I read the book with bated breath. I watched the play with a curiosity of how such a big story could be moved onto the stage. Let me tell you, it was superb in every way. Boy Swallows Universe opened last Friday at the Playhouse on South Bank. It is due to run until the 3rd of October 2021.
The demand for tickets is high and deservedly so. Sam Strong who used to be Queensland Theatre's Director agreed to take this on and in the very talented hands of Tim McGarry, a stage production was created from Trent Dalton's bestseller Boy Swallows Universe.
The story is slightly autobiographical and many of us have heard Trent relate his early life and being looked after by Slim Halliday, the Houdini of Boggo Jail and a convicted murderer. In the story, Slim was a mentor to the young Eli Bell, played by Joe Klocek, our protagonist in this play, who invites us to enjoy the roller coaster ride, sometimes pleasant, horrific, occasionally nightmarish, into his life as a young boy in 1980s Brisbane.
There is so much in this play which is confronting and yet the humour, which slips like a stream through all of it, is warm and wonderful and just as we like it. The relationship between the two boys is solid and protective. Gus, Eli's mute brother, is played by Tom Yaxley. Their love for their long-suffering mum, Frankie (Michala Banas), is undisputed. I wish that a little more of her was given to us in the play. The boyfriend and heroin dealer, Lyle Orlik, was good, well partly so, as we hear the difference between good and bad men expounded in the play. He was fair and caring to the boys, even if his criminal dealings put the whole family in jeopardy. The Deng family, with karaoke singing mum Bich and son Darren, were colourful, loud and so very funny. Played by Ngoc Phan and Hoa Xuande. The dad, Robert Bell, was played by Mathew Cooper and here is the one place I felt the writer sadly digressed from the book. The dad was an alcoholic and a person who had not managed to do much in his life, but he had a love of books and this did not come out in the play. It may well account for part of Eli's love of the written word. However, in such a big story, Tim may have had to choose what to include on stage and what to leave behind.
The evil Titus looked like a wolf in sheep's clothing. Anthony Phelan took on the dual role of Titus and Slim and played both admirably, though I did feel that Slim's voice did not project as well as I would have hoped and sometimes the background music prevented me from hearing as clearly as I would have wished.
Boy Swallows Universe
The story is a whirlwind of changing scenes and settings – so many that actually, it is admirable how efficiently and smoothly these took place. Full marks to Renee Mulder the Designer, Ben Hughes for the Lighting Design, Steve Francis for sound design and Craig Wilkinson for Video design. The simple setting was transformed from Boggo Road Jail to a house in the suburbs, to a hospital setting and a Vietnamese restaurant among many others. The projections and the videos were instrumental in creating the ambience of this rapidly changing scenery and it worked well. I loved Eli's letters to the prisoner Alex Bermudez scribbled all over the walls, so we could read them as well as hear them.
In this beautifully staged performance, we see a gawky 13-year asking questions and quizzing the adults around him in the hope of getting answers to how he needs to see the world and what to expect of it. By the end of the play, he is 18 and ready to take on more challenges, not least working for the coveted Courier Mail - who would have thought !
Did he buy his preferred house in The Gap, down a cul-de-sac? You may have to see the play to answer that burning question.
There were many involved in the cast and many more were involved in the production than I can name but it is a credit to all of them and to Sam Strong and Lee Lewis, who in these COVID infused years, slowly but surely, built the foundation for what has been an outstanding collaboration and production. Against the odds, they have brought it to life before Queensland audiences to enjoy it in all its suburban Brisbane glory.