This is a really lovely show. The Box of Photographs is a play that explores the imagination of a young girl growing up in inner city London. The play itself is part of a project that Polka Theatre coordinated with the V&A Museum of Childhood. The theatre created a story-writing competition for children in which students were asked to examine Donne Buck’s collection of photographs of children in London in the 1950s. Buck set up a number of adventure playgrounds in areas like Hackney at a time when many inner city kids had to go and play in bomb shelters. Playwright Daniel Jamieson has used the brilliant responses from the children in the competition to carve together this wonderful story, which really is a must-see family show for kids and parents alike.
Chelsea has just moved into a new flat with her now single mum and only gets to see her dad every other weekend – and always in the presence of his new girlfriend, Maria. The story centres on Chelsea finding the eponymous box of photographs and using the photos to create and act out a series of elaborate short stories, using nothing more than her own imagination. She is joined in her bedroom by the old German woman, who used to live in the flat before her and whose young self is brought to life for us via Chelsea’s imagination.
This production is so successful in engaging its audience because it is able to continuously switch the events that unfold upon the main stage, between the realms of reality and fantasy. The end product is something akin to having an animated, cinematic experience made manifest onstage. Lily Arnold’s set utilises space brilliantly to create both the intimacy of a child’s bedroom and, at the same time, the unending fathoms of that child’s imagination. Each prop and piece of set is chosen meticulously and co-ordinated with a specific use in the story and it is lovely to see such an effective co-ordination of text and stage design. Similar co-ordination is apparent between Elliot Grigg’s lighting and Julian Butler’s sound, both of which are utilised in tandem to create those moments of filmic brilliance in each of Chelsea’s stories. Obviously, Louise Rhodes-Brown’s video design provides the most explicit sense of visual animation in the show, but it is the way she and the team have worked together with all of their individual components that has produced the effect so well in performance.
Commendation must be given to director Sarah Punshon for bringing together a whole made up of so many intricate parts in a way that unfolds so organically. You are never made aware of the cogs turning underneath. Credit must also be given to her superb cast, who imbue their characters with genuine buoyancy and vivacity that engage theatregoers of all ages in the story. To command an audience’s attention for over 90 minutes (especially when that audience is made up of youngsters in the middle of an ice-cream high) is a sign of the commendable effort from both Hannah Boyde and Jessica Hayles. One might argue that the show overruns somewhat, but naturally this would have been inevitable given the number of competition responses the playwright would have had to weave into this tale. Indeed, Jamieson manages to subtly and organically tie in themes of divorce, absentee fathers and loneliness relating to Chelsea and the German woman with great skill.
To paraphrase Edward Bond, through man’s creative imagination he builds his own reality, not merely observing it nor bearing its brunt. The children of London have used their imaginations to create unique interpretations of the lives of past generations of children that lived before them in the city. And in this show, one child uses her imagination to reinterpret the lives of the children in the photographs and, by doing so, is able to gain a deeper understanding of herself and the world around her. Whatever you glean from it, this is a show that will leave you walking away with a renewed sense of appreciation of the human capacity for child-like imagination.
The Box of Photographs is playing at the Polka Theatre until 15 May. For more information and tickets, see the Polka Theatre website.