Well, what a treat I had at Live Theatre on Friday evening. How I have lived in the North East for so many years, claiming to love theatre, and not come across Open Clasp Theatre before is a mystery to me. I shall certainly be keeping an eye open for any of their future productions, because Jumping Puddles was tremendous!
The work, written by Catrina McHugh, is woven from the words of 162 young women from Liverpool and Newcastle and based to some extent on her own experience of bereavement. This is one of those collaborative works that is slowly and painstakingly put together; it began in December 2013 with the voices of the young women who shared with the company their stories of loneliness, bewilderment, bullying and loss. Early in 2014 Frantic Assembly, celebrated for the physicality of their work, joined the collaboration, working with the actors and young people to bring their stories and emotions alive through deeply considered music and choreography.
What emerges from the process is a powerful and moving play about two sisters, Grace and Anna, who are trying to carry on with their lives while their mother is desperately ill in hospital. They are determined to stay under the radar of social services and well-meaning teachers in case they end up in care, so they struggle to present a façade of normality to the world whilst behind it their lives are falling apart.
At the start of the play Grace and Anna are coping reasonably well. Sure, they’re scrapping a bit as sisters do– there’s no milk or bread for breakfast, and the threat of being found out by social services looms large, but they manage to get themselves off to college and school respectively. But as the play progresses we realise that as well as trying to cope on their own without their mum (dad is not in the picture at all), Grace is under pressure from a boyfriend who is in jail for violent assault and Anna is being viciously bullied about her appearance and sexuality at school.
The whole achingly sad story is told through a combination of very truthful and accurate dialogue and extraordinary movement; the girls interact with each other and their friends in a series of brilliantly choreographed sequences which really bring to life the difficulties they’re facing. When Grace, tired of being the responsible older sister, goes out on the town with her friends and gets completely slaughtered, there is a great contrast between the excitement of getting ready – all pouting faces, smoothing skirts and posing in the mirror – and the ever more drunken dancing, aggressive sexual posturing and an inevitable descent into helplessness and the ordeal of sexual assault.
When the girls’ mother is transferred to the hospice Grace is unable to forgive herself for not having been at home when the call came from the hospital. Both girls are at their mother’s bedside when the end comes. There are no words – they express their grief and remorse through a powerful, achingly sad dance which moved many to tears.
It is the seamless combination of spare dialogue and bursts of physical movement, brought to the stage by skilled and passionate performances from the very strong cast of four, that make this piece of theatre so powerful. The acting and choreography are brilliant! The set, ever changing and flexible, enables the characters to inhabit the whole space, so that movement is not just linear but vertical and diagonal as well. The effect is of the sisters, like many young women, being boxed in by their circumstances and people’s attitudes. But at the end, the mood of the play is not hopeless. The girls are strong, made stronger by their experiences and their love and support for each other.
The company rightly felt a weight of responsibility to the 162 young women who had contributed the words and ideas for the play; I don’t think it needs to worry that they have failed to give voice to them or treated their stories lightly. As women’s voices are becoming less and less audible I urge you to see this powerful work; in the same week that I saw Jumping Puddles a woman was attacked and killed by an angry mob of men in Kabul while the police simply looked on.
Guest Blogger, March and April