A fledgling idea that needed more time in the incubator.
From HG Wells’ The Time Machine to Doctor Who’s TARDIS, the idea of time travel has fascinated us for centuries. But the key idea that strings them all together, that motivates so many time travelers, is a single theme – regret, and the drive to change the past for the better.
Kicking off Toy Factory’s 2021 Wright Stuff Festival, Lim Shien Hian’s The Time Machine focuses on the life of Jan (Wendy Toh), a female scientist who has finally achieved her dream of creating a working time machine. As she travels back and reminisces over the last 15 years of her life however, she realises how much she’s sacrificed in her relationships as she dived deeper into the project, and wonders – was it all worth it?
As a concept, time travel has always been ripe with plot potential. Everything from the consequences of time paradoxes to re-living life’s most dramatic high points could form fascinating narratives, but The Time Machine instead opts to look inward, and focus on evoking sympathy by portraying the ups and downs of its misguided protagonist.
Performed mostly in reverse chronological order, The Time Machine begins on New Year’s Day 2021, when Jan uses her completed time machine. Scene after scene, we watch her in her darkest moments, betraying a best friend by pulling out of an investment, drunk dialling an ex, and drinking kopi alone. But as the play goes on, we see how she wasn’t always this way, brimming with hope when she is called to participate in a conference in the USA, her first day at the prestigious “Government Science and Technology Agency”, and the pride she feels upon graduation.
The problem with The Time Machine then, is that its potential is squandered on how it doesn’t really do much, or know what it wants to do with its dragged out story. It is weighed down by so many brief scenes, by so many fleeting characters that barely register in our heads, that we can’t help but ask ourselves – what is the point of the play? The message is a muddled one, and with how little character development is given to Jan, with her only personality trait being an obsession with her time machine, there is no reason for us to keep rooting for her, or feel emotionally anchored.
That’s not to say the cast doesn’t try to work with what they have. As Jan, Wendy Toh does her utmost to imbue the role with emotion, pushing the otherwise 2-dimensional character to its limits, invoking mournful regret in her lengthy dialogues, or capturing her in a drunken stupor. While they too try their best, with Wong Shao Kai in particular embracing the louder, campier roles for the occasional comic relief, the ensemble in The Time Machine feels shoe-horned in for the most part, and their characters only there for the sake of playing out Jan’s story, narration that lacks the writing to plumb her emotional depths.
Ultimately, The Time Machine ends up feeling like a one-note script, and a fledgling idea that got stretched out to pad its runtime without its creators quite knowing where they want to take it. In fact, the supposedly innovative reverse chronological presentation probably hurts more than it helps, where our knowledge of how awful Jan’s life becomes makes us unable to enjoy the highs of her earlier successes. It is simply more effective to watch a person crumble, than to play detective and find the point where her life begins to go downhill.
Simply put, this is a script that needed more guidance and incubation to make something out of. There are no stakes, no tension, and ultimately, nothing about the show that stays with you after you leave. Is it a commentary on how Singaporeans lose passion for what they do? Is it question of whether it’s worth it to sacrifice everything for your life’s work? The Time Machine never really clarifies its purpose, and ends up as a script in search of its own meaning.
Photo Credit: Poh Yu Khing
The Time Machine ran from 1st to 3rd October 2021 at Gateway Theatre, as part of Toy Factory’s The Wright Stuff Festival 2021.
The Wright Stuff Festival runs from 1st to 17th October 2021 at Gateway Theatre. Tickets available from Eventbrite