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Chestnuts 2004


Chestnuts 2004

Reviewed by Kenneth Lyen

Singapore has a reputation of heavy censorship. Making fun of our institutions and officials is not tolerated. Satirists are blacklisted, and political cartoons of our leaders are nonexistent.

Chestnuts is a show that parodies, among other things, our government and politicians. It is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stuffy artistic and intellectual environment. Why has it not been banned in Singapore? The best theory, I think, is that perhaps the relevant civil servants and ministers have not seen it.

Why are we such a humorless society, unable to brook criticisms? I am told that it is because of a top-down effect. If the boss does not find it funny, then nobody is allowed to laugh. The civil service is the largest employer in Singapore, and it has been rumored that to be admitted as a civil servant, you better have no sense of humor, and you must cultivate an ultra-thin skin that is completely intolerant to ridicule.

Chestnuts is a remarkably brave show, daring to mock famous people, films, musicals, plays, as well as the Singapore establishment. It is therefore of considerable importance in our nation's coming of age. We have to learn to laugh at ourselves.

"So what did you think of the show?" my friend asked me.

"Do you want me to say something good, or something honest?" I replied. He laughed.

There are some hysterically funny moments. I like the skit in which our new prime minister thanks his father, and eats a Minister Mentos. I like the jokes about our National Arts Council and underfunding. The white ribbon campaign to help rehabilitate theater practitioners back into normal society is riotous. There are longer sketches of international topics. For example I like the mistake made by the assassin who, instead of killing Bill, kills Belle from Beauty and the Beast.

Jonathan Lim and Hossan Leong are consummate actors with a fine sense of comic timing and improvisation. The contrast between the tall and rotund Jonathan and the short and skinny Hossan is already hilarious. Add to that a great script, and you have an evening filled with paroxysms of laughter. Guaranteed your guts will bust.

Now for the less good news (I'm sorry to be so brutally honest, and you're welcome to shoot me). Having been to all but the very first Chestnut 8 years ago, I have come to expect more. More biting jokes, more zaniness, more humorous improvisations to cover up inadvertent mistakes. I also felt that dwelling too long on Mama Mia, lost both momentum and humor. The Kill Bill segment was also too long. The japes about our local theater scene might have been funny, but not having watched many plays this year, they flew over my head.

Nevertheless Chestnuts is a brilliant show, and is rapidly becoming an institution itself. In a country that pokes so little fun at itself, this is a much needed prick to burst our overinflated balloons, and to allow us to regain a better perspective of our own somewhat claustrophobic lives.

My final analysis is that Chestnuts is a great success this year, and I can recommend it unreservedly. Pity the run is so short.

26 November 2004