Friday, 29 November 2013

The Book of Everything, Nov 29, 2013 ****

By Guus Kuijer, Adpted by Richard Tulloch
By Melbourne Theatre Company 
MTC Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, until Dec 22, 2013 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: ****

Review also published in Herald Sun online on Mon Dec2, 2013, and later  in print. KH

The Book Of Everything is a challenging and entertaining family show that balances light and darkness, choosing not to underestimate children’s capacity to cope with tough issues such as fear, violence and bullying.

Eccentric nine-year old, Thomas Klopper (Matthew Whittet), deals with his fear of family violence by escaping into a private, fantastical world that he records in his Book of Everything.

Thomas lives in 1951 post-war Amsterdam where, to combat his isolation, he conjures his own magical world in which he sees tropical fish in the Dutch canals, a frog plague in his street, and even chats with Jesus who is vague but friendly.

Richard Tulloch’s Australianised script captures the serious issues, harsh realism, fanciful visions and humour of Guus Kuijer’s children’s book from which it is adapted.

Thomas’s emotive story of facing his fears, confronting bullies with a wall of happiness and never surrendering, echoes the Dutch Resistance to Nazi Occupation that is remembered by his parents (Peter Carroll, Claire Jones), sister (Alison Bell) and neighbour (Julie Forsyth).

Thomas is an odd kind of anti-hero, who wishes biblical plagues upon his violent father to protect his vulnerable mother, then, in a poignant moment, defies his father by asserting that his single ambition is to be happy when he grows up.

Neil Armfield directs imaginatively, creating a playful, energetic production that tells a powerful story with humour, capable performances and simple but ingenious theatrical devices.

He breaks the ‘fourth wall’ by having Thomas and other actors directly address the audience, delivering narration and characters’ personal observations.

Armfield’s ensemble production displays the mechanics of theatre, with actors perching on stools when not in scenes, providing sound effects, and changing scenes by moving the pages of the enormous picture book (Kim Carpenter) that replicates Thomas’s Book of Everything.

Iain Grandage’s lively, onstage music underscores dialogue and action, establishes location and period, and provides atmosphere.

Whittet is playfully awkward and introverted as Thomas, embodying the geeky outsider who seeks solace in his imagination, and friendship in a disabled teenage girl (Andrea Demetriades) and the quirky, old neighbour (Forsyth).

The inimitable Forsyth deserves special accolades for her impeccable comic timing and hilarious depiction of Mrs. Van Amersfoort, the weird, cackling witch, oddball hoarder and indomitable survivor of Nazi occupation.

Carroll is compelling and brittle as Thomas’s severe and self-righteous father, a misguided religious fanatic and control freak who feels justified in hitting his mild-mannered wife and son when he cannot control them.

Genevieve Picot is feisty as rebellious Aunt Pie, John Leary is cheerfully casual as Jesus, and Claire Jones is gentle and resilient as Thomas’s long-suffering mother.

This play provides no trite solutions to social or family problems but is simultaneously confronting and funny – but maybe it is best suited to kids over 8 or 9.

By Kate Herbert

Director: Neil Armfield

Alison Bell (Margot)
Peter Carroll (Father Klopper/Bumbiter)
Andrea Demetriades (Eliza)
Julie Forsyth (Mrs Van Amersfoort)
Iain Grandage (Musician)
Claire Jones (Mother Klopper),
John Leary (Jesus)
Genevieve Picot (Auntie Pie)
Matthew Whittet (Thomas Klopper)

Assistant Director Eamon Flack;
Set & Costume Designer Kim Carpenter
Composer Iain Grandage;
Lighting Designer Nigel Levings
 Sound Designer Stephen Francis
Choreographer Julia Cotton

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