‘Storm Boy’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by September 20, 2013

‘Storm Boy’ is a favourite classic of many young Australians; it was written in 1963 by South Australian Colin Thiele. In his time, Thiele wrote more than a 100 books, mostly based on nature and his home territory of the Barossa Valley. Born into a German family, he graduated from university in 1942, and joined the Australian Army. Sadly he died aged 85 on the same day as Steve Irwin.

This production was adapted for the stage by young NIDA graduate, Tom Holloway. ‘Storm Boy’ is being presented as a co-production by Perth’s Barking Gecko Theatre Company and the Sydney Theatre Company. Barking Gecko Theatre Company is a WA professional theatre company setup in 1991 to encourage a love of the theatre by young people and their families.

This wonderful, 75-minute stage play (no interval) is suitable for children of 6 years and up. It can be seen at the Heath Ledger Theatre, in the State Theatre Centre of WA, Northbridge. There are a few tickets for some 7.00 pm evening shows, up to Saturday 5th October, but the school matinee performances are already fully sold out.

It is South Australia’s Coorong. The rear of the stage is filled by a 50 feet wide by 10 feet high whale’s rib cage, which has been buried in the surrounding sand and is now part of a dune. Centre stage there is a rowing boat and to the side, the trunk of a tall dead tree.

The auditorium is in total darkness. A deafening burst of thunder explodes and fills the air. Another tropical storm has started. As the lightning flashes, and the rain falls we can see people running around in panic. The storm passes and the warm glow of morning covers the beach. A door in the whale’s side opens and Hideaway Tom (Peter O’Brien) emerges. Since the death of his wife a few years earlier his ‘house’ has been this humpy. He has lived inside the whale with his 11-year old son (I saw Jason Challenor, who alternates with Rory Potter) eking out a living.

Whilst wandering along the beach, the young son meets a friendly, bearded middle-aged Aboriginal man, Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson) who, after several Granddad jokes, gives the lad the title of Storm Boy. They come across a nest with three starving, orphaned pelican chicks. Storm Boy is worried in case they will perish and so wants to take them home. Fingerbone explains that nature can be cruel, but the best thing is to leave them there. Much to Hideaway’s annoyance, his son brings the birds home.

A few weeks later we see Storm Boy playing with the sizeable chicks before setting out on a fishing trip with his Dad.

It isn’t long before the house door bursts open and three fully grown pelicans emerge, stealing food from the table and pinching a few human bottoms on the way. Storm Boy names the three birds, Mr Ponder and Mr Proud (operator Shaka Cook) and his favourite, the runt of the litter, Mr Percival (operator Michael Smith).

Life on the beach is perfect …. Or is it?

‘Never work with children and animals (– especially mechanical ones?)’, but this warning has been ignored by Perth’s very well respected director, John Sheedy, who is has always been known to stretch the boundaries and give that little bit extra. Here John is adeptly assisted by Scarlet McGlynn.

The two Storm Boys were played by Rory Potter, who was last year’s winner of the Sydney’s newcomer award, for his stunning performance as one of the boys in the contemporary version of ‘Medea’. The other Storm Boy is played by Joshua Challenor; although new to the professional stage he played the part with total conviction, his grieving scene was breath-takingly sensitive. Trevor Jamieson was endearing and his jokes and antics gave the kids a lift after the storm scene. Peter O’Brien’s depiction of the strict father, who was really a softie at heart, was wonderful.

The pelican puppets start as open-mouthed chicks in a box of straw begging for food, and then they become the wondrous mechanised full-sized birds. These lifelike puppets are skilfully guided around by their ‘invisible’ operators. NIDA trained Shaka Cook controlled two birds, with all their neck movements and wing flapping whilst he gave a realistic pelican sound. Michael Smith (WAAPA) who controlled Mr Percival had his pelican picking things off the floor with his beak, as well as catching sticks thrown by Storm Boy. Under the puppet direction of Peter Wilson, these birds were truly alive, flying and soaring above the set. The operators had superb dance movement similar to their traditional style. The unique and remarkable puppet design was created by Annie Forbes and Tim Denton, with the help of the STC’s props department.

The ingenious set by Michael Scott-Mitchell, along with Mic Gruchy’s visual design, added the wow factor to this play. Coupled with the drama of Kingsley Reeve’s soundscape of sea, wind and crashing storms – which tested the theatre’s sound system to the full – was the incredible lighting / lightning design by Damien Cooper. Am I being over enthusiastic? Certainly not, the overall effect was one of theatre’s most memorable scenes.

The amazing opening storm may be a little confronting for very young children, so a ‘pre-warn’ might be advisable. If you ask any adult the defining point of their interest in the theatre, they will remember quite clearly one specific show that they saw as a child, when they were totally consumed by the magical vision in front of them. This play is bound to be a bewitched moment for the thousands of children seeing this magnificent show. The glow on the children’s faces as they skipped with excitement from the theatre said it all. This is for children of all ages, but having a few paper tissues handy might be advisable.

This is theatre at its most enchanting – total magic. At a sensible price, don’t miss it.