Corrigan could be any small Australian town in the sixties. Residents wilting under the dry heat of a sizzling summer, streets on which schoolchildren feel safe to stroll and play cricket, and simple shacks surrounded by fruit trees and flowers. But all is not as it seems in Jasper Jones, Kate Mulvany's stage adaptation of Craig Silvey's award-winning novel. For these rows of weatherboard houses harbour dark secrets, parents lead lives of quiet desperation, and there is a murderer in their midst.
You'd imagine town troublemaker Jasper Jones (Shaka Cook) to be the star of the show - the book and play bear his name, after all. However, it's bookworm Charlie Bucktin (Nicholas Denton) who emerges as the real hero in what's been described as a classic coming-of-age tale. Jasper Jones opens with Jasper tapping on Charlie's window in the dead of night and urging him to accompany him to the local dam where a dead girl is hanging from a tree. The rope on which she is suspended belongs to Jasper. Claiming it's an attempt to frame him, he convinces Charlie both to help him dispose of the body and to identify the real killer.
This sets in motion a chain of events, well depicted on a revolving stage, which shakes the small town to its core. As Charlie falls for the dead girl's sister Eliza Wishart (Melanie Zanetti), alliances shift and buckle, and family secrets are prized out of their hiding places, Jasper Jones takes its audience on a journey of discovery.
Many of its themes are dark: murder, madness, incest, racism, shame. Though Saigon is many miles away, the ongoing Vietnam War casts an ever-present shadow. Yet Jasper Jones is amply leavened with humour. It's a minor point, but as the denouement approaches, the show tips briefly into melodrama before regaining its emotional equilibrium and charm.
This production originated at the Melbourne Theatre Company and is directed by Sam Strong. It also stars Ian Bliss as Charlie's frustrated novelist father Wesley Bucktin, Rachel Gordon as his feckless, promiscuous mother Ruth Bucktin, Hayden Spencer as Jasper's grandfather Mad Jack Lionel, and Hoa Xuande as Charlie's best mate Jeffery Lu.
The path to true love. Photography by David Kelly.