REVIEW: Atomic Jaya
Bombastic, bonkers, bristling with energy
As you enter the Corpus Playroom for this radioactive play, the white walls are washed with red and blue lights depicting a palmy beach scene, reading '1998, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia'. It was certainly a calming sight to see as I ran in, nearly late, safe from the rain outside. And then, after settling into my seat, I am told to rise for the Malaysian national anthem.
In march the cast under darkness. The anthem begins to play, and one by one the audience rises, not used to being told to interact so early on, respectfully looking on as the lyrics are projected onto the walls. But if you watch close enough, there are the cast, fidgeting about, coughing, sneezing, throwing little quips to each other. From the off, we're told, this is a room which won't deal too much in taking things that seriously.
And make no mistake, even in the world of (attempted) nuclear warfare, things are always just ridiculous enough, just un-serious enough to keep you hooting with laughter the whole way. We start with Mary Yuen, played with careful thoughtfulness by Iris Li. This is ultimately her story, and the telling of stories is important to her – she recounts how she got into science, and of the tension in her life between that ambition and what is expected of her as a woman. As beginnings go, it's convincing enough, but (feasibly given first night nerves would have been involved) the momentum that the rest of the show so propulsively carries doesn't quite get there until the next scene.
And boy, what a scene it is. Bursting into Yuen's room is Matthew Ryan, playing General Zulkifli: boyishly excitable, smirking, and Napoleon-obsessed, the energy he brings to the room is like dynamite. Li and Ryan play off each other with slick, joyous charm, and several gags that run through the scene are relished, built upon and delivered with delightful timing and rhythm. The physicality of the whole cast from here on out is more than admirable, but Ryan, with his strong, long, electric gesturing fills every scene he is in.
This is not to say at all that the rest of the cast fall short in any way: Li's dismay at the insane events unfolding around her draw us firmly onto her side, a grounded, sympathetic presence in the eye of a storm; Claire Chung as assistant Noraini and the Cabinet Minister has the sort of wry smile that's exactly the right kind of cheeky; Christian Yeo and Dhruv Sharma as Dr. Saiful and Dr. Ramachandran are the male scientists brought onto the project, bumbling, overconfident and ignorant to the bigger picture in all the frustratingly hilarious right ways. The multi-roling of characters is handled brilliantly by all, and goes to impress the wild range of big characters swirling around Yuen.
One of the most refreshing things about this show is the creative and fun take on set changes. Co-Directors Shameera Lin and Jonathan Chan have disco, dance and beach music playing with the colourful tropical lighting serving as club lights – within this, the actors dance and sing, moving furniture with as much dynamism as can be found in the best parts of the play. It's a perfect fit to the just out-of-whack nature of the show, and never gets old. And as the lights and sound snap off into each narrative vignette, oftentimes the sudden change from dancing to the eccentric characters Yuen encounters only aids the humour of each scene. Multimedia is used to great effect as well, with news interludes never hindering the flow of the play, produced to a top notch quality.
Whilst this is a bonkers play – and the embracing of this madness is why it works so well – the chaos only goes to underline the unsettling nonchalantness or, worse still, excited optimism with which those in power treat nuclear warfare. One of the more pertinent lines that lingers is 'Nothing really frightens people anymore' – hilarious as the craziness is, this is at heart a serious matter. More so, Yuen is never listened to by the men around her, and in the moments she's trying to get things done or do the morally right thing, Li perfectly tiptoes the line between letting the funny men silencing her be funny and showing exactly why that's an issue.
All in all, this is a note-perfect production, hitting all the right buttons. You'll leave the Corpus Playroom feeling like you've been transported to a Uranium-fuelled Wonderland. It's brilliant.