As part of “Grimeborn,” what Time Out describes as “London’s hippest festival of new and underground opera,” the Arcola Theatre has produced Marsha: A Girl Who Does Bad Things. The play itself is thoroughly engaging, and highly original, but the addition of a libretto made little sense within the context of this particular piece.
As we walked into Studio 1, each audience member was given a sinister, childlike mask to wear, of a little girl (presumably Marsha). We were told to put these on as soon as the lights went down, as they would “help Marsha tell her story.” We were also told that if Marsha said “Hello”, to say “Hello, Marsha” back, and to pass her any objects on our seats that she asked for. As the lights went black, and then suddenly light again, Marsha (Tilly Gaunt) was met with a sea of masked faces – the mood was suitably unsettling, considering what was to come. The play tells the story of Marsha, a young girl who lives in an English village with her mother, a Religious Education teacher. We follow Marsha through one day in her life, and meet some of her neighbours too – like Mr MadDonald (Jessica Gillingwater), Mrs Hoare (Victoria Gray) and Susan (Kerri-Lynne Dietz). Whilst Marsha herself seems oddly self-assured and overly confident for a girl of her age, describing herself as “beautiful” and taking sweets as though she owns them from Mrs Hoare’s shop, she is not all that she seems. By the end of this 50 minute piece, the sweet little girl is seen in a very different light. This clever piece explores themes of perception, fantasy and reality, and growing up.
Tilly Gaunt is fantastic as Marsha : her gradual metamorphosis from the sweetest, prettiest girl in the village to a deformed, disturbed child was seamlessly done. Gaunt struck a perfect balance between innocence and flashes of warped maturity, far beyond her years. Though the other performances were all decent, Victoria Gray especially good as the soprano sweet shop owner Mrs Hoare, they were all overshadowed by Gaunt. Perhaps this is the point – the play is Marsha’s story, after all, and the focus remains on her. However, a particularly powerful moment comes around 40 minutes in, when Marsha is silenced, there is a blackout, and the other characters converse on stage in arias, sharing their opinions on this oddball, Marsha. All your previous assumptions shift – a particularly powerful piece of writing by Harris and Blake. However, to me, writing the show as an opera seemed quite at odds with such an eerie, unnerving piece, especially as Marsha herself did most of the talking, and she didn’t sing once. This made the singing seem like an interruption, and made the play as a whole seem inconsistent. Perhaps it was intended to separate Marsha from her adult companions, emphasising her alienation, but somehow, it just didn’t quite work. Opera is far better suited to grandeur, and poetry, big themes and exaggerated, almost cartoonish emotions. Marsha: A Girl Who Does Bad Things is not a play of this nature – it is a relatively simple story in a very small setting, and not one that I would immediately characterise as operatic.
All in all, the Arcola Theatre has produced an interesting, unusual play, which involved the audience and was unsettling for all the right reasons. However, the brief moments where characters sang should simply have been spoken, and less than an hour was not enough to develop the plot as it should have been. Marsha: A Girl Who Does Bad Things, felt like a great play, that had not quite been finished.