Barking Gecko Theatre brings Melbourne Festival their world premiere production of A Ghost in my Suitcase. Based on the award winning children’s illustrated novel of the same name written by Gabrielle Wang, it tells the story of Celeste, a half-Chinese half-Australian 12 year old girl who travels to China following the death of her Mother, to return her ashes to her spiritual home. Upon arrival, meeting her Grandmother Por Por for the first time, we are drawn in to Por Por’s life as a ghost-hunter. We also meet Ting Ting, a young girl taken in by Por Por who is also training to be a ghost hunter, who is not at all happy about Celeste’s arrival in her home.
It was a journey of over two years to bring this production from page to stage, including many intensive workshops with the creative team and author, as well as a trip to China. Without a doubt it was a labour of love which shows in every second of this beautiful production
Upon entering the theatre we were presented with a stunning hand drawn image of a crane projected on the large screen covering the stage, which was a sign of things to come. The set was very simple and incredibly effective, small and large boxes covered in fabric on which various images both moving and still, realistic and hand drawn were projected to convey each scene, at many times making the audience feel like we were right where the characters were, riding a bike through a busy Chinese village, in the gorgeous water town in the clouds on top of the ancient mountains to the dark, scary and very haunted mansion of Por Por’s ancestors. The boxes became the set pieces, a boat, a bus seat, the pond in Por Por’s courtyard, the high wooden apartment above the watertown. Whilst incredibly effective, at times the unsteadiness of the large two story piece in the centre become distracting for fear it would not contain the action happening on the second floor, however it maintained its integrity and we were able to refocus on the story.
The small cast of 5 were all incredibly engaging, working so cohesively together. Alice Keohavong brings us the role of Celeste, a young girl who is clearly still grieving the loss of her adored mother, but at the same time having a whole new world open up to her as she explored her ancestral home for the first time. Keohavong plays the role honestly and earnestly, however at times seemed to play Celeste younger than her 12 years. There was clearly a beautiful chemistry between Celeste and her Por Por, they were a joy to watch together on the stage. Her telling of the story of the young boy ghost she found in the tree was truly heartbreaking, and bought a tear to my eye.
Amanda Ma as Por Por is instantly likeable. She brings such a sense of clam and wisdom to the stage each time she entered, like only a Grandma can do. Her kindness and caring to Ting Ting is wonderfully believable, even when Ting Ting is hard to like; and when we ultimately learn the truth about Por Por’s family and the reasons she adopted Ting Ting, you realise just how strong and kind this woman is.
Ting Ting, the young girl with the tough exterior and a chip on shoulder is played by Ylin Kong. Her dance background is instantly recognizable in the ghost fighting scenes, as she moves around the stage with an effortless style and grace. Her Ting Ting is strong and tough, with the strong feelings of a young girl bubbling underneath, who just wants to be loved and have her abilities recognized. I really enjoyed Ylin Kong’s performance in A Ghost in my Suitcase, and felt it really tied the ensemble and story together perfectly.
Freida Lee and Imanuel Dado are the ensemble members, bringing us a myriad of characters whilst moving sets and creating ghosts and providing some much needed moments of comic relief.
Directors Ching Ching Ho and Matt Egerton have done a wonderful job of bringing this stunning tale to life. Their choices in simplistic set design, complimentary sound effects and use of song within the ghost hunting scenes made this a joy to experience. The themes of loss, grief, multicultural families and Chinese traditions are handled gently, genuinely and lovingly. At times it made my heart hurt, yet I left with a big smile on my face.
If you get a chance to see this or take your children, I highly recommend you take that opportunity. Whilst advertised as 8+, I would be hesitant to take anyone younger than 10 due to the strong themes.