Review: The Book of Everything
Maybe it’s the cultural cringe talking, but I rarely leave any of our homegrown festival contributions feeling like I’ve witnessed something on par with the magnificent mercenaries who’ve temporarily docked in our port. But Silo’s The Book of Everything really is world-class.
Australian playwright Richard Tulloch’s adaptation of Dutch Author Guus Kuijer’s modern classic lays its scene in 1950s Amsterdam where nine-year-old (almost ten!) Thomas Klopper (Patrick Carroll) lives in his own world of fantasy and wonderment. Through Thomas’ eyes, the canals are overflowing with lovely guppies, his next door neighbour is a terrifying witch, and his elder sister’s classmate with missing fingers and a leather leg is a princess who belongs in a castle with a Rolls Royce parked out front. It’s all about bravery, and the courage required in facing down terrors, both real and imagined.
The play celebrates and adopts its young protagonist’s imagination as a medicine to the darker parts of the world around him. John Verryt’s wonky, chalked set and Thomas Press’ live foley allow for all kinds of terrific playfulness. The resulting work feels like a cross between Wes Anderson and Jonathan Safran Foer - but where the former is habitually bogged down by formal perfectionism and the latter often strays into cloying mawk, director Sophie Roberts maintains a feeling of vigilant self-awareness. She moves the play along quickly, never stopping to dwell or stooping to patronise. Like one of Thomas Klopper’s hallucinations, things are propulsed forward and are fleeting, to their credit.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Mia Blake draws sympathy and admiration with her warm and understated performance as Thomas’ mother and Sam Snedden’s father is all rigid villainy and thinly-veiled cowardice. Jennifer Ward-Lealand provides occasional entries as Thomas’ charmingly blustery Aunt. Liv Tennet moves with ease between sixteen-year-old Margot’s moments of petulance and heartbreaking courage, and Michelle Blundell’s Eliza is dreamy and understanding.
Rima Te Wiata is exceptional as the irrepressible Mrs. Van Amersford, and her introduction along with Tim Carlsen’s blissed out, deadpan Jesus take the play to another gear. They’re both hilarious.
A few images didn’t land as I imagine they would have liked to: the multitude of sightlines to play to in Q’s Rangatira meant that for some (me), a pair of pigtails which shoud have sprouted atop Te Wiata’s head were bizarrely floating back and off to the side of her. Niggles like this are quickly forgotten though.
The ambition that undertows Tulloch’s script and Robert’s production is its unwillingness to be defined by its audience. Moving swift and undaunted between whimsical set pieces, confrontational thematic material, and grinning moments of meta-theatricality. It’s the kind of show that’s constantly operating on multiple levels of understanding and theatrical consciousness. The Book of Everything is neither a kids show with bits for adults, nor an adult work with bits for kids. It's a play that deals explicitly with themes of domestic violence and all of the knotty, horrible bits and feelings that go along with it, but wraps them up in puns and exuberant cornball magic tricks. It’s a show that intends to be everything for everyone and, astonishingly, it succeeds.
It’s a fearless play about the virtues of fearlessness. Highly recommended.
The Book of Everything plays at Q Theatre from 14 - 22 March
Tickets available through Q Theatre
Matt Baker for TheatreScenes
Simon Wilson for Metro
Nik Smythe for Theatreview