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Festival of One Act Plays

10 December 2018

Flights of Fancy: Real and Imagined

Festival of One Act Plays

Step on Stage at The Exchange, Twickenham until 9th December

A Review by Celia Bard

The Exchange in Twickenham gives home to The Festival of One Act Plays by Step on Stage, as three new plays for youth theatre, written and directed by Emma Tinniswood, founder of Step on Stage, are performed. Two of the plays, Hope and Millie’s Dream contain strong psychological undertones whilst the third, Sing Little Cuckoo explores the mental states of women locked away in a mental institution. All three plays reflect the playwright’s passion for historical events and shifting time periods.

The-Exchange

Sing Little Cuckoo is the first of the plays and is based on the life of Nelly Bly, the pen name for the American journalist Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, who was famously known for her exposé of the conditions of asylum patients at Blackwell’s Island in New York City in 1887. This play makes use of pre-existing documentary material in the form of photographic images, letters and interviews and fits in with the concept of documentary drama. The use of choral speaking moves the drama and the horrific experiences of the women locked away in the asylum into the sphere of Greek tragedy.

The setting for the play Hope is World War Two. Caught up a bomb blast, Poppy escapes to the country where she meets a group of children. This is an unsettling play and works on suggestion. The character, Hope, is enigmatic. The audience is never entirely sure who she is and what she represents. She is always present, in the barn with Poppy and with Charlotte in flashback when the latter is hugging her dead baby brother. The implication is that Charlotte has accidentally smothered the baby through love, a recurrent theme in the play in which Charlotte is described by one of the characters as somebody who grows more dominant by the acts of kindness that she bestows on others.

Millie’s Dream tells the story of an eight-year-old girl whose life is changed for ever, the result of a car accident involving her parents and younger brother. Her mother is killed, and Millie is so badly injured in the crash that for a while she loses the use of her legs. The action takes place in the hospital ward and it is Millie’s love of writing and storytelling that help her cope with the sadness and awfulness of her situation. The times period switches between the eight-year-old girl and a grown-up Millie. Her journey involves coming to terms with the guilt she feels resulting from the unintentional part she played in causing the death of her mother.

The-Exchange-auditoriumThe director has given a great deal of thought about the many scene changes involved in the overall production, one which works both for the individual plays, and for the ensemble casts where there is lot of physical movement. Space for the chorus who comment with a collective voice on the dramatic action must also be considered. The use of a minimalistic stage, simple and plain with just a few items of furniture proves to be the solution. Photographic images projected onto a large screen provide information about settings, people, dreams. These include photographs of Nellie Bly, a workhouse, the Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum, inmates, and quotations in Sing Little Cuckoo.

Images of a bombed town juxtaposed with that of green fields, followed by those of the inside and outside of a barn provide information about causation and settings in Hope; whilst the beautiful and imaginative image of a ladder reaching into the sky provide a vivid metaphoric insight into the journey that Millie yearns to climb.

The different casts are well costumed and tell the audience something about place and time period. The uniformity of costumes in Sing Little Cuckoo reflects the inhumanity of the people running the institute where the inmates count for nothing. Costumes in Hope are typical of those worn by children in WW2 whilst the nightdress worn by Hope and the attire of doctors, nurses and Hope’s father and brother reflect her hospital setting and a more modern time period.

Recurring motifs are dramatic devices used by the director to symbolise significant moods in the play. Sing Little Cuckoo starts with the sound of a trumpet playing O Shenandoah. This tune echoes throughout the play and is beautifully sung by Hope Groizard and Millie Bleazley in the penultimate scene. O, Shenandoah is a sad and wistful tune and well reflects the hopeless yearnings of the women locked away in the asylum. The nursery rhyme, Ring a Ring o’ Roses is repeated ominously throughout the play, Hope. Its association with plague and death strengthens the suggestion of a sickness of mind as evidenced in the character Agatha. At the end of the play the nursery rhyme is repeated again and again by the cast building up to a dramatic climax. Repeated spoken references by Millie to dreams and nightmares in Millie’s Dream tell the audience something about the guilt she feels, as do her stories.

The cast list is long and so your reviewer must be forgiven for not naming all the performers taking part in this Festival of One Act Plays. Suffice to say that the characterisation, interaction between actors, movement and confidence is strong throughout. Some of the cast, particularly those in Hope, with the exception of Agatha and Poppy, are not able to cope with the vastness of The Exchange theatre. Voice projection is soft, and voices do not carry into the auditorium thus audibility and meaning suffered.

In Sing Little Cuckoo, Hope Groizard is very convincing as Nelly Bly, both as the journalist in the outside world and as the undercover journalist within the asylum. Millie Beazley is notable for her strong, pleasing resonance of voice and an ability to stay in character throughout. Andrew Rhodes succeeds in portraying a frightening image of the bullying and insensitive Doctor whilst Matthew Greenway is thoughtful and believable in his portrayal of Mr Pulizter and Doctor. The young actress speaking in French stunned the audience into silence as she heartbreakingly railed against her situation, having ‘lost her state of mind’.

The cast of Hope are all aged between 9 and 13 and must be commended for their movement and commitment to the characters they portray. Charlotte Williams as Agatha gives a true to life performance, sometimes kind but at other times bossy and domineering. She is a young actress who is developing good vocal skills, able to project well, and endows her lines with meaning. Jessica Jenner too provides a realistic portrayal of the confused Poppy, unable to make sense of the situation in which she finds herself. Darcey Boyle as Hope is almost translucent thus adding to the mysterious quality of her character.

Maddie Everard provides an angry portrayal of the Young Millie. This is in keeping with her determined nature and strong sense of guilt she feels. At the same time the anger fuels her resolve to walk again and to write. Samia Islam is supportive and reassuring as Millie’s case worker; whilst Abbie Craddock plays Millie’s father realistically, at first resentful, withdrawn, and then supportive. Eve Gregson provides a mature image of the Old Millie, happy, confident and at ease with the people around her.

The production team did well to end the programme with Millie’s Dream, as this play ends on a note of hope, contrasting sharply with the other two plays in the festival. The themes in all the plays are hard hitting and starkly reflect some of life’s cruelties. Some might question the appropriateness of content for young people, some as young as nine, and their suitability for this festive time of year. Other will put forward the point of view that it does no harm in bringing home to children and young people the awful experiences that many people endure and that the Christmas season is not all about pantomimes, Christmas trees, presents and jollity. Judging from the involvement, and truthful performances displayed by all three casts, there was no question about their commitment to the roles they were playing nor to the nature of the themes being explored. Overall, I thought this festival of short plays was a brave production in terms of its mature and thought-provoking content. Emma Tinniswood must be congratulated for writing scripts that provide wonderful dramatic opportunities for her talented young casts.

Celia Bard
December 2018

Photography by Louise Hill

 

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From → Drama, Reviews

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