Jasper Jones is an important Australian story that cleverly confronts some dark truths about our country within the architecture of an engaging tale. All of this makes Craig Silvey’s 2009 novel ripe for adaptation, with a 2017 feature film and now Kate Mulvany’s theatrical version which, after doing the rounds of theatre companies across the nation, is brought to life here by State Theatre Company.
And there is certainly a great deal of life up on the stage. Alongside the unsettling elements in Jasper Jones, there’s also a great deal of energy and moments of real levity to carry us along. This is a credit to both Nescha Jelk’s strong direction and the highly impressive set by Alisa Paterson.
It’s an immersive experience, inviting us into rural Australia in the 1960s to experience the sometimes claustrophobic environment of the township and the shadowy bushland on the outskirts where its secrets are held. As the characters move through the space, we pass effortless between protagonist Charlie Bucktin’s fibro bedroom and the dark atmospherics of the surrounding scrub. Such locations are used cleverly to show how characters both belong and don’t belong.
As Charlie, James Smith capably carries the piece with a strong performance, particularly when portraying the character’s teenage awkwardness. As a production that uses adults in child roles, however, there is some unevenness in the performances, with portrayals tending to be pitched on the younger side, coming across as more immature than you would expect from the teenagers being depicted. The clear exception is Elijah Valadian-Wilson in the enigmatic titular role, who brings a necessary maturity to the worldly-wise character.
The strongest performance in the show comes from Roy Phung as Charlie’s cricket obsessed Vietnamese best mate, Jeffrey. The engaging effort manages to generate both sympathy, as we witness the effects of his marginalisation, and genuine humour.
The action moves at a good pace that never allows the momentum to drag, while leaving enough room for the lyricism of the script to draw us into reflections on racism, alienation and the agony and ecstasy of growing up. This is an absorbing piece of theatre.
Japser Jones is performed at the Dunstan Playhouse through to 7th September with details and tickets available here.
Reviewed by Matthew Trainor