How to Spot an Alien might seem like an obscure skillset for 21st century children, but for Jelly and Jonjo, the two protagonists of Paines Plough’s annual offering for young audiences, it becomes a matter of life and death. The intensely inquisitive young siblings, played by Charlotte O’Leary and Jack Wilkinson, awake one day to an announcement that their mother has “disappeared never to return again” and go to live with their Aunt Lena, a strange woman they’ve never heard of before. She had strange rules, too – like “No questions,” “No thinking inside the house,” and “No leaving the house.”
The story is an absolute romp
Aunt Lena plies the youngsters with baked good and television, but something is wrong, and it takes all of Jelly and Jonjo’s deductive reasoning skills and daring to figure it out and set it right.
How to Spot an Alien doesn’t stray from Paines Plough’s bare-stage aesthetic, but it does employ the technical capabilities of the Roundabout to their fullest extent. Peter Small’s lighting and Dominic Kelly’s sound add immeasurably to the fun of the production, including some fantastic sequences where lighting and sound make the space itself into a character. The actors also employ movement and mime to evoke props, scenery, and a childlike sense of movement that had kids and adults alike giggling along. Human or alien, everyone else in Jelly and Jonjo’s world was played by Katherine Pearce, whose accent work and shifts in physicality were masterful.
The story of How to Spot an Alien was an absolute romp, and the children in the audience spent a lot of time on the edges of their seats, but there was also some excellent messaging about the importance of truth-telling, getting to the bottom of things, and integrity. It draws a hard line about the importance of telling the truth and making sure you can look yourself in the eye at the end of the day, but also explores how difficult it can be to realise that you haven’t lived up to that ideal.
Unfortunately, the messaging around stereotyping and prejudice, in this case against aliens, is a little more clumsy and confused. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that aliens are, on the whole, the bad guys of this play. While it was good to see Jelly and Jonjo’s assumptions that all aliens are bad was challenged by a helpful alien character, the rest of the plot didn’t do much to back that up. The final nod to the issue, a reminder from Jonjo to a fearful Jelly that “not all aliens are like that,” felt limp when weighed against Jelly’s concerns, which were more grounded in the play.
Ultimately, the messaging about integrity carried a much greater weight and the excited chatter of the children on their way out spoke to the charisma and charm of the actors, who were sensitive and responsive to the children throughout. How to Spot an Alien was absolutely of the calibre I expect of Paines Plough and an impressive addition to the Roundabout program.