Box of Tricks Theatre Company
March 6-11, 2023. 2 hrs
Also at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick (March 20); Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (March 21-22 ); Epstein Theatre, Liverpool (March 23); Edge Hill University Arts Centre (March 28); Brewery Arts, Kendal (March 29): Northern Stage Newcastle (March 30-April 1); Bury Met (April 5); Carriageworks, Leeds (April 14-15) and Hull Truck Theatre (April 21-22 ).
Making theatre about the climate crisis is not an easy task – unless you simply propagandise. Billie Collins does not do that.
Her debut play is more like a poem mixed into a down-to-earth four-handed story about a boy, his mate, his mum and his sister. It’s ambitious, brilliantly achieved in parts, and where it doesn’t quite work you still have to admire Collins for trying.
The biggest plaudits in this show should perhaps be reserved for director Adam Quayle and his cast, assuredly fulfilling Manchester-based Box of Tricks’ avowed aim of bringing original new playwriting to birth.
The boy is called Noble and he’s 15. His mum’s a teacher at his school, and his mate’s called Ellis. His older sister, Cleo, is a clever, sincere climate activist and she’s with the British Antarctic Survey on an island somewhere near South Georgia.
The funny thing is, Noble starts metamorphosing into a bird. It’s not quite like Kafka’s metamorphosis, as his birdlike existence comes and goes, but he does develop feathers and seemingly learns to fly. At the climax of the play we’re asked to believe that thousands of schoolkids are taking flight and heading for the South Atlantic, as floods envelop their British community, buildings crack and fall and, thousands of miles away, albatrosses forsake their historic home.
All a metaphorical fantasy, perhaps. Collins is clever enough to play with that suggestion in the script and discard it, because the rest of the story is normal in the extreme. The greatest strength of the play is its idiomatic realism as a story about a family and a schoolboy friendship, and that is conveyed with superb skill by Paddy Stafford (Noble), Ewan Grant as Ellis, Alexandra Mathie (mum) and Evie Hargreaves as Cleo.
For Hargreaves it’s her professional stage debut, and that’s an auspicious one. The two lads work really well together, and Mathie’s portrayal of the just-coping, frustrated, desperate-to-do-right teacher/mum is spot-on.
The play is constructed of chorus-style poems, descriptive and evocative at the same time, separating a rapid sequence of scenes, sometimes running two at once (an achievement for a piece with only four speakers), so we’re whisked from suburbia to the South Atlantic and back again in the twinkling of an eye.
Weak points – it’s got an ungainly, undescriptive title; the chorus-speaking is hard to get perfect, so sometimes the lines are lost; plot-wise nothing much develops after Noble’s metamorphosis – except that he’s gone missing and his mum looks to Ellis for help, and then we get the metereological disaster; it doesn’t really resolve at the end. The set design, by Katie Scott, is an intriguing collection of found objects the actors use when they can, but the script doesn’t seem to envisage anything in particular (maybe it was made to be easily played on radio?).
It’s been marketed as “a coming-of-age story of growing up queer”, which doesn’t really convey its essence, as neither Noble nor Ellis is a stereotypical teenager and their relationship is certainly not what you might expect from that cliche-ridden description – it’s much more interesting than that. And I guess it does propagandise quite a lot if you look for that – I just wish they hadn’t tried to sell it as propaganda, because it’s not performed like that.
More info here