A strange and beautiful ride

12 July 2017

Review: The Arrival –
Spare Parts Puppet Theatre –
The Dolphin Theatre, University of Western Australia –
5 July –
Reviewed by Nina Levy –

Based on the graphic novel of the same name, The Arrival brings to life the strange and wonderful imagination of author and illustrator Shaun Tan through animation, movement, mime, music and puppetry. Adapted, written and animated by Michael Barlow and directed by Philip Mitchell, The Arrival was first presented by Spare Parts Puppet Theatre in 2006 and has enjoyed several re-stagings since.

Set in a world of fantastic creatures and surreal dreamscapes, The Arrival is a migrant story, following Aki (Ellis Pearson), who has farewelled his wife and child to seek a life for his family in a new place. In keeping with Tan’s novel, the play uses no verbal communication. Like a migrant who does not speak the language, the audience must navigate this new place without the aid of written or spoken words.

The Arrival
Ellis Pearson as Aki in ‘The Arrival’. Photo: Rebecca Mansell.

Animated versions of Tan’s illustrations form the backdrop to the action, and, together with Aki, we discover a world that is nostalgic yet unfamiliar, whimsical yet dark. Elements such as Aki’s ship-voyage, his vintage suitcase and hat seem to place him in the earthly past – maybe he is a twentieth century postwar migrant. On his arrival, however, he travels in a driverless hot air balloon over a densely detailed urban landscape of chimneys and cone-shaped buildings decorated with foreign symbols, and massive discs adorned with geometric designs. Airborne ships float over roads and buildings that interweave and overlap.  Giant curving statues of human and animal figures preside over these surreal scenes. We are  somewhere unearthly and unplaceable.

As Aki searches for a home and a job, he sketches his new world, folding the images into origami birds which he releases into the air, presumably to fly to his family. Like the origami letters, the set folds and fans. On its various surfaces, animated versions of Tan’s illustrations are projected, transforming its pockets into a ship deck, a ticket booth, a bedroom, a field, a street.

The animations are simple but effective. The ship deck tips from side to side and we empathise with a seasick passenger. Unfurling scenery behind Aki’s balloon-taxi creates the illusion of flight. A moving figure on a map shows us his foot-journey through his new town.

It’s all accompanied by Lee Buddle’s dream-like score; a mix of melody and soundscape, with falls of guitar strings or voices, clusters of percussion, odd ringing notes.

As Tan himself has observed, the strange creatures that inhabit his book are well-suited to puppetry. For the play, two of these are transformed into puppets, one of which takes a lead role as Aki’s companion. Whilst this cheeky, squeaky charmer was beautifully portrayed and cleverly operated by various performers (both on stage and out of sight) in the performance viewed, the transformation feels a little jarring. In Tan’s illustrations, the creature is a land-dweller, a sort of rodent/dog/alien, and depicted in sepia (as are all the illustrations). The puppet counterpart seems more like a marine creature – albeit one able to live on land – some kind of eel/dolphin hybrid. Bright blue and reminiscent of a muppet, it doesn’t seem to fit with the muted tones and textures of its surroundings, nor does its yellow friend.

This is, however, a small quibble. The Arrival takes the audience on a fantastical voyage, charting the travails of the migrant experience with a light yet sensitive touch. As Aki, Pearson was vulnerable yet resilient, with a slapstick quality to his movement that kept the audience chuckling. Fleshing out various other characters, Alicia Osyka and Shirley van Sanden underpinned each role with a touch of zany. Kudos also to Adrienne Patterson, who is not seen but voices and operates the puppets at various times, alongside Osaka and van Sanden.

Whether you’re young or not-so-young, The Arrival is a strange and beautiful ride. It’s well worth getting on board.

The Arrival
Ellis Pearson & Shirley van Sanden in ‘The Arrival’. Photo: Rebecca Mansell.

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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