Acts of violence, acts of kindness

Inis Nua Theatre Company presents Sonya Kelly’s Once Upon a Bridge

3 minute read
Yorke, a white woman, and DeShields, a Black man, stand in profile back-to-back, with a red light flaring overhead.
Backstories for all: Alice Yorke and Walter DeShields in Inis Nua’s ‘Once Upon a Bridge.’ (Photo by Ashley Smith of Wide Eyed Studios.)

On May 5, 2017, a jogger pushed a woman directly into the path of an oncoming bus on Putney Bridge in London. That unprovoked act of violence serves as the basis for Once Upon a Bridge, an engrossing three-hander receiving its Philadelphia premiere from Inis Nua Theatre Company.

Playwright Sonya Kelly focuses less on the inciting incident and more on the psychology of the people involved. Although the perpetrator was never found in real life, and the victim never identified by name, Kelly creates a backstory for both, surmising how they ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She also provides a narrative for the bus driver who saves a life through ingenuity and quick thinking.

The Man, the Woman, and the Driver

The characters in the play are identified only by descriptors, and in a way, they come to represent ideas as much as people. The Man (David Pica) stands in for the privileged class of business bros who run the London financial sector, while the Woman (Alice Yorke), an Irish national at the start of a legal career, seemingly embodies the tension between the country where she was born and the city where she now lives. The Driver (Walter DeShields), himself an immigrant from an unspecified county, also depicts otherness and the search for a better life in a new place.

Like many plays originating from the British Isles these days, Once Upon a Bridge unfolds largely in intersecting monologues. This device can zap the dramatic tension of a story, but Kelly has a keen sense of character development, and it becomes fascinating to chart the course that ends with these three people converging on that fateful day.

Once the event occurs—it’s presented here in a coup de théâtre moment I won’t reveal, engineered by set designer Chris Haig and lighting designer J. Dominic Chacon—the script loses some of its steam. But director Brett Ashley Robinson keeps the intense focus on how the aftermath affected those involved intrinsically, and my attention stayed rapt.

Superb acting and design

The acting is superb across the board. Pica, a likable presence, manages to engender sympathy for someone who does the unthinkable. He takes a character who could merely seem villainous and instead makes him pitiable and human. Yorke occasionally overplays comedic moments in the script, but she finds the right notes to suggest an ambitious woman straddling two worlds—proud of her Irish heritage and rebellious spirit, yet aware of the prejudices she’ll face in the buttoned-up London legal world. The Driver is the least defined of the three roles, yet DeShields, an actor of great emotional availability, easily suggests his motivations and his humanity.

Costume designer Leigh Paradise employs subtle choices to telegraph class distinctions among the characters: the Driver never removes his uniform jacket, the Woman wears a green blouse that feels subconsciously patriotic. Dialect coach Leonard Kelly does a fine job with each actor, and their brogues never waver.

Violence and kindness

Early on in the play, the Woman recounts the moment she decided to become a lawyer. When she asks her grandmother, who was disfigured in an assault when she first moved from Galway to London, what happened to the man who maimed her, the older woman replies that “not all bad men go to prison.” That clearly remains true. Plays like Once Upon a Bridge immortalize both the heartless acts of violence that still have a place in our society and the genuine kindness of strangers who intervene.

What, When, Where

Once Upon a Bridge. By Sonya Kelly, directed by Brett Ashley Robinson. $18-$30. Inis Nua Theatre Company. Through March 24, 2024, at the Louis Bluver Theater at the Drake, 302 S Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 454-9776 or


The Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake is a wheelchair-accessible venue with private all-gender restrooms. The performances on Wednesday, March 13, and Wednesday, March 20, will be sold at 50-percent capacity with required masking.

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