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Review: Robot Song at The Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

By Lisa Lanzi

Robot Song is another very fine example of Theatre for Young Adults offered at this year’s extraordinary DreamBIG Festival in Adelaide. It is badged for children eight years and up but I truly hope many adults will find an opportunity to see this work. We need more understanding in the world around children who inhabit the Autism spectrum and better approaches to the issue of bullying and harassment. Robot Song is touring in 2019 - make sure you search it out. Details are on the Arena website.

Based in Bendigo, Arena Theatre Company “believes all children and young people have the right to experience art on equal terms as an essential part of their relationship to the world, and not as preparation for adulthood”. I admit that I am a passionate advocate of this approach and we are fortunate in Australia to have many fine companies who make and present excellent theatrical works for young people and are lauded internationally.

In Robot Song we meet Juniper May, her mum and her dad, as she nervously steps onto the stage for the first time to present a work she has written. She web-searched ‘how to write a show’ so ‘it can’t be that hard, right’. Juniper was inspired to write this work after she received a letter ‘signed by the whole of 6C which ridiculed her, called her a robot and a total freak, they wish she was never born and tell her nobody wants her at the school. Juniper is understandably thrown into turmoil, not eating, sleeping or every wanting to return to school. There was a ripple of recognition and empathy throughout the audience when this ‘letter’ was read out, from both children and adults.

Juniper likes art, making, music, YouTube, robots and writing. She hates school and doesn’t like surprises. She also has a special friend in her backyard - a giant rubbish bin where she finds all sorts of treasures and ‘all the fun that rubbish brings’. The performance begins with a stream-of-consciousness monologue, sometimes pausing to address the audience or her parents who are assisting her to put on the gig. The audience experiences Juniper’s pedantic nature and her highly creative mind and her close relationship with her supportive parents. She tells us that words are a ‘little like Lego’ and how she perceives these building blocks is fascinating: inside ‘believe’ is ‘lie’ and inside ‘music’ is ‘us’, and so on.

Ashlea Pyke is a revelation as Juniper May. Her approach to this character is loving and empathic but never patronising - she engages the young audience from the very beginning and they never falter in their attention to the quite complex narrative. Pyke manages to convey the slight manic quality that sometimes overtakes Juniper with subtle vocal and physical prowess and voices her inner thoughts perfectly. Ms Pyke also has a wonderful singing voice and the journey of the performance is perfectly layered with dialogue, original songs, whimsical props and nuanced physicality… and a giant, wise robot.

Philip McInnes is Juniper’s devoted, creative and passionate ‘dad’. The role is a complex one but beautifully presented as he tackles the multitude of props, situations, songs and his ‘daughter’s’ needs. McInnes has presence on stage and a rich voice that pairs well in the harmonies and suits the ‘dad’ persona that Juniper needs. As ‘mum’ and the onstage pianist and co-singer, Jo Abbott is enchanting.

There is a standout song (with vigorous and delighted audience participation) - The POO Song, but hilarity aside, the song speaks to the unconditional love of a parent. In fact, all the songs are superb. Nathan Gilkes is the composer and original musical director - an accomplished performer in his own right and from this year, Artistic Director at Marian Street Theatre for Young People in Sydney.

The other feature of Robot Song is the exceptional writing. For writer/director Jolyon James, the story is deeply personal and based on his own experience of parenting of a child on the Autism Spectrum. He poses the important question : how do we support, foster and celebrate difference in our children in the face of an increasingly rigid and homogenised world?

Juniper learns from a robot friend, and her dad, that being different is your super power. Another theme is about re-framing words : change the story, change the viewpoint. There are some profound ideas within this original work and it is a wonderful lesson about the transformative nature of creativity in our lives, a lesson we should all revisit often.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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