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

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

Pilot Theatre’s adaptation of David Almond’s novel A Song for Ella Grey, directed by Esther Richardson, is a rich retelling of the Orpheus myth, relocated to the rugged coastline of the North East. Claire (Olivia Onyehara) and Ella (Grace Long) have been best friends forever.Alongside classmates Angeline (Beth Crame), Sam (Amonik Melaco) and Jay (Jonathan Iceton), they are heading towards their exams and the promise and missing. But when Ella falls under the new arrival’s spell, the tight-knit group startsto splinter. 

The talented cast have convincing chemistry as a group of young people, tangled in one another's lives in ways they have taken for granted but which looming adulthood threatens to unravel. Onyehara is heartbreaking as Claire, watching the girl she loves slip away, while Long brings a suitably otherworldly quality to Ella, whose overprotected upbringing already holds her apart from her friends.

Lacing its dreamy mysticism with sharp humour, Zoe Cooper’s clever adaptation captures the raw intensity not just of first love, but of all the complex bonds of youth that at the time seem unbreakable but turn out to be fragile. The teens manage to be both contemporary and deliberately outside of time. For all their messaging and mobile phones, when they sing, it is the old songs of the North, the tunes their parents and grandparents grew up with. The characters narrate their own stories as they go, allowing an insight into their interiority that many novel adaptations lose and giving the text a lyricism most teenage conversations lack.

Equally, while the piece is squarely located in the North East, namechecking local pubs and beaches, there is a universality to the setting. It brings a strong sense of teenage years as a liminal space, one of the world’s ‘thin places’ where the membrane between the reality of now and the potential of the future is porous enough to let a figure like Orpheus in.

This is emphasized by Verity Quinn’s clever, often surprising design. The first half’s children’s sleepover softness – all duvets and padded surfaces – is stripped by grief into hard lines in the second, as the group are forced to deal with their loss. The underworld creeps up on us, always there, mostly hidden, only to be startlingly revealed. Chris Davey’s lighting, Si Cole’s video and Adam McCready’s sound design dazzlingly combine with Emily Levy’s haunting, seductive score to conjure the shifting slipperiness of Orpheus, present yet eternally out of reach. The result is a refreshing take on a classic that feels both immediate and timeless.