>modern dance for beginners by Escape Theatre Limited

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 17 jan 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: the dbs arts centre
>rating: ***1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


When it comes to companies performing foreign plays, Singapore is not exactly lacking in choice. If you want glamour and glitz, you can swing by the SRT, whereas if you're after a more low-key approach, you can drop in at luna-id. Equally, if you want a little fusion flavour, you can order some W!ld Rice; or if you prefer your ingredients flown in, you can make a booking at The Stage Club. If you're one of the Yangtze brigade, you can set up shop at Toy Factory; or if you're just not picky, there's always Fiction Farm. So considering the wealth of import options and the relative dearth of locally-written plays, what does Escape Theatre Limited bring to the table? Well, it intends to expose British works to Asia. So not much, really.

But at least the British work in question (MODERN DANCE FOR BEGINNERS, by Sarah Phelps) was well-chosen and on the whole well-performed by '@Moulmein High' (shudder!) alums, Mark Waite and Debra Teng. The play is one of those clever-but-not-too-clever pieces that tells a story not through a traditional narrative, but through a series of loosely connected scenes where characters and relationships overlap and themes are explored from multiple perspectives. It is also quite funny and mainly about sex, but has a serious side too. And since the eight roles in the play are played by only two actors, it is either a great showcase or a great ordeal for its cast. At first I thought the latter.

>>'The play's punchy script and well-oiled staging gave this sexed-up "Friends" the grounding it needed'

In the first scene, Waite has just got married to someone he probably doesn't love and Teng, an old flame, is drunk and in his hotel bedroom. The hotel bedroom looks like the inside of a Barang Barang store, and for a very good reason: it is the inside of a Barang Barang store (ah, the joys of corporate sponsorship!), and Teng looks like someone acting drunk. Which is not too bad; what is worse is that she sounds unlike someone acting drunk and, in fact, unlike anyone at all. Perhaps she is aiming for some kind of Britishness of accent, but what comes out is a grating affectation that adds consonants to some words and leaves them out of others. I am particularly distressed by her repetition of the non-word "I'll'd" - she stresses it every time she says it as if she is proud of having thought it up. Despite liking the script, which is pacey, honest and deceptively intelligent, I worry.

In the second scene I stop worrying about Teng, because her voice re-enters the realms of human possibility and her physicality, while over the top, is perfectly suited to the slightly farcical nymphomaniac upper-class housewife she is playing. In fact, she is rather good and more than a little funny. No, in this scene I worry about Waite. He is supposed to be a handyman offering extras on his plumbing services - a gruff, working class type in a Lady Chatterly style. Again there is a voice problem: Waite has chosen an accent best described as a southerner's day trip to the Pennines (if you're not British, just ignore that bit) which both harms his credibility as a character and gives old meaning to the word cliché. Also he looks like he is deliberately holding himself still, doing his best not to move his arms or his head so as to appear more of a "man". When he does move, it is over-deliberate and uncomfortable and so makes him seem less of one. I still like the script, though, and Samantha Scott-Blackhall's direction understands how to transmit it cleanly, clearly and at the right speed.

And from then on it gets better anyway. Teng never again invents any words and Waite keeps his accents and movements within his comfort zone. As a whiny office loser and a sleazoid barfly, Waite shows off some respectable comic timing and also proves you can get laughs just from being in character. Perhaps he seems a little stagey delivering what is essentially a monologue to a silent Teng in the scene where we find out he has cancer, but I am being picky. Similarly, Teng improves dramatically on her first reading of Frances, the character from the first scene, and turns her into a believable person with brains, balls and a heart. She and Waite even share a little chemistry at the end, which is most unexpected.

If the acting was on a distinctly upward curve, the play's punchy script and well-oiled staging were consistent and gave this sexed-up 'Friends' the grounding it needed. For a first production, it could perhaps have been better, but it could most certainly have been a lot worse, and I walked out wearing a smile. Unlike the recent 'Comic Potential', MODERN DANCE did in fact show some comic potential.