Review: Pan Island Expressway

Toby Stinson 26 February 2020

‘The best way to remember is by reinvention.’

Pan Island Expressway (PIE) is a twisting tale of murder, conspiracy and identity. Set in 1980s Singapore, the narrative follows a murder investigation, the prime suspect a playwright, James (Ben Monskfield), whose play contains the same murder. As the play progresses, his insisted story conflicts with that of the investigator (Suchitra Seb), who is intend on framing him as a communist conspirator. The line between reality and fiction is uncertain, impossible to pin down among shifting perspectives.

Image credit: Cayson Chong

‘The best way to remember is by reinvention’ – this unsettling phrase haunts the narrative, forcing the audience to question everything they see. The play is an exemplar mise-en-abyme – a play within a play – or even a murder within a murder. Opening with a past death on the PIE, the present explores another death there, with scenes of a play about yet another.

The layers of narrative perspective add twists to this whodunnit, presenting short comic scenes of random interactions in cars alongside tense interrogations where neither character is quite what they seem. Monskfield and Seb conveyed a wonderful relationship: Seb’s sinister government interrogator trod the line between paranoid delusionist and calculated misinformer.

Monskfield depicted a huge range of emotion, going from heartless cynic to pretentious artist to a Kafkaesque despairing victim. The twists and layers of the production whirl around these two characters in complex meta-narratives, which left the audience grasping for coherence. The lighting was thoughtfully used to elucidate these turns, using white lighting for the present, red for the past, and orange for the play (or is it the murder?). While this did greatly help to guide the audience through the story, it was not quite enough to prevent them getting lost in the chaos of the narrative.

Image credit: Cayson Chong

Lighting and sound were both very effective. Indeed, they were some of the best judged effects that I have seen recently, especially in the notoriously temperamental Corpus Playroom. The opening tableau used videos of 1980s Singapore projected onto a white sheet to situate the production.

Sound effects ranged from the roar of traffic on the expressway to snippets of newsreels to contextualise the political backdrop. Lighting and sound came together in a ludicrous comic scene, where the actors play-out the interrogator’s version of events; cartoon punch-sound effects combined with surreal orange and red lighting to ridicule the theory.

Set design, too, complimented the production, the walls plastered with newspaper clippings, hard hats and photographs related to Singapore and the PIE, as well as a collection of communist uniforms waiting to come to the fore.

Unfortunately, the visual effects failed in their most important moment: the epilogue should have been a paired-back ending with explanatory words flashed across a makeshift screen. However, the words were out of focus and the folds of the fabric screen made them unreadable. This ended the production on a frustrating note and increased the confusion produced by the complex meta-narratives.

Image credit: Cayson Chong

Pan Island Expressway is a fun twist on a classic whodunnit, which has the intrigue and mystery of a classic murder mystery, but with added complexity. It explores identity, money, truth and memory, raising questions on how memories can be distorted and narratives skewed by the writer, which casts doubt on the play itself. I had no idea what really happened and I almost didn’t mind.

However, the last scene added one too many complications, turning what had been a layered exploration of memory and truth into chaos. Despite the disappointing finale, the production itself is thoroughly enjoyable and questions not only race and identity, but our own relationship to truth, inside the theatre and out.

3.5 stars.