GUMSHOE GUM­NUTS

Snug­gle­pot and Cud­dlepie are be­ing given a 1920s un­der­world look, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

When cos­tume de­signer Matthew Aber­line joined the team be­hind the new stage adap­ta­tion of May Gibbs’s beloved book The Com­plete Ad­ven­tures of Snug­gle­pot and Cud­dlepie, he had sev­eral con­cep­tual ob­sta­cles to over­come.

“Firstly, I didn’t grow up read­ing May Gibbs,” he says while ar­rang­ing a cos­tume on a man­nequin in the re­hearsal space un­der Syd­ney’s Seymour Cen­tre. “And se­condly, when I looked at Snug­gle­pot and Cud­dlepie and saw how pretty they were, I just as­sumed they were girls.”

Nev­er­the­less, it didn’t take long for the Syd­ney-based de­signer, 41, to con­ceive his aes­thetic for this new chil­dren’s pro­duc­tion of the fa­mous male gum­nut ba­bies ahead of its June 27 pre­miere at the Syd­ney Opera House.

But his in­spi­ra­tion came from a book far re­moved from il­lus­trated chil­dren’s clas­sics: he cites City of Shad­ows, the 2007 book by crime writer Peter Doyle that fea­tured po­lice pho­tog­ra­phy of Syd­ney’s un­der­world fig­ures be­tween the wars, as a key in­flu­ence. (This is not as un­usual as it may seem: many fash­ion in­dus­try fig­ures, in­clud­ing Karl Lager­feld, re­port­edly have been inspired by the book.)

“The 1920s just seemed like a re­ally el­e­gant way to ap­proach this aes­thetic; it gives the feel­ing of be­ing a lit­tle old-fash­ioned and a bit lost in time — but some­how on-trend,” Aber­line says. “We def­i­nitely started off re­ally arty, and hav­ing iden­ti­fied what the so-called real peo­ple looked like, we felt ready to make some fun cos­tumes for chil­dren.” com­pelled to write. Al­ready there is a stock­pile of ma­te­rial from the Short Movie ses­sions and songs writ­ten since then, a few of which we might hear on the Aus­tralian tour, she says.

“Maybe as I get older I’m get­ting bet­ter at it,” she says with a gig­gle. “I write most of the time. I guess I’m al­ways do­ing some­thing that re­lates to song­writ­ing in some way.”

One of those con­tribut­ing fac­tors out­side of her record­ing and stage ca­reer, in a round­about fash­ion, is act­ing, or at least ap­pear­ing on screen. To add to her man­tel­piece of mu­sic awards, Mar­ling re­cently took own­er­ship of a best ac­tress tro­phy.

The English folk diva did this by ap­pear­ing in

June 20-21, 2015

The play’s script by Eva Di Ce­sare, San­dra Eldridge and Tim McGarry from Mon­key Baa Theatre Com­pany is abridged from the book, which has not only been in print con­tin­u­ously since 1918 but still sells a for­mi­da­ble 20,000 copies a year. It also fea­tures sev­eral nar­ra­tive ad­di­tions from Gibbs’s other gum­nut baby sto­ries.

The play fol­lows Snug­gle­pot and Cud­dlepie on their quest to see a hu­man, and fea­tures char­ac­ters in­clud­ing Pro­fes­sor Kook­aburra, Mrs Snake, the Banksia Men and Lit­tle Ragged Blos­som.

“I got strangely ob­sessed with this,” Aber­line says, fluff­ing the lat­ter char­ac­ter’s skirt, which took him three days to make. Like ev­ery out­fit that touches an ac­tor’s skin, it has been made in trip­li­cate to with­stand the 38-venue na­tional tour slated for next year. “The tex­tures are very weath­ered, and lots of sub­tle paint­ing has gone a movie last­ing seven min­utes, called Woman Driver, in which she plays a mys­te­ri­ous woman trav­el­ling through the desert with her guitar and a com­pan­ion, for the du­ra­tion of which she says very lit­tle.

The film, an en­try in the US’s 72-Hour Na­tional Film Chal­lenge, was shot by US film­maker Chris Perkel in Texas in 2013 and screened at the Lon­don Film Fes­ti­val ear­lier this year. It doesn’t re­veal Mar­ling as the next Meryl Streep, but it does have point­ers to the latest of her mu­si­cal cre­ations. One of the songs from Short Movie, Walk Alone, fea­tures in the film along­side two other Mar­ling com­po­si­tions.

The singer laughs at the sug­ges­tion of be­ing in­un­dated with act­ing of­fers on the strength of her film de­but, but ad­mits she en­joyed the pro- into this; I just kept adding more lace and more ruf­fles,” he says.

The ac­tors have had al­most all of Aber­line’s cos­tumes since day one of re­hearsals, which he says is a mixed bless­ing.

“They now take them a bit for granted, there have been re­quests for things to be changed a thou­sand times, but it also means the cos­tumes have in­flu­enced the char­ac­ters’ shapes from the ab­so­lute be­gin­ning.”

The show’s di­rec­tor, Su­sanna Dowl­ing, also missed out on Gibbs’s books as a child, but for a good rea­son: she grew up in Ire­land. She ar­gues this has been an as­set in be­ing able to see the story with fresh eyes.

“The fact that I didn’t grow up with the book means I can be a six-year-old and say ‘Who is Mr Lizard?’ and ‘What is a Lilly Pilly?’ ” she says. cess of mak­ing the short film and con­tribut­ing to the sound­track.

“It’s like be­ing in the stu­dio or some­thing,” she says of the ex­pe­ri­ence. “It’s unit­ing.”

Mar­ling ar­rived as an artist at a point when the mu­sic in­dus­try was — and still is — go­ing through a tech­no­log­i­cal and cul­tural re­nais­sance, where the old ways of pro­duc­ing and pro­mot­ing mu­sic were be­ing (and con­tinue to be) rein­vented on a daily ba­sis. As a mod­ern-day Joni Mitchell, how­ever, Mar­ling is an ex­am­ple of how a young artist with an al­bum-ori­ented ca­reer can sur­vive and pros­per in an in­dus­try in­creas­ingly ob­sessed with in­stant and dis­pos­able grat­i­fi­ca­tion. She’s happy with this, to take folk mu­sic into the 21st cen­tury as best she can.

“We’re all in it to­gether,” she says. “It’s like

“The first time I heard of Snug­gle­pot and Cud­dlepie was when I saw the Belvoir mu­si­cal pro­duc­tion in 2007, and with­out prior knowl­edge, it didn’t make any sense to me at all, which I found in­ter­est­ing.”

One of the key dif­fer­ences be­tween the show and the book re­flects how at­ti­tudes to par­ent­ing, learn­ing and play have changed in the past 100 years.

“The lan­guage in the book is dense — those books were meant to be read to chil­dren, not by chil­dren,” she says. “Nowa­days books for chil­dren are con­structed quite dif­fer­ently: they are tex­tu­ally sim­pler, and the kids are much more in­volved in the book and the telling of the story. “And so the em­pha­sis in the show is on play.” While the story is os­ten­si­bly about self­dis­cov­ery, grow­ing up and find­ing your courage, Dowl­ing says Aus­tralia’s unique en­vi­ron­ment is the se­cret to the suc­cess of Gibbs’s books.

“One of the amaz­ing things to me about this coun­try is how na­ture is just ev­ery­where — it’s in my bed­room — and it’s not afraid of me,” she says.

“What’s re­ally ex­cit­ing about this play is spark­ing the imag­i­na­tions of chil­dren about the world around them; you get into the sto­ries, meet these char­ac­ters, and the next day you go for a walk and find gum­nuts or a ragged blos­som, and the story stays with you.” all in­dus­tries. We all have to func­tion within it. Even the peo­ple on the other side of the in­dus­try want it to be bet­ter. I joined the mu­sic in­dus­try just as it was be­gin­ning its strug­gle. Now there is a gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple with a gen­uine love of mu­sic who are try­ing to find a new way to make it work.

“I’m happy for peo­ple to hear my mu­sic in any way they want and I think peo­ple should have as much ac­cess to mu­sic as they can.”

Cos­tume de­signer Matthew Aber­line, left, with di­rec­tor Su­sanna Dowl­ing; be­low, con­cep­tual draw­ings by Aber­line and mak­ing the cos­tumes

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