The Almighty Sometimes review: a gripping, candid take on growing up and navigating life with mental illness
Singapore Repertory Theatre’s The Almighty Sometimes runs until 26 Nov at the KC Arts Centre.

The Almighty Sometimes review: a gripping, candid take on growing up and navigating life with mental illness

Is normal always better?

That depends on who you ask in The Almighty Sometimes, the latest play by Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT).

For Anna, a young woman who has spent 10 years on a concoction of ‘normalising’ medication, being a dark creative genius is better than being normal. For her mother, Renee, the opposite could not be more true.

Based on the award-winning script by Kendall Feaver, The Almighty Sometimes is a coming-of-age story revolving around love, identity, and the complexities of mental health. The main character, Anna, experiences an identity crisis at age 21 after spending a decade on pills, and questions what part of her is real and what is simply a result of altered brain chemistry.

Convinced that the pills have crippled her creativity, she unilaterally decides to stop taking her medication, against the advice of her psychiatrist Vivienne and to the horror of her single mother Renee. As the play evolves, we see the impact of her actions and resulting behaviour on the people she loves, including her new boyfriend Oliver. 

More than a family drama, this play explores topics and themes surrounding creativity, freedom, protection, and empathy. It is surprising how much information was jammed into this 150-minute production.

In the aftermath of her drug-free experiment, Anna (Arielle Jasmine Van Zuijlen) unleashes a caustic tirade on her mother (Karen Tan) and her boyfriend Oliver (Salif Hardie).
In the aftermath of her drug-free experiment, Anna (Arielle Jasmine Van Zuijlen) unleashes a caustic tirade on her mother (Karen Tan) and her boyfriend Oliver (Salif Hardie).

With a minimalistic set design, the focus was instead placed on the stellar four-person cast, each of whom delivered strong performances. The play was also refreshingly funny, with well-timed humour that balanced out the sobering aspects of mental health and misdiagnosis.

But what made the play so compelling was its refusal to pick sides. No single character was absolutely right or wrong. With each unfolding scene, our sympathies moved from character to character, and we found ourselves exploring unexpected viewpoints and perspectives.

This delicate balancing act between the four characters (mother, daughter, boyfriend, and psychiatrist) was orchestrated by director Daniel Jenkins, giving the audience an comprehensive yet thought-provoking view of mental health.

A tender moment between Anna (Van Zuijlen) and her mother Renee (Tan).
A tender moment between Anna (Van Zuijlen) and her mother Renee (Tan).

Shining in the lead role is Arielle Jasmine Van Zuijlen, who plays Anna. Van Zuijlen is a relatively fresh face in Singapore theatre, and her previous performances include (un)becoming (2021) and Young Girl in Green Leaves (2022). Her raw and emotional performance in The Almighty Sometimes makes her utterly relatable as a moody teenager going experiencing a quarter-life crisis.

But it is her versatility in this role that anchors the play – one moment you’re amused by her upbeat and charming proclamations of genius and the next, you’re shocked at the depth of her cruelty and anger towards the people she loves. It’s not just the fantastic dialogue here, but also Van Zuijlen’s portrayal that gives the audience a brutal and unfiltered look at what it’s like to live with a mental illness.

The bulwark to the tempest that is Anna is her mother, played by veteran theatre actress Karen Tan. Tan is an elegant, composed presence on stage, dealing with every problem her child throws at her with deft and confidence.

A stoic pillar of support, Renee (Tan) continues to help Anna (Van Zuijlen) as her body readjusts to her medication.
A stoic pillar of support, Renee (Tan) continues to help Anna (Van Zuijlen) as her body readjusts to her medication.

This makes the few vulnerable moments she displays stand out even more. It was wholly unexpected to see a pillar of stability stand unmoored on stage, wondering if the medical decisions she made years ago did more harm or good to her daughter. Tan plays this complex character masterfully, and with warmth and nuance, voicing out the doubts and fears most parents have when it comes to raising their children.

Much of the play’s levity comes from Salif Hardie, who plays Anna’s boyfriend, Oliver. Hardie is the perfect comic foil against the tense mother-daughter relationship – he is awkward, lovestruck, and completely out of his depth as he tries to keep up with the demands of both Anna and her mother. You can’t help but cheer for him when he finally stands up for himself.

Conversely, much of the play’s heaviness comes from Shona Benson, who plays Anna’s psychiatrist Vivienne. Benson is immaculate and poised, bringing equal parts empathy and clinical coldness to her portrayal – especially when doling out medical jargon and other unsettling information to the family.

Anna (Van Zuijlen) and her childhood psychiatrist Vivienne (Shona Benson) discussing how her creativity disappeared.
Anna (Van Zuijlen) and her childhood psychiatrist Vivienne (Shona Benson) discussing how her creativity disappeared.

She does a terrific job in portraying the doubts, distress, and regrets a medical professional can have, and contrary to Tan, her emotions slip out in micro-expressions like a furrowed brow or pinched lip, which point to the tiny cracks in her confidence in her treatment plan. 

The Almighty Sometimes doesn’t offer a happy ending, but it does end on a hopeful note – with Anna’s story very much up for interpretation. Ending SRT’s 2022 season on a sensational note, the play is worth the two hours and a must-watch for anyone curious about mental illness in children and young adults.

The A List is giving away four pairs of tickets to the final show of The Almighty Sometimes on 26 Nov at the KC Arts Centre – find out more here.

(Photos: Singapore Repertory Theatre)

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