This review originally appeared on www.australianstage.com.au
Africa is a story of the resilience of children, of their ability to move into a fantasy world, to create new lives from tales on television and clutter in toy rooms. It is a story of neglected children, the painful life they lead; their struggle and the struggle of their mother, loving, yet leading a chaotic life and in an abusive relationship.
Alone in the house, again, two sisters and their next-door neighbour, sheltering from the abuse he endures back home, are given over to the electronic babysitter – the television. There they watch pictures of African wildlife: the balletic pink flamingo, the strong leopard, the baby zebra. As they watch, they are transfixed by the beauty of it all, of the beauty of a world with no adults, a world where children can do as they please.
As they are transfixed, the cluttered room (design Clare Britton and Bridget Dolan, props and set dressing Tim Mcgraw) begins to change, as up from one of the many levels on the set rises a great pink flamingo, created out of pieces of toys. Throughout the piece, the puppetry of the child characters is accented by the use of “found” items to create the African world the children imagine.
Devised by My Darling Patricia under writer/director Halcyon Macleod, in this home even the mother becomes a part of the fantasy. The mother becomes a lion: the absolute protector to her cubs, and yet, still a being of power, perhaps to be feared.
It constantly amazes me, this ability of ours to read so much emotion into puppets, to so fully connect with essentially inanimate characters. Yet the puppets built by Bryony Anderson are wonderfully expressive. Seemingly all bones, with gaunt shrunken faces, their legs walk across the set, their arms manipulate the props, their mouths talk, they emote charmingly. In scenes filled with the three child puppets alone, and in scenes where they share the stage with adult humans, they always appear alert and genuine.
Their plight is never spelt out, the back-story isn’t detailed, but these essential parts of the story are told through small details: in performance, in sound, in lights. Even in just the deflecting glance of a puppet we can receive so much.
The set, detailed and instinctive in its clutter of toys and clothes, climbs away from the audience. On the top floor, in a kitchen the mother and her partner fight – verbally and physically – their top halves obscured. Over brown grungy tiles moving down from the kitchen into the common space are layers where the puppets interact with their toys, with the television, with the washing, dynamically moving throughout the set. While the adults occasionally move through this space, it is more the domain of the children – their escape from the adult world which bears down from above.
Shades of brown override the design: the puppets, the titles, the hoodies the puppeteers wear when manipulating. But through the brown there is light: bright red clothes, bright blue toys become part of the journey to Africa. Lighting (Lucy Birkinshaw) emphasises the luster of the fantasy with bright gold hues, the darkness and grime which often surrounds life outside of this world.
Within a technically dense soundscape composed and designed by Declan Kelly, timing on behalf of the cast and sound operator Marco Cher-Gibard is critical. The scoring to Africa constantly underpins the action: the overriding music, sound effects as the children play, steady beeps and hums of a doctor’s office, voices of the children trying to make their way to Africa through enquiry phone lines – “I’m sorry, I did not understand your request, please repeat.”
This dichotomy between reality and imagination in an underprivileged family is explored so briefly that it seems as if we’ve only just meet before we must say good-bye. While it feels there is more to be explored, My Darling Patriciahave crafted a beautifully crushing piece of theatre.
Adelaide Festival Centre and Mobile Stages present My Darling Patricia’s Africa. Conceived, designed and created by My Darling Patricia, concept by Sam Routledge, writer/director Halcyon Macleod, design by Clare Britton and Bridget Dolan, composition and sound design by Declan Kelly, puppets by Bryony Anderson, lighting design by Lucy Birkinshaw, dramaturgy by Chris Ryan, props and set dressing by Tim Mcgaw, sound operator Marco Cher-Gibard, production manager Bindi Green. With Michelle Robin Anderson, Anthony Ahern, Clare Britton, Sam Routledge and Jodie Le Vesconte.