STORM BOY, Sydney theatre Company and Barking Gecko Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre, 14 August-8 September, Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA, 21 September-5 October 2013. Photos by Brett Boardman: Mr Percival, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson; right, Rory Potter and Mr Percival.
Colin Thiele's classic of the last summer of carefree childhood and the first experience of grief and loss is exquisite after all these years. Adapted for the stage by Tom Holloway and directed by Barking Gecko's John Sheedy, it's even more so. At approximately 75 minutes, straight through, the story is neither hurried nor drawn out but serves the audience and actors with sensitivity and thrills, emotions and laughter in equal measure.
Set in the ocean-edged wilderness of the Coorong, set designer Michael Scott-Mitchell has fashioned a clever and beautiful setting of a structure that simultaneously evokes the region's windswept sand dunes, a bleached and massive whale skeleton and a roughly constructed driftwood humpy. Here Storm Boy and his dad Hideaway Tom eke out a tough but idyllic existence, fishing, scavenging, treasure-hunting and keeping their distance from strangers.
Tom (Peter O'Brien) is grieving his late wife and wants none of the city or anything else that might remind him of what once was. His young son (Rory Potter and Joshua Challenor alternating) runs barefoot and free, knowing nothing else but the marshes and lagoons and a fading memory of his mother's smile. Into this reclusive life comes Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson) and a nest containing three pelican chicks whose mother has been killed by shooters.
It's Bill who dubs the child Storm Boy and begins to teach him the stories and ways of the Ngarrindjeri people, the Coorong's custodians for 40,000 years. In Thiele's words, "He knew all the signs of wind and weather in the clouds and the sea. And he could read all the strange writing on the sand hills and beaches made by beetles and mice and bandicoots and ant-eaters and crabs and birds' toes…" And it's Bill who encourages Storm Boy with his scheme to rescue the chicks and slowly persuade his crusty dad out of his crabby ways.
It's the adventurous life dreamed of by many kids and written of in popular novels through the years - Captain Marryat's The Children of the New Forest, Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - and Thiele's love of the landscape and the child's place in it are echoed in both those English and American classics. However, Storm Boy has a special place in Australian literature because of the Coorong and Mr Percival - the boy's favourite of the three chicks and the one that becomes his totemic companion.
It's no secret that Storm Boy and Mr Percival become local heroes when they combine efforts to rescue sailors from a wreck on a wild stormy night. And the tragedy of the pelican's shooting by hunters and lingering death in Storm Boy's arms is familiar from the book and the 1976 film (that featured David Gulpilil as Fingerbone Bill). Nevertheless, it's a tribute to the play script, direction and actors - particularly, on opening night, the sustained and charming performance of Rory Potter as Storm Boy - that the lump in the throat is hard to swallow. And the dark night of the storm is genuinely scary and thrilling by turns.
Michael Scott-Mitchell's setting, mentioned above, is enhanced and enlivened by Damien Cooper's atmospheric lighting: sunny days that give way to lowering skies and cracking lightning. And Kingsley Reeve has devised a sound design that anchors the location from the outset - the audience enters the theatre to the sound of incessant breakers, wind in the sand hills and a chill that conjures up the unique isolation of South Australia's Coorong.
The pelican puppets are brilliantly brought to life by Annie Forbes and Tim Denton and puppetry director Peter Wilson; with Mr Ponder and Mr Pride operated and voiced by Shaka Cook and Mr Percival by Michael Smith. Their voices are the result of one of the more unusual assignments for STC voice and text coach Charmian Gradwell: listening to recordings of the birds and working out that they have their own language of multiple squawks and skraaarks. Anyone who is enchanted by pelicans - and who isn't? - will be doubly enchanted by the way they are realised in the play.
All in all, Barking Gecko and the STC have done a beautiful job of bringing this much loved story to yet another new generation. No matter how old or young you might think you are, you'll laugh with delight, gasp with fright and weep along with Storm Boy and Mr Percival. But you'll have to hurry: tickets are disappearing as fast as fish into a pelly's belly.