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in My Mother Buys Condoms, Lok Meng Chue (left) plays a 63-year-old woman who falls in love with her aircon repairman (Remesh Panicker) after she agrees to teach him how to read in English.

Mild foreplay, hilarious climax and a satisfying end

Jul 22, 2016 5:50 AM

FINALLY, a romantic play where the protagonists aren't young and looking like fashion models. Instead, they are rather ordinary-looking, a little on the heavy side, and surprisingly older than the "normal" age for romantic liaisons.

The Business Times' correspondent Helmi Yusof's maiden play My Mother Buys Condoms is a scintillatingly original Singapore work which tackles ageism and sex - a subject that is often talked about in hushed, gossipy tones.

Lok Meng Chue plays Maggie, a retired literature teacher with two adult children. At 63, she is beginning to feel lonely after her recent divorce. Her air-conditioning repairman, a Malaysian by the name of Raju (played by the inimitable Remesh Panicker), asks her to teach him how to read English in 10 lessons.

When their friendship turns into romance, Maggie's son (Joshua Lim) and long-time friend Nora (Elnie S Mashari) strongly oppose the liaison. But Maggie finds an ally in her daughter (Seong Hui Xuan) - whose empathy stems from having her own secrets.

Well-paced on the whole, what's enjoyable is that the fresh writing is attuned to the audience's thought processes. For instance, when Raju first comes to Maggie's home to repair the air-conditioning, he engages in a candid banter with Maggie and Nora. Just when you start to think, "Oh, that's an unusually chatty air-con repairman", Nora voices that thought.

There could have been a scene which shows a better romantic build-up between Maggie and Raju as there seems to be a bit of a jump from English lessons to romance. But once the romance is established, the play moves at a clip with high farcical elements. The addition of Shakespearean quotes - which Raju frequently mangles - adds to the comedy.

The climax of the play - when Maggie returns from buying the condoms, to her son turning up unexpectedly at the apartment and discovering them, to the tale she spins about how she bought it for Nora, and to Nora showing up to debunk the lie - is pure hilarity and true to the tradition of British farce. Farce works best, it's said, because of the believability of the play. And here, Helmi triumphs as his characters mete out honest lines in authentic Singapore lingo.

Among the dialogue's gems is Raju's reply when the emotionally-confused Maggie says she's worried about what the future will bring for the odd couple. He tells her: "I'm 57. You're 63. We are already in the future."

The breezy, trippy music composed by Julian Wong is perfect, and the ensemble performs well. But the two actors who make the play endearing are Panicker as a simple Malaysian Indian man trying to navigate courtship and Elnie with her excellent comic timing as the feisty makcik.

It's the small gestures that make the play, so kudos to director Ivan Heng. After the mild foreplay, the play's climax hits the right spot before coming to a satisfying end.

My Mother Buys Condoms is one of the first locally-written plays which addresses sex for those over 50, but it does also ask why we like to squeeze relationships into a certain framework. Allegorically, it also pits conservative religious viewpoints (represented in Maggie's church-going son and her tudung-wearing friend Nora) against those who do not espouse similar views.

Could society be making life and love more complex than they need to be? And are these complications worth it if they threaten the bonds between family members and friends?

  • My Mother Buys Condoms runs till July 24. Tickets are sold out