Dutch children’s author Guus Kuijer’s 2004 novel Het boek van alle dingen (The Book of All Things) covers issues and makes social commentary that extend beyond its intention as a story for younger readers. Likewise, this stage adaptation by Australian playwright and part-time resident of Amsterdam, Richard Tulloch, has as much to offer adults as it does children.
Set in the Dutch capital in 1951, the time of the author’s childhood, nine year-old Thomas Klopper (Matthew Whittet) sees amazing things that no one else can see, like tropical fish swimming in the canal, a deluge of frogs and even Jesus Christ himself (John Leary), who turns out to be an excellent conversationalist! Thomas writes all these wonderful things down in his diary, the Book of Everything, including the less happy stories of how his strictly religious father (Peter Carroll) hits his mother (Claire Jones) and how he himself is disciplined by his father with a wooden spoon.
Thomas seems to be able to get himself into trouble easily, whether that involves fending off the local dog – Bumbiter – or pursuing his 16 year-old sister Margot’s (Alison Bell) best friend Eliza (Andrea Demetriades), the charming girl with the leather leg. But things get particularly treacherous when his good nature gets the best of him and he offers to help his neighbour Mrs Van Amersfoort (Julie Forsyth) – otherwise known as the local witch – carry home her groceries. She rewards him with red cordial and asks him what he wants to be when he grows up. Thomas says he wants to be… happy. The simplicity of these goals drive the old lady to share her books with him, in the hope of stimulating his spirit.
The implications of the post-war era are apparent in the cloistered nature of Thomas’ family and the general environment of community suspicion and repression. However, the tide is turning, as evidenced by Aunty Pie’s (Genevieve Picot) trouser wearing rebellion. The broader themes of domestic violence, facing fears and questioning religious beliefs are nonetheless relevant for today’s audiences however.
This production is a re-staging of Belvoir and Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image 2010 production, following a successful New York tour in 2012, and it has definitely been worth the wait. Neil Armfield’s tremendously clever direction has honed Tulloch’s script into a delightful family show that is simply full of wonder. Carpenter’s designs are humble, yet effective, reviving the vaudevillian technique of having the cast provide sound effects to the action while at side of stage. Musician Ian Grandage becomes a part of the cast as he provides multi-instrumental live music on stage throughout.
Much of the cast reprise their roles from the original productions and are gloriously settled and in synch with their characters – newcomers Picot and Demetriades are both warmly charming. Leary’s casually droll Jesus makes for excellent comic relief and Forsyth has just the right measure of crazy and caring. Bell and Jones bring readily identifiable characterisations to Thomas’ sister and mother, while Carroll is commandingly powerful. But the star of the show is Whittet, with a perfectly tuned physicality to his performance and a contagious energy that ensures the older members of the audience will be doubtless feeling glassy-eyed by the time you reach the story’s conclusion.
If the opening night audience was anything to go by, children of all ages will be mesmerised by this show, but more specifically, the over 8’s will get the most from this story. Audience participation in this instance is actually a lot of fun and will bring even more pleasure to those involved. So bring along your own children, the neighbour’s kids, your nieces and nephews, or even just sneak in without them, as The Book of Everything will uplift everyone who sees it.