Barking Gecko Theatre Company
Directed by Matt Edgerton
Designed by Ilsa Shaw
Lighting design by Chris Donnelly
Composer and sound designer by James Luscombe
Robot designer Steve Berrick
Performed by Arielle Gray, St John Cowcher and Sarah Nelson
State Theatre Centre Studio
Until November 28
So much of children’s theatre – of all theatre really – is about the journey from here to there, from the unbearable past to a desirable future.
One of the things that makes the extraordinarily fecund Finegan Kruckemeyer’s My Robot different and interesting is that when the play starts its hero, the feisty, ever-so-slightly nerdish Ophelia (Arielle Gray) has already arrived at her destination – and she’s not at all happy about it.
She has just moved to the seaside with her parents (St John Cowcher is her father and all the show’s other characters – we never meet her mother) and while dad is thrilled by their new surroundings, Ophelia pines for the mountains and friends of their former home.
The play’s other point of difference is right there in the title. A functioning robot character called Olivetti (designed by Steve Berrick and wrangled by Sarah Nelson) is Ophelia’s sidekick and lifeline.
She finds Olivetti – or the pieces that will make it up – in a box in a dumbwaiter that connects her room to the café below owned by the haughty, censorious Ms Ogilvie.
Ogilvie’s stink eye isn’t the only challenge Ophelia faces. There’s the town bully, Otis, who wants to cajole her into admiring the seaside town while trying to get her out of it. And there’s her neighbour, Orson, whose allergies and agoraphobia shut him up in his room away from life.
But Ophelia isn’t easily daunted, and once she puts her toolkit to work and builds Olivetti, she’s a force to be reckoned with. As is the little robot, whose powers of telekinesis elicited gasps of delight from the young (and not so young) audience.
Things proceed in typically engaging Kruckemeyer fashion, with all the real set backs and hard-won triumphs he is a master of, until Ophelia, in true Grace Bussell style, daringly affects a rescue from the wild sea and brings everyone and everything to a highly satisfying conclusion.
There’s no beating Arielle Gray if you want feist, adorability and that pinch of nerdiness, and Cowcher shows yet again what a terrific character actor he is. They are both stars, and its wonderful to see them so committed in a show for children. Barking Gecko’s award-winning production values are all on show (Isla Shaw's storybook design, with Chris Donnelly’s lighting and James Luscombe’s music and sound), and Matt Edgerton directs the whole process with precision and ease.
It would have been nice if the budget could have stretched to a second character actor to create more colour and movement (and maybe allow mum to make an appearance), and Olivetti, achievement as it was, was a little cumbersome to excite an audience used to R2D2 and its lively successors.
Those minor issues aside, My Robot comfortably clears the bar set by what now must be regarded as Australia’s leading theatre company for children and young people. We should be grateful for having them here.