Review by Gemma Keliher
Drawing from a tragic true-life story, Belloo Creative’s Boy, Lost sees Kristina’s Olsson’s memoir of the same name adapted to the stage by Katherine Lyall-Watson. With the timeline of the story spanning across 50 years, the biggest challenge for Lyall-Watson and Director Caroline Dunphy arises from the production’s ambitious goal of condensing this timeline into a 75 minute run time.
At its heart, the narrative follows the life of Peter and the eventual journey back to his mother, after being taken from her arms as a baby, and his mother’s attempt to reconcile life without her first born after her escape from a violent marriage. It also touches on many other aspects of Australian life throughout the decades, such as domestic violence and familial abuse, institutionalised children and the Stolen Generation, child abuse, disability and ableism, and cultural strains. This story is an eye-opening glimpse into the very real traumas and shameful history of Australia. Still, there are moments of light throughout, and we see the bonds of family and love shown in various ways. I also think this story, and Peter, truly represents the Australian spirit – the resilience to keep pushing on, no matter how dark a place you’re coming from. It's a somewhat bittersweet ending, as we do see Peter eventually reunite with his mother and find a new family, however we are reminded that this is one of many stories of lost children and not all have such a happy ending.
I found this to be quite an experimental piece of theatre, combining narration, physical storytelling, and musical theatre elements across constantly changing locations and time periods. The fluidity of the storytelling was a compelling way to tell a story that jumps between perspectives, places, and time and was appropriately staged in what is a relatively small theatre space, while still allowing glimpses of multiple locations simultaneously. This was aided by David Walters’ lighting design, Guy Webster’s sound design, and music composed by Morgan Francis. The fluidity of the storytelling was utilised in Penny Challen’s set and costumes, with moveable and multiple use staging pieces that the actors would use in varying ways across different locations, as well as specific costume pieces that would signify the many characters that were represented.
With only a small cast of 5 to represent the family members at the heart of the story, as well as the many other people that played a part, it was initially hard to track and remember who was who as well as their relation to one another. This did eventually become clear, and the ensemble of actors made up of Colin Smith, Zoë Houghton, Hsiao-Ling Tang, Stephen Geronimos, and Morgan Francis, each had detailed vocal and physical characterisations to differ from the various roles they each played. Various cultural backgrounds were portrayed, and the accent work, coached by Melissa Agnew, was clear and consistently able to be understood.
In such a short run time however, time is a precious commodity, and the time lost to initial confusion left me feeling like I had missed an important moment to connect more with the people who’s story I was watching unfold. There were moments that even with narration it was difficult to place how much time had passed or where we sat in timeline, however the events that took place and their effects were still clear. I did begin to feel at a disadvantage for not having heard or read this story prior to seeing the performance, as to me the framework of the play being about institutionalised children didn’t quite align with the 75 minute story I had seen as a standalone piece of work. Rather, I found this staged version to be quite heart wrenching in its representation of domestic abuse and the inability to escape without proper means, the barriers that women and those that live with illness and disability have faced throughout our history, the ambivalence of the police and government, and the resounding spirit that kept Peter surviving through a truly troubled and traumatic life.
This is such a fascinating, heartbreaking, and inspiring story that speaks so much truth about the darker side of Australia’s history, and I would love for it to continue to be told. While personally my mind jumps to think that film would be an ideal medium for it to be adapted to, there is still something special about seeing this told in live theatre by one of Peter’s relatives. Budget permitting, this is something I would love to see with a larger cast and longer run time to articulate more clearly what is a complex story with many people’s lives involved and affected.