‘Jasper Jones’ was challenging.
Moreton Bay Theatre Company is a newcomer to the Brisbane theatre scene, however, they have jumped feet first into the deep end with a challenging and bold season for 2019. One of their early season productions, ‘Jasper Jones’, opened this week in the intimate Neverland Theatre, North Lakes.
Located in an industrial estate, the unassuming Neverland Theatre was difficult to find amongst the large warehouse buildings surrounding it so first time audiences are encouraged to arrive early. Nevertheless, this company have a welcoming foyer and created an atmospheric performance space as the audience entered the cabaret-seating theatre.
‘Jasper Jones’ – adapted by Kate Mulvany from Craig Silvey’s 2009 novel of the same name – is a story about a collection of teens in a small town called Corrigan in Western Australia during the summer of 1965 and the disappearance of Laura Wishart that shakes the town apart. 16-year-old Jasper Jones played stoically by Liam Wade, is a mixed-race outcast with a deceased Indigenous mother and an alcoholic Caucasian father and is deemed the culprit of every foul deed that occurs around the town.
Appearing like a ghost in the night, Jasper Jones enlists 14-year-old Charlie Buklin to help when he finds Laura’s dead body in his “spot” – a cove of trees out in the bush where Jasper can find solitude. Together, they embark on a journey to find Laura’s killer to clear Jasper’s name but uncover more secrets than they bargained for and learn a lot about themselves.
The show has been rated M by the company, citing mature themes and coarse language, and indeed, much of the content and language in the show is confronting. Not least of all the contemporary relevance of the effects of racial intolerance on individuals and society. However, the weight of the story’s content is maturely handled and delivered by the young cast (there are only two ‘adults’ in the show), which is a credit to the work of director Kath Kunde.
The standout performer of the evening is Kyle Armstrong as the protagonist Charlie Buklin. Whilst his excellent articulation didn’t wholly combine with his character, who should have had a more ‘ocker’ accent, his delivery of substantial narrative sections to the audience, as well as a significant character journey, was excellent. With an impressive number of credits under his belt, Armstrong looked at ease on the stage and is certainly someone to watch in the future.
The cast was well rehearsed and prepared, the pacing was generally well maintained and there were almost no apparent errors in the delivery of a lengthy and intense script. Some of the young male actors were physically a little stiff during large sections of conversational dialogue, but the vocal delivery and characterisation across the entire cast were excellent.
Unfortunately, it was the casting of Charlie’s Vietnamese best friend, Jeffrey that was problematic. The role of Jeffrey has been dual cast for this production, with Jeff Chen and Julia Cox taking on the role. However, the programme does not clearly explain this double casting, nor lists the performances when each actor was in the role.
For this show, Julia Cox played the role, but to have a Caucasian girl play a Vietnamese boy struck a difficult chord for the audience. Especially considering the overarching themes of racial dispossession and intolerance that underscore the play.
Despite this, Cox’s onstage presence and energy was undeniably wonderful, and she capably provided almost all of the comic relief. Overall she was a delight to watch onstage and it is a shame that the surrounding circumstances detracted from a stellar performance.
The technical elements around this production were unfortunately unbalanced. The static set features two house fronts on either side of the stage, well-constructed and decorated but the Buklin house consisted of a bed for Charlie’s room and two chairs and a table, backed by the white cyclorama. This left the middle of the stage quite empty and – whilst that can be a bonus when moving around locations in a story – this felt half finished, and detracted from the overall cohesiveness of the world.
Jasper Jones’ “secret spot” was staged down the side of the seating area and made it difficult for audiences to turn in their chairs to see. The actors even sat on a lower level rostrum for an extended period of time, meaning audience members on the other side of the theatre would have struggled to view the scenes.
Whilst the design of this area was effective, the scenes that occurred there were lengthy, significant and created an awkward and uncomfortable position for the audience. The opening activity in this area also needed to be highlighted in a much greater way to create the desired impact to start the story.
The use of moving LED lights around the stage was cumbersome and created juddering crossfades. They were also not utilised well in the side stage area. While they were excellent for a number of effects including fireworks and a campfire, the colours, placement and transitions did not assist the cast in the creation of mood and segue as a good lighting plot should.
Overall this was an ambitious and challenging play to stage in a small and intimate setting. The work of the whole team is clearly evident and they are to be commended for treating a story of this nature with a great amount of sensitivity and respect.
Jasper Jones performs at the Neverland Theatre, North Lakes until 12th May. Tickets available at www.mbtc.com.au