Review: To Those Bygone Days

Benjamin Lim 2 March 2019

★★★★

One of the most powerful effects of theatre is its ability to reveal someone else’s world, providing a new perspective on the familiar. A superb example of this can be found at the CUMAS MNight production To Those Bygone Days. The play gives a funny, heartfelt insight into the challenges and joys of being an international student here at Cambridge; written, directed and performed by members of CUMAS, it glitters with enthusiasm and a desire to share the experience of Malaysian students.

Our view into this world is through Jing Yi, an Econ fresher here at Cambridge whose life at university starkly contrasts with life at home. She has just moved away from home for the first time; she misses her school friends and her father doesn’t know what he will do without her. If this all sounds familiar, then it should; this is a play that is immediately relatable. In the relaxed, intimate setting of Newnham’s Old Labs, you feel like you could walk up and join in with the cast’s conversations and banter with ease. However, writer Austin Tang puts a brilliant twist on this common experience: home is literally thousands of miles away, her school friend is most definitely in love with her and her father’s kopitiam (coffee house) is under threat of modernisation by her scheming aunt. Through these well established conduits, the director and playwright draw out serious emotional and philosophical heft that is at once relatable to all of us and uniquely Malaysian.

It is a testament to the overall quality of the production that the play never loses pace and is always clear, despite some complex plot twists and surprising narrative devices. Without revealing too much, it is safe to say that this play will always keep you on your toes. The contrast between life at Cambridge and life in Malaysia is accentuated by small but effective touches to the set design and the costumes (the superbly designed programme helpfully includes a glossary of Malaysian terms for those less in the know). These, combined with a script and cast that truly capture the cadence and atmosphere of Malaysian family life, transport the audience around the world in just a few seconds. I could almost smell the Kopi-O.

Those with an East Asian heritage are sure to identify with the tropes that are presented here – this is utilised for jokes and drama to equal effect. That said, even if you’ve never had the pleasure of tasting Nasi Lemak or the pain of smelling Durian, it is still well worth seeing this production; the broader themes painted by the playwright are universal.