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Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘Grandmother Tongue’ by Thomas Lim, from Wild Rice

The story of W!ld Rice’s Grandmother Tongue traces the relationship between Ah Mah (Jalyn Han) and her grandson Boon (Tan Shou Chen). Boon speaks mostly English and his grandmother converses only in Teochew (a Chinese dialect), hence they sometimes find it hard to communicate, and for the grandma – she also struggles in English-speaking Singapore.

The script is superbly written by Thomas Lim (who serves as Director as well) and is very well balanced as the dialogue seamlessly fluctuates between comedy and drama. There are parts of the story that will leave you laughing, like the scene where Ah Mah struggles to understand what ‘selfies’ are, and then there are parts that are sombre such as when she recounts her past.

The acting is good, and special mention has to be made of actor Rei Poh who plays multiple parts with an array of accents, from a local grassroots representative to a Filipino nurse. Lim uses the small space and static set most efficiently, with enough movement to keep the pace and scenes exciting.

There is only one little issue this critic has. When Ah Mah, who’s suspicious of the government, tells her grandson the authorities might be listening, the surtitles are turned off for effect. I get the reasoning. However the surtitles remain turned off for a good two minutes even when the Teochew dialogue between grandmother and grandson seem to move on from the topic of government. So whilst the rest of the theatre were laughing at various moments, many of us who didn’t understand Teochew were left clueless as to what was happening on stage, as lack of surtitles ruined the intended effect.

Having said that, this poignant story is one that shouldn’t be missed. I don’t like plays where I need to read surtitles, but I’m glad I made an exception for Grandmother Tongue – because aside from being a touching story, it is also a timely tale of our senior citizens and how they struggle to live in a world where young workers fail to realise older people are not going to be digitally savvy. Perhaps we all need to be mindful from time to time about the Grandpeople around us who also share this world we live in.

W!ld Rice’s Grandmother Tongue plays September 28-October 21 2017 at the SOTA Studio Theatre.

About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

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

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