DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

A Song for Ella Grey – York Theatre Royal

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Writer: David Almond

Adapter: Zoe Cooper

Director: Esther Richardson

How do you convey the poetic mystery ofA Song for Ella Greyon stage? The answer, in Zoe Cooper’s adaptation for Pilot Theatre, is extraordinarily well; if this reviewer was at times confused between reality and mythology, that didn’t reduce the impact of Esther Richardson’s production one bit. All merged beautifully: the simplicity of Verity Quinn’s set allied to understated stage effects, the truth of the performances, the evocative music and song, the gyrations of the cast.

The story is told initially by Claire whose love for Ella becomes increasingly obvious and – after Ella’s death – almost cripples Claire. It concerns five Sixth Formers, friends, it turns out, for many years. Besides Claire and Ella there are Sam, prone to “adult” jokes, but himself devoted to the over-boisterous Angeline, and Jay, intellectual and thoughtful. Together they form an unbreakable unit – or so it seems, until by the seashore they hear the song of Orpheus, faintly at first. A second appearance comes when Ella’s over-protective parents ban her from joining the apparently worldly middle-class kids on another expedition.

Orpheus appears again, Claire telephones Ella and they appear to whisk Ella away. Not this time, but Ella follows them by bolting through a classroom window after a particularly sensitive reading of John Donne. So it proceeds with Ella dying of a snake bite or disappearing with Orpheus – eventually Claire and Emma will play out the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in a bleak tunnel in Newcastle.

But the reactions to her death are a mixture of the natural and the supernatural. A bitter Mrs Grey attacks the supposed superiority of the four (Ella being supposedly patronised by the others) – interesting that the looked down on ignoramuses of the Sixth get their revenge on results day. The spiritual, other-worldly element eventually predominates until at the end, after all she has been through, Claire feels free.

Olivia Onyehara is superb as Claire, passionate, articulate, never obvious in her devotion to Ella (Grace Long) who has a spirituality which separates her from the others. Beth Crame is sometimes over-rowdy as Angeline, but compensates with some excellent caricatures of minor characters, notably the desperately house-proud Mrs Grey. Jonathan Iceton matches it with Claire’s PhD-wielding father and projects Jay’s decency perfectly. Amonik Melaco as Sam convinces us similarly despite his love of coarse gags and does a nice line in gender-swapping caricature. Zak Younger Banks, the unseen musician, performs Emily Levy’s music and creates a densely mysterious atmosphere.

It would be foolish to pretend all this makes logical sense, but the combination of other worlds and down-to-earth Sixth Form life is irresistible.

Runs until 24th February 2024, before continuing on tour

The Reviews Hub Score

Mystical, memorable

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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