Arts Comedy Preview Singapore Theatre

Sibeh Strange: An Interview with Jonathan Lim and Judy Ngo on the long-anticipated return of their signature Chestnuts parody show

In its heyday, the Chestnuts series was one of Singapore’s most popular and beloved parody shows. Known as Singapore’s ‘first and longest running parody shows’, since their humble beginnings in 1996, the team have grown and evolved over the years from strength to strength, going from Christmas sketch shows at the now-defunct Jubilee Hall, to a massive SG50 special edition in 2015 at the Drama Centre Theatre.

Seven years on, amidst pleas and requests to bring it back, and a global pandemic later, they’re finally making a welcome return this November, with Chestnuts – Sibeh Strange in the Multiverse, ready to once again spoof everything from movies to TV, current affairs to popular music, and of course, our very own theatre scene.

Jonathan Lim

Created and helmed by veteran theatremaker Jonathan Lim (The Theatre Practice’s Four Horse Road, and Bite Me Productions’ Diva to the Death), this year’s edition will tackle the whole multi-meta-verse and beyond, bringing some much needed laughs to your holiday season. From Doctor Strange to Michelle Yeoh, buskers to Black Panther 2, Stranger Things to Squid Game, Ah Girls Go Army to this year’s National Day Parade, The LKY Musical to the downfall of NFTs, watch as your favourite shows and pop culture icons crossover in one weird and wild journey.

“Someone even rang me up and went ‘Where are you? I need Chestnuts to rip these issues apart!'”

Jonathan Lim

“When we went on hiatus, we didn’t really have any idea what we were going to do with Chestnuts,” says Jonathan, who once again writes and directs this edition of Chestnuts. “We told ourselves, it will come back when it needs to come back, and we’re happy enough to coast along and wait. Of course, we got pestered by our Chestnuts regulars, and things just kept piling up with more and more issues to parody. Someone even rang me up and went ‘Where are you? I need Chestnuts to rip these issues apart!'”

The seven year itch is no joke, with several productions making a return this year, from the Dim Sum Dollies, to The LKY Musical, and now, Chestnuts. “In all honesty, I’ve missed it,” says Jonathan. “I was itching to get back out there and get into things and it finally felt like the right time, with so much hunger not just from us, but the audience base as well after COVID.”

“Everyone was so pent up, and so sad from the pandemic,” says Judy Ngo, a Chestnuts veteran who will also be starring in Chestnuts – Sibeh Strange in the Multiverse. “We really felt this need to laugh at something, at ourselves and each other and the universe, so it was time to come back, leave your worries behind, and settle down for some good comedy.”

Even with the re-opening of the arts scene however, there are still some concerns about whether people will be spending their money on the theatre, especially during the holiday season, or with new strains of the virus still emerging. “Sure, there’s still residual anxiety about the pandemic during this period, and we’re also uncertain about many things, but I think it’s safe to say we think it’s going to be alright,” says Jonathan. “Even if we’re not fully out of the woods yet, I think we can allow ourselves a pat on the back, and in Chestnuts, we’ll be looking back on the last few years, not in a sad way, but in a positive, hopeful, and naughty way we’re known for.”

“Situations in Singapore have always been more complex and not as polarised as in America, and as artists, it is our job to test boundaries.”

Jonathan Lim

Beyond a post-pandemic world, Jonathan and Judy are fully aware we now live in a trigger happy one, where a single wrong word could land you in trouble, a concern that extends to comedy. “As an artist in Singapore, I think we have to be cautious of the American brand of ‘woke-ness’, and be smarter about deciding who or what to ‘cancel’, and not just follow what the West says,” says Jonathan. “Situations in Singapore have always been more complex and not as polarised as in America, and as artists, it is our job to test boundaries, and ensure that if any overstepping is done, it is in the safe space of a theatre, rather than say, the Academy Awards.”

“We’re thinking of putting up trigger warnings before each sketch, just to warn audience members,” adds Jonathan. “But at the end of the day, Singapore’s brand of comedy in particular is very ‘kampung’, like, earthy and crass and honest, and seldom cruel. That’s the spirit we’ve kept with us since Chestnuts began, and we never do anything mean-spirited, always from a place of empathy, and hope people can see the heart behind it.”

While he says all that, Chestnuts actually is hyperaware of some ‘forbidden’ topics that are simply not the right issue to make light of. “We’ve always had unspoken rules about things we can’t be funny about, like how we never make fun of tragedy, death or loss. Sure, we might mention it as part of context but we don’t do dark humour,” says Jonathan. “We do come up with some material that’s more risque, but those are the pieces we sideline, and only bring out if circumstances change by the time the show premieres, like how we’re avoiding Ukraine at all costs, but comfortable enough to do some ‘in memoriam’ stuff for LKY and the Queen.”

“We never do anything mean-spirited, always from a place of empathy, and hope people can see the heart behind it.”

Jonathan Lim

To keep himself in check, Jonathan actually relies on his team members, like Judy, who often acts as his ‘censor’ in Chestnuts, not only becoming aware of when things get too much, but also having the taste to predict if something is actually funny or not, and willing to call him out on it to get the production back on track. “But really, it’s a night of smart comedy that’s perfect for anyone in need of a laugh after the lockdown,” says Judy. “It’s a show that’s rooted in observation, specifically our observations about life and putting it under the lens, and when you watch, you might go ‘oh! so that’s what I’ve been going through, and I’m not alone in feeling this way.’ It’s a show that’s best enjoyed shoulder to shoulder, bum to bum where you all laugh together.”

“It really is, and even though we were offered to do trial shows at half capacity, we insisted on waiting till theatres could be at full capacity before deciding to do it,” adds Jonathan. “You don’t buy tickets for one person to watch Chestnuts; you bring the whole gang along. Even if you see everyone else laughing except you, then you go for supper after that and ask why they laugh to find out! Chestnuts brings that community together – we are the glue, but you bring the pieces. Sometimes, we see up to 3 generation families coming when the youngest are finally old enough, and it feels like a comedy night around a warm campfire.”

“It’s a show that’s best enjoyed shoulder to shoulder, bum to bum where you all laugh together.”

Judy Ngo

For all its naughtiness and crude language, Judy, who is a teacher, is aware that she shifts between two different modes, depending on which mask she’s wearing at that point in time. “I’m very firm that Chestnuts isn’t appropriate for those still in secondary school and below, because it’s very much adult humour,” says Judy. “It is an avenue of myself I cannot express in my day job, and through comedy and theatre, I am able to present this other side to me, my observations and this other facet of my personality, something I hide away when I’m teaching and when I’m being a mother at home, just like how I fully become an actor when I step into the rehearsal space and leave whatever personal issues I may have behind.”

In terms of what to expect from this edition, Jonathan promises a smorgasbord of content, curated from an uncountable accumulation of content from the last seven years. “It’s always tricky to stop yourself from doing every single thing we’ve missed out on the last seven years,” says Jonathan. “We were even tempted to make it more improv, and ask fans to randomly shout out issues from the last seven years. But if we did, it would probably be 5 hours long, or referencing issues that the majority of people have already forgotten. It’s painful to cut out stuff from earlier on, because there’s so much rich material, but people’s memories are getting shorter.”

“So that’s why our focus has been on the past year and a half, and our earliest reference point is Marvel’s Shang-Chi, while the end point is going to be Black Panther 2,” says Jonathan. “Like our title suggests, we’re focusing heavily on the concept of the multiverse, where we pit Dr Strange against Michelle Yeoh from Everything Everywhere All At Once, and the two of them end up traversing the multiverse on their own adventures, like how Dr Strange explores Hollywood and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while Michelle Yeoh explores Asian issues. We’ll be exploring The LKY Musical and even the ‘Kwa Geok Choo’ multiverse, and tying it in with how Adrian Pang directed this year’s NDP, and even get to spoof Taufik Batisah because of that.”

“TikTok has also given us a lot of material as well, and it’s done wonders for scriptwriting because it curates for us and shows us what people are already obsessing over, and what is present in the national consciousness, representing what a community thinks Singaporeans find funny,” adds Jonathan. “So based on those videos, we fill in the gaps and perform sketches that comment on things that they haven’t covered yet, and it forces us to be smarter, and sneakier, and cleverer. So for example, TikTok has so many immediate reactions to the ‘Karens’ throwing licence plates and venting their frustrations, so people have already labelled them as ‘Karen Avengers’, and come November, we’ll be adding on to that and helping sum up the whole phenomenon.”

“We fill in the gaps and perform sketches that comment on things that they haven’t covered yet, and it forces us to be smarter, and sneakier, and cleverer.”

Jonathan Lim

Also of note is how this year’s Chestnuts will feature a brand new cast, and besides Jonathan and Judy, welcomes new spoofers Nelson Chia, Audrey Luo and Timothy Wan. While Timothy is a known actor and Audrey a frequent collaborator with Jonathan, Nelson Chia seems to be the one outlier and surprise feature, considering he is more known for ‘serious’ work as a director and scriptwriter, with his company Nine Years Theatre. “The secret history not many people know is that Nelson was actually in my very first sketch show before Chestnuts, and the two of us have been doing silly theatre things together even before we went to NUS Theatre Studies together,” says Jonathan. “Of course, our paths grew further and further apart because he went into Chinese theatre, and my Chinese is, well, terrible. But there’s always been this hunger to get back together and do stuff, and over the years, we’ve had some opportunities like Own Time Own Target with Wild Rice, but that was ages ago, because we’ve both gotten so busy.”

“But then a few years ago, he suddenly came up to me and demanded to know why I never asked him to do Chestnuts with me, and I suddenly felt very…guilty, and told him he was probably too busy with Nine Years Theatre!” adds Jonathan. “So that was when I realised, it was time to bring the wacko side of Nelson back, and revisit the silliness that even Judy can vouch for.”

On bringing in a new audience to the show, Jonathan wants to remind people to come and watch before making a judgment call. “When we first launched our Caifan Song spoof on YouTube, there was a comment that the marketing team saw that commented ‘these people anyhow use sibeh in the title, don’t they know how rude it is’, and I said to Judy ‘oh dear they really need to watch the rest and see what else is in the video and what else awaits’,” says Jonathan. “We’ve done Chestnuts long enough to know that what we are doing has its place, and there is this almost unspoken contract and relationship with the audience to accept the world we create. New audience members coming in may not know this, but hopefully we persuade them during the show. Some people will find that it’s not meant for them, and that’s ok, but I do think that we have evolved enough as a country to develop a range of audiences who appreciate different forms of comedy.”

And on the pertinent issue of funding, Chestnuts too finds it difficult to get any form of government support, and has immense gratitude for Singapore Street Festival, who are producing the show. “It’s hard for official authorities to acknowledge what we are, because we’re quite unique as a parody show,” says Jonathan. “Funding is tricky because we fall between the cracks of the broad genres, where we’re not ‘art’ enough for the National Arts Council, or if they do actually give the grant, they’ll probably take the money back because it’s a spoof. But it’s interesting how friends who are in IMDA or related government boards do come for the show, and they say they have to come ‘undercover’, and are actually the most loyal fans.”

“If the audience watches us, likes us, and wants us to carry on, and if we feel it’s the right time and thing to do, then by all means, we’ll continue.”

Jonathan Lim

As for the future of Chestnuts, will we have to wait another seven years before the next edition? “When we embarked on this, we didn’t really plan, and we never really plan for the long term, but there’ve been some talks here and there, and we hope it’ll organically develop in time to come,” concludes Jonathan. “We’re thinking about where Chestnuts fits into the local scene and with this new audience, and I guess we’ll gauge based on the response to this edition. If the audience watches us, likes us, and wants us to carry on, and if we feel it’s the right time and thing to do, then by all means, we’ll continue.”

Photo Credit: Chestnuts

Chestnuts – Sibeh Strange in the Multiverse runs from 25th November to 11th December 2022 at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets available from SISTIC

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