Amanda Dalton, the writer of new children’s play Powder Monkey being premiered in Manchester until 19 June, is an acclaimed playwright and poet. She is also the theatre’s Associate Director and Head of Education and you can tell, because this is a well-written play which shows an understanding both of its protagonists and the influence it has on young audiences.
The title may sound innocent and almost cheeky but Powder Monkeys were children who supplied gunpowder for the guns on ships in the seventeenth century.
The subject matter is serious as we explore wars past and present and their effect on children. Two of them create their own kingdom on the edge of their local wood, blissfully unaware of the battles around them. Stella (12), whose brother is away fighting, allows her 10-year-old neighbour, nick-named Worm, to play with his action men soldiers whilst she creates imaginary images from an arm chair. Suddenly, they feel they are being watched.
Normally, I wouldn’t disclose what follows so people can discover the secret when they see the play. But then I wouldn’t have been able to mention the brilliant acting ability of Alisha Bailey. She plays a 12-year-old African child soldier and refugee, AK whose sudden appearance shatters their dream world. The character is named after the AK 47 assault rifle which we see her carrying in flashbacks to her forced recruitment. And yet she still wants to play.
That is not to detract from the performances of Niamh Quinn as Stella and Matthew Abram as Worm, as they both convey the innocence of children who cannot stay that way for long because of the behaviour of adults. Abram's performance is delightfully childlike but at times Quinn isn’t quite so convincing as her co star.
Sound Designer, Claire Windsor truly impresses as she realistically creates the sounds of war and her police helicopter is especially effective.
I asked two sisters from Lymm what they thought. Katie Thomas-Carter who is only seven, enjoyed it despite the play being aimed at children over nine. “I thought it was quite interesting. You never knew what was going to come next”, she said. Alex (10) said: “It was exciting. Some parts were scary.”
I concur with these young critics, as Powder Monkey is a great play, a tad disturbing but it offers children a difficult subject carried by a great cast, leading to an entertaining and thought-provoking afternoon/evening out.