Jolyon James’ Robot Song, presented by Theatre Works and Arena Theatre Company, follows 11-year old Juniper May from the moment she suffers a blow to her self esteem when her classmates write a letter, calling her a “freak”, a “robot”, and wishing she’d never been born. To cope with the slight, which causes her to skip school and stop eating, Juniper decides to write a musical with some help from her ever-supportive parents. This musical is the frame through which Juniper shares her life with the audience, telling us about her YouTube channel, her love for robots (especially a robot from a 1980s Japanese cartoon called “Battletac”), her special friendship with a recycling bin called Gomi, that one time she pooed on the carpet, and the difficulties she faces being bullied at school and not fitting in.
Ultimately, with some help from her parents and an appearance from Battletac himself, Juniper manages to regain her confidence and take pride in what makes her different, refusing to let the bullying affect her. Robot Song is clearly aimed towards children and families, especially with its overarching message that schoolyard bullying is only temporary, and that what makes you a target at school is also what makes you unique. This message is delivered in a perhaps unsubtle, cliché way at times, particularly at the show’s end when Juniper’s father directly addresses the audience, reassuring
them that “different = awesome”. However it is ultimately still affecting.
Almost everybody, from children to adults, can relate to the feeling of being an outsider, and scenes of Juniper discussing her bullies are genuinely touching. When she overcomes the bullies and regains her confidence, it is actually moving. It is also worth noting that, when the show aims to be funny, it is hard not to laugh (I defy you to sit through the “poo song” with a straight face).
The show’s ability to deliver these messages in an effective way stems largely from its solid cast. Ashlea Pyke, who stars as Juniper, delivers a highly energetic and confident performance, with impressive vocals. I think that her bubbly onstage persona, reminiscent at times of a Hi-5 performance, would be especially appealing to children. Phillip McInnes is also convincing as her father.
In addition to the strong performances, the show benefits from an excellent, sleek stage design by Jolyon James. This set exposes the stage and simultaneously transforms it into Juniper’s classroom, backyard and bedroom. The design comes complete with some very impressive technology – the onstage action is occasionally supported by animations, and the appearance of a surprise magnificent piece near the show’s end is a particularly climactic moment.
In short, Robot Song is an impressive gem of a show, particularly suitable for children, but also enjoyable for adults, as it celebrates difference in a touching and sometimes spectacular way.
Theatre Works and Arena Theatre Company’s production of Robot Song runs at Theatre Works from 25 March — 13 April 2019.
Photography by Jolyon James.