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April 15, 2015

NormalCheckpoint2(Photo courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo credit: Crispian Chan)

Event: “Normal” by Checkpoint Theatre
Venue: Drama Centre Black Box
Run: 9th – 19th Apr 2015

Teach Them Well And Let Them Lead The Way

You’ve got to give it to Checkpoint Theatre.

I can’t think of too many other theatre companies that so earnestly and meticulously nuture promising young playwrights by guiding them from the conception of their plays to organising proper dramatised readings to faithfully bringing the scripts all the way to fruition by giving them a full staging at the end of it all.

I recall attending Checkpoint’s “Associate Artist Play Readings” over two separate evenings in December 2013, where two of the readings were of one called “Our Lady of Lourdes” by Joel Tan and another called “Normal” by Faith Ng.

And true to their word, Checkpoint had continued to develop the work-in-progress scripts with the playwrights, till we finally saw both of them being given their full staging recently.

“Our Lady of Lourdes” eventually became “They Way We Go”, which was staged last November at the SOTA Theatre Studio, while “Normal” retains its title and currently runs at the Drama Centre Black Box.

It is easy to confuse bits of the two plays together, as both prominently feature a pair of schoolgirl friends in uniform (at least one of whom has issues with authority) and their misadventures in a mission school, and not to mention the presence of a motherly teacher who wants the best for the girls.

But while “The Way We Go” was more of a meditation on life and love, “Normal” places the spotlight firmly on Singapore’s education system and its fixation with the concept of streaming.

It chronicles the schooling lives of a pair of best friends Daphne (played by Audrey Teong) and Ashley (played by Claire Chung), who happen to be Secondary 5 students in their school’s Normal stream.

Ashley is clearly the more rebellious one, while industrious Daphne just can’t seem to catch a break and deliver the results when it matters most.

In comes the wide-eyed Miss Sarah Hew (played by Oon Shu An), a new Literature teacher who hopes to inspire the class to greater heights, but little does she realise the enormity of the task at hand.

Through the course of the play, we witness the insecurities and stigma the Normal students are put through on a daily basis, often masked by a brash and seemingly indifferent exterior as in Ashley’s case.

For instance, Ashley continually “forgets” to wear her nametag to school and is often reprimanded for it, and it is only later that we find out that it is actually because she is embarrassed to be identified as a Secondary 5 student by the colour-coded nametag she is forced to wear.

At times the students feel like they are being made to suffer the ignominy of being labelled “Normal” and wasting one extra year in secondary school all because they did not perform well in that one exam in Primary Six.

The set design by Eucien Chia is a particularly inspired one, with three long horizontal black mesh screens with rectangular wooden frames resembling three separate blackboards, which are at the same time see-through, allowing us to see both teachers and students pacing behind the mesh screens in a way which resembles the busy corridors of a typical school.

Director Claire Wong cleverly and effectively utilises a chorus in the form of an ensemble of students often performing a variety of effects such as the ticking of a clock and the background chatter of students in the classroom, in a way which beautifully enhances the proceedings.

In fact, the creative use of the chorus was one of the highlights of watching the production.

In terms of performances, for me it was Audrey Teong who stole the show in bringing out the full essence of the talented but often insecure Daphne, and it was a joy watching her flesh out the character to its fullest.

Zee Wong, who plays Sarah Hew’s colleague Lynette, was quite a revelation too, and felt like a breath of fresh air every time she came on, although one would have perhaps preferred her rendition to carry more cynicism as is befitting a jaded teacher of a couple of years who has grown sick of the system and knows all its ins and outs.

“Normal” is a hard-hitting and sombre commentary on the often cold and unforgiving education system in Singapore, carefully crafted and orchestrated such that it resonates fully with most of us who have been through the system, or have kids who are currently being put through the system.

And in an education system where the label “Normal” often evokes such strong adverse reactions, bringing with it the inevitable connotations of failure and ineptitude, it is no wonder how the lives and experiences of those who go through the “Normal” stream are anything but normal.

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