Tracing Grace follows the true story of Grace Eves, a young girl who suffers from an illness known as encephalitis, which makes everyday a struggle. Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain. It affects people in varying ways but can involve seizures, hearing problems, severe headaches and memory loss to name a few symptoms. The production musically focuses on how it affects her family, in particular writer and sister of Grace, Annie Eves. Set in Grace’s bedroom, the storyline splits itself between linear narrative and a physical interpretation of the goings on in Grace’s mind. There are two main narrators, Grace’s voice (Corrina Buchan) and Older Annie (Amber Hockridge), who both look back on the difficult times that the disease caused, and how the family dealt with them.
The music in the piece, (played expertly by James Monckton) accompanies the play’s journey suitably, setting the mood of each scene well. Truth be told, the musical theatre moments do sometimes stray into predictable and cringeworthy, particularly the lyrics. However, there is valuable information involved on a disease that the vast majority of people know little about. It is a charming production, and although the style does have a ‘spelling it out’ feel, it never lacks heart. First time writer, Annie Eves uses her experiences brilliantly in creating a snappy and clever script. There are some moments of comedy that could perhaps do with some development, but others where the audience are amused by the chemistry between the two sisters and Grace’s bluntness in particular.
Rosemary Berkon’s performance as the unpredictable and heartbreakingly afflicted Grace is wonderful. She embodies the role of a child superbly and shows depth and directness in angrier moments. There are some strong singing voices across the board, but the needless American accents in some of the songs is grating. The cast work well as an ensemble and the choreography is manic yet controlled for the most part. The storytelling style is a little played out, but because of the truth and severity of Eves’ writing, you are intrigued and moved the majority of the time. Alys Whitehead’s set design uses Theatre 503’s versatile space fantastically, and the scene changes are slick and seamless.
The production as a whole is engaging, interesting and at times genuinely moving. It is not without some flaws and occasional moments that need development. The subject matter is so interesting that it could’ve perhaps done without so many attempts at bizarreness. When it stops following the story and transforms to the world of Grace’s brain, it is a little hard to stay fully invested in it as a story. Nevertheless, it is a subject that needs to be documented more, so a play with a real insight into its severity, a first hand experience and collaboration with the Encephalitis Society, can only be a good thing.
Tracing Grace is playing at Theatre503 until 24 February 2018