Strong performances in youth theatre’s Lord of the Flies

A scene from Lord of the Flies.

Strong performances and visually stunning moments in Shetland Youth Theatre’s Lord of the Flies made for a tense production that kept the audience involved from the gentle start to a dramatic finish.   

Lord of the Flies was written by William Golding in 1954. English schoolboys have been evacuated due to war, but their plane has crashed on a deserted island. Initially all goes well under the leadership of sensible Ralph, but gradually Jack’s group become more interested in hunting than working towards rescue, and when a dead airman is mistaken for a beast, they create a “savage” culture, leaving sacrifices to placate it.

Emotional Simon decides to confront the beast, but when he returns to camp bringing the news of what it really is, they mistake him for a creature coming out of the forest, and kill him. Jack’s tribe then set up their own camp; Ralph’s friend Piggy is murdered by Jack’s henchman Roger, and in hunting Ralph they burn the whole island. Ralph is rescued by the arrival of a naval cutter, but the adults in it do not understand what was really going on, dismissing Jack’s spears as “games”.

When the book was written, it aroused huge controversy; like the adults at the end of the book, many readers refused to believe that children would kill each other. Since the death of James Bulger, nobody would seriously deny that some children can be as violent as some adults, and the dangers of a world without rules is demonstrated by cyber-bullying in the unregulated realm of social media sites.

This story, then, has themes which still appeal to modern youngsters, and it was evident that the actors had taken these on board.

One interesting aspect of this production was that the majority of the actors were female, traditionally the “less violent” sex (tell that to the victims of Myra Hindley or Rosemary West).

Although it would be interesting to see what changes an author might make in re-writing the story specifically for a female cast, I didn’t feel that this made the story or dialogue less convincing, due to the strong performances from the whole cast, and in particular the leads: Rachel (Shaela Halcrow); Piggy (Amy Boyle); Jane (Danielle Warham); and Sarah (Katya Moncrieff).

Rachel (Ralph in the original) represented the rule of law, and Halcrow gave a convincing performance as someone who knew the right thing to do, and tried to lead others, but was at times overwhelmed by the task laid on her. Her clear, flexible voice and controlled body movement were used well to convey a variety of emotions, and her guilt over Sarah’s death and her collapse at the end, as she is given Piggy’s glasses, were key moments in the play – the latter gave it a very moving end.

Piggy was the voice of common sense, and the social difference of the book was picked out well, with Boyle’s Glaswegian accent contrasting with the others’ RP. Again, this was a strong performance, and her final speech, declaring her belief in justice, was delivered with a conviction that made the audience pity her naiveity. Her death was a truly horrid moment.

Jane (Jack) was the shining example of a British schoolgirl: a prefect in a “good school”, a member of the “huntin” classes. From the start, this was a chilling performance: she came on at the head of a group of wild girls, and sustained her savagery throughout.

Finally, the epileptic Sarah (Simon), who had the clarity of vision to realise what the “beast” really was, was played with great sensitivity. Moncrieff’s speeches communicated the beauty of the “paradise” the children were to destroy, and her encounter with the “Lord of the Flies”, the pig’s head that Jane’s group had left as a sacrifice to the beast, made a stunning end to the first half.

One of the Shetland Youth Theatre’s strengths is in its ensemble playing, and this cast was uniformly strong. Everyone was confident, and the dialogue (not easy dialogue to learn) was audible and well-cued throughout.

Sam ‘n’ Eric (Samuel McCormick and Gary McAllister) had a particularly difficult task with their shared lines, Erraid Davies was sweet as little Pamela, and Roger (Conor Dickson) was scarily convincing as the amoral Roger – though I rather regretted that this role-reversed production had one of the few boys as the most vicious character. The future relationship between him and Jane was interesting too; the dismissive way he called her “Chiefy” suggested that the roles might soon be reversed.

Many of the most theatrically exciting moments were ensemble ones. The hunting scenes used stylised movement and drumming sticks to great effect, and when the two groups were separate, lighting and poses brought out the drama in the situation, for example when Rachel and Piggy led the deputation to Jane’s camp.

While the metallic set contradicted the words sometimes – for example, Rachel called for wood for the fire, and the cast picked up metal pieces – I really liked it; I felt it reflected the brutality of the piece. The theatre lantern that was used as the pig’s mask worked well, and the “factory” look was echoed in the soundscape that backed the action.

I particularly liked the atmospheric mechanical thundering that filled the silence after Sarah’s death. In this context the exhaust-tubes sculpture for the conch worked visually, but perhaps the dialogue could have been altered so that it was banged, rather than “blown”.

The dead parachutist was like a wicker man made from pieces of lighthouse, and was eerily lit from within as Jane’s tribe took over the island. I wasn’t sure that people unfamiliar with the book would have understood what this creation was, but it was clear that it represented the “beast” of evil within the children.

Costume was simply done, with a nice change from initial neatness to ragged clothes, tousled hair and painted faces showing both the passage of time and the move away from civilisation.

It’s difficult to separate a play on a book you know well from your own imagined version of the original text, and I felt the places where the play was least strong was because the script departed from the text.

Jane was aggressive throughout, creating dramatic conflict, but I missed her group’s initial entry as disciplined, angelic choir children. In the original, Jack and Ralph begin as friends, heightening the later conflict. I felt her group was too wild too soon; her group could have begun almost as caricature “good girls” with neat plaits, and perhaps even school hats.

The middle of the script felt muddled, and seemed to me to lack the book’s clear descent by degrees into wildness, partly because the reason for the group’s splitting up, that Jack’s group had gone hunting, and let the fire go out just as the ship passed, was put as an earlier episode without Jack being specifically to blame.

The older age of this group – the original children were pre-adolescent – changed the emphasis in the ending slightly. In the book there’s a moment where the reader looks through the eyes of the naval officer as he arrives on the island.

We’re reminded that the monsters that Jack and Roger have become, hunting Ralph to put his head on a stick, are also dirty children who need their noses blown. We lost that in this production – Izzy Swanson’s naval officer had the poise of an older person, but because the girls were as tall as she was, there wasn’t the feel of the girls being reduced to children.

Swanson’s repetition of “It was just a game” made her misgivings clear, whereas the adults in the original have no conception of what Ralph has gone through. However the last moments, with Jane giving Rachel Piggy’s glasses, and Rachel’s distress, captured the feel of the novel perfectly.

This youth theatre production was a powerful up-dating of a classic text, and I found it gripped me far more than either film version. Excellent lead performances supported by strong performances from the whole cast, an interesting set and soundscape, and atmospheric lighting, gave an evening which will linger in my head for some time.  

Given current money issues, and the time in the term, I don’t know how many schools were able to bring their S Grade pupils to this production. I hope that John Haswell and his actors might consider touring this production round Shetland schools for S3 and S4 pupils, who may well be studying the text, and who would certainly engage with this production, and enjoy discussing the issues with the actors.

Maybe Shetland Arts could look at funding that for during “Activities Week”, or in the penultimate week of summer term. So good a  production should be shared as widely as possible.

Marsali Taylor

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