The Box of Photographs

Review by Flossie Waite
A Polka Theatre Production
Polka Theatre
22nd April – 15th May 2016
For ages 7-11

“The stains on the walls look like someone wee’d down them.” The audience (four schools-worth of rapt young people) giggle – here’s a character, Chelsea, who sounds like them and shares their sense of humour. And no wonder, considering the play’s genesis. Last year, Polka invited children to submit stories inspired by photographs from the Museum of Childhood, and some of their entries were selected and used by writer Daniel Jamieson to create The Box of Photographs. The stories haven’t been overpolished or crafted beyond recognition – they are scattered and random and kooky, delivered excitedly as words tumble over themselves to get out and into the world. The Box of Photographs is, as far as possible, a play by children, about children, for children.

After her dad leaves, Chelsea (Jessica Hayles) has to move with her mum into a miserable new house. Everything is a mouldy brown and the wallpaper is peeling away from the walls. But when Chelsea finds a box of photographs under her bed, she begins to wonder about the house’s previous owner. Now that she has Alzheimer’s, Mrs Lieben (Hannah Boyde) lives in a care home, but in her prime she was an eccentric photographer who spent her days sporting a boiler suit, pushing an empty pram, and taking pictures. Inspired by the images, Chelsea begins to make up tales, conjuring up a young, but increasingly forgetful, Mrs Lieben. Together they create stories that help them to remember, and encourage them to be brave.

The pictures are projected onto the back wall of the set – black and white images, sometimes only partially revealed, often slightly fuzzy, are ripe fruit for the characters’ stories. A child kneels on the ground, hands keenly touching a white box – what’s inside? A boy stands alone on top of a metal funnel in the middle of a street – why? Chelsea and Mrs Lieben’s stories feel improvised and fresh as they take it in turns to add new details, layering fanciful and contorted narratives with completely unpredictable endings.

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The stories are surreal and bizarre – huge magnets that can drag people through doors, a posh man who dances on his posh hat – and delightfully gross and scary – disappearing children, the guts of dolls, skewered eyeballs. Countless stories and countless characters cross the stage, making it admittedly a bit hard to keep across everything that is going on, but the ramshackle nature of their storytelling is part of what makes it so believable, and so enjoyable.

Initially, the two illustrate their tales by moving around some of the contents of Chelsea’s bedroom – cuddly toys, cardboard boxes, lamps. Gradually the storytelling becomes more sophisticated, as imaginative technical effects are also introduced. Some of these are fairly simple, like the use of a trap door, while others are more ambitious, like huge animated projections that cover the entire stage. Masterfully timed and delivered, they illustrate the action and provide visual gags and surprising tricks; the reaction is always the same – gasps of excitement.

Though Mrs Lieben tells Chelsea that she should “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, some contextual knowledge about the play and its characters makes it all the more extraordinary. The photographs were taken by Donne Buck, an octogenarian activist who has spent a lifetime campaigning for children’s right to play. Over sixty years, he captured images of young people playing in inner-city playgrounds, from the early days following WWII when they were basically still derelict bomb-sites, up to the more sophisticated (and safe!) adventure playgrounds we’re familiar with today. Buck had no idea that his photos would form an internationally significant collection, to be archived by the V&A. And Mrs Lieben is based on Vivian Maier, a nanny from Chicago who for forty years spent her spare time taking photographs of the city streets. Though she constantly took pictures, she never showed them to anyone. It wasn’t until after she died that Maier’s photographs were published, and she became an immediate sensation.

We are often told that children have been central to a play’s development, but that has never felt truer than with The Box of Photographs. Their involvement has created a thrilling piece of theatre that defies the narrative conventions they are yet to learn. It seems only appropriate to conclude this review in the sudden, hilarious, and unexpected way one of the stories was ended:

“All of a sudden, everything went mad!” Dance break. The end.

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One response to “The Box of Photographs

  1. Flossie Waite has made a really good job of her review of what is a masterly example of children’s theatre that appeals to all ages.

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