Photos - Sean Fennessy
Samuel Paxton (Jeff Michel) is your typical eight-year-old: energetic, imaginative and full of crazy schemes; “Mum says we can smash all the windows on one side of the house!” he boldly fibs at one point. Sadly, sister Heidi and dopey brother Artie seem hardly to notice Samuel's existence, while Mum and Dad are too busy with important household chores to stop and chat (these roles are all played by Sabrina D'Angelo). So what’s a kid to do? Taking his cue from a popular stereotype of the Australian male, Samuel heads out to the shed.
There he starts amusing himself – ‘making his own fun’ as parents love to say - by looking through the junk that’s been discarded there over the years. There are items like old fridges and bike wheels and cricket bats, perfect for reinvention and re-use, and items of sentimental value, like Dad’s old policeman’s hat, Mum’s gardening rake and a photograph of the pair when they first met.
Mucking around with a supposedly-broken TV, Samuel makes the first of several miraculous machines. Put a photo into it, and the people in the photograph are somehow blown up and seem to come to life (as animated characters), waving to him from the screen. Sometimes they even burst out of the screen altogether, having been turned into small puppet versions of themselves.
This show uses techniques that were developed by Terrapin in an earlier show, Explosion Therapy. Now, in addition to having actors disappearing into and out of an on-screen world, puppets and their animated counterparts flit back and forth interchangeably.
It’s clever stuff, but works best when combined with a strong plot element. For example, when Samuel convinces Heidi to climb into his machine, she appears inside the TV and then suddenly shrinks down to become minuscule. He then seems to pluck her from out of the screen, and proceeds to accidentally sneeze her across the floor. The combination of acting and video is effective here because the illusion is really sold through action, and there’s an element requiring you to use your imagination.
In other words, the complex techniques used here - combining acting with basic puppetry and various digital effects - work when the story itself works, but fall flat when it doesn't. These kind of stylistic games can only enhance what is going on, they can't provide an alternative to storytelling, as perhaps really good clowning or acrobatics - or indeed, sublime puppetry - might. Perhaps this has something to do with the colder, more remote aspect of the digital realm (at least in a theatre context).
The story of Samuel's gradual re-enchantment with his family is full of insightful dialogue, but there's too much talk and not enough action for a young audience: a large proportion of the show is made up of introducing character, explaining and recounting. It has some charm, but why not have more actually happening now, in the present tense?
While Michel gamely brings Samuel to life, delivering on the sly humour of the piece, he seems an odd choice to play an Australian eight-year-old, being an American man in his forties (he speaks with an American accent, which is distracting). D'Angelo strongly inhabits her varied characters, particularly the obnoxious Artie, although the Mum and Dad personas are a bit generic for my taste (Mum all smiles in a dress and apron, Dad gruff and silly).
The Falling Room and the Flying Room features some sweet, nostalgic vignettes, such as the story of Mum and Dad throwing three sunflower seeds into the garden - "And that's why they had three children!" - and many of these moments are genuinely original. The play is hampered, though, by a rather haphazard structure.
At the matinee I attended there was a sense, about halfway through the performance, that the audience's attention was slipping away. Only when Samuel finally started building his big machine, creating it piece by piece, did tension actually start to build. You could feel the kids tuning back in, caring. They were thrilled when the machine came together, flashed a few coloured lights, and was a success: some of them even clapped. This part wasn't about cutting edge technology at all, it was about storytelling that carried its weight.
Terrapin Puppet Theatre
The Falling Room and the Flying Room
Venue: Theatre Royal
Dates: Wednesday 10 and Thursday 11 June at 11am and 2pm
Bookings: www.theatreroyal.com.au or call 03 6233 2299