The Reading Boy

Premiere 14 May 1991
Venue The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre, Come Out Festival, Adelaide, SA

Handspan Theatre The Reading Boy boy in baseball cap reading a very big book

The Reading Boy Hugh Wayland, the Boy
Photograph: © Ponch Hawkes 1991

It's the magic of Handspan that makes it all work. Using the familiar devices of black light theatre, simple visual images and a highly mobile and very flashy robot, the story is a three-dimensional cartoon reminiscent of Maurice Sendak's Magic Kitchen.
Ewart Shaw, The Advertiser, Adelaide, 15 May 1991

THE READING BOY was created by Handspan based on a concept by Peter J.Wilson and developed while he was co-Artistic Director of the company in 1990. Peter was inspired by the Australian Paper Mill (AMP) at Fairfield, in inner Melbourne, where he regularly recycled his newspapers. Tossing them down a chute into a vast sea of newsprint and cardboard that was churned and mashed to pulp by the mill’s machines, he envisaged the location for a new play for young audiences.

The original idea was explored in a creative development workshop in 1989 with John Romeril who was commissioned to write the play with the company and composer, Boris Conley. Designed by Richard Jeziorny (staging and images) and Philip Lethlean (lighting) for in-theatre performance for primary school age audiences, it was originally directed by Peter J.Wilson for its premiere season at the Come Out '91 Festival in Adelaide.

The Play

THE READING BOY was the story of a boy who is entranced by his favourite book, Enquire Within About Everything and the wonders it reveals. He discovers the book has been accidentally thrown out in the recycling and determined to retrieve it, adventures on its trail through the newsprint pile at his nearby paper mill.

I opted for an encyclopedia, a book full of facts and sayings ... I thought a young boy who wanted to know everything, who loved learning things, was an interesting hero

John Romeril, A Word or Two From Writing Man, production program/flyer, 1993

Handspan Theatre The Reading Boy black and white puppet crow with large beak, wearing a straw hat and a checked waistcoat perched on the edge of a bowl

The Crow on his rubbish bin
Photograph: © Ponch Hawkes 1991

The play followed a narrative text led by a larrikin Crow, who acted as ringmaster of the action, with the charm of a born raconteur1 . Throughout the play, the nine-year-old Boy, played by an actor, was enveloped in images and illusions animated in mixed puppetry styles - black theatre, shadow play, rod, glove and body/mask costume puppetry. Machinery and paper became fantasy characters - a rather jaded talking book and a flashy recycling robot - in a world where paper and words came alive in flurries and upheavals of newsprint.

The central relationship is between the boy and a crow who lives in a garbage bin outside the boy's bedroom window. The boy thinks the only information he is ever likely to obtain, comes from his book, but the crow helps him realise that isn't the case and that he will learn a great deal more if he reads more than one book.

Sonia Hutchesson, Preseason article: The Advertiser 15 May, 1991

So where does the crow come into the act? I admire the way certain Australian birds and animals have managed to survive in our cities. Possums for instance ... the notion of a city crow appealed. Somehow a friendly robot got into the act because increasingly work that people used to do is being done by machines. For better or worse that is somethine we all, adults and children, have to come to terms with.

John Romeril, A Word or Two From Writing Man, production program/flyer, 1993


THE READING BOY was generally well-received by critics and audiences:

Handspan Theatre The Reading Boy program cover blue background  with red title script and white writing and photo of seated boy in baseball cap holding a skateboard

Program, 1992
Graphic Design: Fiona Sweet, 1992

Handspan's show is a novel, provoking and beautifully staged piece of youth theatre.

Peter Goers, Lowdown Magazine, June 1991

Romeril has a point or two to make about the need for young persons to read widely and critically, and not take everything they find in books at face value. But no youngsters (or their teachers) need fear they are being preached at. This is primarily an entertainment that uses the techniques of puppetry and theatre to create a childhood world of illusion.

''The Age: Arts and Entertainment Review (unattributed), 18 July 1991

I really enjoyed your play you did on Reading Boy. I would love to know how you got Reading Boy to fly with crow?

Letter from Belinda Mercorella (student) St Joseph's School, Hectorville, SA, 17 May, 1991

I thought it was fabulous and the bit I liked best was when he nearly got hit by the car when the lights flashed on because the crow flew the boy to the re-cycling shop. I wrecken it was great Mr Wilson.

Letter from Justin Sier (student) Yarra Valley Primary School, Victoria 23 May, 1991

I liked the bit when the crow opened the bin and told the story about how the crow became black. I have two questions to ask you. How did you get reading boy in the air? Is it true about how the crow became black?
P.S. It was the best play I have ever seen.

Letter from Josette Pankhurst (student) St Joseph's School, Hectorville, SA, 17 May, 1991

The production's creative team received positive accolades, as did the cast, particularly, the Crow (John Rogers), but some some reviews were tempered with criticism of the play itself or elements of its staging:

The story was so well told by the visual progressions that much of the dialogue was rendered superfluous. The definition of the moral at the end was unnecessary as the audience had grasped the meaning from the tale and further clarification hung like an adult reprimand.

Christine Anketell, Artistic Director, Patch Theatre, Review: Manipulation Magazine, Winter 1991

This otherwise excellent show gets pulped in sprawling scenes of pulsating piles of newsprint at the paper mill.

Peter Goers, Lowdown Magazine, June 1991

In 1992, Jon Stephens directed the production with some new cast members for touring the Out of the Box Festival in Brisbane and Queensland regional towns in 1982, and again for a season in Canberra in 1993. In Canberra, although dwarfed by the large venue, the production was critically recommended despite some continuing commentary about uneven connections between the elements of the work.

What makes this hour-long production memorable, is the visual effects orchestrated by the Handspan puppeteers ... the Reading Boy is rather wooden in the opening scenes. However he literally "takes off" when he sets out to find his favourite book. The show is recommended for older primary school children but the visual effects from the animated pile of newsprint to the Reading Boy flying through the air, will engage the attention of even younger children.

Ann Nugent, Canberra Times 23 September, 1993

The Reading Boy: Mt. Isa Interview with Jon Stephens (Director), 1992 Handspan Theatre Archives


1 Christine Anketell, Artistic Director, Patch Theatre, Review: Manipulation Magazine, Winter 1991

Scroll back to Click Tabs: The People & The Performances

The Reading Boy Original company: (Fr L) Hugh Wayland, John Rogers, Cliff Dolliver, Annie Wylie, Peter J.Wilson & Rod Primrose
Photograph: © Ponch Hawkes, 1991

Creative team
Original concept Peter J.Wilson
Writer John Romeril
Director (1991) Peter J.Wilson
Director (1992 & 1993) Jon Stephens
Composer Boris Conley
Set Designer Richard Jeziorny
Lighting Designer Philip Lethlean
Co-Producer Cate Fowler (Come Out Festival '91 & Out of the Box Festival)
The Boy Hugh Wayland (1991), Michael Blair (1992 & 1993)
The Book puppeteer Annie Wylie (1991 &1993), Maeve Vella (1992)
The Robot puppeteer Rod Primrose (1991 & 1992), Winston Appleyard (1993)
The Crow puppeteer John Rogers (1991 & 1992), Paul Bongiovani (1993)
Production team
Production/Stage manager Paul Judd (1991 & 1992), Mikkel Mynster (1993)
Assistant Stage Manager Cliff Dolliver
Production manager Paul Judd
Puppet makers Paul Newcombe, Mary Sutherland, Joanna Pullen, Rob Last, Ingrid Maganov
Set construction Paul Newcombe, Colin Orchard, Ken Evans, Horse
Research assistant James Hutchinson
Graphic design Fiona Sweet
Photographer Ponch Hawkes

Scroll back to Click Tabs: The Production & The Performances

14 May - The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre, Come Out '91 Festival, Adelaide SA
21 - 31 May Alexander Theatre, Clayton, Victoria
8 - ? July George Fairfax Theatre, Winterarts program, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
15 - 20 June Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Out of the Box Festival, Brisbane, Qld
Regional Queensland tour, Mount Isa and other locations, Queensland Arts Council
? - ? Sept Canberra Theatre, ACT
Total performances 53 (1991& 1992 ) 9 (1993)
Total audience 13,354 (1991 & 1992 only)

Scroll back to Click Tabs: The Production & The People

For Young People: