Review: Army Daze 2 by Michael Chiang Playthings

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Michael Chiang makes a triumphant return to the stage with a brand new script this year. Coinciding with both NS50 and the 30th anniversary of the original Army Daze, Army Daze 2 is the sequel you never knew you wanted to one of Singapore’s most iconic plays, and successfully brings across a comedic, modern take on National Service in 2017. Watching familiar characters appear onstage older but wiser feels almost like a school reunion, and there’s plenty to be celebrated in this nostalgia-filled new production.
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Audience members need not worry whether or not they caught the original production, as Army Daze 2 brings everyone up to speed in its opening prologue – a recap and montage of the characters and events in the original play set to the catchy opening song “Into the Army”, reintroducing the unforgettable recruits from Platoon 4 –  Malcolm Png (Hossan Leong), Teo Ah Beng (Joshua Lim), Johari Salleh (Saiful Amri), Krishnamoorthy (Ebi Shankara), Kenny Pereira (Shane Mardjuki) and of course, the enigmatic Hokkien catchphrase spouting Corporal Ong (Chua En Lai).
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Fast forward 30 years later, each of these five ex-recruits have now grown up and moved on with their life. ‘Best Recruit’ Malcolm Png, in particular, is now Colonel Malcolm Png in the army, in charge of public relations. He’s got a difficult month ahead of him as he figures out how to handle the bombardment of questions aimed at the all new, first female Chief of Army (Oon Shu An), while antagonist and social media influencer Ariston (Jo Tan) attempts to bring her down. At the same time, Malcolm’s own son Justin (Andre Chong) is about to enter BMT, facing the same things his father did 30 years ago.
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Army Daze 2 comes laced with Chiang’s signature style of puns and easy jokes. Even if some of the jokes are a little too on the nose, Chiang ensures that each one follows with another, easily bringing in the laughs from the audience. Each of the characters from the original are as likeable as ever even in adulthood, and very little has changed in 30 years, with each character having taken the most natural path to become the men they are in the play. Kenny remains a stereotypical, effeminate man who emphasises every action, while Krishna still sweetens up his lover by comparing her to ethnic snacks and desserts. Saiful Amri was a standout as Johari, a lovable mat who finally achieves his dream of opening an ayam penyet stall with chili so hot it induces tears, while Ebi Shankara as Krishna colourfully describes his breakup with ex-girlfriend Lathi dressed in swathes of colourful cloth while performing a dance sequence. Chua En Lai’s turn as the obtuse Corporal Ong with dubious Hokkien sayings was performed with gusto, even adding a new element of heroism to his character. Chua En Lai also played his other two roles well – a typical minister, and even Corporal Ong’s own mother, an ancient wheelchair bound politically incorrect granny.
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Even new characters like the initially serious and professional Chief of Army are well thought out, lending the script a cultural, millennial currency with its concerns with feminism and gender equality, and which Oon Shu An plays with aplomb. Shu An delivers her character with a good dose of gravitas, but also shows off her lighter side in an inspired dance sequence once the Chief becomes part of an ingenious plan later on. Audrey Luo effectively transforms herself from mousy, virtuous mother as Malcolm’s wife Mary to Ah Beng’s loud, short skirted, blonde haired ah lian wife Angela in the blink of an eye (leading to a running joke of misidentification later on), and plays both roles well, particularly complementing Joshua Lim’s Ah Beng and sharing very strong, loving onstage chemistry.
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One of the best new characters was purple-haired social media influencer Ariston. Jo Tan was hilarious and stellar in each and every one of her scenes, offering a comically annoying and fiercely relevant, recognizable modern antagonist for today’s social media obsessed world, stirring controversy to up her likes and views. In particular, each time Ariston appeared onstage, Jo Tan managed to creatively parody the obvious ways in which some social media influencers did product placement, leading to laugh out loud responses from the audience. Ariston was also a great muse and model for Moe Kasim to work his costume magic, dressing Jo Tan in some truly extravagant outfits, from a multicoloured army print jacket, to a wedding dress, to an oversized top adorned with images of Betty Boop.
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Army Daze 2’s biggest weakness lies in the emotional disconnect audiences face with the new set of recruits (Andre Chong, Tahir Ansari, Irsyad Dawood and Tay Hwan Haw), who for the most part, are written as one note characters providing throwaway hit and miss jokes. Natalie Ong’s role as multiple love interest Renee also does little to add drama or any sense of endearment to any of the new generation. Against the superior talents of the more experienced cast armed with pre-existing characters’ recognizability, the new recruits are largely left overshadowed. However, in the few moments we do get to see them in training, one senses that given more time to develop them, these actors could have been really successful, and Chiang might have better reserved these characters for an entire sequel of their own
With a bigger budget, Michael Chiang’s script is also given much more room to exaggerate and go big in this production. With a conveyor belt style stage that made for smooth scene transitions, Wong Chee Wai’s well-made set pieces set the tone for each scene, and really put audiences in the moment. Camouflaged nets and the facade of the SAF Ferry Terminal were a good throwback to the realities of recruit life, while a scene depicting a wake was particularly detailed, with plenty of wreaths and flower stands to fill the space. Wong’s set also occasionally goes completely over the top, such as in the song ‘Look See Believe’, where a gigantic leaf suddenly appears behind the cast, glowing a fabulous bright green and underscoring the song’s pun.
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Don Richmond’s score works very well with the script, and naturalistic scenes easily segue into the more surreal ones, set to the catchy, delightful earworms that he has composed. Towards the end of the play, one particularly standout song ‘Jin Pai Tia’ cleverly uses the contrast between the Hokkien accents of Ah Beng and his wife Angela (Joshua Lim and Audrey Luo) with Renee’s ‘ang moh’ accent (Natalie Ong, a much better singer than actor) to create a truly unique power ballad, tinged with a strange mix of both emotional climax and side-splitting exaggeration.In addition, Army Daze 2’s ensemble managed to amplify each song with their robust dance sequences, and were impressive during Corporal Ong’s ‘Hokkien Rhapsody’, which showed off their fitness and athleticism, dropping to a push up at a moment’s notice.
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As a whole, Army Daze 2 is a fun, celebratory romp that’s easily enjoyed by audiences of any generation, with plenty of tidbits and references for those well-versed with the original to catch. As the original five characters happily reunited onstage and shared how their lives had progressed since 1987, Army Daze 2 hit us with a pang of nostalgia and truly drove home the idea that the army is capable of promoting lifelong friendships with its picture perfect, yet relatable ending, making us want to ring up our old platoon mates for a meet up. Army Daze 2 proves that Chiang still has the magic touch from the original, easily weaving the nostalgia for the 80s with the threads of the 2010s to create a worthy sequel and tribute to 50 years of National Service.
Photo Credit: Alfred Phang
Performance attended 5/8/17

Army Daze 2 plays from 4th – 20th August at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets available from SISTIC

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