‘Toy Symphony’ // Ad Astra

‘Toy Symphony’ was playful.

Ad Astra is an unusual venue situated in the back of a warehouse and trapped right in the middle of Brisbane; to one side the Fortitude Valley nightclubs, and to the other the hubbub of the Brisbane showgrounds.

But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in flexibility and intimacy. Ad Astra’s latest, an adaptation of Michael Gow’s 2007 play ‘Toy Symphony’, is no exception with strong performances, subtle yet effective direction and clever design elements – this is not a play to miss.

Since ‘Away’ in 1986, Michael Gow has slowly earned a reputation as one of Australia’s most successful playwrights and ‘Toy Symphony’ goes to show exactly why that reputation is so well earned. ‘Toy Symphony’ tells the story of Roland, a theatre writer visiting his therapist as he struggles to overcome writer’s block. While this may very well sound like a cliché, Gow draws upon his own childhood in the Sutherland Shire of NSW to bring authenticity to a story that allows it to rise above stereotypes and live in the three-dimensional world.

For ‘Toy Symphony’, Ad Astra flipped their space 90 degrees so as to perform on the vertical as opposed to the horizontal. This created a feeling of space and depth which would otherwise be missing. The set was simple in its complexity – a black box with words written in chalk on the walls, a mix match of boxes cluttering the floor and curtains dividing up and blocking the audience’s view. As the play goes on, the curtains are stripped away, the boxes are removed and the audience is left with words and memories of darkness.

If there is only one technical element to note, it’s the lighting. Lighting Designer B’Elanna Hill creates a lightscape that is both ethereal and literal. As Roland’s memories come to life and interact with his present, the lighting dances and shifts; going from a harsh white to a softer pink. Hill is definitely one to watch.

The role of Roland Henning is no easy feat, as the character ages from 5 to 65 years old. Similarly, his personality morphs from the most charming person on the planet to the biggest arsehole alive. The pure scope of the role is not easy; thankfully producer and lead Gregory J Wilken was up for the challenge. He brought a camp glee to every scene. Wilken was brimming with energy whenever on stage, which to be fair was pretty much the entirety of the two and a bit hours run time.

Wilkens was not alone in giving a great performance. Caitlin Hill and Bernadette Pryde both shone in their supporting roles as his therapist and childhood English teacher, respectively. The experience of the actors meant the performances, even when they did go big, were grounded in authenticity and truth.

In order for the performers to work at the right tone for the space and for the designers to know what to design, the director must work harder than all other components put together to make it all work seamlessly. This is exactly what Michelle Carey has done with ‘Toy Symphony’. The show works exactly as it should with no single element standing out.

Despite a shoestring budget and some major limitations in space, ‘Toy Symphony’ sings with quality well beyond its means.

‘Toy Symphony’ performs until 20 May, 2022 at Ad Astra Theatre. For more information visit Ad Astra’s website.

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