Theatre review: The Great Un-Wondering of Wilbur Whittaker

A playful and fantastical journey with an 80s sci-fi aesthetic.

The Great Un-Wondering of Wilbur Whittaker, a new production from Dan Giovannoni, Luke Kerridge and Barking Gecko Theatre, is something of a reverse coming-of-age adventure. Wilbur Whitaker (Adriano Cappelletta) was a child who filled a shoebox full of flights of fancy and wonder. As an adult Wilbur’s shoebox of wonders is left bereft under the bed. His dream of travelling further in space than anyone before has been downgraded to the more sensible profession of airport administration. This turn in Wilbur’s life happens ‘mostly by accident’ but is upended when his forgotten wonders are reclaimed by the Bureau of Wonder (BOW) in the night. Wilbur pursues the BOW’s removal van through a vent in his office and commences a journey through space to recover them, accompanied by his companion Princess Fantastic (Grace Chow).

Wilbur Whittaker inherits a great deal of narrative playfulness from the works of Douglas Adams (including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency). What is required for adventurers to travel in these stories is the release of their intrinsic, ‘earthbound’ logic to embrace the possibility of other orders of being. Wilbur Whittaker’s otherworldly order is the order of childhood imagination and, throughout the play, Wilbur’s belief in and recollection of the wonders of his childhood provides the fuel that propels the adventure further into space. 

Cappelletta’s performance as Wilbur is lively and charming, and the same can be said for the rest of the small but mighty cast. Cappelletta’s performance is so vibrant that it is perhaps difficult to believe he has lost any wonder at all, but the levity does serve to keep things accessible. There are some light narrative inconsistencies in the story (the BOW say that most people usually sleep through wonder repossession, yet Wilbur is required to sign a release form) but nothing that would truly detract from the adventure for a younger audience.

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Barking Gecko Theatre makes some compelling and clever moves to bring the universe of Wilbur Whitaker to life, and the play balances a sense of nostalgia with a joyful attitude to discovery and invention. Its rich 1980s science fiction aesthetic is evidence of a successful collaboration between designers Jonathon Oxlade, Tim Collins, Lucy Birkinshaw, Tee Ken Ng and CLAUDIO. One of the most technically enjoyable sets is an early scene where Wilbur settles into his job stamping papers at the airport. As the set shifts between office, public transport, Wilbur’s home, and back again, every element of the production works seamlessly to capture the rhythm of a life progressing (even if not in the direction we want it to). As the action traverses through an adventurous number of locales over 65 minutes, some of the later sets and narrative beats are given a bit less time to breathe than the earlier scenes. 

Kerridge and Giovannoni cite Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic fable Le Petit Prince was an influence on the production. In Adam Gopnik’s considered 2014 essay on the book for The New Yorker, he closes his musings by writing that ‘the world conspires to make us blind to its own workings; our real work is to see the world again’. This theme of learning to truly look at the world is what Kerridge and Giovannoni aim to recapture in Wilbur Whitaker. The play’s pearl of wisdom is to imbue children and adults alike with a sense of responsibility for their imaginative capacity – that it is a resource to be treasured and delighted in. As a sort of metanarrative, it also (perhaps subconsciously) makes a case for the importance of art and theatre itself, these precious spaces in which the practice of imagination is so celebrated. 

The Great Un-Wondering of Wilbur Whittaker, by Dan Giovannoni and Barking Gecko Theatre
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA

Key creatives: Dan Giovannoni, Luke Kerridge, Jonathon Oxlade, Tee Ken Ng, CLAUDIO, Tim Collins, Lucy Birkinshaw, Bernadatte Lewis, Sarah Nelson, Dom Mercer, Michelle Hall
Cast: Adriano Cappelletta, Grace Chow, Luke Hewitt, Laura Maitland

The Great Un-Wondering of Wilbur Whittaker was performed in its Perth season from 9-16 April 2022.

It will tour regionally: Karratha: Red Earth Arts Precinct 29 April- 4 May, Bunbury: Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre 10 -11 May, Albany: Albany Entertainment Centre 18-19 May

Heather Blakey is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia, researching affect and aesthetics in video games and digital communication. She is a strategic communications professional specialising in the publishing and writing industry, and has worked for academic and commercial brands in Australia and the UK. Twitter: @hmblakey