4th May 2014
Lowry Young Actors’ Company
A Powerful Parable of Abuse
A Letter to Lacey: Catherine Johnson
In the same week that the White House released a video featuring famous men from Steve Carell to David Beckham condemning sexual violence against women, the Lowry Young Actors Company staged Catherine Johnson’s play A Letter To Lacey, in which an ordinary girl tells the story of her abusive relationship.
But the girl, Cara, isn’t telling her story to the audience – she’s telling Lacey, her abuser’s next girlfriend. She wants Lacey to get out before history repeats itself, breaking the pattern of intimidation and violence. The message comes equally clearly from the play and the White House’s video, part of its 1 is 2 Many campaign: talking about abuse is the first step to ending it.
The production powerfully reinforced that abuse could happen to anyone. Three different actresses took on the role of Cara, the everywoman protagonist caught up in love and manipulated by her boyfriend, and the rest of the cast, interchangeable in black costumes and often playing multiple roles, were a roughly sketched community of ordinary people. The concerned but powerless mother of the abuser; Cara’s best friend, who tries to help her see what’s happening to her; the abuser’s callous drinking-mates: the ensemble gave these background characters thoughtful and often humorous detail. It was a reminder, if one were needed, that young people really do ‘get’ grown-ups, and each other.
Holding the play together was the older Cara, writing the letter of the play’s title. She was subtle and relatable as she created the world onstage with her speeches, turning the powerlessness she had experienced into a brave attempt to warn Lacey of her abuse. In one early line, she says Lacey has probably heard of her from the abuser as ‘that bitch Cara’. The letter she writes is a hand reaching out to Lacey across the boundary of female competitiveness. The way the three actresses playing Cara swapped costumes together as they moved into and out of the role, like girlfriends getting ready for a night out, and ended with their hands clasped together in an emblem of feminism and solidarity, was powerful. When, near the end of the play, the three Caras clung together in a hug, the sight was yet more moving.
The heightened and the humdrum were blended with an expert hand here, in a realistic portrait of the way abuse can creep into everyday life alongside shopping trips and nights at the pub – from small beginnings, the abuser’s jealousy and intensity grew in menace until he became violent, with the actor ably portraying his increasingly harsh outbursts as well as his emotional manipulation of Cara. Episodes of violence were well-rehearsed and truly shocking.
This was a sketch of Cara’s story that made me want further details – I wished for a full-length play, exploring more of the relationship between this couple, locked in their awful patterns, and the outside world. And what happened next? How did Lacey react to the letter, and what happened to the abuser when his true nature was revealed? I would happily have watched as this bright young company showed me – in the play’s transitional musical numbers, the whole cast danced and sang with an informality and sense of humour that were joyful to watch, so that I truly was left wanting more.
Holds many great moments, but falls apart at the hinges
The Wardrobe: Sam Holcroft
The concept is simple: one wardrobe, five centuries, many stories. The fragmentary nature of this play made it difficult for the Lowry Young Actors’ Company to gain momentum, so that their production of The Wardrobe didn’t have much in the way of structure – but they imbued it with a sense of onward flow by their pacing and seamless transitions from one scene to the next.
Some of the scenes were more successful than others: particularly well-sketched was the final one, conducted solely by the light of mobile phones, as two classmates negotiated an uneasy peace. I wanted to see more of the boy who had been outed as gay by his boyfriend before he was ready, and the fellow-student who, in the typical way of the school milieu, sort of knew him but sort of didn’t. By contrast, the scene set during the English Civil War was a brilliant snapshot: I didn’t want to see more because it was a self-contained moment of awful drama, as four brothers and sisters hid from the violence beyond the wardrobe doors and accidentally committed a terrible act themselves. The eldest brother in this scene was especially well-portrayed as a teenager who had seen the worst horrors of the adult world intrude into his life too early, leaving him clinging on by his fingernails.
There were several sets of siblings in the play, all enjoyably played by members of the company: Elizabeth and Cecily, for instance, who somewhat hated each other but were sisterly nonetheless, and the elder of two Jewish boys telling his younger brother to view their ethnic heritage as a secret. This latter scene could have brought out more pathos from the concept of internalised anti-semitism, alongside the laughs that it contributed, as the two boys hid away inside the wardrobe to practice their Hebrew grammar.
Indeed, attempts to bring out the darker themes of the play weren’t always successful, as one confusing scene about slavery attested. Another that fell flat was conducted entirely in Russian, and would have benefitted from the actors’ body language making it clear exactly what we were watching: was it an argument, an espionage briefing, an interrogation? A more claustrophobic staging would also have prevented the tension from dissipating while the audience tried to decipher what was going on.
The titular wardrobe consisted of four wooden boards held by actors, who changed their disposition in each scene, eventually stretching to its limits the conceit that all the action took place inside it. Perhaps it would have been more effective for it to stay in one place – less visual interest, but more claustrophobic containment and realism. The decision to have the boards move, spread out, and change shape looked good on the large stage of the Quays theatre, but perhaps the Lowry’s Studio space would have been better suited to this play, which after all centres on the use of one small space.
Many individual moments were potent and memorable, from the schoolboys who scared themselves by reading about Jack the Ripper, to the young couple acting out the scene from CS Lewis where Lucy goes to Narnia through her wardrobe. Because the script only deals in snapshots, it was the task of the company to breathe as much life as possible into the few minutes we spent with each group of characters, and on the whole they handled this well: only an overall thematic unity felt somewhat absent at times.