In her introduction for the programme, writer Jane Upton wrote of her new play, All the Little Lights, ‘I hope it does some good, somehow.’ This sense of expectation- one of realist dejection mixed with optimism- sums up pretty accurately the tone of the play.
All the Little Lights is about three girls (I would call them young women, but unfortunately they really are just young girls) who don’t have secure family homes and, as a result of this insecurity, are part of a sex ring run by the chippy owner, TJ.
In collaboration with Safe and Sound, a charity that works with the victims of child exploitation, this play is, heart-breakingly, based on a true story about an 18 year old girl who lived with a sex-ring of older men in order to find security and protection.
Joanne (Tessie Orange-Turner) seems to be in charge of the 12 year old Amy (Esther-Grace Button) and slightly older Lisa (Sarah Hoare). In a display of acting that is scarily powerful, Orange-Turner depicts a girl whose extreme vulnerability manifests in a dangerously fierce need for companionship, forcing Lisa and Amy to celebrate a birthday party with her. The innocence of Amy as Joanne feeds her alcohol and teases her for her childishness, drills into the most tender core of your heart. Excited by the prospect of a 39 year old ‘fancying’ her, whilst simultaneously giving a side-splitting E.T impression (music and all) and debating whether to send a photo of her pre-pubescent breasts to TJ.
A game the girls play, which involves standing on the railway tracks in the face of an approaching train for as long as they dare, seems to be a metaphor for their precarious situation: barely getting by, taking life-threatening risks and seeing how far they can push themselves and eachother.
Another striking feature of this play is the absence of any men- visually at least considering they seem to loom like dark shadows over the play and the girls’ psyches. Upton cited her deliberate choice to ‘not give the men a voice at all’, which is either empowering for the girls, or terrifying as it gives them a threatening absence. When Lisa mentions a less than appropriate relationship with her foster father we begin to understand the extent and insidiousness of these damaging relationships.
Upton has created a play that is definitely more than it says on the tin- not just a play, but a revealing and inspiring force as well. What better way to present the plight of vulnerable and family-less children than through one of the most sympathetic mediums known to man. Pressingly necessary, All the Little Lights is a play with a huge social responsibility and the least we could do is give it the audience it deserves.
All the Little Lights played the Arcola Theatre until 4th November.