Reviews/Musical Theatre

Fun musical plants hope for the future

24 September 2021

After 40 years in the industry, Fremantle’s family theatre company Spare Parts Puppet Theatre have created their first ever musical. Rosalind Appleby and Seesaw’s junior reviewers say it was worth the wait!

The One Who Planted Trees, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre ·
Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, 22 September 2021 ·

Director Philip Mitchell has produced Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s first musical, translating a French novella into a fun romp that looks and feels like it has come straight from the Australian outback. The musical is based on the 1953 short story The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, a story of hope and persistence, written as Europe emerged from two disastrous world wars.

GIono’s simple story, with its hints of biblical parable, is about a shepherd who plants trees to reforest a desolate valley. Mitchell makes the shepherd a woman, the narrator a dog and, with the help of a variety of extra animals (every musical needs a chorus) expands Giono’s allegory into a musical of Broadway anthems, heart-breaking solos and even a slapstick chase-scene.

The story is told from the perspective of the animals and unfolds in an incongruous mix of hilarious hi-jinks and quiet reverence. We see both their suffering and joy as they play their part in the forest ecosystem. Giono’s environmental message is just as clear and even more potent 70 years later as we face a climate change disaster.

The prologue is told through Clare Testoni’s animated film, a series of sepia-toned snapshots of the Shepherd and the family she has lost. Leon Hendroff’s set then establishes the landscapes, transforming magically between the desert and the forest (which the junior reviewers describe so aptly below). The agile puppeteers Amberly Cull, Bec Bradley and Nick Pages-Oliver work invisibly to bring to life Koala, Bandicoot, Frilly, some naughty sheep and a host of other bush creatures (also designed by Hendroff). They navigate the demands of the moving set and seamlessly lip-sync the puppets with the pre-recorded dialogue and song.

The fast-paced script by Cull and Pages-Oliver plays with rhythms and rhymes and is fun, although not always easy to follow. In some cases the words are extraneous; Spare Parts have taught me over the years just how much can be conveyed without words, but this production sometimes feels a little heavy-handed with the moralising.

The entire script and soundtrack (by Melanie Robinson) are pre-recorded by the cast with Iain Grandage and Harry Mitchell (piano), Linda Oh (bass), Ben Vanderwal (drums) and Robinson (cello and voice), mixed with clarity and crispness by sound designer Lee Buddle.

Robinson’s score (with Carmel Dean) is both ethereal (the Shepherd’s theme) and fun (the baa-bershop chorus for the sheep). There are musical references flying everywhere; my kids spot the Baa Baa Black Sheep tune with delight. This is a score that bubbles with life and emotion, reflecting the diversity and richness of a complete forest ecosystem through music. The quality was exceptional, I’m hoping Spare Parts will release the soundtrack as an album?

All too soon the show wraps up with the celebratory refrain “It’s hard to believe it all came from a seed” and Dog adds sagely “That’s the dog-honest truth”.

The message is clear, told with great tunes, a remarkable set and heaps of humour. My children discuss afterwards why people still chop down trees, how funny the sheep were, and the fact that “without trees nothing would exist”. The One Who Plants Trees is fabulous theatre for the entire family, we could definitely watch it again to pick up another layer, and have just as much fun. Highly recommended!

Frilly, Bandicoot and Koala want a place they can call home, with trees and food and shade. Photo Rebecca Mansell

Junior review – Isabel Greentree, age 11 ·

The beautiful musical The One Who Planted Trees is based on a story about how important trees are to the earth, and how we have to save them. It starts with our world, beautiful and clean, animals working in harmony. Then humans arrive. Slowly, towns begin to build up, they turn into cities and, eventually, the last tree gets cut down. Then we see a girl, who becomes a woman (alone except for the company of a dog) looking after sheep in the desert, where the real story begins.

The scenery is amazing, with a screen that folds and lifts for scene changes. Originally it is a projection screen, and then folds so that there are rows for the puppets to run along. The set has no real colour – just a plain, natural brown, a sort of paper – so it changes colour easily, using projected pictures and colour.

The puppeteers are really good. I couldn’t see them at all. They do their parts perfectly, in time with the recordings for their speaking and singing. The songs are beautifully composed, and work perfectly with the acting to carried the emotions throughout the theatre. It makes me feel really sad, but motivated to do the right thing.

The three main characters are a Bandicoot, a Koala and a Frill Necked Lizard. There are other characters, like the sheep, or the Dog. It is very funny, especially in parts where the sheep are singing about being bored, or the dog desperately trying to retrieve an item that the sheep definitely shouldn’t have had.

The trees that were planted get cut down and then the scenery lifts up, and we can see underground. The bacteria are crowding around a new seed, helping it to grow. After many years, there is a beautiful forest where a desert once lay.

This musical is wonderful, and I recommend it for all ages. Go out and plant some trees!

Eddy Greentree, age 9 ·

This show is about how chopping down trees can affect lots of animals. There is a Bandicoot, a Koala and a Frill Necked Lizard and some sheep, who all want more trees and shade because the place is like a desert. Then someone starts planting trees and people start coming there, and chopp down all the trees to make houses and other things. But the person keeps on planting trees and in the end there is a beautiful forest.

There is a lot of music and all the animals sing songs. There are lots of funny songs all through the show, including when the sheep sing about how bored they are, and when the micro-organisms sing about how they are an important part of the forest. The tunes and harmonies are pretty good. The songs are happy at the end in the forest. 

The set is clever because it can make things look far away and the animals can do chases in the different rows. Then when the forest grows, they lifted up the rows and we can see below the ground as well.  The lighting makes everything look dry and brown when there are no trees, and beautiful and green in the forest. 

This show is different to other puppet shows because the puppeteers were hidden behind the set and they must have crawled around a lot.  I liked how the puppeteers could move the puppets’ mouths.  The puppets and the set are made of paper, which is funny because the storyias about not cutting down trees. 

I think that kids will like this show a lot. 

The One Who Planted Trees continues until 9 October 2021.

Pictured top: The animals are an essential part of the ecosystem in ‘The One Who Planted Trees’. Photo Rebecca Mansell

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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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