Theatre review – A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

Aoife Duffin in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing1 Credit Mihaela Bodlovic

Aoife Duffin in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing © Mihaela Bodlovic

Sweeping us from the days before birth deep into a girl’s life, Annie Ryan’s adaptation of Eimear McBride’s award-winning novel for The Corn Exchange Theatre is a formidable journey. The adaptation itself is a work of mastery – at no point do we exit the inner narrative of the half-formed girl, instead experiencing everything that comes her way with visceral intensity.

To accomplish this, Ryan cast just one character, the girl, performed with extraordinary power by Aoife Duffin, who also presents us with every person the girl encounters, from mother, brother and uncle to a breezy roommate, and a succession of men. Her ability to portray different presences is striking – a few alterations to her voice and posture conjure up a host of folks with a variety of intentions towards the girl.

With equal economy, the stage is dressed with no more than a covering that could be carpet, could be mud, and Duffin’s costume comprises what looks like lounge wear – comfortable, unassuming and disarmingly vulnerable. Her feet are bare throughout, allowing Duffin’s talent to shine as she acts from head to toe.

Aoife Duffin in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing cr Mihaela Bodlovic

Aoife Duffin in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing © Mihaela Bodlovic

The story isn’t easy-going. There’s grief, betrayal and an awful lot of sex, most of elicited but less with passion than a desire for self-abasement.

Yet, this is a love story in the purest sense of the word, as the girl aims to protect her older brother and keep him safe from the tumour that afflicted him before her birth. He is the ‘You’ she refers to frequently, and when she talks of their childhood, we’re offered the impression of them hiding together from their irate ma, secure and for the most part happy.

Subtle use of sounds and lighting move us from scene to scene, and mood to mood, but truly this is a play of words; fractured, invented, poetic and bold. Duffin breathes them with every part of her being, so that when she is sore, we are sore, and when she is searching for a sense of herself in all the wrong places, we are searching for her too, so we can bring her safely home.

It’s a performance full of strength, raising questions about culpability and the tendency of victims to punish only themselves. By the end of the 1hr, 25 minute play, Duffin is in emotional tatters, running from the stage after each curtain call with palpable relief. The courage required by this show, and by the girl it focuses on, is evident on her face.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is at Tobacco Factory Theatres until Saturday 30th January. To book tickets visit www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com, call 0117 902 0344 or email tickets@tobaccofactorytheatres.com

Theatre review – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime cr Brinkhoff Mogenberg

© Brinkhoff Mogenberg

Mark Hadden’s 2003 bestseller is dream material for any imaginative dramaturg. The result from playwright Simon Stephens, director Marianne Elliott and their team is an exquisite work of art, incorporating clever lighting, movement and huge volumes of emotion.

It begins with a dog, a garden fork and a distressed 15-year-old boy. Christopher Boone (Joshua Jenkins) has trouble making sense of other people, especially when it comes to reading their expressions. Unable to lie, in many ways he is an innocent, yet one equipped with extraordinary amounts of resourcefulness and determination.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time cr Brinkhoff Mogenberg

© Brinkhoff Mogenberg

Christopher sets himself the task of solving the mystery surrounding the dog’s demise, treating it as a project, and takes us along for the ride.

And what a ride it is. Through the street he lives on, to the train station and then into the bewilderment of the London underground. At times Christopher’s sensory overload became my own, as crowds ebbed and flowed, lights fractured and sound pulsated – ringing through us, the audience, as well as our hero on-stage.

There are moments of real fear amid the overriding tension, as well as sublime beauty, magic and even peace. The scene where Christopher imagines being an astronaut is particularly elegant.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time cr Brinkhoff Mogenberg2

© Brinkhoff Mogenberg2

Joshua Jenkins is extraordinary as Christopher – as the character he reels off strings of facts, figures and theories at speed, uses the entire stage and the full scale of human emotion. The whole cast were excellent – his parents, played by Gina Isaac and Stuart Long, were especially impressive – drawing us deep into Christopher’s vibrant, sometimes alarmingly intense, world.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time cr Brinkhoff Mogenberg1

© Brinkhoff Mogenberg

The answers he finds in his search aren’t the ones he’s anticipating. If you’ve read the book, I urge you not to re-read it before seeing the play as the surprises when they come are revealed with grace as well as gut-wrenching power. As audience members we emerged exhausted but exhilarated – and, unexpectedly, understanding Pythagoras‘ theorem.

I watched the play at the Bristol Hippodrome. To find out where The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is on near you, visit www.curiousonstage.com

How to adapt a graphic novel for the stage…

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil poster…And not just any graphic novel, but Stephen Collins’ award-winning, darkly humorous and surreal The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. Director and writer Stephanie Kempson talks us through how she and a team of twenty young actors collaborated to take the story from page to stage.

Choose your material

I discovered The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil through a friend who’s into comics. I don’t generally read graphic novels, but I really love words and I’m a big fan of picturebooks. Something about all the space in them is exciting – it offers up lots of possibilities. Stephen’s work is like a picturebook in a way – there are lots of one-panel pages and plenty of space for ideas.

The story is quite fantastical, yet political too, whimsical but also very melancholy, which appealed to me. It’s a book about confronting your own mortality. It’s far more than a simple allegory – it’s very rich, really exciting and fun.

Find your cast

I suggested the idea of adapting The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil to the Bristol Old Vic Young Company, and they were instantly interested. We then needed to get the rights to the book, which wasn’t easy. Stephen had turned down several companies, but the Young Company have a fantastic reputation for innovative work, and that helped. There are 20 cast members aged between 14 and 23, and you don’t often get that.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil_rehearsal photos by Kitty Wheeler Shaw2

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil rehearsal © Kitty Wheeler Shaw

As soon as we had the go ahead, I began auditions, and discovered there were some really talented singers in the group, as well as excellent actors. Oscar Adams, who is 16 and plays the lead role of Dave (who grows the gigantic beard) is just brilliant.

Get to know your material

I took the opportunity to talk to Stephen about the piece. He’s well known in comic book circles and writes strips for The Guardian. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil was his first full book and had been shortlisted for Waterstone’s Book of the Year and won the Edinburgh Festival’s inaugural 9th Art Award. He told me he’d been influenced by the 1993 film Groundhog Day, which stars Bill Murray and is about the importance of really living your life.

While writing it, Stephen also listened to a lot of Kate Bush but opted for The Bangles Eternal Flame as the story’s repeating refrain. In the play you hear fragments of it five times in the beginning section of the performance, but only the whole way through twice.

Begin collaborating

We had a really decent chunk of time to work with. We started in September, working in groups of four or five with each group devising something different for each scene. It was an incredibly exciting process. The Young Company are full of energy and original thoughts – in the end I had to say, stop with your ideas!

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil_rehearsal Photos by Kitty Wheeler Shaw

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil rehearsal © Kitty Wheeler Shaw

As well as the book, we drew inspiration from the real world, including the recent Question Time debate with Nigel Farage. It gave us the chance to look at the ways The Gigantic Beard ties in with issues to do with immigration, intolerance and how quality of life can be reduced due to a single characteristic.

Make essential changes

We had to make some tough calls to achieve the transition from graphic novel to the stage. The whole middle section was a real challenge – we needed a narrative and characters that could be followed from beginning to end. Professor Darren Black, who is played by 23-year-old Elliot Winter, doesn’t appear in the book until half way through. We needed to bring him in far earlier. It’s about choosing which of your characters to develop. We also expanded the role of the Prime Minister, who is played by Kate Alhadeff.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil_rehearsal photos by Kitty Wheeler Shaw

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil rehearsal © Kitty Wheeler Shaw

Survive some drastic cuts

We needed to change the play’s ending drastically in the last week before opening night – which meant a lot of rewriting. We cut out around 25-minutes worth of material and lost a third of all the scenes. That part of the process can be a challenge, particularly if one of your favourite scenes has to go. The young people understand that it’s all about making the best show possible. You will find your moment in the show, even if the scene you loved has been cut.

Draw on everything at your disposal

Stephen’s story has a touch of Roald Dahl about it, and to this end we wanted to recreate the melancholic grey-scale of the graphic novel. We were able to do this partly through shadow puppetry, thanks to Tim Streader, a hidden gem at Bristol Old Vic who is overseeing all of our lighting. We also have fantastic music by Verity Standen, has created wonderful, moving a capella arrangements with our four singers, and some bizarre soundscapes too. It all serves to bring the graphic novel to life.

Stephanie KempsonAbout the author of this post

Stephanie Kempson is a Made in Bristol graduate and JMK Assistant Director Bursary recipient. She previously worked at Bristol Old Vic as Assistant Director to Sally Cookson on Jane Eyre. Stephanie runs Sharp Teeth, hosting nights of theatre, storytelling, poetry, music and more.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil performed by Bristol Old Vic Young Company will be at The Bristol Old Vic Studio between 7-10 January 2015.

To submit or suggest a guest post, please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

’tis the season of adaptations…

Helena Bonham Carter as Miss HavishamIt really does seem to be the Christmas of the Adaptation, doesn’t? Aside from the Nativity, which is adapted by schools, nurseries (my nephew played the Christmas Owl in his!) and church groups across the land, great old and modern classics are currently wriggling onto our screens to put a new spin on the stories we thought we knew oh so well.

Magwitch Great ExpectationsBecause a novel and a movie are entirely different beasts, so to head to the cinema in the belief we’re about to see an absolute representation of a much-loved book is daft, really. The best you can hope for is a director, cast and crew with an understanding of the source material, and the talent, to present something that captures the atmosphere and sense of the original story – not a blow-by-blow account (which, would, quite frankly, be dull), and add some extra spectacle as well.

For starters, we have Mike Newell’s interpretation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, starring the splendidly eccentric Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham (pictured top of post) – a role she clearly relishes, and Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch (above).

Life of Pi shotI’ve already got my ticket for Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, a novel I adored for its vivid fable-esque qualities. It has a lot to live up to, but Ang Lee is a film maker of amazing scope, and the Life of Pi trailer already hints that he may have accomplished something utterly breathtaking, utterly transportative.

The Hobbit An Unexpected JourneyAnd then there’s Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated first instalment of Tolkein’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, starring Martin Freeman as beloved Bilbo Baggins.

The fact Jackson has chosen to spread the single, relatively slim, volume over three films makes me a bit nervous, but then that’s what adaptations are, aren’t they? Books adapted, reinvented, reimagined for a completely different medium – presented with all the visuals, sounds and narratives parcelled up in the way the filmmaker feels best tells a the story, taking it from the page direct to our emotional cores. I can’t wait to see how each of these filmmakers approaches their daunting task, and how we, the audience, feel when we emerge from the cinema.

Because lovers of novels must be among the toughest audiences in the world, and in the end it all comes down to expectations.