Theatre review: Mother I (2) needs more spit and polish

Hilmi Shukor, Catherine Ho and Grace Kalaiselvi star in Mother I (2).
Hilmi Shukor, Catherine Ho and Grace Kalaiselvi star in Mother I (2).PHOTO: DARREN "MEROVIGN" TAN



Ver Theatre

Goodman Arts Centre Black Box Last Friday

As loving parents everywhere learn, having the best intentions for one's children does not always work out for the best.

This was so for actress Grace Kalaiselvi and this play, her baby, which was well-conceived but unevenly executed.

Kalaiselvi, artistic director of new troupe Ver Theatre, showed lots of promise in May last year when she and fellow actress Suhaili Safari, under the guidance of T. Sasitharan, shaped and performed Mother I: Amma Naan: Ibu Aku (1).

Their effective evoking of wistfulness through the melded recorded chatter of mothers scored them a nomination for Best Sound Design at the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards this year.

This time around, Kalaiselvi, together with budding thespians Catherine Ho and Hilmi Shukor, shaped a tribute to caregivers from 20 interviews with such people. Then, guided by Alfian Sa'at, they presented a variety of takes on their interviewees' life stories, in English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil for added authenticity.

The most successful of these had the trio huddling together from time to time, comparing complaints about caregiving. In this recurring setpiece of perverse one-upmanship, Ho was a well-to-do mother of two who could afford holidays in Bali; Hilmi was a single father of five, who spent 70 per cent of his pay on their tuition fees; and Kalaiselvi played a mother whose only child was a lesbian.

All three had the gift of comic timing and so the audience often laughed out loud whenever they did quick, spot-on turns of the lies people tell themselves to get along and get through the day.

It was all very innovative but, alas, the audience was left wanting more because the trio did not inhabit their many characters enough.

This was most glaring when Ho portrayed a grandmother without tuning down the natural vigour of her youth.

The trio's tepid portrayals were a pity because their characters were compelling, including a tyke with kidney failure and an eight-year- old caring for her stroke-stricken mother.

There were other jarring instances, which robbed their performances of much-needed nuance.

When the trio clucked at how children here attended so many enrichment classes that they had "no time to breathe", the accompanying sounds were those of happy children in a playground.

When Ho, in a black bodysuit, used her scarf as a tudung, she left the space between her jawline and her neckline exposed. And Hilmi, perplexingly, flubbed a lot of his lines whenever he switched to speaking in Malay.

At best, the evening had the feel of an early rehearsal for this play. But with more spit and polish, Kalaiselvi might well have a future hit on her hands.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2017, with the headline 'Scoring on comic timing'. Print Edition | Subscribe