Engaging wriggly children with live theatre, one of the most immediate art forms, is not an easy task. One of the theatre companies that does it best is Monkey Baa Theatre Company and this year, it will embark on an incredible 59-venue national tour of Director Eva Di Cesare's stage adaptation of beloved Australian picture book, Diary of a Wombat.Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre, on 18 March, to kick off the vast national tour. Such is the pull of Monkey Baa and the hold that this classic story has on the hearts of early readers and their parents, it is sure to be a success.
For those of you who have read the book, you will know that protagonist, Mothball, spends much of her week, Monday through to Sunday, doing what wombats love to do – sleeping and scratching. When she is not asleep, she is eating and generally causing havoc for the human beings whose house and veggie patch share her home territory.
Going into this performance, I was curious to see how Monkey Baa would translate this famous tale from picture book format to a stage performance for ages 3 and up. I wasn't the only one. Collective sighs of relief went up at the preview, when actress Penny Cook, one of Monkey Baa's ambassadors, asked parents not to tell their kids to be quiet. She vouched that the wonderful thing about kids' theatre is that kids should not have to be quiet. They should react and get involved and be free of adult constraints. This certainly rang true for the little ones at this performance and at 45mins in length, the show was just the right length for their limited attention spans.
Many theatre productions might choose to anthropomorphise animal characters to facilitate the drama but mercifully and masterfully, the team behind the show's concept (Sandra Eldridge, Tim McGarry and Eva di Cesare) have chosen a different tack and it is brilliant. Mothball is brought to life by two incredibly realistic puppets, manipulated by deft performers who double as the human characters in the play. Performers and puppet masters Michael Cullen, Shondelle Pratt and Julia Ohannessian, pull off an incredibly difficult gig; it is authentic and mesmerising viewing for children, not unlike observing real animal behaviours at the zoo.
The professionalism and sophistication of this production shines through in all its elements, from the atmospheric lighting, the clever set, spot on sound engineering and inventive props, not to mention the adept usage of special effects to create a series of wide-eyed moments for the audience.
And how exactly do you communicate the movement of a story that is light on direct dialogue? The Director's answer to this is the use of music to maximum effect. Talented cellist, Mary Rapp, provides the soundtrack to Mothball's every move, sound emission and her scuffles with the humans, negating the need for a human narrator in what is essentially a wombat's story.