It feels apt that the notorious Boggo Road Gaol is the centrepiece for Boy Swallows Universe, a work that centres on Brisbane, warts and all. Adapted for Queensland Theatre by Tim McGarry from Trent Dalton’s award-winning novel, and directed by Sam Strong, the play follows Eli Bell (Joe Klocek), a 13-year-old who dreams of being a crime writer at The Courier Mail, his family, and their dealings with drugs and crime in 1980s Brisbane.
Eli’s life isn’t as rosy as it at first seems. His brother Gus (Tom Yaxley) doesn’t talk. Eli’s babysitter is Slim Halliday (Anthony Phelan), a convicted criminal whose escape from Boggo Road is the stuff of legend. One of Eli’s good friends from school is Darren Dang (Hoa Xuande), the son of Bich Dang (Ngoc Phan), a high-level heroin supplier. His father, Robert Bell (Mathew Cooper), is an alcoholic and his stepfather, Lyle Orlik (Anthony Gooley), a former heroin user and current heroin dealer.
A veneer of normality conceals the trauma that surrounds Eli’s and Gus’s lives. Each is trying in his own way to process an experience Eli describes as “driving into the moon pool”. Initially framed as a nightmare, this incident is a memory of the time the two boys nearly drowned when their father drove his car into a dam.
Eli can at times speak with a wisdom beyond his years, though this is often punctuated with cheeky asides to the audience. There are moments when it’s difficult to believe he is a young teenager, but a youthful naivety is always present at the edges of Klocek’s performance. He is consistently – though gently – teased about his desire to live in a house in The Gap. He develops a schoolboy crush on Caitlyn Spies (Ashlee Lollback), a reporter at The Courier Mail, and moves through the world with what at times can seem like a misplaced sense of optimism.
Despite the darkness, there is love. The bond between Eli and Gus is unshakable – Eli is the only one who can read Gus’s swirling finger writing and Gus protects his younger brother by any means necessary. Eli’s love for his mother, Frankie (Michala Banas), never wavers, and in one of the more fantastical scenes of the play he smuggles himself into prison to see her for Christmas, before embarking on and succeeding in a Slim Halliday-inspired escape.
Renée Mulder’s set design, with videography by Craig Wilkinson and lighting by Ben Hughes, transforms the set from Boggo Road to a pier to various scenes of domesticity. A combination of set and video also allows for the projection of the dangerous, adult figures in Eli’s life onto the back and sides of the stage. Their likenesses are split, jagged, almost grotesque, courtesy of a ladder and raised platform that is part of the physical set.
An ominous red telephone sits in a room below the house, lit by a single beam. A deep, almost threatening voice is at the end of the line, an external symbol of Eli’s attempt to deal with his trauma and worries for his future. Steve Francis and Matthew Erskine’s injection of music by the Rolling Stones and Cold Chisel bring an ’80s feel to the production that was apparent even to someone who wasn’t alive then.
Time is an important concept in the play – its passage, how it can be stretched and compressed in a person’s mind, and the idea of “doing time”, whether in prison or life in general. This is reflected in the actors’ movements on and across the stage; Nerida Matthaei’s movement direction here creates a languid, almost dreamlike quality that flows through the scenes themselves, as well as the set transitions. This physical manifestation of push and pull is magnified by the cast’s brilliant chemistry, which allows the play’s emotional notes to hit harder than they would otherwise.
Those familiar with Brisbane will recognise the suburbs of Darra, Bracken Ridge, Jindalee, Indooroopilly, with special attention paid to the Vietnamese community who settled in Darra after fleeing the war in their home country. Darren’s accent is a mixture of Vietnamese and Australian, and at times his and his mother’s accents feel as if they are exaggerated for the sake of comedy.
Throughout the play Eli wrestles with what it means to be a good man, a concept intensified by the play’s setting in the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years. Lyle may be a heroin dealer, but he is also attempting to build a nest egg to support Eli’s career aspirations. Tytus Broz (Anthony Phelan) is a drug kingpin, but he presents himself as a pillar of the Queensland community through his work on prostheses and artificial limbs. Slim Halliday genuinely cares for Eli, but the audience never gets an answer to whether he actually committed the crime for which he was convicted. Are we all inherently “good” or “bad”? Or is it a choice – albeit one that is often shaped by circumstances beyond our control?
In exploring these questions, Boy Swallows Universe doesn’t shy away from confronting scenes; Iwan Krol (Joss McWilliam), Tytus’s henchman, cuts off Eli’s right index finger, which is preserved in a jar in Tytus’s bunker, and in a shocking scene of domestic violence, Teddy Kallas (Andrew Buchanan) forces Frankie to eat dog food at the dinner table. Banas’s performance is heart-wrenching, painfully representative of a time where domestic violence against women was routinely swept under the rug.
However, the play also celebrates the serendipitous nature of life – Alex Bermudez, an ex-con and a member of the Rebels Motorcycle Gang with whom Eli exchanged letters when he was in prison, appears just as Teddy tries to intimidate Frankie into returning to his house; Eli meets Caitlyn at a train station after his failed attempt to get a cadetship at The Courier Mail.
It can be difficult to distil the intricate layers of a novel into a play, and the melding of dreamlike sequences with those of “real life” in the first act can at times be confusing.
A reading of the novel beforehand may make the play easier to parse. Ultimately, Boy Swallows Universe is most successful as a celebration of Brisbane – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Boy Swallows Universe is playing at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, until October 3.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 11, 2021 as "Dreams of real life".
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