Three young women hang around a nowhere space by some trees next to a railway track, a few minutes walks away from a chippie. Two of them have prepared a birthday surprise for a third – who only comes because violence has been threatened if she doesn’t. Jane Upton’s play peels back layers of intense friendship to reveal a quivering and scarred heart.
Tessie Orange-Turner has a lupine presence as Joanne, able to command the loyalty of younger girls (Sarah Hoare as Lisa and Esther-Grace Button as Amy) and press buttons of love and control and violence that we gradually realise have been installed by brutal experiences at the hands of twisted men who are never seen, but whose presence runs though the story like a cancer.
The reference points are ones we know from media coverage of cases in Rotherham and elsewhere involving young women being groomed by older men. Jane Upton’s writing is a result in part of consultation with Derby-based charity Safe and Sound, who work with victims of such exploitation. The play’s success is how it uses those dismal experiences to create a moving drama that for all its chill bleakness has moments of humour and tenderness, even if the means with which it’s expressed are misshapen by abuse.
People aren’t broken, they function the way they do as a consequence of what’s happened to them. However twisted the relationships between Joanne, her current protégé, and her former one are, they make a tragic kind of sense. Only, because of the humour and sweetness that goes along with it, there’s always the possibility of some kind of redemption, however unlikely that mostly seems.
The dialogue is credible, and the inarticulacy of the characters about those things they can’t speak of is danced around through references to pop culture which often function allegorically. We all dream, and sometimes those dreams are expressed through Disney films and fantasies of escaping to Skegness for a glimpse of the sea. That desire for the oceanic experience is present too, with the communal response the three of them have to the trains that thunder past – stand on the rail, hands linked, and feel the electricity as doom approaches, leaping aside at the last shivering second when tons of metal hurtle by.
Everything about the production supports its effectiveness. Sound design is subtle and sometimes haunting; set and lighting provide the frame in which three talented performers weave real-time voodoo from an electric script, language alive with snares and booby-traps, scalpels and momentum.
All The Little Lights was performed at Nottingham Playhouse from Tuesday 7 to Saturday 11 February 2017.