REVIEW: Donna Disco @ Live Theatre, Newcastle (28.2.15) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Laura Lindow’s staging of Donna Disco brings music and magic to Lee Mattinson’s heartwarming story of metamorphosis. The play features only one actor, Paula Penman, as the eponymous Donna. The tale that Donna tells is a sad one, describing her life as an overweight, unpopular girl, bullied at school and home. Drama comes into her life when her teacher proposes a storytelling project that reinforces Donna’s lack of popularity (nobody will pair up with her) but also gives her an opportunity to open up her world. She decides to find out more about Stewart, the man who lives downstairs from her and her Mum, and his glamorous companion Caroline. In Stewart, Donna finds a friend and confidante and sees that out in the wider world there may be other people who find her interesting and funny and beautiful, perhaps even the boy at school who she’s had a secret crush on. Donna’s growing confidence is heartwarming and gives extra weight to the emotional climax that finds her poised to give her presentation to an audience of schoolmates and guests.

Penman’s portrayal of Donna is captivating, though at times she seemed much younger than fourteen; the play opened with her pottering about and constantly licking her lips and opening and shutting her mouth in a way that seemed much more childlike than adolescent. However, overall her body language – pacing and constant re-adjustment of clothing – succeeded in conveying someone ill at ease with their appearance. As the play went on, and Donna flourished, her anxious tugging of clothing stopped and was replaced with moving assertively and even dancing.

Although the subject matter is bleak, it was given quite a magical touch. This was achieved in various ways. Donna’s use of whimsical language lifts us above a kitchen sink drama; the way her storytelling is punctuated with pop songs adds a dream like quality to the show. Finally, there is something special about the use of props to represent other characters. Sock puppets take on the roles of Donna’s Mum and Nana and they seem to make some of the darker conversations a little lighter than they otherwise would be. Plastic rats, fittingly, play the parts of the school bullies and a toy fox sits in for Stewart. They all worked well to bring life to her conversations – both real and fantastical – but the one I found most effective was a raggedy stuffed toy that represented her dead Dad. Somehow the lopsidedness of the toy (it looked like your Gran had made it… if your Gran wasn’t very good at making things) added to the poignancy of the conversation Donna would have wanted to have with her Dad if only she could.

At turns sad and uplifting, Donna Disco is a powerful play that celebrates the power of friendship and imagination and condemns the small-mindedness of those who attack people they perceive to be different.

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