Salmon and Wales, Matthew's Yard - Review

…I live on the second floor
I live upstairs from you
Yes I think you've seen me before

If you hear something late at night
Some kind of trouble, some kind of fight
Just don't ask me what it was…

Luka, Suzanne Vega


Written and performed by Kate Novak, Glass Moon Theatre Company's  Salmon and Wales is on the ball with its topicality and relevance. Told from the point of view of Sophie – who we follow from her primary school days to adolescence – Salmon and Wales is an intimate account of a girl who struggles to cope from the advances of her stepfather, and how her passion for stories and wildlife becomes a source of solace in those dark times.

Uprooted from east London to Wales, Sophie has to start at a new school, and deal with the pressures of starting over and making new friends. Still, there is some good news as Sophie's form tutor takes an interest in her creative writing and provides her with examples of stories that complement her own, plus a choice of pen pals - one of whom (Polly) will have a profound effect on her life.

Never completely healed from her past experiences, things take a turn for the worst  for Sophie when her infatuation with a boy at school spurs 'further interest' in her from her stepfather - compounding the distress she's already feeling and bringing to the surface the unresolved feelings she's locked away for so long....

While Salmon and Wales most certainly has a dark subject matter, it is also indubitably a labour of love for Novak. There are other, worthy plays at the moment  that have tackled this sort of topic, but this play to my knowledge is the first that has merged the disperate elements in such a way, In short, Novak has an original voice, a unique way of looking at things.

Polly's importance to this tale can't be understated. As the only person that Sophie feels she can open up to, she is in effect the older sister and confidante she never had. This, of course, raises further questions about the absence of notable female relationships in her life and what is arguably Sophie's most important relationship - with her mother. We know that Sophie's mother works for the NHS, but we have little idea of what their relationship is like (past or present), or if they even talk to each other at all. We also don't know what why her mother is involved with someone like her stepfather, to not see him for what he is and does. The one clue we have is when her stepfather is jailed for a time for an 'altercation' with a 16-year-old girl, the mother takes his side and automatically think he's innocent.

While watching the play I was conscious of wanting 'Sophie' to speak out so that she could be set free, both physically and emotionally. I could understand to a degree her apprehension at not talking to her form tutor, but I thought that if there was ever a time for her to talk to her mother about her experiences, it was the holiday she spent with her mother while her stepfather's incarcerated.

The play doesn't have a tidy ending with all issues and loose ends resolved, but on reflection I think this was an artistic choice to reflect the messy nature of real life and the fact that people don't always do what's best for themselves straightaway – even when they have the opportunities. As a consequence. the "Will she/Won't she tell?" scenario becomes almost unbearable, because we want her abuse to stop. To paraphrase one of Polly's quotes after eventually finding out the truth about Sophie's past: "I would say I'm so sorry, but actually I'm so f***ing angry right now."

Going back to Novak herself, I thought the use of voiceovers to denote the form tutor and stepfather worked well, as our visible focus remains on Sophie's facial expressions and body language (which say so much more than her actual words).

As for one of the earlier segments in the play, I thought the incluson of animation for Sophie's 'world of imagination' was a welcome surprise. An up-and-coming trend perhaps in the use of multimedia onstage, but one that instantly evoked the world of childhood and dark fairy tales, providing a moment of 'magic' and 'anything's possible' at that juncture.

In real life famous writers such as Maya Angelou and Eve Ensler (of The Vagina Monologues fame) have 'survived' their years of child abuse and have been able to broach the subject on their terms as adults. Sophie as a character has the potential to make that transition, not letting the past stunt her emotional growth and limit her.

But for those who are lucky to write and communicate their experience in this form, there are many that aren't so gifted and are trapped in the prison of yesteryear, even when they're adults. Asides from being robbed of their innocence and emotional wellbeing, they're deprived later in life of the chance to heal, with no liberating tales of the imagination to save them.

© Michael Davis 2016

Salmon and Wales ran at Theatre Utopia, Matthew's Yard, Croydon from 10th-14th August 2016.


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