Jeremiah (Nikhil Dutt Sundaraj), the ever earnest civil servant, as he seeks to engage with a corpse (Justin Civil Ng)Edgar Lee

Modernism and tradition, houses and homes, dislocation and belonging: Boom deals with these tensions which are at the heart of Singapore’s economic progress. As well as being a strong piece of drama, Boom is also part sculpture installation and film showcase, the elements combining to give a window into a socio-economic and cultural world which is normally under-explored in the Cambridge theatre scene. Natalie Khoo’s slick, artistic production brings together these different elements in close harmony, showing a nuanced portrayal of Southeast Asian urban life to the Corpus Playroom.

Boom follows the lives of different characters in the struggle between progress and tradition that played out in the 2007 housing market in Singapore. Property agent Boon is torn between his filial obligations and desire to become a part of the new urban, propertied classes in the world of condos. Meanwhile, civil servant Jeremiah uncovers his uncanny ability to talk to corpses while surveying the cemetery land, which is about to be exhumed to make way for more high-rise flats. As the play progresses, the two strands swirl together: surrealist and naturalistic in a whirlwind of colour and noise, place and emotion. The past pushes its way into the present, demanding to be felt.

These underlying tensions are brought out beautifully in the installations, props and cinematography. Explanations given in the insightful programme show the enormous care that has gone into these works of art by Jennifer Guan and Ian Mak. ‘Corpse on Grass’ is not framed merely as set, but is a stand-alone piece in itself, representing the problem of land scarcity in the confined city space. Most potent are the props for Boon’s family home: from fresh chillies to Singaporean food stuffs, the evocation of a well-loved family kitchen is uncanny. This is helped by excellent lighting: warm and glowing, and the use of a single bare-bulb provides a contrast to the stark white of the aspirational Paradise condo. Every prop onstage is meticulously realised. Guan and Mak should be congratulated for their stunning attention to detail and obvious care and thought.

Similar thought has gone into cinematography from Teo Qi Yu. On location filming in Singapore has been used to great effect. In conjunction with striking soundscapes, the expanse of the city is evoked in the confines of the playroom. The shots themselves are striking. The framing of the mother in the window with her child outside is gorgeous, as are more abstract shots of the city. This works especially well to enhance the onstage acting at times when the film plays behind the action; a highlight is Boon (Renchun Ho) sat at his kitchen table as a film of his mother in the same seat fifteen years previously plays behind his contemplation, lit by only the filament bulb. Film location, shots and framing are nuanced, again carrying subtle political commentary. The decision to film on location in condominium sites undergoing the processes in the play is admirable and speaks to the care that has gone into the show. By explicitly explaining this political context that is not familiar to the whole audience in the programme, the creative team has not made art for art’s sake. Rather, the audience is led to deeper understanding. 

The direction of the actors is also strong. The central mother-son relationship between Boon and Mother (Ooi Yenxing) is utterly endearing. The relatable dynamics and chastising remarks between mother and son evoke memories and peals of laughter across the audience. Ooi’s portrayal of the mother is beautiful: her nuanced acting of age and perfectly timed chastising quips consistently land. Ho’s work in the relationship completes the dynamic: his portrayal of the twenty-something trapped at home, in a no-man’s land of nominal adulthood and his yearning for upward and outward movement is poignant. Ho’s monologues are also particularly noteworthy: his delivery is at times utterly unforced and his natural ease on stage is touching and sincere in addressing the audience. The two actors work well together to create this fluid tension between old and new; tradition and capitalist progress.

Nikhil Dutt Sundaraj also is stand-out in his portrayal of the earnest civil servant. His physical motifs mean he inhabits the character, capturing the normality and humanity to this surreal plot line. His moments of contemplation of the visceral nature of death are thoughtful and intriguing. Opposite him, it is beguiling watching Justin Cyril Ng as the corpse (with immaculate make-up) unfurls across the play in a well-executed and driven character arc. Supporting characters add to the creation of the Singaporean world. Particular mention goes to Li Jiaqi, whose portrayal of the Female Neighbour was heart-warming and funny.

However, at times it feels as though the artistic desire gets in the way of Boom as a piece of live theatre. At a running time of over two hours, the play is unnecessarily long, mainly due to the lack of pace between, and occasionally within scenes. Lighting changes are slow, and this breaks any sense of urgency and pace that has built up in the previous scene. Scene changes too, whilst meticulously planned and executed, are occasionally entirely unnecessary. The set itself is so well designed that the audience would be willing to suspend their disbelief for the sake of pace. Occasionally, lines could have been picked up faster in scenes to continue the sense of urgency and modernism that the play demands. Hopefully this will improve over the run. The meticulous planning of the piece works so well in the aesthetic and concept, and the script itself is a fascinating piece of drama. It just needs to get a sense of fire behind the beginning and end of each scene transition to really push it into being a great piece of theatre to watch rather than just to contemplate.

Boom is a beautifully created piece of art with some stunning moments of acting that tackles modernity, family and the value of place and pace in modern society. The production value is astronomically high, and the work is a testimony to the creative talent and teamwork across the board. Let’s hope the final spark it is striving for can be ignited to make the piece really pop and push along into being a great theatrical experience.

Boom is on at the Corpus Playroom until 17 March

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