An energetic State Theatre cast makes the rich and awkward adolescent world of Kate Mulvany’s Jasper Jones adaptation pop, but death, racism and adult complexities lurk behind every paperbark tree.
Jasper Jones is the name on the poster but it’s Charlie Bucktin (James Smith) who we meet first. Smith plays Charlie with great comic timing and sincerity as the classic dweeb, a bespectacled, bookish and risk-averse Peter Parker without any of the super powers. All of which makes the appearance of the town’s go-to (and racially determined) scapegoat Jasper Jones (Elijah Valadian-Wilson) at his window all the more surprising. Valadian-Wilson cuts a coolly enigmatic figure as the slightly older Jones, carrying a certain James Dean energy with rolled up t-shirt sleeves and gravitas-projecting eyebrows that makes Charlie’s decision to follow him into the dead of night make perfect sense.
They wander through designer Ailsa Paterson’s magnificent set of seven towering eucalypts that reach up and through the ceiling of the Dunstan Playhouse, bark peeling like papery death with thick trunks that make children out of these adult actors. Like so many stories in popular culture, theirs begins with a dead white girl called Laura (Rachel Burke, who also plays younger sister, and Charlie’s crush, Eliza). The Twin Peaks comparisons don’t end there in Craig Silvey’s meta-textual story, that self-consciously echoes the likes of Harper Lee and Truman Capote while his characters read them. Jones insists on his innocence and enlists Charlie’s help, but is more often an unseen presence as Charlie grapples with the guilt and repercussions their late night misadventure.
The shock of Laura’s death irrevocably changes how Charlie sees his world, but it soon becomes clear that the town of Corrigan was already fraying at the seams. In the lives of its adults and children, racism and homophobia stick like shirts on backs in an Australian heatwave – and the secret Charlie sits on is one of many. Each has the potential to transform the lives of Charlie and his neighbours, but as with Laura’s death the task of finding who to blame is rarely as easy as it seems.
That darkness, always just kept at bay, finally bears fruit in the cascading revelations of the play’s home stretch, but it’s the adolescent world of Corrigan that is most memorable. Mirthfully adapted by Mulvany, the cast deliver the gleefully volleyed swear words, awkward romantic exchanges, and impassioned arguments about whether Batman or Superman is the superior hero with an adolescent relish.
Emma Beech inspires two very different kinds of terror in the magnetic dual role of Charlie’s mother Ruth and the local bully Warwick, but it’s fellow State Theatre first timer Roy Phung who hits the majority of sixes as Charlie’s best friend Jeffrey Lu. Cricket-obsessed and hilarious, despite being nearly constantly racially marginalised, it’s a joy every time the Lus’ front door descends from the rafters – another simple but beautiful part of Paterson’s set design.
But, like life, those moments gradually slip away as more serious matters come to a head. Charlie soon learns that while adulthood will bring an escape from the small humiliations and alienation of youth, it has new kinds of pain – and joy – in store. Through it all, however, director Nescha Jelk and Valadian-Wilson make it clear that for Jones, neither a safely cloistered childhood or the self-determination of adulthood have ever been guaranteed.
August 16 – September 7