Showing posts with label Libby Hall. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Libby Hall. Show all posts

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Review: Drowning in Silence (Salford Arts Theatre, GM Fringe)

Thursday 25th July 2019
Salford Arts Theatre

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe is on throughout July. As you must know by now, I’m reviewing a number of the shows on this year’s packed programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM. The next play on my itinerary was Salford Arts Theatre’s Drowning in Silence, which I saw (unsurprisingly) at the Salford Arts Theatre on Thursday 25th July. You can hear my radio review on Tuesday’s show, but here’s the blog version…

Photo credit: Shay Rowan Photography

Written and directed by Roni Ellis, Drowning in Silence is a two-hander, performed by Emily Cox and Libby Hall. Earlier this month, I reviewed Libby Hall’s play (which was also staged as part of this year’s Fringe), The Melting of a Single Snowflake, so I’d experienced her writing, but not her acting. As I enjoyed the former so much, I was curious to see the latter! (Hall is the writer-in-residence at Salford Arts Theatre, and a former member of their Young Performers Company. I interviewed her about The Melting of a Single Snowflake on my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special at the end of June.)

Drowning in Silence opens in a slightly unorthodox fashion, with a piece of projected film (shot by Ross McCormack) being shown on a white screen at the back of the stage. Edited as a montage of ‘home movie’ style footage, the film shows Cox and Hall messing around, playing together and laughing. It’s a neat piece of scene-setting, as it leaves the audience in no doubt that these two are sisters.

It is Cox – playing older sister Michelle – who enters on stage first. The set is sparse – just a couple of pieces of furniture and some scattered toys and blankets conjure up a room in a house, but it’s otherwise rather bare (and the reason for this will become clear as the one-act play unfolds). Carrying a birthday balloon, Michelle wanders across the stage to the pile of toys in a slow and deliberate style that will come to characterize the play as a whole. And then Hall – playing younger sister Jane – makes her entrance. Whooshing across the stage like an excited child, she joins Michelle, and the two sing a childish rhyme together and dress dolls. This is the first indication of the complexity and layering of Drowning in Silence’s narrative, as Cox and Hall appear here to be playing characters much younger than themselves.

It is not simply the set that is sparse. The narrative of Drowning in Silence also unfolds in a rather minimalist way. Michelle and Jane appear in short scenes from different periods of their childhoods, punctuated by melancholic piano music and the deliberate movements of Michelle (the elder of the two) around and across the stage. Each scene is triggered by an object that Michelle finds on the stage, giving the play an atmosphere of nostalgia and an indefinable sadness. The lighting emphasises this, as it alters from a stark bluish hue to warmer tones to signal the journey through memories of childhood.

Drowning in Silence is a story about loss and grief. We see the girls’ experience a life-changing incident and watch the way it affects them as individuals, but also their relationship to one another. Their closeness becomes strained, as secrets and lies slip into their interactions. A story bubbles under the surface, but Ellis’s script keeps it tightly under control (save for some neat foreshadowing), leaving the audience with the feeling that an awful lot is being left unsaid.

The two performances are excellent. Cox captures the uncertainty and awkwardness of an older sibling who, while still a child herself, is thrust into a more adult role. But I also very much enjoyed her performance in the flashbacks to earlier moments of the girls’ childhood – as an older sister myself, I really related to Michelle’s attempts to be the ‘mature one’, exhorting her little sister to ‘follow the leader – and I’m the leader’. Cox successfully carries the more emotive scenes of the play, often doing so through movement and expression rather than dialogue. It’s an impressive performance, imbued with both maturity and gravity.

Photo credit: Shay Rowan Photography

And Hall is fantastic as Jane. Moving between a lively (slightly bossy) little child, a rather serious tween, and a moody and frustrated teenager, even in her more stereotypically ‘stroppy’ dialogue, Hall conveys a sensitive and sympathetic vulnerability that is really quite moving. If talented young performer Hall isn’t one to watch for the future, then I don’t know who is!

As I’ve said, there is a story under the surface of Drowning in Silence that is held in check until the play’s final (and emotional) punch. I must admit, I did guess this early on, but this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the play at all. Instead, I was interested in paying attention to how the story unfolds, and the techniques used to reveal things to (and hide them from) the audience.

Ellis’s script is tight, with a compelling combination of theatrical dialogue (and near-monologue at times) combined with judicious and expressive use of silences (as may be expected from the play’s title). Along with this, her direction makes use of the unspoken and unexplained to develop narrative. The play’s real strength lies in the way the story is literally not told – it lies in the silence, the unsaid and the implied. Again, the lighting is used to good effect here – silence is often accompanied by a change or dropping of the lights to shift the mood and tone.

Overall, Drowning in Silence is a compelling piece of theatre that pulls off the impressive feat of being (overtly) melancholic throughout without becoming maudlin or mawkish. With effective direction, a sensitive script and strong central performances, Drowning in Silence is a strong recommendation from me. And I can’t wait to see what Salford Arts Theatre do next!

Drowning in Silence was on at the Salford Arts Theatre on 24th-26th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme of shows on at this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Review: The Melting of a Single Snowflake (Salford Arts Theatre, GM Fringe)

Wednesday 17th July 2019
Salford Arts Theatre

The Greater Manchester Fringe continues throughout July, and I continue to review shows for this blog and for North Manchester FM. In 2017, I reviewed two Fringe shows, and in 2018, I reviewed eleven. I definitely think I’m on track to beat that number in 2019! On Wednesday 17th July, I saw The Melting of a Single Snowflake at Salford Arts Theatre, a new play by writer-in-residence Libby Hall. Hall was one of the people I interviewed back in June for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special, so once again I was really looking forward to seeing this one.

Written by Hall and directed by Roni Ellis, The Melting of a Single Snowflake is an ambitious ensemble piece featuring performers from Salford Arts Theatre’s Young Performers Company. As I talked about with Hall in our interview, the play grew out of workshops involving the young actors, meaning that the company played an integral role in generating and developing ideas for Hall’s script.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake takes place in the aftermath of the disappearance of a schoolboy, Sam, during the summer holidays. The cast (of eleven young actors) play a group of Sam’s friends, peers and neighbours who are brought together through their shared (if a little tenuous in some cases) involvement in Sam’s life. The real ambition of the piece lies in the fact that the story is carried entirely by the young performers (there are no adult characters in the play), and also in the complexity of the relationships that are evoked through the dialogue. This isn’t a straightforward tale of the powerful bonds of friendship, but rather a story that reminds us young people have just as many varied reasons for spending time together as adults do.

Set during the school holidays and with a recorded audio backdrop of news reports on adolescent mental health, gang crime and Sam’s disappearance, The Melting of a Single Snowflake unabashedly sets itself up to tackle ‘big’ issues. As the young people gather to discuss the missing boy, conversations range from knife crime to drugs, from social media to sexuality. There is a frankness to these conversations, which is both hard-hitting and humorous, and some of the issues raised are handled in surprising and nuanced ways.

In particular, I found several of the conversations about Cameron (played by Adam Marsland)’s sexuality offered a refreshing and sensitive take. However, this was done without heavy-handed virtue-signalling, as the overall message was punctuated by a range of responses – from Kay (Calia Wild)’s concern that the group is too young for romantic relationships, to Alfie (Dillon Parker)’s clumsy macho posturing, to Amber (Sienna Kavanagh)’s comical confusion of bisexuality with bipolar disorder. While some poetic licence is employed to have all of these reactions occurring openly and simultaneously, The Melting of a Single Snowflake offers a convincing microcosm of the confusion and conflict that accompanies coming-of-age.

I’ve used the word ‘conversations’ a lot in this review, and it feels like the most apt description of how story is constructed in the play. The action takes place off-stage – indeed, some has occurred before the play begins, and some will occur in the time that elapses during the interval – and so everything we know about these characters, about their world, and about the missing boy Sam is conveyed though the dialogue. This is a challenge for the cast, but – aided by smart direction by Ellis – they are up to the task. With the group coming and going from the stage, and interacting in different combinations at different times, a sense of flow and development is created.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake is very much an ensemble piece, and it’s not really possible to single out individual performances or characters as ‘central’. Each one carries a part of the story, and the play’s strength lies in its group dynamic, from Josie Leigh’s belligerent wannabe boxer Mia to Jasmin Marsland’s know-it-all Demi.

I enjoyed the dynamic between Jake (Charlie Kenney) and Jodie (Elizabeth Pearson), two very different young people caught up in a world of crime that’s way outside their control. Leia Komorowska is great as fragile and haunted outsider Levi, and Joel Hill reveals excellent comic timing in his performance as Devon, a filter-less chatterbox whose near-continuous off-the-wall monologue throws the audience off-guard for one of the play’s more aggressive sucker-punches. Last but by no means least, Vincent Purcell plays Tom, Levi’s older brother and an eloquent observer of the group and its various social predicaments. In places appearing like a character somewhat out of time, Tom emerges as a detached and astute narrator of human frailty – but one surrounded by darkness and grief.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake is very much a game of two halves. On the one hand – and probably the more dominant aspect of the first act – it is a narrative that highlights the fears, concerns and disillusionments of young people, signalled by the news commentary. In the face of a crisis in mental health care, knife crime, a gang that may or may not have killed their friend, and (I don’t want to sound old here) a complete lack of adult support or intervention, how are these young people supposed to cope? However, there is another intriguing and compelling story running parallel to this, a much more personal (and, in many ways, more old-school theatrical) tale that comes into its own in the second act – but to say anymore would give spoilers! All credit to Hall, though, for bringing these two aspects together into a strong overall story.

In addition to the great writing, direction and performances, The Melting of a Single Snowflake also features a stylish set design by Roni Ellis and Scott Berry, which uses scattered debris and rubbish (including – I’m sure I saw – an old discarded municipal street sign for the Salford Arts Theatre’s predecessor theatre!) and a graffitied wall to effectively evoke both locale and the atmosphere.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake is an ambitious and thought-provoking piece of theatre, which showcases the talents of the Salford Arts Theatre’s young performers company and of its writer-in-residence, Libby Hall (who came through the company herself). A very enjoyable show that packs an unexpected punch.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake is on at Salford Arts Theatre on 17th-19th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of Fringe shows on this year, visit the festival website.