The name Puffs is intriguing from the very start. It refers to the name of a student house within a certain famous fictional school for magic. It’s the alternative version of the Harry Potter stories as told by the “also-rans” and “not-so-good-at-magic” pupils who are the Puffs. For those who are familiar with the seven books of the Potter series, there is much to be enjoyed. Our opening night audience at the Alex Theatre, St. Kilda was filled with Harry Potter fans and the gags found their mark every time. There was a constant stream of laughs courtesy of the Potter aficionados. For a person like me who has only seen two of the films, quite a lot went over my head, but there is so much more to enjoy about this production.
Puffs, written by Matt Cox, originates from humble workshop beginnings in New York City, where it has achieved a somewhat cult status. Now it has spawned another version especially for Australia. Director Kristin McCarthy-Parker has assembled a brilliant Australian cast and they certainly earn their pay in this show. The many characters are played by the same eight versatile performers at a breakneck pace. Despite this, McCarthy-Parker has been so deft in her direction that at no point does the audience become confused about what’s going on. The action flows flawlessly from one chaotic, crazy scene to the next. The scenes are paced so that the audience is given a breather from time to time, but not for long. There is some serious talent on this stage, with the cast headed by music theatre star Rob Mills. He is perfectly cast as the Puffs’ house champion Cedric, who leads the others by his shining example. Ryan Hawke gives an outstanding performance as the anti-hero, Wayne Hopkins. He’s the Mr Average from country Queensland who flukes his way into Wizard school. He believes he has a gift, but discovers that like so many others, he isn’t as special as he thought. He meets another boy, maths nerd, Oliver played by Keith Brockett and together they face the challenges of being one of the losers. There are however no weak links in this cast. They are all so talented, that it’s worth the price of admission to watch them show off their multitude of voices, accents, ridiculous costumes and ludicrous props.
Like all good reinterpretations, there is real sincerity at the heart of this story, and it really shows in the ensemble itself. There is a cohesion which is rare these days. Much work has been done to make this group perform with precision and harmony. It is all supported beautifully with imaginative set and costume design by Madeleine Bundy and lighting design from Herrick Goldman. These two are part of the original Off-Broadway team of Puffs.
Among my favourite comic pieces were the multiple appearances of the headmaster and other bizarre characters all played by Matt Whitty. He’d appear suddenly behind one door and then almost instantly behind another looking entirely different. He had the audience laughing just by moving his eyebrows. There were many memorable moments from this cast, and it’s one of the few shows which one can see a number of times and still find more in it each time.
In order to cover all seven books, the action is propelled by a narrator played by Gareth Isaac. He plays the part with great aplomb, in a style that seems to blend old-time music hall raconteur with a circus ring master. There’s wonderful character development as well as lightning changes and it left me in awe that the actors could keep up this relentless pace without it falling apart. Local singer/actor Daniel Cosgrove gives a hilarious turn as the sometimes imaginary J. Finch and a foul-mouthed sports coach. The latter brought the show to a side-splitting standstill in part two. I’d seen Cosgrove perform before and here he gives another memorable performance. Those readers familiar with Red Stitch Actors Theatre will know the work of Eva Seymour who plays troubled teen witch Megan. Even though the pace of the show is manic, Seymour brings real pathos and stillness to her performance while the world whirls around her. Her witch mother, played with relish by Annabelle Tudor, is a crazed maniac imprisoned in the school and Megan’s search for her is just one of the many story lines they cram into the 100 odd minutes of the show. I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t seen it, so if you love the Harry Potter stories or know someone who does, grab them and go see this show. You’ll enjoy it!
Puff is playing at the Alex Theatre in St. Kilda until July 8.