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Robot Song review

  • Theatre
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. Robot Song Theatre Works 2019 supplied
    Photograph: Supplied
  2. Robot Song Theatre Works 2019 supplied
    Photograph: Supplied
  3. Robot Song Theatre Works 2019 supplied
    Photograph: Supplied
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Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Difference is celebrated in this imaginative play about a young girl's experiences with autism

At one point in this play with songs – it’s not quite a musical even if it bills itself as one – the protagonist asks her dad a question that sits at the heart of adolescence: “If everyone is different, doesn’t that make us all the same?” It’s an inversion of a line from Pixar’s The Incredibles; when his mum says that everyone is special, Dash responds by saying that’s “another way of saying that no one is”. Of course, standing out and fitting in are the central concerns of youth, and the rigid notions of what it means to do either tend to haunt our school days. Imagine how much sharper is this tooth to a child with autism.

Not that Robot Song explicitly mentions autism. It’s the story of Juniper May (Ashlea Pyke), who arrives onstage as a robot – humanoid in shape but with eyes of blinding light, with appendages of light – advancing menacingly toward the audience. It’s only when the house lights come up that we realise she’s just a girl with torches and a cardboard head, a girl who happens to like robots and who isn’t sure she’ll be able to do the show for us, because she doesn’t much like crowds or noise or being looked at.

But then, with the help of her dad (Phillip McInnes), she manages to tell us her story, and it’s a painfully familiar one. Juniper is mocked at school for her difference, referred to pejoratively as Robot because of her speech and discomfort with eye contact. When she gets a letter signed by every member of her class, telling her she should die, she shuts down and refuses to go back to school, retreating into a fantasy world that is far more colourful and inviting than any she leaves behind.

The show’s great gift is its empathy, its ability to see the world through Juniper’s eyes. And its greatest asset is Pyke, who is such a winning and likeable presence; some actors tend to overdo the cuteness and the petulance when portraying early adolescence, but she never stoops to caricature. With a warm and expansive voice, she leads us effortlessly through Juniper’s joy and irritation to heartbreak and eventual triumph. McInnes is suitably daggy and loving as Dad, with a song about poo that threatens to steal the show.

There is a distinctly low-fi, analogue approach to the aesthetics of this show which tends to mask the complexity of its technical effects. There’s a fully functioning set of robotics in the piece that looks exactly like the kind of thing Juniper and her dad might build together but that clearly involved an enormous amount of skill and knowhow. In fact, the production design could be read as a kind of extended metaphor on autism itself; kids with autism and their families employ great ingenuity and willpower every day just trying to fit in, and that which may seem ramshackle is in reality supreme coordination.

Written, directed and designed by Jolyon James, who has based the work on life with his autistic son, Robot Song is clearly a labour of love with a touch of pedagogy thrown in for good measure. The play is on the VCE syllabus for Drama, and judging by the reaction of the largely student audience on opening night, it is hitting its mark. It is certainly informative, and with the help of an extraordinary performance from Pyke, it is also massively entertaining. It proves there’s something special about being different.

Tim Byrne
Written by
Tim Byrne

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Price:
$25-$35
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