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Family Outing

August 19, 2011
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Event: “Family Outing” by Joel Tan (as part of the Man Singapore Theatre Festival)
Venue: Drama Centre Theatre
Run: 17th Aug – 21st Aug 2011

I guess we should have to first preface this with the fact that “Family Outing” is the first full-length play written by young playwright Joel Tan, who, according to director Glen Goei, started writing this play at the tender age of 22.

I believe Joel is currently 24, and it is not often that a young man can say that he has had his first full-length play staged at the Drama Centre Theatre at age 24.

A highly-admirable start to what might be a bright future ahead for this young local playwright.

But first, the play.

We all know that the play is about the death of young Joseph in the church-going Choo family through a bizarre accident (accidental electrocution by TV), and how on the first year anniversary of his death, a young man named Daniel arrives at the doorstep of the family’s home to reveal that he was Joseph’s lover for five years.

After watching “Nadirah” on Wednesday night and “Family Outing” on Thursday night, I found it extremely difficult to fight the temptation of wanting to draw parallels between the two plays.

To put it bluntly, “Family Outing” might just have been the Christian equivalent of “Nadirah”, where Joseph faced the same predicament Nadirah’s mother faced, albeit in the context of another religion.

But honestly, to try and compare both plays against one another would be doing a disservice to both Joel Tan and Alfian Sa’at, because one should not be so quick to paint the two plays with such broad and insensitive strokes.

“Family Outing” was not without its sparkling moments.

It certainly had its fair share of tender moments, which apparently brought some audience members to tears.

But ultimately, I left the theatre feeling that the play somehow didn’t quite manage hit the sweet spot.

There was something very “Under One Roof” about the beginning, but once Joseph died you realised that you were watching some sort of dark comedy.

The play had an interesting premise, and you felt that it had the potential to be great, but it felt let down by weak characterisation and lines which could have used a bit more fine-tuning.

There were moments where you felt the playwright could have milked the situation for all it was worth, but somehow or other the lines just didn’t deliver.

Karen Tan and Lim Kay Siu, savvy veterans that they are, did well to carry the play on their shoulders, although the characterisation of the mum (Karen Tan) left me with too many unanswered questions – Was she or was she not the devout Christian in the family? If so, why was she so unfamiliar with the Bible? Why did she seem so unfamiliar with the name “Daniel”? Why was she so vulgar in the opening scene? But if not, then why was she so concerned about taking her kids to church every Sunday and so forth?

Because I figured Karen Tan was a central anchoring figure in “Family Outing”, and because I couldn’t get a firm grasp of who she really was, I was thus slightly disoriented and didn’t know whether to empathise with her.

Whereas “Nadirah” managed to successfully bring in the whole dogma of Islam to enhance the religious and cultural dilemma Nadirah and her mother faced, in “Family Outing” it didn’t feel like enough was being done to highlight the external religious factors which brought about the internal emotional struggle which Joseph faced, i.e. religious teaching vs. freedom to love.

Yes, the Cross was prominently hung on stage the entire play, but the whole “devout Christian family” idea perhaps wasn’t explored fully enough.

The choice of music during the play was a curious one, e.g. Enya’s “Sail Away”, Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida”, and Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” (can’t help but notice this song was also used at the end of “Nadirah”), amongst others.

As for the ending of the play, I found it to be rather awkward.

I believe there were two (unintentional) applause points toward the end of the play whereby the audience had applauded thinking that the play had ended: First, when Joseph turns to the audience and proclaims “The End!”, and secondly when he sails away on a slightly bizarre origami paper boat against the backdrop of a starlit sky.

And immediately after that, we go back to the family scene in their living room, and I believe I was not the only audience member to wonder to myself why we were coming back to this scene again.

And shortly after that, the play ended.

I felt that the ending sequence gave the viewer an unnecessary sense of misdirection, and thus made the ending feel rather clumsy.

In musicals the applause points are finely calibrated for maximum effect, and perhaps “Family Outing” could benefit from a slightly more well-constructed ending.

Not that I want to demean Joel Tan’s effort in any way.

As I mentioned, it takes a special talent to be able to have your work noticed and subsequently staged at the Drama Centre Theatre at age 24, and I fully appreciate Joel Tan’s first full-length play for its intriguing premise and its wonderfully tender moments.

Here’s hoping for greater things to come from this young and talented local playwright.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. jonnyparable permalink
    August 23, 2011 5:09 pm

    Having just watched Family Outing myself, I cannot say I agree with this review. I thought the surreal and kind of other worldly quality of the play that runs through the set to the dark humour was charming and very refreshing. True, the ending(s) did confuse at first, but a musical Family Outing is not, so I think it is grossly unjust to demand a climactic fourth of july ending for the play, which is if anything an exploration of how a family deals with grief and revelation, balancing faith and cherished memories. The writing is subtle and the whitewashed set shows that, with lighting helping to filter in and out of past and present, slightly cinematic in execution but nicely done. To compare it with Nadirah is rather odd, and a little misplaced I feel. All in all, Family Outing is a clever and subtle exploration and a charming debut for Mr Joel Tan, all sour nastiness aside, I think all of us should applaud such a young talent and wish him well too. His first full length play shows promise, although weakened by several less than dazzling performances. How someone who acts as gay as Joseph does manages to hoodwink his family is a mystery, and what is up with Daniel’s accent? And their chemistry was awkward. Cringeworthy and uncomfortable. No fault of the writer, but definitely an unfortunate downer to the play that does fairly well on all other fronts.

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