Craig Silvey’s popular and highly awarded young adult novel, Jasper Jones, has been superbly transformed into an enormously entertaining play by Kate Mulvany, creatively directed by Anne-Louise Sarks and beautifully performed by the Belvoir St Theatre company.
True to its genre, Jasper Jones has all the ingredients of many well loved coming of age stories (in fact our 13 year old narrator/hero, Charlie Bucktin is reading Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird). There is a mystery at its centre; there’s a scary old man who lives on the fringes of town; the adults in the story occupy their own separate world, leaving the kids to their own devices; the story takes place in a small town which is outwardly safe but inwardly sinister, rich with diversity and yet bursting with bigotry; and, ultimately, the kids have to face the moral ambiguity of their situation and decide the right path for themselves.
In the small, isolated, WA wheat belt town of Corrigan, only one version of masculinity is acceptable – white, brawny and sporty. Our young hero, Charlie Bucktin, beguilingly played by Tom Conroy, is slight, physically awkward, spends his time reading and aspires to write novels. While Charlie cops beatings because of his vocabulary, his best mate, the irrepressible, cricket mad, Jeffrey Lu and his family are cruelly abused because of their race.
Jeffrey Lu provides the comic element of the script, and the marvellous Charles Wu delivers a wonderfully funny performance – dreaming of opening for Australia at the MCG, teasing his Vietnamese mother by swearing at her in English, and begging to be permitted to bat for the local cricket team. Undaunted by the town’s racism, Jeffrey carries on with indefatigable brio, ever triumphant.
There is no room for comedy, however, when it comes to Jasper Jones who is the town’s scapegoat and whose sad story drives the central, mysterious plot. His Aboriginal mother died when he was a toddler and Jasper lives with his alcoholic father. The town is happy for the “half caste” Jasper to be blamed for any misdemeanour that occurs. Guy Simon is compelling as the decent but wounded character.
Jasper comes to Charlie’s window in the middle of the night and asks for his help and the two unlikely new friends, both outcasts in their own way, team up to find out what has happened to Jasper’s sweetheart, Laura Wishart. Along the way the first bloom of romance develops between Laura’s sister Eliza (both sisters beautifully played by Matilda Ridgway) and Charlie and the trio discover the sinister secrets of the town.
Kate Mulvany’s tightly written adaptation weaves the work’s narrative threads together, expertly shifting between comedy, adventure, romance and social commentary. Mulvany has a very strong sense of theatricality and makes sure that every scene stages extremely well. Whilst set in 1965, Jasper Jones has a very modern sensibility and sometimes the language feels anachronistic. Occasionally the sense of humour and some of the turns of phrases seem too modern for the period, but the anachronisms are clearly intentional as a device to speak directly to a young, contemporary audience. It will be interesting to compare the play to the film version which is due out very soon.
The multi-talented Mulvany also plays two roles in the production, Charlie’s bitter mother, Mrs Bucktin and the town’s teenage tough guy/cricket captain, Warwick. Both performances, though cameos, are richly detailed and beautifully performed. Steve Rodgers also does some terrific work in a number of roles, including two lonely men: Charlie’s decent, silent father and Mad Jack Lionel, the mysterious crazy old man who lives out of town.
Despite the dark elements of the plot, Director Ann-Louise Sarks maintains the warmth and energy of the play front and centre. She ensures there is an overriding lightness of touch to the production.
Michael Hankin’s simple clever set comprises a towering gum tree and two sections of a weatherboard house that glide together in numerous configurations to create different locations in and around the town.
The lighting, designed by Matt Scott and Daniel Anderson, and soundscape, created by Composer & Sound Designer Steve Toulmin, are also simple and evocative. They remain sympathetic to the story and characters throughout and never threaten to upstage proceedings.
When Eamon Flack was appointed the new Artistic Director of Belvoir he described his strengths as bringing out the best in “great actors and great writers”. This first production officially under his directorship delivers exactly that.
adapted by Kate Mulvany | based on the novel by Craig Silvey
Director Anne-Louise Sarks
Venue: Upstairs Theatre | Belvoir St Theatre, 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
Dates: 2 January – 7 February 2016
Tickets: $92 – $37
Bookings: 02 9699 3444 | belvoir.com.au