"The dance above the abyss"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 24/02/17

Sometimes it’s hard to write a review about a superb play that fills you with love, hope, fear, passion and grief. Théâtre Sans Frontières’ production of David Almond’s ‘Heaven Eyes’ affected me profoundly. I’d planned to join the after-show discussion at Taunton’s Brewhouse Theatre, but theatre of this calibre can render me almost speechless. I needed to think deeply about the performance I had just seen. Talking with my friends, words came back to me later – now I fear they will fall short of conveying my wonder and appreciation.

Three orphans run away from their care home and the resented Circle Time sessions clumsily convened by the insensitive yet sentimental Maureen (Sarah Kemp). My work in a unit for troubled teenagers never showed me anyone quite as patronising, crass and needy as Maureen, who describes her charges, to their faces, as ‘damaged children’, but my companions felt the character needed to be a flawed therapist for dramatic purposes. Now that I’ve read the synopsis of the original novel, I feel I have more insight into Maureen’s character, but in the abbreviated context of the play Sarah Kemp has a very difficult job, which she handles well.

The escapees set off down the River Tyne on a ramshackle raft, built by January Carr (Lawrence Neale). I was thoroughly convinced of the emotional truths of each character, and moved by the children’s bravery. Stories of lost, absent parents, especially mothers, affect me deeply, and January’s abiding hope, that the young woman who abandoned him as a baby would one day find him again, had great poignancy. His story stitched together a scrap of factual material with patches of lyrical fantasy, a treasury of stories where the blankets were softer than any other blankets; his mother prettier than any other and he could feel her final, loving kiss and hear her parting words.

Erin Law (Natalie Ann Jamieson) has a box of treasures: photographs of her dead mother (played on film by Elena Miller; her lipstick; her perfume. I remembered my own mother’s distinctive blue perfume bottles – ‘Evening in Paris' – and wished I had kept one. Erin recalled playing in the garden as a little girl (played on film by Emma Hogg). Without sentimentality Natalie evoked the crippling loss of being cast out of Paradise.

The third runaway, Sean ‘Mouse’ Gullane (William Davies), has words tattooed/written on his arm, by his absent father, asking that his son be cared for. Quiet and timid, like his pet mouse Squeak, Sean’s salvation lies in finding a role; finding a purpose. Each character’s journey into the underworld represented by the Black Middens has mythic, heroic resonances – in the darkness and the mud, facing death and loss of hope, on the edge of adulthood, they forge friendships and hopes to transform and move them forward as a new family. Their fellow orphan, Wilson Cairns, (Paddy Burton) makes figures from clay and tries, God-like, to breathe life into his creations. The sense that we come from, and return to, the primordial swamp, is never far away. In between, we have lives to lead, changes to navigate and adventures to experience.

Erin, January and Sean run aground in the mud, and in an abandoned printing works they meet Heaven Eyes (Mariah Lindh) and Grampa (Paddy Burton). Mariah Lindh’s eldritch child, with her birth language, sleep-words and the utterances of Grampa combining into a unique patois, is enchanting and compelling. Grampa has cared for the strange girl, the loveliest thing he ever saw, from the moment he laid eyes on her. Her diet of corned beef, Cadbury’s orange creams and Montelimar chocolates; her eccentric clothing and her mysterious, untold story conspire to make Heaven Eyes unforgettable. As Grampa, Paddy Burton shows us an old man, nearing the end of his life, forgetful, confused, digging for ‘treasures’, held together by mud, routine, secrets, ferocity and love.

Director John Cobb has assembled a wonderfully talented cast and crew. Alison Ashton’s set design, built by Jon Codd, is a beautiful, dark, star-spattered marvel of scraps and tatters, reminding me of a favourite Leonard Cohen line – ‘All your children here/In their rags of light’. Alison McGowan’s puppet is quite simply the best I have ever seen and the puppet handling is first class. Kevin James’ projections and lighting are breathtakingly imaginative, and composer Ken Patterson’s music complements the story perfectly.

The great writer Ursula le Guin wrote, memorably, ‘There must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.’ To many of us, these times seem dark indeed. If we despair, we only make them darker. David Almond and Théâtre Sans Frontières remind us of the resilience, beauty and courage of the human spirit and light a lantern to guide our way.

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