The tale of how ‘Masquerade’ – Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Kit Williams bestselling 1979 children’s book – came to the stage is a story which almost demands a separate play of its own.

‘Masquerade’’ holds a special place in Mulvany’s heart as a book which nurtured her through months of treatment for a rare type of childhood cancer, brought on by her father’s exposure to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War (a story brought onto the stage by Mulvany a few years ago, in her brilliant play The Seed).

When she approached Kit Williams for permission to turn his book into a play, he insisted that she include her own story in the show. And so, ‘Masquerade’ opens on a mother, Tessa, reading the book to her son Joe, who stuck in a hospital bed, undergoing treatment for cancer.

I once heard Mulvany interviewed, in which she explained how she likes to make the audience laugh, then break their hearts. This statement is certainly true of ‘Masquerade’, which straddles the line between comedy and tragedy with tenderness and heart.

The book ‘Masquerade’ tells the story of Jack Hare (Nathan O’Keefe), who is sent on a rollicking quest by his mistress, the Moon (Kate Cheel), to deliver a precious amulet to The Sun (Mikelangelo) as a token of her deep and undying love. As the story unravels, Jack gets more and more confused, and ultimately fails at his task, and the book ends. Reading this tale from his hospital bed are Joe and Tessa, who are struggling to keep it together after months in oncology, and in the face of Joe’s rapidly deteriorating condition.

The second half of the show sees mother and son, after becoming frustrated with the book’s abrupt ending, depart on their own quest to find the amulet, deliver the Moon’s message and save Jack from disgrace. Along the way, they meet characters to rival those of Wonderland – from the mean-spirited Penny Pockets to an interpretive dance-obsessed pig (both played by Zindzi Okenyo) to The Man Who Makes The World Go Round and a barbershop quartet (of only three barbers).

Music by Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen is wonderful, and provides a perfectly eclectic underscore of gypsy-classical-rock. Impressively, the musicians meld into the story seamlessly, with each of them taking on at least one character, and performing them with great nuance and humour.

The show is carried by a very strong cast. Helen Dallimore is convincing and touching as Tessa, who is struggling to keep a brave face and terrified of what the future may hold. Whoever played Joe on opening night (I couldn’t find a cast list, but it was either Louis Fontaine or Jack Andrews, who share the role) did a lovely job, convincingly taking us through Joe’s many and varied emotions and experiences with maturity and poise. Zindzi Okenyo is brilliant and chameleonic in all of her roles. Kate Cheel’s turn as the Marilyn Monroe-esque Moon is playful yet sincere, and Mikelangelo’s turn as the Sun is funny and assured. Pip Branson’s scene-stealing turn as Isaac Newton also hilarious. But it is O’Keefe as jack Hare who steals the show, guiding us through its highs and lows with an electric energy that never wavers or misses a beat.

‘Masquerade’’s strength is in its ability to mix whimsy magic with brutal reality. The narrative swims gorgeously between Joe’s world and Jack’s, as they share struggles and small joys. There is a bit of an issue with pace, with the first Act rambling on a little too long, and the second flying by a little too quickly, and the show never seems to settle on whether it is a classic fairy tale or a deeply topsy-turvy one. But these issues do not diminish the heart of the piece, which is huge and beats furiously.

The most touching moments are those in which Joe’s experiences collide directly with the events of the book: an eclipse in the book frames a terrifying lumbar puncture, and made me want to writhe in pain. Similarly, a song about Joe’s best dreams – of being outside, running, playing, going to school – is heartbreaking and beautiful.

There are other songs, however, which seem entirely out of place, slowing the action both in plot and emotional journey, and feel as though they are fulfilling a role which could have been better served with another beautifully written scene.

Assured directrion from Lee Lewis and Sam Strong mean that even the slightly awkward elements of the show find their place, and the whole thing is heightened immeasurably by Anna Cordingley’s gorgeous design and costume, and lighting from Geoff Cogham.
‘Masquerade’ has its kinks, but it is yet another wonderful offering from Kate Mulvany, whose generosity in sharing her story lines the show with vulnerability and heart. It is a touching, complex show which balances gracefully between love and death, without ever losing sight of the humanity inherent in both.