Theatre review: Normal is a sensitive portrayal of the challenges of school life

School's in with Checkpoint Theatre's Normal, now on at the Drama Centre Black Box. It is not so much an interrogation of the whys and wherefores of our well-ordered education system, but a sensitive depiction of how students and teachers alike are affected by it, sometimes to heartbreaking results.

The story revolves around two Secondary 5 Normal Academic students in the fictional Trinity Girls School - troublemaker Ashley (Claire Chung) and eccentric Daphne (Audrey Teong), who have to navigate the tricky minefield of teenhood even as they battle stereotypes against their stream.

On the flipside are the teachers, who have to deal with their own personal struggles and find their own ways to survive, as they try to deliver lessons to sometimes disinterested students.

Playwright Faith Ng was from the Normal Academic stream, and is now teaching at the National University of Singapore, which might explain how she has managed to deftly lift the veil on both sides of the teacher-student divide.

In particular, we follow the efforts of new teacher, Sarah Hew (played by Oon Shu An), who genuinely wants to make a difference. But she finds herself stonewalled by rules and the expectations of others, as much as they do her students.

For example, when she finally manages to get her students to open up and agree to perform monologues for a school event, principal Mrs Lim (a magnetic Karen Tan) puts her foot down, arguing that the content is disturbing and would not go down well with the parents, students and "stakeholders".

It is reminiscent of a scene where Ashley gets into trouble for refusing to wear a nametag. When she questions why she has to wear it, the teacher has no other reason except "because it's the rules".

In that moment, Miss Hew herself becomes something of a Normal student, chided for not wanting to conform to a certain stereotype and remain within her station.

We feel for these characters. No matter what our academic background, it is a kind of universal pain when others label us and then treat us unfairly. The streaming system is especially relevant, as there is a knock-on effect that carries on into our adult lives, in the paths it leads us down and its psychological effects.

The girls recount how Normal students were brought on a school trip to a women's prison in Secondary 1 - a thinly-veiled warning of what could be. The Express and Special stream students went to Changi Museum for a history lesson instead. They laugh as they remember such episodes, but comments like "because of a mistake you make when you were 12" hit you in the gut.

It is these kinds of revelations, simple yet poignant, that make Normal stand out in my books.

Lead actors Chung and Teong, both first-timers, deliver stand-out performances, filling out the emotional complexities of their characters competently.

In particular, Teong was superb as weird and wonderful Daphne who never seems to please her mother, though she tries very hard.

She delivered some of the funniest and most heartbreaking lines in the play. When Miss Hew tells Daphne that life is about the quality of your years, she quips: "But the quality of this not good."

All the characters are richly layered and likeable, even the seemingly unlikeable ones.

For example, there is Miss Wong (Noorlinah Mohamed), that annoyingly chipper teacher during morning assembly, who perpetually invokes God's name when there is a moral lesson to be imparted. But she has a soft spot for Ashley, even if she knows she cannot really help her.

The creative team also did a fantastic job of nostalgically recreating one's alma mater.

Eucien Chia's set was simple yet effective, using mesh screens to create that ubiquitous, yet vital element of school life - the corridor through which the teachers and students walked and gossiped. The rest of the set was spare, save for a couple of tactile wooden benches and tables.

Director Claire Wong's choice of having an ensemble cast of school girls was a particularly brilliant stroke too. They were the soundtrack of sorts to the piece, adding colour to the story with sounds that ranged from girlish natter in between lessons, to campfire songs, the school bell and even a ticking clock.

A beautiful commentary on school life, Normal does not force us to make any judgements about the system. Like a good teacher, it shares its own experiences and then lets us draw our own conclusions.

The show is sold out.

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