Review by James Mukheibir
One can only wonder what makes them who they are. Is it what we were conditioned to be as children? But what if our only memories of that time are what has been described to us? Is it how others see us? What if they see us as ‘other’; unwanted and ugly in their eyes? Are we the sum of the people closest to us? What about them defines us? Their approval? Their love, even if unwanted?
These complex explorations of self-knowledge serve as the core to Vanessa Bates’ eclectic and poignant play The One. Each character is given a moment to reflect with the audience, allowing the play to exist in a transient and objective space without a true protagonist or antagonist - just imperfect people, chock full of selfishness, trauma and a whole lot of heart.
Solid performances across the board hold the ship steady through the slower first act, and burst into vibrant and colorful absurdity as the play progresses. There are wonderful moments from Shan-ree Tan, some of which elicited spontaneous applause from the audience in Tuesday’s showing, while Damien Strouthos and Aileen Huynh elevate every one of their scenes with electric energy and comedic chops.
Overall, the design shone in this production, with each element adding vibrancy and nuance to each of the varied settings and moods. Considering the spectrum of places and styles that the play transverses, this is no mean feat and the entire team deserves considerable props.The set design by Nick Fry was exquisite, perfectly setting the scene for each location with imagination and nimbleness. Verity Hampson also deserves major praise for the flawless lighting design, adding to the rich personality of the script with well-considered and dynamic choices that elevated every scene to the next level.
The themes of the play were varied and complex, exploring the nuanced relationship between memory and self; culture and belonging; perception and experience. The core themes come through well and the journey through Malaysia through the eyes of those who left it is unique and compelling. However, the play at times took on too many of these cultural and personal complications, leaving each slightly undercooked. The momentum of the plot could occasionally get a little muddled as each character progressed on their individual arc, and the stakes of the play were sometimes forgotten, moving on to the next shiny personal conflict, or undercut for the sake of comedy.
That said, the play does not feel its 2 hour length, with the deep characters and reflective nature of the script carrying the audience through what feels like a exhibition of thoughts, dreams and nightmares of each individual story, The tone is well balanced, with many a tear-jerking moment giving way to upbeat moments of personal catharsis, and each character feels respected by Bates and the team.
Heartfelt but with a healthy dose of wacky humor, The One delivers an insightful reflection on first generation immigration, racism and family, with performance, production and writing all working together to deliver a wholly enjoyable piece of theatre.
The One is showing at the Ensemble Theatre until the 27th of August 2022.
Image Credit: Prudence Upton