Review: The Book of Everything

by Jane

With special guest reviewer Aria Noori, aged 11.

"You're a very special boy, you know." (Whittet and original cast member Yael Stone as Eliza.)

The Book of Everything review by Jane Howard, aged 22

It is the summer of 1951, and we are in Amsterdam, Holland, Europe, Northern Hemisphere, Earth, Solar System, Galaxy, Universe, Space.  We have a birds-eye view of Thomas Klopper (Matthew Whittet) aged nearly ten, and his book of everything.  Pappa (Pip Miller) says all good books are about God, but Thomas isn’t quite sure what his book will be about yet.

Thomas sees things that other people don’t see.  In his imagination, he sees terrible hailstorms in the Amsterdam summer; he sees tropical fish, his favourite guppies, in the rivers and canals.  In his house, he also sees things that aren’t seen outside those walls: he sees his father hit his mother (Claire Jones).

Based on the book by Guus Kuijer, The Book of Everything is delightfully funny, heart-warmingly touching, and heart-achingly sad.  It is brave theatre; theatre for children, about children; theatre which at times is hard to watch.  More sad than it is scary, Richard Tulloch’s adaptation tackles some big issues: domestic abuse, questioning and redefining faith, protofeminism, unlikely friendships, lasting effects of World War Two, love.  It is certainly a piece for older children, and one that saw many shielded eyes, but through the sadness seeps through an undeniable bravery, the strength that children can find in themselves, the happiness that is waiting for them.

Director Neil Armfield shows us the world through Thomas’ eyes: Kim Carpenters’ set replicates Thomas’ book in large, opening to reveal on each page a new location, naively drawn and coloured with watercolour by the hand of someone who is nearly ten.  We also see the people who inhabit the world through Thomas’ eyes, and I found it especially wonderful to see such amazing female characters on that stage; for them to have such a pivotal role in Thomas’ life; for them to be flawed, and strong, and loving.

"Mamma, are you happy?" (Jones and Whittet)

Mrs van Amersfoort (Julie Forsyth) is a witch; compassionate, brave for Thomas and brave in the war, and shares with Thomas her love of books, her love of poetry, and her love of classical music. Eliza (Lucia Mastratone) with her leather leg is kind and inquisitive.  Auntie Pie (Deborah Kennedy) defiantly wears slacks, won’t take it from anyone she can’t do whatever she pleases, and instils in her niece and nephew the idea that no-one is better than anyone else. Mother, Mrs Klopper, is loving to a fault. Margot (Rebecca Massey) may be filled with the spite and superiority of an older sister, but she loves Thomas, and she perhaps ends up being the bravest of them all.

And all of these women surround Thomas himself: kind, excitable, imaginative, inquisitive, brave.  An extraordinary touching and nuanced performance is given by Whittet, as he embodies a nine year old through every inch of his performance: from a little smile of a first crush on his lips, to his wiggling socked toes squirming in his sandals.   When Thomas is falling for Eliza, helping Mrs van Amersfoort, running from the Bumbiter, and talking to Jesus (John Leary), Whittet always has us onside, cheering along for the “very a little bit nice” nearly ten year old.

While Whittet is the driving force of heart and strength in the production, The Book of Everything is truly an ensemble show, and the ensemble is brilliant. Leary’s Jesus is infused with a very Australian sense of humour, wonderfully giving and slightly self-defacing. As the bad-guy, Miller perhaps has the hardest time of all, but through his straight-laced power and tension we are privy to moments of sadness and of fear. Jones is every bit as loving as a mother should be, while Massey is the perfect balance of sisterly love and menace. The strength and individuality Kennedy infuses into Auntie Pie is inspiring, as is the joy and defiance Mastratone infuses into Eliza and her creaky leather leg. Forsyth brings with her that wonderful mixture of witchyness, an old soul who has seen more bad in the world than anyone aught, and a young heart through which Mrs van Amersfoort returns to childhood in an instant.

The joyousness of Thomas extends and abounds through all other parts of the production.  Composer Iain Grandage sits at a piano on stage, as the keys charmingly sing out over the Amsterdam summer.  At times he pulls out a cello, the sounds of strings looping over each other as Mrs von Amersfoort plays the gramophone for Thomas.  The live music is accompanied by Steve Francis’ sound design, and the cast accompanies Grandage in these elements: handclaps strike, metal spoons scrape against ceramic bowls, the hinge of Eliza’s leather leg creaks.

"We'll talk... soon." (Whittet and original cast member Alison Bell as Margot.)

The watercolour painting of the central set piece is filled with a slightly unsteady hand of exuberance.  Lighting by Nigel Levings is subtle, but an important driving force in changes of tone. Costumes (also by Carpenter) dress the setting perfectly, and in several wonderful moments, the costumes, and what they were saying for the characters in that moment, were enough to bring my heart into my throat.

At times, you can tell the production wasn’t built for Her Majesty’s Theatre, where if you are any further back than the first row of the Dress Circle, you can’t see the audience level in the stalls at all.  On these occasions, when parts of the show moved into the stalls, the Dress was filled with people craning their necks to see what was happening.  But these are minor quibbles; the show wasn’t dominated by these moments, and the cast filled the large space with their performances and Thomas’ story.

It’s on the posters, and it’s true: The Book of Everything is delightful.  It is a wonderful play about love and friendships and imagination.  About questioning the world, acting on what you find.  About finding happiness.  And not being afraid anymore.

The Book of Everything review by Aria Noori, aged 11

What the play was about?
The play was about a timid, nine year old boy called Thomas who lives in Europe with his 16yr old sister, his Mum and his overly religious Dad. This boy writes a book about all the good and bad things that happens to him like how his dad abuses his Mum because he thinks he is the boss and how he meets his next door neighbour who is a witch. Eventually he builds his courage by reading a book the witch gives him and finally confronts his Dad.

3 or 4 things you liked about the play
I liked the play because it was both funny and sad and then funny again and I liked the way the big book of everything in Thomas’s life was the background set to the play.

1 thing YOU REALLY REALLY liked?
I REALLY liked the scene where Jesus came to talked to Tomas about his life but wasn’t all religious and stuff but was like a Aussie bloke. I also like the dog called Bumbiter because he bit people’s bums and how he was played by the same actor who was so mean as the Dad.

What was unusual or different about this play?
That the audience got to throw green balls at the stage and pretend they were a plague of frogs like in the Bible.

Anything you didn’t like or was scary?
I didn’t like how the father thought he was the best and the boss of the family and how he hit the mum. But I talked to the actor who played the father later and he said that he was only acting and that he never actually touches the Mum but it’s a fake slap done with sound effects.

How did you feel at the end of the play? (what was the message of the play?)
The play was saying that no one is the boss of you and that you can be the person you want to be once you get the courage to face your fears.

Who would like the play?
Little kids may not like it or understand it because it is a bit scary when the Dad hits the Mum and they may not get some of the Bible jokes. But I saw it with adults and kids my age and they all loved it.

Would you recommend the play?
Overall, I really loved seeing The Book of Everything and want to thank Jane for taking me as her date to opening night. I would recommend that everyone from 8 to 880 go see this play if you want to laugh and be sad and learn about life and families and growing up.

Thanks for the great review, Aria!  It was great to have you as my date.

Windmill Theatre and Adelaide Festival Centre present a Belvoir and Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image production The Book of Everything, by Richard Tulloch, based on the book by Guus Kuijer.  Directed by Neil Armfield, set and costume design by Kim Carpenter, composition by Iain Grandage, lighting design by Nigel Levings, sound design by Steve Francis, assistant director Eamon Flack, choreographer Julia Cotton.  With Julie Forsyth, Iain Grandage, Claire Jones, Deborah Kennedy, John Leary, Rebecca Massey, Lucia Mastrantone, Pip Miller, and Matthew Whittet.  

At Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, until Aug 27 – Information and tickets
At the Seymour Centre, Sydney, Sept 20 to Oct 1 – Information and tickets
At the New Victory Theatre, New York City, Apr 20 to 29, 2012 – Information and tickets