JASPER JONES

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Jasper Jones by Kate Mulvany (novel by Craig Silvey)

Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks

Cast: Tom Conroy, Kate Mulvany, Matilda Ridgway, Steve Rodgers, Guy Simon, Charles Wu

At Belvoir St Theatre

January 2 – February 7, 2016

 

Reviewed By Nathan Lentern

 

Belvoir St Theatre Jan 2 – Feb 7, 2016

Written by Kate Mulvany (novel by Craig Silvey)

Directedr: Anne-Louise Sarks

Cast: Tom Conroy, Kate Mulvany, Matilda Ridgway, Steve Rodgers, Guy Simon, Charles Wu

Based on the 2009 novel by Craig Silvey, which in turn seems inspired by the real life events concerning the trial of Max Stuart, Jasper Jones tells the story of an Aboriginal teenager suspected of murdering a white girl. Over the course of two hours, we join him on his gruelling journey as he navigates his way through the court of public opinion, with the erratic “Mad” Jack Lionel taking up the cudgels as prosecutor in chief.

Bespectacled and bookish, fourteen year old Charlie Bucktin prefers living in the pages of his novels until the besieged Jasper turns to Charlie for aid. Together the two, along with Jeffrey, – the son of Vietnamese immigrants – forge a powerful and enduring friendship that serves as a bulwark against the trio’s challenges.

Though in his mid-twenties, Tom Conroy produces a bravura performance as the 14-year old Charlie. Some well-chosen costumes and hair styles, combined with his silky acting, easily allow us to suspend our disbelief as we’re touched and moved by Charlie’s personal growth through the bonds of friendship.

Charles Wu as Jeffrey is similarly likeable and engaging, blending a dry wit with a childlike belief in the ultimate triumph of fairness. Guy Simon as Jasper gives a more emotional and distraught performance. This is after all to be expected of the character who has the most at stake and we feel his suffering as his attempts to mask his fear behind a cloak of machismo become ever feebler. Which brings me to the biggest problem with the play.

Director Anne Louise-Sarkis utilises her resources efficiently to produce a thoroughly engrossing product for at an unpretentious price and location. Jasper Jones is funny, there is an eclectic range of terrific witticisms adroitly delivered and some really outstanding slapstick. There is also no shortage of heart wrenching and heart-warming moments as the triangular friendship ferments and accrues huge emotional poignancy and yet something doesn’t quite stack up.

All of this is delightful, but a girl is dead and a wrongly accused Indigenous man has a lynch mob after him. The gravity of this salient plot point feels like it should eclipse these secondary plots but, instead, at times it feels almost forgotten. The touching tale of male friendship, although beautiful, feels like a stand-alone, separate production.

There are also a few clumsily executed moments, most of which stem from ambitious attempts to incorporate the off-stage area into the performance. That is to say, where actors wade into the aisles. Nervous bumbling aside, I’m generally not a fan of this technique. A palpable tingle of anxiety sweeps through the theatre as the shrinking violets of audience hope and pray that they will not be dragooned into the performance. If opening night was anything to go by the actors find the experience similarly unpleasant. Back on stage and in their comfort zone, however, the cast are nigh upon faultless.

It’s a pleasant night out. You’ll enjoy plenty of laughs and feel genuine sympathy for our protagonists but there is still something a little unsatisfying about Jasper Jones. Somehow the emotional tug just isn’t big enough for a play about something this serious.

Nathan Lentern

Nathan Lentern is a writer and performer.