Having finally escaped from her abusers and found some stability in a foster home, Lisa is afraid when Joanne tracks her down and bullies her into coming to her own fifteenth birthday party in a litter-strewn gravel lot next to a railway line. Their relationship is a complicated one: Joanne is older, and helped bring Lisa into the child sex ring of which she is also a victim, but they were once close, having found in each other a sort of family. Now Joanne is getting too old for the tastes of her abusers, and so must demonstrate her value by returning Lisa to the fold and recruiting twelve-year old Amy, the party’s other attendee.
All the Little Lights, directed by Laura Ford, takes on the challenging subject of the sexual exploitation of children. It was written by Jane Upton, with support from the charity Safe and Sound, and won the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright 2016.
For a play about sexual exploitation, it’s not always as serious as one might expect. Amy, in particular, finds many ways to amuse herself, taking a childish delight in magic candles and re-enacting scenes from ET. In highlighting the childhood the girls should be having, the allusions to sexual abuse are made all the more chilling.
Sarah Hoare (Lisa) gives a powerful performance as the terrified and traumatised Lisa, while Tessie Orange-Turner’s Joanne is manipulative and abusive, yet not unsympathetic. The complexity of the relationship between these two characters is at the heart of the play, and the actors bring it to life capably. Esther-Grace Button does a fantastic job of capturing Amy’s optimism and vulnerability, energetically embodying the youthfulness of her character.
The plight of the girls is distressing to see, and the sensitive subject matter is handled well. However, while the play is informative, there is little that is open to debate: the sexual exploitation of children is bad. Of course, it would be ethically dubious to challenge that view, but the relatively uncontroversial subject matter does give All the Little Lights a slightly muted feeling. The character of Joanne is the closest it comes to ambiguity, but ultimately her abusiveness is easily understood as the product of the abuse she has suffered, making it difficult to feel anything other than sympathy. It is a compassion-provoking, but not all that thought-provoking, play; edifying, but not very intellectually stimulating.