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★★★★☆ Review: Am I Old? by Sharul Channa

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Putting elderly issues and caretaker’s lives in the spotlight with a touch of comedy. 

Learning is a lifelong process. And for 68-year old Savitri, that’s a saying she’s taken completely to heart, as the single, retired school teacher tries out stand-up comedy for the first time in Am I Old? 

Created and performed by Sharul Channa in conjunction with International Women’s Day 2020, Am I Old sees Sharul perform as Savitri, a character amalgamated from the many interviews she conducted during her research process, as well as memories of her own grandmother. Over the course of Am I Old, not only does Savitri perform her stand-up routine; she also discusses much of her own life as an elderly woman and caretaker for her aged father, revealing how she herself has been marginalised by society, with plenty of her own issues to deal with. 

With a simple set-up comprising a single wheelchair and a dressing table decorated with flowers and a photo of ‘Savitri’ and her grandmother, all our attention is focused on Savitri. Sharul, as Savitri, opens the show by reading a letter by Meng (one of her friends), before interacting with the audience, quickly sussing out their background and demographic such that she can tailor her improv elements for them.

As Savitri tells us about the sacrifices she’s made as a caretaker and reminisces about her past loves (a Catholic man her mother disapproved of), we see this elderly woman as more than the sum of her parts, a woman who is no longer defined by her age alone. Thanks to how much effort has gone into designing Savitri’s backstory, not only does she serve as an effective medium to shed light on the rarely talked about topics of ageing and caregiving, but Savitri also feels like a familiar, fully-formed person we want to know better.

As Savitri, Sharul carefully balances her jokes with a myriad of statistics and facts about ageing and care. We learn how once a woman hits the age of 50, she is effectively rendered invisible, and people soon forget about her or choose not to see her. She speaks about problems such as the difficulty of drawing money from her CPF account, or how the assistance she receives from the government is limited. And then she talks about the tediousness of a caregiver’s schedule, devoting one’s entire life to one’s ward, from waking up to feed him, bathe him, keep him active, and even change his adult diapers, illustrating a vivid picture of how it’s a lifelong commitment that takes immense will and dedication.

It’s clear how tough Savitri has had it all these years, as she tears form in her eyes while she summons up the courage to recount all this to us onstage. Touching on topics of death and grief, she speaks sincerely, reminding us how to cherish the time we have together, even when we have disagreements. This marks a particularly poignant point in the performance, as Savitri recalls her own grandmother’s death, and how much love she had in her, lost forever now that she is gone. We look again at the photo on the table, and notice how Savitri’s late grandmother is dressed in her favourite red sari, and watching Savitri well up with emotion, we find ourselves hoping that Savitri too makes it through her hardships somehow, and finds happiness amidst her situation.

Considering how most of Sharul’s work comprises pure stand-up comedy, as a dramatic work, Am I Old is a good showcase of Sharul’s versatility as a performer. It is clear that Sharul has found her forte in the detailed character work she performs, always able to bring out the laughs if she wishes but also switch to a more serious tone when the time calls for it, something few people can achieve well. Especially in approaching sensitive issues, there is plenty of thought and consideration that goes into how Sharul wants to present them, with stories and accounts that are easy to absorb while still bring across their key message to audiences.

With Am I Old, Sharul has fully capitalized on her ability to tackle the intensely personal with both heart and humour, having created a show that swells with the fruit of love, pride and determination. Watching her as Savitri, we think about our own futures, reflecting on how ageing is inevitable, and reminded to make the most of our time, be more ready to face the future, and to make a bigger effort towards understanding the plight of the elderly and caregivers in our society.

Performance attended 7/3/20

Am I Old? played from 6th to 8th March at the Drama Centre Black Box. 

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