The play, written by Australian playwright, Angela Betzien, was commissioned by Graffiti and had its world premiere in 2010 at the company’s theatre in Blackpool.
Although Frank Sparrow is aimed at a young audience, Graffiti’s artistic director, Emelie Fitzgibbon, says there’s something special about the play that appeals to both teen and adult audiences. “It has a kind of quirkiness. A lot of adults would be fans of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels and the whole magic realism thing, the idea of the underworld and the overworld. The play really struck a chord with a broad audience.”
This allegorical play explores the stark 21st century urban reality and the mythic underworld of the dead. The play is set in Shadow City. A newborn baby is found in the field of a farmer called Mr Sparrow. A member of the public finds the baby and takes him to a police station. But nobody claims this abandoned infant. He is adopted and raised in Shadow City and is named Frank Sparrow.
Frank Sparrow turns out to be an odd child. He hates being trapped inside; he likes to roam and doesn’t abide by the rules of society. This gets him into a lot of trouble with the law. He becomes involved in a gangland war in Shadow City, chased by two gangs.
“The script is kind of Romeo and Juliet mixed up with Orpheus in the Underworld,” says Fitzgibbon. When she first read it, she says she was captivated by its strangeness and its disruption. “It didn’t let me go. It still hasn’t let me go. It’s a world of fantasy with a deep core of reality and imaginative resonance for audiences.”
Set on a scaffold, it’s a highly physical show. The cast of five professional actors (who play multiple characters) manipulate the set with flying and running sequences which give it a fast pace and edginess. There are also television sets on stage through which the audience can see the underworld. The play is about the balance between the two worlds.
To get inspiration for the play, Betzien spent time in Cork, travelling around the city and outlying places with Fitzgibbon. Betzien became interested in the changeling myth and the idea of two worlds co-existing.
The play was developed by the two theatre-makers in New York at a scheme entitled New Plays for Young Audiences.
Where in the World is Frank Sparrow? isn’t necessarily an educational play. “I’m very much an advocate of work that speaks on a number of levels while tapping into the educational curriculum,” says Betzien. “The play taps into ideas of social identity and relationships as well as the politics of space, territory and belonging. The parents are not the focus of the piece. It’s very much a world where we see the lives of the teenage characters.”
Fitzgibbon says that in Ireland, there are “very few” playwrights writing for teenagers. “Most of the theatre companies producing plays for young audiences concentrate on children. Companies tend to put on curriculum plays for teenagers. It’s quite unusual to get original work for teenagers in Ireland. We feel it’s important to put on such work. A country shouldn’t ignore its teenagers.”