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Review: A Song for Ella Grey (Theatre Peckham)

Review by Beth Bowden 

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

A Song for Ella Grey awakens in a Northumberland dreamscape. The space is softly wrapped in duvets, draped in white curtains, and the cast is lazily spread out across big soft cushions. Projection bathes the stage, giving us glimpses of the North Sea, and imprints of the trees, birds, and landscapes of Northumberland. Created by designer Verity Quinn, it gives the cast, and the audience, a space to rest, to curl up and to dream about myths and folklore and teenage friendship. It is here that the story begins. 

 

Based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, A Song for Ella Grey follows a group of A-level students, as they yearn for adulthood and freedom, caught up in the desire for friendship, lust and for love. Directed by Esther Richardson, and adapted by Zoe Cooper from the coming-of-age novel by David Almond, it creatively blurs the line between the wild Northeast coastline and the myths of the underworld…



To start with, A Song For Ella Grey feels like a local, intimate story, which reckons with the impulsivity, wanting and wildness of youth. Set to a score of folksong, fragments of city and coast, and recorded voice, created by Composer and Music Director Emily Levy, we see the friends run along Bamburgh coastlines, sit by the river, and talk and laugh and wait and wait for their lives to begin. These are the moments I connect to most: silly, intimate, softly queer, and about their shared connection together and to their home and the waves of the North Sea. It reminds me of the intensity of first love and friendships, which feel mythical, intoxicating, and all-consuming in their entirety. I feel nostalgic for my own friends - flashes of sitting and singing around a campfire, drunk on cheap Tesco Vodka. 

 

The cast are curious and wilful, and have great chemistry with each other, deftly guiding us through the story using poetry, movement and storytelling. The words are really really beautiful - and the story is mostly told by the talented Olivia Onyehara, as Claire. Ella, played by Grace Long, is actually mostly absent from the action. Cleverly, it feels as if she is already fading away from us, as Long brings an otherworldly, dreamy and ethereal quality to the character. Amonik Melaco and Beth Crame, playing Sam and Angeline respectively, both also give a masterclass in the art of multi-rolling, shifting comically between characters. 



As we slip further into myth and Orpheus falls in love with Ella, tragedy strikes. Here the stage transforms into darkness, with flashes of crows, mud and open earth. We start to fall deeper into the Underworld. The story of Orpheus as a metaphor for how young people cope with loss and grief is really interesting - and how as children (or even adults) experiencing grief, we can often try to escape reality by creating fantasy for ourselves. 

 

However, there is something in the design, storytelling and music in the latter part of the show that didn’t quite connect with me. When we suddenly travel into the Underworld, it feels more rushed, and not fully explored. I started to lose my bearings on the story. I think I needed a stronger connection to the emotions of grief, and the motivations of the characters - to the vast sense of loss, the uncontrollable desire that you would do anything to get the person that you love back, and the denial that this is just not possible. This motivation, I think, is lost in the epic ‘drama’ of the journey - and would have offered me a greater connection to the blending of the two stories. 



That said, A Song for Ella Grey reminded me of the intensity and mythology of teenage love - their love for each other and for the place they call home. Growing up, it is both places and people that shape you - I might just need to take a trip back to my hometown soon, to reconnect with that feeling. 

 

A Song for Ella Grey is presented by Pilot Theatre and tours to Theatre Peckham, Hull Truck and Liverpool Playhouse in March 2024. 

 

 

Photos by Topher McGrillis

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