In theatre, themes of death and family are never far from the stage. Although riffing on such familiar themes, The Car still feels fresh and very accessible in the hands of Our Company, who make a triumphant return after a two year break with their new production of Verena Tay’s 2005 play.
Commissioned by the Esplanadeas part of the F.Y.I. (Feed Your Imagination) initiative to provide local primary and secondary students increased exposure to the arts, the semi-autobiographical play centres around a girl (Julie Wee) as she reflects on the recent death of her father (Henry Heng). As she begins packing up his things, she comes face to face with the one item bequeathed to her: a vintage Fiat Marvellette car (Faizal Abdullah), the pride and joy of her father that sparks off memories of her troubled relationship with him. Strangely enough, she begins talking to the car as it takes on a life of its own and brings her on a joyride down memory lane as she revisits the past.
The Car is an evocative play, relying on Chen Yingxuan’s inspired direction to imbue it with life and Verena Tay’s vivid writing to speak for itself. Along with the cast’s strong delivery, the setting of a car workshop, a tuition centre and others are easily conjured up within the simple black box space in the viewer’s minds eye. Memories are brought to life as the girl picks out items painted white contained in Koh Qian Wei’s simple set of white cardboard boxes. At times, she comes across objects in colour, such as a rainbow pinwheel, a simple but effective visual device representing the more vivid memories and a cue for a re-enactment of these memories.
As the play opens, the Fiat is covered with a silver nylon sheet, obscuring his face while he speaks, his voice distorting into an android-esque sound, like a mechanical ghost continuing to haunt the girl. With deliberate, robotic movements, Faizal Abdullah’s performance easily created the image of a literal car on its last legs, and his facial expressions told us everything we needed. Despite silver face paint donning his face and the voice distortions, Faizal does a remarkable job of acting past these, giving the car a genuine earnestness and determination to please that the audience can root for just as much as the girl, really embodying the charm of a ‘magic lau pok chia’. As such, one can easily see why the girl’s father forges such a strong bond with the car. The car is essentially the father’s best friend, the one thing he refuses to give up on even when the odds are stacked against it.
That same bond drives a wedge between father and daughter, as he becomes increasingly impractical and unreasonable, easily flaring up and stubborn to a fault in his daughter’s eyes. Henry Heng starts off as a hopeful new father, his voice warm and understanding as he cradles his newborn daughter in his arms. But as the car grows older and more susceptible to breakdowns, his temper too begins to break, and he transforms into a man who seems to be holding on to sentiment over practicality, his rage and frustration coming through more frequently than ever. Although he cares, it’s a misplaced concern at times, refusing to let his daughter go to Liat Towers McDonald’s for a birthday party (a real blast to the past) where ‘smokers hang out’, or even letting her take a taxi for fear of being kidnapped. Henry Heng’s sympathetic portrayal of the father is one many can probably relate to – a kind of trial and error where even years later, they’re trying to figure out how exactly to be a good parent.
Photo Credit: Fennel Photography
And at the centre of the play, Julie Wee’s outstanding portrayal of the daughter captures the complexities of dealing with the death of a loved one, and one can see the transformation in her character from a woman determined to repress her emotions to one that eventually comes to terms with the regrets she experiences. Whether she’s playing a bright eyed child or an angsty teenager (or even an annoyingly hilarious Japanese Datsun), Wee hits all the right notes here and her performance is what ultimately anchors the whole play, acting as a vessel for the complicated cocktail of emotions that represent her relationship with her father and her ‘rivalry’ with his car.
As Julie’s character throws away the last box of memories, The Car builds up to a powerful emotional payoff as she finally admits to the guilt and regrets she’s been burdened with. There’s something incredibly cathartic about the final scene as she gives in to the feelings that she’s kept locked up for most of the play, and expresses her wish to speak to her father one last time in an attempt to understand him better.
The Car is a perfect choice for F.Y.I.: an intimate, accessible show that touches on the difficult subject of parent-child relationships that affects just about everyone. The Car is by no means simple though, and over its one hour, successfully unpacks the myriad of thoughts that pass through one’s head when reflecting upon a life, leaving plenty of food for thought and the occasional tear in the audience. With Verena Tay’s well-crafted script and indelible characters made relatable by the cast, The Car is a promising welcome back to the theatre scene for Our Company, and we can only hope that it’s a sign of the engines revving up again for more of the good work they’ve been producing since 2013.
Performance attended on 5/7/17
The Car plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio till 7th July. Tickets are now sold out.