Saturday, May 17, 2014

The 13-Storey Treehouse by Richard Tulloch

 The 13-Storey Treehouse by Richard Tulloch.  Adapted from the book by Andy Griffiths and illustrated by Terry Denton.  Presented by CDP Theatre Producers, directed by Julian Louis. Set and costumes designed by Mark Thompson, lighting designed by Nicholas Higgins, sound by Jeremy Silver.
Canberra Theatre Centre, May 15-17, 2014.  60 minutes, no interval.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Bamboozled!  Frantic!  Nervous about catnaries.  Anxious about not being prepared.  Is this a rehearsal or the real thing?

Writing a play about writing a play about a book which is about writing a book is no easy task.  No wonder we were all a bit bamboozled – just the right word, said my assistant reviewer, Stevie, aged 8.  He also had to explain ‘catnaries’ to me, and why Andy and Terry were nervous about how Jill might feel about her favourite cat being painted yellow and turning into a canary – especially when it flew away!

Arriving at the theatre half an hour early proved that I am the last person in Canberra to know about things like catnaries, and what happens when your sea monkey turns into a mermaid, which turns into a monster when you marry her.  The queue to have books signed by the real Andy Griffiths after the previous performance still snaked 80 metres along outside the theatre.  By the time our performance had finished, that queue had dissipated, but the foyer was immediately refilled with the next contingent.  ‘Popular’ was my assistant reviewer’s word for it.  We didn’t have another hour or more to spare, so Stevie had to miss his signature moment.  Can I get one by email?

‘Emotional’ was Stevie’s other word for the play.  This surprised me a bit, until I thought things through.  The characters were frantic (and therefore very funny), but there were times when laughter was not the emotion of the moment.  There were significant silences, such as when Terry and Andy realised that what they had said might really have upset Stage Manager Val.  It was a mark of the quality of the writing – of the play in this case rather than the book – to sense the change in the audience’s feelings as they swung from irrepressible laughter to sympathy for Val and empathy with Andy and Terry.

There was a point where Terry and/or Andy (who reminded me of Rosencrantz and/or Guildersten) said to no-one in particular that this play (the play they were trying to write) wasn’t just entertaining but educational as well.  My assistant Stevie, well within the show’s intended age bracket 6 to 12, didn’t exactly pick up on this line.  But he had picked up on ‘emotional’.

Thinking about this, I found I had some concern about the celebrity status of the author of the book.  Where was the author of the play?  There should have been a queue for Richard Tulloch to sign everyone’s copy of the script.  It’s his imagination which has turned Andy Griffiths’ and Terry Denton’s imagination into an even better education (as well as more subtle entertainment) than the original book.  The play educates the audience about the value and nature of theatre at the same time as informing them of cultural icons, as well as introducing some adult jokes (in the book) such as “That’s not a knife.  This is a knife!”  We adults fully appreciated the place of ‘luminous’ Cate Blanchett, ‘tough’ Russell Crowe, not so tough Geoffrey Rush and beautiful Nicole Kidman – and the youngsters got to hear their names (except Crocodile Dundee’s Paul Hogan, who is perhaps persona non grata nowadays).

The most important aspect of Tulloch’s work was his playing with the relationship between the actors and the audience.  He draws from the pantomime tradition in some ways, where the actors speak directly to the audience, but takes this to a possibly new level for children’s theatre especially in the character of Val, who of course is not in the book.  She is the Stage Manager, inveigled by Andy and Terry to play all the other roles in their story (since they thought this was only going to be a scriptwriting session (and, so they said, Cate, Russell, Geoffrey and Nicole couldn’t be there).

The essential message of the play (as it is in the book) is to use your imagination.  We see Eliza Logan playing Val playing next-door neighbour Jill, or Bill the Postman, or Mermaidia (as a seductive mermaid who transmogrifies into a husband eating monster), and returning to Val in between times, as well as appearing as herself in the curtain call.  Watching Eliza use her imagination right before our very eyes is a lesson in itself.

In addition to the excellent performances of the three main actors Andrew Johnston as Andy, Matthew Lilley as Terry and Eliza Logan as Stage Manager Val, two crew members played essential roles handling props and scenery as part of the action.  We didn’t see the real stage manager, Vanessa Wright, but her deputy and assistant stage managers, Sally Reid and Holly Neil, kept the action flowing smoothly, working closely with the actors in a set as frenetic in construction as one would expect from the drawings in the original book.

Compared with the original book, which was about writing a book, there were two differences which I appreciated.  I’m backed up in this by my assistant reviewer Stevie.

On stage the wonderful set design included a seriously more realistic massive eye and stomping foot (which gruesomely squashes Bark the Dog) of the gorilla who tries to shake down the 13-storey treehouse.  The original drawings are simply not so scary – but a bit more scary is good in the theatre.

The other is a more subtle change by Richard Tulloch, which makes the ending work dramatically (whereas the ending of the book is a bit weak, I think).  Mr Big Nose in the book is Andy’s and Terry’s publisher, very angry because they forget to finish the book on time.  At the end, though he publishes the book, he remains a distant and rather unpleasant character.  But when Mr Big Nose appears on the projector screen from his smart phone in the play, he is demanding but not as nasty.  At the end, now the play is finished, as Terry and Andy are worried that everything has gone wrong, Mr Big Nose phones in to say how good the play has turned out.

This is not just a happy ending (which after all it should be for a comedy), but it makes the point that imagination may take you to all sorts of unexpected and apparently disastrous places on the way, but in the end that’s how making a book happens – or even making a play about making a play about making a book about making a book.  So thank you to Andy and Terry, and Richard, and Andrew and Matthew and Eliza and Vanessa and Sally and Holly and Julian and Mark and Nicholas and Jeremy, and CDP for presenting Richard’s play of Andy and Terry’s book.

Eliza Logan playing Stage Manager Val playing Mermaidia

Andrew Johnston as Andy

Matthew Lilley as Terry
Photos by Branco Gaica

1 comment:

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