There’s quite a tradition of making theatre out of famous people’s biographies. Shakespeare was a past master at it and historical figures such as Anne Frank, Joan of Arc, Thomas More and Galileo have all had plays written about them. Musicals too have featured figures such as Eva Peron, Stephen Ward, Jesus and Dr Barnardo (and that’s just Andrew Lloyd Webber). Much less recognised and little documented are the other family members of those who have made their mark on the world such as Georgina Stephenson, older sister of George who was the inventor of one of the first steam trains, the famous Rocket. To be fair that’s probably because she never actually existed.
The real George was one of six siblings from a Northumberland mining family; he had two sisters, Eleanor and Ann. Georgina, however, is the complete invention of writer Steve Byron but that doesn’t stop him telling her tale in the entertaining piece for children called Rocket Girl. It’s a solo show which opens to the sound of a storyteller filling us in on the legendary dragons of Northumbria, their home on the moon and the creation of that sweet treat, cinder toffee. For quite a while this seems to have nothing to do with the unfolding narrative as we meet the Stephenson family as introduced to us by Georgie. They are poor but honest and have a strong family bond particularly fostered by nanny Nora who in an early bid for female equality is the local blacksmith. It is she that implants the idea in her granddaughter’s head that you can be anything you want to be. And Georgie looks set to follow her example of overturning male stereotypes by saving the village from impending flooding by coming up with a complicated but ingenious scheme to pump out the water. She’s a bit of an inventor you see, just like her little brother will be. The siblings also get into all sorts of scrapes in defending their territory against the marauding lads of the next village and thanks to Georgie’s problem solving skills they once again emerge victorious. But Georgie’s next and biggest adventure is well and truly out of this world – literally.
She conceives a plan to get to the moon and bring back some of that cinder toffee she’s heard so much about. So, years before George constructs his Rocket, Georgie sets about forming hers from whatever comes to hand – an old bucket, a tin bath, grandma’s forge bellows, her anvil and bottles of her home made nettle wine which is needed to achieve that extra boost. It’s all going to be powered by steam and before she knows it she has blasted off the earth into space. Once landed on the moon she finds an ingenious way to assist the resident dragon with her dental problems (it’s all that cinder toffee) and is, of course, richly rewarded. Is it her invention which later inspires her young brother to come up with his? It would seem so.
Jude Nelson is a total bundle of energy playing Georgie and, indeed, all the other characters (apart from the alas, unseen dragon voiced by Paula Penman) investing each with a clear personality and a degree of physicality which neatly differentiates them. Nelson scampers and clambers energetically round the busy set designed by Molly Barrett and lit by Louise Gregory. She treats it like it’s an adventure playground and urges the audience to use their imaginations as much as her character is obviously using hers. She also invests Georgie with a sense of wonder at the mysteries of the universe and develops the story with total commitment much as a nine year old might do while at play. It’s definitely a show of two halves with an opening that that might be historically accurate but isn’t and a second that celebrates the power of the imagination. It’s only 45 minutes but packs in a number of life lessons and provides a story to cosy up to now that the autumn nights are drawing in.
Rocket Girl is produced by Alphabetti Theatre of Newcastle who, it turns out, have a range of other online product still available on their website, particularly if you’re a fan of audio drama – click here. I’ll certainly be checking that out.