Northern Stage, Newcastle
Erica Whyman's choice of play for her second production as artistic director of Northern Stage could not be more different from her first, Son of Man, which ran at the venue last September. The latter was epic in scale and used the full width and depth of the "epic" Stage One, whilst the latest offering is domestic, using only two actors, and played in the much smaller Stage Two.
In fact, Stage Two has been reconfigured for this production and, instead of the more usual end-on format, the piece is played in the round with the scenery surrounding the audience who are seated on backless stepped benches. It makes for a very intimate experience which is totally in keeping with the play and if there is a drawback, it is that those of us whose backs can cause problems do begin to suffer a little towards the end of the two hours. However such is the power of the piece, along with the playing of actors Tilly Gaunt and Nick Haverson, that it was not until I was leaving the theatre that I realised just how stiff my back had become!
Although written in 2003, Ruby Moon is very timely for it deals with the disappearance of a young child, the Ruby Moon of the title, and so, of course, calls immediately to mind the hunt for Madeleine McCann that is underway right now. But that is only one in a long series of similar incidents, for, as an information sheet given away at the end of the play tells us, in the UK "every five minutes a child goes missing" and that, if we take into account runaways for whatever reason, 70,000 children vanish annually and, in 2002/3, UK police recorded 864 cases of child abduction.
A child sets off from her home to visit her grandmother who lives just down the street. She never arrives. Ruby Moon deals, not with the actual time of the abduction or even the hunt for the child, but the long-term effects on the parents, and does so in a very powerful and consciously theatrical way. Between them actors Gaunt and Haverson play eight parts, the parents and six neighbours, and, although they do change costumes off-stage, the one who is not changing moves the actual furniture and props around in front of the audience in full light.
The first reaction is to wonder why. It seems to take so long and slow the pace. Is this some kind of directorial conceit? An attempt at Brechtian alienation or something of that nature? It is only gradually that we begin to realise why as the parade of surreal scenes and even more surreal neighbours progresses and the true depth of the play and its very overt theatricality are revealed.
It's a clever, intriguing and ultimately very powerful piece of theatre, and as such it needs sensitive direction and almost virtuoso performances, both of which it gets from Whyman, Gaunt and Haverson. These are complemented by Soutra Gilmour's clever conversion of the space, effectively lit by Anna Watson.
Under Erica Whyman, the future for Northern Stage looks bright. Next up is a revival of Peter Flannery's Our Friends in the North, something different yet again, but equally challenging!
Reviewer: Peter Lathan