The weekend saw two very different (and differently-priced) offerings from Brunei’s performing arts community.

The Brunei Amateur Dramatic Society (BADS) in collaboration with The Creative Core BN  put up an adaptation of Peter Gordon’s 2002 Murdered to Death (retitled Mystery at Bagshot Manor), and the UBD Performing Arts Club (PAC) staged an original production called Aftermath.

Mystery at Bagshot Manor 

Director: Joanna Kwan Pei Yun

Assistant Director/Executive Producer: Joshua Lim Sheng Ming

Producers: The Creative Core BN (Charlotte Lim, Amali Haji Roslin, Aprizah Hj Ahmad and Syazni Bakar)

Venue: Starlodge Hotel

Show times: Oct 21 at 7pm, Oct 22 at 12pm & 7pm

Ticket price: $20 

MYSTERY AT BAGSHOT MANOR 

Set in 1930s England, Mystery at Bagshot Manor is a spoofy whodunit take on the Agatha Christie oeuvre, with the play taking place within a single room. At the end of the first act, the wealthy owner of Bagshot Manor, Mildred (Nura Latif), is “shot to death”. Enter the bumbling Inspector Pratt (Safwan Hj Mohamad) and his long-suffering sidekick, Constable Thomkins (Jim Justus), ready to interrogate a cast of Christie staples, including a creepy butler (Muqri Mazalan), a bluff Colonel (A’aqiil Ahmad) and a French art dealer (Iddie Mo). 

Performing accents is a tricky thing – one false note and a scene can devolve from tragedy to farce. The spell is broken; a mood, painstakingly built up, dissipates. There’s very little margin for error. As soon as I realized that the actors would be in full-on British accents (and one French accent) for the duration of the play, I was apprehensive. There were definitely a few notable exceptions, but for the most part the accents were unobjectionable.

Standout performances came from Marhazwani @ Zu Mardini, playing the inconvenient, placid Miss Joan Maples, and Nabilah Hamid in the role of Dorothy, the dead woman’s niece. Both actresses were natural and polished, with the former displaying a remarkable ability to fade into the scenery only to surprise the audience (and the characters) with a sudden comment. The rest of the cast performed with commendable commitment and gusto. 

The energy visibly lagged in the second act, leading to some verbal stumbles and a rather disappointingly crafted denouement and conclusion. It was a long performance, running at a little over two hours, which may have explained some very occasional dragging and the mildly anti-climactic closing scene.

The technical aspects were solid – too many productions in Brunei have been ruined by poor sound, so it was a relief that, other than a few glitches, everything was perfectly audible. The costumes were lovely – rich primary colours, perfectly tweedy browns; the setting impeccable.

I understand this was stage veteran Joanna Kwan Pei Yun’s directorial debut –  I look forward to more performances from BADS.

Aftermath

Directors: Insan and Kiddy Zal

Scriptwriters: Insan and Van Leaster

Dance Director: Van Leaster

Vocal and music director: Rudy, Kiddy Zal, Redzuan Shah

Venue: UBD Multipurpose Hall

Show times: Oct 20-22 at 7.30pm

Ticket price: $5 

AFTERMATH 

Aftermath was an original UBD PAC production, the marketing synopsis goes:

“In a society where nobody listens, a girl without a voice battles her inner demons. Aftermath intertwines the realities of mental health, family and relationships. It is a search for hope in humanity – a way out.”

True to the synopsis, the story was not so much about Ameerah alone, but about how those around her struggled to understand her invisible illness — Ameerah’s father, frustrated by his own inability to help; the boyfriend who is patient until he is not; the best friend who can see only Ameerah’s external achievements and not her internal struggles.

Toxic relationships are thick on the ground in the form of a schoolmate stalker who thinks he’s in love with Ameerah, an abusive father, bullying schoolmates. There is some subtle work there about how abrasive everyday mundanities can be to someone with mental health issues, but also how important it is that we all learn to recognize and reject genuinely damaging behaviour around us. Plays dealing with social issues like mental health and abuse can so easily be tacky or preachy – Aftermath stayed firmly away from those dangers.

Aftermath was an accomplishment in tone – some deft comic relief allowed the audience respite from the intensity of the storyline without sacrificing impact, emotional scenes were powerful without being maudlin, and the script moved skilfully between English and Malay so that the overall feeling was one of authenticity.

The staging of the performance was clever, with dancing demons representing Ameerah’s internal state of mind (although the friend I watched the play with was a little outraged at how much the Queen of the Demons resembled Sauron from Lord of the Rings). While Ameerah herself is silent throughout the production until the last few minutes, you almost don’t notice because of the overwhelming sound around her. These scriptwriters are ones to watch.

The ending was a little too neat, but didn’t feel forced. The vocal performances were gorgeous and appropriate, the choreography of some of the dance sequences fantastic. The cast was strong, likeable, and in control.

On the technical front, I have been to many performances at the UBD’s multi-purpose hall, and this was the best sound quality I’ve ever heard in a venue that often swallows, distorts and echoes vocals. Kudos to the crew.

The production was confident and accomplished, and I can’t wait to see what else the UBD PAC has in store.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Both plays were staged in venues that were decidedly not built for theatre – a hotel space and a multipurpose hall. It is to BADS and UBD PAC’s credit that these hampered the experience only very slightly. One wishes, however, that there were more venues in Brunei that were worthy of the work that goes into these productions.

There was also a striking disparity between the ticket prices of the performances. With Songket Alliance’s Ramshackle ($5) coming up this week, and JIS’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream coming in November ($10-25), this taps into larger questions in the local creative community about the value of creative production.  At $5, Aftermath was TOO good value for money.  This individual, at least, would definitely have been willing to pay at least $10 more.

On a crankier note, can we all agree to stop advertising show times that are 15 minutes earlier than the actual show? If the show is going to start at 745pm, don’t try to lure me in earlier at 730pm.

Dr Kathrina Mohd Daud is a lecturer in the English programme at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. Her short story, I Am A Bird, was the Judges’ Pick for the Asia-Europe short story contest in 2013. She is also the co-founder and playwright at Salted Egg Theatre, an all-female theatre troupe from Brunei.