From a hill on the outskirts of the city, Lisa (Sarah Hoare), Joanne (Tessie Orange-Turner) and Amy (Esther-Grace Button) watch all the little lights illuminating the facades of the buildings, imagining the lives of the people behind them. For a moment, Joanne and Amy are in thrall to Lisa’s narrative powers, as she gives them a glimpse into the lives of others, and a temporary break from their own.
The yearning for escapism, and the brutal tug of reality are at the heart of All the Little Lights, a play written and developed by Jane Upton. The plot was inspired by the story of a young woman who escaped sexual abuse at the hands of men who used her to procure girls. Jane Upton’s understated approach succeeds in conveying this horrific event on stage, although not all of its protagonists are equally fleshed out.
The play starts out as an innocent birthday party. As a surprise for her friend Lisa, who has gone to live in foster care, Joanne has thrown a camping night with the help of naïve, giggling Amy. The party is complete with ornaments in trees, birthday cakes and even birthday presents, but the soil is covered in garbage and the girls are standing dangerously close to a train track.
Slowly truths emerge, about an older man, TJ , who owns the local chippy, and about a night where the two girls were gang-raped. The word itself is never uttered, but the script doesn’t sugar-coat the event either, leaving it to Joanne and Lisa to find words to relate their experience. Lisa is trying to move on, but Joanne got left behind, and she now has other, darker motives for wanting her friend to stay with her.
From the outset, Lisa is a frustratingly reserved birthday girl. Sarah Hoare portrays her painful reluctance to speak, her guardedness, her clenched fists. On the contrary, Joanne is assertive, with a decisiveness and an authority that border on bullying when she imposes her will on those around her. Hoare and Orange-Turner give their character the right amount of raw pain and anger, without ever disserving the subtlety of the script, but the relationship between Lisa and Joanne is so strained as to make Amy little more than a collateral victim. A pathetic figure, her fits of laughter create more unease than amusement and the script leaves comparatively little space for her character to emerge.
Although some of its peripheral figures and stories suffer from lack of development, All the Little Lights tackles stories of abuse and pain with sensitivity and tactfulness.