Crossings is a new play by Julie McNamara who is a stalwart of disability–led theatre. There are five disabled members of the creative team, including McNamara herself.
The plot concerns the predicament of 15 year old Shelley who at the start of the piece is pregnant and on the run from a drugs gang in Liverpool in 2008. She flees to Canning Dock and there in the middle of a storm she gets caught up into the ghostly slaveship Zong. This is the infamous slave ship from Liverpool whose shameful story began to change public opinion against the slave trade.
She meets two figures from the past who have their own stories of confinement, loss and eventual escape. Over the course of a tense 65 minutes we hear their stories and see whether Shelley can learn her own lessons about how to make a new future for herself and her unborn child.
Sophie Benjamin's Shelley is an effective blend of feisty young street girl and scared new mum to be. Naomi Cortes as Nzingah has a great stage presence and skilfully conveys her memories of the slaveship from which she is the only slave to survive. She dances engagingly in African style and has a powerful authority in her performance. In contrast McNamara plays Heggarty the Irish woman who stows away and survives the famine crossings from Ireland to New Zealand disguised as a man.
She offers an insouciance despite demonstrating considerable courage in getting away with the deception. She also has a very pleasing voice in her solo folk song.
Hetty Mae Bailey is the British Sign Language Interpreter and Narrator. She has been an integral part of the production from its earliest stages. Her contribution is a fundamental part of the action. She sits to the side and at critical moments of the drama comes into centre stage to recite more of the story in BSL.
Director Paulette Randall utilises the clever set to great dramatic advantage. She deploys her actors to considerable effect in the differing levels of the wooden structure on which the action is played out. The two layers of decking with stakes act as the boat as well as the jetty. The back projections of sea, sky and slaves are very well realised and add a depth and intensity to the production. They are displayed on the cream cyclorama which hangs from wooden beams and adds to the nautical flavour.
The passions of Shelley’s story in the modern day are well balanced with the harrowing tales of life on board the slave ship both from the point of view of a slave and also the white woman stow away. It perhaps takes just a little too long for the story to take off as the scene is being set and the characters introduced and the use of the mobile phone to convey information about Shelley’s predicament jars.
However the young audience at the Contact Theatre were held by this production and justifiably so. It tells an important story, one which may be unfamiliar to newer theatre goers and it tells it well. The show is touring across the country and reaches cities such as Liverpool and Bristol whose wealth is considered to be derived from slavery.