Ask any twenty-something Singaporean about their experience with tuition as a child, and they will respond with a knowing nod and a smile of disdain. Reminded of our society’s obsession with academic excellence, we think about the children today who are forced into a rat race for straight A’s – rewarded for keeping their heads in the books and away from the sunlight, reprimanded when they don’t.
Tuition, which marks local poet Euginia Tan’s second foray into playwriting, broaches this ever-prevalent, timely issue of supplementary academic coaching. Yet, it isn’t about what you think it is. It’s not about the drawbacks of tuition, or the damaging stress a tutee feels for not measuring up scholastically.
Written for the inaugural Twenty-Something Theatre Festival (produced by actress Tan Kheng Hua), the new play is about the intimate, thus rightfully complex relationship between a student and a private tutor. It centres on a cocky, quick-witted boy wonder of sorts with limited EQ who does not need tuition, meeting a cheery tutor who tolerates his attempts to drive her away. Tired of being pushed to the edge, Miss Lee, the tutor, eventually delivers Jonathan, the student, a wake up call (along with presumably a complaint to his father), and he warms up to her.
The play features a formidable crew of twenty-something women with director Hazel Ho and playwright Euginia Tan, both 25, at the forefront, while stage manager Sarah Supaat, 23, dominates all things backstage.
Playing Miss Lee is Yap Yi Kai (who will also be starring in the upcoming restaging of Wild Rice’s HOTEL in the Singapore Theatre Festival 2016), 25, while 14-year-old John Tan portrays the young boy.
Both are naturals in their element: Yap with her impressive diction, displaying the gentleness of a nurturing educator without forgoing the austerity needed to discipline, and Tan with his attention to detail, pausing and stressing at certain points to hit home a comedic line or implicit insult. Their immediate chemistry comes as no surprise when you learn that they’ve previously acted alongside each other in Wild Rice’s Public Enemy last year.
Sixty minutes proved to be an inadequate duration for this play that begs for continuation. And though undeniably well crafted, it could’ve been further developed to strengthen its otherwise touch-and-go climax that felt a tad out of place and ineffective. Perhaps it would’ve worked better if it didn’t involve an unseen third party.
Issues raised and hinted at in Tuition, from Jonathan’s sour relationship and limited interaction with his parents, to him being a socially inept loner, to his less than normal childhood rife with restrictions (no sports, no TV, no fun), were also minimally dwelt upon.
Nonetheless, this was an ace production. Resonant, poignant, and nostalgic (especially for the young crowd), Tuition is more than worthy of a restaging – and, we hope, as a full-length play the next time round.
Photo Credits: The Twenty-Something Theatre Festival, Tuition by Euginia Tan (Facebook)