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The Light Burns Blue

by on 27 February 2023

Pixie Perfect

The Light Burns Blue

by Silva Semerciyan

The Questors Youth Theatre at the Judi Dench Playhouse, Ealing until 4th March  

Review by Andrew Lawston

“Photography is truth.  And cinema is truth twenty-four times a second.”  So said Jean-Luc Godard in his 1960 film Le Petit Soldat.  But in 1917 a group of English girls demonstrated that Godard was working from a faulty premise, in a story which captured the imagination of a nation buckling under the burden of the First World War, and even succeeded in duping the father of modern detective fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Light Burns Blue tells the story of some of the personalities involved in the “Cottingley Fairies” photographs, performed with gusto by Questors Youth Theatre.  The floor of Alex Marker and Katarzyna Kryńska’s deceptively simple set is covered with giant photo frames, and an empty frame forms a proscenium arch through which further frames can be seen.  This simple effect gives the set a false sense of depth through forced perspective, and sets up the idea of photographic trickery from the outset.

Director Jason L.Welch chooses to set the scene simply through a silent introduction where several soldiers in First World War uniform bid farewell to family and loved ones and march off-stage, never to be seen again.  The War pervades every moment of the play without ever coming too close.  In a lengthy introduction to the characters, the girls roam over town trying to gather the ingredients for Elsie’s birthday cake despite supply shortages.

Silva Semerciyan’s script chooses not to dwell on the children’s games, or even the photographs themselves.  Instead the play hangs on a confrontation between Wren James’s spirited Elsie and Sadie Noel’s determined Winifred Douglas, the journalist sent to uncover the truth behind the photos.

As the rest of the story is sketched in through flashbacks, in a dizzying number of scene changes performed with great swiftness, this central conversation shows Winifred trying to get to the bottom of why Elsie chose to fake photographs of fairies, hinging on the question of whether the young girl is a true artist.  This leads into some discussions on the nature of art, hinging on the way that Elsie, and Elissa Lomas’s wonderfully enthusiastic Frances, behave like actresses in the photographs.

Winifred and Elsie strike a great contrast.  Elsie is desperate to become an artist but the local art club won’t accept her.  There is a suggestion that the faked photographs will help her be accepted into art schools.  Only 21 herself, Winifred has become a journalist at a young age thanks to a single article she wrote, but is finding her career fraught with difficulty.

Events escalate to the girls being invited to London by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, played with distinguished flair by Edward Gamazeliuc, who is completely taken in after providing a camera for a second set of photographs, a camera which was set up to reveal any signs of dark room trickery.

What could have been a harmless hoax is given extra dramatic weight by the attention given to the story by a British society battered by three years of heavy losses in the trenches, as the bereaved write grateful letters to the girls and declare that their missing loved ones are “with the fairies”.  At the same time, however, we are shown an early scene where Elsie’s dead brother is propped up in a chair for a family portrait, with the photographer even painting pupils on to his closed eyelids.  Who are we to condemn one form of photographic trickery while other forms were so clearly respectable?

Despite the youthful characters, The Light Burns Blue deals with complex and weighty themes unflinchingly, and the large ensemble cast, sadly too numerous to name individually, all bring great energy and focus to telling the story behind some of the most famous photographs of the Twentieth Century.  Their efforts on stage are supported by top-notch direction, lighting and design work, for a wonderful evening’s entertainment.

Andrew Lawston, February 2023

Image courtesy of QYT 

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