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Ghost in my Suitcase theatre review (Melbourne Festival)

Doncha just wish your granny was a Ghostbuster? (Hunter, Hunter, Ghost Hunter!!) I mean, wow!!!

That’s how it is for 12 years old Celeste (‘half Chinese, half French but All Australian’), who travels to China to return her mother’s ashes to the place of her birth. There she meets her grandmother, Por Por, and Ting Ting, a young woman close in age to Celeste, whom Por Por has adopted. For the two girls, it’s hate at first sight, especially as Celeste seems to have inherited the family talent for ghost hunting.

Por Por (Amanda Ma) is kind, but no-nonsense. Even when her secret life as a Ghost Hunter is revealed, she’s pretty matter of fact: the one thing you must never forget to do before you face a ghost, she says, is ‘go to the toilet!’

We learn from the Master.

‘I feel like a chimpanzee’ says Celeste, at her first encounter with a ghost.

‘You sound like an elephant’ replies Por Por briskly.

The show by Barking Gecko Theatre takes a while to unpack. Literally. With a set consisting of boxes of varying sizes (one will unfold to become a two storey house) that will be used as surfaces for projection and, reconfigured many times, as steps, boats, buses and barriers. The boxes enable many of the magical effects a story such as this requires, the shadow of an old bent man with long long finger nails is silhouetted through one, a sort of baby ghost hides in another. They are, however moved so often they become an irritant.

Projections range from photographic and filmed – a wonderful boat ride down a river for example – to pure illustration – ancient trees, pictures from stories of the ghosts themselves. They work best when they fill the space (and cover the boxes) and are much less successful when individual boxes are lit.

There’s a fabulous scene with a ghost in a bed that’s really beautifully (and scarily!) executed.

Por Por’s bicycle sequence works a treat too, and a beautiful silk curtain falls like…magic!

But most of the directorial work (Ching Ching Ho and Matt Edgerton) seems to have focussed on the box-moving and the effects, the ‘how’, not the ‘why’, since staging is, otherwise, rather perfunctory. Actors are often half in and half out of light, not as deliberate design, but as ‘let’s run this through with the ASM and get our positions right…’

The adaptation by Vanessa Bates from Gabrielle Wang’s award winning novel, is, likewise, uneven, although this may be due to the unresolved nature of some of the staging.

Celeste misses her family, especially her little brother. She buys him a kazoo that turns out a great deterrent for ghosts.

As the Ting Ting, Yilin Kong is most impressive in motion. She has definite Slayer potential. The scenes where all three women kick, er, ghost are Celeste, played with gee-whiz enthusiasm by Alice
Keohavong is at first irritating, but grows on you. And she has a kazoo. I couldn’t help but wonder what the piece might have been like with actors closer in age to the characters. The versatile Frieda Lee and Imanuel Dado, make up the rest of the ensemble.

There’s a home-made quality to this piece that’s appealing. It’s not slick, and that’s fine, but it’s not quite true to itself either, or at least, it needs a bit more work.

At its best it’s charming, at its worst it drags.

The show is billed as being for those from eight years and up. I’d suggest that it’s quite suitable for even younger kids, and that those in the 14 + age range might not be so enchanted. Once you pass the age of sophistication of course, it’s different.

Now you might be wondering at the credentials that enable me to review a show so squarely aimed at kids. All I got is the obvious: I was a kid once myself. But in deference to the fact that I am not the target audience I vox-popped a few kids (with adult in tow) after the show, and asked for their verdicts.

Ella, who looked to be about eight or nine (it seemed impolite to ask) liked the show a lot. She said it was ‘artistic and creative’. She herself enjoys dancing and acting and agreed that one of the best parts was when Ting Ting did amazing martial arts movements with her arms and very long legs. Ella said it made her want to work harder at acting and dance so that she could be in a show like that one day.

Sarah might be 15. She was with a school group and they all looked pretty worldly.

She said it was good. Then she said she hadn’t been to much theatre. Oh.

A boy named Max looked me up and down. His mother said he liked it. When I asked if there was anything further he might like to say he replied, after several moments reflection: ‘I have a kazoo’.

Until Sunday October 21

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