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FringeReview UK 2017

All the Little Lights

Fifth Word and Nottingham Playhouse co-production

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, New Writing, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Arcola Theatre, Studio 2


Low Down

A Fifth Word and Nottingham Playhouse co-production. Directed by Laura Ford at Arcola’s Studio 2, where Max Dorey’s Boyle Family verismo set is lit by Alexandra Clark. Max Pappenheim’s sound ranges from train blasts to iPods. Till November 4th.


There’s a running trope in this literally punchy hour-long immersion in a half-frozen square of scrubland with tent: the adage, the light at the end of the tunnel is the light of the oncoming train. In Jane Upton’s absorbing play, directed by Laura Ford at Arcola’s Studio 2, electricity, light and dark reverse roles, where Max Dorey’s Boyle Family verismo set with the rail is lit with thrilling menace by Alexandra Clark. The glare of other lights too emerge suddenly and not from where you’d expect; Max Pappenheim’s sound ranges from train blasts to iPods.


Sixteen-year-old Joanne and Lisa, fifteen, whom she’s inveigled back into her life to order, both jump dares off the rail line as light sears along the track to the train’s scream. It’s their greatest joy. Even that’s not it.


Later they’re playing Lisa’s old game of looking at others’ lives through windows. ‘Look dead cosy, don’t they? All the little lights. S’a trick though. Same shit in every one.’ And domineering, vicious Joanne’s given some graphic details. There’s lights everywhere, in Lisa’s birthday cake brought in by Joanne’s latest best pal Amy, a twelve-year old child whose grandmother’s just had a child. Joanne savagely douses the rekindling candles. Joanne’s recruiting her for TJ because men don’t want Joanne now, too old. Lisa’s still marketable. ‘Bad stuff don’t happen in the dark. It’s the light you wanna worry about’ Joanne later explores the darkness of glaring lights in a flashback.


Joanne’s tragedy is that of taking on the role of a madam with menaces, a superannuated job you’d not credit for a sixteen year old. But the nine men like TJ who burst in on Joanne in her recall are kept at bay for a fragile hour and you realise how much this smart girl risks even though she’s acting under intolerable pressures.


Dynamics between threatened Lisa who feared her foster carer Pam really would get acid thrown over her, remain on trick and teat throughout. Joanne’s brought trashy gifts, a onesie, a stuffing-shed animal stolen from Pam; it all reminds Lisa why she ran away. Sarah Hoare’s sullen hunch of a girl bitterly wise yet still hooked too easily back foils emotionally with Tessie Orange-Turner’s wiry spin of barbed trigger-words and once, a slap.


It’s not as a simple a dark as it promises. Lisa ran away thinking Joanne at the last betrayed her in their joint escape. Joanne’s version with aftermath is as different as it gets. It’s Joanne’s complexity, a mix of spelling dreams the way TJ once showed her Orion – ‘If I ever have a kind, , I’m gonna call it Orion’ and splintering them that shows Lisa and Amy aren’t receiving the unfiltered abuse Joanne did. Her capacity to dream induces her to take liberating steps, but will she or the others follow?


Amy easily avoids languishing the poor third, the ingénue to more horribly-informed conversations, with no clue as to why TJ wants a photo of her still flat chest. Upton’s way of making a horrific hem of abusers peripheral or vestigial is an act of reclamation. Esther-Grace Button’s Amy still dances round all perimeters however, with a devastating innocence: her childish spot-on and wildly out impressions of ET with a light hoodie and little voice is as scintillating as it’s heartbreaking – when Joanne brutally stops it. That’s not all Joanne does. Button’s lippy Amy starts with recits of all the films the others already know and ends desperately trying to bring a substitute for her grandmother’s baby. It’s an arc of half-glimpsed knowing what the others bitterly know. She’s surprised when Joanne reveals Lisa’s kissed TJ too. The persecutor-rescuer-victim triangle isn’t predictable.


The denouement opens with an all-to-play-for, or run-for feel. Choices are for some more complex. Upton’s crafted a triangle of mimetic and metaphorically wrought dialogue over this square of land without ever showing she’s doing it. The stabs of poetry hang desperate, truthful and unforced like Joanne’s terminally stained naming of Orion. It’s a stunning indictment of everything outside the little space that in so many real places has had these tragedies, abuses and enforced slaveries thrust upon them. Anything Upton writes now will excite the keenest interest. The cast – Orange-Turner necessarily for the fore – shine in all the crow and cringe of teenagers, edged here with a life’s worth of terror for the older two, baulked by Button’s childish whoop of possibilities. Ford, co-director of Fifth Word which brings such work to us, knows just how to serve devastation, and what to save from it.