Powder Monkey

Written by Amanda Dalton, Designed by James Cotterill

THE PUBLIC REVIEWS **** (John Roberts)

“I will make my body a bomb and blast away the flesh from my enemies body.”

How do children perceive war? How do you cope knowing that your brother has been injured fighting for his country? How do you cope knowing at just twelve years old, you have the power to destroy someone’s life with a piece of metal that you hold in your hands?

Amanda Dalton and Director Matt Peover have crafted a production for a younger audience that is not only rich in theatricality but has real soul and a sharp edge that raises some very strong and moving issues.

Performed in the intimate space of the Royal Exchange’s Studio theatre, James Cotterill’s sparse and derelict set helps us realise and see the stark realities of war from the destruction to the abandonment of life and buildings, helping us create this dark reality is a wonderful soundscape of haunting melodies woven with the sounds of bombing, firing guns, rubble falling. You can’t help being submerged into the world of these children from the off.

Stella and Worm meet in an unknown derelict location on the edge of the woods, each with their own problems, but both running away from the harsh realities of life that they face from their families on a daily basis. AK is just twelve years old, forced to be a child soldier in her African homeland, we follow her as she escapes the perils of her captors and the atrocities that she faced, to the place where people talk about freedom, but nothing is as simple as it seems as she it still faced even in this country of freedom, conflicts and social injustice.

Dalton’s script is strong and raises some very powerful and strongly worded messages, helped along by Peover’s energetic and compassionate direction the show has real impact and certainly packs a punch, however issues do arise with a script that is a little slow getting to the main message of the piece. Another jarring issue was the occasional use of breaking the fourth wall, at time this worked however certain moments in the play were destroyed by such a convention…but these are little niggles.

Matthew Abram as Worm gives a warm turn and is suitable energetic as a ten year old boy, however his portrayal is a little stereotypical and unfortunately falls over onto the wrong side of believable. Alisha Bailey as AK is wonderful, her strong nuanced performance hits all the right notes, even with a heavy and lilted accent she manages to captivates and hold the attention of a sold out audience full of 10 year old school children.

It is however the performance of Niamh Quinn as Stella who shines. Not only does her character come across as strong and independent, but she manages to capture and bring a rather splendid and ever present naivety to the role. Using her own mother tongue in performance brings an almost lyrical feel to the proceedings.

Overall The Royal Exchange Theatre should be commended for producing such high quality theatre for a younger audience, something many other theatres attempt to do but fall heavily short of the mark, this is theatre of the highest pedigree, not only does it entertain but it evokes real emotion and leaves you asking many questions as you leave the theatre.

GUARDIAN REVIEW, Alfred Hickling:

Stella and Worm have their own private patch of wasteland on which they stage mock battles with an army of Action Men. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in an African warzone, a young girl known as AK plays similar games, though in her case, the guns are for real.

  1. Powder Monkey
  2. Royal Exchange,
  3. Manchester
  1. Until 19 June
  2. Box office: 
    0161 833 9833
  3. See details

Amanda Dalton's play for children age nine and above stakes out uncompromising territory somewhere between Lord of the Flies and Stig of the Dump. It is hard to be sure in which conflict and for which side AK (Alisha Bailey) is supposed to be fighting, but then, she doesn't know herself. The monologue she delivers about the men who razed her village, followed by more men who issued her with a rifle, is a disturbingly familiar tale from anywhere that places children on the front line.

Her story blends seamlessly with that of Stella (Niamh Quinn), who seems a bully at first, but whose aggression conceals anxiety about her brother, who is on a peace-keeping mission with the British army. Then there is the younger Worm (Matthew Abram), who has a fascination with powder monkeys – the term used for children who had to feed the cannons during naval battles.

Matt Peover's production poses more questions than it answers, but climaxes in a thrilling, hallucinatory vision in which the death of Nelson at Trafalgar and the destruction of AK's village seem to occur at the same time. Though aimed at family audiences, Dalton's play is a short, sharp shock that reminds us we are hardly exempt from the charge of using children as cannon fodder.

Alisha Bailey as AK in the 2010 production