Based on Andrea Ashworth’s award-winning memoir, Once in a House on Fire is the story of a Manchester childhood in the 70s and 80s, filled with poverty and domestic abuse. Written by local company Monkeywood’s artistic director Sarah McDonald Hughes, the play has already enjoyed success - this is its second tour - and will be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.
Lorraine (Francesca Waite) marries twice, both men proving abusive towards her and her three daughters, Andrea (Andy), Laurie and Sarah. Cleverly the audience is shown only hints - a misplaced hand, an eruption over a book – rather than very explicit violence, making the terrified reactions more harrowing.
Andy (McDonald Hughes) has a quiet strength and powerful presence though it is sadly clear that she is old well before her time.
In spite of the trauma and violence throughout the girls’ childhood, director Martin Gibbons and writer McDonald Hughes inject some lovely moments of humour: a midnight trip to the outside loo of their Moss Side terrace, a vivid teenage night out. These serve to remind the audience that normal life continued for Andy outside her home.
Lois Maskell’s set design is clever, using a house wall as both interior and exterior works really well. Several of Andy’s (minimal) costume changes are done on stage which again is cleverly and smoothly carried out. One thing which is slightly less successful is that cast members move props between scenes. At times this detracts both from the overall pace and the impact of the previous scene.
Doubling is used very effectively; Francesca Waite plays mum and youngest daughter – Sarah’s innocence and optimism contrasting with Lorraine’s tired acceptance. Emily Fleeshman is particularly striking as sister Laurie and best friend Wendy – as whom, Fleeshman gives the whole audience reason to laugh – demonstrating how totally different characters provide important support to Andy.
The final scene between adult Laurie and Andy touchingly echoes an earlier, childhood scene. Although the end of the play opens a remarkable new chapter in Andy’s life, because of the outstanding storytelling and strong performances throughout, the audience is left feeling it is not simply an ending, especially for those she leaves behind.