Jasper Jones | Melbourne Theatre CompanyLeft – Nicholas Denton, Rachel Gordon, Ian Bliss, Harry Tseng. Photo – Jeff Busby

One of the things a novel can do is allow the reader to travel with more than one character but that seldom works on stage. So with Jasper Jones, a theatrical adaptation by Kate Mulvany of Craig Silvey’s memorable young adult novel, we miss out on the real impact of the character of Jasper which comes through so strongly in the book. Best not to compare.

Jasper Jones the play is the story of fourteen year old Charlie (played with sensitivity and occasional hilarity by Nicholas Denton) whose life takes an unwelcome and dramatic turn when the ‘infamous’ and misunderstood Jasper (Guy Simon) knocks on his window one night asking for help after a gruesome discovery in the bush. Charlie is nearly upstaged by his buddy Jeffrey (Harry Tseng), the cricket mad Vietnamese kid. Charlie’s love interest is Eliza Wishart (Taylor Ferguson); the antics between these two are especially adorable. There are mysteries involving Jasper’s family history and the town ‘boogyman’ Mad Jack Lionel (Hayden Spencer).

The story is set in the mid-60s. The set (by Anna Cordingley) and strong lighting design create a town and its environs, giving us a sense of time and place, and of the insular, inward-looking mood of a seemingly stable environment which is dominated by the hypocrisy of its flawed adults; here the kids are on their own. Rachel Gordon and Ian Bliss play Charlie’s parents, neither able to be present to their son due to their own struggles. This work, directed by Sam Strong, presents this scenario in a way that is both funny and moving.

The story deals with racism, misogyny and violence, allowing its young characters to grapple with these elements while retaining their lightness and integrity. The tone of the play eschews naturalism, even allowing for moments of magic realism while the performances co-create a satisfyingly nuanced emotional ride. There are numerous exuberant typically ‘Australian’ moments which delighted audiences on opening night; the cast (once with Silvey and Mulvany) returned to the stage for three curtain calls.

There were times where Charlie’s narration was unnecessary and almost distancing; action would have done (e.g., the moment when he makes up his mind to follow Jasper through the bush – we didn’t need to hear him say this), and the text bandies Jasper’s name about too often, as if repeating it might create the mystique he possesses in the novel. In real life we seldom use each other’s names in conversation and it’s distracting when it keeps happening on stage. These are minor quibbles to be sure. Jasper Jones is so pleasing in so many ways. Well worth rugging up for.

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
Jasper Jones
based on the novel by Craig Silvey | adapted by Kate Mulvany

Director Sam Strong

Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner VIC
Dates: 1 August – 9 September 2016
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au

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