Kate Mulvany’s adaptation is enjoyable and whimsical though it never fully confronts the story’s darker themes.
Roy Phung as Jeffrey Lu and James Smith as Charlie Bucktin. Photo: Kate Pardey.
Jasper Jones is a contemporary Australian classic that attempts to bring an entire country town to the Dunstan Playhouse. It explores a teenage boy navigating growing up and learning that there’s racism and death in the shadows of his community. Despite these dark themes, the production stays light and whimsical, skimming over direct confrontation.
Kate Mulvany adapted Jasper Jones from Craig Silvey’s novel of the same title. In the program notes, she highlights the challenge of including readers’ favourite parts and fitting the exploration of the townspeople into a stage adaptation. However, this doesn’t stop Mulvany from bringing in many storylines. The main plot is a murder mystery in which Charlie Bucktin helps Jasper Jones hide evidence. Jasper then sets off to find the murderer so that the town won’t blame and punish him. While keeping Jasper’s secret, Charlie is thrown back into daily life, where he learns about his Vietnamese friend Jeffrey’s family problems and his own parents’ marital troubles while also navigating his first love.
This makes for four story lines to develop but unfortunately, Mulvany doesn’t quite find the balance. The murder mystery is often pushed aside as Charlie becomes so swept up in the other events that he doesn’t seem to really care about the mystery that haunts his dreams. This results in Charlie not having the time to connect the town’s negative opinions of Jasper with racism; thus the town’s dark secrets and thoughts are never fully confronted. However, none of this prevents the production from being enjoyable. The storylines are injected with a youthful whimsical tone that generates laughs throughout the production. The ending, while bitter, is satisfying.
The story of Charlie’s friend Jeffrey is a beautifully layered and revealed experience. As Jeffrey, Roy Phung makes each moment engrossing with his ability to balance humour and heartache. He swallows his hurt and buries it in humour as he tells Charlie about his extended family’s deaths in Vietnam. Jeffrey’s story and Phung’s performance are undoubtedly the show’s secret gem.
The set is beautiful: an embankment frames the back of the stage with a scattering of old pillar-like gum trees. Single set pieces, like a door or the corner of Charlie’s bedroom, are brought onstage to simply and effectively change the location. The set also supports clean exits with an inbuilt hole in the embankment for the cast to slip off stage unnoticed, adding to the unnerving experience of Charlie helping to hide a body. It is evident that director Nescha Jelk and set designer Ailsa Paterson have worked closely together to create a set that is as aesthetic as it is practical.
The small details shine in this play under Jelk’s direction, such as matching Charlie’s frustrated tone to his mother’s to emphasise their similarities at just the right moment. Jelk doesn’t even let scene changes go to waste, utilizing them as dream sequences in which Jasper’s dead friend haunts Charlie as she resets the stage. Using every moment to its fullest capacity creates a production that moves smoothly between scenes and sustains the dark undertones at work.
Jasper Jones provides a satisfying night out despite only small bites of the darker themes at work. The creative team has brought forward an engrossing production with superb acting from Phung and clever attention to detail from Jelk. The set is a piece of art in itself that also supports the action on stage. However, the multiple storylines create barriers to Mulvany being able to really explore how Charlie grows to understand the wrongs in his town.
3 stars out of 5 ★★★
Presented by State Theatre Company South Australia
Adapted for the stage by Kate Mulvany
Directed by Nescha Jelk
Cast: James Smith, Elijah Valadian-Wilson, Roy Phung, Rory Walker, Rachel Burke, Emma Beech, Thai Hien Pung
16 August-7 September 2019
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide SA