Jasper Jones. By Kate Mulvany. Based on the novel by Craig Silvey. Directed by Glynis Stokes. Budding Theatre. The Courtyard Studio. Canberra Theatre Centre. Bookings (02) 6275 2700 or canberratheatrecentre.com.au. Ended October 5.
Kate Mulvany's adaptation of Craig Silvey's dark tale of rural Western Australia in summer 1965 is a compelling story about race, gender, suicide, despair, love, families and national identity. There was a film in 2017. It's rightly gone on to being taught in senior schools.
The play is narrated by 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin (Callum Doherty), who has a love of reading and large words He's the only child of a schoolteacher father (Chris McGrane), and is a bit of an oddity in a small country town.
He's not the only outsider. Indigenous Australian Jasper Jones (Jauliam Toomey) knocks on his window one night to enlist his help in a terrible situation, the full details of which only gradually reveal themselves. The two boys develop a friendship as the story unfolds.
Jasper has found Laura Wishart (Lily Munnings) dead and rightly assumes the cops will want to talk to him, a "talk" that will involve trying to beat a confession out of him. So the two boys conceal the body and say nothing, while the town assumes Laura is "missing". What she might have been to Jasper is a whole other question.
The town of Corrigan is peopled with the intolerant, with Jasper on the absolute outer and cricket-loving Vietnamese boy Jeffrey Lu (Angela Parnell) not far behind. Parnell does an increasingly powerful job as Jeffrey, who utterly refuses to bow to prejudice. The local cricketers, blind to a true talent, are well led by Sally Taylor as the obnoxious Warwick.
Victoria Dixon is striking as Charlie's brittle and abrupt mother Ruth, locked into a mismatch with his gentle father, hating the country town and yearning for the city. Cameron Thomas is imposing as Mad Jack Lionel, the town recluse, keeper of secrets and particularly the secrets of Jasper's background. Ella Buckley makes a believable and ultimately poignant Eliza, Laura's sister, dreaming of life in an America that she imagines from books and films and reaching out to the shy Charlie.
As the central duo, Doherty and Toomey are an excellent pairing. Doherty's continual turning to the audience is set against Toomey's strong presence, deep feelings, relationship to country and moments of stillness. The teamwork is good and supports revelations that it would be unfair to reveal. Doherty looks after the narration in a very worthy manner, sustaining it steadily and keeping it fresh through a long show.
As the central duo, Doherty and Toomey are an excellent pairing.
It takes quite a while before the play fully reveals the depth of troubles in Corrigan. People are carrying burdens and keeping secrets. It might be 1965 but the existence of family violence, sexual assault, racial prejudice and an inability to understand the history of this country are still sadly highly relevant. Throw in the Vietnam War and the tensions can be high.
Budding Theatre's production succeeds in sustaining mood within the limitations of The Courtyard Theatre and conveys some sense of the era, haunted by the spirit of Laura who is always in Charlie's thoughts, representing reconciliations that haven't been achieved.