Jasper Jones | Barking Gecko Theatre CompanyLeft – James Beck and Shaka Cook. Cover – Elizabeth Blackmore, James Beck and Shaka Cook. Photos – Jon Green

Craig Silvey’s 2009 novel Jasper Jones has been adapted for stage by Kate Mulvany and is being presented by Barking Gecko Theatre Company under the direction of Artistic Director John Sheedy. This Australian coming-of-age story set in 1965 has drawn big crowds at the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre, and Barking Gecko have accommodated public demand by adding additional shows to see this popular work. Set in the fictional rural town of Corrigan, this tale ambitiously attempts to encapsulate the cultural experience of a cross-section of Australian characters tied together by the disappearance of a young local girl.

As we enter the theatre, there is an absolutely deafening cacophony of insect noises engulfing the space which drowns out all polite conversation. We sit under a flood of blue light and the stage is bare except for a pile of blue sand and a black back wall painted with a line drawing in the shape of a tree. In the wall is a louvered window, behind which sits a young man in a blue-lit room. The pre-show scene is both calm and unsettling, although the insect noise blasting through the PA system pushes the moment well into the territory of downright uncomfortable and irritating.

Mercifully the sound fades down when the action begins, and we are introduced to Charlie Bucktin (James Beck), the awkward teen at the center of the story, whose life becomes irrevocably changed by an encounter with his friend, Jasper Jones (Shaka Cook). Jasper knocks at Charlie’s window, beckoning to come with him to see something very important; they travel the perimeter of the stage over pathways of light to signify travelling through the town and into the bush. They come to center stage and Jasper dips into the blue sand and outlines a large circle on the floor that represents the local dam. A gobo of swirling yellowish light signifies the swirling water. A girl (whose face we never fully see moves slowly across the scene, and we discover why Jasper has brought Charlie into his place in the bush.

The lighting by Trent Suidgeest is beautiful and eerie, lending a slightly surreal quality in certain scenes when the room behind the back wall is lit in cold blue. The set and costume design by Michael Scott-Mitchell work against our preconceptions about rural WA in 1965 in that the look is clean-lined, dark, almost space-age, which is fine because the language and humour is anachronistic to 1965 too.

A few of the performances tended towards exaggeration, showing extreme reactions and broad physicality; this seemed out of place for the subject matter and many of the moments that should have had poignancy instead rang hollow. The story addresses more themes than you can count on two hands, so naturally some of those will get treated with heavy-handedness within the space of two hours on stage. However, we have to bear in mind that the production’s target audience is teens and young adults, and those audience members in that age bracket certainly appeared to enjoy themselves, especially during scenes with Hoa Xuande as Jeffrey Lu, who provides comic relief throughout.

Jasper Jones feels like it’s on its way to becoming a new staple in the Australian young adult diet, and it does do a decent job of tackling cultural, generational and sexual issues without being condescending. This stage production has merit within that landscape.

Barking Gecko Theatre Company present
Jasper Jones
based on the novel by Craig Silvey | adapted by Kate Mulvany

Director John Sheedy

Venue: Studio Underground | State Theatre Centre of WA
Dates: 18 July - 9 August 2014
Bookings: www.ticketek.com.au

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