Effie’s Burning

In the early ’nineties, I saw a band called the Manic Street Preachers on one of their early tours supporting their first album. They played for little more than an hour, then left the stage: such was their thing. No encore, just an hour of frenzied neo-punk. But that was all that I, as an audience member, required and I felt that my punk-rock needs had been satiated.

Effie’s Burning is described as a ‘short play’ and lasts a little over an hour. That hour left me and my theatrical needs totally satiated. Totally satisfied. Full up, you may say. And there are several very good reasons.

First, there is the writing and subject matter. Written in the ’eighties by Valerie Windsor, it is a piece which deals with what was going on at the time as regards the early runs of the ‘Care in the community ‘ project. It is a story of a time when those with mental health issues were hidden, forgotten about, removed from society and massively misunderstood.

This is a tale about the eponymous Effie and how her lifelong condition of being what we would now call ‘Special Needs’ has been – well, to say ‘traumatic’ would be something of an understatement. Suffice to say that she has, for better or worse, become institutionalised, but the powers that be have decided to take her and others away from what has become for them a feeling of safety and security and place them in what can be best described as an ‘assisted living facility ‘, where she and others feel considerably less safe and are neither understood nor treated well. Effie is badly burned after a fire which originates in her bed in the facility.

Now we come to the next reason for my theatrical tummy to be so full: the performances and direction. This is a highly emotive piece and needs strong directorial vision and two excellent female actors. It is Effie whom we meet first. Louise Thomas gives what can only be described as a masterclass in character performance. She is totally immersed in Effie and gives an extremely convincing portrayal of a ten-year-old in the body of a 60-something lady. The burns the character suffers look incredibly realistic and agonising: hats off to make-up artist Shanine Francis for this excruciatingly painful-looking imagery.

As Dr Ruth Kovacs, Tanya Alexander, making a welcome return to the stage, is exceptional. I felt that I was not watching a performance here, I was watching what this doctor is actually going through. She is on a journey like any doctor, but the introduction of Effie has blind-sided her and taken that journey on a new and fierce tangent. This is a fully rounded performance by a very talented actress. Not only does Tanya give us Dr Kovacs, she also gives us the doctor’s boss, Mr Jessop-Brown – so convincing is this that I really started to firmly dislike the bloke.

This is a first time out for director Angie Gray and she has painted a picture with this piece. It is clear that this whole story has flowed through her to such an extent that she and the actors have truly understood the message of this play. I hope that we will see more from her. Amateur theatre needs biting, edgy subjects and this director will not, I am sure, shy from bringing us those.

With a support team including Gary Hayton on sound, Ricky Da Fonseca and Chris Butler on lights, this is a short, sharp shot in the arm from Poole-based Paradox Productions and an absolute treat for the eyes and ears.

Further performance at the Alma Tavern and Theatre, Clifton, Bristol, 14 October at 7.30.