In a world so full of tragedy and disaster, it can be easy sometimes to simply shake off the problems of others, to become numb and disconnected. It is precisely this mindset that Sightline Theatre’s production of Cordelia Lynn’s ‘Lela and Co’ attempts to challenge, through the “true story” of the titular child and her horrific experiences of war and sexual abuse. “(Lela) has got this way of speaking to the audience” says Director Angharad Phillips, explaining the passion driving her to helm this production. “It makes you feel so involved it was really difficult to get her out of my head.” She points out that although the play is not based on a specific true story “What happens to Lela would have happened to someone, somewhere,” highlighting her most desired effect: to remind the audience of the people behind the stories, in a way not really possible through a newspaper or a book. “We want people to think of them as human beings with hopes and dreams, (not as) a stock image,” Rebecca Cadman (who plays Lela) adds. However, she feels the most challenging (and interesting) part of her characterisation is trying to balance Lela’s miseries with a sense of humour and defiance, making the tale more “palatable” and, ultimately, more human. “She sees beauty amongst the tragedy,” Cadman concludes, noting the challenge (yet importance) of swiftly switching the mood of her performance, from harrowing tale to uplifting “cheeky” humour. From what little I saw of the production, I can safely say she carried this subtlety with ease, falling straight into an incredibly empathetic portrayal of the role as soon as the rehearsal began, yet also able to make me laugh aloud a few moments later.
A similar challenge in is faced by actor Zac Tiplady, who portrays five of the male characters within Lela’s story, skillfully switching between distinctive roles whilst maintaining the thematic common ground of manipulation and restriction. However, both Tiplady and Phillips are careful to avoid a “superficial reading” of the play, allowing his characters more nuance and realism than a simple tarring brush of ‘all men are bad’, to an occasionally intensely moving extent. Tiplady further addresses how the play takes the audience on a “complex” journey, arousing not only sympathy for Lela but “guilt”, almost making “(the audience) feel complicit” in the horrors she suffers through their inaction. To represent the realism of such tragedy, Phillips utilises a minimalistic set as a “visual representation” of the truth Lela is constructing for us piece by piece, driving home the fact that every oppression, big and small, belongs to the same system attempting to silence the eponymous heroine. Phillips suggests “There hasn’t been a better time” when discussing the ultra-relevance of the show. She feels the problem of ignoring the trials of others and blindingly accepting given narratives of certain demographics has never been clearer, citing the recent ‘#MeToo’ anti-sexual violence campaign as well as the ongoing refugee crisis. She too wants to make the audience feel almost “complicit”, yet also inspired to make a positive change, rather than allow them a feeling of passive righteousness from simply attending such a socially progressive show. “The play,” she argues “Chucks (the righteousness) back at them.”
However, this definitely should not deter anyone from coming to see the production. During only a brief preview scene, I was enthralled by the actors’ storytelling ability and was instantly moved to see more of Lela’s testimony, as portrayed by a pair of incredibly skilled and confidant thespians. ‘Lela and Co’ promises to be an engaging, relevant and “completely different” show with a message that will stay with you for a long time after the curtain falls, and I for one await the finished product with well-justified anticipation.
Collections for the charity ‘Rape Crisis England and Wales’ will be taken at the performance.
Lela and Co will be performing on 18th January at 7:30pm.
Photograph: Lela and Co prod team