An Illuminating Yarn

"It’s amazing how therapeutic knitting can be,” says one of the three characters in An Illuminating Yarn, a one-act play by Jane Pickthall, produced by Newcastle’s Button Box Theatre Company for the Fringe.

An Illuminating Yarn starts with a strong premise. The story of the real Saltburn yarnbomber(s) has yet to reveal who has been sticking all those knitted critters to the rails of that pier.

Knitting is a craft, but dedicated knitters regard it as an art that rarely gets the respect it deserves. When small, intricately knitted figures of famous athletes, rock stars, royalty and other notables suddenly appeared on a 50-foot swath of the resort town Saltburn-by-the-Sea’s pier in North Yorkshire a few years ago, the overnight “yarnbombing” was compared to the artwork of Banksy, the graffiti master who posts his stenciled pieces of social commentary on public walls with the speed and stealth of a ninja.

Based in part on the real story of the “Saltburn Yarnbomber,” An Illuminating Yarn weaves fact with fiction. Pickthall sets up conflict between a pair of friends, recently laid-off librarian Nina (Jill Dellow) and flighty party girl Clare (Hannah Walker). On a moonlit night, Clare takes Nina out to the pier to examine the woolly objects the “phantom knitter” has made, which look like tiny versions of the Beatles, Kate Middleton, the Queen (with corgi attached), Jedward and other celebs. (The set for the show features dozens of adorable knitted effigies, plus a Dalek. They were created by a team of needle-wielding volunteers back in Newcastle, said Pickthall.)

An Illuminating Yarn starts with a strong premise. The story of the real Saltburn yarnbomber(s) has yet to reveal who has been sticking all those knitted critters to the rails of that pier. Just this year, new figures started appearing there, including all the characters in Alice in Wonderland.

Pickthall’s play, however, focuses on the two women, whose friendship lacks much context and whose knotty conversations keep getting snagged by awkward pauses. Depressed over being made redundant from the job she loved, Nina is in no mood to admire a needlework Colin Firth or Andy Murray, berating Clare for being an unsympathetic pal and a bad listener. A third character, a nitwit community support officer (Matt Harden), wafts in a few times in the 40-minute piece, dropping hints about the ongoing investigation into whom the yarnbomber might be. “We know it’s a knitter,” he says, “so that narrows it down.”

Instead of building any real suspense, An Illuminating Yarn too quickly unravels. We find out who’s been frantically making all the “knit-ffiti,” but the revelation is hokey and has no impact. Then boom, the play ends with an abrupt act of violence.

Among the cast, actor Jill Dellow, as Nina, gives the well-crafted performance. The others are a bit fuzzy around the edges in a play that casts on too few original ideas.

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The Blurb

Clare wants to cheer Nina up, and thinks the knitted figures that have been appearing along the pier in Saltburn-on-Sea will do the job. But when Clare accuses Nina of stealing Tom Daley, a storm starts to brew. Will lairy Clare be able to calm neurotic Nina, or will the locals have something other than the strange knitting to talk about after tonight? Inspired by the real Saltburn yarn bombers, An Illuminating Yarn combines comedy and tragedy (and a bit of Buck’s Fizz), and puts friendship, mental health and the recession under the moonlight.