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Review: All The Little Lights, at Arcola Theatre

20 October, 2017 — By Mimi Launder

Esther-Grace Button and Tessie Orange-Turner in All The Little Lights. Photo: Robert Day

JANE Upton’s All the Little Lights promises the delights of a surprise children’s birthday party. Yet behind the cake, the cheap vodka and the thrill of a camp-out, gleams a threat. Joanne hasn’t invited Lisa here just to party.

From this gravelly, rubbish-strewn makeshift campsite by a train track, both the audience and characters are isolated from the story’s central tragedy.

Mostly, we only see snatches of the horror lurking beneath. We are left to wonder why the nervous, reserved Lisa hasn’t talked to Joanne for some time and why the quick-to-anger, spunky Joanne has invited her here tonight. But any darkness is smothered by 12-year-old Amy, who gleefully follows orders from Joanne, lighting candles and offering up her best ET alien impression.

Inspired by the Rochdale sex ring, Upton handles immense tragedy with skill. It rings truest when the characters are silly and immature, wilfully ignoring what happened. Here, the performances excel, too.

Esther-Grace Button’s performance as Amy is a remarkably believable portrayal of an endearing, fragile child; Tessie Orange-Turner is most heart-wrenching as Joanne, struggling to control her sparking, terrifying anger; and Sarah Hoare plays a wonderfully restrained Lisa, faintly smiling through her worry from the sidelines.

You only need glimpses into the duo’s past – and the devastating future Amy seems doomed to suffer if she sticks with the damaged Joanne – for your heart to ache. When the script later discusses the horror more openly, the characters’ speech begins to take on a somewhat unbelievable level of eloquence and poetry and the play removes itself a little from realism in the process. It is in its more understated and humorous stretches that All the Little Lights shines more than a just little.

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