If so much of the world doesn’t make sense for adults then one can only imagine how children square the unfairness and hypocrisy around them. For this one young boy, many things are confusing like witches and God and injustice but then some things like love and happiness and fun couldn’t be simpler.
Thomas (Liz Vassilacos) is nearly 10 and he wants to understand the world so he decides to write a book about everything, starting with the little things that only he seems to notice like freak weather events and the occasional appearance of Lord Jesus (Karen Firmstone) in southern Amsterdam. But eventually he graduates to larger things like his first crush on a girl named Eliza (Kathryn Bray) or working out where the local witch Mrs Van Amersfoort (Suzy Wilds) gets her magic from or questioning how a benevolent God would allow his father (Jaz Haynes) to terrorise his family and hit his mother (Angela Gibson) without punishment. The Book of Everything, adapted for the stage by Richard Tulloch from the novel by Guus Kuijer, takes a child’s eye to the mysteries of the real world to encourage a greater sense of wonder and while offering a heaping helping of courage in the face of fear.
Director Cheryl Butler informed her approach to the text with the perspective of the child protagonist through which she maintained a largely light and innocent tone to the production. The characters appeared in Thomas’s life like fairytale wisewomen upon which Thomas called when experiencing big and confusing emotions. They were ever-present in his mind and sat around the stage amongst illustrations from his Book of Everything (designed by Vassilacos) and the simple furniture that constituted the mid-century setting. This parabolic representation of reality belied the more complicated, messy humanness just outside of Thomas’s understanding, which was alluded to in the knowing glances and prolonged hugs of characters like Mrs Van Amersfoort and Thomas and Margot’s (Emily Perry) Auntie Pie (Kerry Turner). Tulloch’s script does justice to the perspective of the child protagonist while also allowing elements of the adult world in for the audience’s benefit through the brutality of Thomas’s father and the humour of Jesus’s tongue-in-cheek commentary. And, while the story is sentimental and simplistic, even in its borrowing of supernatural miracles from the Bible, Butler’s direction paid appropriate attention to each side of the childish and sentimental and the adult and serious for a balanced production.
Vassilacos’s performance as the excitable young Thomas was a realistic portrayal of a child that didn’t slip into caricature or farce. She was sweet and curious and her strongest scenes were in conversation with the older girls Margot and Eliza, whose rougher, more worldly (as worldly as one can be at 16) attitudes shocked Thomas into silence and in the dynamic between Thomas and Mrs Van Amersfoort. Vassilacos and Wilds had a good-natured energy between them with each drawing the playful side out of the other. The characters of Thomas’s parents were equally well-cast for the way Haynes towered over Gibson, dominating the dinner table in the size of his voice, as well. Additionally, both Bray and Turner were rays of light in their portrayal of women not interested in subduing themselves to fit into the social expectations for women and disabled people. Instead they entered every scene loud and laughing.
The inexperience of children can provide a clear eye to so many things that become acceptable with familiarity. But in Thomas’s act of witnessing, acknowledging, and recording the things around him, including the things that scare him, his Book of Everything becomes a reminder that we all once recognised hypocrisy and cruelty and violence for what it was. And it’s still possible to change what you see in the world around you, you just need courage.
The Book of Everything is running at Arts Theatre Cronulla from July 29th – September 3rd
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