In the waning days of WWI, a teenager in Cottingley, West Yorkshire, took a series of photographs of her cousin surrounded by fairies. When these shots were published in national magazines, they became a phenomenon. Playwright Thomas Diggs uses this story as his departure point for “A Yorkshire Fairie Tale,” an unusual slice of whimsy with a vaguely Barrie-esque air. And vaguely Barrie-esque accents, too.
In a country where many had lost relatives in the war, this photographic “proof” of a supernatural world was widely embraced. Some experts vouched for the authenticity of the fairy photos. (Some of the five photos remain vaguely familiar today.)
Playing a major role in the case was Arthur Conan Doyle, who had already been knighted and whose celebrated Sherlock Holmes had waged his final adventure. Conan Doyle, in deep grief following the deaths of several relatives, believed the girls and the photos. Eventually, however, the whole affair was exposed, going down in history as the Hoax of the Cottingley Fairies.
The story as related in the history books is, alas, far more interesting than what Diggs does with it. For beginners, one of the two girls becomes a boy here, “a manky lad” who reads fairy books and is sniggered at by the other boys.
The major problem, though, might be one of production rather than writing. The text makes no mention of the ages of the characters, although the elders occasionally refer to Dulcie (Jessica Arinella) and Francis (Peter Russo) as “the children.”
The real-life Cottingley cousins, Elsie and Frances, were 16 and 10 when the first pictures were taken; the actors playing the corresponding roles, however, are easily two to three times older than that.
“A Yorkshire Fairie Tale” with teenage actors in the central roles might begin to make some sense. As it is, there is no sense of child-like fantasy in the production because there is no sense of childhood, which makes it border on silliness.
The performers — especially Arinella and Russo — and production values are beyond reproach, considering the postage-stamp size stage. Everything about the play seems very much in earnest. But if the audience is to see the fairies, they first need to see children.