When Blud played to approving audiences only a short while ago, what stood out was the fearlessness of the writing. If Blud was fearless, then The Drowned Girl is Kelly Jones jumping off a cliff into an ocean. Rather than sticking to subject matter she can remain detached from, the playwright opts instead to dive head-first into something deeply personal. And puts herself on stage in the process.
Part-autobiographical, part-fiction, part-fantasy: narratively, The Drowned Girl refuses to stay in one place; but like the mermaid her character believes herself to be, Jones’ story swims effortlessly through all three. Having lost her Nan three weeks ago Kelly is back at Asda, stacking discount aisle shelves and running away from her grief. She retreats, instead, to the world of her childhood, where she’s a mermaid and her Nan is still there, fag in hand.
Jones as writer is tremendous, bringing a voice soaked in the East End: witty, fiery, and brutally honest. She has that Alan Bennett-esque ability to fish out the beauty and peculiarity from the mundane. A funny subplot involving the accidental kidnapping of a child is the only downer – it provides an important moment of catharsis, yes, but doesn’t pack quite the same emotional punch as the rest of the play.
Jones as performer is a delight to watch. What she lacks in experience, she more than makes up for in heart. The Drowned Girl’s strongest asset is its powerful emotional core. While another performer might bring better technique, only Jones could bring the character to life. Anna Poole continues her superb run of directing form here too, reining her otherMother colleague in to stop those emotions from overflowing. Fully aware of Jones’ limitations, Poole lets the actor tread out of her comfort zone but keeps her from drowning.
A special mention also needs to go to Chris Young and Jane Lalljee. After Ti.Me last month, Young proves yet again that sound can be as much of a character as the performers, while Lalljee’s intelligent use of light and dark at crucial moments is inspired. The more fantastical elements of the production would certainly not have worked otherwise.
The Drowned Girl may have flaws, but it should be measured on its context. Of a writer sharing intimate feelings with the world. Of an actor breaking out of her comfort zone. Of a young woman mourning (and celebrating) her Nan on stage. At the very end of the play, Kelly lists some of the things she misses about her Nan. Gone is the performer. Gone is the narrative. All that remains is truth, and it’s beautiful. A beautiful end to a beautiful play.