Nishla Smith and Tom Harris
Opera North Projects and Leeds Playhouse
HOME Manchester, Push Festival
Fri 24 Jan 2020 – Sat 25 Jan 2020, then touring (Interplay Theatre, Leeds, Mar 6); 60min
“When my grandmother’s sister Agnes was nine years old, she disappeared…”
What Happened to Agnes? Is intriguing and spellbinding theatrical story-telling combining the tradition of the song-cycle with projected artwork to weave a tale of family loss.
Singer and storyteller Nishla Smith bookends her performance with words, hopes and fears of her Malaysian grandmother, her childhood puzzled by wartime invasion, by hiding, by family death and the disappearance of nine-year-old Agnes, her older sister.
In the central section, Nishla spins lyrics into a web of reality and fantasy, with only a few clues along the way to distinguish between them. There are tigers, interminable steps, a powerful garden swing and enchanted waterways: a child’s view, magical imagination overpowering realism.
Australian-born, Manchester-based Nishla is a genuine writing and performing talent, previously supported by Manchester Jazz Festival's Hothouse funding and now by Opera North, which has assisted with this show’s development. Nishla’s singing voice is strong, secure, warm and expressive, with tones of vulnerability – drawing you into her story and forging a bond with the audience.
Her grandmother’s war-invaded childhood in Malaysia is probably very different from that experienced by most of the last night’s audience. This adds an excitement to the tale at the same time as the piece unites. An exploration of features common to all, in particular the haziness of childhood memory and the bonds of family, shines through the contrasts.
The music is haunting and engaging, with classic jazz inflections and a narrative and rhythmic drive grounded in familiarity and retaining a modern feel. Piano arrangements by Tom Harris take his role well beyond accompaniment; he performs in his own right, setting the scene, establishing mood and adding complexities of tone.
Luca Shaw’s hand-painted projections spark further engagement and her low-key set design evokes essential themes of memory and personal image.
Running at only an hour, the show is perfectly timed for fringe theatre and finds a natural home in HOME’s annual Push Festival, celebrating North West talent. I could happily watch this again and will be looking out for future performances from Nishla, and from Tom, in Manchester’s theatre and jazz festivals.