Tales from Outer Suburbia

Nerida Dickinson

This exciting, free-spirited adaptation of Shaun Tan’s quirky collection of tales uses puppetry as a jumping off point.
Tales from Outer Suburbia

Shaun Tan’s generous grant of artistic freedom in adapting his illustrated stories for the stage has allowed Spare Parts Puppet Theatre to demonstrate the company’s creative muscle as well as their understanding of the endearing whimsy of the original work, resulting in a piece that is both an artistic delight for all ages as well as exceptional school holiday entertainment.

Weaving several ideas from selected Tales together, director Philip Mitchell creates a stronger overall narrative structure for the stage performance, rather than strictly following the book’s self-contained vignettes. Four unnamed human characters, a man, a woman, a boy and a girl, take their turns interacting with the other characters of Outer Suburbia, including directionally-gifted water buffalo, invisible destructive forces, or foreign exchange students bringing cultural confusion to stay with them. Lovers of the book will find plenty to appreciate in this sympathetic adaptation, but those new to Tan’s ideas and work should also find the performance engaging.

A dynamic flow of action from live acting to live puppetry, to projected video of live animation on the miniature suburban sets with seamless incorporation of pre-recorded animation, overcame all technical obstacles to create the sweetly eccentric, Perth-infused world of Tan’s imagination. The water buffalo, both in the miniature world of the streetscape occupying centre stage as well as the larger than life puppet that was so eloquent with only eyebrows, a well-chosen hoof and its own looming presence, was a crowd favourite, but as with all other aspects of the play, only worked so well through the actors putting aside all personal ego and working as part of the support cast to the puppets and animated effects.

So much technical mastery deserves an entire review to itself. The captivating musical score never sounded a false note, taking us through a richly diverse world encompassing Japanese deep sea pearl divers, mysterious stick creatures, and lazy afternoons full of the song of lawn mowers. Every sound, lighting and digital cue was spot on – there was absolutely no tell-tale lag between episodes or the transitions from live to video (and back again) within sections. Performers moved between acting and puppeteering with effortless ease, with all props accounted for each time. Production Manager Karen Cook obviously runs a tight ship, ensuring successful navigation of such an ambitious production.

A delightful exploration of the uncharted wilderness of Outer Suburbia, Spare Parts has taken Tan’s book and found a richly strange set of tales of its own.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

Tales from Outer Suburbia
Adapted from the book by Shaun Tan
Presented by Spare Parts Puppet Theatre
Director: Philip Mitchell
Adapting Writer: Michael Barlow
Designer: Sohan Ariel Hayes
Composer: Lee Buddle
Lighting Design: Karen Cook
Digital Designer: Sohan Ariel Hayes
Production Manager: Karen Cook
Puppet Makers: Pierce Davison, Chloe Flockart and Sanjiva Margio
Production Support: Alex Dick
Performers: Humphrey Bower, Bec Bradley, Imanuel Dado and Chloe Flockart

Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, Fremantle
28 September – 12 October 2013

Photo: Jessica Wyld

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Nerida Dickinson is a writer with an interest in the arts. Previously based in Melbourne and Manchester, she is observing the growth of Perth's arts sector with interest.