Where in the World is Frank Sparrow? – Canberra Youth Theatre (Review)

John Lombard 4 November 2014


What if Harry Potter went AWOL?  “Where in the World is Frank Sparrow” takes all of the elements of chosen one stories and remixes them as satire.  Frank Sparrow is running, hard, from a destiny he can’t understand – the world will just have to save itself.  Canberra Youth Theatre’s interpretation of Angela Betzien’s theatrical poem is acrobatic, moving and often witty, using an ensemble cast to narrate a dark fairy-tale.

Frank Sparrow is born with limited time.  A baby nobody thought would survive, he grows into a teenager with ghostly health and a reckless desperation that is just as potentially deadly.  After an attempt to liberate some exotic birds from a pet shop indirectly results in the death of the owner he ends up before the juvenile court.  He’s put on probation and forced to stick to a curfew (which seems like a gentle penalty for someone who already has one murder to his name).  But he can’t stop running, and after one curfew-breaking sprint through the night he has a chance encounter with the woman who will change his life – the daughter of a local gang kingpin.

But Frank isn’t just a teenager in trouble with the courts.  Early on we’re told that there is a kind of a hostage exchange program going on between the lands of the living and the dead.  Frank is the ambassador of the dead and his stay among the living is only supposed to be temporary.  Dead animals are even starting to talk to him – the rat he dissects in his biology class is keen to know the football results.  Frank knows something is happening but can’t face the truth about himself and it’s only when his new love is accused of murder that he accepts his destiny – and the strange powers that come with it.

Told mostly in poetry and with an energetic chorus narrating the play, this is definitely an ensemble piece.  Actors are identified in the program as part of the cast but not for their specific roles and there’s a deliberate effort by the director (Tamzin Nugent) to give every actor business to perform on stage.  In stories where heroes visit another world (Narnia, Neverwhere, many others) there’s normally a contrast between the two realms.  Kansas is black and white, Oz is glorious Technicolor.  But the style of the play never changes whether Frank is having his first meeting with his case officer or whether it’s during a late-play trek into the land of the dead.  Perhaps the point is that Frank doesn’t fit in anywhere and everything is equally disorienting to him – but this means that the down-to-earth touches in the play like gang violence lose their grit.

The performance also calls for some gymnastics from the actors.  Two curtains are suspended in the middle of the stage in pillars and actors at various times climb or entwine with them in a trapeze act.  At the start of the play their purpose isn’t obvious but the way the actors interact with them (climbing them, burying themselves in them like cocoons) establishes a series of images that make sense later: for example, climbing the curtains leads from the underworld to the human realm, while entwining them is used to signal physical transformation.  Just acting well is hard enough and the impressive, circus-like use of the set showed the commitment of the performers to the show, especially the lithe mid-air movements of the two actors playing crows.

Overall it was an impressive piece by Canberra Youth Theatre.  My main criticism is that the show was a bit too much in love with the smoke machine.  Unless you’re in Phantom of the Opera use of the smoke machine should be kept to a minimum – actors, after all, have much more powerful tools at their disposal for establishing mood.  And as I’ve said, the minimalist and abstract staging, which effective, diminishes the realistic elements of the script.  But it was a fun piece of theatre that demanded engagement from the audience without being incoherent.  It’s aimed squarely a teenage audience and hopefully it will provoke thought about of the potentially sinister messages buried in chosen one stories and how they would actually play out in the real world.

Canberra Youth Theatre develops younger performers with challenging work, under 25s intereted in participating can find out more at their website: http://www.cytc.net

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