FROM DOWN UNDER: Melbourne Theatre Company’s Astroman

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Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne – until 8 December 2018

Brimming with warmth and heart, world premiere play Astroman takes audiences back to the 1980s in an all too rare familial focus on First Peoples of Australia.

Originally intended to be set in a coastal town in New Zealand, Maori playwright Albert Belz transplanted the action to Geelong after moving there in 2011. Belz describes Astroman as a love letter to the 1980s, and there is no shortage of Rubik’s cubes, Walkmans, BMX bikes and overblown pop hits to bathe the audience in the warm glow of nostalgia.

The key aspect of 1980s life on show is the allure of the local video game arcade, the type of haunt that has long been supplanted by home computer and online gaming. Gruffly mysterious Greek elder Mr Pavlis runs local parlour Astrocade, a beacon for Geelong youths in 1984. Escaping into the flashing lights of the games, Jiembra (Jimmy) Djalu exercises his prodigious insight into observation of patterns and goes on to hone his skill with electronics as an after-school assistant to Mr Pavlis.

At an age where a week is forever and a parental blow up is the end of the world, 13-year-old Jimmy, and his fraternal twin Sonny survive on their wits and create their own adventures, hating their older sister and loving their Mum to bits. Jimmy is something of a genius, and despite the best efforts of teacher Mrs Taylor, Jimmy’s school is not able to offer the enrichment he needs. Easily bored and pining for his absent father, Jimmy edges towards a life of trouble, a course that can only be corrected by a major change.

Belz unfolds the story at a gentle pace, focusing on capturing a mood rather than hurtling through melodramatic plot twists. A key quality of Belz’s writing, apart from the avoidance of clichés and stereotypes, is the grounding of all humour in the characters. There are no witty bon motsor crushing one-liners, just authentic character-based comedy, which is seen at its best thanks to the expert direction and lively performances.

While the central storyline is a little slim for the 150-minute running time (including interval), director Sarah Goodes generates exuberant energy in the ensemble cast of six, enlivening the longer second act with an energetic stylised video game competition and interspersing a smattering of choreographed music video style fantasy sequences.

Set designer Jonathon Oxlade has provided a curved collage of locations. Aided by lighting designer Niklas Pajanti, Goodes uses the flexible setting to fluidly draw the eye between multiple overlapping scenes.

According to the program notes, associate director Tony Briggs lived through the scenario that Jimmy will go on to experience. While brothers Jimmy and Sonny encounter a degree of entrenched racism, Astromanis not an “issues” play, and it is presumed that Briggs’ input into direction, along with Belz’s natural writing style, has helped to bring subtlety and realism to the engaging characters.

The playing of video games necessitates actors committing the cardinal sin of turning their backs to the audience. Oxlade cleverly counters this by placing a camera in the video game unit, transmitting the actor’s face to several 12-inch cathode ray television screens around the set.

Adding significantly to the retrospective humour, Oxlade excels himself with the costume design. Jimmy wears acid wash jeans with Ford tracksuit top, while footy-loving brother Sonny sports a Geelong football club guernsey and Karate Kid headband. Creepy local teen MJ sets off his skintight jeans, single fingerless glove and red Michael Jackson jacket with a greasy mullet.

On a stage where lead actors are often more than twice his age, 19-year-old Kamil Ellis gives a terrific central performance as Jimmy, capturing both the bravado and the vulnerability of youth. Ellis opens the show cold with an extended monologue, instantly gaining audience affection. Ellis’ relatively small stature makes him highly convincing as a 13-year-old, and his expressive face conveys the ever-present workings of Jimmy’s beautiful mind.

Calen Tassone contrasts Jimmy’s fast wits with Sonny’s easygoing, football-focused life. Sonny loves the game so much he even practices his kissing technique with a football. A highly likeable young actor, Tassone makes an auspicious debut with Melbourne Theatre Company.

Elaine Crombie exudes earthy warmth as harried mother Michelle Djalu, always allowing Michelle’s love for her children to radiate through despite their latest misadventures. Proving a good sport as part of the small ensemble cast, Djalu has a hilarious cameo in act two as Point Lonsdale fella-girl in the video game contest.

Tony Nikolakopoulos keeps the kindness of Mr Pavlis at bay until the character eventually lets down his guard with his new multi-generational friends. As with the Aboriginal characters in the play, Nikolakopoulos avoids all aspects of cultural stereotypes in his slightly broad but ultimately quite natural performance.

Nicholas Denton immerses himself in the role of local hood Mick Jones (MJ), the young villain of Astroman. While not the lead character, MJ is given what is arguably the play’s most interesting transformative arc, and Denton ensures that MJ’s internal battle against good is hard fought and free of saccharine sweetness.

Tahlee Fereday crafts two completely distinct characters in terms of age, appearance, outlook and voice as sister Natalie Djalu and teacher Mrs Taylor. Fereday captures Natalie’s well-deserved glee as the young woman successfully retains the upper hand in the slow burning romance that develops with MJ.

Audience members of Generation X, and older, will revel in the cultural throwback of Astroman. Over and above the rosy reminiscences, it is the beating heart of Astromanthat is set to be enjoyed.

Astroman plays at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne until 8 December 2018.

The Astroman program can be read online.

Photos: Jeff Busby

Simon Parris on Twitter
Simon Parris
Simon is a Melbourne-based theatregoer and critic, who reviewed for many years for Theatre People and the Sunday Herald Sun. He has also acted, directed and choreographed, and has served on the boards of the Music Theatre Guild of Victoria Committee and The Opera Studio Melbourne. In addition to productions in Melbourne, on his extensive travels, Simon reviews shows in Sydney and on annual trips to Broadway and the West End. He now blogs independently at simonparrismaninchair.com.
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Simon Parris on Twitter
Simon Parris
Simon is a Melbourne-based theatregoer and critic, who reviewed for many years for Theatre People and the Sunday Herald Sun. He has also acted, directed and choreographed, and has served on the boards of the Music Theatre Guild of Victoria Committee and The Opera Studio Melbourne. In addition to productions in Melbourne, on his extensive travels, Simon reviews shows in Sydney and on annual trips to Broadway and the West End. He now blogs independently at simonparrismaninchair.com.