STAGE REVIEW: A Song For Ella Grey @ Northern Stage, Newcastle (07.02.24) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: The Company of A Song for Ella Grey photo by Topher McGrillis

A Song For Ella Grey brings the magic and mystery of David Almond’s novel to life on stage, through persuasive performances, minimalist staging and moving music. Bringing the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into a present day North East setting, we follow a teenage friendship group as they navigate into their beckoning futures.

The production opens with these friends; Claire (Olivia Onyehara), Angeline (Beth Crame), Sam (Amonik Melaco), Jay (Jonathan Iceton) and Ella Grey (Grace Long) as they discuss the approaching exam season and wonder what lies beyond it. Light, soft, bed-like staging plays host to playful and casual chatter between the friends that feels immediately homely. Unsurprisingly, it is the unmapped destinations beyond their comfortable reality that is especially exciting to these teenagers. They take initial steps towards the unknown during a group trip to Bamburgh beach, minus Ella whose strict parents won’t allow her the freedom to go.

What is initially so enticing about the ambiguity ahead of them, later becomes darker, frightening, yet even harder to turn away from. The enigma that envelopes their futures and the world they inhabit is represented in their meeting with Orpheus, whose shadowy form on stage manages to be a commanding, yet intangible presence. It is through Orpheus that the music, a true highlight of the show composed by Emily Levy with additional live performance by Zak Younger Banks, is introduced. Developing alongside the other characters, we’re taken on a journey as simple sounds become charming fragments of music, which later become structured songs with poetic lyrics.

To counteract the dreamlike sequences there are plenty of grounding moments, especially in the first act, where the contemporary North East setting feels instantly recognisable in playful scenes where dual-role acting from the core cast sees them also embody the persona of school mates, teachers and parents with impressive ease and good humour. These somewhat formulaic secondary characters do have their own surprises, but it is the leading five teenage characters that are not to be underestimated. Over the course of the story, through convincing performances from all five of the cast members, you observe them as quick, witty, charming and accepting individuals, open to and capable of immense growth.

In the second act, the pace and drama heightens as the stakes are raised and the characters delve deeper into a mythical existence. It is here where the themes of love, loss, yearning and grief intensify and that Pilot Theatre’s production is at its most compelling. The vast, epic and often abstract nature of these topics, are reflected by the depth of the fabled world created on stage.

By the show’s close, the teenagers who originally dreamt of Greek islands and Italian sun, have learnt that they do not have to travel to find a world where things happen. It is right here; exciting, dangerous, gentle, loving, enticing, magical and lapping at our own North East shores.

A Song For Ella Grey is at Northern Stage, Newcastle until 15th February.

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