Ma Ma Ma Mad – Essential viewing for audiences who want more from their theatre

Sometimes you head along to the theatre as a reviewer and have no idea what you are going to witness – hits and misses are part of the job.

Merlynn Tong in Ma Ma Ma Mad. Photo by Shane Pike.
Merlynn Tong in Ma Ma Ma Mad. Photo by Shane Pike.

Last night I saw the most humble, extraordinarily astonishing piece of theatre as part of Brisbane Powerhouse’s Wonderland festival.

Ma Ma Ma Mad is an autobiographical, one-woman show based on writer/performer Merlynn Tong’s upbringing in a Karaoke bar, which her parents owned in Singapore: A wild, vibrant, but also seedy life for a six year old to witness.

But it wasn’t just about the bar, or about her ill father and the family’s futile battle to find a cure for his cancer in an Indian Ashram; but an even more tragic story (if that’s even possible), about her mother, the madame of the Karaoke bar, whose life events, relationships, and subsequent depression lead to her suicide when Merlynn was only fourteen years old – leaving her an orphan with her older brother, now her carer.

Weaving between storytelling, frantic dances of desperation and despair, and the odd audience participation karaoke sing-a-long, Ma Ma Ma Mad is raw, honest, intense, gripping, and essential watching for the person who longs for a deeper, richer experience of theatre.

Switching between all the main characters in her family, including her beloved maid, abusive boyfriend, and step-father, Merlynn was enchanting, vulnerable, witty, and entertaining, but most of all, brave for sharing her deeply personal and traumatic story.

Director Shane Pike provides an appropriately modest set with a coat rack to the side for simple yet effective costume changes to denote the various characters she plays, while behind projects the occasional poetic visual background, and of course the obligatory karaoke screen for the Singapore bar setting.

Merlynn Tong in Ma Ma Ma Mad. Photo by Shane Pike.
Merlynn Tong in Ma Ma Ma Mad. Photo by Shane Pike.

Unfortunately Ma Ma Ma Mad only received a short season, and played at the Brisbane Powerhouse from 4-6 December. However, after a sell-out season at Brisbane’s Anywhere Theatre Festival in 2013, this hugely successful work received development assistance from the Queensland Theatre Company and was subsequently published by Playlab, one of Australia’s largest dramatic publishing houses.

The piece of paper left on each seat and cabaret table setting in Wonderland’s ‘Studio 53 ½’, was a simple reminder that children under eighteen who experience a parent’s suicide is three times more likely to succumb to suicide themselves. And on the other side, was a list of suicide prevention help-line numbers.

Ma Ma Ma Mad is an important work and a most apt way to get the conversation going about loss, depression, suicide, and abuse – I hope it travels the world.

Suicide Prevention Australia:

Suicide Call Back Service:  1300 659 467
Men’s Line:  1300 78 99 78
Veterans Line:  1800 011 046
Qlife:  1800 184 527
Kids Helpline:  1800 55 1800
Online Counselling:
Life Line:  13 11 14


Bobbi-Lea Dionysius

Bobbi-Lea is's QLD Co-ordinator, writer, reviewer, and reporter. She is also an actor, presenter, and theatre/film producer for Drama Queen Productions in Brisbane. Bobbi-Lea holds a Degree in Music Theatre as well as a Degree in Film & TV, and is currently doing her Masters in Screen Production.

Bobbi-Lea Dionysius

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