“Mama always wanted to return to China,” says the half-Chinese, half-French (but emphatically “all Australian”) 12-year-old Celeste.
She’s referring to her mother’s last wish to scatter her ashes at her 500-year-old ancestral home in the Isle of Clouds, but she could be easily talking about her own distance from her homeland.
Based on Gabrielle Wang’s award-winning children’s novel, Barking Gecko Theatre’s production is no ordinary ghost story. Intricately connected to heritage and identity, it’s a thrilling spectacle, too – delightful in its playful edges while in tune with its cultural roots.
The production is sumptuously visual on every level. The text (adapted by playwright Vanessa Bates) is layered with traditional stories and seamlessly worked through on a creatively modern set (Zoë Atkinson) of manoeuvrable cubic blocks used as projection surfaces. Media artist Sohan Ariel Hayes brings to life rural Chinese homes in the water-town of Wuzhen and the buzzing, flashy city streets of Shanghai.
Delving into her own past as she navigates the country’s rich plains and mysterious contrasts, Celeste (warmly portrayed by Alice Keohavong) quickly realises that the task of fulfilling her mother’s final request is not as simple as it seems.
Meeting her grandma “Por Por” (Amanda Ma) and Por Por’s adopted granddaughter Ting Ting (a lithe Yilin Kong) for the first time, opens up a box of secrets that thrusts Celeste into the ghost-hunting world, blurring the line between the living and dead. Hers is a hero’s soul-searching journey, teeming with ancient tales and spirits. There’s antagonism from Ting Ting, jealous of her birthright lineage of ghost hunters; and most crucially, Celeste must learn to control her own powers by tapping into her unexplored grief and lost family history.
The ghost hunting is realised in some hair-raising sequences, enchantingly crafted by fight director Andy Fraser, with puppetry created by Michael Barlow and tension-building drumbeats by Rachael Dease. The imaginative artistry in the vision of co-directors Ching Ching Ho and Matt Edgerton further elevates already impressive visuals.
The narrative offers fewer surprises and unfolds more predictably. Descriptions painting the contextual settings are highlights in the show’s mix of elder-to-child anecdotes, and fiend-to-friend friction. Celeste’s monologues – a train of thought necessary to reflect her feelings and steer its audience through an unfamiliar country – effectively build the world around her, even if it’s just for a moment. An amusing scene Celeste describes as “never happening in Australia” sees her on a crowded, run-down bus en route to the Isle of Clouds. Her words alone bring you aboard a bus with a leaking roof, slowly flooding with water, with frogs hopping over the passengers’ legs.
A Ghost in My Suitcase has enough breathtaking glimmer to stun and distract children and adults alike, but it doesn’t quite have a handle on its themes (Ting Ting pointedly flings insults at Celeste like “You don’t even know what you are”, referring to her mixed heritage). It feels like a missed opportunity when the dots between a family’s ghosts and the task of ghost hunting aren’t better joined.
Then again, a younger audience looking for a kick of fantasy, coupled with some cultural inflections and feel-good life lessons, might not worry about the lack of nuance.
There’s enough magic here to please.