Barking Gecko gets the balance just right in its latest production – a delightful daydream that brings out the child in us all, writes Claire Trolio.
The Great Un-Wondering of Wilbur Whittaker, Barking Gecko Theatre ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, 14 April 2022 ·
It’s a wonderful thing to attend children’s theatre, as an adult, and be completely smitten with a performance. To enchant both children and the grown-ups who accompany them in equal parts is not easy, but with their world premiere of The Great Un-Wondering of Wilbur Whittaker, Barking Gecko Theatre have nailed it.
Barking Gecko artistic director Luke Kerridge (story, concept and direction) has teamed with Dan Giovannoni (story and writing) to create a tale about the magic of a child’s imagination and what is lost when we grow up.
It’s the third collaboration by the pair, whose previous productions, HOUSE (Perth Festival 2021) and Bambert’s Book of Lost Stories (2016 Helpmann Award winner for Best Presentation for Children), also won the hearts of theatre viewers young and old.
Once a star-gazing child whose mind would wonder about anything and everything, Wilbur Whittaker has grown up. Nowadays he’s far too preoccupied with “paperwork, renovations and car parking” to daydream, and he’s accepted that his desk job at the airport is as close to flying as he’ll get. Giovannoni has written a middle-class white man in his 40s in contemporary Australia with precision, in a way that kids and adults will recognise. Adriano Cappelletta brings an endearing geekiness to the role.
One night, Wilbur’s old wonderings are taken away by a Ghostbusters-esque trio (‘80s references are pleasantly abundant) and Wilbur’s fate, as well as that of the world, hangs in the balance. Only an interstellar adventure of epic proportions can save them.
An adventure in space that highlights the chasm between a child and adult’s imagination: it’s got definite Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince vibes. It’s no accident; Kerridge refers to it in the program as his “love letter” to that famous French story.
Wilbur is joined on his quest by Princess Fantastic, and Grace Chow is nothing short of fantastic herself as the spritely star-dweller. On their journey they meet a stack of colourful characters, brought to life by Laura Maitland and Luke Hewitt. Each of the four performers delivers their roles with exuberance and good humour that maintains high energy and attention levels through the room.
Our heroes are transported through space in some truly smashing sets. Whether it’s the boxy grey interior of an office, mod stylings of a waiting room in space, a retro futuristic intergalactic milk bar, or a sublime purple star, Jonathon Oxlade’s sets are enchanting. There’s brilliant cohesion between Oxlade’s sets and costumes, each drawing inspiration from the 60s and 80s. They’re downright cool.
Video animation by Tee Ken Ng adds depth to the sets and is used to represent space travel. Ng draws on that 1980s aesthetic and creates video that partners perfectly with ethereal, electronic soundscapes by CLAUDIO, aka Perth born electronica artist Rachel Claudio. Her original compositions are complemented by an uplifting soundtrack of 1980s power ballads.
The kids in the audience appear to be particularly enthused by the addition of puppetry to the storytelling tool kit. Hewitt as fox puppet Francis shows off his comedic side. Later a puppet bird in flight sends murmurs through the theatre. Lighting design from Lucy Birkinshaw is seamless throughout the show, and instrumental in this magical scene.
Everyone involved in this production has hit their straps. The Great Un-Wondering of Wilbur Whittaker is a delightful daydream that speaks to the child in all of us.