“A fairy tale lexicon mixed with nursery rhymes meets with unbearable reality”
Edwards Lear: the great lyricist and poet, admired for his wit and obfuscating limericks. Shea Donovan, writer and star of ‘By the Light of the Moon’, performed at this years’ Clapham Fringe Festival, introduces him in the forward to the play, handed to me on my climb to the hidden theatre space above ‘The Bread and Roses’ pub. Beneath the light brevity of Lear’s rhyme, lie misfits and madness, indications of the darker bouts of depression he himself suffered, I learn, as I take my seat.
Shea explores the injustice served to women in the 1920s, who suffered from mental health problems which were undiagnosed and severely misunderstood. Lila is locked away in an asylum for women, abandoned by her family and forced to make sense of her life events. The one woman show amplifies a long-forgotten voice, resurrecting a story of sheer tragic import which we know to have been based on real circumstance faced by women. She flits from therapeutic chants of nonsensical rhyme and childish wails for her nan and her final friend Gertrude, to deeper poetry, darker moments which shed tragic clarity upon her own life.
Two wooden chairs sit at diagonal corners of the square space and are an intelligent addition to a featureless stage, accentuating a bareness and institutional coldness. They look uncomfortable and lifeless as they are left untouched throughout the play.
Shea enters clad in a plain white frock and with lose hair and light make-up, she brandishes a black cloth. At times, she crouches to meticulously scrub a small square of the floor. The image is Cindarella-esque contrasting with the 1920s music which chimes in the background at the change of scene, providing smooth structural progression and a richness of sound. This is a painful scene of female suppression laced in a fairy-tale picture-frame.
The lighting takes us from blue to rose as we travel from melancholy to past rosy realms of romance. Yet as the past is etched clear, the colour changes become sickly sweet.
Shea Donovan is superb as a 1920s innocent, wonderfully frank and observant, she pieces together her life. A moment of climax sees her spiralling into despair when she is asked the year and she cannot remember. Her masterful portrayal is raw as her confusion escalates rapidly to a sudden moment of anger and violence.
Indigo Arts Collective’s ‘By the Light of the Moon’ successfully achieves what this new theatre company set out to do, piecing together research from the past to speak to modern day audiences. A fairy tale lexicon mixed with nursery rhymes meets with unbearable reality. The contrast is stark; the injustice laid bare for all to see.
“a vibrant collage of the new and old, created by enchanting layered sound and stories that ignite the imagination”
Islander: A New Musical, which has a short run at the Southwark Playhouse this month, having transferred from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is a new Scottish folktale about a breakaway island which drifts across oceans, following (or attending) the whales of the sea.
Eilidh (Bethany Tennick) cares for her jokey gran on the remote Scottish Island of Kinnen. While she struggles with a personal resentment towards her mother who left her to find work on the mainland, there is disquiet spreading across the island. Habitual concerns of a gnome gone missing and who is going to the local dance, are overshadowed. There will be a vote: sacrifice their home and head to the mainland or stay and struggle with the dearth of public services and jobs. Troubled times bring unusual events: Eilidh discovers a beached whale and then a mysterious washed-up girl called Arran whose tales of her mythical land, hidden in the mist, test Eilidh’s faith and help her find her way.
The story, written by Stewart Melton with lyrics by Finn Anderson is exquisite. With personification and repetition, the land becomes alive with “angry clouds” and its “earth-moving roar” creating a folkloric flavour. The power of the land and sea accrues with blue and turquoise lighting (Simon Wilkinson) which occasionally washes over the stage and the simple earth coloured costumes of the two-person cast. Harsher red and white lighting herald modern machinery, such as when we tune in to the radio, or tense human relationships such as the fast-paced dialogue between mother and daughter, which sees the magic surrender to harsh reality. Through this plainer lens, we realise how easy it is to lose faith in the mysterious.
Bethany Tennick plays a heart-warming Eilidh as well as a host of other characters, along with Kirsty Findlay, whose roles include Arran, who she plays with a beautiful innocence, and mischievous gran with her strong local accent. The two perform a perfect medley of synchronised movement and shared dialogue, conceived and directed by Amy Draper, which makes for a rich performance about friendship. Mid-song, a brief smile passes between the two revealing their shared enjoyment of performing this charming piece. It is rare but heart-warming to see a self-referential moment like this on stage.
The highlight of the performance are the soundscapes, created by two voices and loop-pedals to imbue a mystic atmosphere and create beautiful harmonies in the musical score as well as natural sounds. The set is somewhat lacking but instead the space is filled with a charged energy and the audience is completely transported. One of my favourite soundscapes is the tapping of fingernails on the microphone, creating a patter of rain on the run-down school roof.
Islander: A New Musical is a vibrant collage of the new and old, created by enchanting layered sound and stories that ignite the imagination: a re-imagined myth with undertones of current issues.