Three is the highly engaging and intensely topical final piece of the National Youth Theatre’s “Playing Up” programme. In turns funny, dark, chaotic and profound, the play relays the story of three sisters coming to terms with an unusually complex tragedy that rattles the foundations of their family and identity.

On arrival in the Arcola theatre, the atmosphere is effervescent. The stage is flooded with whooping young people in brightly coloured clothes dancing on multi-level platforms to the likes of ‘Get Lucky’ and ‘Despacito’. It’s light and infectious and sweet, made all the more so by the subsequent introduction given by the company director; it imbues the evening with a more intimate, community feel, like a very sophisticated school play.

The play opens on the scene of a wholesome 16th birthday party. Snacks, balloons, music and a semi-circle of plastic chairs all laid out as the guests chatter and await the birthday girl’s arrival (the youngest sister, Tia, played by Ikra Ali). Rochelle (Alice Vilanculo) has prepared the spread: the eldest of the three siblings, in their parents’ absence she has become the family’s carer and provider. Strict, yet attentive, caring and motherly, Rochelle desperately attempts to hold the family together; Vilanculo gives a sensitive, moving performance. Soon, however, Jaz (Courtney Spencer) arrives: the middle child, 21 and struggling with a heavy dependence on drugs and alcohol. We learn that the girls’ father has been in prison for the past five years, but his release date is imminent. It’s a scene rife with both hope and unease, excitement before their father’s release mingling with their own fraught relationships and nerves.

Sophie Ellerby’s sharp, insightful script shows tremendous promise. She captures teenage mannerisms and linguistic idiosyncrasies and uses them to great comedic effect. Her characters are well-developed and likeable, and respond realistically to the difficult situation they are put in.

While the play’s confrontation of topical concerns is bold and certainly brave, it could have benefitted from slight refinement. It doesn’t just address the issues- it addresses pretty much all of the issues: war, religion, race, sexuality, politics, relationships, family, friendship, unplanned pregnancies. Though each one is treated with sensitivity in itself, it seems that the play could have benefited from a little streamlining.

Overall this was a commendable production that raises poignant questions and keeps the audience engaged from start to finish. Sophie Ellerby will doubtless go far.

Three played as part of the NYT Playing Up season at the Arcola Theatre until July 22. 

Photo: Ellie Kurttz