March 21, 1986

First day at school

Magpie Theatre Company’s production of David Holman’s new play The Small Poppies has opened at Theatre 62 in Adelaide.

Directed by Geoffrey Rush with music composed by Moya Henderson and recorded for performance by the Australian String Quartet, The Small Poppies is about three little tackers on their first day at school.

Typically of David Holman’s work -and this is his 70th play – The Small Poppies makes its intentions very clear. It is for five-year-olds and all who want to recall that large step into humankind when we go to Big School.

The Magpie Company spent weeks in primary schools observing new entrants in classes and talking with them, their teachers and parents and from a profusion of incidents and anecdotes the play has been fashioned.

The play focuses on three children – Theo, the son of a Greek car worker, Clint, an Australian kid who lives with his mother, and Lep, a Kampuchean orphan recently arrived from a refugee camp in Thailand.

In The Small Poppies, children and parents must adjust to the irrevocable processes of social induction which can be forbidding and humiliating. But, as always, Holman’s plays forthrightly offer resolutions, never easy ones or complete ones, but gladsome nevertheless.

Theo’s father comes to school to remove his son because there are too many Asians about. Instead he finds himself assisting with a Greek lesson and later reassuring Lep as she waits anxiously for her sister to collect her.

During show-and-tell in the classroom kids show off their latest Transforma toys, while Lep takes from a paper shopping bag a straw hat, a dress and a pair of sandals which she spreads out on the floor as the remaining precious links with her dead mother.

These incidents have the force of real events but they have been shaped and integrated with Holman’s considerable wit and skill.

Geoffrey Rush has directed firmly and subdued any tendency towards an easy cuteness with the audience. Colin Mitchell’s set in strong greens, yellows and reds has all the brightness of a box of Smarties.

There are cubby holes concealed for jokers in daggy hats to spring out of with rapid fire riddles and bad jokes that little kids love- because they taught them to the actors in the first place.

The colourful backdrops – reminiscent of Ken Done – have holes cut for heads and hands allowing the actors immediate visual gags before the audience is drawn into the more complex demands of the story.

The performances are some of the most assured that the Magpies have given. Melanie Salomon shows both the goodwill and perplexity of a teacher dealing with these serious little poppies.

Ev Katahanas gives a touching, economical dignity to the character of Lep and Richard Margetson is deft as Shane Miller, the class bruiser, and carries some of the play’s most delicate moments as Theo’s father.

Stephen Rae as Clint is outstanding. It is his most detailed and unselfconscious work to date and it contributes substantially to the success of the play.

The National Times, March 21, 1986, p.35.

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