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Ashes and Sand.
The Review Page.

This page has the critical response to Judy's George Devine Award winning play, which premiered at The Theatre Upstairs at The Royal Court Theatre in December 1994.

Susan Lynch, Samantha Morton, Melissa Wilson and Rakie Ayola.

The recent spate of publicity about female steam-ganging lends a topical tilt to Judy Upton's award-winning variations on sex and violence. Set in a washed-out seaside resort in the crappy country of government schemes, broken promises, and babies born out of boredom, her new play tracks the twisted pipe-dreams of a gang of girls as they steal, steam and seduce their way through their adolescence. Hayley, their leader, has mapped out their lives in spilt blood, dope and downers, but her plans quickly disintegrate, alongside the gang's loyalty, in the face of Danny, a rotten copper with gaping emotional wounds and a fetish for stilettos.  Simultaneously attracted and repelled by Hayley and the cheap thrills the gang-of-four are so keen to offer, Danny cannot prevent himself from luring them into his own sexual fantasies. It is left to Hayley to round up her troops and wreak revenge.

Upton's is a bleak and twisted world where the boundaries between victim and Perpetrator are not easily drawn, where betrayal is commonplace and where dreams and wrists are easily slashed.  From time to time she loses her grasp of the psychological realism that anchors the piece, and some of her contortions are over-writerly. However, these are quibbles in the face of the bizarre web of obsession and revenge she spins with painstaking detail and a surreal veneer that lifts the play way above the pedestrian. Ian Rickson makes a powerful stab of a production that only occasionally weighs heavily on Upton's more delicate twists. Jeremy Herbert's design - a stylish maze of mirrors - reflects some odd angles and chilling juxtapositions, and the performances by the cast of seven are unreservedly excellent.

Kate Stratton - Time Out 14-21/12/1994

In Judy Upton's raw, brutal and darkly eloquent 95-minute play, everybody is both trapped and on the run. Four working class teenage girls, led by 15year-old Hayley (Susan Lynch), attack solitary men on the seafront and rob them: they're saving up to get out of "this crappy country", somewhere far, preferably Bali. The girls all fancy Daniel (Nick Reding), a young police sergeant - especially Hayley, who is infatuated with him to the point of obsession. Daniel is attractive, but he could also be their protector. The problem is that he is a deeply troubled man himself: his sexuality is all askew, and you soon sense that, for him, applying for a transfer to Gibraltar is some kind of escape.  So who is the hunter, who is the hunted?  Who is strong, who is weak?  This is a world of female frustration and male fear. Daniel fears love and/because he is incapable of it: the male world of power is built on insecurity and protected by evasion.

Upton's writing is not yet, fully formed, but it has a hard, visionary power, big with promise. The seven actors work with the text as if they were living it.  Watch this playwright.

Sunday Times 11/12/1994

Winner of this year's George Devine Award for new writing, Judy Upton's 90-minute study of lust n violence is both mature and peculiar. Mature in its capable use of language, the brash street-talk of the gang of teenage girls rampaging along the Brighton seafront, the evasive confidences of Daniel, the plain-clothes policeman whose odd life keeps intersecting theirs; mature in the way that Upton organises those intersections, so that finally the gang's need to inflict violence answers Daniel's unspoken longing to receive it.

But peculiar in its premise of this strange mutual dependence, and the curious route it takes to show that a deep, dark, intolerable desire is clamouring to emerge from within an amiable man.

Gang-leader Hayley, freting that she will soon be old (ie, 16), energises her three mates with a plan to start afresh in Bali. To raise the fares they rob stores and mug youths. But a malignant fate undermines their ventures, and failure is compounded by teenage lust. Hayley and Lauren (Rakie Ayola) both have the hots for Daniel, a friend of Hayley's dad.

Daniel discourages them in a way that can only encourage them, and Nick Reding's performance takes us into the clouded internal world that lies behind the lazy-lidded eyes and a readiness to lark about with the under-age girls in an arcade. There is no indication that he wants sex with them - itself a peculiarity in 1994 - though he does have this habit of putting a Trebor mint between his lips and kissing it into a girl's mouth.

As you can see, the play leads us into murky waters.  In the privacy of his room Daniel reverences high-heeled shoes, though I think lan Rickson's production strays too close to melodrama in bathing these scenes with red light. There is a further problem in the age of the actresses playing teenage girls: Susan Lynch, in particular, looks more like a voracious housewife than a frantic 15-year-old. But Rickson sensitively manages the tonal shifts of the play, and shows great skill in using Jeremy Herbert's mirrored set. This is one of the most original features of Upton's play, where angled mirrors show us the inside and outside of a room.

Jeremy Kingston - The Times 8/12/1994

Judy Upton's timely and stunning play at the Royal Court.

Suddenly, the Royal Court has found a current and is swimming with it. A week after Elizabeth Hurley was mugged by a girl gang, the little theatre upstairs opens an award-winning piece about girl muggers. The timing means it can't be dismissed as opportunism, but neither does it come across as a bland piece of happenstance.

Judy Upton's play is an achingly bleak meditation on tribal loyalty among the dead-end kids of a southern seaside town. It opens with four friends steaming a man at the sea front and ends with them practically raping a too-friendly copper and driving him to a breakdown after what they perceive as a sexual betrayal.

The twist of the knife is that we know they have already betrayed each other with numerous petty deceptions, from two-timing to theft. Trust is as much an illusion as their dreams of leaving. The reality is that they are not efficient enough to go anywhere more exotic than the cells or the amusement arcade.

Upton's writing is jagged and televisual in its volley of short, vicious scenes, but it has a certain structural logic. Her characters do not stop to think, so situations don't develop. The dismembered body of a car crash victim is no more shocking to Susan Lynch's leggy, lippy Hayley than the discovery that dishy PC, Daniel, is a foot-fetishist with a shoplifting habit. What would shock her is the play made for Daniel by Rakie Ayola's pert Lauren, but she chooses not to see it.

There is an undoubted naivety to this, which is most obvious in the rather clumsy scenes of male bonding between Nick Reding's Daniel and his middle-aged police colleague. But the performances are startlingly good, and lan Rickson's fine direction allows the play to lift off into the surreal without losing touch with psychological possibility. Mirrors create a sense of lives lived in a semi-fictional world of imagined power and actual impotence that harks back to Brighton Rock. What will Upton get up-to next?

Claire Armitstead - The Guardian 8/12/1994

Do you want to write a piece for stage about young people living through a depression and facing constant rejection.  Do you a) write a searing, brutal piece about dead-end kids or b) write a spirited, hopeful musical about plucky youngsters? Ashes and Sand follows PlanA. Judy Upton's vicious little hand grenade of a play explodes onto the stage of the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs to take us into the bleak world of a violent girl gang living in a seaside resort.  It's a timely piece, staged just as girl gangs are in the news - and quite shocking in its emptiness.

Ringleader Hayley and her three 15-year-old accomplices hang around arcades, rob off-licences and mug men. They dream about using their stolen cash to escape to Bali and fantasise about Daniel, a handsome young detective who has befriended them. Hayley in particular fixes on Daniel as a kindred spirit - someone who has guts and willpower (Daniel has plans to take a job in Gibraltar). But it is clear to us that Daniel is bogus: he is no more going to Gibraltar than the gang are going to Bali, and both his libido and his ability to relate to people are gradually ebbing away into his fetishism for stilettos.

Ian Rickson's vivid production belts through the rapid-fire scenes, framed by Jeremy Herbert's cold, chic set that uses mirrors cleverly to create an alienating world.  Susan Lynch is riveting as Hayley: her pale face framed by a shock of Medusa-like black locks, she combines demonic aggression with a pathetic, desperate craving for affection. And Nick Reding gives a fine, subtle performance as Daniel, a loner who is gradually slithering away from normality. There are times when Upton hammers her points home, but her writing blazes with anger about the waste of a generation with no hopes, for whom trust is meaningless.

The Independent 14/12/1994.

Take a gang of violent teenage girls committed to robbing men, a collection of high-heeled shoes, and a young male detective who has been stabbed three times by women. You then have the links in the chain of Judy Upton's utterly compulsive new play of love and betrayal. This is a study of sexual psychology, of violence and the impact upon both those who perpetrate and suffer it.

But Miss Upton, winner of the 1994 George Devine New Writing Award is far from being the average liberal, or an angry young feminist, grinding an ideological axe in the face of aggressive males. In Ashes and Sand, with its suggestion of a stultifying world, her interest is principally in the male detective, whose life has begun to drift strangely awry. The girls who proposition men before robbing them are seen more conventionally as victims of dysfunctional families.

The scene is a seaside resort, interestingly designed by Jeremy Herbert with sinister mirrors which reflect the action at odd angles. Here a quartet of teenage girls, one armed with a flick-knife, prey upon men who loiter by the beach at night and relieve them of money.

In a series of terse, nervy scenes Miss Upton reveals that the young criminals enjoy a desultory but privileged association with Danny, a young detective whose interest in the girls is very much more than paternal. The gang's leader, 15 year old Hayley, played with an air of chillingly aggressive bravado and emotional need by Susan Lynch, is the catalyst for a move towards intimacy which Danny both wants and resists. And in images, as disquieting as they are convincing, Miss Upton shows how the detective incites Hayley's intimacy even as he steadily withdraws into a world of his' own odd fantasising. The high-heeled women's shoes hidden in his home are his fetishistic objects of desire. It is as if he can only be stirred by a symbol of femininity and not its actual flesh. The revenge which the infatuated Hayley inflicts upon him is, of course, a violent one.

Ian Rickson's superb production, is as sharp and menacing as a flick-knife. Nick Reding as Daniel provides one of those highly subtle performances which repay close watching to see the cracks in the facade. A playwright to watch.

Nicholas De Jongh - Evening Standard

What is it that makes young women turn to violence?  The ultimate political act, feminist revenge writ large, or the product of a debilitating society in which hopes are constantly frustrated?  Judy Upton's angry, disturbing Ashes and Sand, the latest in the current season of new writing in collaboration with the National Studio, doesn't so much tell us as invite us to draw our own conclusions.  Winner of this year's George Devine Award, it's not the first time the subject has been treated dramatically: Philip Ridley had a young group of female vigilantes setting fire to sensitive parts of John Wood's anatomy in Ghost from a Perfect Place. But Ashes and Sand, uneven and sometimes hopelessly implausible, has the feel of more direct involvement - not so much a postcard as a cri de coeur from the edge.

Upton's avengers are a tough and rough quartet of working class young women given to launching sudden and violent attacks on unsuspecting males in a southern seaside arcade. Hardly the kind of girls you'd want to take home to mother - although in plays like these, mothers (and fathers for that matter) never appear. (Maybe that's part of the problem.) Their ring-leader is Hayley, who in Susan Lynch's strutting, androgynous, pain-drenched performance is half adolescent and half burgeoning woman - as raw and as violent as any male counterpart, and just as calculating.  To Hayley, the key to getting up and out of a dreary, dead-end life is through theft and violence.  The only problem is, Hayley has developed the hots for local Detective Constable Daniel (Nick Reding) - as cool as Hayley is hot, as jaded as Hayley is still hopeful.

In a convoluted, televisual and strangely affecting love story, beautifully enhanced in lan Rickson's clever, double-mirrored, self-reflecting production, both Hayley and Daniel are seen to be mirror images of the other.  Despite himself, Daniel shares with Hayley an addiction to adrenalin kicks; but like her, he is also vulnerable.  Like Hayley, he is looking for a way out and admits to his straight-laced mate Glyn, "My life is killing me here."

Bleak and broody, Upton writes with harsh, slang-infused power, yet with an underlying sensitivity for the off-beat (Daniel has a bizarre shoe fetish amongst other things) and the link between despair, vulnerability and violence in '90s Britain.  There are lovely performances from Reding and Lynch as the two star-crossed, unusually paired lovers, from Richard Albrecht as Glyn, and indeed from all the actors.

Ultimately, though, it's a spikey, salutary tale, Daniel, beaten up by Hayley and the gang when he is unable to satisfy Hayley's sexual desires, sits traumatised and martyr-like while Glyn demands, "Are you telling me he asked for it, that he initiated it?", a phrase that echoes all the judges who have ever accused women rape victims of having brought trouble upon themselves.  Rough justice of sorts, but Upton's meaning is ambiguous.  A startling debut nonetheless.

Carole Woddis - What's On 14/12/94

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