“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.
“has potential for being a serious comment on a very serious subject”
From the title, we imagine a warm, family comedy echoing the Bradys of the 70s. Then the synopsis promises darker overtones with an emotional twist. In Sheffield, single mother Yvonne and her two teenage daughters, Zoe and Emily, have been a family unit for 15 years, since their father left. But things start unravelling when Emily, who has never met him, finds out that for years he has been asking to meet her and Yvonne has been hiding his letters. The idea is original, interesting and brings into question the issues surrounding child psychological manipulation and parental alienation, but the lack of depth in the storyline, characters and acting results in an episode of a ‘slice of life’ sitcom where the world goes on amidst everyday trials and tribulations. Writers, Isaac Rowan and Tom Plenderleith, create a stereotypically chaotic family environment with arguments about homework and meals and focusing on Emily’s slightly rebellious nature as she drinks her mum’s vodka or buys her compensatory chocolate; the play skims over the serious aspects of a mother who has denied her daughter contact with her father, her true reasons for doing it and the consequences for everyone.
The roles of the cast are clear – the life-weary mother, provoking older sister, supportive uncle and complicit fraternal friend – but the interpretations are low-key and unengaging, sometimes inaudible. Only Megan Fleet, as the determined Emily, brings some spirit to the performance, despite her most poignant moment being practically brushed over in the narrative. The script misses an opportunity to look behind the relationships and produce valuable dramatic content, even if this means replacing entertainment value for passion or pathos. Ben Reid directs a small-screen concept with well-timed musical scene changes. However, the reduced staging and underplayed dialogue fail to project even in such a small theatre and only at the very end does he use the space theatrically. It is also relevant to note that when the stage at the Bread and Roses Theatre is in a conventional position (as it is in this case), it is half obscured from the back rows. If the direction doesn’t work round the visibility, the action becomes ‘talking heads’.
London is overflowing with fringe productions of all sorts and there is strong competition. At a brief 45 minutes, there is plenty of room here for revision and expansion. No one expects young people to have life experience beyond their years but some research, rewriting and risk taking could put across a pertinent message. ‘The Gravy Bunch’ has potential for being a serious comment on a very serious subject as well as keeping the comic, human approach. Otherwise, it can come across as an end of year showcase for family and friends and a regular audience would probably feel short changed.