The Box of Photographs, in its last week at the Polka Theatre, comes from truly interesting origins. The photographs in the title are real, a set of pictures taken over the course of many decades by campaigner Donne Buck. His story is best told in ‘Collecting Childhood’, the blog of the V&A Museum of Childhood. It explains his passion for the child’s right to play; he has spent much of his life (he is in his eighties now) setting up and running adventure playgrounds, including the first one in Hackney, in effect a bomb site at the time.
The photographs he took became part of the V&A’s archive in 2015. In the same year the Polka Theatre ran a competition in which local primary school children were shown some of the photographs and asked to write stories based on them. The Box of Photographs comes out of a selection of these stories, woven into one narrative by writer Daniel Jamieson, and directed by Sarah Punshon.
We are introduced to the characters Chelsea and her mum. Chelsea is 10, and has had to move school as well as house, since her mother split up from her father. In an uninspiring room, full of packing boxes and random possessions, she is left alone while her mother answers the phone, and finds a mysterious box of photographs underneath the bed. Looking through the photos, Chelsea’s imagination is literally brought to life. The old woman who lived in the house before them, and who is now in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s, must have left the photos for her to find, she thinks. Then Miss Lieban herself appears and becomes a sidekick in the stories which they play out between them.
Between the two actors, Jessica Hayles and Hannah Boyd, they play a whole host of characters, half dreamt up by kids of today, half depicted in Buck’s photos. The photos are shown on the walls so that the audience can see them too (though to see them clearly I would direct you towards the Collecting Childhood blog referred to earlier, as well as the actual Buck archive at the V&A Museum of Childhood). Within the stories there is humour, sadness and excitement. My favourite scene is when the bed is transformed into a magical blue horse, flying high above the forest – children’s imaginations really turned into realities. I bet the kids who wrote that story loved seeing it come to life!
There is also a nice bit of nostalgia derived from the collision of different generations, for example they share a packet of Opal Fruits and not Starburst, and it is fun to see the two characters enjoying a dance to Ella Fitzgerald’s Pick Yourself Up played on a gramophone player. (I think it’s in the story about Lily and the party and the bear, but it really doesn’t matter, it’s a happy scene that stays in the memory).
Overall the relationship between ‘Chels’ and Miss Lieban is touching. I have to say that both my son and I ended up with a tear in the eye. The theme of loneliness binds them but in a hopeful way as the young girl is determined to go and take cake round to the old lady, in real life, whether the older lady knows who she is or not. Being a keen photographer myself, I felt there was a particular poignancy about the character who took all the photographs, but had forgotten why she had taken them, and why they had been so special at the time.
Jessica Hales and Hannah Boyd in The Box of Photographs
The Box of Photographs is a lovely show for both children and adults. Despite a running time of 1 hour 45 minutes (there were at least 22 stories, and many characters, and photos to get through!) my children didn’t tire of it and there was no fidgeting in the audience, just rapt attention. The show is playing at the Polka Theatre until this Sunday 15th May. There is still time to get tickets and we recommend this show highly for children aged 7+ and their parents. Full details at this link.
Disclaimer: We were given free tickets to see The Box of Photographs for the purpose of this review. All opinions are my own. The photo is copyright Polka Theatre.