Jasper Jones, adapted by Kate Mulvaney from a novel by Craig Silvey | Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks

Belvoir (http://belvoir.com.au) | Belvoir Street Theatre Upstairs, Surry Hills, Sydney | Until 7 February

Jasper Jones, Craig Silvey’s second novel, was published in 2009 to critical acclaim. It won several major literary awards and is a popular text in many high schools around the country. The novel has also been adapted for both the big screen and as a powerful and intimate play by Kate Mulvaney.

Mulvaney’s adaption, like the novel, begins in 1965 in Corrigan, a country town in Western Australia, where it is the height of summer. Australian forces are fighting in Vietnam, conscription has just been introduced, but introverted and bookish 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin (Tom Conroy) doesn’t need to worry about that for some time.

Jasper Jones (Guy Simon) arrives at Charlie’s bedroom late one night. Jasper, like Charlie, is an outsider, but unlike Charlie Jasper has a reputation as a bad boy. He is part Aboriginal and a victim of the town’s racist attitudes.

Jasper leads Charlie to his secret place in the bush where the body of Laura (Matilda Ridgeway) is hanging from a tree and Jasper fears he will be blamed for her death. And so begins a mysterious and tragic quest to unravel the events that occurred.

Michael Hankin’s deceptively sparse and simple set design evokes both the period and the essence of a Western Australian mining town. Small moveable houses with louvered windows slide on stage as required, overshadowed at all times by the imposing eucalypt tree that is static and silent and sees all. Steve Toulmin’s subtle sound design of cricking cicadas provides a soundscape that evokes sweating-out summer in the Australian bush.

The play’s title character and the main character, Charlie, are both played with quiet assurance and energy by Guy Simon and Tom Conroy respectively.

All six performers impress, with many of them playing multiple roles.

Mulvaney puts down her pen to don the role of Jasper’s domineering but desperate mother whilst Steve Rodgers plays his academic father and the more challenging role of the reclusive Mad Jack Lionel. Both are efficiently effective, as is Matilda Ridgeway playing both Wishart girls.

However it is Charles Wu as Jeffrey Lu, a Vietnamese migrant teenager and Charlie’s friend and fellow fringe dweller, who steals the show, particularly in the cricket scene where Anne-Louise Sark’s detailed direction cleverly juggles the complex staging of a local cricket match to render a theatrical highlight – dropped balls and all!

This is a graceful, serious-minded, modern period piece which poignantly evokes a coming-of-age-drama perfectly. Think To Kill a Mockingbird meets Twin Peaks.

Kate Mulvaney’s intelligent adaptation avoids any clichéd elements of the original novel, instead distilling the essence and concerns of the lengthy novel into a manageable theatrical experience. It is a remarkable achievement.

Thumbs Up!

Images: Lisa Tomaseti.