Thoroughly engaging and emotionally challenging – Belvoir's best-selling production cements its credentials in this month's return to stage
Revived quick-sharp after its successful premiere season on this stage a year ago, Belvoir’s Jasper Jones confirms Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Craig Silvey’s novel as one of the more thoroughly engaging and emotionally challenging plays geared toward young people seen in some years.
Why? Because script and production treat their audience with the same respect accorded to Silvey’s source material. There is an appealing warmth and humour here, but no punches are pulled in the plotting of Jasper Jones or in its depiction of the racism and predatory brutishness that destroys young lives.
The setting is the fictional mining town of Corrigan, WA. Christmas and 1966 are fast approaching but goodwill is in short supply. The Vietnam War is heating up and the draft has Corrigan’s young blokes on edge. The mine is struggling and letting workers go.
But this is mostly background noise for the smart and sensitive 14-year-old Charlie Bucktin (Tom Conroy), who has more pressing issues to deal with. Bullied at school, picked on by his erratic mother, and ignored by his emotionally distant schoolteacher dad, he escapes by diving into classic novels.
That is, until one night, Jasper Jones (Guy Simon), the town’s “half-caste” tear-away and chief scapegoat, comes knocking at his window.
Seduced by the older boy’s aura of danger, Charlie follows Jaspar to a bush clearing. Lying dead at the foot of gum tree with a rope around her neck lies Corrigan’s teen beauty Laura Wishart. Charlie is suddenly up to his eyes in a tragic, terrifying, but undeniably exciting whodunit.
Originally made for Perth’s Barking Gecko Theatre Company in 2014, Mulvany’s two-act adaptation moves with purposeful speed, an impression aided by a nimble ensemble of actors and Michael Hankin’s quick-changing set, which uses two pull-apart porches to serve as the play’s three main locations. Everything moves, save for the ominous-looking gum tree, whose branches seem to prop up the theatre ceiling.
The majority of the 2016 cast has returned. Conroy holds the centre expertly, playing much younger than he is without recourse to parody. More confidently this time, Charles Wu reprises his sunny portrayal of the cricket mad Vietnamese kid Jeffrey. Matilda Ridgway returns in the dual role of the Laura and her younger sister Eliza. Simon electrifies the atmosphere as Jasper, a role somewhat smaller than the title of the play suggests.
Kate Box steps into the roles Mulvany played last year, and is excellent as Charlie’s unhappy mother, hungry for sensual fulfillment. But I missed the laconic dryness of Mulvany’s playing of town bully Warwick Trent, Charlie’s bête noir.
Steve Le Marquand (who replaces Steve Rodgers) demonstrates his range playing Charlie’s mild-mannered dad and the town bogeyman, Mad Jack Lionel.
Sarks has pulled one of the most powerful images from the first production – that of Laura’s hanging body swinging in the wind (there were safety issues, apparently) – but the play’s impact is largely undiminished.
Mulvany retains all the effing and blinding (and c-nting) Silvey deploys in the book, and Eliza’s telling of the sorry story of Sylvia Likens, the American teenager tortured and left to die by her adoptive family, doesn’t spare detail. But don’t let that put you off bringing any theatre-savvy kid aged 10 or over. I brought one, aged 9, and he was on the hook for the full two hours plus interval.