High Class | 3.5/5
SINGAPORE — It’s his first play in 14 years and it looks like Michael Chiang hasn’t missed a beat. Perhaps that’s because he moves to a different rhythm.
It’s not often you hear an artist describe his work as “exactly the same (as the others)” or “very predictable”, but that’s how, in a previous interview, the self-effacing and unabashed populist playwright behind Beauty World and Army Daze described High Class — a play about tai tais that mashes up two previous “templates” in the five unusual characters of Army Daze and the TV talk show of Mixed Signals.
What you’ve got is a story about a famous tai tai named Alexis Lee concocting a reality TV show where five unusual contestants are groomed to become one. Add “hilarity ensues” and you pretty much have an idea of what to expect — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Chiang has a knack of creating truly memorable characters that border on harmless. good-natured caricature and stereotype, and High Class is no exception. “This is like a Chingay procession,” a character remarks. Which is more or less what you get with the five contestants: A tudung-wearing schoolteacher (Siti Khalijah Zainal), a prim and proper beauty contestant who forgets people’s names (Mina Kaye), a butch-y property agent (Serena Ho), a dengue inspector (Jo Tan) and an overzealous Chinese permanent resident (Audrey Luo). All five deliver, including the commendable Tan, a last-minute replacement for dengue-stricken Elizabeth Lazan in a mother of all ironies moment.
But more than just offering a barrel of laughs, they serve as the foil for the anti-stereotype aspect of High Class, the unusual trio of Alexis (Nikki Muller) and her BFFs, TV producer Samson (Ebi Shankara) and hair stylist Mac (Shane Mardjuki).
All poise and class, Muller’s dignified, restrained and graceful portrayal of a tai tai divorcee with a heart of gold is, amid all the howling and hooting, what grounds the play.
Some may not like High Class’ slow start and its occasional slowing of pace as perhaps dictated by director Beatrice Chia-Richmond, but simple-but-effective contrasts of characters and their situations work well for Chiang’s deceptively cut-and-dried characters.
Indeed, there’s a simplicity of execution in High Class that, in this day and age, can almost seem naive. But Chiang gets away with it because everything just feels so honest, clear, and refreshingly straight to the point.
At the same time, the person who admits to being “predictable” isn’t exactly so. The meta-moment of going behind the scenes in a TV show later evolves to feel like an even subtler critique of the idea of spectacle; and plot-wise, Chiang still manages to pull out some real fun surprises with seeming ease, including a farcical finale that leaves some characters, well, weak at the knees.
That said, it’s not without its inconsistencies (particularly in terms of characters’ ages) and, despite a couple of Don Richmond’s songs being catchy, they seem to come from a different place, made all the more evident when abruptly inserted into the more punchy, colloquial tones of the scenes.