Extended Review: All The Little Lights. Neville Studio Nottingham Playhouse.

The extended version from the original published by Nottingham Post October 2015.

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Picture credit Robert Day

On the top of a grubby rubbish strewn hill, bang next to a live railway line, are three vulnerable female teenagers. They dice with death and laugh at their own risk-taking whilst balancing precariously on the fizzing track as the next train hurtles frighteningly toward them. As the warning horn cuts shrill through the night air the three grasp each other’s sweating hand in foolish excitement and wait until the very last second of dumb daring. Their voices are human electricity sounding out – laughter mixing with screams of narrow escape. As they tumble down together a mad kind of fluctuating joy flees their shaking bodies. All these ‘little lights of life’ shine brighter than the sun for a fraction of a second. Then grim normality takes over – masked as a teenage birthday celebration going tragically wrong.

The set design for All The Little Lights marries a blend of ultra-real with magical pretty white lights along the extract of train track situated above and amongst the casual detritus of the very temporary encampment. Set designer Max Dorey should also be commended for creating a wealth of atmosphere in such a claustrophobic place. As a studio based play it is spot on. Environmentally perfect lighting by designer Alex Stafford aids the unfolding story as does the acute sound design by Max Pappenheim.

At once this partially wooded place is a den for children’s and young teens burgeoning imaginations to play in. However, linked creepily into it by text and inference, it proves to be a den of inequity of the worst kind. Sexual predators sit invisibly in the shadows or skulking darkly on the perimeter, ready to pounce. The general supposition is not directly obvious but pre-supposed and imagined. This place of refuge becomes openly and realistically accessible to any danger despite the girls pretext that all is safe and sound on the hill next to the flimsy cheap tent.

In All The Little Lights there appears to prevail a bravura of girlish camaraderie – a companionship of shared recklessness. Shared tales of rapt stillness watching the popular family film Frozen at the cinema abound. The girls dream of escaping to Skeggy to be faux Disney stars at £25 per hour. Bragging and swearing get mixed in with innocent girlish chit chat. Every teen word and sound on the stage is spoken with the unconscious aim of unwitting but. eventually reckless, inclusion into the sexual cauldron. To reluctantly drag in a terrible but appropriate reference – Gary Glitter could’ve easily have sung the anthem to this piece “You wanna be in my gang – my gang oh yeah!” In the dark alley of their mutual existence lurk the horrible experiences of child sex abuse orchestrated by TJ who runs the local chip shop. These unseen, but alluded to, acts haunt the play terribly throughout.

Sweet 13 year old Amy (Esther-Grace Button) aches for companionship in the rough company of dangerous but ultimately protective Joanne (Tessie Orange-Turner). Amy initially delights in being part of the small gang of three. Along comes Lisa (Sarah Hoare) a deeply sad soul who views the world through hurt – tired and world wary young eyes. All three actresses put in terrifically realistic and often darkly funny performances in Jane Upton’s sixty minute exposé of lost innocence.

ASC_4019Hoare’s body language and nature of pushing the world frantically away is ‘underplayed abject terror’ personified but could easily be seen as being merely a young person outwardly timid of nature. Through her superb performance you feel the desperate hurt within the person and through Upton’s script the interpretation of Lisa’s reality is an awkwardly muddy puddle of sexual confusion and subdued anger.

Equally, Button’s Amy moves from a position of normality – a child blossoming into early adulthood – to a horrified uncomprehending feeling of being completely out of her depth.

Tessie Orange Turner’s portrayal is easily the most complex and most easy to get wrong. On the outside she is a bully and control freak but inwardly very vulnerable. Even through her acts of violence towards the other two it becomes clear that she is trying (in her blunt physical way) to protect them from the horrors that she herself has experienced in life mainly due to sexual exploitation and what amounts to a terrible gang rape.

All The Little Lights is a creative response to recent high profile cases of child exploitation and Fifth Word and Nottingham Playhouse have commissioned playwright Jane Upton to write this play to tell a starkly truthful and often unheard story. Laura Ford and Angharad Jones direct. Much solid research has been done in collaboration with the charity Safe and Sound and the result is truly extra-ordinary and moving theatre.

This reviewer saw an impressive rehearsed reading at Derby Theatre Studio (DEparture Lounge) earlier this year and is delighted that Jane Upton’s vital play, All The Little Lights has finally found the light to shine!

Phil Lowe

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