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Theatre Review (Singapore): Michael Chiang’s Army Daze by SimplyWorks

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Playwright Michael Chiang’s well-loved local Singlish play Army Daze got a facelift, and celebrated its 25th anniversary this year with SimplyWorks’ restaging of Army Daze which ran from August 21 to 26 at the Drama Centre.

Army Daze is about five teenagers called to serve in the army as national service, and the trials and tribulations they face, both at home and in fatigues. This time around Beatrice Chia-Richmond directed Army Daze, which saw a completely sold-out run.

Army Daze is colloquial and over-the-top melodramatic, but therein lay the fun! Dwayne Tan starred as the mummy’s boy Malcolm, Joshua Lim played the gangster Ah Beng, ex-Vasantham star Ebi Shankara played Krishna the boy filled with Indian melodrama, Shane Mardjuki portrayed the cross-dressing, wimpy, and girlish Kenny, and Adi Jamaludin breathed life into flaky girl-crazy Johari.

The play follows these boys as they go through three months of basic military training, and deals with the problems they face with the hard training and unreasonable officers in charge, as well as issues they face with their family and loved ones: Ah Beng’s disenfranchised family, Krishna’s long-distance love with Lathi (Norleena Salim), Malcolm’s coming of age, Kevin’s longing for acceptance of his sexuality by his family and society, and Johari’s need to find love and be more serious about his life. Together, while facing all these problems, the boys also build a friendship despite being so disparate in both character and background.

All five actors who played the army boys-turning-into-men gave fine performances, handling the slapstick moments as well as the scenes that called for more gravitas with aplomb and presence.

Updated with references to local infuriations such as the MRT breakdowns and how Chinese nationals who take up permanent residency here don’t need to serve national service, and with catchy songs penned by Don Richmond that had perfectly choreographed dances accompanying the music, this Army Daze was kept current and entertaining and may even be the best version staged in its 25-year history.

Even the supporting characters shone. Dennis Chew played Malcolm’s overbearing and overprotective mother to a T, while the uber-talented Siti Khalijah played the authoritative yet softhearted singing Sergeant Khatib splendidly. Khalijah also appeared as Krishna’s abused Filipino maid to loud applause as she nailed the accent and mannerisms of that culture and profession appropriately.

Chua Enlai brought the house down playing Corporal Ong, who speaks only broken English and inevitably spews double entendres and irrelevant analogies without realising it. Clad in beautiful sequined saris and Punjabi suit tops (without any pants/bottoms, which I found strange!), Norleena Salim had an accent that wasn’t always on the ball, as she kept shifting between a strong Indian accent and a Malay one. However, her bountiful charisma and comedic timing made up for this shortcoming.

The set was also effective, as bunk beds were pulled in and out of the space and doors to the barracks changed from lockers to regular doors as the set seamlessly went from army barracks, to the jungle, and even to the characters’ homes.

All in all, Army Daze was a rip-roaring riot, funny, humorous and full of heart, and this production proved that it’s still an iconic local play. Written in 1987 in pure Singlish for the most part, this play would most likely appeal to local Singaporeans only or those who’ve lived here long enough to appreciate the language and customs ~ because let’s face it, some things are just funnier when said in Singlish.

So, next time, better you faster-faster go buy tickets and you ownself watch lah!

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.