Blueback asks some deep questions of its audience. Julie Hosking is fully immersed in this moving Spare Parts production.
Blueback, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre
Ellie Eaton Theatre, 3 July 2023
As the lights dim, the sounds of the sea wash over us. It has an almost hypnotic effect on the young audience sitting on mats in front of the stage.
They quieten in anticipation as we’re transported from wet and windy Perth to warm and welcoming Longboat Bay, where young Abel Jackson lives with his mother Dora.
We first meet this curious boy in his element, swimming and snorkelling in the ocean: “A diver before he was born.” When he encounters a “monster” on one of his underwater excursions, Abel’s instinct isn’t to flee but to dive back in as soon as possible with his mother to investigate. The creature from the deep is an enormous groper that Abel christens Blueback, the fish a constant comfort weaving in and out of his life as he grows, and his world inevitably changes.
Adapted by Peta Murray from Tim Winton’s beloved children’s novel, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s production of Blueback is like watching gentle waves roll onto the shore as the setting sun dances across the water. Quiet, contemplative, rhythmic and magnetic.
Abel’s coastal playground is brought to life with the clever use of three painted trolleys that are moved around to create the worlds above and below water. Anna Lindstedt and Shaun Johnston ease their puppets (and props) silently around the stage, effortlessly shifting from sea to shore, from undulating eels to the screeching arrival of developers who try to cajole, then bully, Dora into selling her home to make way for a hotel. “It’s no place for a woman on her own.”
A large recess at the back of stage also represents the ocean, waves constantly rippling, as nets then boats signal the damage being brought to bear on Abel’s glorious backyard from overfishing and the threat of development.
The story is narrated largely through letters, from Abel to his long-lost father and later Dora to Abel, their voices full of character, revealing the strong connection between mother and son, as well as to the marine environment that has shaped their family.
The letters track the passing of time: young Abel asking his Dad every question he can think of, determined to study fish “so I’ll know what they think”; the teenager holding his breath whenever he leaves his marine sanctuary for boarding school inland; Dora sharing her misgivings about the arrival of the “reef stripper” Costello and the changing weather patterns; Abel heading off to work as a marine expert but all the while moving further from the place that makes him whole.
Anchoring the themes of love, loss and hope is Don Hopkins’ music – at turns uplifting, melancholic and menacing, but always sympathetic to a story that director Phillip Mitchell has treated with respect.
Hanna Parssinen’s puppets are gorgeous. The gentle groper may have all the colour, but the wooden Dora and Abel are infused with personality, thanks to the artful combination of creator, puppeteer and narrator. Children will love them all.
Some, however, may struggle with the deeper topics of death (animals and people) and destruction (the environment). There also isn’t much in the way of laughs in this slow-burning beauty.
While we found the pace soothing, lyrical even, some of the young ones snap out of their hypnosis about halfway through and start running up and down to their adults in the seats. I’d suggest leaving anyone younger than primary school age at home so you can fully immerse yourself in this incarnation of Winton’s wonderland.
There are so many lessons for us all if we only take the time to listen.
Pictured top: Abel swims with his fishy friend Blueback. Photo: Simon Pynt
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