The bright new talents of the 2014 Chester Grosvenor Park Open Air Youth Theatre must have wondered what they had got themselves into when they first read Cameron Chalmers’ work The Sea of Trees.
A play about suicide in which the main character’s job is to search for corpses before he falls in love with a girl who kills herself in the closing moments - Romeo and Juliet is a Richard Curtis rom com by comparison.
But it is so beautifully written by the 18-year-old Hammond School student and so exquisitely performed by an exceptional young cast that while the tragic denouement seems inevitable, the journey there is satisfying and rewarding.
That journey begins in the most unexpected of ways - not long after taking our seats in the park’s temporary theatre structure, we are all invited to go back out again to attend a ‘service’.
This turns out to be a series of vignettes in which company members poke fun at death in general - the false platitudes of a funeral soliloquy, musings on the fatalistic relationship of the aforementioned Montague and Capulet and the hysterically funny failed attempts by a war veteran (played with such verve and invention by Marco Simioni) to top himself.
Divorcing these moments from the main theatre production was a wise move by director Freyja Winterson because they strike a very different tone to The Sea of Trees itself which opens with a procession of the spirits of those who have taken their lives in Aokighara, an idyllic woodland at the foot of Mount Fuji but one forever tainted by its nickname of ‘Suicide Forest’.
That said, the early part of the drama does have its lighter moments, mainly provided by the feisty Natasha Hale who is a delight as rebellious Isao Itoi, a reluctant new recruit to the forest work force whose foul mouth and stroppy attitude is soon chastened when she learns what the job entails.
Regrettably Hale becomes somewhat sidelined when the play’s central relationship comes to the fore but this is of necessity to allow Matthew Johnson and Mathilda Hardstone to work their magic.
They play the ‘star crossed lovers’ of this story - Taka, the long-serving head forest worker, and Maya, the troubled young woman he finds handcuffed to a tree and on the brink of despair in the forest where her sister had recently ended her life.
The bond that forms between them is carefully and convincingly forged by the skill of the two young actors who prove the truth of the adage ‘opposites attract’ with Taka’s down to earth sense of responsibility contrasting sharply with Maya’s unpredictable brittleness.
The finest moment of the entire play comes when Taka and Maya stumble across a tacky film crew recording a Most Haunted style TV show which results in Maya putting them to shame by recounting the abuse she and her sister suffered at the hands of their brutal alcoholic father.
Hardstone delivers this speech magnificently, displaying the kind of passion, anguish and fury one would normally associate with a veteran of the stage and it was no surprise to see her receive looks of admiration from many of the professional actors from this year’s Grosvenor Park company who had come along to give the youth project their support.
The young actress - bursting with potential that could lead to great things should she decide to pursue this as a profession - excels again in an extraordinary scene in which she finally encounters the spirit of her dead sister Rinko (played with chilling precision by a graceful and elegant Olivia McNee), an event that triggers her downfall.
To end a youth theatre production with the hero heartbroken and sobbing against a backdrop of chanting spirits of the suicidal dead may sound off-putting but a happy ending would have felt like a cop-out and it proved this side project to the Grosvenor Park Open Air success was not afraid to be as daring as the three main presentations have been this year.
A play which focuses so heavily on a small group of characters meant that many in the company had to make the most of a relatively brief opportunity to shine but it is fair to say everyone successfully grasped their moment in the spotlight.
All of which left me agreeing with the after show comments of cast member Olivia McNee when she said she couldn’t believe it was all over after just two performances and could there be more next year. Amen to that!
Read more of Michael Green's reviews of The Grosvenor Open Air Theatre: