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An absolute cracker

Review: shake & stir theatre co, George’s Marvellous Medicine ·
State Theatre Centre of WA, 4 July ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

Making children’s theatre is hard.  Unlike adults, children will not laugh politely at your jokes or remain silent when bored.  If a heartfelt monologue is a trifle too long, it’s liable to be interrupted with a half-shouted “Can we go now?”  Combine indulgent parenting with whiny kids and it’s a short step to a theatre-maker’s nightmare audience.  And then there’s the issue of dual audiences – can you make a work that kids will love and that adults will also enjoy?  Can you get away with a few ribald jokes?  

I point out the difficulty of the feat because I want you to take what I say next seriously – George’s Marvellous Medicine is the best show I’ve seen in recent memory.  Not the best kids’ show, the best show.

This production, based on the famed Roald Dahl book, is co-produced by Brisbane’s shake & stir theatre co. and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.  Under the direction of Ross Balbuziente, each aspect of the production has been finessed from start to finish.  It’s rare to find a show that so comfortably straddles the stylistic line between charmingly home-made and professional, but this is that unusual spectacle.

The wonderfully elaborate set, representing the farmhouse in which George lives, is a patchwork of jumbled shelves, crammed with all the accoutrements of domestic life.  The shelves are set upon a series of moving panels that shift as the action shifts, large enough for the performers to weave in and through. Part nostalgia trip, part theatrical wonder it’s a piece of exceptional craft from designer Josh McIntosh.  Lighting design by Jason Glenwright is also a central feature – the walls of the set are studded with an assortment that flicker on and off at opportune moments, adding to the magical lustre of the production and providing rich fodder for visual jokes.

And sure, the actors have gold to work with – Dahl’s words beg for dramatic interpretation – but shake & stir has taken brave liberties here with an adaptation that deserve accolades of its own.  The story cleaves pretty closely to Dahl’s narrative, but the characters are airlifted into the modern age with genuinely hilarious results.  George’s mother, played by the fabulous Nelle Lee, has become a saucy, selfie-taking shopaholic replete with chunky red heels, leopard skin skirt and fishnets.  Her sassy rapport with George’s Dad, played with an easy joy by Tim Dashwood, is central to much of the sly adult humour that sneaks its way into the script.  George himself is convincingly depicted by Nick Skubij as a wide-eyed mischief-maker, perhaps a trifle sweeter than Dahl’s own creation but very funny nevertheless.  The chicken in Dahl’s story is here too, embodied by the lithe Johnny Balbuziente who has a grand time incorporating a variety of au courant dance moves into his chickenish antics, much to the awe and delight of the young audience.  Flossing and dabbing anyone?

A wide-eyed mischief-maker: Nick Skubij as George. Photo: Dylan Evans

But for me, it was Grandma who stole the show.  As the anti-heroine, Leon Cain is sidesplittingly evil.  His flatulent, mean spiritedness providing all the justification one needs for George’s drastic actions.  Cain has a perfect gift for comic timing and physical humour, well aided by a bang-on soundscape created by Guy Webster.  From the initial horror of her easy-chair entrance (cue terrifying music) to her sudden expansion and diminution later in the show, each scene featuring Gran had me in extended giggling fits.

The 55 minutes pass extremely quickly – if you recall Dahl’s tale, there’s actually not a great deal that happens.  All the more extraordinary then that this bunch manages to weave such a spell in such a brief time.  As my ten year-old companion exclaimed to me post-show, “It was like magic.”  And the nine-year-old?  He rated it 15/10.  An absolute cracker.

George’s Marvellous Medicine plays the State Theatre Centre of WA until July 8.

Pictured top: Leon Cain in ‘George’s Marvellous Medicine’. Photo: Dylan Evans.