The mum I remember

Noorlinah Mohamed (far left) and Claire Wong (left) explore their relationships with their mothers.
Noorlinah Mohamed (left) and Claire Wong (right) explore their relationships with their mothers. PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY



Checkpoint Theatre/Esplanade Presents: The Studios

Esplanade Theatre Studio/Thursday

The best moments of Recalling Mother are exuberantly physical.

Creators Claire Wong and Noorlinah Mohamed climb onto chairs in memory of watching their mothers cook. They swing the heavy wood around in imitation of carrying pregnant bellies or children.

In one devastating scene, Noorlinah hurls her chair across the otherwise bare stage, in remembered rage over how her mother's second marriage weakened the bond between them. She does not speak. Context is provided by a voiceover recorded from a 2009 staging of the same show.

The two actresses have explored their relationships with their mothers three times before, including last year and in 2006, making this the 10th anniversary of Recalling Mother.

The stories change each time, it emerges in a post-show dialogue with the performers, who also wrote and directed this version.

Noorlinah's mother was diagnosed with dementia a few years ago. This year, the script includes her late-night ramblings about sotong and more about the second marriage. In another poignant scene of role reversal, Noorlinah rocks her chair in her arms, desperately wondering why her mother will not stop crying.

The set by Petrina Dawn Tan, also the lighting designer, is an open trapezium, echoing the evolving and parallel nature of each mother- daughter bond. A screen allows multimedia projections of maternal hands and photographs of mother and child.

With only two chairs brought in by the actresses as props, the set seems bare. By the end of the play, it is crowded, given the richness in the relationships being explored.

The performers speak Cantonese or Malay as required. No surtitles are provided, in a deliberate and debatable move to let the audience into the bewilderment of two uneducated women who speak no language other than their own.

Enough context is provided in English that the gist of the story is obvious. Pity that many of its nuances escape.

Recalling Mother began as conversations between the two actresses. These are replicated on stage, not always naturally.

Wong tends to declaim these parts, perhaps in a defence mechanism against the deeply personal nature of the material. Otherwise she moves effortlessly between mimicry of her mother as a young, stylish office worker and an aged woman sitting in front of the TV.

Sometimes, these changes are made obvious, the actresses deliberately kinking joints or loosening their facial muscles.

It is a powerful reminder that ageing is inescapable and of how little time is left for children to discover all their parents' stories.

•Recalling Mother is sold out.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2016, with the headline 'The mum I remember'. Print Edition | Subscribe