Pelican dreaming: STC's Storm Boy

We’ve all grown up with the story – the boy who raises three orphaned pelicans – and it’s become a steadfast Australian classic, a touchstone of our childhood and growing up. Growing up, I read Colin Thiele’s elegant story first in the edition accompanied by Robert Ingpen’s haunting weather-beaten illustrations. I read it again, several years later, in an edition illustrated with stills from Henri Safran’s 1976 film. And while I haven’t read it in something approaching a decade, the chance to see it on stage seemed too good to miss. In what could be considered a fiftieth anniversary productionfn, Thiele’s Storm Boy has been brought to the stage in a poetic and emotional co-production between Perth’s Barking Gecko Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company.

With a tender and moving script by Tom Holloway, director John Sheedy has created a theatrical gem with this production, staged with wonder, simplicity, warmth, heart and compassion in the Wharf 1 theatre. Damien Cooper’s lighting subtly underscores the scenes, imbuing them with warmth and dynamicity, effortlessly switching between house, beach, and water, day and night, sun and storm, while Kingsley Reeve’s music and sound design immediately places us in South Australia’s Coorong region, a liminal space between the land and the sea, a wild and rugged place, a place for dreaming and introspection. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set – the focal point of which is a curving timber wave – similarly places us among the sand dunes and the rough sweeping country. Like the backbone of some biblical leviathan, the wave seems to echo the ocean itself, and is used as a ramp and an in-between place for the pelicans, creatures, and actors alike – neither land nor sea nor sky, but all and none simultaneously. There is a boat too, a little wooden one, with oars, craypots, nets – one that itself was once the vehicle for another moment in Australia’s theatrical dreaming, Neil Armfield’s landmark production of Cloudstreet.
The performances are all beautiful: Peter O’Brien as Storm Boy’s father, Hideaway Tom, was initially brusque and gruff, a bit like a wounded beast, but as the story progressed we began to see him thaw, we began to see him as a man broken and hurt by something, unable to properly face what he was – perhaps still is – running from, unable to properly talk to his son. Trevor Jamieson as Fingerbone Bill, Thiele’s indigenous personification of the land, was cheeky and warm, friendly but wary at the same time, knowing not to stick his nose where it’s not welcome. As Storm Boy, Rory Potter was captivating – his honesty and rawness lifted the story into another dimension entirely, and it felt at times that we were not watching actors or characters, but people, real living breathing people, going about their lives together.
And so we come to the three pelicans so crucial to the simple rough-hewn magic of Thiele’s story. Designed and engineered by Peter Wilson (the man who created King Kong), and created by Annie Forbes and Tim Denton, these pelicans are something of a cross between Zazu from The Lion King musical and the goose from War Horse. Each of the pelicans (as were Zazu and the goose before them) are almost people themselves, each with their own unique personalities and quirks. Performed by Shaka Cook and Michael Smith, two actor-dancer-spirits, the three birds are life-size contraptions, waddling on a single wheel, perambulating around the stage, flapping their wings and making a nuisance of themselves. The scene where they burst from the hit in a cacophony of tin plates and mugs, followed hot on their heels by Hideaway Tom brandishing a broom, is pure stage magic, and you could see and hear the audience’s delight rippling through the audience like waves on the beach. Suddenly, these birds were not puppets but pelicans – just as the wood-cane-and-fibre horses in War Horse instantly became horses after a minute on stage. The scene where they are released into the sky – in slightly modified puppets sans wheels - was another magical scene, the simplicity and ingenuity with which the birds stretched their wings for the first time stole your breath, made you gasp, perhaps even cry, and grin like a lunatic. I’ve never really realised how big a pelican is – either on land or in the air – until today, seeing them waddle around, proud as punch, lords of fish and mischief.
The storm rescue, staged with a beauty and simplicity that cut to the emotional heart of the scene, threw you headfirst into the moment, and only at its end did you breathe again. Likewise, the play’s end, already heart-wrenching on the page, here hits you with an emotional sledgehammer, and as Storm Boy enters with the pelican cradled in a blanket in his arms, its bulk suddenly swaddled and disguised, it looks nothing like a bird but a baby, albeit with a large and ungainly neck and bill. The following scene tested the resolve of even the most stony-hearted members of the audience, and I don’t think there was one person left who was not either glassy-eyed, sniffling, crying, or openly sobbing (like me).

Something happens when you put an adult’s words in the mouth of a child; when Storm Boy repeats his father’s words to the pelican in his arms, talking about love and outwardly saying it or showing it, your heart breaks into a thousand thousand pieces, and something inside you snaps open, as raw and indefensible as a just-opened oyster. And in Holloway’s sparse, poetic, and human script, there is a magic that beats its wings harder and stronger than anything else, a magic that soars on long outstretched wings, through never-ending skies; a magic that stays with you forever. I can’t convey the honesty and magic of this production in words accurate enough to do it the justice it deserves. From the cast to the design, the puppets and the script, I don’t think there was a more perfect way to bring this story to life at the moment. If the goose upstaged the War Horses, then these pelicans pretty much broke my heart.

"For birds like Mr Percival do not really die."

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Fn. Contrary to popular belief, Bell Shakespeare previously brought Storm Boy to life on stage in 1996, reviving it in 1999.

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