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Spoonface Steinberg

Lee Hall
Freerange Theatre Company
People's Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne

Rebecca Fenwick

Spoonface Steinberg made an extraordinary impact in 1997 as a BBC play for radio—a medium where most plays are broadcast and rapidly forgotten. Apocrypha has it that burly truck drivers pulled into lay-bys to weep on hearing this narration by the autistic child (age uncertain) dying of cancer.

Result? Writer Lee Hall was launched into a stratosphere never to descend, with later rocket boosts from Billy Elliott plus The Pitmen Painters; oh yes and Stephen Spielberg was also on the phone asking could he please write the script for War Horse?

It’s the kind of success all writers dream of, but nothing of value is easily won. Plus which Hall has never lost the common touch and, despite leaving his native Tyneside some years ago, is still actively involved in local politics, returning to spearhead the recent campaign against the city’s total cutting of the arts budget.

Spoonface also launched a Radio 4 obsession with narration that over the years has ruined many a radio play unsuitable to that particular device, but that’s another story.

While many stage plays are adapted for radio, the reverse is hardly ever true. Spoonface must have seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Hull Truck did a recent production using only a standing microphone and standing actor. Hugo Chandor’s version for the feisty little company Freerange takes more chances and Rebecca Fenwick’s terrific and measured performance is on the move throughout, always making eye contact with audience and occasionally inviting them to try their hand at her Rubic's Cube puzzle.

Hearing her speak in the Q & A session afterwards, I realised with a jolt she was actually grown-up.

She tugs and twists her clothing and hair and emits a childlike delight at all life’s occurrences,(good or bad) in a powerful performance that is never indulgent, sentimental or exploitative. It reminds us that Spoonface is one of life’s great uncynical innocents but also somehow all-knowing as she slowly moves from simple observation of her illness and her family’s crises through to a kind of existentialist philosophy Jean Paul Sartre spent a lifetime trying to define (and with less pure clarity). This uncluttered totally disarming wisdom is what gives the play its unique nature.

The set is a hospital bed and screen, the prop a giant teddy bear. Fenwick jumps on and off the bed, ratchets it up and down, crawls under it, hides beneath the blankets, all with the convincing restless half-focussed energy of a child. And there is a close and necessary intimacy with the audience in The People’s Theatre bar and gallery (the first time I’ve seen them use this space for theatre—they do have two fine auditoria upstairs). It’s hard to think of the play succeeding if adapted for a large space.

Even so, this is a risky business. The original play fitted the medium of radio like a glove. That solitary innocent voice giving out into the ether seared into our consciousness.

No-one felt a desire to see. The dynamics inevitably are changed once we make it visual.

Does Freerange pull it off? I’d say they do. Judge it as a piece of stage theatre, forget about the radio. The production and the writing will carry you through. Tours till July 19.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer