Review: Astroman, Arts Centre Melbourne

Thuy On

A coming- of-age tale about having to break patterns to give yourself a another life, Astroman is heartwarming but unnecessarily long.
Review: Astroman, Arts Centre Melbourne

Melbourne Theatre Company's Astroman. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Playwright Albert Belz has intimated that his play is a love letter to the 80s and indeed for those who grew up during this time, Astroman is a pure adrenalin hit of nostalgia. Within the show there are references and actual relics that include but are not limited to: BMX Bikes, VHS, Walkmans, Rubiks cubes, Gary Ablett, Cyndi Lauper and the Karate Kid. For video games aficionados Belz has a special treat; his protagonist, 13-year-old Jiembra 'Jimmy' Djalu (Kamil Ellis) is a bit of a whizz at manipulating those joy sticks and the classics are all at the local arcade where he spends far too much of his time. (Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Galaga…). Your inner geek will be thrilled to see these machines on proud display.

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A Maori playwright with a play about indigenous characters in a daggy Victorian town: not exactly the usual MTC fare (there is no wine quaffing over dinner table talk about real estate for one) so Astroman stands out simply for being different from the typical offerings about and for an AB demographic.

It’s a show about those on the fringes; Jimmy is one of those easily recognisably restless, always in trouble types; a muckracker of high order. That he possesses a brilliant brain, able to see see patterns in crosswords, understand astrophysics and able to resolve circuit board errors, seems wasted in this school. And it’s no wonder he is often bored and acting up. (The telltale, dissonant signs of a bygone era is when the First Nations Jimmy complains about having to studying Burke and Wills and Captain Cook in history class). Along with his twin brother Sonny (Calen Tassone) and elder sister Natalie (Tahlee Fereday), he’s the new kid in a small town. Their father is far away for work, leaving the ratbags under the care of their frayed but loving mother (Elaine Crombie).

Melbourne Theatre Company's Astroman. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Astroman is a coming- of-age tale about having to break patterns to give yourself a another life; Jimmy has to fight real life monster-bullies like the cocky Mick Jones (Nicholas Denton), steel himself against racist attitudes, and work out his place in life. Belz offers his young hero help and support in the form of Mr Pavlis (Tony Nikolaksopoulos), the old Greek proprietor of the arcade. There is a lot of fun under the direction of Sarah Goodes; 80s hits and breakdancing gyrations are easily exploited for the feel-good factor (and who could resist the stirring strains of 'Eye of the Tiger' when the kids are preparing for the inaugural World Championship of Video Games?)

All the characters perform with heart and enthusiasm; however, the play feels unnecessarily long and a little bit indulgent in the plying of period detail, and there is a strangely discordant note in the second act that refers to Mr Pavlis’ tormented soul and which is glossed over too easily to accommodate a happy resolution for everyone. Nonetheless, for a play about the binds of (extended) family and friendship Astroman succeeds. And the 80s soundtrack will have you humming at least one of its classic hits along the way.

3 ½ stars ★★★☆
Astroman
by Albert Belz
Melbourne Theatre Company
27 October-8 December 2018
Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio

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

Thuy On is a freelance literary journalist and critic and the books editor of The Big Issue.