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Nicola Mostyn on this innovative adaptation of the Jackie Kay novel

Published on November 13th 2007.


Adapting a novel for the stage must be a fairly tricky proposition. In a novel the imagination, and so the scope, is limitless. The restrictions of the theatre are presumably that so much of what goes on has to happen before our eyes.

In Jackie Kay’s novel for young people, Strawgirl, the everyday aspects of life on a farm are mixed with the fantastical. Milking cows and mucking out sit alongside a girl of straw coming to life and a cow that jumps over the moon. Happily, the challenge for writer Amanda Dalton and director Sarah Franckom on translating this magical work for the stage has resulted in a very inventive production.

Strawgirl tells of Molly ‘Maybe’ MacPherson, a Scottish schoolgirl who works hard on her parents’ farm, looking after the ‘coos’. (That’s Highlands talk for cows by the way). Her father, Jamie, is an Ibo, born in Africa; her mother’s family have spent years working the land and Molly’s mixed heritage and dark skin means she gets picked on at school. Worse, the landowner, Arnold Barnes-Gutteridge has plans for Wishing Well Farm and wants to evict the family. When a tragic accident occurs, Molly begins to feel alone and overwhelmed until a voice pipes up from the straw bales…

The measures Dalton and Franckom have taken in the rather daunting task of recreating a working farm onstage are visible before the play begins. As the audience take their seats, Molly lies onstage tending to a toy farm equipped with tiny cows. Not only does this mean that Molly can ‘work’ the farm as she does in the book, but the miniature smallholding set alongside real size straw bales neatly compliments the story’s magical elements.

It also provides some amusing effects which will grab the children’s attention, such as when Molly milks one of the toy cows and a gush of milk descends from the ceiling into a bucket.

Jackie Kay is adept at dealing with serious issues with directness and heart and Dalton has translated this into the atmosphere of Strawgirl, which does not shirk from some of the really nasty elements of Molly’s situation but conveys the issues with humour and optimism. So the odious Arnold Barnes-Gutteridge is horribly racist towards the family, but you feel sure that his ignorance, which goes along with a sort of childish foolishness, will be justly repaid.

The points raised about land ownership are serious but simply depicted and while there are some very moving moments concerning Molly and her father, these are well handled, achieving the right amount of poignancy for an audience containing children.

The cast is excellent, with Lisa Livingstone particularly captivating as Molly, delivering some great physical theatre and a commanding vocal delivery. There is also much humour to be had from the giddy Strawgirl, voiced by Claire Brown, whose unfamiliar language and comical tone derive some delighted laughter.

Overall, the play manages a wonderful sense of the fusion of Africa and the Highlands embodied in Molly. The music mixes Scottish fiddle and African drums, the characters sing traditional song from both worlds and, of course there is Strawgirl, a symbol of the highlands crops plus the myths and the magic of Africa whilst being, at heart, the straightforward and universal emblem of a young girl in need of a friend.

Strawgirl is showing in The Royal Exchange Studio alongside Jackie Kay’s poem cycle >i>The Adoption Papers, a work which promises further exploration of the themes of identity and belonging in its story of a child born to an African father and British mother and later adopted. And if you like what you’ve seen, check out the lunchtime poetry reading by Kay and Dalton in the Main Theatre on Nov 24 which brings this run to a winning conclusion.

Strawgirl and The Adoption Papers, to Nov 24, Royal Exchange Studio (Royal Exchange, St Ann’s Square, City. 0161 833 9833 www.royalexchange.co.uk

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