Return to Neo Pee Teck Lane.
Neo Kim Seng’s My Grandfather’s Road is back, this time as part of the Esplanade’s 2019 season of The Studios. While overall following the same plot and arc as the last time we watched it. Now taking place in the Esplanade Theatre Studio, our experience begins even before we step into the performance space, where Kim Seng has set up a personal, nostalgic exhibition on the way in, allowing us to get a glimpse into his family’s life through old school report cards, marriage certificates and household items. Immersing us into his life growing up on Neo Pee Teck Lane, the exhibition was a strong way to introduce the show to new audience members, giving it context and setting the right mood and atmosphere for the trip down memory lane we were all about to go down.
Even when we made our way into the Theatre Studio, we continued to see old black and white photos displayed all around, while we are struck immediately by the low sound of cicadas crying in the background, amidst rural, jungle-like noises reminding us of old Singapore, back in the days of kampongs and houses surrounded by wild, lush greenery, transporting us back 60 years ago.
With a bare, minimalistic set, it’s evident that Kim Seng’s focus lies not in theatrics or glamour, but the story he wishes to tell. Both playing Kim Seng, cast members Loong Seng Onn and Karen Tan enter the stage dressed in batik shirts by Yeomama Batik, and New Balance trainers, both quintessential articles of clothing you can count on Kim Seng to be wearing should you ever meet him in real life, the actual Neo Pee Teck road sign above them.
A line spoken hammers home the reason why this project was even started in the first place; thinking back to when he acquired the road sign, Kim Seng recalls how even though a Kim Seng Road exists, he chose instead to bid for Neo Pee Teck Lane, an actual road that has a connection to his family, being his grandfather’s road, that set the project in motion as he dug deep into his memory and family history. In this staging of My Grandfather’s Road, directorial tweaks have also been made to better help audience members visualise the story being told, such as Karen Tan making climbing motions as she speaks of finding Kim Seng’s grandfather’s tomb at Bukit Brown Cemetery, evidently an arduous journey that we felt as we watched her face, exhausted.
With the presence of new cast member Seng Onn, both actors can now better play off each other’s energy, where one scene sees Seng Onn reading off letters from various relatives of Kim Seng, while Karen performs the reaction to them, reminiscing, pondering, to give us the context as to what these letters are about.
My Grandfather’s Road (RHDS) also sees Kim Seng the writer reaching deeper into his own personal life, revealing more of it than when we last saw this being staged. We learn about how the difficult relationship between him and his father, that they were both born in the Year of the Rabbit, but with one a Fire Rabbit and the other a Water Rabbit, led only to a clash in personality (a fun fact well-delivered by Karen in her performance, and providing some chuckles for audience members). Kim Seng also reveals his childhood fascination for films – failing to pursue it in his studies due to the high cost, he instead dives further into his fandom, consuming film voraciously, in particular discovering his penchant for slasher films, and his inspiration from a Hitchcock movie to scare his sister one day.
One of our favourite scenes from the last staging has also been improved upon even more, wherein Kim Seng recalls his family going to the Southern Islands for a beach day out. A dreamily descriptive scene easily pulling us into the nostalgia of the past, we could practically see Pulau Pasir come to life in our minds’ eye and appreciate the joy brought about by such a memory. We think about Kim Seng’s life, his family, their lives, the deaths, his friends, and the project as an act of reconciliation and healing for the Neos. There is a strong emotional undercurrent when topics of the family come up, and we are struck by the feels when Kim Seng recalls his elderly grandmother, suffering from bad memory, still remembers his birthday, giving him a red packet, one that has symbolic meaning going beyond just good luck, to represent the unbreakable bond family shares. Even when sibling rivalry runs rampant, after the auction for the street sign, in which Kim Seng and his sister unwittingly bid against each other, ends up a success, as the sign remained within the family, no matter who won.
Perhaps one of the most poignant moments of all was the sharing of Kim Seng’s experience with an incurable tinnitus, a condition known to drive people mad with an incessant ringing in one’s ears. One day though, when Kim Seng puts on headphones, this ringing sound is amplified by blocking out all outside noise. It’s a familiar sound, and he soon realises that it actually sounds like cicadas he grew up with, the same sound we hear throughout the show. As this realisation dawns on him, the sound of cicadas grows louder in the theatre as well, and we get a glimpse into his affliction, one that’s the soundtrack of his childhood, familiar yet aching, as the sound of silence is lost to him forever.
Performance attended 18/4/19
My Grandfather’s Road (RHDS) plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 18th to 21st April 2019. Tickets available from the Esplanade
The Studios 2019: The Weight Of A Stone In A Pocket plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio and Esplanade Annexe Studio from 28th March to 27th April 2019. Tickets and full lineup available from the Esplanade. For updates on the works, follow The Studios on Facebook