Kate Mulvany has been working hard to keep up with the Joneses. The challenge of turning Craig Silvey's 2009 novel Jasper Jones into a play is one the WA-born playwright is relishing, while acknowledging the responsibility to keep faith with the spirit of the coming-of-age story of three boys in a 1960s country town harbouring a terrible secret.

Theatres are littered with the wreckage of failed adaptations but Mulvany has happy memories as an emerging actor more than a decade ago in plays based on cherished WA books, Elizabeth Jolley's Milk and Honey and Tom Hungerford's Stories From Suburban Road.

Barking Gecko artistic director John Sheedy, novelist Craig Silvey and playwright Kate Mulvany. Picture: Andy Sheddon

"I was lucky enough to cut my teeth on a few of them," the 1997 Curtin University theatre graduate says.

As a writer, Mulvany's plays include The Danger Age, The Web, The Seed and adaptations of Shakespeare (Julius Caesar) and Euripides (Medea).

In adapting Jasper Jones for Barking Gecko Theatre Company, Mulvany says it is crucial to maintain an open and honest dialogue with the original writer throughout the page-to-stage process.

"Obviously I couldn't have that with Euripides and I can't do it with Shakespeare," she says. "But if you are tapping into a writer's head as a playwright and presenting what their readers fell in love with, that is the most important thing.

"It is a fine line between honouring the text and honouring your own talent as a writer and making sure your own audience is happy as well as Craig's audience and the Barking Gecko audience."

The journey of Jasper Jones into the theatre has been circuitous. Soon after the novel about the bookish 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin, the outcast Aboriginal boy Jasper Jones and Charlie's plucky, cricket-mad Vietnamese friend Jeffrey Lu was published in 2009, Fremantle's Deckchair Theatre Company won the stage rights and engaged WA theatre-maker Humphrey Bower to write the script.

After Deckchair collapsed in 2012, Barking Gecko artistic director John Sheedy obtained the rights and brought in Mulvany as playwright but retained Bower as an actor, giving a sense of continuity to the project.

"Humphrey was my first choice to play a multitude of characters including Mr Bucktin and Mad Jack so he's got a huge task but because he knows the text so well and is so extraordinary on stage I am thrilled that he is on board still," Mulvany says.

The cast also includes Shaka Cook in the title along with James Beck as Charlie, with Hoa Xuande as Jeffrey and Elizabeth Blackmore as Charlie's love-interest Eliza.

Last year, the Barking Gecko audience was treated to another stage version of a beloved Australian book, Colin Thiele's Storm Boy, in partnership with the Sydney Theatre Company, which two years ago brought Kate Grenville's novel The Secret River to the stage.

Like those two productions, Jasper Jones will not be a slavish adaptation, Mulvany says. She is careful to take "critical beautiful moments from the book that we all fell in love with and turn them into a beautiful theatrical experience while using Craig's vision, Craig's world, Craig's words with a little bit of Mulvany in there as well, and a little bit of Sheedy".

Both aged in their mid-30s and raised in regional WA, Mulvany in Geraldton and Silvey in Donnybrook, the two writers share an ear for the language of adolescent boys in the bush.

"I like writing from the point of view of 10-to-14-year-old boys," Mulvany says. "For some reason I get their voices. The Danger Age and Medea were great training grounds for this amazing job that came up."

Mulvany says the toughest thing about adapting Jasper Jones to the stage has been to know what to cut from the novel. For this, she found herself repeatedly checking with Sheedy and others in the creative team to confirm that whatever she found compelling for the stage, they did too, and that the designers could be trusted to convey pages of description about the look and mosquito- infested atmosphere of Charlie's sleep-out, for example.

Then there's the epic cricket match involving Charlie's sunny Vietnamese sidekick Jeffrey.

"The cricket match that lasts for about 25 pages is everyone's favourite moment," Mulvany says. "But I can't put all those 25 pages on stage so it is working out exactly which bits work for me as a playwright to punch it off the page and on to the stage."

On the sidelines of the game, Charlie's blossoming relationship with a girl called Eliza Wishart is being played out. "These are all touchstone moments we need to capture in a scene rather than in 25 pages of the book," Mulvany says.

With the priceless banter between Jeffrey and Charlie about such adolescent topics as the comparative super powers of Spider-Man and Superman a highlight of the book, Mulvany admits to a cut-and-paste transfer of some of the funniest dialogue.

"How could I not? There is no way I could cut it out. It is so good you can use it as a springboard into other scenes, ideas and themes."

The very idea of heroism and courage is at the heart of Jasper Jones, as it was in a previous Barking Gecko adaptation of a Silvey story, The Amber Amulet.

Mulvany refers to Storm Boy, and the effusive reaction of her five-year-old niece to that stage version of the Thiele classic, to explain the mark she wants to make with Jasper Jones.

"That is the great thing about theatre that has been adapted from works that are already so loved," she says. "You have got this whole new audience. You never know who is out there and you never know who you will inspire with it. That is what I am hoping with this too."

Jasper Jones is at the State Theatre Centre studio from July 17 (preview) to August 9.

The West Australian

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