When progress is no Boon – Review of “Boom” by Sight Line Productions

Title of performance:  Boom

Theatre Company:   Sight Line Productions

Date of performance:   5 July 2012

Performance Venue:  DBS Arts Centre – Home of SRT

What is the cost of progress? Shall it be blood on a bureacrat’s hands, neighbourly disputes, tensions running high in families?

In land-scarce Singapore, when something old needs to be destroyed to create something new, a gamut of reactions from citizens may surface. But people don’t often make a squeak in favour of the preservation of heritage in those places, probably out of fear from needing to put their money where their mouth is.

Until this year. The Ministry of National Development announced plans to build an 8-lane carriageway the size of CTE across the Bukit Brown Cemetery, spawning an online petition, heated parliamentary debates, and a campaign.

Thus probably why the newly-formed Sight Line Productions (Derrick Chew, Engie Ho, and Sylvia Tan) decided to do a second staging of “Boom”, a play written by Jean Tay, now also published as a literature text for “O” and “N” level students. It revolved around two narratives, a woman not willing to give up her home to an en bloc sale, and a civil servant trying to arrest some of the effects of a policy decision to exhume the graves in the Choa Chu Kang cemetary for the building of a highway (sounds familiar?).

And the opportunism of Sight Line Productions paid off sweetly, as director Derrick Chew capitalized on the budding interest in the topic of progress vs. preservation, majority vs. minority, persistent memory vs. transience. A strong cast, magnificent set, and two almost seamless narratives that converged, made for wonderful watching and dialogue that hit home on a number of occasions.

The opening scene was most memorable, when the upbeat cadence of superlative language by three property agents (played by Amanda Tee, Benjamin Kheng, and Andrew Lua) grabbed the audience’s attention – the agents were “selling a lifestyle, and a style of life“, where anything and everything could be solved by moving into a spanking new apartment with an infinity pool and panoramic views. Amanda Tee stood out quite clearly in this scene, with her crisp lines and good stage presence, and it helped that she really looked like a property agent, pencil skirt, lanyard and all.

I was afraid that the rest of the play would be done in a formulaic manner, but it was decidedly not. The magnificent set by Wong Chee Wai, and lighting done by Petrina Dawn Tan helped a lot. When the overtly upset Madam Ong Siew Moi (played brilliantly by veteran Fanny Kee) refused to sign the agreement for the en bloc sale of her home at Zion Mansions, the storyline was then inundated by flashbacks where warm orangey light bathed the stage, and sound designer Darren Ng’s eerie and atmospheric music played. The back story to Madam Ong’s resistance to move was her knowledge (albeit shrouded in denial) that her husband was never coming back, and that the fig tree he planted for her was probably the only living vestige of what they had before. Madam Ong’s son, Boon (Andrew Lua’s character), tried desperately at first to persuade his mother to sell the flat, but after realizing how much grief it was causing Madam Ong, decided not to pursue the matter.

Meanwhile, harangued civil servant Jeremiah Dhillon (Erwin Shah Ismail) with the uncanny ability to communicate with corpses ever since his parents passed away, investigated the identity of an unidentified corpse in the Choa Chu Kang cemetary. Initially a site visit to the cemetery in a bid to further the agenda of the fictitious Ministry of Land, this evolved into a personal conquest for Jeremiah. Wong Chee Wai created a plastic second floor of an “ivory tower” to segment the civil servants’ quarters from the rest of the set, and this was clever indeed as it was symbolic. Erwin Shah Ismail was another standout in this show, mimicking an awkward bumbling guy who smiles sheepishly whilst reading a string of near unintelligible civil-service speak announcing the Ministry’s plans, finally evolving into a gutsy man who goes beyond the bounds of his civil servant job scope to care about people over policies. His dialogues with the corpse (Vincent Tee) were good – like a cat talking to a dog, but oh, so funny in its vacuousness.

In a tragi-comic twist, the corpse turns out to be Madam Ong’s husband and Boon’s father who died trying to return to the house to unchain the then 10-year-old Boon from the fig tree, after doing so in a fit of anger. Both Madam Ong and Boon had been inadvertently imprisoned to the house since then, one from the deluded hope that her husband would return, and the other from the memory of how disheveled his sacrificial mother looked after the incident. In the end, the displacement of Madam Ong and Boon from their home was involuntary, after the majority for the collective sale of Zion Mansions was met. Boon tried to move on, but Madam Ong frustratingly declared that she sometimes feels like transforming into a mynah and pecking and shitting on the fancy cars parked in the carpark which her new condominium unit overlooks.

“Boom” is a must-watch for all those living in Singapore who are befuddled by the state of play concerning heritage spaces, and the ever-looming Land Acquisition and Land Titles (Strata) Acts.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable watch, and a good social commentary to boot.

“Boom” by Sight Line Productions is playing at the DBS Arts Centre – Home of SRT from 29 June to 8 July 2012.

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