A Song for Ella Grey – Review – York Theatre Royal

A Song for Ella Grey – Review – York Theatre Royal (3)

By Tony Greenway, February 2024

When it was first published in 2014, David Almond’s young adult novel, A Song for Ella Grey, was roundly acclaimed. It was also hauntingly sad, poetic and unconventional, because it put an entirely new twist on the Greek legend of Orpheus and his doomed love affair with Eurydice. Instead of Ancient Greece, the action took place in modern day Tyneside; and instead of Greek gods, nymphs and muses, the protagonists were sexed-up sixth formers about to take their A Levels.

Now York-based Pilot Theatre have imaginatively translated Almond’s tale to the stage. At its heart are Claire and Ella, who have been best mates for as long as they can remember and are now standing on the edge of adulthood. Yet even the early scenes — where they banter playfully with their friends — have a sinister undercurrent. The characters are about to shrug off the shackles of school life and should be heading into a carefree future; but Esther Richardson’s direction and Adam P McCready’s striking sound design effectively convey lurking dread. There’s a terrible sense that something wicked this way comes.

A Song for Ella Grey – Review – York Theatre Royal (1)

“Troubling, intense and beautifully played”

And then, finally, it does. In the school holidays, Claire, who has dreams of becoming a poet, arranges a trip to Bamburgh beach. She parties hard underneath the stars with the rest of her teenage pals, but minus Ella, whose strict parents won’t let her go. When a musician called Orpheus suddenly appears before them on the sand, a captivated Claire rings Ella and holds up her phone so that her friend can hear the bewitching song he is playing. At that moment, Ella is helplessly and hopelessly lost to her.

What follows is an exploration of friendship, love, torment and grief which, in the second half, takes the audience to a (literally) dark place. It’s troubling, intense and beautifully played — and sometimes sung — by the young and talented five-strong cast. Olivia Onyehara is particularly good as Claire, who is initially full of vim, vigour and righteous indignation before collapsing into anger, sorrow and despair; while Grace Long (who has become something of a sketch sensation on TikTok) is a delicate and infuriatingly naive Ella. Beth Crame, meanwhile, switches effortlessly between characters as sixth-former Angeline and Ella’s controlling and broken-hearted mother.

A Song for Ella Grey – Review – York Theatre Royal (2)

“Hauntingly beautiful”

Verity Quinn’s minimal set is functional and effective, acting as beds, cushions, duvets and sand dunes, but then fracturing into something more threatening when the characters travel into the Underworld. Emily Levy’s folk-influenced score is hauntingly beautiful; and writer Zoe Cooper makes sure that the audience never gets to see Orpheus, who only appears as a shadow and a silhouette. Initially, this idea seems like a gamble that might not pay off — but, in the hands of the dynamite cast, it turns out to be a masterstroke. Ultimately, it’s what you don’t see that makes A Song for Ella Grey such a powerful theatrical experience.

‘A Song for Ella Grey’ is at York Theatre Royal until February 24 and at Hull Truck, March 5-9
images: Topher McGrillis


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