Summer fun has a dark side

7 July 2021

Shaun Tan’s classic picture book about the complexities of childhood makes a seamless – and wordless – transition to the stage. Lydia Edwards and junior reviewer Sascha Bott are charmed by this new Spare Parts Puppet Theatre production.

Rules of Summer, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre Company ·
Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, Fremantle, 6 July, 2021 ·

Like the original book by Shaun Tan, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s adaptation of Rules of Summer has no clear narrative — which, if you had no prior knowledge of the story, might be disconcerting.

However, the snippet format, with each segment based on one of the eponymous “rules” of summer, is perfect for the suggested age group of 5+ and makes for a fast-moving and innovative experience.

Rules of Summer features puppets of various types and sizes. Photo supplied

Directed by Philip Mitchell, the trio of puppeteers, Rebecca Bradley, David Vikman and Nick Pages-Oliver, play as much a key role as the puppets themselves; indeed, rather than attempting to hide the human element they steal the show, conversing wordlessly and inclusively via kazoos (a hilarious, whimsical Clanger-esque language which elicited screeches of laughter from children and adults), and through deft slapstick.

At times it feels like watching a classic silent film, seemingly innocent but coded with meaning. Charming accompaniment comes from the endearing and diverse parade of puppets, inventive shadow play, dancing torchlight and a soft soundtrack — studded at times by a chorus of crows. Birds are a continuing theme throughout, sometimes slightly ominously, which is in keeping with the unsettling and surrealist echoes present in Tan’s artwork.

Nevertheless, although there are certainly some fleeting moments that caused my five-year-old to cover her eyes, those moments are of a pleasingly spine-tingling nature that children of this age enjoy, and they are invariably followed by skilful pantomime.

Audience participation is beautifully orchestrated in this production, seamlessly and spontaneously woven in from the very earliest moments. Several parts of the routine are carried out by recruited children, much to their delight, and this intimate venue provides the perfect platform for such an exercise.

One particularly successful example focuses on an Alice in Wonderland-style offering of food, the outcome of which could subtly alter the direction of the performance. Later on, a cascade of bubbles dances above the audience’s heads, prompting gleeful jumping and diving from the children. In many respects this is reminiscent of theatre in the round, but without a central stage: the whole auditorium is instead a part of the performance, with interactive elements popping up – sometimes unexpectedly – at all sides. At Tuesday’s performance the appearance of a gently creeping snail across the auditorium ceiling was undoubtedly a favourite surprise among many young viewers.

As so often with Tan’s work, there is a dark or at least sombrely thought-provoking side to this piece. While the endless playground of a child’s imagination is sensitively portrayed, the interruptions of bizarre, seemingly arbitrary rules — “Never step on a snail”, “Never be late for a parade”, “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline” — highlight the complex and confusing nature of adult life. This seems searingly apposite at a time when children are sitting next to masked parents/caregivers, in a world where a dizzying number of often contradictory rules are meted out.

Seen from a 2021 standpoint, Rules of Summer perhaps shines a light on this interruption of childhood innocence, and on the increasingly uncertain trajectory of life during a pandemic.

Junior Review Sascha Bott, age 10

There are all sorts of rules: school rules, house rules and sport rules, but who knew there were rules for summer? That is one thing lots of people would not know.

Directed by Philip Mitchell, Rules of Summer is based on the book by Shaun Tan. The show is about two boys and how the younger boy finds the rules of summer hard to understand.

We see the boys go through lots of different and sometimes strange situations, such as a red sock left on the washing line attracting a giant rabbit. Or stepping on a snail causing a giant hurricane. My favourite part is when the two boys are playing tennis, but the tennis robot is making the balls go into the audience.

Lee Buddle’s moody sounds and music helps the audience to understand how the younger boy is feeling in all the situations. There are shadow puppets, marionette puppets, hand puppets and rod puppets. I think that all the different types of puppets make the show very interesting.

I like the sense of humour in the communication between the actors even though they aren’t actually talking to each other. Instead, they only make sounds through a kazoo. Although I think that when the actor communicates to the audience it is sometimes hard to understand what they are trying to say.

Overall, I think the show is great and will be enjoyable for young kids like me.

Rules of Summer continues until 17 July

Pictured top: Nick Pages-Oliver is one of a trio of puppeteers who bring ‘Rules of Summer’ to life. Photo supplied

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Author —
Lydia Edwards

Lydia Edwards is a fashion historian and author. Her first book How to Read a Dress was published in 2017 and its follow up, How to Read a Suit, will be out in February 2020. She lectures at ECU and WAAPA, and her favourite piece of playground equipment is the expression swing!

Past Articles

  • What to SEE: gig guide for kids this April school holidays

    Even the pandemic can’t keep West Australian kids from enjoying a smorgasbord of the arts. Lydia Edwards offers a taste of where to find the fun in the school holidays.

  • Intimate view from the spectrum

    Awesome Festival continues, with a beautifully constructed, personal perspective of life on the autism spectrum that leaves Lydia Edwards and junior reviewer Bethany Stopher with a rare feeling of connection to the protagonist.

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