Mis-labelled child

Nerida Dickinson, Joey: the Mechanical Boy

Margi Brown Ash, Philip Miolin, Joey: the Mechanical Boy

Margi Brown Ash, Philip Miolin, Joey: the Mechanical Boy

Margi Brown Ash, Philip Miolin, Joey: the Mechanical Boy

The Nest Ensemble returns to The Blue Room Theatre with a new didactic performance, immersing us in 1950s psychotherapy research. Based on Dr Bruno Bettelheim’s career-making case study, Joey: the Mechanical Boy examines the impact of a quest for academic fame. Dr B takes Joey for extended residential observation, writing that maternal detachment caused Joey’s abnormal development and behaviours. Dr B dubs Joey “the Mechanical Boy” for his affinity with machines and his mother a “Refrigerator Mother” for her cool distance.

Joey’s daily routines follow a numbered sequence, precise order providing reassurance in his laboratory residence, a recreation of his room at home that features a bed bedecked with cardboard to create an “airplane.” The pyjama-clad boy shares his most moving moments with his life’s most reliable fixture, a simple electric fan. Joey’s routines intermingle with Dr B’s exciting career trajectory, the larger than life lecturer bursting onstage to spotlit fanfare and applause, often referring to his studies with Freud and also, less exuberantly, to his experiences and observations in a German concentration camp, while Joey’s mother counts the days without her son. She quietly presents her lost loves, hopes and dreams as she waits and then on Joey’s return home, her rule of love and sacrifice removes scientific scrutiny and Joey learns the difference between “nice” and “interesting” behaviour.

Philip Miolin is amazing as the young Joey, the lost child thoroughly evoked through the actor’s use of motion and posture, particularly with Joey’s perched crouch as he watches the electric fan. The boy’s autism is conveyed through movement and stilted speech, with the evocative mask designed by Per Brahe creating a flat look of constant, baffled curiosity.

Margi Brown Ash plays both Mother and Dr B, a red clown nose distinguishing between her roles. Ash is dramatically strong as Dr B, German accent shaping the part, allowing his self-congratulatory shouting to gradually reveal self-doubt and suffering. As Mother, Ash is understated, with an underlying bitterness that nonetheless sees her love triumphing over clinical definitions that have defamed her motherhood.

Tessa Darcey rises to the twin challenges of set and costume design with clever solutions, capturing Dr B’s intellectual pretensions with a lectern for him built of books and creating a complex costume of found objects to emphasise Joey’s identity as the mechanical boy. Joe Lui’s dynamic soundscape features soothingly melodic mechanical noises and consistently responds to characters’ emotional states. Karen Cook’s lighting design defines distinct stage areas, with individual light bulbs magically responding to Joey’s “commands.”

Plenty of food for thought is provided in this intellectually challenging production. The closing twist, Joey claiming his life as his own rather than fodder for other people’s edification, throws the jarring, intrinsic wrongness of earlier events into even clearer focus. A satisfying denouement reveals Dr B’s reputation lost, his theories debunked and his personal history revealed, appropriately given his devastating impact on at least one family. The Mother’s open-handed forgiveness, accepting that Joey was born in an unfortunate era, tempers the harshness of karmic judgement. Set in the 50s, there are enough echoes of attitudes to mental illness, parenting and medical/social judgements to resonate with audiences now, providing as many insights as there are attentive audience members.

The Blue Room Theatre and The Nest Ensemble, Joey: the Mechanical Boy, director, co-writer, co-producer Leah Mercer, co-writer, actor Margi Ash Brown, actor, co-producer, set and costume construction Philip Miolin, set, costume designer Tessa Darcey, lighting designer Karen Cook, sound designer Joe Lui; The Blue Room Theatre, Perth Cultural Centre, Perth, 17-22 Nov 2014

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 34

© Nerida Dickinson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

23 February 2015