Photography by Benjamin Nicholson with permission for Varsity

Intimate, funny and warm, The Chair offers you a seat at the table in observation of Singapore family life. The Chair races through the story of a Peranakan family through the historical changes in Singapore from its days as a colonial port, through the Japanese Occupation and into the modern day. Through the chair passing through the generations of a Peranakan family, it deals with the bigger questions of identity, tradition and nation as the arguments of the family reflect the greater anxieties of a nation stepping into independence in the modern world.

“It deals with the bigger questions of identity, tradition and nation”

The intimate setting of the Corpus Playroom brought out the best of the play—the proximity of the audience to the actors made us feel as if we were all flies on the wall. Unsatisfied with the mere proximity the space offers, director Xander Pang breaks the fourth wall to invite the audience to participate in the play: I found it particularly amusing when Ah Choon (Tang Zi Xuan) lounged among the audience with general indifference as his wife talked about his general indifference towards her.

The clean simplicity of the set connoted a ‘no-distractions’ approach to storytelling. The set-up of a box and red ribbon attached to it kept the audience centred on the strong central theme the play follows along, while creating room for the reimagining of space and time. The play opens with the evocative physical acting of Lim Ah Choon (Tang Zi Xuan) whose exclamatory effusions intermixed with a precise, observant demeanour brought dimensionality to his character. The tall commanding presence of Guan Hoe (Cian Sacker Ooi) drew the audience in and the dynamics between the actors played off well to create a cohesive space. The small cast in proportion to the number of characters reflected the strengths of the cast to take on different roles on demand, though the actors can do more to translate the entire flow of energy from the stage to the audience more evenly.

Photography by Benjamin Nicholson with permission for Varsity

With the slipped in aside whispers and use of the physical acting—The Chair is quite a funny play though some of its humour is lost when the comedic pacing of the play seems to lapse at certain points. In the funnier moments however, a worthy mention must be made of Gabriel Miju Yap’s portrayal of Swee Lian, the flirtatious, scheming but oh-so-sweet second wife of Guan Hoe (Cian Sacker Ooi)—the melodrama of his character was punchily delivered in a series of well-timed scoffs, in which he flies from angel to nightmare. Special mention has to be given to the lighting and sound design team as well—with the expanse of time this play deals with, the lighting designer did the play justice in establishing markers of temporality and shifts in mood.

“The Chair really did not hold anything back in how unashamedly Singaporean it is”

As a Singaporean, I can vouch for The Chair’s authenticity in bringing a slice of Singapore right into Cambridge. The familiar smattering of the Singaporean accent, the dash of hokkien swearing, the references to our Kopi Os served in plastic bags (black coffee to-go style for those not from the +65) — The Chair really did not hold anything back in how unashamedly Singaporean it is. I admit that by virtue of how different the play is, it can make it hard to understand for the average Cambridge audience—both historically and culturally.

A moment in the play where Jonathan Jr (Cian Sacker Ooi) ponders whether speaking Mandarin is necessarily tied to being Chinese begs a deeper appreciation of the cultural history of Singapore—specifically that of the ‘Speak Mandarin Campaign’ in the 1970s—a reference I believe, would have been lost to many. Or perhaps in some of the linguistic choice—describing the food as “sedap” that any Singaporean knows means “delicious” would not be as intuitive for the British audience. But then again these are all forgivable mistakes, for Xander had expressed wishes to have “the Singaporean audience” in mind as he put on this play. This play is therefore challenging in that while the debates surrounding kinship and memory may strike a chord with many, to understand it and its nuances through the Singaporean lens of its characters can take some time to click into place.


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Nevertheless, I would like to give the director the due credit for bringing a Singaporean play to the stage here, which is pretty novel and definitely a step forward in diversifying the theatre scene in Cambridge. Snappy, heart-warming and packing a few chuckles—The Chair promises you a glimpse into the Singaporean way of life in all its quirks and glory.

The Chair is playing at the Corpus Playroom at 9:30pm between 10-14 May