In an era where women still struggle to get a voice at the very top echelons of the industry, it is refreshing to see a company taking the problem by the scruff of the neck and trying to effect change. The Light Burns Blue is one of the first plays commissioned by Tonic Theatre as part of its Platform Series, three plays commissioned bi-annually for youth groups incorporating big casts with plenty of strong female parts on offer.
The Light Burns Blue is an interesting subject matter for Bristol Old Vic Young Company to tackle, taking us back to the summer of 1917 and the true life case of the Cottingley Fairies. Young Elsie Wright set the country talking with photos purporting to show her cousin Frances Griffiths with fairies at the bottom of the family garden. These five photos became a big talking point of the day, becoming a beacon of hope for families struggling with male loved ones perishing in the trenches of World War One and eventually drawing the attention of celebrated author and Sherlock creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It balances its main themes well: of what people cling to in moments of bleak despair and of creating artistic expression in a world deprived of opportunity. Writer Silva Semerciyan frames the whole thing in multiple time frames, we are witness to exchanges between Elsie and the journalist with suspicions of fraud, in flashbacks we witness scenes from Elsie’s life before and after the photos were taken.
It’s a great idea to build up a collection of female-centred plays that youth groups will play for years to come, but work stays in the repertoire long term by the quality of its writing and it’s here The Light Burns Blue doesn’t fully convince. This may be partly down to the fact it has been written after a considered devising period with its young cast that means it’s lacking a singularity of voice, but Semerciyan’s work is a little too quiet, lacking in dramatic peaks and troughs, a little bit of magic and in its early exposition it thuds a little too heavily. As the piece develops Semerciyan finds her poetic voice and it improves, but there is the odd anachronism that jars; ‘get stuffed’ feels more likely to come from a youth of today rather than one from a small village during the early years of the 20th century.
It’s given a fluid production under Lisa Gregan that combines moments where the ensemble bleed into Greek-style chorus with textured debates about the mind-set of artist and journalist. Fittingly in a play that focuses on the women it is their performances that shine brightest; Kate Alhade as the young girl yearning for art and opportunity and Jenny Davies as the hack who has found it, but perhaps at the expense of her humanity, spar and debate well and Carys Paterson is endearingly sweet as the younger cousin. Dale Thrupp also makes his mark for the men in a number of well-judged cameos but ultimately I think the play will be remembered more as the first shot in redressing a gender imbalance than as a terrific youth play in its own right.