The Book of Everything is a sweet and thoughtfully devised play that shows post-war Amsterdam through the eyes of an overly imaginative nine-year-old. With a cast of just twelve and a set seemingly made of cardboard boxes, young Thomas’ world is immersive as soon as you step into the theatre. Erin Nicholson was endearing in the lead role and did an impressive job conveying the naivety, bravery and sincerity of a child. However it was Owen Lane as Jesus who really stood out, from his kindly and amusing back and forth with Nicholson to his ironic asides, as well as his well-utilised skill on the guitar. Lane’s presence on stage was as comforting to audiences as it was to Thomas, and his effortlessness anchored the play in its most fraught moments.
The supporting cast were also largely impressive, from Alice Marks’ wonderfully bold Aunty Pie to Hamish Plaggemars’ all-in portrayal of the eccentric Mrs. Van Amersfoort and Hannah Palfreyman’s sophisticated depiction of Margot’s transition from obstinate teen to protector of her family. Unfortunately, Lachie Ince in the key role of Thomas’ father lacked both power and depth. His attacks on Thomas’ mother (Elise Shaw), despite their importance to the action of the play, fell short of any real impact and overall it was a struggle to believe that anyone could see him as a threat.
The staging was original, with the four ensemble cast members forming as much a part of the set as the cardboard boxes that created the structures. The versatility and constant rearrangement of the set aided the pleasingly haphazard look of the stage, which was marred only by the sloppily handled fabric and clumsily painted canal homes. While the constant rearrangements made changes in setting clear to audiences, most scenes lacked a distinct or compelling atmosphere, unless saved by the cast’s guitar playing. This live music was not only impressive but added extra depth to the construction of Thomas’ world and drew audiences back in just as they were in danger of drifting. Having the cast on stage for the entirety of the show was an effective reminder of the community that shaped Thomas’ world, but the characters’ miming in the dark wings became distracting in moments of low intensity. The pacing was steady overall, but would have been aided by an interval to create some of the sorely missing variation.
Director Oscar Shaw and his creative team have done a compelling job in exploring the themes of war, family, religion and community that drive this play, and it’s a production that endears itself to audiences from the start. While there were a few opening night stumbles, once the cast gains some momentum the rest of the season is sure to be smoother. This is overall an impressive and enjoyable production that is only held back by some clumsy set choices and plodding pacing.
The Book of Everything is playing in the Guild Theatre, Union House, the University of Melbourne from May 13-16. Check out the Facebook event here.