Left – Connor Lowe. Cover – Connor Lowe. Photos – Jeff Busby
Discovering Storm Boy was part of MTC’s 2019 season genuinely tapped into deeply fond sentiments and memories of the film I had seen in the 1970’s. I absolutely recall how this movie made me feel. Storm Boy is without doubt a powerful and affecting Australian work and I imagine that just like me, familiarity with this beautiful story means you will always dub any pelican you see as Mr Percival.
Presenting iconic work is of course duplicitous. On one hand there is the hefty marketing potential of drawing upon a known commodity and on the other, an enormous capacity to disappoint. With this production of Storm Boy, MTC have succeeded on both fronts.
Let me first say, there really is a great deal to enjoy here and I am in no doubt whatsoever that many will. The production values are, as expected, top notch and the incredible work and artistry of Dead Puppet Society affords the piece some truly beautiful moments but somehow, and this really is the last thing I ever believed I would say in regard to Storm Boy, there is an absence of heart.
Tom Holloway’s adaptation clearly has a younger audience in mind and there’s certainly no shortage of Christmas cracker jokes and pelican bum biting humour getting the right laughs at the right points. While an exploration of father and son communication is pertinent at present, it does lack some sophistication and feels a little blatant, but for the most part, the script holds up.
Within the program, there is a suggestion that any version of Storm Boy is essentially only as good as the relationship between the boy and the pelicans. This relationship was perfectly charming as it happens and often genuinely funny. Connor Lowe as Storm Boy is seriously good and delivers the shows strongest performance by far. With playful assurance, this promising young actor remains intelligently on top of emotional content to convey his loneliness, his independence and the wonder he has beyond his immediate world.
Using puppetry for the play’s avian element is a most plausible way to deliver for the theatre and as stated above, the work of those creating and operating was supremely skilful. With some lovely front of tabs audience engagement, the creatures were given an unruly realistic edge which was absolutely delightful and forgivably fourth wall shattering.
Bringing the expansive landscape of this story to the stage in a ‘uniquely theatrical’ way rates significant mention in the production notes, and it is from here that I think my concerns emanate. Anna Cordingley’s design is unquestionably beautiful but like the irritatingly endless automation we recently saw in MTC’s Lady in the Van, the staging of this production is another example of just because you can (afford it) doesn’t mean you should.
In accepting that live actors are operating pelicans, we have already suspended a great deal of our disbelief and so being privy to a set change is hardly a stretch. Irrespective of the landscape beauty cinematically projected, the continual lowering and raising of a screen to undertake extensive set changes was an unwelcome and disconnecting interruption. While each and every set was undeniably impressive, the endeavour to create spectacle stole intimacy from the story.
As a reviewer I sincerely try and resist proselytising like an armchair expert but the problem with this production is not at all with the story but the story telling.
Director Sam Strong remarked in his program note that “there are works where you focus on moving your audience, and there are works where you focus on delighting them. There are also some rare works where you’re able to do both.”
Dead Puppet Society has splendidly and creatively overcome the most obvious demands of staging Storm Boy. While MTC clearly has a wealth of resources at its disposal, it might benefit from looking a little beyond budget to solve some of the challenges of the works it decides to mount. Given some of the choices made in the creation of this piece, the director himself has unfortunately fallen short of his own desired outcomes.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Colin Thiele | adapted for the stage by Tom Holloway
Director Sam Strong
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Dates: 17 June — 20 July 2019
A co-production with Queensland Theatre in association with Dead Puppet Society