The Book of Everything, by Guus Kuijer and adapted for the Australian stage by Richard Tulloch, is a family show that tackles the tough issues of domestic violence, fear and abuse in a manner that is both confronting and humorous.
The play, set post-war Holland, in 1951, tells the story of a religious family seen through the eyes of nine year old Thomas Klopper (played by adult actor Matthew Whittet). In an attempt to deal with the isolating fear generated by his violent, intolerant, bible-quoting father, Thomas creates a fantasy world that he chronicles in his diary, “The Book of Everything”.
He retreats into a fantasy world where he sees tropical fish thriving in the Amsterdam canals, a hail storm of frogs and enjoys regular visitations from a surprisingly laconic Jesus who offers straight forward, no nonsense advice.
Kim Carpenter’s set is that of a giant storybook, reminiscent of a children’s bedtime story. It becomes a new location as the pages are turned back and forth: Thomas’ bedroom, the dining room, Mrs. Van Amersfoort ‘s cluttered house next door. Framed by a large blue proscenium curtain, it provides the centrepiece of the design. Chairs of varying heights and sizes complete a simple set that allows for imaginative storytelling devices.
The real stars of the show are the performers. Director Neil Armfield has assembled a consummate ensemble of actors who, it is clear, relish their roles and are thoroughly immersed in the storytelling. The workings of theatre making are on show at all times; if actors are not in a scene, they are supporting from the side or are adding sound effects to the underscore from musician and composer Iain Grandage. He brilliantly sets the period with piano, cello, bass drum and glockenspiel.
There is no fourth wall and the performers move effortlessly between the action to engaging the audience directly. The audience is Thomas’ confidant; he narrates and speaks directly to us with a cheeky glint in his eye.
Matthew Whittet pitches the gangly awkwardness of the fearful, introverted Thomas with ease and precision. Thomas is at once a character of delightful complexity, on the one hand fearful the astonishing physical and psychological violence inflicted upon his mother, and on the other hand resilient and funny, finding solace and strength in his imagination.
His mother (played with a stoic tolerance and dignity by Claire Jones) is representative of the quiet suffering and never say die attitude of the Dutch resistance during the Nazi occupation. Thomas is too young to remember that time but his sister, Margot, her friend, Eliza, next-door neighbour, Mrs. Amersfoort and his strict father, all do.
Andrea Demetriades shines as Eliza, a disabled teenager with a squeaky leather prosthetic and brimming confidence who Thomas falls for. The fondness is reciprocated, much to Thomas’ delight.
John Leary’s Jesus is cheeky Aussie with a dash of irreverence and more than a touch Pythonesque humour to boot.
Genevieve Picot is the fiery and willful Aunt Pie, a role she devours, and Julie Forsyth is hilarious as Mrs. Van Amersfoort . Her transformation back into a little girl while she and Thomas are reading Ogden Nash poems is a delight. Mrs. Van Amersfoort, a widow and survivor of the resistance, quietly opens the door of possibility for Thomas through books and the imagination. She helps set up a read-aloud club that helps Thomas and the rest of his family stand up to their father.
Alison Bell plays Margot with an assurance that is beyond her years. At the turning point in the play, it is Margot who ultimately draws a line under her father’s behavior and sets his world teetering.
Peter Carroll plays Bumbiter, the viscous stray dog with gusto and Father, the brittle, self-righteous bible wielder. He plays a man breaking from the inside, lost at the possibility of losing control of his God-given right to rule his family the way he wants. In the end we feel an overwhelming sense of pity for a man for whom change is needed yet inconceivable.
The story doesn’t underestimate the audience’s capacity to confront the tough issues and in the experienced hands of director Neil Armfield, Tulloch’s adaptation never ventures into the realm of preachy moralism. I expect those most confronted by the play won’t be eight to twelve year olds, but those fathers who still believe a firm and heavy hand is necessary to bring up a strong and respectful family.
I took my 12 year old son along with me. At the conclusion he offered that if I wanted to see the play again he’d be happy to come too. When I asked him what was his favourite character he replied, “Ya gotta love Jesus. The guy was cool.”