Clear White Light
Paul Sirett, inspired by the songs of Alan Hull and The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
Live Theatre, Newcastle
The play opens outside St Nicholas’s Hospital in South Gosforth, Newcastle. It’s dark. Ali, a young trainee psychiatric nurse in just her second year, is about to start her very first nightshift in a male ward. She’s worried and wonders what’s in store for her. As do we.
Then there’s a song—"Alright on the Night"—sung by a woman of 50 or so in a colourful, could almost be hippy(-ish), outfit.
Then we’re back with Ali as she meets the nurse she’ll be working with, Rod. They’re short-staffed. There’s just the two of them.
Psychiatric hospital. Male patients. Lack of staff. Young, vulnerable trainee female nurse. You can see where we’re going here, can’t you?
But what have the songs—and there are more and more of them, all performed by the same woman whose dress keeps changing—to do with it all? There’s one outfit that’s black and threatening. Witch-like. Not the pointy hat, broomstick-riding type, but something more menacing. And the song she’s singing is "Lady Eleanor", that strange, haunting, gothic
Had my share of nightmares,
Didn’t think there could be much more,
Then in walked Roderick Usher with the Lady Eleanor.
Strange noises. Crashing, Scratching. Brilliant flashes of light amid the normal dimness.
A gothic horror story, then?
Or a young trainee nurse’s induction into the problems of her job? Her personal journey? A play about mental health? A critique of government treatment of the NHS? A jukebox musical?
Clear White Light defies classification, pigeon-holing. These various strands weave around each other but without connecting, and the more the play goes on, the less we understand how they could ever connect.
But then, at the end, everything comes together. In a wonderful coup de théâtre, all becomes clear; our perception of what we have been watching changes direction totally. It’s hugely satisfying and insightful.
We haven’t been preached at. There’s been no “message” thrust at us, but we have learned, and learned in the best and most effective way possible, a way which will stay in the mind and the memory. To have been just a horror story, just a piece about mental health or just a young nurse’s story would have diminished it—a lot.
Clear White Light has been in development for a number of years, the subject of collaboration between playwright Paul Sirett and dramaturg Max Roberts, and the long development process has given birth to a fine piece of theatre. Roberts was originally intending to direct it himself but before the work was complete he stepped down as Live’s artistic director and handed over the reins to his successor, Joe Douglas, who, in his first production since taking up his post, has shown himself to be a sensitive, subtle and intelligent director.
He has a great cast to work with. Veterans (I’m sure they’ll hate me saying that!) Charlie Hardwick and Joe McCaffrey lead a cast of up and coming NE actor / singer / musicians. Bryony Corrigan (Ali) last appeared at Live earlier this year in My Romantic History while Phil Adèle and Alice Blundell are making their Live Theatre debuts and Dale Jewitt makes his main production debut, having appeared in 10 Minutes to… and Mixtape 90. They share the stage with two former Lindisfarne members, Billy Mitchell, not only on guitar and singing but playing one of the patients, and Ray Laidlaw, drummer and co- (with Mitchell) musical director.
Neil Warmington’s set design is flexible and oppressive, its effectiveness aided in no small measure by Ali Hunter’s very atmospheric (and occasionally startling) lighting and Dave Flynn’s sound design which varies from tiny scratches, full of foreboding, to enormous crashes.
The audience loved it—and so did I.