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Joel Tan's potent play Cafe stars (from left) Joshua Jonathan Lim, Ellison Tan Yuyang, Jasmine Xie, Erwin Shah Ismail and Zee Wong.

Gems among plays by 20-somethings

Jun 24, 2016 5:50 AM

YOU wouldn't think it from the humdrum title, but Joel Tan's Café is possibly the creepiest, canniest, most cunning play of the year.

Debuting at last week's The Twenty-Something Theatre Festival, the premise of Café appears simple enough: two women sit in a café and gossip about friends and colleagues, while the bored service staff keep themselves occupied.

But something is happening outside the café for which there's no explanation. Loud rumblings suggest a storm. Dirt piles up inexplicably on the floor. All the milk goes sour. WiFi connections disappear. And time seems to have stood still.

Yet the two customers (played pitch-perfectly by Zee Wong and Jasmine Xie) continue to blather about old classmates, pregnant friends and workplace dilemmas. The service staff (Joshua Jonathan Lim, Erwin Shah Ismail and Ellison Tan Yuyang) maintain their composure in the name of good service. But it's clear they suspect something.

Slowly and subtly, the scares creep in. The terror builds up. When the finale arrives, it is unexpected, implosive and profound. What starts off as a mundane drama morphs into a horror story with a strong message - one that critiques the strictures of Singapore, its no-second chance systems, and the punitive ways people are labelled losers, rebels or deviants if they choose to live differently.

If playwright Tan, 28, is one of the most exciting of his generation, then Chen Yingxuan is his directorial equivalent. Working with a modest set, she manoeuvres the shifts in tone expertly, taking full advantage of the visual ellipses to ratchet up the suspense.

Indeed, Cafe was the crowning jewel of The Twenty-Something Theatre Festival. It ended last week with the debut of three other plays.

The best among them is Euginia Tan's Tuition, directed by Hazel Ho, an intimate chamber piece about a teacher (Yap Yi Kai) and her student (John Tan) whose relationship takes on unusual turns. Tan has a wonderful ear for dialogue and the plot develops in a measured and believable way. But its final message of Christian redemption is odd considering the religion of the characters is not explored during the rest of the play.

Meanwhile, the other two plays are a let-down. Kimberly Arriola's Curry Puff is a verbatim play based on real-life interviews with Robiah Lia Caniago who was convicted for selling curry puffs without a licence last year. But what promised to be a sympathetic portrait of the woman became a shrill one-note litany of complaints. Sure, the play centres on societal injustice. But there's no reason Arriola and director Andy Pang could not have teased out other nuances of her personality and struggle.

The last piece, David Khoo's play Balek Kampung, is inexplicable. The futuristic play set in 2115 is muddled with pop icons such as Phua Chua Kang and VR Man and fails to convey anything substantial.

These disappointments aside, one certainly hopes that the festival returns in the coming years, if only to find gems like Cafe and Tuition.