The Neverending Story

Harvest Rain Theatre Company

QPAC Cremorne Theatre

29th April – 12th May

Nobody alert Tim Burton to this great movie.. he WILL remake it and he WILL cast Johnny Depp in EVERY damn role.

Leew2oo6’s on YouTube

I’ve never read Michael Ende’s book but I grew up watching The Neverending Story. I wanted Fantasia to exist outside of my head and dreaded its demise, if ever my imagination failed me. Now I watch the movie with my five-year old, who feels the same emotions I do, which is perfect because I know when to hold her close. The Neverending Story (1984) is up there with Labyrinth (1986) and The Goonies (1985). They are the classic, cult eighties’ films of my childhood (and I don’t mind betting that O’Connor is at work on the stage adaptions of these two too!). I’m an eighties’ child and proud of it! Now, for a whole new generation of children (and their parents), this wonderful story has been brought to life on the Brisbane stage.

In just 3 weeks, Harvest Rain Theatre Company, known for its family friendly entertainment, has done an incredible job in preparing this show for the stage. From the outset, this production – the first known stage adaptation, thanks to Tim O’Connor’s arrangement with Verlag Fur Kindertheater, of Ende’s book – is magical. With original music from the film by Klaus Doldinger (by arrangement with Constantin Music) and additional original music incorporated seamlessly by the super-talented Maitlohn Drew, I found myself joining the characters on their epic journey, when usually, if I’m reviewing, it’s possible to stay somewhat removed from the production!

Before the show begins, there are hidden elements in the Proscenium for the audience to spot (or not). This is genius, delighting kids and adults alike. We are instantly engrossed and expecting more magic. I was pleased to see that the final moments of the show accounted for those who, like me, appreciate a bit of symmetry and full circle work to their magic. Props to those ensemble performers – second year interns in Harvest Rain’s Full Time training program – who play the supporting roles and become together, a declamatory Greek Chorus, their Greek Guard Steampunk garb befitting of the gates and Sphinxes, whose forms they assume. They are: Casey McCollow (who will play Tracy Turnblad in HR’s upcoming production of Hairspray), Cameron Whitten, Dana Musil, Cassie Dormer, Lauren Heidecker, Morgan Kempster, Danny Lazar, Ebony McGeady and Cameron Rollo. They serve as the narrators throughout the play (somebody sounds surprisingly similar to Melanie Zanetti! Look out!), allowing the action to skip along nicely without the use of a projector and a big screen (how old school! Community theatre groups take note!), as well as all manner of inanimate objects: after the Sphinxes, the remaining two gates through which Atreyu must pass, receive similarly clever treatment. This is not just the stuff of Year 9 high school tableaus and drama games; this is the step beyond, interwoven within the context of the drama, which we’ve been waiting to see for a long time from HR.

Oh. Right. Let’s do a quick check of the story for the newbies, shall we? For those of you who, like me, expect to the letter, the narrative structure of the film, you won’t be disappointed. Everything is there. We don’t see Bastian’s bullies but we know they’re there and rather than reap revenge on them, as he does in the film, Bastian simply walks away, off into the real world, more like his alter-ego, Atreyu, than the Bastian we knew, ready to take on his aggressors, no matter what shape or form; a conclusion I like very much. Is that decision book inspired or O’Connor inspired? It’s a nice touch.

For those who are unfamiliar with Michael Ende’s original, fantastical tale, it’s all made very clear in just 70 minutes. Bastian (David Lawrence) hides out in a big, old bookstore, from a gang of school bullies. The owner of the bookstore is Mr Coreander. In this role, Ron Kelly softens nicely after a deliberately awkward start, eventually connecting with Bastian and allowing us to finally connect with him. He “can’t abide children”, however; he sees something in Bastian that makes him leave a mysterious book within the troubled boy’s reach and Bastian decides to “borrow” it. The only place Bastian can read it undisturbed is in the school attic. What unfolds is the story within the pages of the book, an adventure; a warrior on a mission to save Fantasia.

Economical use of the space allows Bastian to stay in the attic for much of the play. This sounds limiting but it’s not. The action plays out below him, on stage, as he reads aloud from the book. He leaps up often enough and when he opens the heavy cover and turns the pages of the book, we see his lips moving and enjoy watching his beautifully expressive face as he reads, thanks to a perfectly positioned light, placed somewhere, seemingly, within the pages of the book. Incredibly, David Lawrence LOOKS enough like Bastian (Barret Oliver) in the movie to please even the most stoic fans. He’s just a little older, which means his appeal is broader. He’s not just “a little boy”; he’s every boy (and girl) looking for an adventure and avoiding growing up for just a little bit longer. (Did you know you can get your very own Auryn here?).

The Luck Dragon, Falkor, played by Anthony Standish, is tough and gruff and lovable (and apparently loves his blue slurpees) and The Childlike Empress, played by Erika Naddei is regal, graceful and wise beyond her years, just as she should be. Audiences will adore seeing the Rockchewer (an enormous puppet of Woodfordian inspiration and controlled in the same cooperative manner as Dead Puppet Society’s The Harbinger’s Old Man), Morla The Ancient One (another enormous puppet, although she is serpent not tortoise) and the odd travelling companions, Nighthob and Gluckuk. Thenadier-like comic relief comes as we get nearer the southern Oracle, in the hilarious antics of Engywook (Dan Crestani) and Urgl (Cameron Whitten), the quarrelling gnomes. These two are outstanding in these quirky roles and I’m sure there will be parents or grandparents who relate to their bickering… I mean that in the most loving, caring way.

Dan Venz is the boy warrior, Atreyu (we last saw him as the Tinman in The Wizard of Oz and we’ll see him next as Link Larkin in Hairspray) and while Venz looks quite perfect (as a Plains Person rather than the book’s Greenskin, just as the impassioned Noah Hathaway portrayed him in the film), his vocals are unconvincing. I strained at times to hear Venz and I felt the voice should more honestly reflect Atreyu’s feelings throughout his difficult journey. Particularly towards the end of the show, I felt that there was a great deal left undone…or not quite offered. Acting is giving. With only three weeks to rehearse, perhaps a little more vocal authenticity and a greater investment in the role will show itself during the run, as Venz realises the impact that this show is having (I’m predicting) on its audiences.

When the vocal work can extend to the delivery of the narrative (let’s not forget that we are, after all, communicating a story and if it must be told it must be told clearly), this show will want for nothing (CUE Vocal Coach. Nothing wrong with a mid-season rehearsal!). What already works wonderfully, is the ensemble’s vocal underscoring, Ron Kelly as the terrifying (and wonderfully dread-locked!) werewolf, Gmork, and Crestani as Artax, reminding us that the human voice is, indeed, capable of making, literally, thousands of sounds.

The difficult trek made by Atreyu and Artax through the Swamps of Sadness is impressive in its theatricality, using eerie vocal work and lighting, minimal cloth, space and perspective and, as you would expect, is devastating in its theatrical context. There were, understandably, whimpers and tears from the children (including my own) in the opening night audience. Crestani brilliantly uses the simplest movements and a free, confident voice to bring us “horse”. It’s an impressive performance and a devastating moment.

The fear factor too, is impressive, largely due to Kelly’s uninhibited portrayal of Gmork and less to do with the incoming The Nothing (my imagination needed a little more help with the latter. Was there no smoke machine?!). After the show, people wanted to know if my daughter had been scared. Yes, she had been. And what an achievement it is to create a terror on stage so vivid and real that genuine fear is generated amongst audience members!

If you are taking younger children to the show, do expect to hold them close to you throughout this scene (and throughout the fight scene, choreographed by Niki J-Price, between Atreyu and Gmork, one which I hope will pick up, pace-wise, as the season continues) and be prepared to talk about Ende’s many challenging themes of life and death and love and apathy on whatever level your child proposes. The beauty (and the bonus) of theatre designed to entertain all the family is that it has an entirely different impact on each individual and inspires intriguing discussions and wonderful memories for a long time after the show is over.

Of course, it’s the combined elements that make this story come alive. In addition to the evocative music (Amanda Tio on double bass, Sunkyoung Kim  and Naomi Otto on violin), Glenwright’s lighting is a work of art in itself, offering light and shadow to support the changing moods of the hero and his challenges. Josh McIntosh has created a set that is filled with wonder and yet never actually needs us to leave the confines of the old bookstore. This is a lovely piece of design work, with a curving staircase and shelves upon shelves of books. Design like this, which takes into account everything we see the director trying to achieve, must come from the implicit understanding of a shared vision amongst great friends and colleagues.

The end of this show is like enough The Lorax to mention it here (I bet The Lorax is on O’Connor’s To Do List too!).

I was dreading an ending that failed to make me feel like it was my responsibility to keep Fantasia and its inhabitants alive and I wasn’t disappointed. With Bastian, we make a promise to keep our feet off the ground more often. We saved Fantasia and we can do it again! Yeah! You just can’t beat a triumphant happy ending. Happy tears are the best.

Harvest Rain is getting better and better at staging family shows. By this I mean, they’ve always done them; now they’re doing them for the whole family. Tim O’Connor, a Brisbane Person of the Year Nominee, is making bolder choices and they’re paying off. I think it’s safe to say that Harvest Rain is the premiere provider of family friendly theatre in Brisbane.

Regardless of your age or your affiliation with b-grade adventure films or the eighties, you will enjoy The Neverending Story. And your kids will enjoy it even more. In fact, I’m prepared to bet that they talk about it for the rest of the year, after they tell their friends, “Yeah, I saw ANNIE…but did you see The Neverending Story?!” Don’t let any of the kids – big or little – miss this bit of magic.

While you’re booking your tickets online, enjoy this bit of magic, from LIMAHL. Ha! Laugh it up, fuzzballs!

Production Images by Josh Woning


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