First published in The Times, Friday September 8 2017
David Almond is one of the most prolific and highly acclaimed writers of novels for children and young adults to hail from the northeast of England. Known for his distinctive merging of realism with the fantastic, the author has adapted several of his best-known works of fiction for the stage, notably Heaven Eyes, which follows a trio of runaways from an orphanage, and The Savage, about a young boy’s grief following the death of his father.
At first glance, A Song for Ella Grey, adapted by the author from his award-winning 2014 book, looks a familiar enough chronicle of first love in all its intensity and confusion. Lorne Campbell’s production for Northern Stage is deceptively simple, too. Amy Cameron, playing Claire, the tale’s breathless narrator, delivers the 75-minute monologue on a bare stage crammed with cardboard boxes that come to represent supporting characters as well as the flora and fauna of the Northumberland coast: a key setting for the story.
Pic: Pamela Raith
The opening act takes place amidst the heady excitement of Claire, her best friend forever, Ella, and their classmates planning a trip to Bamburgh beach as a last hurrah before leaving school. Ella’s strict parents forbid her to go, but Claire returns with a stranger in tow, the beguiling, lyre-playing Orpheus. One doesn’t need an in-depth knowledge of Greek mythology to guess that, when lovely, wistful Ella falls for the ethereal boy, trouble lies ahead.
This set-up is nicely realised in Campbell’s production by the unforced clarity of Cameron’s performance and the inspired touch of having 60 members of the theatre’s young company appear on video screen and in voiceover as an inquisitive chorus, endlessly nettling Claire for information.
Pic: Pamela Raith
Less resonant is the show’s second part, in which the audience is plunged into darkness as Claire journeys through the underworld in search of her friend. The soundscape, created by Mariam Rezaei, is suitably uncanny, but Claire’s quest seems a little rushed and winds up being resolved too abruptly.
Almond’s script, in particular his beautiful recreation of the Northumberland landscape, is always compelling, but Campbell’s production is at its best in its depiction of young people looking forward to an exciting, unknowable future. There is much relief when the lights go up, we return to the land of the living and the lively young cast reappear onscreen to take their bows.