Quiet look at loss of a place you once thought was yours

Loong Seng Onn (left) and Karen Tan perform in the English version of My Grandfather's Road.
Loong Seng Onn (left) and Karen Tan perform in the English version of My Grandfather's Road.PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY

My Grandfather's Road is perpetually a work-in-progress. One enters a set like a construction site - risers covered in plastic sheeting and scaffolding, and ladders tucked away into corners.

The thrust stage, by set designer mil de J., is based on the blueprint of the house that once belonged to the grandfather of playwright and director Neo Kim Seng, who also gave his name to the road that Neo grew up on: Neo Pee Teck Lane.

Neo moved out of this Pasir Panjang home in 1973. The street's original sign, secured by him in an auction from the Land Transport Authority, hangs in a corner.

In its shadow, the character of Neo embarks on a project of memory, piecing together the stories of his family and childhood - from beachside idylls and cinema outings to his mother's miscarriage and his brother's death.

There have already been several iterations of My Grandfather's Road, which Neo first created in 2015 for Cake Theatrical Productions as a visual installation and a monologue. He added two Cantonese versions in 2017 under Centre 42's The Vault series so that his mother, whose grasp of English is not strong, could understand his work.

In this edition for the Studios, an English version stars Karen Tan and Loong Seng Onn, while a Cantonese version brings back Gary Tang and Tan Cher Kian, who performed the 2017 Centre 42 versions.

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The project might seem at first to sit comfortably in a heritage festival setting, with its reminiscences of kampung life, genealogical tracings and sepia-tinted family portraits.

But this is no nostalgia trip. Rather, it is a quiet look at loss - of a childhood home, of personal stories and of loved ones - how these losses reverberate in the present and how, in their wake, we might continue to live with the past.

Tan plays a younger version of Neo with a child-like energy, bouncing around the stage in a batik shirt and New Balance sneakers. She is a different gender from the playwright, but you would not notice it from her performance, only how reliably she can command the emotional temperature of the room with just a tremor in her voice.

Loong seems at first to be there to voice minor characters and read out letters - he puts in a highly comical turn as a typewriter-wielding government bureaucrat - but it gradually emerges that he is also playing another version of Neo, as the playwright strives to diffuse and refract his perceptions of his self.

The sound design of Ctrl Fre@k's Jeffrey Yue and the music composed by Hayashida Ken deserve mention too for their unobtrusive yet evocative complementing of poignant moments.

Neo examines the particular grief of losing a place you once thought was yours to time. It might still exist in space - you might visit it, even buy its road signs - but the version that was yours, with its people and its experiences, is locked away in the past. It will never be yours again. All you can do is keep trying to tell its stories.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2019, with the headline 'Quiet look at loss of a place you once thought was yours'. Print Edition | Subscribe