Singapore scars re-exposed

Blue Bones (Playlab Theatre)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

February 2 – 12

The award winning “Blue Bones” begins with its performer Merlynn Tong crouched on the ground centre stage encircled by light, and so it is clear from the outset that this story of a woman’s turbulent journey through domestic violence is set to be an intimate one. Her first love Tom, she tells us, is etched into her bones. We see this ourselves through backdrop x-ray video projection of her skeleton. Clearly, her experience of schoolgirl relationship with him in Singapore still resonates strongly at the core of her identity. The exact nature of the legacy unfolds as she proceeds to unpack the true story behind being the school’s perfect couple, with view to discovery of just how he got himself under her skin.

As experience widens out to become the textured world in which the recalled story is placed, Tong shares its details through narration and assumption of all of its characters in anecdotal recall. This is where the biggest strength of the show’s engagement lies. Tong is an accomplished performer whose distinct characterisations are totally on-point, not only in and of themselves, but in her swift and seamless transitions back and forth between so many diverse personas.

From the excited hyperbole of the protagonist’s teenage gush about her boyfriend’s dreamy appearance and her friend Cindy’s gossipy insistence upon details of the romance, to gangster brother Atlantis’ bravado, she convincingly transforms into different characters. Of early comic note is her mimicry of the idiosyncrasies of her subject teachers and then arcade-gamer-in-action Tom. In each instance her facial expressions and body language ensure easy inhabit of characters of diverse physicalities and vocal nuances.

The script, written by Tong, is also clever in its construction with subtle foreshadowing even within its descriptive detail. And a through-line of dance also helps to tread the audience from its humourous beginnings through to climatic wallop of public domestic violence that signposts the work’s tonal shift. Dynamic, interactive projections and lighting (AV design by Nathan Sibthorpe and Lighting Design by David Walters), elevated in realism from its previous season, enliven things too, almost giving the city of Singapore itself co-character status, with lighting, for example, shading us into its tropical showers.

A 90 minute (no interval), one-hander is an ambitious undertaking, yet “Blue Bones” does not miss a beat in its ultimate journey towards celebration of resilience. Audience engagement never wanes thanks to the honesty with which it takes us from light-hearted laughter to the bruised shades of ultimate empowerment and realisation that experiences of violence are not a natural part of having an adult relationship.

Photos c/o – Justine Walpole

Singaporean shades of something special

Blue Bones (Playlab)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

May 4 – 13

“Blue Bones” may not be a local story, but as the story of Brisbane playwright/performer Merlyn Tong, it is just as engaging, thanks to the honesty at the heart of its turbulent journey. On stage, as in real life, the story emerges from Tong being told by a doctor of a crack in her spine – the result of trauma from many years ago. And so she recounts story of the scars left by her school-days ex-boyfriend, including exactly how he managed to get under her skin, taking audiences, in the process, back to Singapore and all of its idiosyncrasies and melting pot of cuisines.

The resulting stories of school days and friendships are filled with realistic, recounted dialogue and much early humour as Tong injects anecdotes into the personal story by enacting every character of her recollection, teachers and friends alike, each with their own idiosyncrasies and individual nuances, and jumping between their portrayals with ease.

Then romance begins in the an arcade game parlour; when the claw machine champ meets a Dance Revolution devotee, its meant to be. She has her own dance competition goals and after-school Burger King job, but she has never been kissed like that before so love soon follows. And before long they are their school’s perfect couple, filling their days with the fun of theme park visits and Mcdonalds meals. But behind perfection lies increasingly verbal and then physical abuse, necessarily uncomfortable it its recall.

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It is an emotional experience, as memory plays often are, especially in Tong’s recount of living every day at the edge of uncertainty. The descriptions of her seasons of abuse are evocative and Tong’s performance is often tortured in its truthfulness. Over the course of her 90 minutes alone on stage, she takes audiences on an intimate and very vulnerable account without over-play of its pathos.

Adding to audience engagement is the technical support of her story. Guy Webster and David Walters’ Sound and Lighting Design make for some haunting moments, particularly in work towards its cathartic conclusion. And the provision of backdrop photos and cartoon imagery of Singapore life that comes courtesy of Video Designer Nathan Sibthorpe enlivens the show akin to the appearance of a second character.

New plays are difficult because there isn’t a template to call upon. In her creation of a template in “Blue Bones” Merylnn Tong, along with Director Ian Lawson, has created a very special, outstanding theatrical work… original, idiosyncratic and ultimately uplifting. Indeed, this is an absorbing show that needs to be seen by as many young women (and men) as possible in reminder that whatever its shade, no bruise is okay.