Sophie Ellerby’s new play LIT professes to chronicle the ‘turbulent teenage years of a girl looking for love in all the wrong places.’ Originally developed by HighTide’s First Commissions programme, this is the first time the play has been presented in its entirety.
In the opening scene we meet fifteen-year-old Bex (played by Eve Austin) in a hospital gown talking to her newborn child. We then follow her story from her first week at a new school, through some friendships that are medicinal and others that are corrosive and dangerous, until we are eventually reunited with her and her daughter at their point of separation. Our second impression of Bex, after seeing her as a mother, is of a stroppy teenager, fighting her guardian every step of the way. Bex appears to have grown up in foster care all her life, although details of her parents and her history are scarce. Details are scarce in general. So much so, that by the end of the show’s 90 minutes I still don’t really feel as though I know any of the characters well at all. The cast of six are solid but not outstanding and the characters all seem a little one dimensional and stereotyped. Bex’s guardian Sylvia (Maxine Finch) is an older, single lady who lives with her cats. Her best friend Ruth (Tiger Cohen-Towell) is a geeky vegan who loves Doctor Who and 80s music. Despite some amusing lines and relationships full of potential intrigue, I struggled to find the characters believable.
“The aesthetic design of this production is it’s strongest asset”
Perhaps this was not a consequence of the acting but an intentional decision of Ellerby’s writing or of Stef O’Driscoll’s direction? If this show is supposed to be Brechtian in its delivery, bypassing attempts at emotional connection in favour of dramatic distance and intellectualisation then it certainly succeeds! Actors cross the stage carrying shadow signs signalling the major plot point of each scene. This, coupled with the cyclical nature of the writing, leaves little room for suspense or the need to read the emotional cues in the scene. To combat this, key pieces of information are often only revealed mid-scene or not at all, so the audience is left trying to work out exactly why Bex is upset… what happened at the end of the previous scene etc. If this was the intention, I can understand and applaud the attempt but would suggest that a shorter run time would help the show to achieve its aims. It is quite hard work to keep up that level of engagement for the full hour and a half without the emotional connection with the characters.
The aesthetic design of this production is it’s strongest asset. The lighting design (by Peter Small) is absolutely stunning. Most scenes are lit from the front allowing the shadows and silhouettes of the actors to appear on the backdrop (watching the shadows and the lights and listening to the dialogue made me appreciate the play far more). Lighting and sound come into their own during the transitions between scenes. The set (consisting of a wire caravan frame, split in half, along with separate door frame that doubles up as a mirror) glows with neon LED lighting to the beats and vocal stylings of female rap and pop artists. If I had seen a piece of physical theatre based on the transitions I would be writing a completely different review.
As it is, there is one moment of the performance that I can credit with being powerful and affecting. At the very end, in a surprise moment of direct address, Bex challenges the audience about their perceptions and expectations of the rest of her life. ‘I bet you think I won’t amount to much’, she says as she prepares for her new baby to be taken away from her. Austin does a brilliant job in this moment, before leaving us with the purity of her aspiration that she will make jam one day. Here’s hoping.