Time Out says
Mr Percival takes flight in this stage version of a beloved classic
Colin Thiele’s 1964 novel Storm Boy took 12 years to become a film. Touching but also blatantly sentimental, it drifted rather languorously into the Australian consciousness, to become a minor classic that’s been filmed twice and adapted twice for the stage. It’s a stark contrast to an English classic that bears significant similarities, Barry Hines’ 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave, which Ken Loach filmed two years later as Kes. Both stories focus on the relationship between a young boy and a bird and touch on social isolation, familial grief and the healing power of the natural world.
Storm Boy (Conor Lowe) is referred to simply as “boy” by his father, Hideaway Tom (John Batchelor), who has shuffled the pair to the edge of the civilised world in Coorong in South Australia, living a hand-to-mouth existence of fishing and self-imposed isolation. A local itinerant called Fingerbone Bill (Tony Briggs) gives the boy his moniker, as well as introducing him to the local birdlife. This leads to the adoption of three orphaned pelicans, which the boy names Mr Proud, Mr Ponder and, his favourite, Mr Percival. Dad comes to accept the wildlife and eventually even befriends Fingerbone Bill. The only threats to this makeshift life are the storms and the hunters.
There must be something about the metaphor of the bird – that idea of flight as freedom but also the notion of tethering and release – that suits a bildungsroman, in particular the coming of age of a pre-pubescent boy; it has an exquisite tension inherent in it, a beautiful minor chord of loss, renewal and power in reserve. The difference between Thiele and Hines comes down to their willingness to tackle the darker dimensions of their worlds; A Kestrel for a Knave heaves with a sense of helplessness and class struggle, a family on the fringe of its own survival, whereas Storm Boy never seems able to face its shadows.
MTC is clearly hoping to ape the success of its 2016 production of Jasper Jones, with Sam Strong returning to direct, Anna Cordingly to design the sets and costumes and Matt Scott to design the lighting. But while a little of the old magic is evident, the scale of the story and the stubbornly juvenile lens through which it is told is limiting, and the result feels both bloated and strangely thin. Jasper Jones had a tendency to turn its darker currents on and off when it suited, but at least there were darker currents.
Storm Boy isn’t without hints of sadness and disfunction. Hideaway Tom is initially more explosive than irascible, and there’s a plaintive note in the whiff of backstory about Fingerbone Bill. It’s a pity, then, that Tom Holloway’s adaptation isn’t interested in the dramatic or psychological ramifications of loss; the script is far more inclined to cheap sentimentality than genuine poignancy, and whenever the story approaches something remotely complex or ambivalent, the production flaps madly away from it. Strong’s direction stoops from the lugubrious to the downright ponderous, and the relatively brief running time stretches into the distance.
Lowe is likeable as the boy, and his relationship with the puppet pelicans has moments of real pathos. Briggs is excellent as the affable Bill, neatly side-stepping the clichés and mawkish tropes that are built into the part, and suggesting a great bank of regret behind him. Sadly, in the production’s key role, Batchelor is a misfire; nothing about him, from his blustering temper to his parental guilt, convinces, and so the true central relationship of father and son fails to launch.
Cordingly’s set is curiously restrictive, even as it nods to the expansive freedom of the natural environment. It opens on a beachside shack set in the sand dunes, a literal seascape projected onto a screen at the back. At each scene break, a different screen comes down at the front, onto which various images of water and landscape are thrown, until it rises to reveal another setting. The effect is deadening, like a series of dioramas displayed in a museum, fixed and immutable. It also kills any momentum, the choppy sea mirrored in the choppy structure.
The puppetry, by Dead Puppet Society, is effective – the pelicans are charming, their deconstructed mechanism lending them a toy-like quality – and gives the show two truly beautiful moments: one, with the birds in full flight, and another at the end, when the puppeteer turns to look directly at Storm Boy, as if in acknowledgement of all he has lost. But, unlike A Kestrel for a Knave, this production isn’t remotely interested in the wider losses, in any examination of the pain and fragility of these characters’ littoral lives. The result is a play without a flight plan, one that constantly evokes the natural environment but lacks any real sense of home.