by Catherine Blanch.
Winner of the ‘Best Production for Children’ at the Sydney Theatre Awards in 2015, The 52-Storey Treehouse has leapt from the pages of Andy Griffiths (author) and illustrator Terry Denton’s much-loved book, having been adapted for the stage by screenwriter Richard Tulloch (Bananas In Pyjamas). Presented by Adelaide Festival Centre and Christine Dunstan Theatre Producers (CDP), and directed by Liesel Badorrek, Dunstan Playhouse has previously played host to The 13-Storey Treehouse and The 26-Storey Treehouse performances and now The 52-Storey Treehouse.
We speak with Jack Starkey-Gill, who performs the role of Terry, and begin by asking what happened to The 39-Storey Treehouse.
“Basically, there are some parts of the book that just can’t be staged in a way that would do the story justice.”
Is that because there are a lot of outer space scenes?
“That was probably the biggest factor for CDP and Richard to decide whether to put it on or not,” he says. “They do such a wonderful job of transporting the books into these one-hour plays, which remain mostly very true to the books, but they would have needed to make huge changes for 39 that they decided not to do that.”
It’s very clever the way Andy and Terry write these books based around what they are actually doing while they are supposed to be writing the books. For those that may not have read the book, tell us about The 52-Storey Treehouse.
“Well, its Andy’s birthday but Terry, being Terry, has completely forgotten,” Jack explains. “Obviously this isn’t great for Andy, but the one thing that Terry does remember is that they have a book due any day now. They try to get in touch with Mr. Big Nose but, unfortunately, he has been kidnapped. Meanwhile, Jill has received a very interesting package from the Angry Vegetable Kingdom and has been put into a magical deep sleep. So Andy and Terry have to go, with the sleeping Jill, to find Mr. Big Nose and try to wake her and rescue him so they can get their book delivered on time.”
The staging has changed since the previous books, with performers seemingly working outside the treehouse this time. Jill is also a part of this performance which is another new touch.
“We actually have four performers on stage for this show,” Jack says. “Alex Duncan plays Andy, Jane Mahady plays Jill and Zoran Jevtic plays Edward Puppethands and Prince Potato – the main villain of the piece. Edward Puppethands is a great character who often appears – as the name would suggest – with puppets on his hands, to help describe aspects of our journey as well as add in some of the other characters, like the caterpillar that comes along with us. But mostly it is just the three of us.
“Because Andy and Terry are outside of the Treehouse, our journey away from there gives us, as actors, more room to play with the props, with each other and with our imaginations – which obviously is such a huge part of this, as we want the kids and adults to come along that imaginative journey with us. The Treehouse that we have on stage, an enormous beautiful wooden box, is transformed into various things; the dungeon, Jill’s cottage, a tram… I think it’s wonderful what we are able to do with it, and a bit of a life of its own.
“Doing this show is terrific fun,” he says. “We, as actors, have to transport our audience everyday – and sometimes multiple times a day – young and old into this incredible fantastical story with minimal props, our voices and physicality. It’s challenging but also some of the most fun you can have as an actor.”
The characters of Terry and Andy have a brilliant dynamic between each other. They’re symbiotic in one way and completely different in another.
“One of the greatest things is that there is a real sense of truth in Andy and Terry,” Jack says. “Of course, they have some pretty far-fetched journeys and they are certainly larger-than-life characters, but I don’t think that we ever wanted to play them as polar opposites; it was more about finding the reality of these two people and how they work together. It also means that Alex and I have developed an almost unique bond with each other, and every time it’s just a joy to look at him and jump into the life and energy of the characters, which is great.
“Performing to adults is so much easier than performing to children,” he adds, “because you have to keep up your level of life and believability every second otherwise they can tell – they will see right through it and zone out.”
Do you have a favourite part in the show?
“I love the moments where I get to be really silly and get some great laughs from the audience,” Jack says. “There’s one part where Jill is trying to explain the wonderful science behind a caterpillar turning into a chrysalis before becoming a butterfly and I get to be in a very Terry-like fashion not quite understanding what she’s talking about and misconstruing the word metamorphosis for mega-monster-fish, who is very excited about that! That always draws a big laugh and I just love it because I can be very over-the-top, full of passion and life. He’s such a great character to play.”
Is there anything else you would like to add?
“Although not outwardly intended to do so, this show is really designed to remind both children and adults of the joy of the imagination,” Jack says. “Modern technology is in danger of letting our imaginations slip away from us. This show is there to say ‘hey, let’s get back to dreaming and thinking and designing worlds in our heads’ which I think is a really important thing.”
The 52-Storey Treehouse performs at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, at various times, on Tue 19 Jul until Sun 24 Jul.
Book at BASS on 131 246 and bass.net.au. Click HERE to purchase your tickets.