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28 January 2024

The Arrival | Red Leap TheatrePhoto - John McDermott

Every once in a while you see a show that is such a breath of fresh air that you feel aglow when you walk out of the theatre: The Arrival is that kind of show.

Although perhaps technically children’s theatre, based as it is on a children’s graphic novel by Shaun Tan, it is perhaps one of the best examples of truly universal theatre that I’ve seen in recent memory. This is a piece of dramatic art that can appeal to anyone and everyone, from the very young to the very old, and better still, language is no barrier.

It would be inaccurate to describe the production as entirely non-verbal as it contains a fair amount of voice work, yet it features virtually zero intelligible dialogue, and the majority of the storytelling is achieved through visuals and music. It is hard to adequately describe how this show is actually realised without reading off a laundry-list of the many and varied theatrical techniques employed by these versatile performers, such as mime, puppetry, shadowplay, acrobatics, and many forms of abstracted movement.

The play creates a world – several worlds, in fact – through such a variety of different methods that incorporate everything from transforming mobile sets, strange props, bizarre puppets and even human bodies alone, and in such unexpected combinations that the show is faintly reminiscent of some multi-disciplinary game of charades. The audience is constantly “ooo”ing and “aah”ing as recognition clicks in for each successive moment in this cavalcade of delightfully original and unpredictable representations of everyday activities as seen through new eyes.

This is part of the essential point of this production, to see a world in which everything is at once strange and yet vaguely familiar. The story is simple, that of an immigrant who farewells his wife and daughter in the old country and travels to a new one in search of work so that he may eventually be able to have his family join him in this hopefully more prosperous life. As he arrives in the proverbial strange new world he does not speak the language and everything about his environment is odd and unfamiliar, from food to lodgings to everyday customs. He must learn to navigate his confusing surroundings and re-learn the basics of day-to-day life in an alien culture, with little help or company.

The key method – and essential brilliance – of this production is the way in which this unfamiliarity is depicted. Rather than representing the new country as a specific real one or even as a vaguely identifiable generalised culture (e.g. “Asia”, “Europe” or “Africa”), the culture is entirely invented, in which everything is vaguely familiar in its broad strokes but wholly unfamiliar in its specifics. For example, the people who populate this culture speak gibberish instead of a specific real language (as opposed to the migrant’s occasional words of English), so that everyone in the audience is put in the same position as the protagonist, able only to infer intent and context without any understanding of the actual words.

This is a wonderful effect, as it universalises the experience of being a foreigner in a new land so that anyone can understand what it would feel like to be lost amidst an foreign language and culture. Language is only the most obvious example, as every element of his new life, from food to machines, money, animals, jobs, greetings, recreation and other customs as simple as a handshake are all strange and unknown to him.

You, like he, can recognise more or less what all these things are, but the forms they take on are exotic or simply unusual. A good example is Ruff, an animal he befriends who becomes his pet. Although Ruff is a bizarre creature that resembles some kind of giant almond-shaped mouse with a huge maw, the puppeteering shows that the creature is clearly analogous to a dog, with such a variety and subtlety of movement and behaviour that there can be no doubt that this is an excitable, companionable pooch, whatever it may look like.

These and many other techniques create a highly visual story that is unfailingly captivating and heartwarming, while also possessing the dramatic credibility to depict allegorically (via the flashbacks of other immigrants) many of the tragic occurrences that prompt the displaced peoples of the world to seek new lives in new lands. The experience is immeasurably enriched by the whimsical and enchanting visuals that are featured throughout the production design with sets and puppets all inspired by the striking art style of Shaun Tan’s original graphic novel.

With an excellent, multi-talented cast and such an astonishingly wide array of finely honed stagecraft, this is a genuinely magical show not to be missed. Short of alienating those stick-in-the-muds with the staunchest insistence on seeing only traditional, dialogue-driven naturalism, The Arrival is a piece of exciting, uplifting theatre that should be embraced by all who have the good fortune to experience it.

Red Leap Theatre
The Arrival
Based on the illustrated book by Shaun Tan

Creator and Director Julie Nolan
Creator Kate Parker

Venue: CarriageWorks Bay 17 | 245 Wilson Street, Eveleigh
Dates/Times: Jan 10 at 5pm; Jan 11, 14, 16 at 7pm; Jan 13, 15 at 11am & 3pm; Jan 17 at 3pm
Duration: 1hr 15mins, no interval
Tickets: A Reserve $45 / $40 Child $15 Family $100 (2 adults, 2 children); B Reserve $40 / $35 Child $15 Family $85 (2 adults, 2 children)
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 723 038