Storm Boy will be presented at the Heath Ledger Theatre from Saturday, September 21, until Saturday, October 5, (tickets are available now through Ticketek.com.au). BOB GORDON reports.
Colin Thiele’s iconic Australian story, Storm Boy, has touched the hearts of many Australians since it was first published 50 years ago.
The book has been required reading (syllabus or not) in that time and the 1976 film version remains a favourite of many.
Actor, Peter O’Brien, who plays Handsome Tom in the new Barking Gecko Theatre Company production, has another heartfelt connection. He grew up in Coorong, South Australia, where the story is set.
“I know the area very well,” he says. “It’s one of those places that’s isolated and also unique. These places are universal. There’s all these places around the world, where people go for various reasons: sometimes to get away, sometimes they go there to heal, sometimes they just go there for recreation.
“It’s a great place; a wonderful place. It’s where the river Murray – Australia’s biggest river – meets Lake Alexandrina and it flows into the sea. So it’s this melting place. There’s a mixture of flora and fauna there that doesn’t exist elsewhere but where the ocean meets the river. It’s really interesting. Because I grew up there I related immediately in the story to that sense of isolation and remoteness, yet feeling like it was a big playground.”
For Storm Boy (the role alternates between newcomers Joshua Challenor and Rory Potter) it is indeed a playground that he explores to his heart’s content. While his father Tom is distant, he becomes friends with Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson) and a group of orphaned pelicans, notably Mr Percival. Directed by John Sheedy the Barking Gecko/Sydney Theatre Company co-production has required astute staging and ingenious puppetry by Peter Wilson.
“It’s a great piece for the stage, but obviously they are some issues and you can see why no one’s done it, live birds and a remote beach setting. You’ve got to work through some things. In many ways things like (Handspring Company’s puppetry tour de force) Warhorse has really changed the whole world’s perception not so much about puppetry, but how far you can go with it.
“We workshopped through it last year and the important point was made early that Percival and the pelicans are the main characters in the show. The moment that point was made everyone knew we were on the same page. You interact with them, you act off them and they act off you and they all have personalities. The moment that was said we knew that the show was do-able.”
O’Brien says he first encountered Storm Boy via the book, and only recently saw the film. Interestingly writer Colin Thiele’s only stipulation to the producers at the time of filming was that the story not be turned into a sex comedy
“I hadn’t read that!” O’Brien laughs. “The mind boggles as to where you would go to take that story into a sex romp.”
What Storm Boy is, though, is a coming-of-age story that transcends time and attitudes and moves audiences of all ages.
“One thing about the story is that it covers such a broad spectrum of age groups,” O’Brien notes. “It really affects so many people, from little kids to adults, because you access the story through the eyes of a child, but you’re very quickly drawn into the sensibilities and emotions that affect people growing up into adults.
“So you have this playful notion as you get into it then the undercurrent changes and you find yourself being moved as an adult. We’ve had kids from Year 2 to adults in their 80s who’ve been physically moved by it. It truly is an emotional story.”