera down to record a stage production. Instead, long-time Checkpoint collaborator Joel Lim has been called in to give The Karims a filmic makeover.

The result is a thoughtfully fluid translation that makes full use of Petrina Dawn Tan's detailed stage set for filmic realism while respecting the live theatre roots of the work.

Playwright Adib Kosnan's warmly observed family drama is small in scale, but, like Jane Austen's two inches of ivory, it is finely wrought.

Adib plays Aqil, the new son-in-law of the Karims, who has to learn to deal with a whole new family when he moves in while waiting for his BTO (Build-To-Order) flat to be ready.

This typically Singaporean scenario gets fleshed out with a tale of familial tensions. Head of the family Karim (Rafaat Hamzah) is an old-school patriarch who expects his daughters to fall in with his demands. Normah (Dalifah Shahril) is the prototypical homemaker, a perennial peacemaker between her husband and daughters.

Prickly elder daughter Rinny (Rusydina Afiqah) is trying to get back into the dating game after a broken relationship while younger sibling Balqis (Farah Lola), despite being the first to marry, is still the pampered baby.

The story ambles gently through the thinnest of plots as Aqil has to adapt to new expectations, Rinny threatens to move out and Karim causes a commotion when he insists the family has to attend the wedding of Rinny's ex.

What saves this from television soap hell are the detailed character portraits etched out by the actors, aided by Adib's sweetly scripted vignettes.

Veteran actors Rafaat and Dalifah are versatile scene stealers, easily adapting to film acting with some great emoting in tight close-ups. Rafaat's intimidating paternal side eye and Dalifah's teary absorption in K-drama are instant windows into different aspects of their characters.

The script handles with a light touch heavier topics. Rinny's reluctance to tell her father about her ex also reveals a fear that her father might hold the same misogynistic beliefs as other men of his generation.

The possible melodrama of a long-dead sibling instead offers insights into parents' fears for their children's well being and helps humanise Karim.

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Karim's faithful visits to his child's tomb are shot as would have been staged in the theatre, with Rafaat miming the gestures of tomb cleaning and his thoughts revealed in voiceover.

The tight framing of faces and sets helps draw in the viewer. One becomes a fly on the wall, privy to the intimate dynamics of the Karims which feel universal to all Singaporean families living in the tight confines of a HDB flat.

There is also much comedy which is plumbed deftly, the funniest being a string of quick scenes in which Karim, entrusted with shopping errands, returns with the wrong items in typical male fashion.

By the end, when Aqil gets the unexpected opportunity to be the mediator over a homecooked meal, viewers will feel like they too are invested in the resolution of this family drama.

The fact that the happy ending feels deserved rather than cliched is testament to the careful construction of the script, which has taken time to plant seeds and cultivate the growing affection the audience feels for the Karims.

Book it/Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims)

Where: Online

When: Sept 29 to Oct 15

Admission: $15 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to Sistic's website)

Info: Visit The Esplanade's website

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