Little creature offers big rewards for young and old

13 July 2022

Barking Gecko, Tim Watts and Arielle Gray make wonderful theatre out of Cicada, Shaun Tan’s parable for all ages, write David Zampatti and junior reviewer Pippa Turnbull.

Cicada, Barking Gecko Theatre Company ·
STC Studio, 12 July 2022 ·

Cicada, Shaun Tan’s 2018 parable of drudgery, oppression, resilience and cathartic freedom, has been given a stylish adaptation, and a glorious staging, by Barking Gecko Theatre Company’s artistic director Luke Kerridge, working with Arielle Gray and Tim Watts of The Last Great Hunt. 

Tan says that his picture book was not “particularly” for children, though it was accessible to them, and Kerridge, Gray and Watts have delivered on that purpose completely. 

The kids in the matinee audience I attended were engrossed and full of eager questions for their handlers – the sure-fire sign of engagement with what they are watching. There was not a fidget in the house. 

At the same time, Cicada offers rich rewards for adults; it’s a show where technical excellence becomes inspired, where craft and art both serve imagination, and the result is exciting entertainment. 

The cicada lives a life of time-clock drudgery, working in the basement of the high finance firm of Paterson and Paterson. While his superiors swing their deals and swing at their office parties, Cicada deals with the mountain of paperwork they produce. He’s almost human – well, of course, he IS human – his six little legs clasping drinks and food, all that paper, negotiating the elevators and the office furniture. Once, in a scene of disastrous hilarity, it’s a cup of coffee (handy hint: NEVER give your pet cicada coffee). 

Cicada makes a friend. Photo: Mac1Photography

Meanwhile, he’s the victim of the cruelty of his co-workers, the faceless men who bully and belittle him.  

At night, alone in his little flat, he’s transfixed by a nature documentary about the remarkable life cycle of the cicada (Google it), its fate and its apotheosis. 

And so the story goes. 

Gray and Watt manipulate the little cicada figure and its surroundings with incredible dexterity and feeling; Watt, who’s in full view throughout, transfigures the inanimate puppet he handles into a creature with emotion and agency, while Gray prepares and changes their environment with astonishing dexterity. 

They may be the only performers, but Chloe Ogilvie’s lighting design is a star in its own right; precise, sometimes sinister, constantly shape-shifting. Tim Collins’ sound design, working with Jonathon Jie Hong Yang’s elegant compositions, is in perfect harmony with Ogilvie’s illumination. 

Set designer Tyler Hill has stayed true to the sombre tones of Tan’s picture book, itself inspired by the mid-20th century dystopian vision of George Orwell and his peers. The effects he creates – the cicada climbing a floating, Escher-like staircase, the Big Reveal (I won’t say too much) where his tight little set becomes something grand, and magical – are just superb. 

Tan, Barking Gecko, Gray and Watts are important and inspiring art makers, and Cicada ranks as a high point among their many achievements.  

If you have young people (I don’t think it matters what their age, frankly), take them to see it. 

If you don’t, just take yourself. 

Junior review by Pippa Turnbull, age 14 ·

From the moment we step from the cold, drizzly evening into the warm cosy foyer, we are engulfed by the fun-filled atmosphere. There are several engaging and entertaining children’s activities on offer prior to the show, building the sense of anticipation. 

The full house ranges in age from young children to grandparents. On stage we are greeted by a dull grey office setting, with the two cast members in matching grey suits. They look at their schedules, make notes and discuss issues before pausing for a coffee and crossword break. The monotonous elevator style music playing in the background adds to the tension.  

As this wholesome, touching tale of a lonely cicada who works tirelessly at the same mundane office job unfolds, we see Cicada experience some of the day-to-day challenges. Being short has its difficulties! We meet Cicada’s manager, who is nasty and belittling. When Cicada discovers a wilting plant among piles of paperwork, he cares for and befriends it; the plant his only company and a refuge from the bullying.  

Never give your pet cicada coffee! Photo: Mac1Photography

The whole story takes place on an office desk. Jonathon Jie Hong Yang’s music and Tim Collins’ sounds help change a heart-breaking scene to a heart-warming one in seconds. Chloe Ogilvie’s lighting also plays a major role in setting the scene, creating hallways, elevators and conveying the passing of the day. (Tyler Hill and Amalia Lambert learnt a lot about scale as they designed the miniature props.) 

My family and I agreed that this was one of the best theatre shows we have seen. It had all ages guffawing with laughter one moment and holding back tears the next. The plot touched our hearts and promoted reflection. We grew fond of the little creature we had come to know in the past hour. I highly recommend you see it. 

UPDATE – September 2022 Awesome Festival season

Cicada will play the Dolphin Theatre, UWA, 30 September – 1 October 2022, as part of the Awesome Festival

Cicada is at the STC Studio Underground until August 6, and then tours to:

Koorliny Arts Centre (Kwinana) 19 August
Mandurah Performing Arts Centre 23-24 August
Harvey Recreation and Cultural Centre 26 August
Queens Park Theatre (Geraldton) 31 Aug-1 September
Broome Civic Centre 8-9 September

Pictured top: Cicada celebrates his 17-year anniversary by himself. Photo: Mac1Photography 

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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