Monkeywood theatre was established in 2003 and has been producing acclaimed and popular productions ever since. Their newest piece, Once in a House on Fire, is based on the prize-winning and internationally bestselling memoir by Andrea Ashworth (which has been optioned for a feature film, while previous stage versions of the book have had theatre appearances in Europe). A haunting and yet funny story of a chaotic childhood in Manchester, the book illustrates Andrea’s upbringing, following her from Manchester to Canada and back. It is a harrowing tale of violence and poverty, but Andrea’s love of books and poetry and of her mother and sisters, coupled with her desperate urge to escape, transform this from anything like an “abuse” story into something spirited and beautiful and unforgettable.
Many of Monkeywood’s plays are set in Manchester, where most members of the company grew up (and where I and generations of my family before me were born). Most recently, Monkeywood enjoyed great success with Maine Road, a compelling story about teenaged boys and their passion for football, revolving around the famous Manchester City Football Club and its old grounds on Maine Road. Choosing their next piece came naturally to the Monkeywood production team: they wanted something that elaborated on the Manchester location and theme and that also told a dramatic and engaging story. During a holiday, the playwright Sarah Hughes read Once in a House on Fire —she felt an immediate and profound connection to the book and became certain that this was to be the new direction for Monkeywood.
The story of Once in a House on Fire connects not only with people from Manchester, but with people from all over the world. It is a story about a working class family, set largely in the 1980s, but almost anyone, anywhere, can relate to its passions and conflicts. What makes this tale stand out from a million others that sound rather similar? It’s the powerful underlying story of Andrea’s and her mother’s and sisters’ characters. The narrative spans 13 years and the audience follows Andrea as she grows from childhood through to adolescence, undergoing a series of changes that are difficult to portray either in writing or on stage. The eloquence with which Monkeywood have executed this is impressive and beautiful: they have managed to illustrate the tale of a brutal home life while simultaneously portraying the flourishing of a young girl with big dreams. Monkeywood are determined that this should not be an “issue” play, and this seems to me essential to the vivid telling of this story. Andrea’s family background is coloured in, but we see that it is not the only thing that shapes who she is. If this had been turned into an “issue” play, it would imply that what makes Andrea’s story so worthy of performance is her and her family’s suffering—and this is not true at all. As with all children who have suffered at the hands of someone they should have been able to trust, the suffering is only one element of this child’s life: beneath and beyond the suffering there is a beautiful, strong girl full of her own creativity and aspirations.
Monkeywood have high hopes for Once in a House on Fire and, after a stint at The Lowry in Manchester, they hope to go on a national tour, and eventually produce a school-based tour. Here at Women’s Worldwide Web, we wish them all the best in their endeavours!
© Women’s Worldwide Web 2011