But Then There Was Ella, a LUU Open Theatre production, debuted in Stage One in stage@leeds. Written and directed by MA Student Jess Macdonald, Ella beautifully and expertly captures the failures in the human condition, tackling big issues and bringing them sensitively to the forefront.
With compelling performances, powerful dialogue and an innovative act structure, But Then There Was Ella grips us from the offset, taking us on a journey of heartache and desperation. We are transported into the inner workings of incarcerated Rachel McArthur’s damaged mind, and are instantly desperate to discover why and how she became this way.
Structured in a three-act, non linear sequence, the first act portrays the young Rachel, played beautifully by Milly Dent, and her struggle with depression, addiction and her marriage breakdown, as well as her almost non-existent relationship with her son, Ryan, played by Phil Jones.
Expertly worked lighting changes split the scenes, and we see the Doctor, Christina Economides, and the older Rachel, Molly Sharpe, in session discussing Rachel’s life, juxtaposed with the past Rachel and her unfolding nightmare. Christopher Hudson’s portrayal of Andrew evokes such deep empathy towards his plight, and to that of his conflict between wanting to help Rachel and his instinct to protect his son and niece.
The closing of Act one literally leaves us on tenterhooks, anxious to find out why Rachel’s life is unravelling at such a dangerous pace. We never see Ella directly, and this simple yet powerful decision to omit adds mystery and power to the narrative as a whole. The first act ends with the young Rachel clutching Ella’s soft toy to her chest and singing a spine-tingling eerie lullaby.
Dealing with such potent aspects of contemporary life in such close proximity to each other is always challenging, yet Ella skilfully manages to handle this with sensitivity, convincingly sustaining this throughout the piece by ensuring the characters reactions are both very real and very raw.
Strong performances from the smaller roles, notably Jessica Williams as Catherine, Rachel’s sister and Ella’s mother, ensure we are hooked from the offset right through to the final scene as the anticipation and tension builds.
The costumes remain true yet at no point do they detract from the characters themselves, with the older Rachel remaining in the same clothes throughout.. The staging and sets are versatile without overshadowing any action, and the different heights enable the scene changes to be smooth and not at all distracting whilst also furthering our sense of disconnection of time and place. The character’s emotional dysfunction was sustained throughout the whole piece with moments of humour, notably the Scottish policewoman, penetrating the silence and complementing the story wonderfully.
But Then There Was Ella captures the human condition in a chilling, emotional way, and the audience is left feeling torn between wanting Rachel to win out over her personal demons as well as feeling justice should indeed be done. We feel emotionally fulfilled and simultaneously saddened at Rachel’s journey and the wrong decisions she has made. Ella certainly seems to me to provoke questions; Are we responsible for everything that happens in our lives? How far can we go in placing blame on events that are fundamentally out of our control?
Jess’s beautifully written script combined with a very professional cast make But Then There Was Ella a truly unique, stand alone play and a genuinely must-see piece.
If the mark of an excellent play is to keep the audience on tenterhooks, desperate for more, then “But Then There Was Ella” is up there with the best of the best.