Arts Review SRT Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: The Almighty Sometimes by Singapore Repertory Theatre

Newcomer Arielle Jasmine delivers a stellar performance in this play about the side effects of psychotropics and perils of parenthood.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Daniel Jenkins)8
Script (Kendall Feaver)7
Performance (Arielle Jasmine Van Zuijlen, Karen Tan, Salif Hardie, Shona Benson)9
Set Design (Eucien Chia)7
Lighting Design (Gabriel Chan)10
Sound Design (Daniel Wong)8
Costumes (Leonard Augustine Choo)8
Total57/70 (81%)
Final Score:★★★★☆

There are many entry points with which one could begin processing Kendall Feaver’s play The Almighty Sometimes. While ostensibly dealing with the topic of mental illness and psychotropic drugs, the play is also a family drama that segues into themes of isolation, the difficulties of parenthood and caregiving, as well as the ethics of psychiatry and creative genius. At its heart, it is a play that manages to tie it all together with a constantly forward-moving script that sees the rise, fall and recovery of an adolescent learning to stand on her own two feet as she navigates the difficulty of adulthood.

Directed by Daniel Jenkins, The Almighty Sometimes follows Anna (Arielle Jasmine Van Zuijlen), a 21-year old who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder since her childhood. Stuck on a daily cocktail of pills to help control her condition, Anna comes to the realisation that the medication may have stunted her growth, preventing her from living a full life. In an effort to unlock the supposed writing genius repressed in her childhood, Anna makes the momentous decision to go cold turkey on the drugs, and experiences an exhilarating journey into independence.

The problem however, lies in how Anna is not alone in this, and her decision to go off her prescriptions inevitably affects the people around her: her new boyfriend Oliver (Salif Hardie), her psychiatrist of over a decade Vivienne (Shona Benson), and her long-suffering single mother Renee (Karen Tan). In dealing with the ‘new’ Anna, all four characters are forced to confront their relationships with her, leading to the beauty of The Almighty Sometimes – how comprehensive the script is, in daring to ask particularly tough questions surrounding mental illness.

In unpacking the complexities of mental illness, Anna’s growth is fascinating to watch, a relentless pursuit of truth that leads to a difficult, sometimes brutal process of unlearning. From doubting the validity of her initial diagnosis, to even researching her psychiatrist and being outraged at seeing her childhood stories used without her permission, it’s completely understandable why Anna feels as confused as she does, a constant sense of paranoia from betrayal and uncertainty compounded by a relapse of her condition from suddenly going off meds.

In portraying this journey, Arielle proves to be a stellar casting choice. There is a curiosity in her demeanour and youthful energy to her movements that reminds us of our own adolescence, restless and raring to go. There are times Anna’s behaviour borders on annoying, but through her performance, Arielle always manages to somehow make it endearing, with the seemingly infinite well of random facts she tosses out, or unbridled enthusiasm as she reads her old stories out loud.

At the same time, just when you think it’s safe to place your trust in her, there are sudden, genuinely terrifying mood swings that bring her to the knife edge of villainy, going from cold and sullen, to lashing out with cruel words and a maniacal, all-consuming ego-trip. Worse still are her lows, where she resorts to desperate, violent blows or a chilling cry despair as she enters a total breakdown. To that end, Arielle nails the harrowing, unpredictable nature of bipolar disorder, sympathetic yet frustrating, evoking a deep desire to help even while nursing a fear and apprehension within us.

While the differences in accents are somewhat jarring, with Salif and Karen initially unable to find a consistent and natural accent, the chemistry Arielle shares with her cast members helps smooth this over, and by the midway point, all the cast members have settled into their roles, their relationships feeling real. There is a hesitance to the way she behaves with Salif, awkwardly flirting while also overflowing with joy when together, before the tables turn when things get toxic and their relationship turns sour. On the other hand, the relationship between Vivienne and Anna is a complex one, tenuous in how Anna constantly seeks more beyond their doctor-patient relationship. There is an air of professionalism Shona Benson exudes, yet one cannot help but see that she is sometimes on the verge of breaking, her lip quivering as if wanting to do something more.

Most riveting however is the relationship between Renee and Anna, constantly evolving throughout the play, with multiple layers to unpack. It is difficult to watch the unravelling of this relationship, going from two women who know everything about each other, to seeing Anna turn Renee into a punching bag for almost everything wrong with her life. As an audience, we implicitly understand that to become a parent is to unwittingly sign a contract to accept and care for the child you choose to bring into the world, and that for all the mistakes Renee may have made, she is constantly, always trying her best to keep Anna safe. Renee’s love for Anna is a double-edged sword, and there is a genuine struggle to Karen’s portrayal of a mother learning to let go and allowing the daughter she has held every step of the way coming into her own.

Indeed, the most affecting moments of the play are between Renee and Anna, and as director, Daniel Jenkins is at his best when crafting such naturalistic scenes, particularly when mother and daughter are trading witty retorts that lend realness and depth to their relationship. Even in the big, climactic drama scenes, Daniel manages to create a kind of choreographed chaos, where there is evident physical force from all cast members involved, and feels almost dangerous watching them grapple with each other. In quieter moments, there are well-placed pauses, such as Renee allowing Anna the space to express herself before coming in, that allows us to understand the unspoken routines they’ve gotten used to over the years.

Considering its length, Kendall Feaver’s script is not an easy one, with a few too many monologues (at the expense of Anna) alongside heavy dialogue that deals with medical information and sometimes oscillates into the silly. Daniel handles the weight of the script rather well, its length buoyed by the constant forward momentum of Anna’s story, alongside the cast’s delivery and timing, allowing for the jokes to land, and even some occasionally laugh-out-loud scenes (primarily between Karen and Salif).

However, where the play falters is in the transition scenes. These see the black-clad ensemble used simultaneously as stagehands, but also as oddly inserted interpretive moments, used either to depict Anna’s disturbing stories or her ‘inner demons’ staring menacingly from behind translucent walls. These happen rather frequently, somewhat unrefined compared to the rest of the play, and jar what is otherwise rather fluid, impressive direction. Eucien Chia’s dull, gray set seems to resemble British council flats, worn and stained, while jagged glass-like structures atop add to the unwelcoming nature of the play’s world. There are multiple layers hidden within its walls too, from plants in Vivienne’s office to a 3D illusion of a world outside. But these same sliding doors also hinder scene changes, at times unable to close fully (and not-so-subtly remedied by stagehands midway). In addition, there are certain scenes which look suspiciously barren; an almost empty entrance and an unusually large hospital room seem out of place with their lack of detail compared to the mostly decked out kitchen with fridge and backdrop, or even Vivienne’s office with shelves of files stacked high.

At the same time, The Almighty Sometimes also features some rather strong design elements – Leonard Augustine Choo’s costumes are always suitable for the characters, with crisp suits for Vivienne, dowdy oversized clothes for Oliver, or the transformation from slick checkered shirt/sleeveless inner shirt to baggy hoodie and sweatpants to show Anna’s change between acts. Daniel Wong’s sound design provides some appropriate, evocative mood music, but most of all, it is Gabriel Chan’s lighting that leaves an impression; even with just three lighting fixtures hanging overhead, there is so much variety in their flickering, fluorescence and warmth to match the energy, mood and atmosphere of each scene, while also designing precise spotlights, alongside more inventive lighting that resembles twilight or even light that creates the illusion of a tank of water. There are so many lighting cues throughout the show, but every single one of them feels purposeful and intentional and adds to the direction and world-building involved.

The Almighty Sometimes ends Singapore Repertory Theatre’s 2022 season on a powerful note, in unearthing and presenting an affecting script that hits hard with its message. More importantly, it also heralds the arrival of an exciting new actress on the scene, who proves she’s willing to put in the work, resulting in a performance that pays off in spades. Even if the final message about how much we should hold on is somewhat muddled, this is a production that will discomfort you with its honesty, leaving you with lingering questions about the still nebulous world of mental illness and treatment, but ultimately, remind you of the complexities of human relationships, and how sometimes, learning to let go is the highest form of love.

Photo Credit: Singapore Repertory Theatre

The Almighty Sometimes plays till 26th November 2022 at KC Arts Centre. Tickets available here

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