The Peasant Prince

Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre, April 9

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Jenevieve Chang, John Gomez and Edric Hong. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Monkey Baa Theatre Company has a reputation for its delightful stage adaptations of children’s books and The Peasant Prince is another charmer.

It tells the true story of Li Cunxin (pronounced Lee Schwin Sing), whose autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer was published in 2003 and subsequently made into an Australian film by director Bruce Beresford. Li also wrote a picture book about his life called The Peasant Prince, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas, and it is that version that Monkey Baa’s creative directors Eva Di Cesare, Sandie Eldridge and Tim McGarry have drawn on for their stage adaptation for children aged 6+.

Born in a village in Shandong Province in China, Li was the sixth of seven sons in an impoverished but very loving peasant family. An extraordinary opportunity came knocking when a delegation from Madame Mao arrived in the village looking for talented children to attend the Beijing Dance Academy. After initially being overlooked, Li was chosen as one of just 15 children from around the country and at age 10 he left his home for Beijing.

The training was relentlessly tough and Li was terribly homesick, but eventually he found the courage, fortitude and determination to succeed. Selected by Ben Stevenson, the artistic director of Houston Ballet, to go to the US on a cultural exchange, Li defected. After a diplomatic standoff when he was held in the Chinese Embassy, he was eventually released a free man.

Li danced with Houston Ballet for 16 years and was a guest artist around the world. After meeting Australian-born dancer Mary McKendry in London, they married and came to Melbourne in 1995 where he danced with the Australian Ballet. Li is now artistic director of the Queensland Ballet.

The Peasant Prince begins with Li waiting backstage to make his debut in The Nutcracker for Houston Ballet, with his parents in the audience. It then rewinds to tell his story up to that point.

The script by Di Cesare, Eldrige and McGarry is succinct without it ever feeling that it is just ticking off plot points. A story Li loved his father to tell him about a frog acts as a metaphor for what is to come and the writers create many lively little vignettes that speak reams about Li’s life and relationship with his parents and brothers, a dance teacher who encouraged him, and Stevenson.

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Jonathan Chan and John Gomez Goodway. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

McGarry’s direction, with movement by Danielle Micich, keeps the action moving swiftly on a minimal but very effective set by Michael Hankin featuring David Bergman’s beautiful video designs, which locate scenes as the story moves from the village to a school room to the dance academy and onto Houston. Hankin’s costuming is also very evocative, as is Daryl Wallis’s music.

The early scenes in China work wonderfully well with simple staging effects proving extremely eloquent. There’s a lovely sequence in which Li’s mother uses a blanket in various ways to suggest feeding, washing and drying her son with loving care. At the dance academy, two performers merely hold a pole to create a ballet barre.

The Houston scenes don’t have quite the same flow. A ballet rehearsal feels a little overlong and the coercion Li suffers in the Chinese Embassy doesn’t have the same clarity as the rest of the storytelling; I imagine children will be asking what was happening at that point. But overall it’s beautifully told.

As Li, John Gomez Goodway brings a wide-eyed, open-hearted exuberance and emotional vulnerability to the role that is very endearing. The other three actors – Jonathan Chan, Jenevieve Chang and Edric Hong – each play several roles and do an impressive job of slipping quickly between them to create various well-defined characters.

Running around 55 minutes, The Peasant Prince tells an inspiring story about courage, resilience, family love and following your dreams that kept the young audience engaged.

Li Cunxin was at the opening. Asked to make a short speech afterwards, which he hadn’t anticipated, he said he was deeply moved by the production. I imagine that young audiences will be touched, amused and inspired by it too.

The Peasant Prince plays at Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre until April 20 and then tours to 37 Australian venues. See www.monkeybaa.com.au for details.

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Sticks Stones Broken Bones

Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre, January 20 at 10.30am

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Tim Sneddon in Sticks Stones Broken Bones. Photo: supplied

Sticks Stones Broken Bones is an award-winning show from Bunk Puppets, which has toured to 15 countries, picking up gongs including Best Newcomer and Spirit of the Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2010 and Best Puppet Show at the Adelaide Fringe in 2011.

The production is currently in Sydney for the first time, presented by Monkey Baa Theatre Company.

Created and directed by Jeff Achtem and performed by Tim Sneddon, it celebrates shadow puppetry and the art of creative play.

Drawing on his background in clowning, puppetry and physical theatre, Sneddon is an engaging, comical figure, who uses all kinds of bits and bobs including a shoe, teddy bear, cardboard, tinsel, socks, balloon, curly wig and lots of sticky tape to create objects that look nothing in real life but which are then transformed on screen.

The fun of the show is wondering what these random looking objects will become as shadow puppets, and the clever way Sneddon interacts with them to create on-screen vignettes.

A few segments including a comical brain transplant and a chess game didn’t really connect with the children around me but others drew lots of laughter.

A man breaking out various dance moves is pretty funny, while a hilarious Ninja routine is a show highlight. At the performance I saw, a very fit and game father from the audience threw himself into playing a Ninja who fights a monster (created on screen by Sneddon), delighting adults and kids alike.

Running around an hour and recommended for ages 5+, Sticks Stones Broken Bones ends with the observation that “you are never too old to play”, a sentiment that captures the spirit of the show.

Sticks Stones Broken Bones plays at the Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre until January 22. Bookings: www. monkeybaa.com.au or 02 8624 9340

The Unknown Soldier

Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre, May 16

Sandra Eldridge and Felix Johnson. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Sandra Eldridge and Felix Johnson. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Monkey Baa Theatre Company has made its reputation with delightful stage adaptations of well-known books and stories for children and young people (aged three to 18).

The Unknown Soldier is its first brand new play, written by the company’s co-creative director Sandra Eldridge to honour the centenary of World War I.

Aimed at young people aged 10+, it’s a moving two-hander, examining dark themes including the horror of war and the devastating impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder without shying away from their seriousness but handling them with a light touch.

The play uses a simple device to move between two eras and stories. Thirteen-year old Charlie is staying with his pacifist Aunt Angela because, as we learn during the course of the play, his soldier father has returned from Afghanistan with PTSD and needs help.

To try to distract the bored teenager from doing little but play a computer war game, his aunt produces an old suitcase she has bought without inspecting its contents. Looking through it, they discover letters from a young Australian soldier called Albert, who fought in France in the Battle of Fromelles, written to his mother.

Felix Johnson plays both Charlie and Albert. Fascinated by what he reads in the letters, Charlie starts doing research on the Internet to find out more about Albert and his fate.

Eldridge plays Aunt Angela and Grace, a volunteer nurse who goes to France in search of her son, who is missing in action, and tends to the wounded Albert.

Felix Johnson. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Felix Johnson. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Eldridge researched the piece by examining war archives, diary extracts, books and poetry. Without the play ever feeling like a lecture, she conveys historical information about the Australian involvement in France in World War I and the horror of war both then and now.

She explains what PTSD is and how it can affect soldiers and their families. She introduces the Unknown Soldier and explains a little about who he is and what he represents. She also includes a brief section about the Australian War Memorial and touches on the meaning of ANZAC Day.

Her great achievement is to include all this within the context of an involving drama in which the information emerges naturally from the parallel stories she has created, and to convey it simply and clearly.

She has also leavened the play by folding in some gentle humour, with laughter on opening night at Charlie’s boredom, his frustration with his aunt’s slow Internet and his dislike of her organic, vegetarian cooking.

Matt Edgerton directs with great clarity on an impressive set by Anna Gardiner: a lounge room backed by a wall with jagged edges as if it has been damaged in a bomb blast, with little sections of the wall used to reveal various lighting effects. Matt Cox’s atmospheric lighting design and David Stalley’s sound help us imagine the scenes in the trenches, even though the home furniture is still used. It’s simply but effectively done.

Johnson moves convincingly between 13-year old Charlie and Albert (merely adding a slouch hat) and his revelation of Charlie’s fears for his PTSD-affected father is very touching. Eldridge is a warm, reassuring presence as both Angela and Grace.

My only quibble would be that Charlie articulates and understands ideas that might be a bit sophisticated for a 13-year old. A friend suggested it would perhaps be more convincing if the character were 15. But that’s a minor qualm.

There weren’t a huge number of young people in the opening night audience, and quite a few of those who were there were younger than 10, so it’s hard to gauge what the target audience would make of it. I imagine they would respond very positively to a thoughtful play that handles difficult themes with a great deal of integrity and care, and which seems to me to be well pitched for young people.

The Unknown Soldier plays at Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre until May 22. Bookings: www.monkeybaa.com.au or 02 8264 9340

Pete the Sheep

Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre, March 29

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Monkey Baa Theatre Company’s new 50-minute musical for children, Pete the Sheep, is a real beaut show.

Based on the Australian picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, it tells a quirky story with a gentle message about difference, individualism and acceptance.

A new shearer called Shaun arrives in Shaggy Gully – but because he has a sheep-sheep called Pete rather than a sheepdog like everyone else, the other shearers send him packing.

However, Pete knows just how to treat a sheep and quickly wins the favour of the flock. When Shaun gives Pete a fancy new look, the other animals (sheep dogs included) are soon lining up to be styled so Shaun and Pete open a shearing salon, inviting the shearers to join them.

Writers Eva di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge have fleshed out the characters and added every pun imaginable, with plenty to amuse adults as well as the children, including the requisite poo joke. (You may never eat a Malteser in quite the same way again). The songs by Phillip Scott (who has written music and lyrics) are very catchy, with a nod to a range of styles from country to jazz, blues and a dash of Broadway.

Jonathan Biggins directs a lively, imaginative production on James Browne’s simple but highly effective set, which captures the feel of the picture book as it transforms from a corrugated iron shearing shed to Shaun’s salon, staged with a little extra sparkle for good measure, all beautifully lit lit by Matthew Marshall.

Dressed in shorts and singlets, the talented cast of four ­– Andrew James, Nat Jobe, Todd Keys and Jeff Teale – play sheep, sheepdogs and shearers morphing between roles with just a change of hat and a different physicality. They all sing, dance and act a treat and give very funny performances ­– though one bright spark in the opening audience wasn’t buying the fact that they were female sheep. “They’re not ladies!” he called out to general merriment.

Recommended for children aged four to nine, Pete the Sheep is a hugely entertaining show with heaps of humour and heart. So don’t be a dag, flock to it!

Pete the Sheep plays at the Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre until April 24 and then on tour. Bookings: http://www.monkeybaa.com.au or 02 8624 9340

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on April 6