First published in The Times, Friday July 8 2016
As Mary Shelley would testify were she here today, some fictional ideas are so strong that they take on a life of their own that even their creator can’t control. A case in point is David Almond’s story, The Savage. Initially conceived as a short monologue for television, the poignant tale of a teenage boy grieving for his dead father kept tugging at its author’s sleeve, demanding that he expand the original idea, first into a novel, and now into a compelling piece of drama.
The genesis of Almond’s story finds echoes in its plot and themes. Adrift in the early stages of grief, Blue (a lovely performance from Dean Bone) is encouraged by his creative writing teacher (Dani Arlington), to “let his imagination fly”. The boy hesitantly complies, conjuring a feral child, who lives by the Tyne, carries an axe and devours rabbits, birds and garden vegetables.
At first, this wildling (brought to life by Almond’s spare, punchy script and some delightful animation courtesy of NOVAK, the video design company) seems a thinly veiled portrait of Hopper (Adam Welsh), the local bullyboy and Blue’s nemesis. Yet, as Blue’s anger at the world intensifies, and his jottings begin to take on a darker tinge, the bare-chested savage with the bared teeth and the attitude problem increasingly starts to resemble his creator.
Almond’s contemporary parable is refreshingly unsentimental in its portrayal of young people dealing with tough issues. The production, directed by Max Roberts, strikes a winning balance between realism and a rich theatricality, including some lively passages of movement set to Beth Brennan’s original compositions as well as folk standards such as When Your Boat Comes In.
Alison Ashton’s multi-levelled set, which transcends the intimate surrounds of Live’s cabaret-style auditorium, is put to good use, notably during the scene in which Blue’s mother (Arlington, again) mourns downstairs, while her son wrestles with his own lonely torment up in his room. The versatile cast, which features Kate Okello as Blue’s sympathetic classmate, brings the required mix of understatement and physical dynamism to a multiplicity of roles, giving believable, three-dimensional form to Almond’s quietly moving tale.