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★★★★ The Guardian, 'A Song for Ella Grey' Pilot Theatre

★★★★ The Guardian, 'A Song for Ella Grey' Pilot Theatre

David Almond’s young adult novel is brought to life in a soulful production that weaves its mythical elements with imagination.

There are three intangibles in David Almond’s 2014 YA novel. A lyrical story, it retells the myth of Orpheus as if it were a Northumbrian folk tale. It is about a group of smart A-level students navigating the transition to adulthood while trying to square their drive for sex with their hunger for love.

Most intangible is Orpheus himself, an unknowable figure who drifts in and out of the teenagers’ lives like the tide. Discovered on Bamburgh beach – and just as quickly lost again – this traveller is as mesmerising as he is enigmatic.

Then there is the music he plays. True to his Greek model, Almond gives Orpheus a lyre, but the sound it makes is not of this world. His melodies are literally captivating. So much so that Ella Grey, the story’s Eurydice, only has to hear his music on her phone to fall in love. She too is intangible, lovely but out of reach. Doomed from the start, she is more like a memory than a complete character.

Three intangibles mean three questions for a flesh-and-blood stage adaptation. They are all admirably answered by playwright Zoe Cooper and director Esther Richardson in this soulful production for Pilot Theatre.

Wisely, they leave Orpheus to our imaginations, showing us no more than a silhouette, its head sprouting branches like a child of nature. What little he says is related in storytelling style by the five-strong ensemble, painting him/her/them as a gender-fluid being, unconstrained by social norms. If anything, he is more elliptical than in the novel.

Evasion is not an option for composer Emily Levy, who nonetheless creates a persuasive score, making traditional north-eastern forms seem timeless, fractured and haunting, while Adam P McCready’s stormy sound design comes at us from all directions.

Beach crowd ... from left, Olivia Onyehara, Amonik Melaco, Beth Crame, Grace Long and Jonathan Iceton. Photograph: Topher McGrillis

And in contrast to the forthright performance of Olivia Onyehara as best- friend Claire, all energy and poetic passion, Grace Long’s Ella Grey is fragile and ethereal, a ghost even before being drawn to the underworld. Joined by Amonik Melaco, Beth Crame and Jonathan Iceton, they turn the solitary journey of Orpheus into the land of the dead into a communal act, not so scary but more fully a metaphor for a generation casting off childhood innocence.