Felicity Castagna’s debut novel The Incredible Here and Now won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction. Having lived in Parramatta in Western Sydney for over a decade, Castagna wrote the novel because she had never read a novel that was set in Sydney’s west.
Following on from the success of her award-winning novel, Castagna was commissioned to adapt The Incredible Here and Now for the stage, and in July, the first audiences had the opportunity to see the book’s theatrical adaptation in a production by the National Theatre of Parramatta.
The Incredible Here and Now is a coming-of-age story about Michael (Bardiya McKinnon), a gifted 15-year-old writer. In the novel, the West is described as where “those who don’t know any better drive through the neighbourhood and lock their car doors”.
Michael idolises his older brother, Dom (Alex Cubis) – the biggest guy in school, the guy with the girlfriend with the big hair, the owner of the best car in the west and, in his mother’s eyes (Caroline Brazier), the boy who can make a stack of pancakes like no one else. We learn about some of the simple but deeply ingrained traditions of the brothers and their friends – heading to Granville for charcoal chicken or to the Coke factory, congregating in the local McDonald’s parking lot of an evening, and cruising along in Dom’s white Pontiac Trans Am that, to use the author’s own words, ‘lights up his life like a magical talisman’.
But, suddenly, Dom is killed in a car crash and Michael’s world is shattered. Michael, who is the storyteller in the play (as he is in the novel), gives us a window into his life in the aftermath of the seemingly-invincible Dom’s death, during which time he struggles to find his own identity away from the shadow of his popular late brother. We see his interactions with his best friend Shadi (Ryan Peters), his first experience of romance with Monique (Libby Asciak), and humourous encounters with elderly neighbour Esther (Olivia Simone).
Castagna’s play largely covers ordinary activities of day-to-day life, but this is nonetheless an engrossing portrait of a teenage boy, his family and his community, and a reflection on the way in which the places Michael frequents become tied to his identity. It’s genuinely refreshing to see a story of life in Western Sydney bought to the stage, and for those of us who grew up not far from some of the landmarks and destinations that are a significant part of Michael’s life, it’s a wonderfully nostalgic journey. Directors Jeneffa Soldatic and Wayne Harrison have created a production around Castagna’s text that has enormous heart, and their decision to stage the show using a traverse stage seems a wise choice, allowing events to be played out in such a way that audiences feel closer again to the characters and the story.
As the central character, Bardiya McKinnon is outstanding; his portrayal of the 15-year-old writer feels completely authentic and he engages us as storyteller with his likeability from the outset. Cubis is also well cast as Dom, and Soldatic and Harrison have incorporated his posthumous presence into the piece so artfully, demonstrating the place he continues to occupy in the lives of each member of his family. The immensely talented stage veteran Brazier isn’t given an enormous amount of dialogue, but she’s perfectly cast as the boys’ palpably grief-stricken mother, (literally) unable to let go of the reminders of Dom’s life. And Peters, Simone, Asciak and Sharah all prove to be strong players through their portrayal of integral supporting roles. There is no weak link here.
Audio visual elements have been meaningfully utilised, with Sean Van Doornum having created an atmospheric soundscape. The piece has a solid structure on the whole, and its 90-minute runtime is the right length.
Castagna’s The Incredible Here and Now intends – and succeeds in its efforts – to convey a wonderful overarching message: that there is so much to cherish, to appreciate and to see as extraordinary in the ordinary course of our day-to-day lives; and that out of what we consider to be unremarkable rituals, there are fantastic tales to be weaved. It affirms the idea that it is important to be present in your own life – not to dwell on the past or the future, but the here and now.
Castagna’s play tells a beautiful story, which deserves to be re-told on stage for a long time to come.
To learn more about the National Theatre of Parramatta, head to riversideparramatta.com.au/NTofP/