DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

What Happened to Agnes – Interplay Theatre, Leeds

Reviewer: Rich Jevons

Music, Lyrics, Narrative: Nishla Smith

Music: Tom Harris

The journey that is Ulita’s song cycle What Happened to Agnes sets off with a plaintive piano intro by Tom Harris. Then we hear the grandmother as a voice-over while her words are projected onto an abstract design at the back of the stage. But the moment of absolute bliss happens when we first hear Nishla Smith’s singing voice: soft, sonorous and sultry. So begins the tale of Agnes, initially in the language of dreams: “Memories are like dreams, they come unravelled / Crumble into dust, right through your hands”. The lyrics are incredibly poetic and when combined with Smith’s voice, are simply sublime.

There are colourful projections by Luca Shaw throughout, hand-painted and semi-abstract. With their simple colours they, appropriately, have a childlike feel. It is as if they come straight from a nursery wall but with an underlying complexity too. They sometimes catch Smith’s face to add to the haunting atmosphere. In some ways this is a melancholy piece but more accurately about the mystery that is memory: “Memories of sorts clouding my thoughts / Like some sort of lingering dream”.

The poetic lyrics build a powerful picture that is a heady blend of symbolism, surrealism and magic realism. The imagery is immensely rich and Smith really makes it come alive with the benefit of the exquisite piano accompaniment. The latter really gives the piece an extra depth and profundity. While Smith goes seamlessly from standing up to sing to story-telling sitting down at her little lamp-lit table.

Despite the descriptions of childhood innocence there is a dark side to all this – hence the title. A notable lyric is The Stream which conjures up images of Shakespeare’s Ophelia: “Come to me, Agnes / I know you are weary / It’s quiet down here”. It gets the audience wondering about suicide or foul play but this is never spelt out – the ambiguity remains, although one may guess at the death of innocence. Smith takes the audience meanwhile on fantastic voyages with an amazing stage presence. She is dressed all in virginal white, bare foot, and within her huge dark eyes there seems an abyss. In places there is a harsher tone and things become slightly scary, but always come back to the serenity of Smith’s vocals.

The lyrics evoke a feeling of nature whether it be trees, tigers, crocodiles or frogs. Smith’s is a compulsive and compelling performance carrying the audience with her every moment of the way. The combination of her lyrics, Harris’ piano, Shaw’s projections and simple set make great use of the Interplay stage in this immensely successful production. Ulita are currently working on a follow-up, Sister, so watch this space.

Reviewed on 6th March 2020

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