Continuing the practice of bringing new theatre-works to Hull audiences, Heads Up Festival presents The Ballad of Paragon Station written and performed by Hester Arden. Michelle Dee slips past the ticket inspector and settles in for the ride.
The blurb says the play is ‘inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood’ and conceptual portrait photographer Cindy Sherman. Whereas Thomas, sets his tale in a small Welsh mining village called ‘Llareggub’, Hester’s compelling and contemporary story plays out over one night, in her hometown of Hull.
This night-time world is brought violently and vividly to life through Arden’s words. Early on poetic descriptions of the river and the mud paint the scene, easing you in gently, descriptions of time and place immediately familiar.
The beautifully presented booklet of photography by the play’s collaborator Jessica Mahaffey, asks on the inside page, ‘ What keeps you awake at night, Stacey Kay?’ And with that we are thrust deep inside a nocturnal world of curious characters.
Jessica’s portrait images projected on the back wall, help introduce each character, all fighting in their own way, to get through the small hours until daybreak. Hester plays all four characters; by altering her voice, changing her stance, she switches from a bored Stacy Kay relating her hopes and fears to her unborn child, the neurotic Rachel scared of the outside world, the young chancer Frances and pool hall Jamie: lost souls all.
It’s the kind of play and performance that you want to see again, not just because of the dramatic shifting story, but because you want to spend more time, in the world Arden creates. This is the dark forest made of concrete and glass, inhabited by strange beings, where strange and surprising things can happen. There’s the tension and sexual energy inside the very late night clubs; the walls closing in on a rented city flat; the shadowy streets: the temptations: a powerful drug, the city at night.
You know these people, know people like them, you’ve seen them on nights out… you’ve been them. A dark part of the city it maybe, but it is not without its humour. There’s Cinderella out on the prowl, looking for well just about anyone, anyone who will get her inside the club.
Again I return to the writing, the poetry and authenticity. The Ballad of Paragon Station feels like it would work just as well on the page. Pulsing like the lights in the Circus bar: it comes alive like coming up on a pill, sharp as the crush of glass underfoot, the glare of streetlights and flickering TV screens: the threat and thrill of the chase. One hell of a writing debut and a first class performance.