Arts Review Singapore Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: The Essential Playlist by The Second Breakfast Company

Who will help the helpers?

The term ‘essential workers’ has become something of a buzzword over the course of the pandemic. Not only was there initial furore over who should be considered ‘essential’ or not, but as the pandemic reached its peak, stories of burnout, quitting en masse, and the paltry efforts at celebrating them (clapping at our windows) swarmed our social media feeds. How then can we sensitively and effectively address their needs?

One millennial ‘content creator studio’ thinks they have the answer, taking centrestage in The Second Breakfast Company’s (2BCo) The Essential Playlist. Directed by Adeeb Fazah, and co-written by Adeeb and Zulfiqar Izzudin, The Essential Playlist follows said company as they attempt to embark on a revamp of their brand image, tackling more social issues to appear more relevant and ‘woke’. The first project on their agenda – a series titled The Essential Playlist, comprising human feature stories, thought experiments, and fictionalisations of real-world encounters of essential workers of Singapore.

2BCo sets the record straight right from the start, and tugs at our heartstrings with an introduction to the essential workers at the heart of the show – female delivery rider Sam (Misha Paule Tan) and nurse Fatin (Zulfiqar Izzudin), each explaining their reasons for joining their respective industries. Both are noble in their cause; Sam because she feels happy when she makes hungry people smile when she delivers their food, and Fatin because he understands the industry is in need, though he gripes about how the patients think of themselves as customers, making unreasonable demands constantly.

But much like how essential workers are often overlooked, as soon as they’re introduced, we’re whisked away to the office of content creators Lunch Bunch, where employees Henry (Angeal Cheong Hongwei), Danielle (Zara Sophia), Leon (Rino Junior John) and Amanda (Kimberley Ng, who impresses with her commitment to the role and energy) are engaged in heated discussion. In typical millennial fashion, the company is lofty in their ideals and enthuses over jargon – claiming to be ‘thought leaders’ instead of just content creators, as they ‘plug the holes’ to ‘build the castle’.

The Lunch Bunch bears more than a passing similarity to a certain production company that came under fire in 2021, and like other influencers and content creators, their main goal is to stay at the top of the public’s social media feeds, and crank out the engagement like no tomorrow. So of course, they have to come up with a brilliant plan – to interview essential workers for human interest stories, raise awareness of what they’re going through, and give out prizes to the frontliners: a literal free lunch. The response from the other employees is phenomenal – variety show sound effects play, from laugh tracks to applause, and the cast make great use of the space here to show their excitement.

Over the course of their first interview with Fatin however, they start to realise their own blindspots – as Fatin meticulously sanitises his hands before handling the mic, the team begins to lose their patience. Even worse – it becomes clear that they possess such an indignant sense of self worth that they’re under the impression they’re a household name, and go so far as to put their guest on the spot. All of this receives a slew of negative comments, but rather than re-evaluating their approach and changing their format to reach the right audiences, they instead fall even further down the rabbit hole, and resort to even more extreme creative ideas to get the hits they want.

The show then highlights the problems of Sam, where we learn about the struggle of waiting for orders to stack up so they can plan and make the most of their delivery trip; while Fatin, as a nurse, is so busy tending to each patient’s needs at the hospital, that he has no time for his own family. Responding to this, the Lunch Bunch somehow think the best solution is to devise a superhero mascot – Super Bang (or Super Ah Bang, according to Fatin), whose goal is to help frontliners in need. Coming to rescue the essential workers, he even swoops in with his own ridiculous jingle, clearly referencing the bad press a certain creative agency struggled with in real life.

Of course, bad press is still press, making the videos go viral, and amidst it all, the Lunch Bunch continue to prioritise the popularity of their channel, never once thinking of how the essential workers at the centre of their videos actually benefit. As their success goes on the rise, with contracts looming on the horizon, they stray further away from their original intent, just wanting to push the message out, whether through Super Bang or their brand new ‘Essential Rap’ to keep up their popularity. The Lunch Bunch loses sight of what’s important to them, coming from the right place, yet unable to bring any real change as they’re blinded by success.

Over the course of the show, it becomes clear that the Lunch Bunch has two distinct groups, each with their own goals – heads Henry and Amanda always put the company’s success first, regardless of who they step over in the process, in contrast to employees Leon and Danielle, who seem to genuinely want to make a difference, yet are bogged down by their superiors’ selfish desires. Each with their own individual agendas, the final outcome is far from what is truly best for the group that actually matters – essential workers like Fatin and Sam, who really couldn’t care less about what the content creators are doing.

By the end of the video they produce, it becomes clear that for the Lunch Bunch, nothing matters unless the cameras are on you and you’re getting the recognition. Why wait for the influencers to tell your story, when you can do it so much better yourself? In a surprising twist, the essential workers get the last laugh, and rather poetically, prove how non-essential the Lunch Bunch are, as the truth is laid bare for all to see.

Throughout the show, it is hard to deny the effort and energy of the talented young cast behind this, each one putting their best foot forward across their multiple roles, and landing the jokes and emotional high points, thanks to Adeeb’s direction and vision. Watching them perform, it feels like every cast member is in their element from the very beginning, with crisp enunciation and strong characterisation that feels natural, as if they were drawing from lived experiences. This is in part thanks to the script co-written by Adeeb and Zul, filled with dialogue that flows, and a tight storyline that works for a fringe setting.

With The Essential Playlist, 2BCo feels like they’ve found their voice at last, using their platform to represent the millennial perspective, their generation’s struggles and issues, and doing it so well. Just like an actual playlist of bangers, The Essential Playlist leads audience members to question the people who’re on replay in our heads, and who are the people who should instead be at the forefront of our minds. We may not always know what’s the best thing to do for our essential workers in need, but if we ensure that we always put them first, then perhaps, we’ll set ourselves on the right track towards making actual, positive change.

Photo Credit: The Second Breakfast Company

The Essential Playlist ran from 12th to 15th January 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. More information available here

The 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: The Helpers runs from 12th to 23rd January 2022. Tickets and full line-up available here

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