Evocative, thought-provoking environmental fable
The premise of this imaginative coming-of-age tale, set against the backdrop of the climate emergency, would work as the starting point for an epic superhero origin story. But playwright Billie Collins – making an impressive debut – has instead crafted a thoughtful parable that portrays the frustrations of a younger generation that care deeply about the plight of the planet, but feel powerless to do anything about it.
Fifteen-year-old Noble (a closed-off Paddy Stafford) feels abandoned by his older sister when she takes up a post as an ornithological researcher on a remote island in Antarctica. The yearning to be reunited with her is so strong that he transforms into a bird and holes up in an abandoned barn, befriending an equally troubled teen who is also hiding there, while he contemplates migrating the tens of thousands of miles south to join her. Meanwhile, floods are threatening to wash his hometown away and, across the country, thousands of other children are similarly sprouting wings and taking to the skies.
Considering the epic scale of the story, Adam Quayle’s imaginatively staged production keeps the focus remarkably intimate and personal. Katie Scott’s simple set of stacked chairs and boxes subtly evokes interior locations, while the grander set pieces are described in an evocatively lyrical manner by narration shared between the four-strong cast.
Noble’s transformation is realised by the subtle addition of glittery wings to his standard-issue black hoodie, but this is as much about the disconnect he feels with the people around him and his own impotent rage as it is about the fantastical elements in Collins’s allegorical story.
The older generation is represented convincingly by Alexandra Mathie as Noble’s hard-working teacher mother Fiona, who is desperately trying not to fall apart while single-handedly holding the family together. A scene in which she tries, and fails, to connect with her teenage son over a Colin the Caterpillar birthday cake is heartbreakingly believable. And considering the gloominess of the environmental outlook, witnessed first-hand by Noble’s scientist sister Cleo (a brilliantly impassioned and empathetic Evie Hargreaves), there is a welcome mix of light and shade to the story, embodied winningly by Ewan Grant as Noble’s flamboyant new schoolfriend Ellis.
The pace slackens in the more contemplative second half before events ramp up to reach their apocalyptic conclusion. But this is a timely, richly theatrical piece that straddles the intimate and the epic with ease. It also has an important message about the small steps we can take to make a big difference that deserves to be heard by as wide an audience as possible.