The stage adaptation of Colin Thiele’s beloved book Storm Boy is ‘a carnival of theatrical colonialism and missed opportunities’, says Monique Grbec
Storm Boy, the 1964 YA novella by Colin Theile, is packed with glorious language that describes the breathtaking Ngarrindjeri coastline, its inhabitants and the “cruel and stupid” humans who trespass with guns to conquer and kill. Fundamentally, it’s a timeless story about the human impact on our environment.
Tom Holloway’s adaptation for stage opened last week at the MTC’s Southbank Theatre. Directed by Sam Strong, it’s the second production after the Sydney Theatre Company’s premiere in 2013. With its robotic bird skeletons and daggy dad jokes, it turns Thiele’s elegant tale of a boy growing up in pristine paradise into a carnival of theatrical colonialism and missed opportunities.
The cast appears on the sandy, undulating landscape of Anna Cordingley’s set like models in a menswear catalogue. Their block-colour clothing and shoes are clean and unscuffed against the filmic landscapes projected as backdrops. The bleaching of Justin Harrison’s videos offer a nostalgic warmth that summons the naivety of 1970s innocence, a sharp contrast with the blade-like animated metal bird skeletons which represent the birdlife that inhabits the coastline. The birds are boned, bared and reconstructed. Puppets, the coloniser’s dream.
The puppets are designed by David Morton, with Ellen Bailey, Emily Burton and Drew Wilson bringing movement and personality to the birds. The puppeteers’ chic black outfits are a call to contemporary cool, and an invitation to embrace awe and the human qualities in the birds’ behaviours. Huge mechanical wingspans soar across the stage, bi-pedal wheels squeak and scuttle around it. On occasion, the quirky nuances of the birds’ movements get louder applause than their human counterparts.
Conor Lowe plays the lithe and kind Storm Boy, while John Batchelor is his paranoid, secretive and angry father, Hideaway Tom. Tony Briggs is Fingerbone Bill, the Aboriginal figure whose connection to Country is overshadowed by the flippancy of dad’s jokes and his efforts to form a bond with Storm Boy and Hideway. Slapstick, the theatrical coloniser’s smoke and mirrors.
Holloway’s superficial dialogue is frustrating: for example, there’s the merest mention of a dead wife. In June 2019, when 21 Australian women have already died at the hands of an abusive partner, the violence and reclusiveness of Hideaway makes me wonder if Storm Boy’s mum died at his father’s hands.
And, with Stolen Generations running through my family, I call shame that while Fingerbone Bill is present on stage, there is no gift of deeper understanding to the audience about the circumstances that brought him to a life in a humpy without family or kin. This frustration is deepened by the time and emotional energy devoted to a scene in which Hideaway shames Bill for talking to people in the town pub about Storm Boy’s relationship to Mr Percival, his pelican best friend. Hideaway’s anger about breaking this secrecy is real: the law of theatrical colonialism is that we all have our place.
In a time of climate crisis, another missed opportunity is the broadening of Thiele’s environmental concerns. This beach is mostly bare of plastic ring-tops, bags and bottles; and instead of a shed constructed of “flattened sheets of iron from old tins”, the humpy is more like the average rundown garden shed. Theatrical colonialism, replacing truth with prettiness.
Storm Boy seems mainly driven by box office aspirations inspired by recent film adaptions, with visions of school children on seats. But sadly, this production of Storm Boy only offers us a polite cup of tea. Not the bones of a broken Country, but the harsh mined metals of man, one pastoralist speaking to another.
Storm Boy, by Colin Thiele, adapted by Tom Holloway, directed by Sam Strong. Set and costume design by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Matt Scott, composition and sound design by Darrin Verhgen. Puppetry design by David Morton, puppets animated by Emily Burton, Drew Wilson and Ellen Bailey. Performed by John Batchelor, Tony Briggs and Conor Lowe. Southbank Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, until July 20. Queensland Theatre Company, July 29-August 17.
Wheelchair accessible, hearing Assistance
Audio Described: Saturday 6 July at 2pm, Tuesday 9 July at 6.30pm
Tactile Tour: Prior to the Saturday 6 July performance at 1pm
Open Captioning via screen: Saturday 13 July, 2pm