Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge is a story by the magnificent Mem Fox, the story of Wilfred, a little boy who lives next door to an old people's home. He connects and delights his neighbours, seeing beyond their earthy age and embracing their personalities and friendship. He values stories and ignores ailments. But there is one resident with whom Wilfred’s bond is deepest and that is Nancy Alison Delcourt Cooper. These two share the mystical power that comes with having four names. That power ignores so much of what we define in each other and just accepts what is. Wilfred manages to stir lost memories in Nancy by seeing our world through the simple eyes of a kid who values tactile, kinetic and palpable things that connect all our senses and brain to the past and present.
Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge is brought to life by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO). The string quartet adds a tangible quality to the soundtrack. They are not isolated music makers and note bearers instead they are woven into the production. The music by Paul Stanhope supported the characters and having the musicians front and centre adds an element that draws them into the fabric of the narrative. At the end of the production, it is the string quartet that stays and talks to the audience about the instruments and the role they have in storytelling.
The set is beautiful. Wooden fence palings that seem to pull earthy reds and oranges from the land that the Opera House itself stands on. The tones are matched by the string quartet’s garments and Kelsey Lee’s production design generates a genuine, almost nostalgic, feeling of iconic Aussie backyards filled with footy and laughter.
Vanessa Downing plays all the residents of the old people's home. With some imaginative prop work she manages to transform quite convincingly between the slight and unsteady and the lumbering, heavy footed. Downing’s portrayal of Mr Drysdale was a favourite. His ginormous pants hanging on the line suddenly brought to life by Downing standing behind them and using her facial expression to create a character that was larger than life. Joshua Reckless is Wilfred and he does capture that innocent physicality of young children by using his dance and acrobatic skills.
This story always makes me teary. It reminds me that there is youth in everyone and that the connection between young and old is more important than ever. Although I felt the tug of tears this production did not elicit the emotional response that Mem Fox and illustrator Julie Vivas managed to do with the book.
At first, I couldn’t put my finger on what magic was missing from this show as it seemed to have all the ingredients for a perfect production. But after some thought, I have come to the conclusion, that although Downing is more than capable, having her play so many characters dilutes Nancy's hold on the audience. Perhaps a third actor to pay the other characters, would have let the relationship between Nancy and Wilfred truly capture the uniqueness of their bond that makes this book such a beautiful and well-loved tale.
It was still a most enjoyable production and my 4-year-old son did say to me on the train home, ‘Mum, I enjoyed that’.
Australian Chamber Orchestra
Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge
based on the book by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas | adapted by Sandra Eldridge
Director Sandra Eldridge
Venue: Sydney Opera House NSW
Dates: 7 – 16 May 2021
Tickets: from $29