I'm a children's book author, radio presenter of 'By the Book' for Radio Northern Beaches, and freelance writer. Check out www.brydiewright.com for more about
Book to Musical - A Triumph
How on earth would you create an authentic, entertaining musical adaptation of Shaun Tan's seminal picture book, The Red Tree and the complex issue of childhood depression? Hilary Bell (lyricist), Greta Gertler Gold (composer), Neil Gooding (director) and the National Theatre of Parramatta, have achieved just that. It's rare I feel moved enough to give a standing 'o' at the end of a performance but if a musical is profound, and this one is, it just feels right.
The Red Tree promotional image, artwork by Shaun Tan (c/o- Riverside Parramatta website)
From start to finish, this fifty-minute musical performance is engaging. If you can suspend disbelief and surrender to the world of Shaun Tan's surrealism (meaning not everything has to make sense), you'll be swept along by the pure artistry and seamless stage, musical and set direction of this piece.
The Red Tree is marketed towards school and family performances (for ages 8 and up) and I can see this October world premiere at Riverside Theatres, kicking off a national tour. No doubt it will attain must-see curriculum status, for educators teaching the work of Shaun Tan and conditions of mental illness.
Ava's room becomes the focal point of the set (photo by Noni Carroll, National Theatre of Parramatta)
For those not familiar with the book, it is the story of a young girl who is isolated by the feeling that with each day, there is nothing to look forward to. She escapes into a richly illustrated, dark, world of the imagination, battling the feeling not to give up on life. In the depths of despair, she is inspired by the red autumnal leaves of a beautiful tree; a symbol of hope throughout the tale.
A book like this is not an easy construct to bring to life on the stage. It has no real narrative. It is a post-modernist piece of introspection, exploring the mind of an individual suffering from depression. Executive Producer Joanne Kee and her team, have used the masterstroke of music and song to portray this concept, a perfect medium for the hyper-artistic, fantasy world of Shaun Tan.
The red leaf is a ray of hope in Ava's life (photo by Noni Carroll, National Theatre of Parramatta)
The sets by James Browne faithfully enliven the iconic motifs of this book: - the origami boat, the big fish and the snail, of main character Ava's journey into the mind. In the restricted and intimate theatre space, the set, sound and lighting teams pull off a masterpiece of colour and movement, that won't leave you or your youngsters, bored for a minute.
Shaun Tan's artwork is a focal point (photo by Noni Carroll, National Theatre of Parramatta)
And what about the music, I hear you ask? It is nothing short of inspired. ARIA-winning Greta Gertler Gold creates a score of memorable songs that I wanted to hear again, as soon as the musical ended. They are that catchy – modern, funk, pop, rock fusions, performed engagingly by musicians Ben Fink and Bonnie Stewart. A tight cast of musicians, puppeteers and assistant stage managers, ably support the star of the show, bright, young actor and vocalist, Nicola Bowman. She is a revelation as the embattled yet brave, Ava.
Shaun Tan's surrealist world (photo by Noni Carroll, National Theatre of Parramatta)
Bowman has a beautiful voice and commands the stage in this close to one-woman show, not discounting the work of the supporting cast, who build Ava's world around her. Perhaps what is not as evident in the book is Ava's spirit and multi-faceted nature. The musical allows her to be a three-dimensional child, suffering from depression without being the sum total of her depression. She has moments of happiness, enthusiasm, humour and courage, which eventually turn the dice in her favour and allow the red tree to work its magic.
I watched this show with excitement and felt uplifted by its portrayal of triumph over darkness, loving its pacing and its remarkably short and sweet delivery. This is all it needs to be and is perfect for a young audience. The Red Tree is a faithful retelling of a graphic literature classic, without the need to labour the point. It's an exercise in controlled mastery without theatrical over-indulgence.