As far as love letters to the 1980s go, Astroman by New Zealand playwright Albert Belz is a fully-fledged sonnet recited through the prism of a video arcade. Set in Geelong, (a location chosen by Belz after having lived there for eighteen months in the early 2010s) it’s the Summer of ’84 and thirteen year-old twins Jiembra (Kamil Ellis) and Sonny Djalu (Calen Tassone) are enjoying the spoils of the era. Riding BMX bikes, listening to Sony Walkmans and putting 20c piece after 20c piece into the Pac Man, Donkey Kong Jr and Galaga machines at the arcade.
But things aren’t all 8-bit wine and roses. Jiembra, the more intellectually gifted of the twins, has a tendency towards illegal behaviour, a habit that has forced his single mother Michelle (Elaine Crombie) to move the boys and their sister to Geelong from Townsville in the hope of a fresh start. However, his kleptomaniacal tendencies soon reignite and a run-in with local bully Mick Jones (Nicholas Denton) sets him on a worrying path for Michelle. So, when ‘Astrocade’ owner Mr Pavlis (Tony Nikolakopoulas) finds him up to trouble in his video arcade and chooses to bring him home to his mother for punishment, she seizes the opportunity to repair the damage and provide a positive male role model in the boy’s life.
While Mr Pavlis is hesitant at first, a bond between the pair forms as he recognises the boy’s scholarly potential and gaming skills. Nikolakopoulas delivers a scene-stealing elder statesman performance, providing a solid foundation for the young cast. As a way to create an opportunity for Jiembra to shine, Mr Pavlis sets up a video gaming tournament to put Geelong on the global map of arcade games. With contestants coming from as far away as even Point Lonsdale (!), Jiembra, Sonny and their elder sister Natalie (Tahlee Fereday in an hilariously gangly ‘tough-girl’ performance) see it as an opportunity to win over Mick Jones. Mick, or MJ as he prefers to be named after ‘Billie Jean’ style icon, is given rat-tail realness by Denton who manages to perfectly create a tormentor who himself is prone to bouts of fear and self-doubt.
With all its fondly remembered 80s references this is a show full of spirit that wears its heart on its acid wash jeans, making it impossible not to find it charmingly fun. Structurally though it’s a bit imbalanced. By the time the interval is reached Director Sarah Goodes has created no real sense of jeopardy at all, leaving a lack of impetus for the second act. The ultimate outcome of Belz’s story feels like a buried lead after the fun and excitement of the gaming tournament early in the second act, and the show progresses slowly towards its finale, with some possibly unnecessary side plots.
The cast feel like a true family and the enthusiastic energy that they throw into every scene, especially those featuring ‘so bad it’s good’ breakdancing (with thanks to teacher Aaron Vidot), make this story a pleasure to watch despite the structural imbalances. Kamil Ellis is an absolute charmer in the lead role of Jiembra, a loveable little devil with potential for big things. As his brawny, un-identical twin brother Sonny, Calen Tassone creates a larrikin full of Karate Kid and breakdancing helicopter moves to provide loads of welcome comedy. Elaine Crombie as the boy’s mum shows great breadth in her performance as the caring and worried mother who’s working hard to give her kids the best, while also providing an hilarious cameo as the competitor from Point Lonsdale with a fringe-covered eye for Sonny.
For a small-scale production, technical elements are skilfully achieved. Jonathon Oxlade’s costumes are spot on, while his set design with centrally positioned arcade and gaming machines full of wonderfully accurate over-sized led lights to recreate all the classic 8-bit games, fully evoke the era. 4:3 televisions fixed across the walls of the set support the 80s evocation through videos designed by Jamie Clennett and Niklas Pajanti adds great ambiance with his lighting design. Sound design by Jethro Woodward injects loads of classic 80s tracks to ramp up the nostalgia.
Contending for the most likable show of the year Astroman is full of feel-good vibes and video gaming memories that make it super fun for children of the 80s. Moreover, just like an 80s teen movie, it has the kind of triumphant happy ending that will have you leaving the theatre with a smile on your face.
Images: Jeff Busby