Natasha Tripney talks to author David Almond, playwright Zoe Cooper and director Esther Richardson about the forthcoming stage production of A Song for Ella Grey

“People have been telling this story forever,” says author David Almond about the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. “It’s one of the oldest stories ever told. There are endless versions of it, in cinema, on stage, in books and poetry and songs. I knew, at some point, I was going to write my version of it.”

Published in 2014, ‘A Song for Ella Grey‘ saw Almond – the Carnegie award winning author of many beloved books for children and young people, including the modern classic Skellig – relocate the Orpheus and Eurydice myth to the Northeast.

The Orpheus and Eurydice myth is a story of enduring love. When his wife Eurydice is killed by a snakebite, Orpheus – who can charm all living things with his music – is overcome with grief and attempts to bring her back from the land of the dead. Almond’s lyrically written retelling of this myth is set among a group of teenage friends, focusing on the bond between Claire and her friend Ella Grey, who are about as close as its possible to be until they encounter Orpheus, a lyre-playing, Doc Marten-wearing young man on Northumberland’s Bamburgh Beach. “It made sense to set it among a group of normal Tyneside teenagers,” says Almond. His daughter was a teenager at the time he wrote the book, so he was very aware of what it was “to be young and falling in love, experiencing the possibility of loss, the possibility of bliss. Plus, I like the idea of Hades being under Newcastle.”

Almond’s book is now the basis for a new touring production by Pilot Theatre, which makes adventurous work for younger audiences, made in association with Northern Stage and York Theatre Royal. The book has been adapted for the stage by playwright Zoe Cooper, whose previous plays include Jess and Joe Forever, another teenage love story inspired by mythology. What stood out to Cooper when reading the book is the way Almond gave “teenager emotions an epic frame.”

Her adaptation is written from the perspective of the young people as they look back on events, retelling their story to one another – and the audience. “The idea is that they are making what happened to them into a myth.”

In any retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth music will play a key role in the story and that’s the case here. The Pilot production will feature music by composer Emily Levy, whose work draws on folk traditions and song.

‘A Song for Ella Grey’ was the first book the play’s director Esther Richardson read after starting in the role of Pilot Theatre’s artistic director and she’s wanted to stage it ever since. “It’s my favourite of David’s books,” she says,“I got totally swept up in his translation of this timeless myth to the locations in which I grew up.”

It’s the first time Richardson is directing something “so deeply connected to my own story and upbringing.” It’s also the first Pilot production since she becameArtistic Director to feature an entirely northern cast and creative team. “Throughout this casting process, we’ve been looking for young people from the region who are diverse in all sorts of ways,” explains Cooper.

Almond’s book both “honours the majesty of landscape and honours the industrial history of the north,” says Richardson. “So often working-class stories are told through a male lens,” she explains, but ‘A Song for Ella Grey’ is “told from the perspective of a survivor, of a young queer woman.”

With her track record of writing sensitively about these topics, Cooper was “the perfect choice to adapt it,” says Richardson” She has a magnificent ear for dialect.”

With ‘A Song for Ella Grey’, Almond says he set out “to celebrate the beauty of Northern rhythms, of the beats of Northern language, to find something that is distinctively regional which can reach out to the rest of the world.”

Cooper’s adaptation is similarly lyrical. “The language of the book is so beautiful,” she says, and her script captures those rhythms. “I naturally write quite poetically” she says, “but sometimes I’m almost a bit embarrassed by it.” Here she felt she had permission to be as poetic as necessary. “It was quite nice to realise that sometimes it rhymes and that’s fine.”

The Orpheus myth is at once a story about love and about loss. “About the possibilities of the human heart,” says Almond. It’s a story about leaving things behind. “It takes place in the liminal space between childhood and adulthood,” says Richardson, at a time in your life “when you start to realise “you can never go back. You can never be a kid again. This adaptation will speak to that.”

The teenagers in the play are just on the cusp of adulthood. “They’ve been close to each other since primary, but some of them know that they’re going to move on,” says Cooper. The friends come from different backgrounds and they’re at that point where life is starting to take them in different directions and they’re starting to wonder if they’ll still be friends in 10 years’ time, she explains. It’s also a play about self-discovery. While it’s in part a queer love story, Cooper wanted to capture a diversity of experience. Claire is a lesbian and she’s starting to understand that about herself. The rest of the friends are also starting to grasp who they are. 

The northern landscape – from Byker to Bamburgh Beach – is central to the story too, though Richardson stresses that the production will steer clear of literal depictions. Instead, she says, they will “allow the words to paint the pictures in the imagination of the audience.” That’s part of the magic of theatre, she says.

“There’s nothing like live theatre,” says Almond. “It’s our oldest form of art. It’s a very ancient way of telling a story. It’s how we told each other stories when we were still in caves 1000s and 1000s of years ago.”

While Almond has adapted several of his own works for the stage before, here he’s placing one of his books in someone else’s hands. This can be scary, he says. “But when you’re working with other artists, like when I work with illustrators and with musicians, if you work with somebody who is really good then you have to trust them, and you have to believe that they’re going to do something wonderful.” 

‘A Song For Ella Grey’ plays at Hull Truck Theatre Tuesday 5 – Saturday 9 March. Tickets are now on sale from Hull Truck Theatre’s Box Office, starting from £16.50 or online here –

A Song For Ella Grey

Dates: Tuesday 5 – Saturday 9 March

Tickets: £22.50 – £16.50 / Conc. £3 off. 

Box office information:

Hull Truck Theatre, 50 Ferensway, Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire, HU2 8LB

01482 323638