Jasper Jones

Belvoir St Theatre, January 6

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Tom Conroy and Kate Mulvany in Jasper Jones. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Kate Mulvany’s stage adaptation of Craig Silvey’s much-loved 2009 novel for young adults, Jasper Jones, is faithful to the world, spirit and overall plot of the original book.

Set in 1965 in the small fictional town of Corrigan in Western Australia, it begins with Charlie Bucktin (Tom Conroy), a smart but dorky 14-year old, being woken by 16-year old Jasper Jones (Guy Simon), whose part Aboriginal heritage makes him a perennial scapegoat and loner.

Jasper asks Charlie to follow him to his hide-away in the bush, where he has discovered something terrible. Knowing that he will be blamed, he begs Charlie to help him find out who is responsible.

So begins a coming-of-age story in which the innocence and high-spiritedness of youth rub up against bigotry, bullying and domestic abuse. Anyone who hasn’t read the book and plans on taking young people (it’s recommended for ages 13+) should be aware that it contains these darker themes as well as a confronting death – but overall it’s a lovely, life-affirming story full of laughter and exuberant humour as well as heartache.

While Charlie waits for Jasper to reappear, he spends time with his best mate, the cricket-mad Jeffrey Lu (Charles Wu). Though the Vietnam War seems worlds away, it still resonates in the background as more Australians are called up and Jeffrey, like Jasper, is the target of casual racism because of his Vietnamese background. And then there’s the book-loving Eliza Wishart (Matilda Ridgway), Charlie’s love interest.

Inevitably some things in the book aren’t gone into in the same depth. Charlie and Jasper’s encounter with Mad Jack Lionel – another loner avoided by the town and feared by all the children – feels a bit rushed. Charlie’s evolving relationship with his quiet, retiring father is given short shrift, though the relationship with his embittered, frustrated mother is vividly evoked, enhanced by a powerful new scene between her and Charlie as she prepares to leave.

The two attacks on the Lu family don’t have as much of an impact when simply described as they are here and nor do get the same sense of the toll they take on the hitherto irrepressibly optimistic Jeffrey – a moving moment in the novel and something Charlie is acutely aware of. But overall, Mulvany has made well-considered choices in putting the novel and its characters on stage.

Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, the Belvoir production unfolds on an evocative set by Michael Hankin with a large gum tree plus a small wooden porch and sleep-out, which can be moved to create different locations. It’s all beautifully lit by Matt Scott, while Mel Page’s costumes capture 1960s attire in regional Australia in brilliantly funny fashion for the men (shorts with long socks, tight shirts tucked into tight pants) and more attractive cotton frocks with full skirts for the women. Steve Toulmin’s sound is also very effective in enhancing the atmosphere.

Playing some scenes while racing through the auditorium adds little and is plain clunky at times with people craning their necks, but for the most part Sarks’ lively production flows smoothly. The cricket match in which Jeffrey emerges triumphant is cleverly staged and the ending – though slightly different to the novel – brings a lump to the throat.

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Guy Simon as Jasper and Tom Conroy as Charlie. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Conroy captures Charlie’s awkwardness, intelligence and sense of fairness, while the jokey banter between him and Wu’s Jeffrey is a delight. Simon is endearing as Jasper, quietly conveying the emotional weight he carries. Mulvany gives a vibrant portrayal of Charlie’s unhappy, snarky mother and a hilarious comic cameo as the local school bully Warwick. Ridgway glows as Eliza and Steve Rodgers brings weight to the underwritten characters of Charlie’s father and Mad Jack Lionel.

Though not all the moments hit home as powerfully as in the book, Mulvany has written a very funny, ultimately touching play with much to say for adults and teenagers alike.

Jasper Jones plays at Belvoir St Theatre until Feburary 7. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

 

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 10

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Black Diggers

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 19

The cast of Black Diggers. Photo: Jamie Williams

The cast of Black Diggers. Photo: Jamie Williams

The words “Lest We Forget” are movingly evoked at the end of Black Diggers but, in fact, this new Australian play is more about illuminating a little known part of Australian history – the role and treatment of around 800 Aboriginal diggers during World War I.

Sydney Festival is presenting the premiere of this important Queensland Theatre Company production written by Tom Wright and directed by Wesley Enoch to coincide with the centenary of the start of the Great War.

Drawing on verbatim and other source material held by the Australian War Memorial, with research by David Williams, Wright has created a script full of short scenes and little vignettes, punctuated by song, which come together powerfully to offer a shocking and moving insight into the subject.

We see why Aboriginal men joined up to serve a King and country that didn’t even class them as citizens, the camaraderie and friendships they forged with other Australian diggers in the trenches and on the battlefields where colour became irrelevant, and their dashed expectations as they returned home having enjoyed an equality they hadn’t previously known, only to find that nothing had changed in Australia.

As one of the characters so eloquently puts it: “They painted my colour back on the day I got off that boat.”

Worse, many found that their own lands were taken away from them and given to other returned servicemen as part of the Soldier Settlement Scheme, which Indigenous soldiers were ineligible to apply to. On top of that, many were ostracised by their own communities. And, of course, many suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.

Enoch directs all this with a light touch, balancing the dark moments with a genial, knockabout humour, though never shying away from the tough themes.

The all-male Indigenous cast play a wide range of characters, black and white, and do a terrific job of delineating them all, sometimes in very brief cameos.

Featuring George Bostock, Luke Carroll, David Page, Hunter Page-Lochard, Guy Simon, Colin Smith, Eliah Watego, Tibian Wyles and Meyne Wyatt, some of the cast are more assured as performers than others but they work together as a strong ensemble and all deserve praise.

Stephen Curtis’s clever set (dramatically lit by Ben Hughes) works on both a practical and metaphorical level. Black walls frame a black stage with a raised central platform and a fire in an oil drum to one side. As the play progresses, the names and dates of soldiers and the battles they fought in are chalked on the walls until they have become covered in white – symbolic of the whitewashing of the Indigenous diggers’ role in our history. Finally, having filled in this gap in our knowledge, the cast wipe away some of the white to spell out the words “Lest We Forget”.

Running around 100-minutes without interval, Black Diggers is a compelling piece of theatre. It tells an important story but does so without hectoring or lecturing, moving us instead to laughter and tears. It deserves to be seen widely.

Black Diggers plays at the Sydney Opera House until January 26. Bookings: 9250 7777 or sydneyfestival.org.au