A Song for Ella Grey
Northern Stage Young Company
From 05 September 2017 to 16 September 2017
Review by Peter Mortimer
David Almond is different to any other major North East writer of modern times. Through the likes of Jack Common, Sid Chaplin, Tom Hadaway and more recently Lee Hall, NE authors’ work has been marked by a strong naturalism and reality, affirming the region’s fierce sense of identity.
Almond has that too. Almost every novel from the path-breaking Skellig onwards roots itself in its native area, often the author’s own childhood housing estate, Felling. But Almond adds another dimension, the mystic, the fantastical, the magical, a sense of myth, an unreality which adheres itself to the (often grim) reality as effortlessly as a piece of velchro might.
The author himself has adapted his brilliant novel A Song For Ella Grey for Northern Stage, working with the NS’s new offshoot Young Company and directed by Lorne Campbell. This group is basically a youth theatre re-imagined.
The plot is a modern retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, recounting the strange and ultimately terrible effects on a group of hipster Tyneside teenagers (modern-day but feeling more like children of the '60s) by the arrival of the dark and strange Orpheus, whose music and lyre charm all creatures.
Orpheus is called upon to charm the very creatures of hell when Ella, with whom he falls in love, dies of a snake bite and is taken far below. Hades here is Newcastle’s underground River Ouseburn and for Orpheus’ subterranean trip (25 minutes of total blackness in the auditorium) Mariam Rezaei’s startling electronic sound effects both spook and thrill us.
You’ll probably know of Orpheus’s tragic return journey to the surface with his beloved. If not, the phrase ‘don’t look back’, will remind you.
The play’s narrator, as in the book, is Ella’s intimate friend (possibly lover) Claire. If I tell you Amy Cameron’s performance is a tour de force, you’ll be even more impressed to know that, although the cast numbers 32, she is the only actor seen on stage during 90 straight-through minutes. The other actors are viewed on a giant video screen in various choreographed movements, routines and choruses, filmed on Bamburgh beach or in the city’s Ouseburn area, occasionally incanting as voices off.
Amy Cameron is extraordinary in timing, in emotion, in rapid mood switches, in physicality and occasionally in vulnerability. At times, she is the wide-eyed innocent, other times worldwise. Considering two days previously the actor had completely lost her voice (she is miked up as a safeguard), the achievement is even more exceptional.
Whatever dialogue there is, be it from Ella, from Claire, her parents, from Orpheus (whose music we never hear) and from the knotty old school teacher Krakatoa, it is spoken by Claire. No other actor is seen on stage. This causes obvious problems for character dynamics and interaction, no matter how talented or energetic the actor. It also raises the question as to whether the obvious acting talents of the other 32 cast members are being under-utilised.
The set consists of a block of large cardboard boxes, slightly resembling an Amazon warehouse. Their function, as they get moved around, seems limited. On the first night, the auditorium was abuzz with the infectious energy and optimism of the young company—much needed in these grim times and a reminder of the collective and creative power a theatre ensemble can generate. Except all the young company bar one were in the audience, not on the stage.
Lorne Campbell directs and, though it was a bold move to make this a stage cast of one, the play starts tentatively and never looks totally at ease with the chosen method. Ironically, although the production exploits the kind of modern technology its young cast would savour with live mobile footage of audience and set, a great deal is an old-fashioned recounting of the book verbatim. Such is the power of David Almond’s language that the words always carry us through. But a play and a book are very different animals and theatre needs to establish its own dramatic identity.
If the book has a weakness, it is that, outside the main protagonists, the other young characters are sketchy, a reason maybe for representing them unspecified, en bloc and mainly on the big screen. (Personally I think big video screens have been overworked in theatre, but that’s another story). The three other main characters, Ella, Orpheus and Krakatoa, however, are substantial enough in the book to merit their own actor on stage.