By Nathan Luff, adapted from the novel by Oliver Phommavanh. An FEM Presents production. Director: Lisa Freshwater. Riverside Theatre. 28-29 June, 2022
Reviewed : 28 June, 2022*
Clutching their signed copy of Thai-riffic, excited children streamed into the Riverside theatre to see Nathan Luff’s adaptation of book about … well … identity. family, belonging, adjusting and accepting. All are there in this heart-warming story that begins as Lengy takes his first tentative but determined steps into Year 7.
Albert, the son of Thai parents who run a restaurant called Thai-riffic, has sustained some bullying in primary school and wants to make a new start in high school. He especially wants to escape his nickname, Bow-Thai. Imagine his concern when one of his classmates, Hayley, is from his primary school! Fortunately she understands and agrees to call him Lengy, which is how he introduces himself to another student, Rajiv, as they meet outside their English classroom.
So begins Lengy’s quest to ‘be Australian’ – a quest that is thwarted when their English, Mr Winfree, teacher sets a group assignment on ‘Another Culture’. Rajiv, who is obsessed with Thai food convinces them to study Thailand – and all Lengy’s plans go awry.
Through humour and physical theatre, Luff and his creative designers bring Oliver Phommavanh’s book to life. High flats that frame the stage become the backdrop for three projectors that provide a panorama of the locations: the restaurant, a shopping precinct, the school room, the screen on which Lengy talks to his mother on face time – and bright animations that cover some scene changes.
Wide doors on stage right open to reveal extra scenes – a supermarket, the restaurant kitchen – a clever device that adds depth to the production and is ideal for touring. The only props on stage are a table, some chairs, a letter box – and the soft toys that are integral to Mr Winfree’s teaching method.
Theatre for young people needs to be fast, colourful and relatively uncomplicated. Nathan Luff ensures this in his script – and Lisa Freshwater confirms it with deft direction and a very energetic and enthusiatic cast.
Marcus Rivera plays Lengy’s father – and grandmother! Kate Betcher is a very conscientious Hayley and Nate Jobe a very enthusiastic Rajiv. Simon Van de Stap is the very ‘innovative’ Mr Winfree – and Euno Orate is ingenuously believable as Lengy.
The action is fast, physical and funny. Costumes are colourful. Puppetry adds charm and humour to the production. Phommavanh’s story comes to life with messages that are clear without being laboured or ‘preachy’.