After a three-year absence, Oscar-winning "Shine" star Geoffrey Rush returns to the Australian stage playing a 5-year-old coping with his first week at school in "Small Poppies," a play by David Holman that is preeming in Sydney after a 15-year gestation.

After a three-year absence, Oscar-winning “Shine” star Geoffrey Rush returns to the Australian stage playing a 5-year-old coping with his first week at school in “Small Poppies,” a play by David Holman that is preeming in Sydney after a 15-year gestation.

Director Neil Armfield extracts standout perfs from stage veteran Max Cullen (as the bashful, crocodile-obsessed Theo), “Radiance” film actress Deborah Mailman (as the shy but courageous Cambodian refugee Lep) and Arky Michael (who injects a deliciously childish venom into his role as classroom bully Shane).

With a knowing theatricality, the adult actors in baggy shorts use stylized exaggerations to capture the wide-eyed excitement and vulnerability of the kids as they interact with well-meaning but slightly daffy teacher Mrs. Walsh (whose portrayal by June Forsyth is partly a reflection of how the youngsters would view her).

Rush gives an affectionate, animated portrayal of Clint, recognizably childlike to both parents and tots; indeed, Rush chats in character with kids in the audience.

Engaging, fun and eloquent in its simplicity, the play explores from a child’s perspective issues of divorce, single motherhood and multiculturalism, the latter being especially relevant in Australia, where more than half the nation’s 5.3 million settlers come from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

Piece’s strength is its restraint and subtlety in dealing with these issues, while always conveying an infectious sense of fun and never being overly sentimental or condescending in its quest to capture the joy, pain and folly of early youth. While this offbeat offering is a surprisingly inspired start to Belvoir’s 2000 season, it could be slightly shortened to make it more accessible for moppet auds.

Small Poppies

(BELVOIR STREET THEATER; 300 SEATS; A$ 36 ($ 23.40) TOP)

Production

SYDNEY A Company B Belvoir, in association with Sydney Festival 2000, presentation of a play in two acts by David Holman. Directed by Neil Armfield. Sets and costumes, Stephen Curtis.

Crew

Lighting, Stephen Hawker; music, Alan John; stage manager, Rebecca Anderson. Opened, reviewed Jan. 6, 2000. Running time: 2 HOURS.

With

Clint ..... Geoffrey Rush Theo/Mr. Brennan ..... Max Cullen Lep/Theo's mom/Chi ..... Deborah Mailman Shane/Theo's dad ..... Arky Michael Mrs. Walsh/Noi ..... Julie Forsyth Courtney/Thuan/ Clint's mum ..... Rebecca Massey
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