‘Tramlines’ is a stunning debut from a raw young talent, second year Sussex student Sophie Miller. It’s a highly unusual play featuring a predominantly female cast, and focuses on the often untouched issue of female madness.
Set in a mental asylum where the inmates are playing cards for a great deal of the play (possibly intended to reflect the monotony of such institutions), ‘Tramlines’ weaves together various sub-plots to trace the life stories of the female inmates. We are led to question whether the characters deserve to be in a mental institution, thus challenging our ideas of what really constitutes insanity.
The action is made all the more interesting by profound and gripping monologues. One character, for example, meditates on the nature of criminality and the commonly-held perception of female murderers as being far more monstrous than their male counterparts.
Narration, off-stage voices, direct address and a disturbing monologue disguised as a children’s story are other techniques used to give texture to the play. Speaking of her influences, writer and director Miller says: ‘Structurally I’m hugely inspired by Woody Allen and his non-naturalist style of film.’
It’s a rare talent to be able to make an audience laugh out loud and ponder serious issues in equal measure, but Miller succeeds in doing this. There are some memorable black comic moments, such as the scene in which anorexic Holly, verging on hysteria presents a make-believe show with tips on ‘how not to eat.’ The striking final line of her monologue: “It’s better to be dead than fat!” satirises the twisted logic of anorexia sufferers, whilst provoking the audience to reflect on the poignancy of this amusing scene which is based on a tragic, real-life issue.
The dialogue is witty, natural and daring, as is the characterisation. The talented and versatile cast all succeed in convincingly playing several very different roles, often switching characters in the space of a few seconds, whilst the closeness to the stage allows the audience a greater level of engagement with the plot and the characters’ emotions.
Talented Tessa Shrubsall plays the role of Ruby, an emotional young woman married to her abusive and jealous husband, Will. Silenced by fear of her husband, she gives up any sense of personal life for him. Her best friend Zac is murdered as a consequence of the husband’s jealousy, and Ruby surprises the audience by killing Will. The play ends with Ruby helplessly crying over the two men’s deaths.
Ella St. John McGrand is another actor who shines, and whose portrayal of angry Londoner June provides us with some of the funniest moments in the play. McGrand describes Sophie Miller as “an ace director.” She adds: “Sophie had a really clear vision, but she lets us add our own ideas too.”
The script itself was brilliant and the way the play was set up was rather original: the lights did not dim once throughout the play, even in between scenes, which allowed the audience to engage with the characters throughout. There was no need for complex setting or big props, as the complexity of the characters filled the room with intensity.
‘Tramlines’ is exciting, unpredictable, innovative and full of gritty drama from beginning to end.