Jane Upton’s All the Little Lights looks at the world of child sexual exploitation from the perspective of the young girls who are most often its victims. It allows you to see the seemingly obvious factors at play in their lives – poverty, isolation, peer pressure – that make them vulnerable to abuse. When stories such as the Rochdale case shock us and make us wonder how this can happen, All the Little Lights offers some insight into how the lines between harmless fun and danger appear to blur for the children involved. This is important to help us understand how this happens: how children, even those with families that seem to care about them, can fall through the cracks in the system and in society.
Three young girls, Joanne, Lisa, and Amy, are the only characters in the play, an important choice, as we see the story only from their perspective. At the centre of the play is Joanne, who is throwing an impromptu birthday party for her friend Lisa in a tent by the railway. Their relationship clearly complicated, as Lisa is in foster care and has been missing from Joanne’s life, so much so that Joanne has used desperate means to find Lisa, posting a missing persons ad on Facebook. This is one of the first hints that something is wrong, that there is something hidden in the shared past between Lisa and Joanne.
12-year-old Amy seems to be Lisa’s replacement in Joanne’s life and their relationship is also complex. Amy clearly idolizes Joanne, whilst Joanne’s attitude to Amy is callous and often cruel. We learn that Joanne has introduced Amy to ‘TJ’, the local chippy, which seems innocuous until we learn that TJ wants pictures of Amy’s breasts – the first hint at what is going on. Lisa is clearly terrified of TJ, indicating the role he has played in the lives of Lisa and Joanne; we gradually learn more about their experiences and what Lisa has escaped from.
The story and its characters are based on abuse survivors that Upton met through charity Safe and Sound, who works to protect children from sexual exploitation. Joanne, in particular, is based on the story of a victim that Upton met who had recruited other, younger, children into exploitation. Joanne is an interesting character – it’s easy to villainise her, easy to see her as part of the problem, as guilty as ‘TJ’ and the others involved. However, there is a clear undercurrent of desperation and adolescent confusion and, as the play progresses, her own fear and her motivations for what she has done become clearer and it is obvious that she is as much a victim as the other girls.
The quality of the performance unfortunately lets down the subject matter and Upton’s writing. Tessie Orange-Turner is powerful as Joanne, but the performances from Sarah Hoare (Lisa) and Esther-Grace Button (Amy) are inconsistent. Button’s attempts at capturing 12-year-old Amy often feel forced, and there are many moments of over exaggeration. Hoare’s performance as Lisa improves as the play progresses, and the dynamic between Lisa and Joanne intensifies, but many aspects of her performance fall flat.
This is only emphasized by the staging of the play in the intimate setting of the Arcola’s Studio 2, which leaves the actors bare to the audience: the action feels too close and the performers are hampered by the lack of stage space. However, some aspects of the staging work very well: an elevated area serves as the railway lines and is the setting of several of the most powerful moments in the performance. The girls play a version of ‘chicken’ on the railway lines, daring each other to stay on as a train approaches. Stark lighting enhances the moment and captures the courage and the sheer desperation the girls are feeling.
Strong emotion characterizes all of the best moments of the play. When Lisa talks of the people living in distant houses - the ‘little lights’ they can see in the distance - Joanne begs Lisa to run away with her, to keep walking up the tracks to the station to take a train and escape the place they’ve found themselves in; there’s so much desperation encapsulated here that you can’t help but be moved.
All the Little Lights is a play worth seeing for the subject matter alone and – despite some of the limitations of the performance – it shines a much-needed spotlight on an important issue.
All the Little Lights is on at the Arcola Theatre until 4th November. Tickets £17; £14 concession.