Buds Theatre had good intentions when they decided to stage Suhayla El-Bushra’s play, Pigeons, which first made its debut at London’s Royal Court two years ago. The whole thing is set in the streets and homes of a rather grubby English city, but its anti-racism message is a universal one. Indeed, in Singapore, it’s true that despite the government’s emphasis on racial harmony, there are still a lot of issues relating to race that don’t often get discussed. So we applaud them for attempting to deal with them head on.
The overall execution of the hour-long play is good. The lighting is suitably moody, the accent used by the protagonists is believable, and the chemistry between the cast is palpable. Centred on the friendship between two boys – Ashley (Ebi Shankara) and Amir (Khairul) – the play comprises a series of montages for the audience to piece together their relationship. There’s the time when the two boys stole a car, crashed it while they’re deliriously high and started dancing and laughing in the middle of the street; there’s the time when Ashley was happily played chess with Amir’s father (Jamil); there’s the time when Amir got together with the ‘town bike’, Leah (Rebecca Lee), and Ashley partially forced her to pleasure him when Amir was out, which led to a rift between the boys. Following the fall out, Ashley was approached by the sinister Carl (Lian Sutton), who recruited the young man to join his anti-Muslim gang. Things, of course, get ugly.
We enjoyed the production, but there are a couple of pretty major flaws. Firstly, while we’re all for racial equality when it comes to casting, it’s clear that the playwright had meant for Ashley’s and Carl’s characters to be white. In this case, the former is played by an Indian actor, while the latter is played by a Eurasian. They’re great actors, and conveyed their parts convincingly, but the multicultural cast means that the visual impact of racism at its worst was somewhat diminished. Amir no longer looked like the outsider, and all the talk of immigrants being the dirty, ever-present pigeons of society becomes a bit strange. Of course, we can say that this underlies the fact that ultimately, we’re all the same, and therefore we shouldn’t be racist – but if that’s what they were trying to say, then that message wasn’t very clearly sent across either.
Secondly, while the ending shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, it’s unfortunately confusingly executed here. Without spoiling it for those of you who have yet to watch it, there aren’t any clear visible cues to show exactly what happened. There was a climax, but no denouement. And while we’ve seen performances where the decision to not have a curtain call made sense, this isn’t one of them. When the lights abruptly came on, nobody bowed, and nobody clapped. We were simply told to ‘exit the theatre this way for our own safety’, and no one was quite sure whether that was part of the performance, or the signal for the end of the play. It wasn’t until the staff handed out feedback forms outside the door – and we double-checked with them that this was not the intermission – that we headed home, somewhat bewildered.
Ultimately, this is an ambitious choice of a play that could have used a stronger direction from Claire Devine in order to bring out its full impact and implications. That said, the dialogue is witty, the script is heartfelt, and the actors are great to watch. We just wish that there were more meat for us to sink our teeth into.
Pigeons is at Drama Centre Black Box until Feb 1.