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  • Writer's pictureFrank Schierloh

REVIEW: Once Upon A Bridge (Inis Nua Theatre Company, Philadelphia, PA)

A harrowing true story is examined in an uneven play that never quite reaches the peaks it could. 


In May of 2017, a woman was walking across Putney Bridge in London, when a passing jogger shoved her, unprompted, causing her to fall, roll back and narrowly avoid being crushed by an oncoming double-decker bus. This random act of violence, and the subsequent search for the man responsible, inspired Irish playwright Sonya Kelly to dramatize the people and the event in the classic tradition of an Irish monologue play. Inis Nua Theatre Company presents the play’s Philadelphia premiere, which meanders its way to the aforementioned event and then suddenly kicks into overdrive.

 

A Rocky Start

Once Upon a Bridge begins by introducing us to the three central figures of this story: a man, a woman and a bus driver. For the first half of the play, these characters come out onto the stage and relate a story from their lives. The woman tells of her Irish grandmother who had been pushed down the stairs in another random unprompted act of violence; the man talks about meeting his wife; the bus driver speaks about another bus driver who had hit and presumably killed someone by accident, thus losing his job. These particular stories obviously foreshadow what is to come, however each character tells multiple somewhat-unrelated stories in addition to the foreshadowing tales. This show’s structure understandably isolates the characters, so they can each tell their version of events. However, because of this structure it is rather difficult to follow the plot of the piece, as the characters are telling stories that often don’t seem connected to each other or the titular event that the play is leading to. 


This jarring feeling isn’t helped by the lighting and/or directing choice to have each monologue end with a harsh blackout, and the actor walking across the blacked out stage to exit. This choice repeatedly zaps all energy out of the first half of the show, and actively hinders the build up of tension leading to the almost-manslaughter. The styling does shift once the plot arrives at the morning in question, as all three characters present their understanding of events; from that point forward, the shifting between characters feels more natural and continuous. This shift gives the story the urgency it so deeply lacks in the first half, but it is a shame that it comes roughly halfway through the relatively short run time.


A scene from Inis Nua's production of Once Upon a Bridge.
David Pica, Walter DeShields and Alice Yorke in Inis Nua's 2024 production of Once Upon a Bridge. Photos by Ashley Smith of Wide Eyed Studios.

All Along the Bridge

From a technical standpoint, the way that Inis Nua has utilized the space at the Drake theater is really fantastic. The stage is configured into an alley, with audience seating on both sides. A red stripe runs down the middle of the space, with each end of the theatre having large project-able walls. These walls are utilized at a truly visceral moment, showing the actual CCTV footage of the assault. This usage is really cool, but sadly is the only time these projectors get utilized which feels like a slight missed opportunity. 


While the setup of the space is really dynamic, it doesn’t feel like it was used as well as it could have been. The actors wander throughout the space, like a viewpoints exercise, with some of the movements lacking purpose. The three actors (David Pica, Walter DeShields and Alice Yorke) all present their characters well, however there is a lack of cohesion in their styles of acting. While this could be an intentional choice to showcase how each of these people are vastly different, it just adds to the jarring feeling of the first half of the show. Again, once the play arrives at the main incident, the three seem to get on the same page stylistically, but it never fully feels like an ensemble. 


A scene from Inis Nua's production of Once Upon a Bridge.
Alice Yorke and Walter DeShields in Inis Nua's 2024 production of Once Upon a Bridge. Photo by Ashley Smith of Wide Eyed Studios.

Overall, Once Upon a Bridge at Inis Nua is a bit of a mixed bag of a production. There are a few elements that are really well done, but they get lost in an uneven telling of the story. Also, for some reason the script feels afraid to ever actually identify this act of violence as morally wrong. It instead poses that question to the audience, which feels slightly irresponsible. The actors and director Brett Ashley Robinson try to battle against this, but aren't able to fully surmount the play's odd ambivalence towards the event. While some may hope that the play would be much more decisive in how it treats the horrific event at its center, it instead leaves it open for interpretation, which does a disservice to the story it's telling: while the show may remind us that people are not plainly good or bad, their actions surely can be.

A Small cartoon linking to information and tickets.


Once Upon a Bridge is playing at

Inis Nua Theatre Company

(302 S. Hicks St.)

from now until March 24th.



For more information visit inisnuatheatre.org.






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