The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show

Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, January 13 at 12 noon

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show is a gorgeous little stage production for children aged one to seven that captivates with its clear storytelling, its fresh, bright design and its simple but inventive staging.

Based on four pictures books by Eric Carle, including his iconic bestseller The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the show has been three years in the making.

Australian Jonathan Worsley, who is the creator and co-producer, approached Carle “several years ago, several times”, visiting the American author and illustrator at his Massachusetts studio with a series of sketches to convince him that he would put a faithful version of Carle’s books on stage.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar is the popular hook for audiences but it is too short to stage without expanding it so Worsley instead suggested using three of Carle’s other books as well: The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Mister Seahorse and The Very Lonely Firefly. Having won Carle’s approval, Worsley approached New York’s Puppet Kitchen to bring the sketches to three-dimensional life.

The Puppet Kitchen has done a sensational job in creating 75 puppets, using similar materials and techniques to Carle so that they really do look like his distinctive, hand-painted collage illustrations, and move well on stage.

On top of that, children can see the puppeteers and how the puppets are manipulated, which adds to the joyous sense of creativity that the show engenders.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show had its world premiere at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta as part of the Sydney Festival and from here tours to Melbourne, Brisbane, Penrith, Queanbeyan and Newcastle.

Director Naomi Edwards builds the show beautifully, creating an arc that leads organically to the highly anticipated caterpillar. James Browne has designed a white set that looks as if it is made up of several giant, blank books on which the various stories can be “written”. It’s the perfect backdrop for the stories to burst into colourful life via the puppets and their manipulators, with the help of a few simple projections, a couple of props and one or two little pieces of scenery.

Costume designer Andrea Espinoza has the four puppeteers (Gavin Clarke, Dannielle Jackson, Justine Warner and Drew Wilson) in white dungarees and tee shirts to throw the focus on the puppets, while The Artist wears an outfit to match the book. The puppets, meanwhile, are a pure delight, with lovely work from movement director Samantha Chester in choreographing their manipulation. The music by Nate Edmondson and Stephen Baker, and Nicholas Rayment’s lighting are also pitch-perfect.

A scene from The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse in The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

A scene from The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse in The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

Each of the four stories makes clever use of simple repetition. The show begins with The Artist who ”paints” several colourful animals including a blue horse, a yellow cow, an orange elephant and a poker-dotted donkey. A white canvas on a white easel is quickly spun around and the painting appears as if by magic.

“How did they do that?” asked the little boy next to me, mouth open. After watching intently as The Artist did a similar thing several times, he shouted: “that’s how they did it” and proceeded to explain excitedly to his mother. Bless.

We then go underwater for Mister Seahorse in which a rainbow-coloured, sparkly seahorse takes care of his wife’s eggs, until they hatch, meeting other male fish along the way who do the same – a sweet tale about role and responsibility.

Mister Seahorse. Photo: supplied

Mister Seahorse. Photo: supplied

From there we head into the dark of the night for the story of The Very Lonely Firefly who mistakes various lights for fellow fireflies until he finally finds his tribe (a tale of belonging). This leads naturally to the appearance of the moon and the story of the caterpillar, who eats and eats and eats before making a cocoon from which he emerges as a beautiful butterfly.

Children in the audience were clearly waiting for the caterpillar but it’s testament to the show that it kept their attention in the lead-up to his appearance.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar puppet. Photo: supplied

The Very Hungry Caterpillar puppet. Photo: supplied

It was an inspired idea to adapt the book, given its massive popularity around the world, and Worsley’s production does it justice. The show will doubtless tour here, there and everywhere for many years to come.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show plays in Parramatta until January 18 then tours to Melbourne’s Chapel off Chapel, March 23 – April 2; Brisbane’s Round House Theatre, July 13 – 19; The Q Theatre, Penrith, September 24 – 26; Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, September 30 – October 4; Newcastle’s Civic Theatre, October 9 – 10.

Full details:

His Mother’s Voice

ATYP Studio, May 4

Isaiah Powell as Little Liu. Photo: Tessa Tran

Isaiah Powell as Little Liu. Photo: Tessa Tran

Justin Fleming’s new play His Mother’s Voice is a fascinating, absorbing play that combines sweeping politics with a powerful human drama.

Set mainly in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution, it tells the story of a virtuoso pianist Qian Liu (Isaiah Powell as a child and Harry Tseng as an adult) whose mother Yang Jia (Renee Lim) teaches him to play the piano at a time when it was considered “the most dangerous of all Western instruments” and when Western music was banned.

Even when Liu’s father (John Gomez Goodway) is murdered and their piano is destroyed by Chinese apparatchiks, she finds a way to keep up her son’s lessons, despite the danger of severe punishment as a counter-revolutionary.

Eventually, Liu defects – with his mother’s blessing – while visiting Australia for an international piano competition, accompanied by his wife, an Australian woman working in Shanghai as a translator (Dannielle Jackson), and his father-in-law (Michael Gooley) who is a diplomat.

Fleming’s play resonates with passionate arguments about music and politics. Mao’s Communist Party will only sanction Chinese music; Yang Jia believes that Chinese and Western music complement each other and should be equally respected.

There are times when the play becomes a bit overtly didactic, particularly in the debates between Liu and his father-in-law, but overall it is beautifully written, capturing both the epic nature of the political background and the intimate personal relationships. The emotional stakes feel high and very real.

His exploration of the Chinese embrace of contradiction in a touching encounter when Yang Jia is interrogated in prison, and an amusing scene when Chinese officials negotiate Liu’s return is particularly well evoked.

Suzanne Millar directs the play for bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company with great clarity on a simple set, which she co-designed with John Harrison and uses very cleverly.

Performed with great commitment by a cast of 12 (10 of them from Asian backgrounds), Renee Lim shines as Yang Jia, quietly capturing her strength, courage, idealism, intelligence and deep love for her son in a radiant, moving performance.

His Mother’s Voice plays at the ATYP Studio until May 17. Bookings: 9270 2400