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Evocative, freaky wonderment

Rules of Summer, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre ◆
Dolphin Theatre, 22 September ◆
Review by Varnya Bromilow ◆

Truth be told, I was not in the mood for a puppet show on Friday night.  It had been a fairly awful day.  Imagine my delight then, in discovering that it is precisely when you don’t feel like a puppet show that you should get off the couch and go see a puppet show.

The new show from Spare Parts Puppet Theatre is based on the Shan Tan book, Rules of Summer.  The show cleaves closely to the text, beginning with a series of summer-tinted vignettes and ending with the more plot driven aspect of the acclaimed children’s book.  In his comments following Friday night’s premiere, Spare Parts Artistic Director Phillip Mitchell praised Tan, both for allowing the company the artistic license necessary for the adaptation and for his enthusiastic embrace of the partnership with Spare Parts (it is Tan’s third book adapted by the company).

Tan’s books and Mitchell’s artistic vision are wonderfully complementary.  As with Tan’s books, Spare Parts never creates shows that talk down to children.  Instead, they challenge the imaginations of young viewers, encouraging them to make connections that are not obvious.  Like Spare Parts’ shows, Tan’s books are as appealing to adults as they are to children.  For adults, the works of both Tan and Spare Parts evoke a whimsical nostalgia, while for children the shows (and books) tap directly into the mystery and adventure of being a child let loose in the world.

In Rules of Summer two brothers are spending days as all kids do during those endless summer holiday hours…bicycling around, creating vast imaginary worlds, fighting, catching bugs, duelling over TV choices…oh the nostalgia evoked by the lack of a remote control!  Their adventures are girded by a set of rules improvised by the boys and projected by torches onto screens that surround the stage.  This show treads new ground for Spare Parts – using the entirety of the Dolphin Theatre, the team brings us a theatrical experience that is immersive, interactive and sensory.  From the moment we were ushered into the theatre, kazoo-wielding artists engage gleefully with the audience.  What better way to prime an audience of under-12’s?

The boy puppets are charmingly bobble-headed marionettes, their sweetly loose-jointed bodies almost following their heads around.  Long-time Spare Parts collaborator, designer Leon Hendroff, has recreated Tan’s characters with wondrous accuracy – his creatures are just as enchanting as Tan’s paper-borne ones.  It’s always such a treat to see what Hendroff has created for Spare Parts’ shows and in this particular case, his aesthetic perfectly mirrors Tan’s own. Hendroff’s vision has been brought to vivid life by the marvellously talented makers Bryan Woltjen and Sanjiva Margio.  Two parts whimsy, one part freaky.

But amidst the enchantment and the nostalgia there is – as there often seems to be in children’s shows (and certainly Tan’s own work) – a slightly sinister undertone.  Shadows dance; the music takes an eerie turn, a shadow of a crow caws a drawling cry that cuts through the low-ebb buzz of summer nights.  These boys are alone – with their imaginations and with one another – unless you count the TV, the adventurous snail, or that spooky cat, so eerily reminiscent of the Studio Ghibli movies.   A sense of creeping dread underlies these Rules of Summer.

I’m always a little puzzled by the use of “spooky freakiness” (a quote from my ten year old companion) in entertainment primarily pitched to children.  From Walt Disney to the most fringe production, a sense of doom often pervades the innocence.  Is this adults projecting their sense of unease onto the whimsy of childhood? Or is it an accurate reflection of childhood fears?  Whatever the motivation, this trope always feels predictable – uh-oh, here comes the scary bit!

But this is a minor vexation, likely amplified by the anxiety of my particular progeny: for the most part, the show is warm and funny and joyfully evocative.  Truly gorgeous shadow-play is enhanced by the universal appeal of bubbles, smoke, and a marvellous score composed by the brilliant Lee Buddle.  The company players, Nick Pages-Oliver, Rebecca Handley and Allan Girod (in his first show as puppeteer) revel in their roles, acting as reassuring presences as the boys navigate this weird world.  As we (impatiently!) await the onset of our own summer, Rules of Summer is a transfixing way to spend an afternoon.

Rules of Summer plays the Dolphin Theatre until October 8th

You can buy tickets here