Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Jasper Jones review: Australian novel a crowd-pleaser on stage (Belvoir, Sydney)

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Jasper Jones, Kate Mulvany’s stage adaptation of Craig Silvey’s widely praised novel of the same name, takes place in 1965 in the fictional Western Australian town Corrigan, where all the residents are sport-obsessed. This means that quite a lot of action happens while balls (or peaches) are being flung around the stage and during cricket games. The problem is that actors tend not to have the greatest ball skills, and on opening night there were countless (hilarious) dropped catches. If you’re looking for sporting prowess, you’d be better off heading off to your local under-sixes cricket match, but this cast has plenty of other tricks up their sleeves.
Tom Conroy plays Charlie Bucktin, the 13-year-old protagonist who constantly has his head in a book and is dreaming of writing the Great Australian Novel. But then Jasper Jones, a 15-year-old indigenous boy who’s become the town’s scapegoat because of his Aboriginal mother, appears at Charlie’s window and whisks him away to the scene of a horrible crime. What follows is a story of twists, turns, prejudice and false accusations (the Harper Lee influences are very clear), and Charlie ends up living a kind of Great Australian Novel, even if he doesn’t realise it at the time.
Mulvany’s adaptation is lively, fast-moving and the dialogue is gorgeous (although I have to declare that I’ve not read the novel, so I’m not sure whether I’ve fallen for Mulvany’s or Silvey’s words). It’s fresh and full of the kind of local references audiences love hearing and nodding knowingly at. And Mulvany knows how to get the narrative across clearly and tug at the heartstrings.
There’s a solid grasp of character when it comes to Charlie and Jasper, but the others aren’t as fully fleshed out as they might be. The same is true of many of the plot points from the book — some pass a little too quickly, especially those concerning Charlie’s best friend, the Vietnamese boy Jeffrey — because there’s a little too much narrative to fit into just over two hours of theatre. And in trying to pack in that much narrative, it seems that some of the emotional heft of the work is diminished — the full impact and roots of the town’s prejudice and misogyny are never really explored.
But this is a moving, astute and often very funny production directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, which never holds back on the pathos, particularly at the end of the second act, when all the secrets are revealed.
The technical elements are all right on target, including Mel Page’s period costumes, Michael Hankin’s set, complete with a beautiful, towering gum tree, and Steve Toulmin’s contemporary Hollywood-inspired score. But most impressive is Matt Scott’s lighting design, which conjures up all the moods and colours of regional Australia in the middle of summer.
Conroy does a superb job of finding Charlie’s whimsy, intelligence, clumsiness and sense of justice both in the dialogue and his narration — it’s a very smart physical performance that makes you totally accept that the adult actor is a 13-year-old boy. Charles Wu gets some of the best comedic moments in the play and makes the most of them, and remains a source of light and optimism despite the suffocating forces of the small town.
Guy Simon is excellent in the title role — compassionate and endearing — and he does some fine work with Steve Rodgers as Mad Jack Lionel. True to form, Matilda Ridgeway is a heartbreaking figure as Charlie’s love interest Eliza, and her delivery of the denouement is utterly captivating.
Mulvany herself plays Charlie’s mother (a role I’m told has been expanded in her adaptation) and has one very powerful scene, as well as the town bully Warwick in a brilliantly funny caricature.
The opening night audience reacted ecstatically with a substantial standing ovation (still rare at most Australian theatre companies’ opening nights). It seemed to be a combination of their approval for the work and excitement for the future of Belvoir under brand new artistic director Eamon Flack, who picked this work as the first play of his directorship. Audiences love a good, well-told story, and even if this one never quite reaches the highest heights, it’s certainly a crowd-pleaser.
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[box]Jasper Jones is at Belvoir, Sydney until February 7. Images by Lisa Tomasetti[/box]

2 responses to “Jasper Jones review: Australian novel a crowd-pleaser on stage (Belvoir, Sydney)

  1. How great to have a review which honestly reports the occasion, the journalistic side of reviewing (“The opening night audience reacted ecstatically with a substantial standing ovation”), as well as critiquing the production and play. Standing ovations and audience rapture happen more often at Australian theatre openings than presumed, they are just rarely reported, especially if the audience’s reaction is not simpatico with the reviewer’s.

    1. Ben’s review mentions the character of the Vietnamese boy. I’d be interested to know if Craig Silvey wrote this character from personal experience or if he was invented? I ask this because, from my experience as a school boy in the 60s in country Western Australia (including in the wheat belt where the book/play is set), the idea that there would have been any Vietnamese people around at that time is fanciful. This troubled me when I tried reading the book, because it played into the fact that, to my ear, the language used by the characters was often too modern for the period. Others either haven’t noticed this or don’t think it’s important, but the author seemed to be striving for realism so these aspects really put me off the book because they suggested lazy writing and editing.

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