Derby playhouse is fortunate indeed to be staging the world premiere of Siobhan Dowd’s novel of loss and homecoming which was shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award 2009, the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize 2009 and the Bisto Children’s Book of the Year Award 2010 and has been adapted for the stage by Olivier Award-winning writer Mike Kenny.Dowd died from breast cancer in 2007 at the age of 47. Solace of the Road was her final novel, published posthumously.
The play follows the fortunes of Holly, transforming into Solace by means of her foster mother’s wig, and is played by Rebecca Ryan who will be familiar to many people through her roles in the Channel 4 series Shameless and the BBC drama Waterloo Road. When Holly’s favourite care worker leaves for another job , she is fostered out to a well-meaning, but cloying, middle class couple, Polly Lister plays her foster mother and several other characters in a virtuoso performance. Materially she is well looked after but hates school and is sure that “home” should be more than this, and that if she can just get to Ireland she will find her lost mother and a better life. She takes her foster mother’s wig to make herself look older and sets off on her adventure, physically transformed, then spiritually transformed.
Rebecca Ryan is an engaging and convincing Holly, smart and hard enough to manipulate her foster mother, but naive enough to think she can walk to happiness. She is complex, with passion, anger, sadness, and laughter all part of a rich package . When she wears the wig, she assumes a new name (Solace), and assumes a new persona, simultaneously empowering her, and placing herself in danger. As the story unfolds you wait to see how she might fall by the wayside on her journey. She’s picked up by a man in a nightclub. She gets a lift from a lonely pig-farmer. The worst is inevitable, isn’t it? Although she is beset by danger on every side, Holly also encounters hospitality, kindness, and a heart warming conclusion.
There are currently over 70,000 children in care in the UK and this story will appeal to those in that position, all teenagers who will empathise with Holly’s dilemma, and adults who will shake their heads at her impetuosity, but admire her spirit. Teens who have not lived through similar experiences will come away with a deeper empathy for teens who have, and those teens who have lived through abuse or homelessness may come away with hope, and a deeper understanding of the consequences of their actions, good and bad. Drink, drugs, shoplifting, domestic violence and suicide all find a platform, but this is an uplifting, not grim, tale.
Although on the one hand this is a story about Holly it is also about people who did something to help her and asked for nothing back.
Derby Theatre’s artistic director Sarah Brigham, one of the few women in the role nationally, has done an excellent job to realise this on a stage imaginatively set by Barney George, and has worked tirelessly to involve young people locally in its story by working with Derbyshire schools.
Sarah explained: “Solace’ is a play primarily aimed at a younger audience and has had these people in mind from the outset. Derby Theatre’s has worked in an exemplary manner to engage with children in care across Derbyshire through the development of this piece. Children in care have been into rehearsals and worked alongside the company to help inform this piece and the characters we meet.”
The rest of the cast includes Naomi Ackie, Neal Craig, Jack Finch and Robert Vernon who all take on multi roles with considerable aplomb. “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This” is performed, sung and reprised on several occasions, its sinister menacing undertones perfectly suited to the mood of the production.
The play inevitably starts slowly as the scene, and characters, are set, then careers towards an emotional final scene in the first act, never slackening its emotional ride for the entire second act. Rebecca Ryan is superb, carrying the production and inspiring all around her, all squeezing a lyrical but convincing script to the maximum, evoking a well deserved and rousing ovation at the play’s end. I can see this play being performed for many years to come and becoming a favourite for performance in secondary schools.
Solace of the Road runs until Saturday 14 March.