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H is for Hantu

April 3, 2011
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Event: “H is for Hantu” by Stages
Venue: National Museum Gallery Theatre
Run: 23rd Mar – 3rd Apr 2011

I’d heard great things about this production ever since it completed its first run in 2009 at the Alliance Francaise Theatre.

So it was with great excitement that I attended “H is for Hantu” for the first time with Ilkosa at the National Museum Gallery Theatre (which somehow happens to be one of my favourite theatre venues in Singapore) a few days ago.

I guess you can always be assured of a quality production whenever Jonathan Lim and the gang from Stages are involved in a production.

The first thing that surprised me was the sheer number of teenagers present at the theatre that evening.

In fact, the theatre was so full that many of them had to sit on the floor right at the front, just under the noses of the performers, lending an air of cosiness and intimacy to the show, as if we were all transported back to the kampung days when people huddled around to listen to a ghost story.

Just how producer Terence Tan managed to so successfully attract that many teenagers to the musical is anyone’s guess.

“H is for Hantu” tells the story of a local kampung village and how the protagonist Sazali, a kampung schoolboy, tries to fight for the survival of his kampung.

Along the way we are introduced to colourful hantu ghosts in the form of Cik Pon (Jo Tan), Miss P (Candice de Rozario), and other fantastical creatures such as the Hantu Galah, Hantu Batu, Pocong, and the Banana Tree Spirit.

If you had to name just one thing about the show which impressed the most, it would have to have been hands-down the puppets by puppet designer Frankie Malachi.

“H is for Hantu” boasts of some of the most incredibly exhilarating and imaginative puppets I’ve ever seen.

Just when you were wondering how they were going to pull off the tall giant hantu (was it the “Hantu Galah”?), along comes two sets of puppet props, the first representing the legs only and the second representing the entire upper body, that totally blow your mind away.

The actors that had to perform puppetry duties (Candice de Rozario, Johannes Hadi, Faizal Abdullah) deserve plenty of credit as well.

The Stages team also did a great job in recreating the spooky-kampung-wilderness atmosphere, and I thought the part when Cik Pon first made her entrance amidst the darkness was quite a moment.

I loved the simple yet authentic-looking set, and I thought the little lit train moving back and forth in the distance was a beautiful touch.

Many of the lines were funny, and this is what one has come to expect from the excellent writing of Jonathan Lim.

Music-wise, composer Bang Wenfu did a good job in trying to recreate the feel of traditional kampung music with the right use of musical instruments.

However, for a two-and-a-half-hour musical (by the way, how come the SISTIC website lists the run time as 1hr 30mins?), I thought “Hantu” had relatively few songs as compared to other full length musicals.

I may be wrong, but it seemed to me like there were probably, what, 5 or 6 distinct songs at most?

As such I hesitate to label “Hantu” a “musical” in the true sense of the word, as the songs did not always help move the story along…and I suppose “Hantu” is one of those anomalies that straddles between “musical” and “play”.

Or maybe you could term it as a “play with songs”.

But this is only a trivial matter.

I personally felt that at a run time of 2hr 30mins, “Hantu” did give one the feeling of being rather tedious and drawn-out at times.

Perhaps it could have been because it did not exactly manage to create enough sympathy for the characters, nor a gripping enough storyline.

It started promisingly enough with the village scene and all that, but the main thrust of the story seemed to deviate along the way – from what initially looked like a kampung schoolboy’s quest to save his village, it kind of meandered in the middle and ended up being his quest to solve the mystery of Miss Angie Chia’s past, and her relationship with the little girl ghost.

I felt it a tad strange that two of the characters that were introduced in the opening scene, namely the PE teacher and the village girl (who seemed to have a thing going for the PE teacher), never reappeared throughout the musical.

And Cik Mariam seemed under-utilised as well.

Nonetheless, I doubt the issues I had with the story would have dampened the audience’s spirits in any way, because judging by the response, it seems as if Stages has done it once again by putting up a delightful production that not only tells a uniquely local story, but also manages to successfully suspend our disbelief and turn us all into children once again, sitting by the feet of a master storyteller, watching the magic and myths unfurl before our eyes.

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