REVIEW: Jasper Jones (Queensland Theatre)

Nicholas Denton and Melanie Zanetti. Imagery via Kath Rose & Associates.


Where? Playhouse Theatre, QPAC
When? 28 July – August 18

Part regional coming-of-age story and part gothic mystery, Queensland Theatre’s Jasper Jones has hit the Playhouse Theatre. Adapted from Craig Silvey’s classic Australian novel by Kate Mulvany and directed by Queensland Theatre’s Artistic Director Sam Strong, this restaging of the Melbourne Theatre Company production keeps all the core elements of the book in perfect balance while adapting for the very different medium of the stage.

I finished reading Silvey’s novel earlier this year and, like many others, was struck by the horrifying realism and seeming timelessness of the story despite its very specific sense of time and place. Set in the sweltering summer of 1965, the local story of an unsolved murder is set against the broader backdrop of the Vietnam War and a country on the brink of “growing up”. Racial tensions run high in the tiny town of Corrigan, both against town scapegoat Jasper Jones, whose mother was Aboriginal, and the Lu family, because of their Vietnamese heritage.


Often compared to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Jasper Jones tells the story of bookish escapist Charlie Bucktin, who lives an uneventful life in tiny bush town Corrigan until a midnight knock on his window sets in motion a series of events that will change him and his town forever. Town outcast Jasper Jones has asked for his help, and Charlie finds himself living one of the adventures he has read about, racing to solve the grisly crime Jasper has uncovered and clear his name. 

Nicholas Denton and Shaka Cook. Imagery via Kath Rose & Associates.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty of adapting a work of young adult fiction is the inherent incongruity of casting adults to play teenagers, but the cast of Jasper Jones do an admirable job. Nicholas Denton brings awkward, sometimes-poetic Charlie Bucktin to life onstage and delivers Charlie’s many monologues with an introspective magnetism. Hoa Xuande has great energy and perfect comedic timing as Charlie’s best friend Jeffrey Lu and their absurd fake voices, hypothetical questions, and play-wrestling feel authentically young and silly. Shaka Cook brings a solemn dignity to the character of Jasper Jones, who is wise to the ways of the world, and Melanie Zanetti has a nervously charming energy as Eliza Wishart as well as playing the role of her sister, Laura.

The relationship between Charlie and his father is somewhat minimised, while his butting heads with his mother is elevated and expanded upon. The standoffs between Charlie and his mother Ruth (Rachel Gordon) have a fantastic tension, while Mr Wesley Bucktin (Ian Bliss) looks on placidly or does not appear at all.

Nicholas Denton and Hoa Xuande. Imagery via Kath Rose & Associates.

The adaptation from book to play is managed with care, crafting a piece of work that makes the best use of the stage, while keeping the book’s integrity intact. Silvey himself is the Responding Artist of this production and writes in the programme note about the bittersweet journey of seeing his story exist outside of himself, and that “with Sam [Strong]’s production, Jasper Jones has never been more incisive, urgent, or powerful. It has been a privilege to hand over the reins.”

All of the core story elements are there, although the mystery is pieced together in a slightly different order. Charlie’s role as a narrator remains more or less unchanged, and exposition-heavy dialogue and asides to the audience assist in setting the scene and establishing character through his eyes. A strength of the stage over the page is that the audience can be shown things outside of Charlie’s perspective, such as Jasper’s ‘interrogation’ by the local police and the shady behaviour of Mrs Bucktin, but also experience Charlie’s inner life in a different way, like his beautiful and ridiculous fantasies about Eliza, over-acted to perfection.

Melanie Zanetti and Nicholas Denton. Imagery via Kath Rose & Associates.

Despite her death being the catalyst of the story, Laura Wishart is still a steady presence in the play. Where in the book Laura manifests as a feeling of guilt and horror in Charlie, onstage she becomes a zombie-like creature, rising from her watery grave and wandering through the town, haunting Charlie and, at times, seeming to guide Jasper Jones as he searches for clues.

You could hear a pin drop in the theatre and people were literally leaning forward on the edge of their seats as the mystery unravelled, particularly in the explanations of Mad Jack Lionel (Hayden Spencer) and the chilling monologue by Eliza Wishart (Melanie Zanetti) about her sister’s death.

Melanie Zanetti and Nicholas Denton. Imagery via Kath Rose & Associates

Helpmann Award-winning design by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Matt Scott, and composition/sound design by Darrin Verhagen bring the audience right into Corrigan, even from the back rows – you can almost feel the gritty red dirt burning the soles of your feet, hear the crickets chirping at the dam, and see the sun rising over the tiny town. The rotating set also allows the audience to explore Corrigan from many angles, and peer into windows and dark corners alongside the characters.

Dark, brutal, and intense, but also a sweet, funny tale about young love, friendship, and the difficulties of regional adolescence, Jasper Jones is as engaging and beautiful as it is deeply disturbing. It simultaneously speaks to the best and worst of Australia, then and now. If you haven’t read the book yet, see this first – the reveal of the mystery is surely even more exciting when you don’t know what is coming.

Ticketing and further information is available via Queensland Theatre’s website.

Content warning: The performance runs for two and a half (2.5) hours with a twenty (20) minute interval. The production contains coarse language, adult themes, theatrical weapons, references to violence, sexual abuse and suicide, racial slurs, theatrical haze/smoke effects and electronic cigarettes.