Reflecting on last night’s performance of Storm Boy I tried to put myself in the head space of a child. When I was younger, I was completely immersed in every piece of theatre I encountered, it was a privilege just to be in the space. I wasn’t thinking about whether it was ‘good’ or not but rather the exploration into ideas and emotions that my growing mind was beginning to understand. When I first read Storm Boy by Colin Thiele and watched the 1970’s film I sobbed both times and it stayed with me for a long time. Those familiar with the source material will know what I mean. During last night’s performance I was for the most part unmoved. There is one beautifully simple moment towards the end of the play that for me was a deeply cathartic moment of connection between actor (Conor Lowe), puppeteer (Emily Burton) and puppet. From my perspective it was what had been missing from this production until now; I was not swept away by the story and the connections between the characters, I didn’t feel any new revelations about the text. My mind was wandering; I even had a moment where I began to imagine what insights into the text would come to light if the genders were switched up.
Despite a group of incredibly talented individuals I didn’t feel an essential connection between the performances, production and the text. There is one notable exception, David Morton and Dead Puppet society’s puppet designs and their movements are sublime; they are highly stylised, but they are gracefully and poignantly brought to life by Ellen Bailey, Emily Burton and Drew Wilson. They develop a joyful link between empathy and theatricality that drew audible admiration from the audience. Sam Strong’s production is attractive and polished; Darrin Verhagen’s sound design and compositions are poignant and atmospheric. Justin Harrison’s projections are stunning and seamlessly compliment Anna Cordinglay’s set.
The disappointment I felt was that even though I was watching an accomplished production there was a core dissonance between the text, source material and the performances that have been crated by the direction. As the central character 15-year-old Conor Lowe has to anchor this production and it’s emotional trajectory and I must say he fulfils that responsibility with commendable professionalism and polish. There are not many young professionals who could have done that, and I want to acknowledge that achievement. However, his performance hasn’t been nurtured to explore the truth and emotional realities of the character. Some of the rawest and most truthful performances I have seen on stage and screen have been from young actors. I think as performers their youth and relative professional inexperience are assets in exploring complex emotions and the direction can cultivate that through the development process.
This is a young boy who has grown up in isolation with a volatile, grieving parent but is capable of a deep and spiritual connection with his environment. The ethics of this choice of upbringing are worthy of exploration; I wish Tom Holloway’s adaption had gone there; he’s uneducated (in an academic sense) and unsocialised but he is also unspoiled, sensitive and has a deep connection with nature and animals. Hideaway Tom and Fingerbone Bill have made the choice to isolate themselves due to their individual traumas; these are touched on but never explored to their potential. But this life is all Storm boy has ever known. There is a dual story of emotional maturity and the complexities of rearing someone you love through the pureness of Storm boy and the jadedness of Tom. Tom Holloway’s adaption covers all the appropriate story beats, but the emotional complexity and developments aren’t woven with enough finesse and to my ears felt forced. Colin Thiele’s text uses simple prose but if the reader connects with the words, they evoke imagination and catharsis seamlessly.
There is a moment where we see Tom awkwardly sewing his son’s jacket, I inwardly chucked. Through the entire production all three men’s costumes have been spotlessly clean, perfectly fitted and could almost pass for cosmopolitan. Three men who ostensibly work outside all day and have a comparatively rough life. Mr. Lowe looks like he’s about to step into a GAP photoshoot given how well groomed he is; I wonder if he could at least have been given a rubber band for his (brilliantly conditioned) hair. Tony Briggs is warm and grounded as Fingerbone Bill, he brings an essential gentleness to the production and is thankfully not presented as mysterious or otherworldly. He subtly hints at Bill’s pain, but the text doesn’t give him nearly enough nuance to work with. I did miss Bill teaching storm boy to read though. John Batchelor makes the interesting choice to play Hideaway Tom as a petulant, overgrown child and for the most part it’s an effective contrast to the cool maturity of his son. He has some lovely moments where he just watches his son interact with the pelicans and silently evokes that his sons nurture of them is teaching him how to parent. Bill is a fascinatingly ambiguous figure; a volatile mass of contradictions in which selfishness and tenderness are never far away from each other. Is he suffering from mental illness, does his response to his grief have a strange logic, is he right to raise his son away from the corrupting influence of a cruel, callous and unfeeling society? These are characterisations that I wish had been explored deeper in the text. The emotional trajectory’s feel under-developed and the performances haven’t been nurtured enough to compensate for them.
Despite my own reservations about this adaption I do believe Storm boy would make for a wonderful school holiday outing. Parents, guardians and care givers will have the opportunity to revisit and bond over a classic text and young people will undoubtedly be enthralled by the theatricality and wonder of live theatre. Sensitive and insightful young minds will certainly connect with this material, I hope they take away a sense of responsibility and fellowship to animals and the environment. I hope that adults will cultivate a respect and admiration for the sheer capacity for empathy and insight that young minds are capable of. Though, I wonder if they like me, will leave this production wanting more.