“There are some very interesting discussions being had in a way that feels fresh and nuanced”
You know how I know the boxy over-sized blazer trend is going to be something we wildly regret in seasons to come? Because I just watched two girls in full school uniform and I coveted their blazers. No, surely we can all agree that the English school uniform is most certainly not enviable. So something must be terribly wrong.
But Bettina and Asha are hardly concerned with their outfit choices. Sisters in year 10 and year 13 respectively, they often meet outside school on the concrete steps, both avoiding the journey home, though for different reasons. Bettina is being bullied on the bus by a group of nasty school kids. So she dawdles, hoping her sister will at least accompany her if not defend her. Asha, however, has no interest in going home until her mum has left for work at 6:30pm. They’re not talking because Asha submitted an essay critiquing Gandhi, which her mum is taking personally.
There are some very interesting discussions being had in a way that feels fresh and nuanced. The trouble, though, is that they’re presented as a singular conversation when actually there are quite a lot of things going on. First, we’ve got the idea that within a fight for progress, history often only remembers those voices most convenient.
And then there’s the idea that social justice shouldn’t be something you have to earn through good behaviour. And within both main discussions there’s the inescapable subject of race, of microaggressions and this country’s obsession with othering. But they’re not the same argument, and somehow they’re presented as one, all tied together by yet another idea about taking action, being the change you wish to see in the world, if you’ll pardon the Gandhi paraphrasing.
Of course it’s fine to have multiple ideas at play, but maybe not so many when the play is nearly entirely exposition; we never really see anything happen, rather we see the sisters discussing the happenings before and/or after. The subject matter is strong enough that the conversation holds my attention for a solid hour I think, but that’s about as long as my focus can handle without anything actually happening before I start thinking about oversized blazers and their place in the fashion world.
Playing Bettina, Anoushka Chadha’s performance is sweet and vulnerable. She’s excellent at throwing a little lip wobbler, and she shines best when the conversation feels more ad-libbed or verbatim.
Safiyya Ingar’s Asha, however, is in another league. Still so doe-eyed about the world in one sense, and so savvy in another, you feel like you’re really witnessing someone making massive strides in their self-discovery. Bold and hesitant in turns, Ingar is masterful at giving us glimpses of the impressive woman Asha will no doubt become, whilst maintaining an honest and winning naivety.
Debbie Duru’s design mirrors the simplicity of Sonali Bhattacharyya’s script’s set-up. Besides an LED bus screen, and a brief appearance of a very excited hamster it’s pretty much entirely up to Ingar and Chadha, surrounded by a few concrete blocks, to keep us engaged. And if the play were the right length, i.e., half an hour shorter, this would be plenty. The subject matter is meaty enough to do away with flashy production value or heaps of props.
It’s frustrating to see such strong ideas so intelligently expressed and beautifully performed, let down by editing. That said, Two Billion Beats gave me a lot to contemplate on my journey home, and I’d rather that than a slick one-hour with nothing to say.
“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.
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.