Billed as “an enchanting and beautifully rendered play, literally for all ages” with an encouragement to “bring your kids” I admit I was quite taken aback by the darkness and the complexity of the storyline within The Book of Everything.
Playwright Richard Tulloch, perhaps best known for his Bananas In Pyjamas books, has translated and written this theatre adaptation of a children’s story by one of Netherland’s most popular children’s authors, Guus Kuijer.
The story revolves around Amsterdam resident, Thomas Klopper, who is 9 years of age – going on 10. Thomas sees things that no-one else can: tropical fish swimming in the local canals, a hailstorm of frogs. Thomas also diligently observes the real life events around him. All these events are recorded in his ‘Book of Everything’.
It has the makings of a truly magical theatrical experience – until the reality of Thomas’ home-life unfolds. Thomas’ deeply religious father is so afraid of losing his family to the secular world, he beats and intimidates them into submissive obedience. No matter how this is presented, this is quite confronting and seemingly at odds with the promotion of the play as being suitable for children of all ages.
Matt Phillips delivers a strong performance as Thomas. His bright and enthusiastic charm immediately endears him to the audience. His reaction to his spanking appears genuine as his father effectively beats God into non-existence. Church scholars could spend hours unpacking just this scene and all its implications and analogies and Phillips is excellent in his portrayal.
Frank Schrever is superb as the father to young Thomas. He is frightfully intimidating, but still portrays a sense of weakness to his character. Schrever also plays Bumbiter – the menacing dog that terrorises the neighbourhood until the local witch brings him under control with some appropriate words of authority. This funny moment in the play becomes a symbolic representation of how the events in Thomas real life will unfold.
Mandy Murray plays the mother to Thomas and delivers a heart wrenching portrayal of a mother willing to put herself in harms way in order to protect her children. She shows the complex situation of women living in domestic violence, seemingly trapped in a hopeless situation and doing anything to keep the household at peace.
As the older, teenage sister to Thomas, Dhana McKechnie is excellent, moving from being the typical annoying older sister to the only one really strong enough to stand up to the abusive father. Jackie Hutchinson is delightful in the role of Mrs Van Amersfoort, the neighbour and local witch who befriends Thomas and helps him to find hope and help.
True to its reputation for producing high quality sets, the 1812 Theatre has created a very clever set (design by Chris Proctor). It features a large picture book which is turned for each scene. Music by Helmut Lopaczuk and Richard Foster is a nice touch to fill in the time it takes for each scene change to maintain the ambience. Although the changes were smooth, a few still seemed to lag and the timing could be improved with more performances.
Some dialogue was delivered upstage and was difficult to hear at times, despite the small size of the theatre. Moving the performers to be in line with the book rather than past it may prevent the dialogue being lost. Sound design by Richard Foster and lighting design by Robin Le Blond were effective. The excellent use of projections added to the story line and special mention must go to Robin Emmett for his special effects (I won’t give the magic away).
The Book of Everything is well directed by Chris Proctor. Musicians play music in the foyer as the “Amsterdam residents” mix amongst the arriving guests; the children happily playing. The lighter moments in the play are handled well and bring plenty of laughs keeping the story line much lighter than it could be, but The Book of Everything remains a story with domestic violence as the central theme. Whether by deliberate direction or not, the fact the facial slaps did not even come close to connecting reduced the realism of the physical violence and made the scenes a little more comfortable to watch. There were moments when some of the audience laughed that seemed inappropriate to the action taking place before them and it is likely audience members came away with very different reactions to the play.
There are some very deep and complex threads running through the story line – the staunchly religious father who beats his wife, while the witch next door brings resolution and peace to the conflict. The young child who won’t admit to being beaten by his father because it’s only “spanking” – regardless of how much it actually hurt and with no consideration to whether it was indeed fair or even appropriate, making a statement about how this form of physical punishment is socially more acceptable when labelled as spanking. The beaten wife who is afraid of what will happen to the family if the father is challenged, demonstrating the complex issues surrounding domestic violence and why women choose to stay.
Indeed, there is much to consider in this play, rather than to simply enjoy. The Book of Everything is definitely worth seeing by adults and perhaps some older children – but deserves to be considered as a deeply moving and confronting play that requires further dissection and discussion. See the play, chat to the cast after the show over supper and then continue to talk further about the issues surrounding domestic violence. If we simply come away thinking The Book of Everything was a magical story without any further thought or consideration what does it really say about how our society views domestic violence?
The Book of Everything is now playing at the 1812 Theatre