A special kind of heart-wrenching

2 November 2020

A compelling cast bring to life one of Barking Gecko Theatre Company’s most popular productions. Rosalind Appleby and junior reviewer Bethany Stopher discuss what makes this show so special.

Bambert’s Book of Lost Stories, Barking Gecko Theatre ·
Octagon Theatre, 31 October 2020 ·

Children know what it is to feel small. At a party on the weekend my daughter crept up to me and whispered, “I’m the youngest person here and I can’t join in the games properly.”

Later that evening we went to see Barking Gecko Theatre company’s revival of Bambert’s Book of Lost Stories, the company’s first show back in the theatre since Fully Sikh last year. We watched as a man who had felt small his whole life found a way to be big. The Helpmann award-winning show ushered us into a world of words, where an overlooked person tries to write himself into the world.

In Luke Kerridge and Dan Giovannoni’s 2016 adaptation of Reinhardt Jung’s 1998 book Bamberts Buch der verschollenen Geschichten the character Bambert is brought to life as a puppet in an exquisite multi-storey wooden set.

The magic in this show is that, like Jonathon Oxlade’s set, it operates on multiple levels. The language is poetic with metaphors about dreams, ships and the moon, but the narrative is simple: Bambert is a writer and he wants his stories to find a setting so he attaches them to balloons and waits for people to return them postmarked with their location. The show is fairly long – 75 minutes with no interval – but broken into bite-sized pieces as Bambert’s stories come to life in vignettes both grim (the wax works) humorous (the princess searching for a prince) and fantastical (writers escaping prison on a beam of light).

Jonathon Oxlade’s exquisite multi-storey set. Photo by Anna Kucera

Bambert might be a tiny man, but thanks to the work of puppeteer St John Cowcher he is instantly compelling. Cowcher’s gestures wordlessly convey Bambert’s strength, childish impatience, frailty and immense hope. The dancing was particularly poignant as Bambert begins to succeed in making his stories real: “He felt Big. Nothing could shrink his heart today”.

The wonderfully expressive Igor Sas is endearing as the shopkeeper Mr Bloom and the remaining cast members Amanda McGregor, Jo Morris and Nick Maclaine take on multiple roles, although their attention – and ours – was always drawn back to Bambert. They amplify him with a myriad of sympathetic gestures; the pocket handkerchief blanket tucked around Bambert was particularly sweet.

Oxlade’s set is part cubby house, part dolls house, with trapdoors, miniature furniture, spiral stairs and even a working lift. Chris Donnelly’s lighting illuminates with subtlety and flair while Ian Moorhead’s sound design captures the emotional shades of the story.

This was a game anyone could join, no matter what age and we plunged into the journey, delighting in Bambert’s stories, feeling his vulnerabilities, dancing with him, loving him and mourning him.

There were big laughs and big tears. Sensitive children will be challenged by the sadness. We were grateful to be welcomed into a story that was about a search for kindness and connection, where dreaming big enables you (and others) to sail away to the other side of dreams.

READ Arts must stay young at heart: why arts for young people is so important

Junior reviewer Bethany Stopher, age 14 ·

Bambert’s Book of Lost Stories, performed by Barking Gecko Theatre company, is a touching yet heart-wrenching masterpiece that perfectly combines visuals, special effects, acting and, of course, the power of words and story-telling to create something truly special.

I found the cast incredible. Bambert, the little friend who occupies the attic of Mr. Bloom’s store of specialised groceries, is a puppet. However cleverly designed he may be, it’s the cast that really bring him to life. They all have incredibly animated expressions to portray his emotions (Bambert only speaks in indistinguishable grunts and grumbles), along with dramatic hand gestures. Working as a team, they manage to work him so that his movements are fluent and extremely believable. He may be a puppet, but he feels very real to the audience.

The cast make Bambert extremely believable. Photo by Anna Kucera

I loved the re-enactment of Bambert’s stories. Once a setting has been established with post stamps, it comes to life before our eyes as it would have done for Bambert. His whole world is an attic, his main source of communication the elevator to the shop for Mr. Bloom to deliver his meals and post. With his stories, we are all transported; Spain, London, Russia, complete with accents. His stories are enrapturing, although sometimes sinister, and the actors really did them justice. Igor Sas as Mr. Bloom, was especially endearing as the kindly narrator of the tale. His hearty chuckles earnt infectious gurgles of laughter from the youngest members of the audience.

On that note, I am surprised that Bambert’s Lost Book of Stories is advertised as a children’s performance; I felt as though it was better suited for a more mature audience. Some of his stories had dark themes such as suicide, prisoners and war; our hearts throbbed for Bambert when we discovered the truth of his newfound happiness. The climax of the show literally left me in tears, and the adult audience around me were bawling their eyes out too.

However, the performance isn’t all gloom; it had many humorous aspects. The scenes were witty, and Bambert was adorable. The scenery and special effects added to the atmosphere; Mr. Bloom’s store is a quaint and rustic little environment, with books, multiple mysterious pigeonholes, the elevator with the ringing bell, and the winding wooden staircase leading to Bambert’s cosy nook, with his big book of stories, and his tiny armchair facing the moon. Certain pieces of scenery have clever elements that complemented the stories as they unfolded. There are also many special effects used, such as audio that reinforces and makes the story more engaging and lighting, such as lightning, a single sunbeam or glowing lanterns sending Bambert’s stories out into the world.

I definitely recommend this deep and emotive theatre experience that will stir the most cynical of hearts; it is undeniably sad, but eye opening nevertheless. I just advise you to consider how your youngest audience members might react as the show might be better suited to older children.  

Bambert’s Book of Lost Stories continues 7, 14 November & 20 November and is recommended for children 8+.

Pictured top: Bambert’s stories are set free on balloons. Photo Anna Kucera

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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