The Book of Everything is a kaleidoscope of images, ideas, emotions, characters and possibilities juxtaposed with the harsh realities of domestic life in the wake of World War Two. Not many theatre experiences earn the boast of family entertainment but with a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old in tow, the production had the blowtorch of low boredom thresholds applied and won through. Set in Amsterdam in 1951 not long after Nazi occupation, this is the story of 9-year-old Thomas Klopper who is writing a book about his everyday life. Fortunately for Thomas and the audience, tropical fish, witches, frog plagues, an ultra-cool Jesus and a crush on a girl with a leather leg punctuate an ordinary day.
Based on a novel by Dutch author Guus Kuijer, the Book of Everything is cleverly adapted by Richard Tulloch and beautifully imagined and directed by Neil Armfield. A co-production between Belvoir and Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image, it is an absorbing play that quickly allows us to suspend disbelief and indulge in the big emotions of childhood: fear, curiosity and moments of unmitigated joy. It is a gift to look across to see children moved to laughter, tears and anticipation. Spontaneous applause, audience interaction and smart use of sound effects and props create a carnival-like atmosphere despite the difficult and dark subject of domestic violence.
It is hard to single out a performance within this very accomplished ensemble cast although Matthew Whittet’s Thomas has the enviable task of convincing us he is 9-years-old while shouldering the responsibility of being in every scene. Whittet’s youngster is thoroughly convincing and his journey beguiling as he reminds the adults around him that his aspiration in life is simply to be happy.
Claire Jones as the stoic mother and Pip Miller as the violent and desperate father provide the stark background for their son’s subversive fantasies. Rebecca Massey as Margot, Lucia Mastrantone as Eliza and Deborah Kennedy as Aunty Pie each create a strong, believable female role model that plays a part in Thomas facing his fears.
Julie Forsyth’s Mrs van Amersfoort is a character an audience can take to its heart. Forsyth displays impressive skill combining an old woman’s reputation as a witch and her grief for her murdered husband with a childlike appreciation for fun and farce. Her enthusiasm for Thomas’ recital of an Ogden Nash poem is one of the highlights of the play. Special mention is reserved for John Leary’s Jesus who injects an unlikely hilarity into a production that is, in turn, funny and heartbreaking.
Belvoir & Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image
The Book of Everything
by Guus Kuijer | adapted by Richard Tulloch
Director Neil Armfield
Venue: Seymour Centre | Cnr City Rd & Cleveland St, Chippendale
Dates: 20 September to 1 October 2011
Tickets: $59 – $24
Bookings: Belvoir 02 9699 3444 or www.belvoir.com.au | Seymour Centre 02 9351 7940 or www.sydney.edu.au/seymour | Sydney Children’s Festival www.sydneychildrensfestival.com