Review: The Empty City – The Human Company at Powerkids Festival @ Brisbane Powerhouse

The Empty City, directed by David Fenton, is based on the picture book of the same name by David Megarrity and Jonathon Oxlade. It explores an idea that has undoubtedly crossed the mind of every child: What if, for one day only, everyone disappeared and the city belonged to you? What would you do? Go on, you’ve already started picturing yourself eating and playing your way through a large department store, haven’t you? Jumping on all the beds, stuffing yourselves with gumballs, pouring your own McDonald’s thick-shake? Thought so.

Tom, our young protagonist, explores his options in the empty city between two projection screens that give the animated metropolis a 3D effect, allowing plenty of room for snazzy tricks and magical sleight of hand. Designer Jonathon Oxlade, lighting designer Freddy Komp, animator Luke Monsour and graphic designer Ray Pittman have done a fabulous job creating a city that is familiar yet mysteriously different; it could exist anywhere. The actors, Tom Oliver and Bridget Boyle collaborate inventively with their surroundings to tell Tom’s tale.

It’s clever, no doubt, but kids these days are nonplussed when it comes to technology. My one-year old is au fait with an iPad, my four-year old could reprogram Google and my seven year-old could probably buy Mark Zuckerberg a latte, leading me to the firm conclusion that when it comes to children’s entertainment, a solid narrative will always prevail. Luckily, The Empty City has a tale to tell, although at times the plot could have moved along with greater pace. Of course, there is always conflict and, while down the ‘rabbit hole,’ Tom has to make some moral choices – if no-one is around to see you eat the chocolate, do you leave money for it? – and eventually fight a mysterious robot to return life to normal.

The original score by David Megarrity and Brett Collery takes centre stage in what is essentially a mimed performance. I enjoyed the music, but my kids would have preferred it if Tom spoke; they desperately wanted to hear as well as see his thoughts – unsurprising considering my rather verbal bunch- but I did wonder if other children felt the same way. As for Tom’s age, it was unclear. I never enjoy adults playing children; in my mind they always seem to pitch it too young and, unfortunately, this production was no exception. Still, it’s super clever and the kids around us seemed to be immensely taken in, busily giggling at Tom’s escapades.

The Empty City is playing as part of the Powerkids festival at the Brisbane Powerhouse this June and is an excellent way to spend an afternoon of the school holidays, without having to hear “I’m booooorrred.” Take the kiddies along, and relax.