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If you Touched My Heart by Isabel Allende

Review by Louise Roche

If you missed Pepper Ghost’s ‘If You Touched My Heart’ at Madcap this week you missed a rare treat. It was the chance to see an experimental piece of theatre in development followed by the opportunity to quiz the cast and director and suggest possible ways forward.

The play was an effective, interesting blend of words, music and movement that tells the story of fourteen year old Lilly Clarke who falls ‘in love’ with thirty five year old Ronald Price. Her obsession with him leads to her spending twenty years incarcerated in a disused college. Ronald Price required no lock and key to keep Lilly in her prison, the strength of his hold over her was enough.

The evening began unusually in the concourse below the theatre. Our tour guide and narrator welcomed us to the museum which contained the actual contents of the room where Lilly had lived all those years. After a brief introduction we were asked to move upstairs to view the actual exhibit, a reconstruction of Lilly’s room. The use of tour guide as narrator was one of my favourite parts of the show and something I think could be developed even more. The powerful juxtaposition of a highly emotional story being played out whilst we the audience look on like tourists, is a clever, neat device that made me feel suitably uncomfortable.

The play was well staged with some really lovely imaginative moments like the tightly lit music box and twenty roses representing Lilly’s twenty years in captivity, the image was mesmerizing and could have lasted even longer. It was also very powerful when the room seemed to fill with girls all in the same yellow dress. I read this as time passing but was told it was the other girls who Ronald may have imprisoned. When the cast talked about this scene and the overall intent of the piece it was clear that they had thought about it long and hard, but there did seem to be some resistance to committing to a viewpoint. Was Ronald an abuser? Were the girls in the yellow dresses ghosts of other girls or younger versions of Lilly? Of course it doesn’t matter and can be really interesting if the audience choose to interpret the author’s intent differently but it’s important that the intent is clear in the creator’s mind because it directly informs the writing.

As we discussed last night I would have liked to have seen more back story and insight into the characters’ psyche. Maybe the older Lilly could argue with the cold, factual account of the tour guide, maybe she could read from her diary.

It’s not possible to single anyone out for special mention. This was a truly ensemble piece, very well cast. The company gave the audience an entertaining and really interesting evening. I also greatly admire their courage inviting comment and thought they handled the suggestions really well. It’s definitely a piece of theatre that merits further development and I for one can’t wait to see how it grows.

If You Touched My Heart: Pepper's Ghost Theatre Company

Review by Sue Whyte

Pepper’s Ghost took a new turn in its artistic development last week with the presentation of a devised piece as part of the “In Progress” project exploring the development of new plays and writers. If You Touched My Heart was a compulsive, disturbing but highly evocative piece of theatre examining the complexities surrounding an “abductor” and his “victim”. These terms are in “inverted commas” for a reason. Based on a short story by Isabel Allende it is far from certain whether the main protagonists, Ronald Price and Lily, really fit into their definitions as neatly as it first appears.

Starting in the exhibition space of the MADCAP building itself, we are introduced to Lily’s story through the eyes of a museum tour guide, played perfectly with brisk, bright-eyed enthusiasm by Nicola Adshead. We are invited to look at events, with the same initial detachment as a visitor to a new exhibit. But can we? We are already disturbed as a blankly staring figure lies just beyond her shoulder. Do we all have our own “ghosts” and prejudices that we may be unaware of?

Once seated in the theatre, the detachment of our narrator guide to the events unfolding, adds to the uneasiness that grows throughout the piece. We watch the14 year old Lily, given a simple innocence and fragility by Niamh Lavelle, at her mother’s graveside playing her mother’s musical box. We watch her meeting the awkward, almost sinisterly childish Ronald played by Jo Seville who is compelling but somehow certainly not repulsive as the “abductor”. Their mutually understated, at times uneasy movement and language, appears to unite them as souls with similar needs and longings. They both seem to cling to their meetings but it is Lily who follows Ronald to the building basement and remains there, for twenty years, without a locked door.

The use of movement is very important to the piece. Ronald’s slow examination of a frozen, half-dressed Lily, only daring to touch her hair, is disturbing not only in its depiction but by the fact that the members of the audience have now become voyeurs watching Lily perhaps as Ronald himself would have done. But we are detached aren’t we? We are only watching this as we would watch a news bulletin or an historical exhibit in a museum. But, as we later discover, Lily has donated this particular exhibit herself. What does she want us to see?

Lily has her own “ghosts”, two other missing girls (beautifully performed by Jessica Raynor and Fiona Smout). The imaginative choreography and repetitiveness of their movements, while Ronald remains impassively seated on the ground, cleverly depicts the routine, but stability, of Lily’s self inflicted incarceration, the passage of time and the possibility that they too had a connection with Ronald.

With the passing of the musical box to an “Older Lily” (Carolyn Vale cleverly retaining the innocence of a girl shut off from the world but now in a woman’s body) it soon becomes clear that the balance of Ronald and Lily’s world is changing. Pinpointed by the arrival of Neil, Ronald’s shy, nervous nephew sympathetically portrayed by Michael Woolley, Lily’s new friendship will ultimately lead to a betrayal of her secret world and discovery by the police.

Was need replaced by genuine affection? What was the depth of the relationship between Ronald and Lily? How did it develop and change over the years? What caused Ronald to visit Lily less and less and why did Neil become complicit in this secret world? How did the police react and question those they found? What did Lily really think her “exhibit” and its depiction by the guide? These and other questions emerged from an engaging and lively debate following the performance as director Carolyn Vale, actors and audience examined together the possible future directions for the development of this work.

With atmospheric music, costume and lighting this evening was an excellent and entertaining beginning for the “In Progress” initiative and I hope we have the chance to see the next stage of this production’s development in the not too distant future. Congratulations to all those involved, particularly Carolyn Vale, for bringing us this thought provoking and exciting piece of original theatre.

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