A Song for Ella Grey resets the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the classrooms, on the beaches and beneath the imposing old railway arches of Tyneside and Northumberland. It’s very much a local story, and there’s undoubtedly a lot extra that a North East audience will take away from this production, with its beautifully poetic descriptions of the city and coastlines. However, this is also a story with the potential to transcend locality. Writer David Almond blends a coming-of-age story with ancient mythology magnificently: the entrance to the Underworld nestles beneath the Cluny, the beaches at Bamburgh are a re-imagined Greece, Orpheus is a sullen, mysterious Geordie lad with a voice of gold and broad horizons.
In fact, attempts at transcendence are a theme of the story. Towards its conclusion, Orpheus roams the globe before being dragged back, willingly or not, to where he grew up, in an echo of the rootlessness of celebrity culture. The core of A Song for Ella Grey is a tale of a teenage relationship, with all the potent lure and destructiveness therein. Despite the free sheet describing it as ‘a simple tale of a girl and a boy falling in love’, the story goes beyond this, gently exploring a tale of ambiguous sexuality. It does so nearly, so very nearly, without feeling the need to explain, define or label, which was hugely refreshing to watch.
Claire, the story’s protagonist, is Ella’s childhood friend and speaks of the deep love that exists between them. The only character to appear live on stage, she picks her way through the events of what happened between Ella and Orpheus. Amy Cameron as Claire is impressive, holding the audience’s attention throughout the 90 minutes in a role which demands poignancy, humour, animation and stillness. The latter was perhaps the only aspect slightly lacking, with the delivery at times slightly rushed. However, for the most part her performance is completely captivating.
Yet to call this production a one-woman show would be unfair. Claire’s role as protagonist is supported by an ensemble chorus comprised of young local actors from the Northern Stage Youth Theatre programme. As the show progresses, this chorus cajoles and persuades Claire to carry on with her story through the more painful passages. At other times, it takes on the character of high-school teachers, gangs of kids and creatures of the Underworld.
We are introduced to the chorus before the story fully begins, via a rolling projected video displaying their portraits and small exchanges taking place around Newcastle. These projections, filmed and curated brilliantly by Kris Deedigan, remain in use throughout, as does a soundscape of music and voices composed and effectively woven together by sound designer/composer Mariam Rezaei. The production, then, becomes something of a multi-media feast, but this isn’t about superfluous bells and whistles. Everything feels considered and integral; everything has something to say.
Perhaps to offset the complex projections, Jen McGinley’s stage design is reasonably simple, with cardboard boxes moved around the stage to signify different locations. The boxes allow spaces to be imagined and, in doing so, they assume a wider significance than they would if literally realised. As Claire prepares to leave home, the boxes also reinforce the themes of transience and impermanence in the piece.
Director Lorne Campbell should be highly credited for weaving the divergent elements of the production together and for working with young actors – in some cases experiencing theatre work for the first time – to created a solid ensemble performance. In the ‘making-of’ video shown afterwards, during a particularly well-put together press night, the connection between the creative team was clear.
In many ways, this production has all the warmth, camaraderie and joy of community theatre, but with professional production standards and a gaze stretching beyond itself. In his post show talk, Almond stated that the point of ancient stories is that they don’t happen in some other place or country, but here and now amongst us. He’s absolutely achieved this. Watching the show brought back many memories, both joyful and painful, of growing up. Falling in love with the right people, the wrong people, rejection, celebration, adulation – it’s all here.
A Song for Ella Grey is on at Northern Stage until 16 September 2017. Click here for more details.