The QT

Friday 19 July 2024

Review: A Song for Ella Grey

An ambitious stage adaptation of David Almond’s story, A Song for Ella Grey has opened at Northern Stage in Newcastle. David Whetstone reports back
Grace Long as Ella Grey and Olivia Onyehara as Claire in A Song for Ella Grey. Credit: Topher McGrillis

And so it begins… a story which transports a group of school friends from the stressful grind of A level revision into a whirl of mystery and mythology.

It’s the second adaptation of David Almond’s novel A Song for Ella Grey to open at Northern Stage and easily the most ambitious.

The first, with a script by David himself, had just one young actor on the smaller stage with the rest visible only in filmed sequences.

This, from York-based Pilot Theatre (in association with Northern Stage and York Theatre Royal) is on the biggest stage and has a cast of five plus musician Zak Younger Banks whose contribution is integral to the piece.

The company of A Song for Ella Grey. Credit: Topher McGrillis

Technology is key with a flexible set animated by projections which conjure up forests and flocks of birds and bats.

An immersive soundscape fills the auditorium with the cries of seabirds, the lapping of waves and the occasional gurgle likely to alarm anyone in the audience recently hit by floods.

Director Esther Richardson has deployed her forces with aplomb, ensuring an impressive spectacle.

Meanwhile there’s a story to be told and to playwright Zoe Cooper fell the challenge of adapting David Almond’s golden prose with its masterly blending of magic and the mundane.

This is what a lot of Almond fans have grown up with, ever since it first blossomed spectacularly in Skellig, his breakthrough novel of 1998 which is studied in schools and is a favourite of many.

Without wishing to demean the theatre production, I’d say it helps to have read the novel or at least to have brushed up on the age-old source material.

In the myth, the musician Orpheus must venture into the underworld in a bid to retrieve his lost love, Eurydice, who has fallen victim to a snake bite.

Here, as in the novel, our narrator is Claire, played by Olivia Onyehara, who sets matters in motion, reflecting briefly on her bond with Ella (Grace Long) before we flash back to five friends – the others being Sam (Amonik Melaco), Angeline (Beth Crame) and Jay (Jonathan Iceton) – chilling down the Ouseburn while contemplating the exams that will determine their fates.

Between them they hatch a plan, a crazy hedonistic escape to Bamburgh beach as a last fling before academic slog.

There other factors come into play, which is to say Orpheus, a mysterious and musical force of nature who appears seemingly out of nowhere and beguiles the group.

Ella, kept home by her protective adoptive parents, isn’t there, but Claire – in a gesture that she will live to regret – shows her what’s happening via her phone.

Orpheus glimpses Ella, Ella glimpses Orpheus and that’s that.

There’s a story to be told and to playwright Zoe Cooper fell the challenge of adapting David Almond’s golden prose with its masterly blending of magic and the mundane.

The pair, the musician and his modern day Eurydice, are mutually smitten, their obsession with each other driving a wedge between Ella and Claire and what, for the latter at least, has matured into something beyond friendship.

The story twists and turns, goes back and forth, with the cast stoking the sense of other-worldliness with choreographed movement and singing to break up the 21st Century teenage banter.

What unfolds is a story of love and loss and ways of dealing with grief.

The young actors occasionally morph into their characters’ parents, Ella’s (understandably) angry mother and hapless father, and Claire’s carelessly nonchalant academic parents.

A Song for Ella Grey. Credit: Topher McGrillis

They are all very good, with my eye – as so often recently – drawn to the sparkling versatility of Beth Crame, an actress seemingly able to become anyone at the drop of a hat.

The climactic scenes are tense and prolonged, the tumble of words – this is not a sparsely-written text – rising to a crescendo as all the characters somehow take on the spirit of Orpheus to embark on their fateful journey into darkness (a dingy tunnel in the Ouseburn the imagined gate to the underworld).

A theatre production faithful to the novel, it’s a thought-provoking excursion away from the everyday powered by a story that has stood the test of time.

A Song for Ella Grey is at Northern Stage until February 15 and then tours to York Theatre Royal (February 20-24) and on to London, Hull and Liverpool. Book tickets and find tour details at the website or call the box office on 0191 230 5151.


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