Finegan Kruckemeyer has the unique ability to capture a childlike sense of wonder and storytelling, yet unlike so much theatre for young people he is never patronising, but simply asks ‘would you like to hear a story?’ and away we go. Following Kate Gaul’s production of The Violent Outburst That Drew Me to You at Griffin Theatre last year, I set about trying to track down as many of Kruckemeyer’s plays as I could; when Melbourne Theatre Company announced The Boy at the Edge of Everything as part of their 2015 season, I knew I had to see it. But sometimes great expectations can be their own worst enemy.
Kruckemeyer’s script for ‘Everything’ is beautiful – the right amount of bubble, fizz, charm, and heart, and I’m not ashamed to admit that it made me cry (quite a lot) when I read it earlier this year. If you think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, crossed with the marmalade-sweetness of Paddington, then you’re kind of on the right track. Simon Ives is twelve-years-four-months-and-somethingorother-days old, and wants his over-scheduled life to just slow down for a little bit. At the edge of the known universe, The Boy at the Edge of Everything lives by himself, alone. Following an incredible event featuring the garden shed, lots and lots of fireworks, and a dream so big it could only come true, their two worlds collide and neither will quite be the same again.
Directed by Peter Houghton, the tone of this production is unfortunately turned up to caricature, and at times comes dangerously close to hitting eleven. The school kids all speak with nasally bratty accents (and a tiny hint of a lisp), and Simon’s family seem more crude than you’d expect them to be in a production like this. Simon himself (played by Sebastian Lamour) is suitably enthusiastic, while The Boy at the Edge of Everything is more obnoxious and impatient than he needs to be. The cast frequently double roles (except for Lamour), and after a while the characters all start to seem very similar which is a dangerous thing in any production, let alone one like this.
Staged in MTC’s Lawler theatre, essentially a black box studio, there is little room or capacity for the stage magic this production requires a sufficient helping of. I’m not talking about wires or revolves or trapdoors or glitter cannons, but a kind of generosity and simplicity that suffuses the best examples of theatre for young people – a lightness of touch which some smaller companies can capture with little more than a gesture and a child’s wonder and imagination. There are elements of puppetry here – very simple and effective moments of stage illusion – but the moving set pieces – heavy wooden cabinets with elements painted on them – lack dexterity, magic, and whimsy. Only in the final moments does everything come together, and while it ends on a kind of grace-note, it isn’t quite enough to save the show.
In many respects, this production feels like a pro-am production, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that at all. It suffers from a laboured heaviness, weighed down by its forced desire to be funny and appealing to a family audience of all ages. Kruckemeyer’s language is not just thrown together – every word and phrase, every syllable, is carefully considered and perfectly rendered, in much the same way that the best Roald Dahl stories work, in that they fizz in an effervescent ever-young way that belies the skill, craft, and dexterity in their writing; “like a daydream born beneath a dining table,” as The Irish Times described one of his plays.
Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by Kate Gaul’s production of ‘The Violent Outburst,’ but I expected more from this production, more from the resources the MTC has at their disposal; just because it’s billed as an education/‘holiday’ show, it doesn’t mean it should be given anything less attention, care, and finesse, than the resources one of their mainstage shows would receive; if anything, it means it should be given more attention. Young people are the toughest audience to engage – if they’re not engaged or interested, then something is wrong – and they will quite readily let you know if something’s not working, which several children around me did. This is indeed a production of ‘A Boy At The Edge Of Everything’, but not quite ‘The Boy In The Midst Of Something’ as it should be.