Review: "A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing" at Corn Exchange Theatre Company

Hannah Ost

OnStage United Kingdom Critic


“The innocence of childhood – so beautifully evoked, so painfully lost.” (Chris Bennion – The Telegraph). 

The first confirmation of Bennion’s statement was the set, designed to demonstrate the slowly tarnished innocence of childhood which was to be Ryan’s main objective when adapting the play. It was minimalistic, with no props onstage and powerfully demonstrated the innocence of childhood;  black in colour, with nothing to draw the eye but the performer, the set became a blank canvas, on which the life of the ‘girl’ would be created. Before Duffin first entered, from stage left, there were a multitude of emotions created – predominantly curiosity to discover the significance of what little I could see. As the play went on, I began to develop an understanding that Bell’s set design was intended to carry the message of being raw and stripped back, so as to truly see the emotions of the character(s) being portrayed. This design beautifully fits with Bennion’s review, as the audience followed the innocence of childhood starting with a new-born-like curiosity and gradually taking on the emotions of the character, with the set becoming the canvas on which to paint them.

Crowley’s costume design was minimalistic. Duffin wore pyjamas, in new condition, symbolising new life and the innocence of her character. Neutral in colour - light blues and greys - they supported the symbols created by the set and covered her completely, from her shoulders to her ankles. This symbolised sleep and the vulnerability and innocence relating to this.

The significance of Duffin’s feet being exposed changed throughout the play. Initially, it demonstrated the character’s innocence and vulnerability; her bare feet gave the impression of being closer to nature, as they came into contact with the wood chippings that were scattered across the stage. This partnership between set and costume symbolised purity and innocence, which was lost as the character developed: During the first rape scene with the uncle, Duffin pulled her sleeves down further over her wrists, to demonstrate the character’s insecurity and how she did not want to be seen by her uncle. The costume powerfully displayed contextual meaning during this scene; Crowley defies what is socially expected of a girl who has been raped (short skirts and low-cut tops), by fully covering the character, to convey the message that young girls can be raped, regardless of what they are wearing. The defiance of rape culture is, therefore, another main aim of the production.

 Image: Mihaela Bodlovic

Image: Mihaela Bodlovic

Wallace’s lighting design was highly successful. The use of a bright, white wash, during any scene in which the uncle was present, was the harshest and brightest use of light overall, demonstrating the vulnerability felt by the ‘girl’, as every area of the stage was exposed. However it could also be interpreted to represent the loss of innocence – the wash of white triggers the audience to remember when the same light was used when the ‘girl’ was in the womb, demonstrating how her purity had been “painfully lost” due to her uncle. Another successful use of lighting was in the use of gels, which changed the meaning of the set. When the ‘girl’ went to walk in the forest, an orange gel was used in a lantern, stage right, to create a soft oval of orange light, around centre stage. Four lights with a yellow gel were positioned above the stage and angled diagonally downwards, to create soft ovals of light, this time in different areas across the stage. Together with the woodchips, an image of a forest floor being covered in leaves was created – giving the impression of it being autumn and demonstrating how the ‘girl’ most likely felt colder due to this. This presented another production aim – to allow the audience in to be immersed into the character’s life, to see and feel as she does, to understand her environment and how this affects her. 

The use of sound worked closely alongside lighting design. Specifically, whenever the harsh white light was used, a recorded, low-pitched droning sound could be heard, through the theatre surround sound speakers.  It was cued at the first mention of the uncle and ended just after he left the room and created the impression that every event with her uncle blurred into a drone – she became desensitised to her uncle’s actions. Its only change in volume was to fade in and out and it was almost impossible to pinpoint when it began – as the pitch was unchanging, I didn’t realise I was hearing it until there was a pause in the dialogue. The fact that this sound had gone unnoticed was an intuitive design choice by Mercier, as it was symbolic of how easy it is, in today’s society, to let sexual abuse go undetected and so another key production aim was achieved.

Duffin’s use of idiosyncrasies was mesmerising: When portraying her grandfather, Duffin squinted her eyes – implying that the grandfather’s eyesight was deteriorating. However, when playing the mother, her eyes and facial expressions were wider, especially during scenes when she was cross with her children, showing she was open with her anger. This remained consistent through the play, showing that this was how the ‘girl’ most remembered her. Her connection to her granddad was shown through use of gait. When walking, Duffin lifted her toe, both in the portrayal of the ‘girl’ and her granddad. This demonstrated the strong connection between the ‘girl’ and her granddad, as she imitates the way he walks. Clearly Duffin had seriously considered contextual backgrounds for her role; as the play is set in the present day, the grandfather was most likely injured during the Irish Civil War (1922- 1923).

The dramatic aims of the ‘girl’ were established throughout the play, through use of vocality, non-verbal communication and audience response. For example, “dash out in the rain” was said quickly, in a hushed tone as she ran across the stage, looking at her feet when she stopped running. This established she was excited by the idea of freedom as the line was said quickly and this was the fastest she moved in the play. However, the idea of freedom and disorder were frowned upon by the character’s Catholic mother, so Duffin stopped running and carefully placed her feet, as the mother was speaking to the ‘girl’. Therefore, Duffin was successful in presenting the objectives of the ‘girl’ and the relationships she has with other characters. 

“A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing” is an outstanding play, full of key and subliminal objectives and messages which show the innocence of childhood tragically lost in a brilliant and moving portrayal.