Young people’s theatre can be a difficult thing to pull off; it’s all too easy to patronise your audience. But Andy Arnold’s new adaptation of Julia Donaldson’s novel does not fall into this trap. It’s neither overly worthy nor heavy-handed, eschewing sentimentality for a more even-handed portrait of a young runaway.
Fifteen year old Chinese-English orphan Leonora (Leo for short) escapes the unwelcome advances of her uncle John, in the hope of tracing the grandparents she has never met and starting a new life in Glasgow.
Jessica Henwick is dazzling as Leo; effortlessly shifting from frantic child to self-contained young woman. Her new friend, the thirteen year old paper boy Finlay, played by Grant McDonald, provides a suitably nervy counter-point to her poise and grace, with Katie Posner’s direction for the most part is excellent and well-judged, emphasising the chemistry between her young leads.
The adult characters suffer in comparison with Stephen Clyde’s Uncle John an exercise in cartoon creepiness: a beige sweat-stain of a man, in thick lensed glasses and brown trousers, towering over Leo. At least the implied child abuse is not overplayed, just uncomfortable enough to unsettle. Better is his portrayal of a jobsworth music teacher or the alcoholic, nicknamed ‘The Godfather’, where he is given a chance to inject some charisma into recognisable archetypes.
Gem Greaves’ film noir set is suggestive of an urban fairy tale with its jagged grey green-lit buildings casting tall shadows, their corners hiding drug dealers and dark figures waiting and willing to exploit the weak.
At the heart of the play lies an ambivalence towards authority figures and adults who should protect their children: according to charity statistics, an estimated three-quarters of teenagers who have run away from the family home are not even reported missing by the very people who should care for them. Children’s charity Aberlour who provide support for young runaways are working in conjunction with Pilot Theatre and the Tron on this production and are instrumental in raising awareness of the issues raised.
Alongside the themes of child exploitation, racism and homelessness is that of mental health problems. Mary, (touchingly played by Gaylie Runciman) the older lady who takes Leo in, has manic episodes and is becoming increasingly delusional. When Leo’s uncle finally manages to track her down, Leo has to leave Mary’s home and this coincides with her having a breakdown, forcing Finlay to look after her: a role for which he is ill-equipped.
Another aspect of the play’s strength is Donaldson’s wry humour; although she never invites the audience to laugh at or pity the characters, the wit is always pushed to the fore – humour here is a coping mechanism, borne of necessity – Mary is given many most funny-yet-awkward lines, seemingly having no social filter (‘let’s order a Chinky’, she cheerfully suggests to Leo, or ‘he’s an auld pervy, your uncle- ah’ll skelp him!’) but she is kind in her intentions and such terms are clearly part of entrenched behaviour.
There is, suffice to say, no fairytale ending here; there are no easy solutions and no sugary denouement in this intelligent and moving play which pulses with the erratic heartbeat of the city streets.