Jane Upton, joint-winner of the George Devine Award for ‘most promising playwright’ with All The Little Lights in 2016, certainly has a flair for drawing characters and presenting urgent, topical issues in a beautiful and darkly humorous light. After touring in the spring earlier this year, All The Little Lights receives its London premiere at the Arcola Theatre, detailing how former best friends Joanne and Lisa redefine their new friendship given the drastic change in their circumstances.
Joanne, the eldest of the group, is clearly in the pocket of TJ – the local chip shop owner who we hear once used Joanne as a plaything for his ‘mates’/business associates, but now deems her too old. Joanne has thus been enlisted to find more suitable, naïve, younger girls for the same purpose – or face the consequences. Lisa, just 15, managed to escape TJ’s grip and the infinitely damaging abuse cycle and is now safely (she hopes) installed in a foster home.
Joanne and Lisa used to be best friends; Lisa’s escape and desire to forget everything about her old life changed all this. But it’s Lisa’s birthday, and Joanne has thrown a surprise party for her, luring her to a camp-out under the stars under false pretences, and subsequently presenting her with bunting, a cake, and tickets to Skegness. The sinister undertone makes you fear for Lisa’s safety, but also empathise with Joanne, now having to shoulder the burden of TJ’s demands alone, and above all, missing her friend.
And then there’s Amy – a possible Lisa replacement who, at just 12 years old, is being recruited by Joanne into TJ’s ring. It’s all too awful, too ominous, and as a result, the play has echoes of Three Girls, the BBC drama that aired earlier this year exploring the child sex abuse/grooming ring exposed in Rochdale in 2012.
Yet whilst that TV show was harrowing, All The Little Lights is, in some ways, even more so, for the three girls in this particular play are too relatable for words. You somehow immediately feel as though you know these girls – could have been one of these girls – and this makes the play so much more affecting.
A powerful and deliberate choice by Jane Upton to forbid men a voice in this show ensures the girls’ relationships remain always at the forefront. These girls are so young, yet dealing with problems most adults would never need to – or be able to – handle. And Upton doesn’t miss a beat; the play never errs on the side of self-indulgent or pitying. Rather, it’s the humour and laughter, tinged ever so slightly with sadness and longing, that gets you. And whilst the writing is pitch-perfect, the acting is simply sublime. Tessie Orange-Turner makes a formidable Joanne in her brokenness and desire to set up a new life in Skegness (of all places), to work in a café, whilst Sarah Hoare as Lisa is beautifully nuanced, torn between her old friendship and her need for the safety of her new life. Esther-Grace Button is gorgeous as the bubbly, bouncing Amy, lending a much-needed innocence and light-heartedness to the play, with no idea of the horrors that may lie ahead for her.
An incredible set, designed by Max Dorey, and faultless direction by Laura Ford from Fifth Word, who are co-producing this show alongside Nottingham Playhouse, All The Little Lights is genuinely an unmissable show, both because of the production itself, but more for the stories that need to be heard. Even if you don’t see anything else this winter: see this.
Review by Amy Stow
I know you want what everyone else wants. A family. A home. But you’ll never have it. Cos of what’s inside you.
Joanne and Lisa were like sisters. Then Lisa got away. Now she’s back, but the ghosts from their past still haunt her. Amy just wants to belong.
Three forgotten girls spending one last night by the railway lines. Desperately trying to recover what they’ve lost. Friendship. Family. Safety. While the threat of sexual exploitation lurks in the shadows.
Deeply moving and darkly funny, this award-winning new play tells the story of the girls that slip through the cracks. In a world where nobody wants you, what would you do to survive?
Jane Upton was a joint winner of the 2016 George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright for All The Little Lights. Now, following an acclaimed UK tour, it receives its London premiere at Arcola.
Fifth Word and Nottingham Playhouse
All The Little Lights by Jane Upton
Directed by Laura Ford