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Review – Boy Swallows Universe: modern marvel of brain, talent, and imagination

By Eric Scott

Joe Klocek and Tom Yaxley as Eli and Gus. Below: Anthony Phelan as Tytus Broz. Photos by David Kelly.

Boy Swallows Universe

By Tim McGarry, adapted from Trent Dalton’s novel Director/Dramaturge Sam Strong

Queensland Theatre

Playhouse Theatre, QPAC

South Bank


Final seats released, now closing 9 October 2021.Bookings: or phone 136 246

Playwright Tim Mcgarry, director Sam Strong and the team of genius creatives at Queensland Theatre achieved the impossible dream of bringing Trent Dalton’s epic novel to the stage triumphantly. For two and a half hours I sat mesmerised as the tale of Eli Bell unfolded with magical backdrops, brilliant actors switching seamlessly between a multitude of characters. It not only caught the essence of the book, but its heart and soul as well.

I loved the book and so it was a joy to watch the characters springing to three-dimensional life: Eli Bell, brother Gus, Bich Dang and Darren Dang, Slim Halliday, Tytus Broz, Iwan Krol, Alex Bermudez, Caitlyn Spies, Robert Bell, Teddy Kallas and the rest.

What a night proved to be.

Boy Swallows Universe is adapted from the hit novel inspired by Brisbane author Trent Dalton’s own childhood.

Eli Bell’s childhood in the outer Brisbane suburbs is far from the idyllic 1980s haze some kids would remember. His alcoholic dad has left, his mum is in jail, his stepfather’s dealing heroin, his brother Gus won’t talk and silently swirls cryptic messages in the air with his finger, and his babysitter Slim is a convicted killer and infamous escapee from Boggo Road Gaol. Beset by chaos on all sides, it's a run-in with the local crime king and his henchman that sets the 13 year old with the old soul on a journey to find out what kind of a man he is going to be.

Joe Klokec is phenomenal as Eli. He is on the stage for almost all of the two and a half hours the play runs and commands respect from all the more experienced actors he works with. And what a cast! Eleven of them, many doubling up as well as joining the prop-shifting odd-ball characters that litter Eli’s life as part of the ensemble.

Anthony Phelan is magic as the gentle Slim and evil personified as Tytus Broz, the artificial limb maker and crime boss. I also enjoyed particularly Hoa Xuande as the breezy Darren Dang. But then here were great performances from Michala Banas as the down-trodden Frankie Bell and Ngoc Phan as drug dealer Bich Dang.

When I heard of the transition from book to stage I wondered how such a wide-ranging tale with its many tangents in the tale and so many different locations could transfer to the stage. The answer I found was technology and brilliant thinking. I was left wide-eyed with amazement as the locations magically changed via new video composed sets that crept across the stage. Designer Renée Mulder, Lighting Designer Ben Hughes, Composer/Sound Designer Steve Francis and Video Designer Craig Wilkinson created this amazing set of mirages.

If ever a production deserved to break box-office records it’s Boy Swallows Universe. It is a modern marvel of brain, talent, and imagination.

One of the amazing sets with Ngoc Phan.

Cast Eli Bell Joe Klocek August Bell/Ensemble Tom Yaxley Lyle Orlik /Brian Robertson/Ensemble Anthony Gooley Frankie Bell Michala Banas Bich Dang/Mrs Birkbeck/Ensemble Ngoc Phan Darren Dang/Ensemble Hoa Xuande Slim Halliday/Tytus Broz/Ensemble Anthony Phelan Iwan Krol/ Alex Bermudez/Ensemble Joss McWilliam Caitlyn Spies/Shelley/Ensemble Ashlee Lollback Robert Bell/Ensemble Mathew Cooper Teddy Kallas/Ensemble Andrew Buchanan Ensemble Charles Ball Ensemble Hsin-Ju Ely


Designer Renée Mulder Lighting Designer Ben Hughes Composer/Sound Designer Steve Francis Video Designer Craig Wilkinson Movement Director Nerida Matthaei Fight and Intimacy Director Nigel Poulton Senior Stage Manager John Reid Deputy Stage Manager Yanni Dubler Assistant Stage Manager Margaret Burrows Associates Associate Motion Designer Jordan Pena Assistant Fight Director Sam Valentine Associate Sound Designer Matthew Erskine


This play contains strong coarse language, mature themes, simulated violence, replica guns and depictions of domestic violence. It also contains strobe lighting, theatrical smoke effects, and the use of e-cigarettes and herbal cigarettes.

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