Review: A Song for Ella Grey at York Theatre Royal

01/03/2024

Shannon Reed (she/her) reviews Pilot Theatre’s new production

Article Image

Image by Topher McGrillis

By Shannon Reed

David Arnold’s 2014 YA novel A Song for Ella Grey, a lyrical retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, is brought to life in this new production by the York-based theatre company Pilot Theatre. Promising dark romance, ethereal music by the hand of Orpheus, and a talented young cast, the anticipation of the audience on press night was palpable.

For those of you that aren’t experts in ancient mythology, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is a tragic tale that sees Orpheus (son of Apollo) descend to the Underworld following the death of his wife Eurydice. Although mortal, Orpheus has the protection of the Gods and confronts Hades in the Underworld with a mournful song about his wife’s death asking for him to return Eurydice to her husband. Moved by this song, Hades grants Orpheus permission to lead Eurydice back out from the Underworld, but under one condition: she must follow behind him and he may not turn to look at her as they walk.

In Pilot Theatre’s retelling of the myth, Ella and her friends are A-Level students based in Northumbria, all enraptured by a desire for love and sex. The young cast is extremely talented, with Olivia Onyehara and Grace Long standing out as Claire and Ella for their energy and fragility, respectively. The production begins with a rather simple set of pillowy platforms, grey lighting and ethereal music as our narrator takes the stage. Claire is Ella’s best friend, although it later becomes obvious that Claire’s feelings for Ella are a little more than platonic, and she begins the show by revealing to the audience that Ella has died. Most of the production takes place on the Northumbrian coast, where all but one of Ella and her friends hear the captivating music of Orpheus for the first time. Despite the beautiful nature of the music, some of the characters perceive it to be something more sinister as they become aware of how their friends seem to be entranced by the melodies. This prompts Claire to sing a passionate, defiant song ‘Devil, Devil, I Defy Thee’ to Orpheus, before realising that it is too late and that he has disappeared to pursue Ella.

During this scene, Orpheus is revealed… sort of. He is perhaps the most intangible part of this production, as he is only ever present as a silhouette on a curtain behind the main stage with branches perversely growing from his head. Our perception of Orpheus comes solely from the ensemble cast, making this already evasive character almost an afterthought. Nevertheless, the five-strong cast portray the journey from childhood innocence to teenage angst with ease as they quickly become protective over Ella and her strange relationship with the fleeting Orpheus. The need to protect the quiet-natured Ella is felt most strongly by Claire, who immediately makes clear to Ella and their friends her disapproval of Orpheus. As we approach the interval, Ella and Orpheus decide to marry following the conclusion of the A-Level exams, and the group travel back to the beach where Orpheus first appeared for the couple to exchange their vows. In keeping with the Bibliotheca version of the Ancient Greek myth, Ella is killed by snake bites on her wedding day where she supposedly causes irreversible grief for Orpheus – although this is hard to believe given his lack of representation on the stage.

In the second half of the production, a stormy soundtrack and grief-stricken performance by Onyehara set the stage for the descent into the Underworld to retrieve Ella from Hades. But with Orpheus still only presented to us as a shadow, the journey is depicted half-heartedly in the form of Ella’s friends performing childhood games which only seems to reduce the stakes even further. Down in the Underworld, Beth Crame and Amonik Melaco (previously Angeline and Sam) briefly change roles to depict Death, who fulfils the role of Hades in promising Orpheus permission to lead Ella out from the Underworld provided he never turns back to look at her. It's never in doubt how the story will end, as Orpheus later turns back to look at Ella during their ascent and thus damns her to the Underworld forever. And yet, Ella’s friends didn’t appear to be grieved by this. Claire remarks how she is now finally able to move on with her life knowing that Ella can never return to be with her. Angeline, Jay, and Sam also appear to be similarly unphased by the failure of Orpheus’ quest which left me with questions rather than satisfaction.

As a whole, this production slightly baffled me and left me underwhelmed by the ending. Whilst the individual and ensemble performances showcased the wonderful, far-reaching talents of the young actors, this is somewhat taken away by the unconvincing portrayal of Orpheus who thus overshadows this atmospheric production.

Editor's Note: This performance was seen on 20 Feb 2024 at York Theatre Royal. A Song for Ella Grey continues its northern tour until 16 March, tickets can be purchased here: https://pilot-theatre.com/production/a-song-for-ella-grey/