REVIEW: A Song for Ella Grey, Pilot Theatre (Theatre Peckham)

Families who like Greek mythology are rather spoilt for choice this year, with Hadestown currently playing in the West End, and Medusa’s First Kiss (10+) and The Odyssey (8-13) coming up at The Unicorn Theatre and Little Angel Theatre respectively. Also currently out on tour is A Song for Ella Grey, a new adaptation of David Almond’s young adult novel from Pilot Theatre (in association with Northern Stage and York Theatre Royal). Aimed at ages 13+ this contemporary retelling of the Orpheus myth takes the story of Orpheus and Euridyce and transports it to modern day Northumberland. We caught it on its stop at Theatre Peckham last week.

A Song for Ella Grey sees a group of teenagers at a crossroads in their lives. Not only are they moving onto adulthood, but they must also come to terms with the loss of a friend in unexpected and tragic circumstances. It’s no spoiler to tell you that Ella dies; we know this from the beginning. What we learn, as the teens look back on the events leading up to her death, is the fantastical story of how it happened.

The cast of A Song for Ella Grey. Image credit:Topher McGrillis 

For those unfamiliar with the tale of Orpheus and Euridyce, the short version is that the legendary Orpheus was said to be a musician of such prowess that nobody could resist his charms. Suitably wooed by Orpheus’ lyre-playing, Euridyce married him and the pair enjoyed a brief but happy marriage before she met an unfortunate end in a pit of vipers. Distraught by the loss of his beloved, Orpheus journeyed to the underworld and used some more of that magical lyre playing to convince the Gods to let him free his wife, under one condition – he must not look back at her until both of them reached the surface. Unfortunately, patience was not his strong point.

In this version, adapted by Zoe Cooper, Euridyce becomes Ella Grey (Grace Long), an ordinary girl from Northumberland with over-protective parents. While her friends are off having adventures, Ella is confined to the house, studying for her A levels. One night, while her friends are out camping on the beach, a mysterious stranger enchants them all with his haunting music – especially Ella, who hears his song through her phone. From then on, Ella and Orpheus are inseparable, until the unthinkable happens.

It’s an interesting idea and the strength of the story lies in the everyday interactions between the teens and the adults around them (although the portrayals of the parents are very much caricatures, lessening the impact of the eventual tragedy). The story of teens trying to navigate exams and relationships is relatable, with some really great writing. The true love story here seems to be between Ella and her best friend, Claire (Olivia Onyehara). This is where the story has genuine depth, with the layering on of the Orpheus myth adding unnecessary complexity and confusion. The ending is especially unclear, with Claire seeming to merge with Orpheus for the journey into the underworld.

Grace Long and Olivia Onyehara in A Song for Ella Grey. Image credit: Topher McGrillis 

Although the mythological Euridyce was also a young girl, there is something unsettling about turning the myth into a story about a vulnerable teen being seduced by a mysterious stranger. It doesn’t help here that Orpheus is confined to the shadows throughout the piece, and is made even more sinister by the decision to make Ella an adoptee, whose worried parents are ridiculed and played for laughs. Meanwhile, Claire’s parents “understand” Ella and are introduced to Orpheus, but seemingly also have no concerns about a seventeen year old wanting to marry a complete stranger she has hidden from her parents. It felt like it might turn into a cautionary tale about grooming, but that’s not where the story went. As an adoptive parent, I was really uncomfortable with some of the messaging here and was glad that I saw it without the children.

What this production does have going for it is some really fantastic set and lighting design (from Verity Quinn and Chris Davey respectively), complemented by strong video elements designed by Si Cole and evocative sound design from Adam P McCready. As you might expect, music features heavily in this production. While it isn’t used as effectively as it might be (thanks to the directorial decision to keep Orpheus in the background), Emily Levy’s musical compositions are the highlight of the production, with some gorgeous haunting folk music, performed beautifully by the ensemble.

Overall, A Song for Ella Grey is a production full of promise that doesn’t hit the right note. There is plenty to like within it, but it doesn’t quite work as a cohesive whole.

A Song for Ella Grey played at Theatre Peckham from 27 February to 2 March, as part of a wider tour.

Image credit: Topher McGrillis