Children’s and young adult’s fiction have long been populated by orphans, characters who are both usefully free from parental restraints while also cut adrift from the traditional safety and security of the family unit, often left to make their own way through a confusing and frightening world.
Such is Julia Donaldson’s 15 year old protagonist Leonora, or Leo, when we first meet her; an orphaned Anglo-Chinese daughter of two musicians, on the run from a disinterested aunt and creepy Uncle John, whose habit of staring at her while she’s asleep has shifted from unsettling to abusive. With nowhere else to go, she heads for Glasgow, hoping to track down her paternal Chinese grandparents, who she has never met thanks to a family rift before she was born.
Leonora soon runs out of what little cash she had, quickly reduced to stealing donuts from 13 year old paperboy and wannabe gumshoe detective Finlay. Before too long, she’s taken in by one of the city’s marginalised inhabitants; the generous, but unpredictable Mary, who spends her Disability Living Allowance on biscuits, cat food and Johnny Cash records. With the help of Mary and an ever-keen Finlay, hoping to make amends, Leo begins to make some progress in tracking down her family among Glasgow’s Chinese community, unaware how every move they make increases the likelihood of her Uncle catching up.
Part detective story, part thriller, this fast-moving co-production (adapted from Donaldson’s novel by the Tron’s Artistic Director Andy Arnold and directed by Katie Posner, Associate Director at York's Pilot Theatre) almost literally hits the ground running. For the next 80 minutes it seldom lets up; on occasions, shifting from one scene to the next with such haste that you feel its strong cast have little chance to breathe between switching characters. (While a superb Jessica Henwick and engaging Grant McDonald play Leo and Finlay throughout, all the other characters we see are performed by Suni La, Gaylie Runciman and Stephen Clyde.)
In some respects, this production feels like a modern-day Dickensian tale of self-discovery, in which an innocent child finds themselves hiding amongst the lower orders—in this case, the Buckfast drinkers and mental health service survivors seldom promoted by SeeGlasgow.com. Yet, by choosing to make Leo the centre around which everyone else circles, this adaptation rather robs her of the full opportunity to grow emotionally, at least to the extent that we see Mary and Finlay influenced by her.