August 22, 2019

Excellent cast does justice to a great Aussie gothic yarn

Jasper Jones
Based on the novel by Craig Silvey
Adapted by Kate Mulvany.
State Theatre Company South Australia.
Dunstan Playhouse. Adelaide Festival Centre.
August 20. Tickets: $32- $67. Bookings 131 246 or online.
Duration 2 hours 30 minutes (including interval)
Until September 7.

When 13 year old Charlie Bucktin is woken in his bedroom sleep-out by a knock on the window, little does he knows this marks the end of his childhood. Called by his new friend Jasper Jones, an outcast Aboriginal boy, to help solve a mysterious death, Charlie begins to glimpse the bleak secrets of his home town of Corrigan.

Craig Silvey’s acclaimed 2009 coming-of-age novel about teenage friendship and small town intrigues is set against a larger landscape darkened by racial cruelty, guilt and a longing for atonement. In its ambition it echoes the Great Australian Novel that the bookish Charlie dreams of writing.

This new State Theatre production, directed by Nescha Jelk, is now the fourth incarnation of Kate Mulvany’s briskly captivating stage adaptation and it is a welcome addition. Ailsa Paterson’s boldly gothic set (comprising seven huge gumtrees with goblin-like roots and shedding unearthly looking bark) is not the golden Impressionist bush idyll of McCubbin or Streeton. And the human dwellings are literally drop-in afterthoughts to this primeval gloom.

Nigel Levings’ versatile lighting, however, brings a buttery glow to the high jinx and intense conversations the teenagers share away from the sight of parents and rivals. The well-judged score by Andrew Howard subtly contributes ominous bass drones, slow march ghost themes and lyrical sprinklings of piano and guitar.

Jelk has worked well with an excellent cast of six to meet the challenge of integrating a sprawling narrative. Supported by Mulvany’s crisp dialogue, the actors bring Silvey’s vivid characters into full view.

There are many pleasures. At the comic end, Roy Phung is delightful as Charlie’s chum Jeffrey the cricket-mad Vietnamese refugee kid arguing the relative merits of Superman and Batman. Emma Beech has a lark with Warwick the school bully and brings a gathering desperation to the depiction of Charlie’s mum.

Rory Walker succeeds as Charlie’s reticent but watchful father and delivers unravelling back-story exposition as Mad Jack. Rachel Burke, as Eliza Wishart, Charlie’s soul-mate (precociously crazy for Harper Lee and Truman Capote) also doubles as her dead sister Laura’s unquiet spirit.

Connecting all the performances is James Smith, outstanding as Charlie. He is both narrator and the penetrating eyes through which we see these brutal events of mid-Sixties Australia. Smith embodies teenage awkwardness without falling into cliché; he is funny, spontaneous, and effortlessly drives the story.

But it is the scenes with Elijah Valadian-Wilson, memorably heroic as the title character, which are most central to the drama, as Charlie realises that the steadfast, warrior-like Jasper Jones has opened a window on a world that can no longer be ignored.

“Excellent cast does justice to a great Aussie gothic yarn”, The Australian, August 22, 2019, p.15.

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