Pelicans not elephants

16. 796ARTSThe elephant in the room was in fact a pelican, according to Stormboy director John Sheedy.

The play that starts September 21 at the Heath Ledger theatre marks the 50th anniversary of one of Australia’s most beloved stories, and is, says Sheedy, a fitting tribute to the book and author Colin Thiele.

“There’s a reason it’s still being read in schools,” he notes.

Mr Percival (a pelican) is central to the story but how to bring such a big and unwieldly bird to the stage was a thorny question.

“It was the biggest elephant in the room. Do we do a real pelican…how do we do it?” Sheedy mused.

After much discussion puppets were decided on—a trio of babies for the fledglings that Stormboy rescues after their mother is shot and killed, and a grown-up Mr Percival.

Rather than traditional puppeteers dressed in black so they are unseen, Sheedy cleverly uses Aboriginal dancers, representing and passing on the ancient knowledge of the land.

“They are the tempest, breathing life into the pelicans.”

The Northbridge local may have side-stepped working with real animals but the old maxim about never working with children was never further from the truth.

Stormboy is portrayed by a pair of 12-year-olds, Rory Potter and Joshua Chandler.

The boys alternate the role nightly (due to child labour laws), but whomever is onstage is in all 19 scenes of the 70-minute play.

“They are amazing…charming, cheeky, vulnerable, everything Stormboy should be,” Sheedy gleams.

Rather than hatch a rivalry the pair has become fast friends, Sheedy says.

“Both bring their own individual quality to the role.”

The boys will travel from Sydney to Perth with a parent each and a “minder”, to ensure they don’t miss school work.

Thiele’s work dealt with difficult subjects and Stormboy is no exception, dealing with death and loss and the inability of men to deal with either very well.

Grieving for his wife, Stormboy’s dad flees to a shack on the beach in the wilds of South Australia’s Coorong.

Hermit-like Tom (played by Peter O’Brien) won’t talk about the loss of his wife to his boy, forgetting perhaps that his son has lost a mother.

Stormboy spends his days wandering local marshes and lagoons and is befriended by Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson), an Aboriginal man who gives the boy his name and teaches him local lore.

It’s the story of a young boy growing up and Mr Percival’s heart-rending death is central, Sheedy says.

“I didn’t want to shy away from this big issue,” he says.

“I want to make it accessible for children…it’s important we do stories that create discussion.”

Production was in partnership with the Sydney Theatre Company, where Stormboy sold out before opening.

“We are heading that way [in Perth],” he says. “We already have a waiting list for schools.”

Stormboy is at the Heath Ledger Centre at the State Theatre, September 21 to October 5. Tickets at Ticketek.

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