Hello, my name is Michelle and I live in the now famous suburb of The Gap. This year there is no better way to celebrate the 2021 Brisbane Festival, than with the play that has been unintentionally three years in the making , Boy Swallows Universe. This homage to Brisbane was written by talented Gap resident and accomplished journalist and author, Trent Dalton. His novel captured hearts around the world before being adapted lovingly for the stage by playwright , Tim McGarry. Directed by the accomplished Sam Strong and starring fine, young Brisbane actor Joe Klocek, it is theatre at its finest.
Boy Swallows Universe is based on Trent’s life in Darra, Bracken Ridge, Brisbane City and finally the rock star suburb of The Gap. It’s a testament to Trent’s skill as a writer that the places could easily be interchanged with suburbs in São Paulo, Denver, Kyoto or Oslo, for the story is a human story which has at its core, HOPE. Life may be a bumpy road but it’s those smooth patches of just paved bitumen that are worth the journey, always.
This adaptation is cinematic, engaging and at times brutally honest. It has superb lighting, projections, imagery and a wonderful set which closely mirrors the scenes in the book. The set was designed by the talented Renee Mulder. The videos from Craig Wilkinson provide continuity, set the scene and project Eli’s emotions and those things left unsaid clearly. It is a modern, engaging and beautiful feature of the play. Although the play is long, scenes whizz by and before you know it interval arrives as you are leaning forward , hanging on to every nuance and every word.
Boy Swallows Universe tells the story of Eli Bell, a dreamer who lives with his younger brother August. August doesn’t speak but writes messages in the air with his finger. Their Mum, Frankie, loves her boys fiercely, but has dabbled in drugs and drug dealing, and is eventually interned in jail. Stepfather Lyle, though kind to the lads, is a drug dealer and the Dad that the boys barely know, Robert, is an alcoholic, who when sober encourages the boys love of books and stories. When your babysitter is the famous ‘Houdini of Boggo Road ‘, Slim Halliday, you have a tale or two to tell.
Boy Swallows Universe asks, ‘ What is a good man? ‘ and ‘ How do we measure the worth of a man? ‘ from the perspective of a 13 year old, Eli Bell, an idealist who dreams big. Eventually we find that there is no clear cut answer, only shades of dark and light.
Dark and light is a theme in the play which has at its core family, friendship, loyalty and love. It’s an homage to life in the 80’s Brisbane paired with a killer soundtrack. It paints a picture of life in the outer Brisbane suburbs which is far from the idyllic 1980’s haze that many would remember.
The audience follows Eli’s life from boyhood to manhood and are invested in his twisting, turning journey. As a mother of three sons I loved seeing the unbreakable bonds between mother and sons and the conflicting emotions surrounding relationships between brothers, fathers , friends and foes. This play shows all the layers of our human experience.
Joe Klocek is perfection as Eli Bell. You might remember Joe from hit movie The Dry, where he played the young Aaron Falk. Here he becomes Eli, with an angelic hopeful spirit, plus a dash of sass and idealism. He is mesmerising to watch as the story grows. Sometimes I forgot I was watching an actor and felt like I was watching the real Trent Dalton. Joe’s portrayal is that good!
Star of stage and screen , the diminutive Michala Banas, plays Mum, Frankie Bell with equal parts fierceness and vulnerability. She commands the stage and has your heart aching for her each time she appears. August Bell is played by Tom Yaxley with great empathy and although his role has mostly no words, he manages to convey so much emotion and inhabits the character beautifully for his Queensland Theatre debut.
There is a cast of thirteen who, with the exception of Michala Banas, share various roles and move through each with ease. Ngoc Phan was outstanding as Bich Dang, a role she appeared to relish. She was empathetic as Mrs Birkbeck. Hoa Xande as Darren Dang was just as I imagined from the book and oh so funny.
Anthony Phelan segued between his brilliant portrayal of Slim Halliday to his menacing Tytus Broz with ease and was one of my favourite characters to watch. Joss McWilliam was menacing as Iwan Krol and Alex Bermudez. Shades of good and evil, dark and light, rich and poor were reflected in the duality of roles and each and every person on stage gave truly memorable performances. Matthew Cooper, Andrew Buchanan (who was unrecognisable as a baddie), Ashlee Lollback, Anthony Gooley, Charles Ball and Hsin -Ju Ely rounded out this well balanced and committed cast.
I was worried that such a sprawling story would lose some of its magic when contained to a stage, but my friends at Queensland Theatre, under the steady hand of Sam Strong , have managed a faithful retelling which does not in any way deflect from the exhilarating magic and madness, beauty and brutality, joy and heartbreak of this stellar piece. It is a triumph which shows the glorious power of love and hope to scale the walls and break free from the darkest of days and the bleakest of circumstances.
This truly human story is on now at The Playhouse, QPAC and luckily the season has been extended for another week until October 9. One viewing will not be enough. I am already planning my next visit. Boy Swallows Universe was well worth the long, long wait and is testament to the beauty and power of character and story.
As I caught my bus home I smiled as I saw that the first bus on the board was bound for Bracken Ridge and the last was the mighty 385 which would whisk me safely home to the comfort of The Gap. Summed up my night to perfection! As we pulled away from South Bank Lyle’s words whispered in my mind, “It’ll get good, mate. It’ll get so good you’ll forget it was even bad.”
My tears began to fall.
Freelance writer, wife and mother of three sons, occasional supply teacher and aspiring romance author, Michelle Beesley can be most often found in a coffee shop chatting with friends or beside a rugby field cheering on her favourite teams.
Michelle is a prolific—albeit reluctant—traveller, keen walker, bookworm and yoga enthusiast who loves anything pink or sparkly (including champagne!).