I’m back in fourth class, watching the movie ‘Storm Boy’ and sobbing uncontrollably. At that moment, the decision was made at the tender age of nine to avoid movies where animals die, which has served me well, thank you very much. I just forgot to include theatre in that list because really, you can’t have animals on stage, unless it’s some tacky circus extravaganza, so it can’t affect me in the same way, can it?
Simple answer. Yes it can. In fact, I sat in the audience with 40 students and I was the only one crying like a child. Under this hardened exterior beats a sensitive soul and ‘Storm Boy’ took me there.
Based on Colin Thiele’s book and adapted for the stage by Tom Holloway, director John Sheedy, designer Michael Scott-Mitchell and a cast of gruff men and superbly made puppets, created by Annie Forbes and Tim Denton, took their audience on a journey that is much more than a narrative about loss, love, loyalty and loneliness. It firmly plants itself as Australian as it pays homage to the spirit of the land, our transience on it and the traditional, sacred and generational respect and ownership slipping away under the brutality of the new world.
Scott-Mitchell’s set, a combination of an enormous wave, a ruined ship and the skeleton of a whale’s jaw was a beautiful metaphor for the natural wilderness of the Coorong National Park and the futile attempt to tame nature. The opening moments of lightning (Damien Cooper) and thunder (sound designer Kingsley Reeve) rock the stage and set the children into screams of delighted terror and again, in the storm scene as they run through the audience with some incredible accompanying lighting and sound effects. One of the great elements to any good children’s theatre is to scare children without traumatising them. Cleverly done, especially when actors and puppeteers Shaka Cook and Michael Smith suddenly appear in traditional Indigenous paint and costume, reinforcing the heritage and history of our setting and their constant presence in our environment. The set’s muted colours, its sense of abandonment, like the men and animals who temporarily inhabit it, create a natural stage picture, perfect for the action to take place.
It was also nice to see a darker and more real attempt at a children’s theatre piece, kept light in play through Fingerbone Bill’s (Trevor Jamieson) jokes and most enjoyably, our pelican puppets playing fetch and snapping Hideaway Tom (Peter O’Brien) on the bum. Lucky pelicans I say (watch out Ewen Leslie- if it came down to a choice between you or O’Brien for man-bearded handsomeness, I don’t know which way I’d go and no doubt, one day, I’m sure I’ll be forced to choose). But ‘Storm Boy’ is not afraid of showing death on stage and I’m glad they went there, even if through my tears my normal tactic of counting lights didn’t stop them flowing. It was done through the beauty and skill of the puppets and I was most impressed how real they felt and how Cook and Smith manipulated them so effortlessly. I completely entered the spirit of the action. And to make the choice to have two Indigenous actors being the ‘hands of nature’ was another smart allusion by Sheedy to the connections of sacred totems and symbols, culture and man.
I was also fortunate to catch Rory Potter in the main role as Storm Boy. He’s an exceptional young actor and if he’s performing like this at the age of 12, I can only imagine how outstanding he’s going to be as he matures. If you ever doubt the ability of young performers to create complex, moving and subtle characters, go and see Potter in any play. He’s remarkable.
So it appears I now have to ban myself from watching plays where animal puppets die, just to keep my emotions in check and maintain my hard-edge mantel as the bitch reviewer of the scene. How pathetic.
Now someone pass the tissues.