Review: Storm Boy, Southbank Theatre (VIC)

Thuy On

Colin Thiele’s 1964 novel comes to the stage in this mesmerising MTC and Queensland Theatre co-production.
Review: Storm Boy, Southbank Theatre (VIC)

Photo credit: Jeff Busby

You may have already read Colin Thiele’s 1964 novel, seen the 1976 film, or even sat through the most recent movie adaptation (2018). Now under Sam Strong’s direction, the MTC welcomes the stage version of Storm Boy. Australians cannot get enough it seems, of this story about a young boy’s (Conor Lowe) relationship with the South Australian coastline, with his gruffly lovable father, Hideaway Tom (John Batchelor), new friend Fingerbone Bill (Tony Briggs) and of course, with avian rogue, Mr Percival.

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This production brings back the creative team behind another literary adaptation, Jasper Jones, and teams it up with Dead Puppet Society. As Storm Boy, Lowe’s performance is a gentle mix of vulnerability and hope; he perfectly captures the uncertainties of a child on the brink of adulthood. For the few unfamiliar with the tale, the narrative is based around Storm Boy and his isolated life in a makeshift humpy with his single parent on the wind-ravaged dunes. When he meets a fellow loner, the amiable Fingerbone Bill, an Indigenous man who frequents this strip of coastline, Storm Boy is introduced to a nearby bird sanctuary. There he rescues three orphan Pelicans: Mr Proud, Mr Ponder and Mr Percival. Raising them from chick to fully-fledged adults is the heart of the story, particularly when it’s time to let these wild creatures take flight. Only, the last one, the clever, affectionate Mr Percival, returns.

Adapted for the stage by Tom Holloway, the play courts and succeeds in winning the attention of a young audience as much as Thiele managed to solicit the enduring fondness of his readership decades ago. Lowe’s quiet charisma helps certainly but he, Batchelor and Briggs (both delivering strong performances) are still in danger of being upstaged by the puppets, deftly manipulated by Ellen Bailey, Emily Burton and Drew Wilson. Each of the hero pelicans is made up of about 1200 interlocking pieces of plywood and aluminium and they are able to flap their wings and waddle too. (Watch out for the snake and penguin puppets). At the curtain call on opening night, both animate and inanimate performers received the same level of applause, which says a lot about their equal ability to enchant the audience. Kudos to the creative team for mesmerizing us with models that are in turns, cheeky on the ground and graceful in the air.

The staging is a felicitous arrangement of moving pictures, projected as backdrop of the desolate and beautiful Coorong area, and in the fore: a mix of dunes, scrubby vegetation and a small fishing boat with which Storm Boy and his father set to sea. It’s a story about fitting into the scheme of the world: of the pelicans and of Storm Boy being allowed to make their way alone, of Hideaway Tom letting his over-protectiveness slacken, of Fingerbone Bill being a harbinger of silliness and humour. In the beginning Storm Boy is told that they are there because nothing changes, and it’s safe. But of course, towards the end he realises the falsities of such statements. Everything changes, and the journey of how he moves towards this truth is sad, tender and moving.

*Miss 11, who has not read the book or seen any of its iterations was impressed, and says she thought the story was “sweet and touching. I think both the actors and the puppets did a good job.”

4 stars: ★★★★

Storm Boy
By Colin Thiele, adapted for the stage by Tom Holloway
An MTC co-production with Queensland Theatre in association with Dead Puppet Society
Director: Sam Strong
Puppet Designer & Associate Director: David Morton
Set & Costume Designer: Anna Cordingley
Lighting Designer: Matt Scott
Composer & Sound Designer: Darrin Verhagen
Projection Designer: Justin Harrison
Voice Coach: Jean Goodwin
Cast: John Batchelor, Tony Briggs and Conor Lowe
Puppeteers: Ellen Bailey, Emily Burton and Drew Wilson

Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, Melbourne
17 June — 20 July 2019

Queensland Theatre season:
Playhouse, QPAC, Brisbane
29 July — 17 August 2019

About the author

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