By Meng Yew Choong
This is another whodunit for the big stage. Though it was presented to Singaporeans for the third time (in 1997 and 1998 at the Jubilee Hall of the Raffles Hotel), the difference this time was that it took place within the magnificent confines of the sophisticated Esplanade Theatre. Being my first encounter with the Esplanade, catching a handsomely-produced local musical production in it made me a very lucky virgin indeed.
Written to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the Raffles Hotel (est. 1887) in 1997, the musical was widely acclaimed then; it was also proclaimed as the Singapore Musical of the Year by The Straits Times.
Singaporean critics were less kind this time around, even though it underwent some tweaks. Some panned the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) for presenting a stale offering for public consumption by doing it a third time.
With music by renowned Dick Lee, and lyrics by Anthony Drewe (and book by Steven Dexter and Tony Petito), there was actually nothing that I, who was watching it for the first time ever, found stale throughout the show.
The story began in 1917, with a couple sneakily meeting in front of a large bungalow. They hand over their baby to a nurse, and enters… An argument ensues inside the house and gunshots are heard. The nurse runs for her life and abandons the baby at the doorstep of the Raffles Hotel.
Twenty years later, the murders committed on that night come back to haunt the entire household of Peranakan patriarch Lim Chin Boon, in the form of Emma, a young Englishwoman who claims that she could be Baba Lim’s long-lost granddaughter.
But hours before Emma is due to be given an audience by the patriarch, he is found murdered. Everyone is the household is a suspect – everyone has something to gain from Lim’s death (even Emma herself). They are Lim’s second wife (Ming), her daughter (Alice), female servant (Swee Neo), male servant (Ah See), Lim’s business partner (called uncle Albert), and Lim’s lawyer (Richard).
What was good about A Twist Of Fate was that the whole show lent ample room to the Asian cast to contribute. Ming (played by Sheila Francisco) was utterly convincing as the matriarch. And not just a matriarch, but a Peranakan matriarch. The way she wagged her finger, her condescending tone toward those she perceives as lower in status, her barking at poor servant boy Ah See, all lent credence to the fact that she had immersed herself very well in the role. Ming spouted phrases containing gila, belacan, celaka, with such ease you just have to hear it for yourself.
In fact, I spent the whole evening practically believing that Francisco is actually Peranakan until I read the credits (she is Filipino). Her fitting mannerism and crisp vocals practically gelled the show together.
Also worthy of mention is Emma Yong, who took on the role of Alice Lim, and Sebastian Tan, who played Ah See. Alice is the second daughter of Baba Lim, and her mother Ming absolutely disapproves of her relationship with Ah See. As a pair of lovers who are separated by class distinctions, the duo exhibited sufficient chemistry as people who are truly, madly and deeply in love. This couple provided much pleasure to the audience, as they never missed a tune nor step as they cavorted across the cavernous house in Bollywood-style mutual pursuit.
Lyricist Drewe took on the role of the not-so-portly inspector who comes to investigate. With his calm demeanour and rational mind, Drewe also pulled his role off with ease, even without C.S.I equipment.
A slight disappointment, however, would be the highly touted Laura Michelle Kelly (of Mary Poppins fame), who played Emma West, the long lost granddaughter. Her voice was flawless, no doubt, but her acting was somewhat not up to mark. Ostensibly a newcomer to Asia with no idea at all about local customs, her character seemed a tad too comfortable within the tradition-bound Peranakan household.
Suffering the opposite problem was Adrian Pang, who was a bit like stale dodol as Uncle Albert, Baba Lim’s business partner. As someone supposedly familiar with everyone in the house, Albert could have projected a more relaxed appearance. But then, his visible discomfort could also be due to the fact that the character is privy to some of the darkest secrets of the household.
Those minor complaints aside, in the end, everyone did fit into the storyline nicely. Dick Lee’s music flowed wonderfully with the lyrics, and not a song nor tune seemed out of place. The music fitted the 1930s era in which the show is set.
While the whole episode was unfolding, my mind was busy trying to eliminate possible suspects. I did not manage to pinpoint the murderer, but that did nothing to diminish my enjoyment (hey, at least I correctly ruled out four suspects).
As advertised, A Twist Of Fate contained enough suspense and thrills. While it is by no means based on any one original idea (one critic said it was a good parody of Agatha Christie plots), I was still utterly delighted by all the delicious twists and turns, right to the end. The directors have also managed to tastefully incorporate elements of the Singaporean culture (tasteful injections of Singlish at the appropriate juncture).
As to accusations that this SRT offering is stale, my response is that things like greed, sex, betrayal, and revenge, are timeless.
A Twist Of Fate is another demonstration of how the Peranakan culture can be presented tastefully, with some educational elements thrown in as well (did you know that the crescent moon is a symbol unique to the Peranakan of Melaka?).
In fact, A Twist Of Fate has received the endorsement of the Peranakan Association of Singapore (peranakan.org.sg), which celebrates its 105th anniversary this year. The community acknowledges that in the 21st century, they face the same problems faced by other Chinese communities in Singapore and Malaysia, namely the decline of traditions, the inability to speak the dialect, and the increasing number of mixed marriages. [How ironic for a culture born of mixed marriage. – ed.]
While A Twist Of Fate Just ended its run at the Esplanade a fortnight ago, there are attempts to bring it to Malaysia next year. A prominent member of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah’s household had watched the show, and came away very impressed. So, KLites, cross your fingers and wait.
Now working in Singapore, Meng Yew Cheong was formerly a journalist with The Star for 11 years. He’s now been officially deflowered by the durian.
First Published: 15.12.2005 on Kakiseni