Arts Review Singapore Theatre

★☆☆☆☆ Review: Lion by Toy Factory

Second chances just don’t happen.

Playing as part of Toy Factory’s 2021 The Wright Stuff Festival, Lion is a play that deals with a smorgasbord of difficult topics. Written by Jedidiah Huang, the plot follows Yi Kai (Lim Wei Wen Wayne), a single, reformed party playboy jock, on the cusp of adopting the teenage Danial (Bryan Tee) as his son. But when his interviewer turns out to be Jack (Clement Yeo), an ex-classmate he bullied in his teens, rejection comes immediately and swiftly. Yet, Yi Kai is unwilling to give up, and continues to try proving that he’s a changed man, and with the help of best ‘bro’ turned church pastor Samantha (Sharon Mah), he might just be able to turn things around.

As our main character, Yi Kai works in that the audience automatically wants to root for him. Yi Kai manages to come across as sincere in his wish to adopt Danial, even going so far as to put aside his homophobia and fear of emasculation to make him feel better. While this is one of Lion’s stronger points, Yi Kai needs just a little more depth to his character to anchor us to him emotionally, beyond being just a general good guy.

Jack on the other hand, comes across more as a cookie-cutter antagonist who simply refuses to make amends, and is stubborn in his determination to hold onto his childhood grudge. It’s hard to sympathise with him, coming across as immature, and refusing to move on from the past. Throw in the fact that he’s terrible with kids, and later on, revealed to be a backstabber of the highest degree, and there isn’t enough complexity to his morals, as Jack constantly proves himself to be the pettier man (Clement Yeo, at least, carries the character, and makes Jack easy to hate).

While it does try to show a degree of nuance, by showing Yi Kai’s transgressions in the past towards Jack, the present is what matters most, and by establishing Jack as being the one unwilling to forgive, Lion already makes it clear who is in the greater ‘wrong’. It is understandable why Jack feels the way he does towards Yi Kai – what happened back in school is incredibly traumatising. Which then begs the question of how it is a character like pastor Samantha does not step in to actually defuse the tensions between the two, especially when the fate of a child is involved.

There are moments however, that show a glimpse of potential in Huang’s writing. In the scenes shared by Yi Kai and Samantha as they reminisce on their havoc days, Huang evokes a good degree of curiosity from the audience, as we wonder just how much change they’ve both experienced from past to present without explicitly showing that process. This is the kind of nuance of ‘show not tell’ that the play requires more of, rather than its more direct and flat approach towards shaping its characters.

Lion also demands heavy suspension of disbelief from the audience. How can the adoption process get cancelled at the last stage by a case manager who’s literally just stepped in? On that note, later on how can the adoption process start again so quickly, and go through? And towards the end of the play, what kind of kangaroo court dismisses a child’s testimony instantly, after calling him to the stand? While it is possible to overlook one or two incidences of this, increasingly requiring the audience to buy into the realism of the play is daunting, and eventually, disconnects us altogether from believing in it.

As a first time director, Aricia Ng has been given a difficult task of working with such a script. It is evident that her actors Wayne, Clement and Sharon are making the most of the material they’re given (while Bryan does try, but adopts a confusingly Americanised accent), which does help the production be the best version of itself it can. And while there are moments that feel earned, mostly in Yi Kai’s interactions with Danial and Samantha, tiny issues throughout the play do make the production drag, such as how scene transitions between present day and the men’s schooldays require costume changes, which break the momentum when they take just a few seconds too long.

Ending off with a confusing message, Huang seemingly tries to say that bullying is an endless cycle, until one practices forgiveness. Even then, it’s a message that struggles to be believed, with the lack of nuance felt during the performance. What Huang could afford to do more of is to consider layering his characters with more depth, hinting rather than outright showcasing them in all their terrible ways; sometimes, you don’t have to roar to get your point across.

Photo Credit: Poh Yu Khing

Lion ran from 8th to 10th 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

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