Noriko Ward’s Counting Headlights, as part of Frumpish Theatre’s Fresh festival, is a playful splatter of the protagonist, Emily’s, growth through her emotionally traumatic upbringing. Being strapped into a car in the middle of the night at 5 years old and being taken somewhere that you don’t recognise is the rockiest of foundations for the figuring out who you are and where you came from. But that is where Emily’s story begins; a foggy memory of her father’s choice to run away and the consequences this brought upon her.
The lights dim on white paper houses that are dotted across the stage. Against the black out walls and stage these small pentagons almost glow, yet when Emily (played by Sarah Michelle Kelly) steps out on stage they seem cutely insignificant. It seems like she could pick them up and crush them in her hands…. which she does. As she reminisces about her playschool years, social care and collecting BB pellets on the council estate she takes each own and crushes it. As this continues, the cheeky 5 year old starts to slip, and we see the growth start to become confused. The tearing of the houses turns into an aggressive hit list of trying to find places where she might belong. Cute baby voices and finger painting turns to adolescence and heartless rows. But we still question whether Emily’s actions are her own doing, or, as she questions, is she just living through someone else’s pain?
Kelly’s performance is wonderfully dynamic and comical and yet laced with a sweet emotional outpour that we can all see in our teenage years. Though her beautiful Irish roots glide over every word she speaks, her quick switches into playing the ‘terribly English’ worker, or Essex girlfriend, is highly hysterical and impressive. With every unpredictable turn in the narrative, Kelly seemed to guide us with ease. Her eyes being the window to the lost child within an angry teenager, just trying to get to sleep by counting headlights.
Ward’s writing sparks a harmonic balance between the highs and lows of growing up. For Emily’s situation, there are many highs and many lows. The blissful innocence of being a child somehow becomes stained with the unknowns of the past, and at the final moments of the play when Emily sees her mother again, these past expectations of her life do not translate into her future. Her independence has outgrown her curiosity for her past, and yet we see glimmers of her younger self teasing us between her rebellious one liners.
Counting Headlights is a simply stunning female production that tackles the suffocation of growth and the unfairness of unstable beginnings. It is a beautifully written love letter to all little kids who have experienced the complications of adult life a little too early.
Counting Headlights plays as part of Frumpish Theatre’s show, Fresh, at The Golden Goose Theatre. For more information and tickets, see Golden Goose Theatre’s website.