Zelle de Brulle, a precocious entomologist, has caught a lampyris noctiluca (the common glow worm) in the gardens of Oxborough Academy for Young Ladies. She has caught and killed thousands of insects before, but this time something is different. Something is wrong. And she cannot bring herself to kill it.
To get to the bottom of Zelle’s crisis, performers Julie Maguire, Conor O’Riordan and Maria Guiver recreate scenes from her life in the setting of her favourite uncle’s (William Charles “Bugboy” de Brulle) laboratory. These range from embarrassing family parties and encounters with her uncle to her heartbreakingly tender memories of the girls in school who’d ever noticed her, all weaving together a complex portrait of a lonely teenage girl.
This show has been designed to welcome the audience into the story, with a set reminiscent of a scene from a Roald Dahl book – walls lined with book-filled shelves, twisted bottles, peculiar specimens in jars and a whole assortment of weird and wonderful collectibles. This is complemented by the innovative use of lighting to illuminate Zelle’s little jar and move the story from various points in her memory back to a moonlit summer garden. The performers’ costumes are best described as Enid Blyton with a twist, and specific props are used to signify particular characters throughout the many scene changes. These details enable audience members both big and small to follow Zelle’s story. Hers is a tale told often in children’s literature – that of a child who does not fit in with the world around her – and yet there is something different to it. The story focuses as much on the smaller details of her life as it does on the more significant, informing the development of the protagonist’s character so that she is empathetic despite her more obvious flaws.
It is clear that Umbrella Theatre Project, born out of the Lír International MFA programme, is a group made up of members from every corner of theatre industry. Attention has been paid to each element of production, which makes Gloworm stand out in a festival whose acts are often forced to compromise on production due to time and financial constraints. As well as outstanding production quality, a child-focused story has been created which neither condescends to children nor adults.
The narrative is somewhat more complex than is to be expected from such a youthful play. However, the ending, though somewhat difficult to comprehend, has multiple interpretations, and this is something often lacking from children’s theatre. Ultimately Glowworm doesn’t shy away from the more difficult aspects of feeling ‘different’, and doesn’t depend on the happy ending that many stories like it finish on. Its message is more one of empathy with those who are different, and cannot depend on the understanding of others to make peace with this fact. It is a parable which encourages us to understand and accept ourselves for who we are, so that we may appreciate the way we shine and how we bring that light to those we love.