Joshua Challenor in Storm Boy | Wharf 1 (Pic: Brett Boardman)

Colin Thiele is the author of one of my favourite books from childhood: Gloop, The Gloomy Bunyip. He’s also the author of Storm Boy, which was, of course, made into the indelible movie of 1976. Now, Sydney Theatre Company and Perth’s Barking Gecko have brought it to Wharf 1.

The first thing of note is Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set, which is sculptural and evocative. A massive, undulating, wooden spine echoes the monumental stillness and upheavals of geological time; the duality of permanence and fragility. Above is a platform that minis the smooth, windswept surface of dunes, sands that shift so slowly they never seem to change, while always changing, thus resonating with life experience more broadly. Below, a humpy, strewn, ’round and about, with maritime and other odds and ends, a rowboat and the minimal accoutrements of the dropout.

Here dwell Storm Boy (Rory Potter) and his father, Hideaway Tom (Peter O’Brien). Somewhere in their midst is the lingering memory of a wife and mother, a loss that’s left them both terribly alone, but who also haunts and invades their space. Storm Boy has learned, at a tender age, to be fiercely independent. He seems to cherish his time alone, wandering aimlessly along the wild and woolly coastline of South Australia’s Coorong and it’s here he happens upon Fingerbone Bill, an Aboriginal man who, for whatever, undisclosed reasons, has run away from his former life, making him akin to Storm Boy and his dad.

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To Holloway’s adaptation, directed by John Sheedy, steers an atmospheric course, supported ably and amply by Kingsley Reeve’s dramatic sound design and Damien Cooper’s brooding lighting. I found performances generally to be a little stiff; Potter’s probably least so, as he exudes a youthful energy. But both Jamieson and O’Brien seemed constrained and constricted. In the case of O’Brien, a certain rigidity and sense of emotions withheld is, of course, in character but, nonetheless, it would’ve worked more poignantly and affectingly if we’d seen, or intuited more readily, the cracks in his shell, where the water gets in. Even in more playful moments, there was no sense of release. Jamieson, too, didn’t seem as naturalistic as I seem to remember him to have been in other roles. To be honest, the star turns were the puppets. Made to Scott-Mitchell’s design by Annie Forbes and Tim Denton, directed by Peter Wilson and animated by Shaka Cook and Michael Smith (who double as ancestor spirits, pointing, hauntingly, to the timelessness of the land), Mr Percival and the other orphaned pelicans prove hyperreal and, as such, easily as affecting as if they were warmblooded, each with his or her own mischievous, loveable character; none moreso than Mr P.

The rest is down to Thiele’s economy of dialogue: this is a drama in which much, if not most, of the communication occurs in the spaces between words. Thiele’s cadence is in tune with the relaxed, yet urgent and unstoppable, ebb and flow of the tides. The other instrument Thiele wields with profound skill is symbolism. There could hardly be a more powerful metaphor for the upheavals of impending adolescence than the great southern ocean, with its propensity to deliver rampant storms that lash the landscape with tempestuous winds of the kind that blow the cobwebs out but are liable to take much else besides. Threats are all around. Gunshots ring out in the distance, signalling the presence of hunters (probably those loosed by Fatty O’Barrell in our national parks) who prematurely steal the lives of mother birds. These give the feeling of uncertainty, of all things being transient, the only constant change. But then there’s the hope and solace provided by the generosity of Fingerbone, who alerts Storm Boy to the inseparable, unalterable, coexistent beauty and tragedy of life.

It is he who endows Storm Boy with the strength (or empires him to find his own) to move forward, to throw off the consolations and shackles of childhood and take one small step, one giant leap of faith, into the future, by elucidating notions of country: the indigenous universe seems to correspond precisely to the scientific one, in which no matter is ever lost. The counterpoint of the European view of the world as piratical, one to be battened against, a glass half-empty, informed by a mindset of scarcity and fear, versus the indigenous one, in which it’s conceded we aren’t the painters, but merely a part of the painting, is drawn out with grace, dignity and subtlety. Hideaway’s timbers have already been shivered. His reaction is to ensure he doesn’t take the boa out too far again. Fingerbone has walked the plank as well, but knows, instinctively, he’s at the mercy of the ocean and there’s no stooping the tide.

For children of all ages, it still holds and cherishes noble ideals that, if anything, have moved beyond desirable to become paramount: protection of the natural world and the formation of bonds that forge black and white into brotherhood and sisterhood, with the comprehensive equality the notion implies. The progressive softening of the adversarial relationship between Hideaway and Fingerbone is a sobering, emblematic lesson to us all.

This production is full of heart and soul. It pays respectful homage to Thiele’s legacy. It’s a brave move to present theatre as understated as this. It’s just a pity that, for all its fragility, sensitivity and refined aesthetics, both aural and visual, as well as it’s well-sustained, gentle rhythms, it somehow underwhelms.

The details: Storm Boy plays the STC’s Wharf 1 until September 8. Tickets on the company website.