Arts Checkpoint Theatre online Review Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims) by Checkpoint Theatre

Wholesome family drama about the importance of communication.

Over the last year, the pandemic has forced multiple productions to either postpone, or reimagine themselves for a digital space. While there are those that have successfully utilised and harnessed the potential of platforms like Zoom, others instead opted for a straight up livestream, where audiences would simply watch a video recording of the show.

And then along comes a show like Checkpoint Theatre’s Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims), which straddles the middle ground between film and theatre, and one of the most successful local theatre shows in the digital space. Unlike a typical film, The Karims is shot in a black box space, clearly with a theatrical set comprising just a few rooms where the action takes place, loyal to its origins as a theatre show. But unlike a theatre show, The Karims employs film techniques to enhance the performance further, using carefully planned close-ups and low angles for dramatic effect and creating greater suspension of disbelief, at times even making us forget all of this has been filmed in a black box.

It is this careful balance of theatre and film that allows it, as a pre-recorded digital stream, to become a true hybrid, building on each medium’s strengths. While it isn’t the first digital performance to do that here, The Karims also succeeds on account of the power of its narrative as well, with its intimate yet resonant tale of a Malay family in Singapore. Written by Adib Kosnan and directed by Claire Wong, The Karims‘ titular family has always prided themselves on their close bonds. But underneath this happy family is a bundle of unspoken issues that threaten to tear them apart.

At the heart of the play is new son-in-law Aqil (Adib Kosnan), moving in with the family and struggling to appreciate and assimilate into their unspoken rules, from monthly family gatherings to navigating his overbearing father-in-law. As a playwright, Adib clearly characterises Aqil as an ardent soccer fan, so much that he refuses to miss a game, and constantly uses clever soccer analogies to compare himself as a ‘new player’ to the team, making these moralistic lessons much easier to accept. But what makes Aqil so arresting is how well-fleshed out he is as a character – as a nurse who works late shifts, and with a difficult relationship with his own family, the resulting tensions feel like a natural result of these character traits, and are satisfactorily resolved as it progresses.

The remainder of the family is equally well-written, and layered: Aqil’s wife Balqis (Farah Lola) seems like the pampered older daughter at first, but reveals her own insecurities and restlessness along the way. Mother Normah (Dalifah Shahril) seems like a simple housewife addicted to K-dramas, but proves herself much more layered when she reminisces a painful moment of grief, and fiercely defends her role in the home, when her husband jokes about it. In playing this multifaceted character, Dalifah Shahril once again proves she’s one of the best local stage mothers, bringing out both her character’s fierce independence, and silly humour with aplomb.

Youngest daughter Rinny (Rusydina Afiqah) initially seems like a flirt, with her serial dating tendencies. But when she confesses the tumultuous history with her ex-husband, her actions and trauma become all too clear (thanks to Rusydina’s fantastic delivery, proving her capabilities as an actress to watch). And finally, patriarch Karim (Rafaat Hj Hamzah) is shockingly relatable, his stoic exterior quickly giving way to familiar fatherly tendencies, such as his terrible habit of buying things the family never asks for (and subsequently blaming them for being unappreciative). Even as the one desperately holding the family together, insisting on everyone’s appearance at gatherings, and ‘protecting’ his precious daughters, Karim forgets to listen to what the family has to say.

Together, all four actors playing the Karims possess an undeniable onstage (or in this case, onscreen) chemistry, and are completely believable as a family who has spent years living under the same roof. Adib Kosnan’s script allows enough moments for each character to shine, and has crafted a work where every character is completely understandable and given almost equal weightage in importance, an incredibly difficult task for any playwright, making this a particularly strong ensemble piece.

Above all, what makes The Karims such a likeable play is quite simply, how wholesome it is. There are loving in-jokes, fun references to pop culture, moments of quiet reflection, and so many unspoken bonds between the characters, that viewers cannot help but be drawn into the world of the Karims. Even with the misunderstandings and little fights, the tensions and the awkward moments, you root for them because they all seem so at home with each other, that you cannot imagine them ever being apart.

The Karims is an affectionate, tight-knit portrayal of a family that excels in its characterisations and character relationships, celebrating the highs and resolving the lows. In the final climatic scene where everyone’s secrets come to light, watching Encik Karim finally break, it is clear that this is a play that is overflowing with love, and certainly, sets a new standard for what a quality digital theatre production should be.

Keluarga Besar En. Karim (The Karims) streams on SISTIC Live till 31st October 2021. Tickets available here

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