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Shanty


 

Shanty

Reviewed by Jeremy Samuel

Music by Henry Chua
Words by Robin Loon
Director: Lok Meng Chue
Cast: Chua Enlai, Joe Pang,Ravi Raaj Marimootoo,Chim Kah Cheong
Date: 16 Apr 2004
Venue: the Jubilee Hall
Rating: **½ (out of five stars)

There is a certain, tragic inevitability to all let's-form-a-band stories - enthusiastic young whippersnappers get together 'cos they love makin' music. After a few lucky breaks, they make it to the top of the charts. Then, the recriminations start, success gets too much for them, and their mayfly career is over as quickly as it began.

This is, essentially, the plot of Shanty - a title that is never explained in the play. Aaron Tan (Chua Enlai) and three of his friends decide to get together to enter Singapore's talentime. Predictably, they win, and go on to have four number one hits as "The Borrowers," knocking the Beatles off the charts in heady, sixties, post-Independence Singapore.

These boys all have dreams of being "the next Righteous Brothers" or "Singapore's Bobby Darin." The trouble is that as they seek to emulate Western models, their story ends up following the trajectory of the American sixties band film, of which That Thing You Do is probably the apotheosis, even though The Borrowers are allegedly based on local band The Quests. So the band members succumb to their personal demons, except for Aaron himself who grows up and gives up his dreams for the practicalities of marriage and convention.

Lok Meng Chue's direction gives each band member a cookie-cutter identity - Bobby Pereira, the suave ladies' man, is really trying to assuage the pain of his mother's walking out on him; Boon, an oh-so-interestingly damaged gangster, looks on fame and success as a way of escaping from his abusive father; and Alex Choi, percussionist extraordinaire, is only trying to find a substitute for his absentee dad. The band comes to represent salvation for all of them.

The trouble is, you never quite believe it. There is very little chemistry between the band members, and neither their rapid bonding nor frequent quarrels convince. There is a lot of shouting and lip-synching to sixties hits, but very little character development. Chim Kah Cheong's Boon is a standard hoodlum-with-a-heart straight out of True Files, while Ravi Raaj Marimootoo as Bobby is one-note sleazy for most of the play. Joe Pang presents the most complex character on stage, and even then his Alex succumbs to over-emoting and cliche in the last minutes of the play.

Robin Loon's script, like the oeuvre of many sixties bands, consists of long stretches of mediocrity punctuated with flashes of success. Conflicts are set up like so many skittles to be resolved in time for the next crisis, but never feel organic to the plot. Lines are repeated several times, as if Loon is afraid of us missing the point. For example: "I always get it too late. Maybe that's my problem, I have such bad timing. I'm always getting it too late. What's the point of getting it, if it's too late?" Sometimes the effect of this is positively Beckettian: "It still works." "Mine works too." "Yes. [pause] They both work."

Shanty only comes to life when the music propels it into infectiously toe-tapping realms. Then, as the catchy, non-ironic of the past thrums, and Marimootoo shows off his rather nifty dance moves, set off by Dorothy Png's excellent lighting design, it is possible to forget the clumsiness of the script and generally wooden acting as we are swept up by the hopes and dreams of these young people. The rest of the time, though, the audience is left unmoved. This should be a wistful tale of lost innocence and broken dreams, but it never makes us care quite enough for this to happen.

[This review was first published in The Flying Inkpot.]