Review: The Chair

Enlightening and heartfelt, this historical comedy-drama explores what it means to be Singaporean

Following the story of a Peranakan Chinese family that spans over three generations, The Chair, written by Singaporean playwright Desmond Sim, is a heartfelt tale about tradition, disconnect, and love. We first follow the comical and tragic tale of Lim Ah Choon, a manual labourer who immigrates from China to Singapura in the 1800s. His travels mirror that of countless Chinese immigrants in the 19th century who made the same perilous journey to Singapore and Malaysia in hopes of a better future. As he marries and has children, we witness cultural change and modernisation happening in real-time: menial labour jobs turn into office work, traditional ‘tea ceremonies’ replaced by modern weddings – but even with these changes, custom is still preserved, first and foremost, within the Lim family throughout.

I cannot applaud the talent of the four actors enough: 10 different roles are shared amongst them, and they flip through places constantly throughout the play. In the beginning, Tang Zi Xuan plays the gruff and silent Lim Ah Choon, but by the end of The Chair, he’s playing his initial character’s knock-kneed, pimply grandson. Jasmin Thien switches from Mrs Lim, Ah Choon’s obedient wife, to Evelyn Lim, a crafty convent girl who manages to marry into Ah Choon’s now-wealthy family generations down the line. The stellar acting is what really pushes the play from a three-star rating to a full four-star for me: Gabriel Miju Yap and Cian Sacker Ooi are each masters of comedic timing, and the formidable elasticity and breadth of Jasmin Thien and Tang Zi Xuan‘s acting ensures the play’s smooth coast from lighthearted comedy to dark drama.

The entire production also is constructed in a strikingly simple, yet genius setup: the all-seeing chair takes center stage, and red ribbons spool out from all corners of the darkened stage to attach themselves to the chair. Actors have to expertly navigate over these strings as they convey their story. You might think that this might consist of some ridiculous hopping around on the actors’ part, but each actor is so swimmingly natural in this environment that you hardly notice the extra obstacles they have to pick their way across, on top of delivery.

Photo image credit (Screenshot: Maddie Angwin, Poster design: Hannah Castle) 

In a short interview with director Xander Pang, he added that during rehearsal, he strongly encouraged each actor to play with the lines, and bend them to how they felt was most fitting for each of their scenes. Undoubtedly, this free-range approach pays off: the script fits each actor like a glove. Though the script feels a little stilted and monologue-heavy at times, each of the actors takes it in their stride, and soon, the show picks up momentum, finally reaching its climax when the descendants of Ah Choon’s family are caught in the middle of a terrifying war.

“I never really knew my father. Me and my father never really…talked.”

Johnathan Jr., The Chair by Desmond Sim

The Chair also doesn’t hold back in terms of how up-close and personal this play may feel for those with Asian immigrant families, specifically for those that hail from Singapore or Malaysia. During many parts of the play, I found myself catching onto distinct, familiar details that mirrored my own Asian family life. The play captures the unsolvable disconnect between a parent and child with perfect longing and a muted sense of sorrow. The ancestral longing for China, the ‘homeland’, and the value of heritage and tradition amongst older generations of the family also rang of nostalgic familiarity. It begs the question: as immigrants, where do we truly belong? What is our identity, at its core, and where is ‘home’ to us? Sometimes, I found the metaphors in the play felt a little too on-the-nose, and this question, though a valuable one, was slightly overexplained to the audience at times. However, the play definitely serves its purpose in provoking this seemingly unanswerable question in the audience.

Rating: 4/5

The Chair is running from Tuesday 10th May to Saturday 14th May at 9.30 pm at the Corpus Playroom. Tickets are available here