Adapted by Kate Mulvany
Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks
Belvoir St Theatre
18 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills
Season: 26 January – 19 February
Jasper Jones has become an Australian classic, with Craig Silvey’s 2009 novel now a strong fixture on bookshelves for young people and the release of the film adaptation coming this year. Kate Mulvany’s adaptation for the theatre first took to the Belvoir stage on year ago, and was so popular that it is now returning for a second season before touring Aus. I completely understand why the tale has captured so many hearts.
Told from the perspective of young people in the small town of Corrigan in Western Australia, the production draws out the utter beauty of the characters depicted whilst caught in the crossroads of truly horrible circumstances. Detailing issues of brutal mistreatment and prejudice against Indigenous people, abuse of women and young people, depression, racism, war, miscarriage and social exclusion – one might think you were in for an unbearably heavy ride. Yet astonishingly, light and compassion is the overriding feeling of the piece. We see individuals who bypass a ‘woe is me’ attitude and instead use humour and friendship to cope and persevere.
Charlie is a 14-year-old boy, an aspiring writer who tends to shy away from adventure. Jasper Jones, the 16-year-old scapegoat of the town whose Mother was Aboriginal and Father is white, comes knocking on Charlie’s window – apparently he needs his help. A young girl – Laura, a friend of Jasper’s – has died in a way that appears incriminating of Jasper, but he didn’t do it. What follows is a sort of murder mystery tale, and we discover the stories of various figures in the town. Tom Conroy plays Charlie, and from the very beginning has the audience on his side. Gleefully awkward and sweet, Conroy is an expert protagonist traversing an emotional journey with comedic dexterity that holds your eager attention throughout. Guy Simon plays Jasper Jones with guts, bringing a strong internal life to the 16-year-old character. Simon engages well with the tragedy of the story and it is his performance at the climax of the work that has stuck with me strongest. Charles Wu plays Jeffrey, Charlie’s best friend in the town, diehard cricket enthusiast, and first generation Australian from Vietnam. Ineffably cheeky, Wu has a lark on stage, allowing the audience to join in the fun and making hearts swell. Under the beaming veneer, Jeffrey holds a lot of pain – Wu expertly exhibits the refusal to concede emotional defeat to the devastating situation for his family in Vietnam as well as the rabid racial vilification of his family in Australia. Matilda Ridgway plays Eliza, the sister of the deceased Laura and the ‘girl next-door’ figure that Charlie has a crush on. Ridgway plays a young girl convincingly with wistful melancholy; there is something quite intriguing about her. While Silvey’s novel and Mulvany’s adaption do bless the audience with some brilliant characters, I did note that Jasper and Eliza seem to have their identity grounded more in the sufferings they have experienced than in their interests, passions and ambitions that Charlie and Jeffrey share. This pattern is repeated in the character exploration of Charlie’s parents – Kate Box gives a wonderful performance as Charlie’s Mother, and yet she is primarily framed as escaping her demons while Charlie’s Father pursues his desires. Food for thought.
Michael Hankin’s set design is enraptured with rundown idealism – paralleling the play perfectly in its appearance of splendour in spite of the shielded dilapidation. Sliding sets work well for quick scene changes and the pronounced big old tree frames the performance space in a lovely way, drawing your mind continually back to the events at stake. Steve Toulmin’s composition and sound design complements the performances to a tee, working to elevate the energy and frenetic nature of the scenes at hand.
Jasper Jones highlights the deeply beautiful humanity of a variety of individuals who are so often trampled upon in our society, historically, and to this day. The production does so without feeling overly didactic, but rather tugging heartstrings and creating a splendid rapport between the audience and the individuals on stage. The good-natured humour and delightful personalities work to shine light on far more grave issues at hand, cutting through prejudice and assumptions to create better understanding. You’ll have a ball, and it won’t be trivial fun.