Homing in on NS anxieties

(From left) Tan Hui Er, Keith Lee and Jon Cancio in Watching.
(From left) Tan Hui Er, Keith Lee and Jon Cancio in Watching.PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER WONG

REVIEW / THEATRE

WATCHING

Toy Factory Productions

NOWPlaying@17/Last Friday


Perched on bookshelves, stacks of old newspapers or various items of household furniture, audiences watch two siblings fight over the television.

It seems like an ordinary family squabble, of the sort played out across the island daily. But Watching, written and directed by Stanley Seah, is extraordinarily good at getting to the heart of why these siblings are shouting at each other.

Tony (Keith Lee) is an 18-year-old waiting to be called up for national service while his older sister (Tan Hui Er) is busy studying at university, going on dates and having a life outside the family home.

All Tony wants to do is pester his sister and watch endless hours of TV. Then the flat screen starts talking back to him, through the person of actor Jon Cancio, and suggests he make more of his life.

Watching is a smart, funny and heart-warming production, staged in a 30-to 40-seater shophouse space in the heart of Chinatown.

Toy Factory Productions often uses its address at 17A Smith Street to workshop new plays.

Watching, which ended its run last Saturday, transforms the upper storey into the interior of an HDB flat, where audiences are not just in proximity to the set designed by Vivien Lau, but part of it. The viewer is ushered to a spot and informed whether she is a book, DVD player or fly on the wall. (Requiring a bit of role-play or audience participation later in the play would heighten the audience experience.)

Lee is convincing and annoying as Tony; Tan plays the world's most forbearing older sister and Cancio provides the sassy snap pulling the sibling relationship into focus.

With their parents working long hours and his sister in university, Tony feels neglected and lonely in that limbo state between school and NS. To paraphrase Britney Spears, he is not a boy, not yet a man and no one seems to notice how scared and worried he is, not even the sister who has always taken care of him.

In July, a double-bill at Wild Rice's Singapore Theatre Festival looked at the fear felt by young men during this stage of life. When The Cold Wind Blows and G.F.E. tipped into moments of horror, but Watching is delightfully cosy without glossing over the intensity of Tony's emotions.

Yes, lighting design by E-Hui Woo is somewhat inspired by Poltergeist at times and the sound design by Vick Low neatly uses the horror-movie staple of TV static to underscore Cancio's dialogue. Still, it is impossible to be frightened of the TV's pop psychology banter (gained from the many channels the TV is able to play) as it goads Tony into being honest with himself.

Watching hits the sweet spot by underscoring the rationality of Tony's worries, as well as the irrationality of fearing that his family will forget him. It deserves to be seen again on a slightly bigger stage - just not too big, lest that dilutes the intimacy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2018, with the headline 'Homing in on NS anxieties'. Print Edition | Subscribe