Theatre review: Gina Chew's Permanence will strike a chord with those mulling over BTO-marriage-kids narrative

Permanence, a play written by Gina Chew, starring Grace Lee Khoo (foreground), Chanel Ariel Chan (background), Terrance Tan (left) and Jamil Schulze.
Permanence, a play written by Gina Chew, starring Grace Lee Khoo (foreground), Chanel Ariel Chan (background), Terrance Tan (left) and Jamil Schulze.PHOTO: COURTESY OF TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS

Permanence

Toy Factory Productions

Nafa Studio Theatre

Last Friday (Oct 11)


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 isn't 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, channeling her character's wit, recklessness and feline charm with aplomb. Lee Khoo does a similarly good job at playing Blanche's frigid older self.

In the play, abortion, infidelity and marital rape rear their heads. 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.

Permanence was first performed two years ago, at the inaugural edition of Toy Factory Productions' The Wright Stuff Festival, part of a platform that nurtures emerging playwrights. Back by invitation, Chew's domestic drama now features a new cast, 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.

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 kids 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 portaits some couples like to hang above their beds.

Nathan's machinations don't always feel convincing. The ending is unsatisfactory, although that could very well be the point. And one can't 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 that 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.

BOOK IT/ THE WRIGHT STUFF FESTIVAL

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

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

WHEN: Oct 13 (Permanence), Oct 17 to 20 (Ashes, Ashes), Oct 24 to 26 (Random Access Memory), Nov 1 to 3 (The Puppet King); 3pm and 8pm

ADMISSION: $28 at eventbrite.sg

INFO: tinyurl.com/twsf2019