Normal explores the world of students in a disarmingly honest way through the struggles faced by two Normal Academic misfits, Daphne and Ashley.
With refreshing authenticity, the play’s central themes of conforming to expectations, alongside the search for identity amidst a judgemental society, are presented candidly through the voices of its talented cast.
(Feature image by Joel Lim at Calibre Pictures & Ideas)
This year’s encore staging of Normal, which premiered in 2015, opens the season for Checkpoint Theatre’s 15th anniversary. Written by Faith Ng and directed by Claire Wong, Normal delves into the struggles brought about by a school system that breaks down the very ones it was meant to build.
Running at the Drama Centre Black Box, the play stars three leading cast members who were part of the original staging. Faith shares that their return to Normal lends a layer of depth, owing to the fact that they’ve grown more familiar with their characters as they went through their own growing up.
Claire Chung plays Ashley, the tough rebel who charms her way into the audience’s heart. Audrey Teong is Daphne, who is obedient and has frequent musings about existential issues.
The pair share a strong bond, which starkly contrasts against the individualistic character of Marianne, played by Lim Shi-An, who is everything they are not – school prefect and model student.
The role of Sarah Hew, Ashley’s and Daphne’s idealistic new teacher, is played by Julie Wee, who’s no stranger to the local theatre scene. Julie’s stage credits include The Way We Go (Checkpoint Theatre), Romeo and Juliet (W!LD RICE), and The Merchant of Venice (Singapore Repertory Theatre).
We witness the girls opening up to Miss Hew as a result of her dogged belief in their potential. Yet, her ideals of wanting to do what’s good for the students in the notorious Normal Academic class, seems almost naive when pitted against the larger education system.
This system is personified by a backdrop of seasoned educators – fellow teacher Lynette Ang (Amanda Tee) and senior educators Miss Wong (Chio Su-Ping) and Mrs Lim (Fanny Kee) – who offer advice that do not sit well with the conscience and moral compass of the novice.
Julie’s portrayal of Miss Hew’s fresh-faced idealism is at once disconcerting yet calming. It is the one voice amongst a sea of negativity that rings out, hopeful despite the chaos. Julie successfully shows how that hope and belief for her students stands out, glaringly and uncomfortably.
Amanda Tee’s convincing performance of Miss Ang gives the audience the actual ideal that the system favours, allowing Normal to be more than a play about the students.
Referring to the girls as Barbie dolls, Miss Ang describes with unsettling candour the way these students are viewed: unwanted ones who are at the bottom of the barrel for not being in either the Special or Express streams.
And as the play unfolds, the audience is offered a glimpse at the hopelessness that the students face, as they try unsuccessfully to stand up from under the barrage of judgement heaped upon them for their “mistake” of ending up in the Normal Academic stream.
Claire and Audrey are stellar in bringing depth to their characters, nuancing with ease to present the complexities that comes with being a student in the system. The audience will enjoy Claire’s tough-talking and mischievously defiant come-backs which she manages to deliver very well.
She charms the audience, making them laugh as she mocks the system and delivers her lines with such authenticity, opening up the world of Ashley successfully. Audrey too, is highly talented and embodies all the quirks of Daphne with ease.
The relationship between Ashley and Daphne is also highly nuanced and believable, drawing the audience into the dynamics of their friendship despite their characters being worlds apart.
Staging and direction
Director Claire brings a layer of depth to the staging with a rich soundscape, created to depict sounds often found in a school setting, from the ringing of school bells to the chatter of students as they make their way to assembly.
Only naturally-produced sounds were used to recreate the ambient noise. With nothing pre-recorded, (the only exception being the hissing sound in the closing monologue scene by the students) she has brought to life the memories tucked away in the mind’s eye of many in the audience.
All in all…
Normal takes a good, hard look at the struggles within the system from various view points. Through Faith’s well-scripted dialogue, we are let in on the agonising struggle many fresh-faced educators get thrown into as their idealism is called into question.
The audience will find Normal to be a “safe place” to explore the students’ world, much like how the school is supposed to be a “safe place” for students. It is helpful that the play keeps it real, without offering glossy solutions to soothe the troubled souls of the audience members.
At the end of the day, it is not textbook answers that we seek, but rather, the raw questioning of what works and what doesn’t. Unsurprisingly, the struggle is aptly captured by the playwright’s choice of analogies that are beautifully and fittingly interwoven in the script.
In a scene that cuts deep, Daphne asks, “Did you know that Mount Everest is littered with dead bodies? Apparently, it’s too dangerous to move the bodies, even if they are still breathing. They all died trying to reach the top. I don’t know if that was really their dream.”
Tickets for “Normal” are sold out, but be sure to check out Checkpoint Theatre for upcoming productions.
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