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Deepover
The Pirate Castle
16th August 2013

★★★★★

Deepover publicity photograph

Photography © Sheila Trow

As a northerner myself, I approached Deepover, a play about a bunch of kids from the north-east, with both trepidation and excited anticipation. Fear due to the long association of hackneyed misery porn and misrepresentation of Willy Russell, Godber, Cartwright and to a lesser extent Barry Hines. They have their place - but one that should be consigned to the dustbin of history. And excitement because it was put together by Emma Trow, one of the few people to have the (dubious) honour of being awarded five stars by us at last year's Camden Fringe for the vital and haunting Firing Life. Has she done it again? If you've been reading this from the top down, and not starting in the middle like some idiot, you already know the answer.

The concept is a simple one - during a snowstorm while at two sleepovers, eight kids get a glimpse into their future. Trow says she's drawn on her own childhood and tried to contact old classmates to get some sense of authenticity alongside the imagined and she succeeds. True, there are some storylines that are more melodramatic than others, but that's just the blackberries in the fruit salad, to coin a phrase I've just made up.

We meet four girls, studious Terri (Georgia Whyte), beautiful leader Hayley (Jenny Luard), second-in-command Sophie (Laura Robson) and slight outcast Gemma (Holly Robson). We meet four boys, their leader Tristan (Charles Blyth), John (Paul McArthur) - a kid with a troubled home life, alongside fat, smelly Dom (George Olney), and autistic Danny (Simon Hewitson). They may be painted in broad strokes, but if the Breakfast Club has taught us anything, it's that kids, until you get to know them, are compartmentalised even by their own peer group. It also allows for a starker contrast between the kids as they were and the adults they might become.

Now, there's usually a cringe factor, an uncanny valley effect, when adults play kids. Any potential for cheesiness is nipped in the bud by the incredibly strong cast, both playing up to stereotype and adding dimensions to make the frequently emotionally-charged script resonate. I hate to play favourites, and shows like this make it incredibly difficult for me to do so. I could write a paragraph on each of the actors but Whyte's Terri - essentially the main character - runs the gamut of emotions and Whyte acquits herself beautifully. Smart but fragile, the thinker of the group (never so obvious as when Trow seats her in the audience as an actual observer) her heartbreak reaches its climax in a fantastic duet with Luard's Hayley over make-up.

The ensemble of Deepover

Photography © Simon Hewitson

Hewitson too gives a well-judged performance as Danny, hitting the Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man end of the autistic spectrum rather than Sean Penn in I Am Sam. He's incredibly endearing, with a slightly blank stare and a vulnerability that oddly protects him. Despite this, he's still very much a kid and his song about being "special" both moving and playful. In fact, there's not a weak song in the pack, even when they could be a little naff, on the nose and Disneyfied like Friendship, they're charming not cloying.

Going back to that, Trow has managed to elegantly dodge most of the pitfalls of this sort of thing. Her great cast ensure nothing's forced. What may have run the risk of being an issues-led piece (autism, alcoholism, war, death, therapy, lesbianism) instead has them simmer away in the background. The songs, as I said, aren't your usual musical fayre but better for it, and lead to a teary, powerful ending. The play is about the north, but presents it as an actual place where people want to live and not just exist until an escape opens up for them. It quite simply has its cake and eats it too.

As last year, a lot of respect has to be given simply for the intelligent staging of it all. There's almost magical realism as LEDs and fairy lights become snowstorms and stars - a recurring motif - and blankets hung on washing lines a blizzard and barriers both literal and metaphorical. The production captures both the wonder of growing up and the bleak mundanity of doing so, playing up the themes beautifully. In one example of dozens, the cast hold up John's alcoholic father (Hewitson) while McArthur puppeteers him, adding unease and an erratic and troubling jerkiness to his largely lifeless body. There's not one scene, not one second, that Trow hasn't planned perfectly as far as design.

There's one caveat to all of this sickening praise, one niggle that needs addressing. While Trow does a top job of balancing a largely ensemble cast (although Terri really is the main character) she neglects poor Danny's adult story, providing him with a bittersweet afterthought rather than an arc. Still, if the worst you can say about a play is that you want more of it, that's not too bad. Oh, and on a technical level, the keyboard playing ever so slightly drowned out some of the singing. But with the sheer scope and imagination on display here, it's really nothing to worry about in the first instance and definitely not enough to knock a star off - that would seem spiteful.

So, yes, Emma Trow has done it again. Let's see if, in the remaining week, anything else comes close. On the whole, it's been a year of exceptionally high quality at the Fringe - look at the number of four star reviews we've dished out, much as it pains us to do so - and there's still all to play for. But if others don't reach the top (we're notoriously difficult to please) we'll hopefully see Trow again next year. She'd better make it a hat-trick.

Deepover ran from 14th to 18th August 2013 at the Pirate Castle, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)



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