Venue: Her Majesty's Theatre, 58 Grote Street, Adelaide
Season: to Sat 27th August, various days and times, see the BASS web site for details
Duration: 2hrs 20min incl interval
Tickets: adult $35/child (under 13) $26/groups 6+ $30 per person/family $99/Green Room $19.95
Bookings: BASS 131 241 or http://www.bass.net.au
School Bookings: BASS 8205 2220 (schools season 18th to 25th)
Suitable for ages 8+
Having played to a series of full houses interstate, selling out the entire season in no time at all, Windmill already know that they have a winning production on their hands. Adapted by Richard Tulloch, from the novel Het Boek van Alle Dingen by Guus Kuijer, originally for Belvoir Theatre and Kim Carpenter's Theatre of Images, this production is directed by Neil Armfield, who successfully brings out the full essence of this remarkable work, eliciting terrific performances from every member of his cast.
Kim Carpenter's imaginative set and costume design, combined with well conceived lighting from Nigel Levings, allows for numerous scenes that take only a moment to change, so the pace is always maintained. The set is based around an enormous version of Thomas's book, the pages filled with his drawings and notes, that become backdrops for the various scenes. A flip of a page and the movement of a few bits of furniture is all that there is to a scene change.
Set in the early 1950s, the central character is nine year old (I am almost 10) Thomas Klopper. He lives with his father, mother and sixteen year old sister, Margot, in a suburban home in Amsterdam. He keeps a journal, recording all the things that he sees and that happen to him, and around him. Through the pages of his book we meet his friends, relatives and neighbours, who turn out to be an eccentric lot. His father thumps the bible at every possible occasion, interpreting it as he sees fit to suit his own beliefs, as everybody does. Thomas hits the nail very firmly on the head when, at one powerful and tense moment, he cries out that the Bible was written by men; not God. It is suggested that his father's views are not in line with those of the local church as the family and a few others have their own meeting on Sundays.
Matthew Whittet brings a wonderful childlike innocence to the role of Thomas. He captures that exuberance of a child with a performance filled with energy and that convincingly shows his belief in the things that the adults around him attribute to an over-active imagination.
At the beginning, he and his sister have, as so often happens, an uneasy relationship. She is rather bossy and dismissive of him. Margot has a friend, Eliza, a beautiful girl who has a leather leg that squeaks as she walks, and only one finger on one hand. This is only a few years after the Second World War, of course. Neither these, nor the fact that she is almost twice his age, stop Thomas falling for her and sending her a love letter which, he is thrilled to discover, is well received and makes her happy.
Rebecca Massey plays Margot as a quiet girl, but we sense early an inner strength that is revealed later when it is she who stands up to her father and shows him for the bullying coward that he really is. Massey handles that transition beautifully and oozes indignation and determination in her violent confrontation with him. Lucia Mastrantone gives a warm and sympathetic portrayal of Eliza, making it easy to see why Thomas is attracted to her.
Pip Miller is the mentally and physically abusive and self-righteous father, stiff, cold, brutal and using his interpretation of the Bible as his excuse for his actions and attitudes. He often beats his wife and uses a wooden spoon to chastise Thomas for every perceived transgression, no matter how minor. Miller gives a frightening portrayal of the despotic ruler of the family, judgemental, opinionated, ignorant in the extreme and alienating himself from everybody around him in his attempts to control them. His cowardice shows through and there is also a sense of sadness as we see his awareness that he is losing them, increasing his attempts to hold them by violence, instead of by love and understanding.
Thomas's gentle and supportive mother is played by Claire Jones. She helps the audience to understand her situation, acting as the buffer between her husband and her children, taking his beatings to save them, putting up with it to keep the family together. She gives a finely crafted characterisation filled with compassion.
There is a dog in the neighbourhood with a reputation that has earned it the title The Bumbiter, and people scatter and run for cover when it appears. It belligerent and a bully, but a coward underneath, just like Thomas's father and, appropriately, this dog is also played by Miller but this time generating laughs.
Next door lives Mrs. van Amersfoort, whom all of the children know as a witch, and they torment her, from a safe distance. One day, they grab her shopping and scatter it on the ground, then the Bumbiter appears. She turns, stops it in its tracks and sends it away, by just talking to it. While the others leave, Thomas helps her pick up her groceries and then carries them into her house for her. She turns out to be just a lonely old widow, a hoarder living in an untidy house, but kindly. She and Thomas become friends and she lends him books to read, encouraging him to grow and to question.
Julie Forsyth is simply sensational as the neighbourhood witch, reminding us that witches were also referred to 'wise women'. The comic side of her performance generates lots of laughter, but it is clear that she sees and knows far more than she lets on. Forsyth gives us all of this in her portrayal of this multifaceted character
Thomas's emerging feminist Auntie Pie, married to his father's brother, rides her bicycle everywhere,but her husband gets furious and hits her when she starts to wear trousers. Rather than accept his ruling she is even more determined to wear them, all the time. When she drops in to tell the family about it Thomas's father defends his brother's action and makes clear his belief that the man is head of the house and entitled to correct an erring wife however necessary, using the Bible as his authority for his belief. Auntie Pie realises that he has been beating his wife and tensions build.
Deborah Kennedy is Auntie Pie, conveying her as a strong willed woman with a keen sense of social justice. She is the catalyst for what follows as Margot is finally pushed too far. Kennedy gives a rich characterisation in a difficult role.
And then there is Jesus, who drops by from time to time for a chat with Thomas, unseen and unheard by anybody else. John Leary gives us a Jesus who is very 'laid back' to the point of seeming lazy and avoiding the role that man has imposed upon him, looking for a simple life. He raises questions about religion in a most humorous interpetation.
Kids, young and old, will especially love the plague of frogs, but you will have to go to see why. This is not the only audience involvement, with people being invited on stage for the final scene and some lesser interactions along the way.
Composer, Iain Grandage, sits half hidden in the wings with his cello and piano, adding well integrated live music to the mix. The sound design, devised by Steve Francis, has cast members adding sound effects to the action, such as the squeaking of her leather leg as Eliza walks, or the clatter of spoon on dish as Thomas eats. The work is filled with clever ideas that add up to an image of simplicity. This sounds like a contradiction but many great works of art that look simple, on the surface, require a great artist with enormous skill and talent to make them appear that way. The simplicity of this production has a lot of hard work behind it.
With so many delicate subjects, such as domestic violence, questioning religion, disability, dealing with people who are different and more, seeing these concepts through the eyes of a child brings them into a different focus. Coming at the familiar from a different direction can create a paradigm shift and that is what happens here. Like most of Windmill's work, there is as much for adults as for children and there are many things in this production that can change attitudes and assumptions. This a more than a children's production, it is an important, powerful, significant and magical piece of theatre that everybody should see. Make sure that you are one of them.
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.
Photo by Alex Craig