Long after we have grown up and left the education system behind, many of us can still remember our PSLE scores. It is the first time we come to be defined by “The System”, something playwright Faith Ng explores in her latest work, Normal.
She does this through the eyes of Secondary Five students in the Normal (Academic) stream, as they find their footing in a system that persists in calling them slow, lazy troublemakers – words carelessly uttered by one of their teachers, Lynette Ang (Zee Wong).
The rest of the staff holds similar views – from Noorlinah Mohamed's God-fearing Miss Wong to Karen Tan's principal Mrs Lim, who is on an unrelenting quest to achieve autonomous school status. The only outlier is Sarah Hew (Oon Shu An), the new literature teacher. Oon delivers a competent turn as Hew who, with compassion and understanding, tries to reach out to her Normal (Academic) form class.
Such is the landscape that students Daphne (Audrey Teong) and Ashley (Claire Chung) must navigate. Teong and Chung are fifth-year theatre students at the School of the Arts, both newcomers to the local theatre scene, and they are compelling to watch. Daphne is the dreamy artist, diligent, conscientious and polite; while Ashley is the rebel, wily, charismatic and determined to test every aspect of the system that keeps her and the rest of her classmates in their place.
They deliver textured, natural performances. As Ashley, Chung nails the bravado so characteristic of teenagers still finding their place in the world. Although most of her lines comprise snide repartee with Hew, Chung finds the quiet spaces in between and shows us a more tender side when she lets the swagger fall away to reveal her character's loyalty to her aged grandmother. Ashley is at times rude, impertinent and damn near impossible as a student, but Chung's portrayal of her character's vulnerabilities made me root for her anyway.
But it is through Teong, who creates nervous quirks and a slightly awkward gait for Daphne, that some of the play's strongest messages hit home.
When Daphne tells Hew, in a particularly poignant scene, that during Chinese New Year her mother hides her textbooks under the bed because she doesn't want their relatives to know Daphne is from the Normal stream, Teong delivers this with a self-effacing laugh, and the gawky adolescent body language she has created for Daphne. For the kids in Normal, it is normal to never feel good enough.
In Singapore, where suicides and horror stories borne of the pressures of our education system have long been circulated in the media and popular culture, Daphne's anecdote is perhaps not shocking. But it is a reminder that despite the national narrative of “Every school is a good school”, our prejudices run deep.
So do our fears of failure, Ng says, with the inclusion of head prefect and top-scoring model student Marianne (Lim Shi-An). For the most part she is a caricature, the antithesis to Chung's wisecracking Ashley – until she opens up near the end of the play about the demons she, too, battles. Lim does not have as much stage time as the other actresses to flesh out her character, so it is to her credit that her monologue is raw, honest and believable. “I just want to be in control,” she says, her fear of failure as real as that of her Normal (Academic) peers. “I just want to be okay.”
They all want to be okay – Hew, Ashley, Daphne, Marianne – they all want to know there is a worthwhile future beyond the seeming hopelessness of the present system. Their richly layered and well-delivered characters are easy for the audience to relate to; against a backdrop of ten ensemble members and Eucien Chia's set that effectively recreates the corridors of school life.
Director Claire Wong often does not use the ensemble as part of the main action, even when they are part of the class during lessons. Instead, she situates them behind framed wooden corridors, separated from the main acting space by dark mesh netting. From here they create the sounds of school life – the chatter of excited schoolgirls, the low chime of the school bell, the masses reciting the national pledge at morning assembly. But though this ensemble work lends itself to the vibrant, youthful energy of the play, the ensemble's stylized actions in certain scenes are distracting, such as during Hew's exchanges in class with Ashley and Daphne.
But this is a minor quibble about a play that is very much a boon to local theatre. Ng's script is an accurate portrayal of our education system, Wong's direction is for the most part solid, and the young cast come together well for a funny, heartfelt take on the pressures of growing up in Singapore. The current run is sold out, but it might be back for a restaging next year. It is well worth watching - this play might call itself Normal, but it is something quite special indeed.
Originally posted on Inkpotreviews here.