The Sumner, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne – until 20 July 2019
Cherished Australian story Storm Boy proves a surprisingly natural fit for the stage in this lovingly produced piece of theatrical magic.
Adapting Colin Thiele’s classic 1964 novel Storm Boy, playwright Tom Holloway has crafted a leisurely yet neatly succinct 90-minute play, originally produced by Sydney Theatre Company in 2013. By turns heart rending and heart warming, the exquisite coming of age tale is supported by cutting edge stagecraft, including extraordinary puppetry, grand projections and settings so realistic you can practically taste the salt water in the air.
On the coast of South Australia’s Coorong, a young boy and his cantankerous father, Hideaway Tom eke out a fragile, deliberately isolated existence. Collecting debris washed ashore, the lad is named Storm Boy by his new friend, local First Peoples man Fingerbone Bill. Caring for three orphaned pelican chicks, Storm Boy forms a special bond with “Mr Percival,” a connection by which he experiences the inevitable cycle of life.
Holloway has entrusted portions of the storytelling to silence, a move embraced with distinct flair by director Sam Strong. The opening sequence of cleaning up after a storm conveys far more than pages of expositional dialogue could do. Strong shows the three male characters to be at one with the land, and works closely with puppet designer and associate director David Morton to establish the pelicans, and a dear little penguin, as characters in their own right.
The designers and fabricators at Dead Puppet Society have crafted amazing technical creations which are an absolute joy to behold. The three grown pelicans are full of personality and look stunning in flight. Puppeteers Ellen Bailey, Emily Burton and Drew Wilson are in plain sight and yet effectively disappear, supporting their intricate work by also voicing the affectionate clucking of their charges. An early incident with a snake establishes that when an animal dies its puppeteer leaves the stage, a practice that is used to moving effect later in the play.
This new staging, a co-production with Queensland Theatre, features a striking visual appeal from the unique collaboration of set designer Anna Cordingley and projection designer Justin Harrison. Filling the entire back wall, the projections show the constant ebb and flow of the pristine coastal waters, angling up to the clouds when the birds are in flight. Cordingley’s tactile foreshore hills match the projections to perfection, creating an immersive locale with a depth far greater than what could be achieved with plain old painted backdrops.
The authentic beachside atmosphere is further enhanced by Darrin Verhagen’s gentle sound design and compositions. Lighting designer Matt Scott works wonders, casting the very shafts of light that are seen by the coast.
If there is one seemingly unnecessary part of the design, it is the full stage curtain that comes down to cover scene changes. There is a sequence late in the play when the beachside set simply rolls off when the action shifts overhead; this sort of simplicity could have been used throughout the play.
All creative aspects converge to thrilling effect for a climactic storm in which an imperilled boat requires an emergency rescue.
Gifted young actor Conor Lowe maintains a highly engaging and yet naturally unaffected presence as Storm Boy.
Tony Briggs wins immediate affection with Bill’s corny “Dad jokes,” going on to convey a man of great compassion.
John Batchelor takes Tom on a journey from rigid authoritarian to gentler father, portraying Tom’s great love for his son without any cloying sentimentality. Much as it is unusual for the family unit to drop out of society and move out of view, the father-son relationship is nonetheless a shining example of mutual love, respect and affection.
Storm Boy is theatre for children and yet it is not children’s theatre. As memorable family entertainment it is very hard to beat, with the additional benefit of possibly inspiring follow-up conversations on deeper issues.
Storm Boy plays at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre until 20 July 2019.
Adults pay children’s prices for Storm Boythese school holidays; for details click here.
Photos: Jeff Busby