MASQUERADE Nathan OKeefe Mikelangelo And The Black Sea Gentlemen photo by Brett BoardmanThe most difficult and awkward reviews to write are for those shows that leave you feeling that they haven’t been able to realise their promise. Regrettably, technical difficulties in the first act of the opening night of Masquerade limited my connection to its story. Hopefully future performances will suffer fewer distractions from the show’s often-appealing elements.

The children’s book Masquerade by Kit Williams tells the story of Jack Hare’s efforts to take a message of love from The Moon to The Sun, proceeding on his way by solving puzzles. In her childhood, Australian playwright Kate Mulvany found solace in the book whilst fighting cancer. She drew on that experience to adapt Masquerade for the stage.

Through a Melbourne Festival co-commission, the piece comes to us via Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia. It’s a commendable effort to marry theatre with music for children ages 9 and up without patronising them. Notably, there seemed to be many older ‘children’ in the audience on this night.

Mulvany entwines the magical tale of the book with the story of Tessa (Helen Dallimore) and her hospitalised young son Joe (Jack Andrew). Tessa uses Masquerade to distract and entertain Joe with fantasy while his cancer treatment proceeds. We switch between the bedside and the dealings of Jack Hare (Nathan O’Keefe) with various characters on his way to The Sun. These transitions are achieved crisply through projections by AV designer Chris Petridis and a revolving stage.

Magic is something not easily confined, and eventually mother and son are caught up Jack’s mission. Throughout, the action is accompanied by live music by Mikelangelo and The Black Sea Gentlemen. Under the musical direction and compositional roles shared by Mikelangelo and Pip Branson, the group revive their trademark brooding Baltic sounds, and branch out into some playful, Celtic-inspired tunes.

The vocal talents of The Moon (Kate Cheel) and The Sun (also Mikelangelo) were put to good use in musically defining their opposing traits. Often in the first act though, it was unfortunate that the lyrics or speech could not be heard clearly through the music in order to communicate the exposition. At times I had thoughts like “I wonder why this is happening?”, and ultimately, “Where does a Masquerade come into things?” Fortunately, sound matters were substantially improved towards the end of the act.

Irregularities with lighting didn’t help showcase Anna Cordingly’s sometimes stunning costume design. The Moon’s was shown to wear an elegant gown of flowing silver, while The Sun was in black. We were a long way into the first act before he was lit to show a sparkly gold suit that finally matched accounts of how he was perceived by others.

In the first act, Jack’s misadventures with characters such as super-capitalist Penny Pockets and a talking fish (two of a range played by Zindzi Okenyo) are infused with silliness that is well suited to younger children. I liked some shadow play indicating an imminent threat to Jack’s welfare that recalled the style of Warner Brothers cartoons.

The production really starts to find its bounce in the second act as the game changes. O’Keefe’s finds more colour in Jack as he evolves from his bumbling start to gloom at failure in his mission, then playfulness as he takes up with Tessa and Joe. Also, Joe is allowed to have thoughts that go beyond his illness as he and Tessa leave the hospital.

What results is some very Aussie – and very funny – moments. My highlight was one featuring The Man Who Makes The World Go Round (Pip Branson) and his dancing ‘fat pig’ (Okenyo again). Before too long porcine exuberance had overtaken everyone, and as the scene escalated into raucous ecstasy – did that pig just pole dance? – I watched with a child-like glee.

This was one example of how the second act seemed better at working at levels appropriate to entertain both the adults and children, and it was often more fun. It also better evinced the talents of co-directors Sam Strong and Lee Lewis. Aside from the sharper comedy, we had more opportunity to connect to characters’ inner world. My favourite such scene was one with The Moon in a dressing gown and The Sun in his trackpants and ugg boots that brought pathos for the difficulties of their lives, despite their prominence.

Masquerade is unlike many works for children in that it isn’t afraid to explore the whole circle of life, which may disturb some. At its best, it combines some serious ideas with a magical experience that has a lot to enjoy.

The Sumner – Southbank Theatre, Southbank Boulevard, Southbank
Performance: Thursday 22 October 2015 – 7.00pm
Season: 22 – 25 October 2015

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Image: Nathan O’Keefe as Jack Hare and Mikelangelo And The Black Sea Gentlemen in Masquerade – photo by Brett Boardman

Review: Jason Whyte