David Almond’s award-winning novel A Song for Ella Grey takes the well-known Orpheus myth and twists it into a story of teenage life on Tyneside. Instead of trying to rescue his wife Eurydice from the underworld, this Orpheus must rescue the rather more easy to pronounce Ella. Telling a story of ordinary teenagers and their intensity, their hopes, and their dreams, Almond’s book was an ideal choice for Northern Stage’s Young Company summer project.
Over the summer holidays, more than 30 young people worked alongside the creative team developing sound, music and film footage to feature within the production. Locations across the region, from Bamburgh to Ouseburn flickered across the set as the story unfolded, with soundscapes and disembodied voices creating an eerie atmosphere.
Projections of the young company commented on events and nudged the story along. At some points, through the clever use of a smartphone, these faces were replaced by us – the audience – and we were forced directly into the play. The most dramatic moment, however, was the 20 minute blackout in the middle. The swirling sounds and complete absence of light plunged us into the underworld. A place which, as should be, I was glad to leave.
Technology may have enhanced the production, but Amy Cameron’s natural ability carried the story. Amy had a big challenge to overcome: the only cast member on stage, she narrated the story as Ella Grey’s best friend Claire while navigating the set, building living rooms and castles out of cardboard boxes.
With just Amy onstage and this stripped back, cardboard box set, it was David Almond’s words that transported us to Tyneside and into the lives of these modern teenagers, and it is clear why he’s one of the region’s most highly-acclaimed authors. This collaboration between young people from the North East and the award-winning author made an ancient tale into a story relevant to those who wander by the Tyne today.
A Song for Ella Grey is at Northern Stage, Newcastle until 14 September.