Tag Archives: Jess Bernberg

The Child in the Snow

The Child in the Snow

★★★

Wilton’s Music Hall

The Child in the Snow

The Child in the Snow

Wilton’s Music Hall

Reviewed – 2nd December 2021

★★★

 

“audiences will enjoy the carefully crafted seasonal atmosphere both within and without the auditorium”

 

The Child in the Snow is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story, and this year’s holiday season show at Wilton’s Music Hall. In keeping with the tradition of presenting other ghost stories for the winter season—such as the perennially successful A Christmas Carol—one can readily see why playwright Piers Torday would choose this kind of material. And yet, adapting The Old Nurse’s Story demonstrates that it is no easy feat to craft a ghost story for the stage. In all other respects, The Child in the Snow is a clever and resourceful production—the set (designed by Tom Piper), lighting (Jess Bernberg), composition and sound effects (Ed Lewis) and the video effects (Hayley Egan)—provide just the right chilly atmosphere for this haunting narrative.

Let’s take a closer look at the source material for The Child in the Snow. Piers Torday has written a very helpful and informative article, Gaskell’s Ghosts, in the programme. And thank you, Wilton’s, for providing a free programme in the form of a printed newspaper. Torday provides some useful background about The Old Nurse’s Story. There’s also a reference to Mamilius, the ill fated young prince of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It’s a lovely connection to The Child in the Snow, because Gaskell’s story is also about an ill fated child, and it is also set in winter. But there the similarity ends, because, as we know, Mamilius never gets to finish his tale.

The Child in the Snow

Gaskell’s story begins in a present where main character’s children are listening to a story about their mother’s lonely, friendless childhood in a forbidding mansion decaying on the Northumbrian Moors. This is a technique that works well in novels—telling a story set in the past—and it can also be successfully adapted for film and television, using flashbacks. But the theatre presents a different problem. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to use flashbacks, and the narrative needs to be set in the present (at least from the protagonist’s point of view). It needs to be linked to a goal that the main character is trying to achieve. Torday’s solution in The Child in the Snow is to update the narrative. Our heroine, Hester Thornton, is a World War One combat nurse who has lost her childhood memories through trauma. Her goal is to try to retrieve them by hiring a medium named Estelle Leonard. Hester brings Estelle back to her childhood home in an attempt to remember. So far, so good. But the set up for this situation requires a lot of storytelling to establish the backstory. And the backstory is the heart of the tale. Just as important, the trick with ghost plays is how to reveal the ghosts, and when. It’s analogous to the problem of putting a gun on the stage.

When we think about A Christmas Carol, or Hamlet, or even Macbeth, we can see that the ghosts in all these stories have an important function in the drama. They tend to appear right at the beginning of the story, and/or at a crucial moment in the plot. By contrast, the plot of The Child in the Snow has a leisurely beginning that feels as though it belongs to an entirely different, though just as powerful, story. I won’t provide spoilers, but by the end of The Child in the Snow, audiences should be able to see for themselves the difference between this show, and other plays with ghosts in them.

The Child in the Snow gives its two performers, Debbie Chazen and Safiyya Ingar, plenty to do. They are ably directed by Justin Audibert. Chazen takes on several roles (sometimes as a medium channeling her spirit guides, or else simply stepping into another role with the help of a costume piece and/or a different accent.) She also provides some delightful comic relief.
Ingar has the tougher task, in some respects, playing Hester Thornton. The role of Thornton is simply overwhelmed with narration. And there are really two parts to Thornton’s story that don’t link together all that well. The story of the lonely child, and that of the combat nurse. Despite the problematic set up, though, The Child in the Snow has plenty of blood chilling moments. But when all is said and done, The Child in the Snow takes one step too many away from the haunted old home of its source material.

It’s always a pleasure to spend an evening at the Wilton’s Music Hall, and audiences will enjoy the carefully crafted seasonal atmosphere both within and without the auditorium. Some may come away feeling, however, that reading Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story around a crackling fire in a creaky old house, is a better way to get the full phantom. And they’d be right, because The Old Nurse’s Story is a great ghost tale, perfect for the season, and deserves to be better known.

 

 

Reviewed by Dominica Plummer

Photography by Nobby Clark

 


The Child in the Snow

Wilton’s Music Hall until 31st December

 

Previously reviewed at this venue in 2021:
Roots | ★★★★★ | October 2021

 

Click here to see our most recent reviews

 

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★★★★

Donmar Warehouse

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Donmar Warehouse

Reviewed – 23rd October 2019

★★★★

 

“cleverly creeps under our skin as a piece of theatre and leaves us with a lot to contemplate”

 

A woman breaks into her parents’ home to steal money for drugs; a prisoner sees every object as a possible way of killing herself; a sex worker waits in the cold for an extra ten pounds…

For forty years, Clean Break has been changing the future of women during and after their time in prison by both providing an outlet to challenge their misrepresentation in popular entertainment and as a formative process for learning, expression and evolution. Alice Birch’s commission to celebrate this gives carte blanche from a selection of 100 scenes – any number, any order – which address the manifold causes, processes and effects of being caught up in the criminal justice system. By the very nature of the crimes women commit, locking them away is less a safety measure for the rest of society than distancing them from their own threats with devastating repercussions for them, those they depend on and who depend on them. Director, Maria Aberg, has carefully chosen and arranged her selection to touch on lives blighted by a structure which does not confront these complex pastoral issues.

With a brilliant choice of cast, the scope for illustrating the breadth of age, race and class of these women works well visually as well as within the script. Rosie Elnile’s versatile set of raised, individual box rooms around a central space forms different levels of impact for the audience, from the feeling of observed, intimate conversations of abusive relationships and foster care to being drawn into the group spirit of prison life. Some scenes work better than others, however, which produces a somewhat uneven flow. After fragments of emotional experiences at home and in prison, of mothers, daughters, prisoners and staff, the action’s centrepiece (and scene number 100) is a dinner party of old friends. Here Birch brings together all the elements of the good-doing, professional society, patting each other on the back and having another glass of wine. The overlapping conversation between the guests is superb, hypocrisy slowly smouldering as their personalities unfold (the detective, the documentary maker, the therapist, the charity volunteers…) until the one outsider, played by Shona Babayemi, in a passionate outburst, can stand the insincerity no longer.

There are strong performances all round, though our natural expectations for an imposed narrative makes it difficult to completely engage with the characters. Thusitha Jayasundera shows us the painful impotence of a mother who is told her daughter has committed suicide in prison and we feel the confused heartbreak of Joanna Horton as the mother who sees no option for her children but to kill them. In a truly sobering moment, Lucy Edkins and Kate O’Flynn’s quietly powerful final scene as mother and daughter sums up the tragic personal loss of the ignored. Despite the dark and distressing subject, the writing, acting and direction balances sadness with humour. ‘Blank’ cleverly creeps under our skin as a piece of theatre and leaves us with a lot to contemplate.

 

Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington

Photography by Helen Maybanks

 


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Donmar Warehouse until 30th November

 

Previously reviewed at this venue:
Appropriate | ★★★★ | August 2019

 

Click here to see our most recent reviews