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Storm Boy @ The Heath Ledger Theatre

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By Andrew MacNiven

Coming in the wake of Tim Winton’s impressive play ‘Shrine’, ‘Storm Boy’ also has the sea as its principal theme. The play is an adaptation of Colin Thiele’s classic Australian children’s story, which was also the subject of an award-winning 1977 film.

The titular character (played by Joshua Challenor and Rory Potter on alternating evenings) lives, along with his stern father (Peter O’Brien), a contented, self-sufficient lifestyle, catching fish along the shoreline and residing in their beachfront shack. After a particularly violent storm, Storm Boy scales the surrounding cliffs that are home to a bird sanctuary to check on the condition of the feathered denizens. There he encounters Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson), who sports a blunderbuss slung over his shoulder to ward off the opportunistic poachers who prey upon the birds.

Jamieson is the play’s outstanding talent, bringing great warmth, humour and wisdom to his role. He imparts upon Storm Boy the essence of the holistic Indigenous worldview; the sun, sea, sand and sky all in indivisible connection, timeless yet forever in motion. The play’s evidently conservationist message is arguably even more apposite now than when the original novel was penned in 1964.

Storm Boy later encounters a trio of seemingly abandoned young pelicans, their mother nowhere to be found. He takes it upon himself to care for the sickly brood until they can be returned to health and safely reintroduced into the wild. An attachment inevitably forms between the young boy and his new charges, particularly with the most loyal of the three, now dubbed ‘Mr. Percival’.

‘Storm Boy’ is arguably more hopeful in its outlook than ‘Shrine’, which is unsurprising given this is a play geared toward a younger audience. This is not to say that ‘Storm Boy’ will not appeal to adults. The play might be described as family-friendly, yet it is not without heart-rending moments of emotional truth. This production is, in many ways, reminiscent of those classic Disney animated features – the likes of ‘The Sword in the Stone’, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ – which remain so timelessly beguiling because of their alchemic mix of humour, danger and wonder.

The use of props and puppetry here is exceptional. The three full-grown pelicans provide some of the most comedic moments and, particularly when they take flight, moments of truly awe-inspiring beauty. Puppeteers and performers Shaka Cook and Michael Smith brilliantly bring them to life.

Lighting Designer Damien Cooper and Sound Designer Kingsley Reeve have created one of the most impressive on-stage depictions of a raging storm imaginable. Thunder clashes with terrifying volume and lightning fills the theatre with immense bursts of light. It is scarcely believable that only imaginary wind and rain buffets and soaks the performers.

The set (by Michael Scott-Mitchell) is of an ingenious, rustic design, the primary feature being a huge, imposing waveform structure that is redolent of the desiccated bones of a washed-up whale carcass.

This is a simple story, beautifully told, and one that makes perfect use of its medium. Director John Sheedy has overseen Barking Gecko’s near-perfect adaptation of a beloved Australian classic.

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