Army Daze 2 a delightful salute to 30-year-old classic

New national servicemen - played by (from left) Tahir Ansari, Andre Chong, Tay Hwan Haw and Irsyad Dawood - in Army Daze 2.
New national servicemen - played by (from left) Tahir Ansari, Andre Chong, Tay Hwan Haw and Irsyad Dawood - in Army Daze 2.PHOTO: A DIFFERENT PLANET

Michael Chiang's updated Army Daze 2 resonates with its incisive, witty script

REVIEW / THEATRE

ARMY DAZE 2

Drama Centre/Last Saturday


Good things come to those who wait, and so it was with this sequel to the beloved national service comedy Army Daze, which first hit the stage here in 1987.

As this evening show's new cast members stormed the stage with their catchy opening number by composer Don Richmond, "O-o-o-o-o-o/ Into the army we go", the burning question was: Could its creator Michael Chiang update his play for millennials?

Could he ever. He blended judiciously his expert grasp of pop culture and what makes Singaporeans tick to produce spot-on digs at society today, which triggered laughs for almost every line he wrote. Even his more contrived instances, such as when fresh NSman Zai (Irsyad Dawood) croons Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran tunes as punchlines, went down a treat.

  • BOOK IT /ARMY DAZE 2

  • WHERE: Drama Centre, National Library Board headquarters, 100 Victoria Street

    WHEN: Tomorrow till Aug 20, 8pm (Tuesdays to Fridays), with 3pm shows on Aug 10 , Saturdays and Sundays

    ADMISSION: $43 to $98 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

This play may have been 30 years in the making, but it is an instant classic.

In its world, Singapore has its first female chief of army, one BG Wong (Oon Shu An, in an elegant, nuanced turn), vloggers are forever in search of scandals to ride on and casual racism persists, though more pronounced among older rather than younger Singaporeans.

But the bonds from NS are for life, Chiang showed through the reunion of his five original protagonists at, of all places, a funeral. Geeky Malcolm Png, worrywart Krishnamoorthi, rough-and-ready Teo Ah Beng, amiable Johari Salleh and flamboyant Kenny Pereira had lost touch with one another from real-life stresses.

Malcolm (a staid Hossan Leong) is now an army colonel who cramps the style of his level-headed son, Justin (a believable Andre Chong). Ah Beng (a hammy Joshua Lim) is the army driver whose online business now rivals Taobao.com. He wonders why his only child Bee Bee (a timid Natalie Ong) wants to go by the name Renee or, as he pronounces it, "Rainy".

Johari (subtle and delightful Saiful Amri) now sells Tanjong Pagar's hottest ayam penyet and, like interior designer Kenny (Shane Mardjuki, being camp to the hilt), has no sons.

What four among them want to know is this: Did Krishna (a swaggering Ebi Shankara) marry Lathi, the girl he was ga-ga over in the army? Who is the mother of his son Donovan (Tahir Ansari)?

When Donovan is injured during NS training and BG Wong rushes to his bedside in an apparent attempt to deflect bad publicity, a popular vlogger named Ariston seizes the chance to ridicule her thus: "Is she chief of army or chief nurse?"

As foxy Ariston with her platinum-purple locks, Jo Tan acted her heart out, but got only a smattering of applause at every turn, likely because she showed too much effort.

Amid all this, Chiang reimagined NSmen as boyband members, hip-hop artists, Bollywood dancers and Swan Lake ballerinas - likely alluding to Mindef's keen eye on black swans, or unforeseen calamities. The last scene brought the house down, thanks to superb pivots and splits by actor Tay Hwan Haw (playing NSman Lai Kuan Yew).

There were also barbs galore, ranging from "you're serving the nation, not serving cafe latte" to "stupid white horses" and to a certain Singapore Member of Parliament with a notable online "fan base".

But the evening was largely good-natured warmth. Nice guys do finish first, Chiang seemed to say, as everyone mistook va-va-voom Angela as puny Malcolm's wife. And when Ah Beng confuses "mid-life crisis" with "middle-class problems", everyone laughed with, not at, him.

Director Beatrice Chia-Richmond reined in his kaleidoscopic script so expertly that everything ran at such an efficient clip - there were three meaty acts in just under two hours. She burnished Chiang's crowd-pleasing lines till they shone.

Things went so swimmingly that, with the exception of the bravura turns of Chua Enlai and Audrey Luo, few among the gifted cast were around long enough to make any meaningful impact.

As Angela, Ah Beng's Ah Lian wife, Luo drew yelps of "Too real!" from the audience when she belted out the ditty Jin Pai Tia (Hokkien for "very hard on the ears"), which poked fun at Asians who are too enamoured of Western culture.

"Watch Kardashians/Forget your Hokkien/This is the beginning of the end," she lamented. How the audience laughed.

Against the stellar cast, the crew's efforts paled, although set designer Wong Chee Wai deserves a mention for his brilliant way of changing scenes by sliding them on and off stage on a travellator-like track.

Army Daze 2 is a rich, textured masterclass in how to speak truth to power without offence. It is also a resonant reminder of what about being Singaporean matters most, so do not wait to catch it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2017, with the headline 'Delightful salute to a classic'. Print Edition | Subscribe