For the Perth Theatre Company, PICA and Mobile States
Written and directed by Halcyon Macleod
Music and sound design by Declan Kelly
Featuring Michelle Robin Anderson, Anthony Ahern, Clare Britton, Sam Routledge, Jodie Le Vesconte
STC Studio Underground
4 – 8 May, 2011
The Perth Theatre Company’s tenure at the new State Theatre Centre Studio, which began impressively in March with The Ugly One, delivers again with a flying visit from Melbourne outfit My Darling Patricia.
If you thought you had outgrown puppetry, their excoriating Africa should make you think again.
The play is inspired by the charming true story of two German kids aged six and five who tried to elope to Africa in 2009, but is grounded in the brutal reality of childhood in the dark continent that broods on the fringes of Australian suburban life.
Writer and director Halcyon Macleod has fashioned a very grown-up story (adult themes and language warnings apply) through the wide eyes of three children, the sisters Courtney (Michelle Robin Atkinson) and Bubba (Clare Britton) and their neighbour Cheedy (Sam Routledge).
Left alone with a video one night, the kids are swept away by a nature documentary about Africa, and resolve to escape to it.
They have much to escape from. The girl’s mother Julia (Jodie Le Vesconte) leads a barely viable life, assailed by unpayable bills and process servers while her little family is stalked by community welfare officers and menaced by Brad (Anthony Ahern), the abusive, dangerous man who comes in and out of her life.
No doubt little Cheedy’s home life is just as dangerous: he wears a cast on his forearm; he’s hospitalised after a beating.
Africa’s children are puppets, superbly created by Bryony Anderson and brought to life by Atkinson, Britton and Routledge. Their wide-eyed faces show both their hurt and the tough joy they sometimes manage to make for themselves.
They interact seamlessly with the “live” actors, Le Vesconte, who is wounded, wild and leonine as Julia, and Ahern, repulsive and unpredictable as the rogue bull Brad.
The combination of puppetry and live action makes for some telling effects. Le Vesconte and Ahern are huge figures alongside the puppet children; they fill the space and tower over the kids. Often, as if we were small children, we can only see their bottom halves.
The puppet children, in turn, are tiny and achingly vulnerable. It’s the ability to bring to life the dichotomy between the big adult world and the small, fragile world of children that makes this production so memorable.
Africa is sad, scary and brutish, but it’s life as it is far too often lived. It’s a powerful reminder of the care and protection we owe our children.
An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian link here