Oh-so-relatable narrative for 20-somethings

Grace Lee Khoo (front) as the frigid, older Blanche and Chanel Ariel Chan (behind) as her younger, carefree self.
Grace Lee Khoo (front) as the frigid, older Blanche and Chanel Ariel Chan (behind) as her younger, carefree self.PHOTO: TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS

Find a good job, get married and have kids. The typical Singapore narrative is challenged in Permanence, Gina Chew's tragicomic exploration of love, sex and domesticity which has been restaged after its premiere two years ago.

Under Mitchell Fang's judicious direction, past and present collide in a sort of theatrical tango between two pairs of lovers who appear on stage at the same time - Blanche (Chanel Ariel Chan) and her old flame Chris (Jamil Schulze), a bartender; and an older, married Blanche (Grace Lee Khoo), who is now yoked to Nathan (Terrance Tan), a Mr Nice Guy who is not as wholesome as he seems.

Like the Tennessee Williams character of the same name, Blanche is a troubled woman.

The passionate protagonist, who has spent some time abroad, returns to Singapore with baggage - both physical and metaphorical - and chafes against society's expectations of her. But several twists and turns later, she finds herself trapped in an unhealthy marriage.

Chan slips into the role of Blanche like a hand in a glove, channelling her character's wit, recklessness and feline charm with aplomb. Lee Khoo does a similarly good job at playing Blanche's frigid older self.

Abortion, infidelity and marital rape rear their heads in the play.

The lead character is a sympathetic figure and we come to see her as more than just a woman who has made a string of bad decisions and has to live with the consequences.

  • REVIEW / THEATRE

  • PERMANENCE

    Toy Factory Productions

    Nafa Studio Theatre/Last Friday

Permanence was first performed two years ago at the inaugural edition of Toy Factory Productions' The Wright Stuff Festival, which nurtures emerging playwrights.

Back by invitation, Chew's domestic drama now features a new cast and sharper dialogue, and is also more reflective of a Singapore context.

The 150-seat Nafa Studio Theatre, more than twice the size of the shophouse space where the show was previously staged, remains a suitably intimate setting.

  • BOOK IT /THE WRIGHT

  • STUFF FESTIVAL

    WHERE: Nafa Studio Theatre, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Campus 3, 151 Bencoolen Street

    WHEN: Thursday to Sunday (Ashes, Ashes), Oct 24 to 26 (Random Access Memory), Nov 1 to 3 (The Puppet King); 3 and 8pm

    ADMISSION: $28 from eventbrite.sg

There is something oh-so-relatable about Permanence, which will strike a chord with 20-somethings who are wondering if it is time, after all, to buy into the BTO-marriage-kids narrative; or who, having settled down, find their lives to be a quick succession of busy nothings.

Particularly memorable is one scene where Blanche rattles off a litany of the things one must do - find a spouse, busy yourself with children and, finally, aim to die peacefully in your sleep.

The dialogue features some sensitive observations of Singapore life - from Nathan's description of HDB kitchens lighting up one by one as children get ready for school, to Blanche's jibe at the large, ghastly wedding portraits some couples like to hang above their beds.

Nathan's machinations do not always feel convincing. The ending is unsatisfactory, although that could very well be the point. And one cannot help feeling that Permanence is in some ways bound and straitened by the very society it is trying to critique, aching for that extra something that might elevate it beyond (nonetheless engaging) soap opera territory.

That said, it is clear this restaging has been a success, a mark of Chew's promise as a playwright and a reflection of the fact that giving plays more time to gestate and breathe can only be a good thing.

• Toy Factory Productions' biennial festival also features Mark Benedict Cheong's Random Access Memory, Titus Yim's The Puppet King and Rajkumar Thiagaras' Ashes, Ashes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2019, with the headline 'Oh-so-relatable narrative for 20-somethings'. Print Edition | Subscribe