“Would you say that these works have any merit as opposed to… Shakespeare?” As if in response to such a challenge from a line in the play, Checkpoint Theatre opens its 15th anniversary season confidently with Faith Ng’s Normal. Last staged in 2015, the play revolves around the lives of two schoolgirls from the fictional Trinity Girls School. Feeling straitjacketed and lagging behind in the Normal Academic stream, both Ashley (Claire Chung) and Daphne (Audrey Teong) struggle to get their act as the ‘O’ levels are nearing. Then new teacher Ms Sarah Hew (Julie Wee) shows up with her own set of difficulties with the public school system and their lives enter a new stage, full of newfound honesty and the laughter and tears that come with it.
Normal’s set is seductively unpretentious, drawing the audience into its changing architecture – at times a classroom, others an office, assembly ground, art studio, or black box theatre. Even cleverer are set designer Eucien Chia’s permeable black screens, through which the play’s 10-strong ensemble are often seen, sometimes creating the effect of a theatre-in-the-round in which the stage is surrounded by audience on all sides. This pristine and monochromatic set design seems to embody the pragmatic, results-driven (read: Singaporean) work ethic of Trinity Girls School, at once beautifully efficient but also stifling in its exactness.
The tension between the demands of the greater Singaporean society and the aspirations of the differently abled individual is woven into much of Normal, which sides decidedly with the latter. Against the backdrop of the institution, Claire Chung’s irreverent Ashley becomes the underdog every one of us wants to succeed, especially as Ashley, Chung breathes life into the witty and charismatic character. Audrey Teong’s silly and nervy Daphne also draws much laughter from the audience with her sometimes too-earnest ways. The actors’ chemistry brings us into the confidence of an unlikely pair, endearing in their loyalty and rapport with each other. Their friendship’s strength is proven by the many trials they have endured together, whereas other friends like Marianne (Lim Shi-An) have chosen personal success above all.
Normal constantly reminds us of the difference of power in human relations, and thus the good intentioned and marginalized people fall victim to the resultant politics. Chio Su-Ping’s discipline mistress Ms Wong is one example of a political creature that quite insufferably speaks on behalf of the stifling education system, a system that happens to be endorsed by God as she confidently assures us. Director Claire Wong sets up intimate moments such that the headmistress Ms Wong is often addressing the audience as if we were part of her assembly and subject to her rhetoric of school pride and achievement. When literally faced with such hard-nosed talk of success, it seems likely that the audience will embrace the preferably forgiving figure of Ms Sarah Hew. Julie Wee shines as the idealistic new teacher who strives to treat her students as worthy individuals that are full of potential, rather than items on an assembly line. In particularly vulnerable moments, Wee seems to reach beyond her drama/literature classroom to ask the audience for their “deep, dark secrets” and personal “monologues”, emphasizing Normal’s interest in compassionate understanding, above the heady pursuit of success.
In a climate of preening and paper-chases, Faith Ng’s sensitive and well-researched play will give theatre-goers some healthy pause for deliberation. It was clear for yesterday night’s wet-eyed audience that you don’t have to be a student or an educator to identify with these characters. Beyond its seeming criticism of the education system, Normal invites one to re-examine the folly of demanding perfection from imperfect people.
Normal plays at the Drama Centre Black Box from 23 March to 16 April. Tickets available from SISTIC
Performance attended on 23/3/17 and review written by Nigel Choo for bakchormeeboy.com.