Theatre review: Lungs a wrenching love story about two flawed people

Joshua Lim (left) and Oon Shu An play the young couple in Lungs. PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

Singapore Repertory Theatre
Tuesday (June 22), 6pm

A man is at Ikea with his partner. Suddenly, he pops the question of whether they should have a baby. She is taken aback, anxious, and her thoughts start to unravel.

What ensues is a "conversation" about whether or not it would be right to add another person to an already overpopulated planet. How do you reckon with the enormity of creating a human being? What about all the extra carbon emissions?

Lungs, a two-character play by Duncan Macmillan, premiered in the United States in 2011. This powerful new staging directed by Singapore Repertory Theatre's Daniel Jenkins takes audiences on an emotional white-knuckle ride.

Oon Shu An and Joshua Lim play the young couple - she is a PhD student, he is a freelance musician - who wrestle over whether they should have a child. They tell themselves they are smart, good, thoughtful people, and trace the usual lines of argument familiar to people who have given this topic serious consideration.

Oon's character tends to overthink, her mind constantly racing and checking, correcting itself with qualifiers. She plays the role of the highly educated, urban, neurotic woman - on steroids. Lim's character, meanwhile, is a confused man who similarly struggles to communicate and empathise with his partner.

What the pair have is a surfeit of speech, but a lack of understanding.

To emphasise the gulf between them, the actors often stand metres apart from each other in Petrina Dawn Tan's minimalist set. An early scene where the couple go clubbing together, shouting over the loud music without quite being able to hear each other, is also a hint of what is to come.

Strong, sympathetic performances from Oon and Lim, and the occasional touch of humour, make it easy for audiences to feel engrossed and invested.

Those who relate to the characters may well find the play doing strange things to them, as they latch onto existing anxieties and let them balloon. It left this particular audience member feeling dizzy and shaken.

Oon Shu An (left) and Joshua Lim in Singapore Repertory Theatre's latest production Lungs. PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

The cast, under Jenkins' excellent direction, does a superb job of fleshing out the bare bones of Macmillan's script, which is notable for its lack of stage directions.

The play's dialogue, while not particularly memorable, moves briskly and with such sharp intent that not a word feels wasted. The play's final flash-forward sequence, though, feels like a frilly ribbon tying the work together and could have been left out entirely.

As the world grapples with not just a climate crisis but a pandemic, the themes raised in the play seem more relevant than ever.

But Lungs is ultimately a love story about two highly flawed people. One suspects that all this posturing about the ethics of having children might in fact be a red herring - a proxy, even, for the uncertainty the couple feel about their relationship.

Book it / Lungs

Where: KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT, 20 Merbau Road

MRT: Fort Canning

When: Till July 24, Mondays to Saturdays, 6 and 9pm

Admission: From $55

Info: Singapore Repertory Theatre's website

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