REVIEW: The Book of Everything (Auckland Arts Festival)

Missing Pages [by Matt Baker]

When the book that inspires a play has been called a modern classic, when the play itself has been self-attributed with “…beautiful, magical, surprising, touching, terrifying, joyous, inspiring, funny, and ultimately uplifting…”, and when the premiere was critically acclaimed as a “hilarious, honest, and beautifully rendered play”, there is a lot to which any other production must live up. This pressure that accompanies The Book of Everything means that although it is a logical co-production between Silo and Auckland Arts Festival, advertising its accessibility to everyone aged 9-90, the hype can be more detrimental than beneficial. Simplifying “adult” concepts via the eyes of a child is a powerful device and has been used successfully in myriad books, films, and plays, and while author Guus Kuijer has been consistently recognised for his literary contributions, there is a lack of resonance in the issue of domestic abuse as addressed in Richard Tulloch’s adapted script.

While the rationale behind the chalkboard construction of John Verryt’s design is clear and allows for a degree of play on the set, its use is minimal – and chalkboard paint does come in colours other than black – and the logistical repetition of opening Mrs. van Amersfoort’s apartment to the audience loses its inventiveness very quickly. Sean Lynch’s lighting design makes up for the absence of colour, as do the costumes by Kirsty Cameron. The on-stage foley sound performed by supporting cast Tim Carlsen, Michelle Blundell, and Jennifer Ward-Lealand is fantastic, and although Thomas Press’ sound design allows for additional scope, it, ironically, reminds me more that I’m in a theatre than the former theatrical convention.

Carlsen steals the show as a colloquial Jesus Christ, with a semi-glaze and calm-cadence that results in an excellently pitched performance, and allows for the comedy and pathos to be played with absolute subtlety. Blundell is endearing as the vivacious Eliza, and Ward-Lealand perfect casting for the ethically resilient attire-challenging sister-in-law to Sam Snedden’s Father. Rima Te Wiata completes the extended cast with a wonderfully funny and intense portrayal of the gleeful yet wise Mrs. van Amersfoort; the catalyst for change through the absence of fear for protagonist Thomas Klopper.

Of the family unit, Olivia Tennet is an absolute standout as she perfectly balances the capriciousness of the supercilious yet platonically understanding role of Thomas’ older sister Margot, with the still genuine wonderment of youth, culminating in a ferocious catharsis. As Thomas, Patrick Carroll plays up the childlike exuberance a notch too high. As soon as he tells us he’s nine, almost ten, we accept that this is the set up for the duration of the play. Fortunately, Carroll settles into his performance and allows his intelligence as an actor to seep through into the more comedic moments in the play. Were this to occur in collaboration with the introspection of the character, Carroll’s already solid ability to carry the show would only be enriched. As mother and father respectively, Mia Blake and Snedden give measured performances. For Blake, the absence of truthful extremity comes from the lack of clarity in her journey in Tulloch’s text. For Snedden, it is a misplaced weight that does not earn him the poignancy of the change he reveals in his character.

On paper, this is a winning play, and an excellent choice to mark Silo Artistic Director Sophie Roberts’ first programmed production. However, even excellent inspiration, a good script, and a great creative team and cast does not necessarily result in something more than the sum of its parts. That’s not to say that the play does not work or is not worth seeing (in fact, something about it makes me want to see it again), especially as a production offered in the Auckland Arts Festival, simply that the transition from prose to script to stage can sometimes miss a page or two.

The Book of Everything is presented by Silo and plays at Q Theatre until March 22. For details see Q.

SEE ALSO: Theatreview review by Nik Smythe

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