Anna Bella Eema (Arcola Theatre)

Anna Bella Eema (Arcola Theatre, until October 12th)


All too often bizarre drama drowns itself in an unfathomable pool of pretentiousness. The inventive modern-day fairy tale currently at the Arcola set in an American trailer park and focussing on a strong mother and daughter bond does quite the opposite – it may leave the audience guessing and thinking but is never less than enthralling.

Receiving its UK premiere at the Arcola Theatre, Pulitzer Prize finalist Lisa D’Amour’s spoken and sung Anna Bella Eema is an incredible piece of storytelling that leaves you open-mouthed – sometimes with wonder and often with stunned mystification. The domestic tale is blended with an anthem to doomed Earth and starts off with a weird vibe only becoming Grimmer as the evening wears on.

D’Amour has reworked the play since its 2001 first appearance in Texas and Jessica Lazar’s direction gleefully embraces the curiosity of a wild play that is probably undefinable. It’s surprising, stylish, beautiful and nightmarish however you happen to view it. But even if we are not always entirely certain of what is going on, the production itself is magnificently polished with three central performances to make you sit up and take notice.

Anna Bella Eema is described as a ghost story for three bodies with three voices. If trying to pin a label on such an eccentric and esoteric work is even worth doing, the nearest one might manage is that it’s a feminist post-modern Samuel Beckett, though even he might have balked at including werewolves, talking foxes, traffic inspectors and a girl made out of mud in the same play.

The audience arrives to discover the three performers (identified only as One, Two and Three in the text) seated on three chairs on a solid concrete rectangle that could be a definition of the area of the trailer in which they live or might represent something altogether more earthy and basic – a seedbed for new life, perhaps. The small raised set designed by Anna Lewis is packed with personal belongings and other items that are sometimes struck or shaken to produce dynamic sound effects.

The performers rarely move from these chairs but colourfully narrate the story of an agoraphobic mum and her sassy 10-year-old daughter who are the only residents of a trailer park which is due to be demolished in favour of a new highway. Perhaps in a bid to ward off the approaching evil the young girl creates a mud girl, or golem, who becomes a friend, an alter-ego and a representation of creative indocility.

The result is a production with hypnotic intensity that doesn’t always work or strike home in the way it should (the fault of the experimental play itself as much as anything), but which has a constant freshness and fascination that always keeps you transfixed.

As the young mother who has become a recluse in her trailer, almost oblivious to the world outside, Beverly Rudd is a commanding figure. Unpredictable and ferocious, yet delicate, her Irene/One speaks as easily about being visited by a werewolf as she does seeing a social worker. We sense that the world she inhabits (as trapped in her home as Nell is in her dustbin in Beckett’s Endgame) is often beyond her comprehension and everything she says and does is a deluded retreat from reality.

Equally compelling is Gabrielle Brooks as the precocious and imaginative daughter Anna Bella/Two, a lively and cheeky portrayal of a young girl on her own voyage of discovery, especially during a five-day coma. Brooks shows us a young girl on the brink of puberty, as eager to escape the confines of her existence as her mother is to be imprisoned by it.

Natasha Cottriall’s Anna Bella Eema/Three has an air of the mythic but also a down to earth impertinence that reflects the dreams of her “creator” as she changes the lives of the people around her forever. Given the play’s title the part is possibly a tad too understated, but Cottriall gives it a sinister depth.

Any male figures – mostly symbols of authority portrayed as senseless or insensitive – are just described or represented by the females. There are also appearances – whether playfully imagined by the women or an invocation of primal instincts – by such unlikely visitors as Frankenstein’s monster, vampires, a raccoon and an owl.

Music and sound designer Tom Foskett-Barnes is the unseen fourth performer, as a scintillating soundscape is produced in music and effects which are as important to the narrative as the lines themselves.

In some ways this is an inscrutable coming of age story, in others the theme is broader (the invasion of the all-American dream, shades of last year’s film The Florida Project, or even the savage rage of a disgruntled Mother Nature), with all three females being aspects of each other, with a keen desire to fight the unrelenting destructive tide of progress. Maybe it’s a cry for help from the helpless… there’s a lot of unpacking to be done before you can reach your conclusion.

Anna Bella Eema’s otherworldly and magical perspectives in this Atticist and Ellie Keel co-production with the Arcola may often lead to frustrated bewilderment for the viewers, but even in the confusion and mess this is a slice of American Gothic with a touch of the outlandish, poetic and profound.

David Guest

Image, Holly Revell

A version of this review originally appeared on The Spy in the Stalls