Before my time was up on the #30plays30days project I wanted to make sure I had included some of the work of young peoples’ theatres. Despite not being that far away I had never visited the Half Moon Theatre in Tower Hamlets and it seemed to have a good range of material, so I headed (virtually, of course) in that direction. The two plays I saw had several similarities. They were both aimed at the same age groups (13+), both were two handers and both featured siblings under strain. They also used a highly immersive format to structure the shows.
This was immediately evident when I watched their 2017 Offie Award winning show What Once Was Ours. The audience were sitting and standing in a random fashion all over the set as were the two actors, although this was not immediately evident. Ambient noise swelled in volume to give way to a cacophony of voices of young people interviewed for this project and then the play proper began. The piece is about the polarisation of opinions that came with Brexit and the protagonists, embodying some extreme points of view, raise, discuss, argue but never really resolve their feelings over the issue. Callum and Katie are half siblings and the former has come to the home of his father to try and reconcile family differences and reach a new understanding. Katie is home alone (her parents having decamped to Spain for a few days) and she and Callum barely know each other anymore. It soon becomes evident that the two do not share common ground on the issues of immigration, employment and all the other major sticking points which Brexit brought to the surface. Nevertheless, Katie invites Callum to stay. They reminisce about their childhoods, drink tea, eat jammy dodgers and play Twister (an apt metaphor for their emotional states) but find that when it comes to the bigger issues they are hard pressed to agree on anything.
Jaz Hutchins and Pippa Beckwith are very good indeed, particularly at finding all sorts of emotional levels within their performances – no mean feat, especially with the audience just centimetres away. They are completely committed to their characters demonstrating that while they are still young, both hold entrenched views and see each other as symbols of all that is wrong with modern Britain. Thus, disunity of both the family and the nation become one and the same thing.
Toby Ealden’s fluid direction takes a little getting used to as members of the audience are asked to hold props or rapidly have to shift out of the way as the actors bear down on a different part of the space they need to use. However, this all adds to the dynamic of the argument and economically demonstrates what it is like to be suddenly uprooted and then forced into a position next to a group of complete strangers. I particularly liked writer Chris Ewell’s stage device whereby we are shown several possible alternative ways of a scene playing out (e.g. answering a phone call) before we see the actual result. This neatly reinforces the questioning nature of the whole piece.
The second play Off The Grid by David Lane actually predates the piece I watched first. Though the immersive element is still present it is less profoundly developed, with less direct audience interaction. In this play the protagonists are actual brother and sister and the older, by some ten years, has found himself looking after his little sister after the disappearance of their parents; they have effectively slipped through the net of social care and are left to fend for themselves. Connor and Kelly have an intense bond and we follow them growing up from teenage boy to young man and from young child to adolescent through a series of chronological scenes played out with affection and supportiveness well to the fore. As before the two actors, Bradley Connor and Jesse Bateson, do an extremely good job at engaging the audience and keeping them engaged – additionally they have to portray the characters across a ten-year span and take on some minor characters as well.
Writer of the first piece, Chris Ewell picks up the director’s baton on this production – perhaps the reason the two pieces are stylistically similar. He moves the performers around with a sense of urgency and energy and a driving score is used to highlight key moments; a couple of less frenetic scenes provide good contrast. It has to be said that the filming is not quite so satisfactory on this production with sometimes muddied sound but it still does the job of conveying the difficult situation in which the siblings find themselves.
Apparently Off The Grid was also nominated for an Offies Award which demonstrates the quality of the Half Moon’s work. They clearly don’t believe in patronising their audiences as both these pieces demonstrate a hard-hitting approach to some big issues and the intense staging used is a very long way from the cosy approach used by more commercial children’s theatre. Thankfully, not all plays for young audiences are about Peppa Pig.
Production photos by Phil Crow & Stephen Beeny
What Once Was Ours and Off The Grid are available on the Half Moon Theatre Website. Click here. Both pieces are aimed at young people of 13+ years; other plays are available at the same location for younger audiences
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