Riders on the storm
Storm Boy rehearsals in Sydney: Rory Potter, one of the two boys playing the lead role. Picture: Brett Boardman Photography

For man facing an oncoming storm, John Sheedy is looking remarkably calm. When pressed, the Barking Gecko Theatre Company artistic director confesses to some trepidation about the barometric pressure of his latest venture - the stage adaptation of Colin Thiele's treasured book Storm Boy.

Directed by Sheedy and adapted by Tom Holloway, the play will be the first dramatisation of Thiele's 1963 book since Bell Shakespeare tackled it in 1996. The film version has been a family favourite since its release in 1976.

"There is a huge amount of pressure because it is so adored and has such a strong place in Australian literature and film," Sheedy says during a rehearsal break at the Sydney Theatre Company's base on a shimmering Sydney Harbour. "It is massive.

"But then again you also have to have a lot of trust in your approach to it and the fact that you will do it justice and keep it simple.You have to keep it simple and let the story unfold because the story isn't complex.

"The undercurrents are complex. The undercurrents are quite melancholy."

Storm Boy follows a boy's last summer on the wild Coorong coast of South Australia and his relationship with his reclusive father Hideaway Tom, the Aboriginal outcast Fingerbone Bill and three orphan pelicans, including his favourite, Mr Percival.

"It is a huge meditation on grief, masculinity and abandonment of civilisation," Sheedy says. "Hideaway Tom lost his wife, Storm Boy lost his mother, Fingerbone Bill has lost his community and even the three baby pelicans, all males, have lost their mother. So it is these males in this very isolated place in the Australian landscape.

"I like to explore work that sparks a wider conversation where the experience outlasts the actual event and gets a larger conversation happening. Storm Boy is that and that's why 50 years on it is still a celebrated story and still studied in schools. Yes, it is a boy's adventure on the beach with his pelican but it also deals with really big issues of loss and grief and having to re-engage with society."

Sheedy says Thiele's coming-of-age tale is ripe to be remade for the stage on the 50th anniversary of the book by the author of such other Australian classics as Blue Fin, the Sun on the Stubble and February Dragon. (Thiele was highly decorated for his services to literature and education but his death in 2006 at the age of 85 received minimal coverage because he died on the same day as celebrity crocodile-hunter Steve Irwin.)

Storm Boy was the first project Sheedy set his sights on when he became Barking Gecko artistic director in 2010. He obtained the adaptation rights, engaged playwright Holloway to write the script and looked for a production partner with the scale and resources to help bring it to the stage.

"In creating theatre for young people I thought of stories that stayed with me and resonated with me as a child," he says. "Australians have a huge mental and emotional attachment to Storm Boy."

By 2011, a revived Barging Gecko under Sheedy was kicking goals with its adaptation of Shaun Tan's The Red Tree, giving Sydney Theatre Company's then co-directors Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton added confidence in accepting Sheedy's overture to co-produce Storm Boy. Having STC on board assured that the play could be bigger, with higher production values and a longer life in at least two capital cities. It opens in Sydney this weekend before coming to Perth next month.

The 1976 Storm Boy film endures as a key part of the new wave of the Australian film industry in the 1970s that also produced Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career, Caddie and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. It confirmed the acting talent of a young David Gulpilil, who had made his screen debut five years earlier in Walkabout at the age of 15.

On the stage, Fingerbone Bill is played by the celebrated WA actor Trevor Jamieson (Secret River, Ngapartji Ngapartji) with Peter O'Brien (White Collar Blue, Underbelly) as Hideaway Tom. Youngsters Joshua Challenor and Rory Potter alternate in the title role.

Mr Percival and the other pelicans will be brought to life by puppets created by Peter Wilson, who was puppetry director on a much bigger scale for the musical King Kong. Sheedy says the puppet pelicans are physically articulate as they "fly, waddle, peck, play catch and click and clack about".

Added atmospherics come courtesy of long-time Sheedy collaborator Kingsley Reeve, the sound designer whose simple piano score combines with a soundscape based on recordings of ocean, wind and bird-calls Reeve collected during a week-long camping trip along the Coorong coast.

Storm Boy exemplifies how Barking Gecko is spreading its reach by collaborating with bigger production partners beyond the WA border. Another example is Driving Into Walls, a high-octane show based on interviews with 500 WA teenagers which was a hit at the 2012 Perth International Festival.

Barking Gecko is now partnering with the Sydney Opera House and then the National Theatre in London to create a Driving Into Walls trilogy which will extend the WA experience to give a national and then international portrayal of teenage concerns.

Driving Into Walls playwright Suzie Miller and Sheedy, backed by the Opera House as a digital partner, start work on the sequel, Everything I Have, later this month. Based on interviews and a new online platform where teenagers Australia-wide can share their stories and upload pictures of their possessions, the show is expected to premiere at the Perth Festival next year.

"I think this is a first in terms of a theatre company in Australia developing such a platform targeted at teenagers," says Sheedy, who expects the trilogy's concluding instalment to be developed with the National Theatre for a production by 2016.

The Rabbits, a co-production with Opera Australia, also points to Barking Gecko's ambitions beyond its Subiaco Theatre Centre home.

The chamber-opera adaptation of Shaun Tan and John Marsden's 2000 allegory about colonisation features music by Kate Miller-Heidke and Iain Grandage, and Tan is involved as a design consultant.

"It is about introducing opera to young people and a variation of what opera can be," says Sheedy, who started work on The Rabbits two years ago.

"The illustrations are operatic and epic in their design, which lends itself to an opera. It is years in the making, as it should be. It takes time to create such an ambitious work. The Rabbits is expected to premiere at the 2015 Perth Festival before touring elsewhere.

"It is great to partner up with Australian stage motherships like the STC and Opera Australia," Sheedy says.

"It is important for us to create these bigger works and get them out there at the national level."

Storm Boy is at the Heath Ledger Theatre from September 21 to October 5.

The West Australian

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