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Images: Heidrun Lohr

POSTED: 13 JANUARY 2010

The Book of Everything, adapted by Richard Tulloch from Guus Kuiger's novel

Theatre of Image & Company B | Belvoir Street Theatre, Surry Hills, Sydney | Until 31 Jan

Thomas Klopper. Unless you’re familiar with recent children’s literature, this name may mean nothing to you. But attend Company B’s and Theatre of Image’s production of The Book of Everything and he may well become your hero.

Thomas (Matthew Whittet) is a young boy, growing up in Amsterdam in the decade following World War Two. He lives with his Mamma (Claire Jones), Pappa (Peter Carroll) and sister Margot (Alison Bell), who is “as dumb as an onion”.

Mrs van Amersfoort (Julie Forsyth) lives next door, and the neighbourhood children are convinced she’s a witch. Also living nearby are Margot’s friend Eliza (Yael Stone), who has an artificial leather leg, a twisted hand and Thomas’ adoration, and Aunty Pie (Deborah Kennedy), married to Pappa’s younger brother.

Thomas is one remarkable kid. He sees amazing things — things it seems no one else does — and records them all in the aptly named Book of Everything. Pappa says the only important books are about God, but Jesus — who pops in every so often to chat — assures Thomas that he’s had problems with his father, too.

Pappa takes the word ‘strict’ to a whole new level. He rules his family with the Word of God, a wooden spoon and an iron fist. Over the course of this lovely tale, Thomas learns how to overcome fear and live life to the fullest.

Richard Tulloch, working from Guus Kuijer’s original story in Dutch, has done a marvellous job in bringing the characters and essence of the story to the stage. Slight changes, appropriate to an Australian audience, work beautifully.

Neil Armfield takes Tulloch’s script and adds his directorial magic. His sharp eye for detail and interpretation results in audience participation, some lovely extra quips (Jesus, I’m talking about you!) and sensitive pacing.

Kim Carpenter’s stage design is enchanting and complements the story perfectly. A giant book dominates the stage, with pages being flipped to reveal childish drawings of the various scenes. Chairs are perched at various levels for the ‘off-stage’ actors to provide comment, sound effects and a watchful eye.

Matthew Whittet is an absolute pleasure as the curious, cheeky Thomas. It was really possible at times to see Whittet as nine (almost ten) years old. Not only that, but he completely represented a young boy of a time more than half a century ago, when mobile phones were tin cans with string attached. His expressions, movement and body language were spot on. I wanted to adopt him (sort of still do).

Although Whittet is undoubtedly the star, the entire cast are superb. From Peter Carroll’s glowering, dominant Pappa, ultimately reduced to wretchedness, the quiet dignity of Claire Jones’ Mamma, to the blossoming confidence of Alison Bell’s Margot, the Klopper family are unforgettable.

Julie Forsyth is just delightful as the slightly loopy but wise Mrs van Amersfoort. Yael Stone charmingly portrays the sweetness of Eliza, and Deborah Kennedy is brilliant as the strong and perceptive Aunty Pie. And if Jesus exists, I hope he’s just as witty and down-to-earth as John Leary.

This is uplifting, life-affirming theatre. Kids — probably from seven or eight up — and adults alike will find joy, humour and much to ponder.

And this year, I resolve to nurture my inner Thomas.

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