All the Little Lights, by Jane Upton, at the Arcola Theatre (review)

All the Little Lights is not an easy watch but it grips you throughout as you hope against hope that you are not about to witness a train crash. At first you are not quite sure what the situation is, but you know for dead sure that it is not good.  The tension is palpable and the actors portray a lifestyle empty of love, parental concern, even proper shelter. The design by Max Dorey is a makeshift camp next to the railway line – a flimsy tent is decorated with bunting but otherwise there is the detritus of paper cups and rubbish.  It is Lisa’s birthday – the bunting is there for that – yet Lisa (Sarah Hoare) announces with her first words, and subsequent reminders, that she is not going to stay around to celebrate.  As the play goes on, we start to see why.

Esther-Grace Button, Tessie Orange-Turner & Sarah Hoare in ALL THE LITTLE LIGHTS by Jane Upton - credit Robert Day

Photographer credit Robert Day

The driving force out of the three characters on stage is Joanne (Tessie Orange-Turner in fine form), who sneers with menace and aggression at the other two, cruelly manipulating the feelings of young Amy (Esther-Grace Button). Their dialogue twists from the happy-go-lucky talk of children and teenagers to the crude sexual language of adults far older than their years.  Amy embodies the innocent young girl, with a childish love of films like Frozen and her enthusiastic reenactment of a scene from ET;  but her delight in the candles that will not go out on the birthday cake they have bought for Lisa is violently snuffed out by Joanne’s scathing scorn. Button provides a lot of humour in her performance, and the combination of naive wonder with a desperate eagerness to please is very touching.

It is clear that there is a reason for Joanne’s behaviour: she has grown up too fast because she has had to, and to survive abuse she metes it out to the next one in the chain.  Her links with the chip shop are ominous and her mention of men such as TJ send a shiver up your spine.  It is uncomfortable to watch as Joanne eggs on young Amy about kissing TJ and about how he likes her.  Joanne evidently shares a past with Lisa, which has both created an intimate bond between them as well as a dangerous split which feels like it is on the verge of exploding.  Every time they jump onto the train tracks together, and try to stay on there as long as possible for the thrill of it, you wonder if this is the time that they jump into the path of an oncoming train. The writing by Jane Upton is chillingly realistic, even more so since All the Little Lights was written in conjunction with charity Safe & Sound, the charity which works with victims of sexual exploitation and aims to keep young people safe from abuse.  The play was joint winner of the 2016 George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright, and nominated for Best Play at the 2017 Writers’ Guild Awards.

Director Laura Ford gets powerful performances from the three actors, who voice the script as if it were made for them. The shifting relationship between Joanne and Lisa, with Amy in between them, is as unstable as you can imagine the relationships they have known with a ring of men before. While you wish them freedom, and safety, the heartbreaking thought is that they may never find either.

hattydaze rating: ***/*****

I attended All the Little Lights courtesy of press tickets. It plays at the Arcola Theatre until 4th November 2017.

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