Pitch-perfect picture-book Aussie comedy hides a dark, urgent core.
Image: Harry Tseng and Nicholas Denton in the MTC's Jasper Jones. Image by Jeff Busby.
Around the middle of the opening night performance of Jasper Jones, one of our favourite characters is playing a high-stakes match of cricket. He knocks one for six. The characters on stage all peer out towards the audience as the imagined ball goes sailing over our heads. Right in the middle of the crowd, a lone hand reaches up, hoping to catch the imaginary ball. It’s just one example of how deeply involved the audience became in this show. Kate Mulvany’s stage adaptation of Craig Silvey's modern classic Jasper Jones is Australian popular theatre at its finest.
In this production, director Sam Strong and designer Anna Cordingley create an entrancing picture-book world wrapped around a horrible, dark secret. Strong’s direction picks up on the heightened style of Mulvany’s script, and the cast are used to their full advantage. The awkward clowning of Nicholas Denton as our nerdy narrator, Charlie, is unbelievably funny, and complimented beautifully by the unabashed geekery of Harry Tseng. Taylor Ferguson plays the (literal) girl-next-door to perfection, and Guy Simon earns and holds our fascination and empathy as the titular Jasper Jones. The cast of adult characters are compelling too – Rachel Gordon is particularly strong as Charlie’s mother – but inevitably, it’s the teen characters who really hold our interest.
I have not read the book, so I can’t comment on the faithfulness of the adaptation. Faithful or not, however, the adaptation is lively and deeply theatrical. Mulvany’s script is a dream – uproariously funny in parts, deeply moving in others; never predictable yet perfectly structured. I adored these characters – the play was over two hours long, and it wasn’t long enough.
There are imperfect elements within the work; at a guess, though, I’d say these were carried over from the novel. Charlie’s 14-year-old horniness, and subsequent framing of his love interest, may have been relatively authentic, but are none-the-less uncomfortable to witness. And there’s a bit of comic relief towards the end of the show which, whilst well-handled in the stage production, feels a little too crowd-pleasing after the revelation of the scale of the horror that lies at the heart of the story. I felt that, as witnesses to this story, we’d been let off a little lightly.
The story of Jasper Jones is set in 1965. In this halcyon vision of days gone by, there are many dark corners. A local immigrant family is terrorised and excluded; the only Indigenous kid in town is assumed to be a no-good criminal; “queer” is a common insult; and the action takes place, in the chilling words of Charlie’s mother, in “a town that kills women.” If only these circumstances from 1965 didn’t sound so familiar in 2016. But as long as that’s the world we are somehow still living in, this play is a brilliant choice from MTC, bringing such issues to a wider audience in a form that is palatable without pulling too many punches.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
A Melbourne Theatre Company production
Adapted by Kate Mulvany from the book by Craig Silvey
Director: Sam Strong
Set and Costume Designer: Anna Cordingley
Lighting Designer: Matt Scott
Composer & Sound Designer: Darrin Verhagen
Voice and Dialect Coach: Leith McPherson
Assistant Director: Justine Campbell
Cast: Ian Bliss, Nicholas Denton, Taylor Ferguson, Rachel Gordon, Guy Simon, Hayden Spencer, Harry Tseng
1 August - 9 September 2016