Decades: Stories from the City
Leeds Playhouse 50th
19 – 29 May, 2021
It seemed that for the Leeds Playhouse 50th year celebration the number 6 was at the centre of everything. The online unfolding of six stories was written by six directed, by six, performed by six. The gentle performance of simple monologue showed all kinds of sides to stories that come from the troubled yet hopeful experience of many people today.
They honed in on the life experiences of all six acts. It was nice to see real theatre again after what has felt like a drought (to use a serious yet dispassionate word). But the passion that arose from these interpersonal conferences didn’t leave us until the end. The event was called Decades: Stories from the city which cut into the six decades from 1970s till 2020s. It began with gusto when the video revealed the scrawny dressed Isobel Coward as the endearing character Loz.
Named ‘Nicer than orange squash’ by Alice Nutter, the fresh dialogue was fit to bring us into this world of Leeds traditions of a love for grass roots culture which as we know can be choppy stuff. This 30 min experience took us into the many worries and ups and downs of poor or rich Loz. She seemed through this story telling to live a courageous life but in the turns and twists of her story her faith in life was shaken and even disturbed when it hit her that she was singled out by her fellow squatters as being less than human and so discarded.
But for her greater, more naive moments she would join protests against the government with flying passion. The short play held the flag up for Leeds to generate its powerful, exemplary stance as a place whose roots lie at the heart of it. Even in the ‘Nicer than orange squash’ which served as the perfect introduction to the 5 other plays or monologues to come. We were ready to receive.
So onto the second performance of recollection called: ‘The Bodyguard’ by Simon Armitage, which was set in a bedroom with (Conner Elliot) as Wilf sitting on it. For which we were ready for second phase of event. He spoke about his mother, family and about his tastes and young preferences, being but a boy. His reflections mirrored the time period of the 1970s accompanied by his clothing and bedroom decor. It was like an iconic take of the written word where he behaved fully and then emptily as to correctly follow his experience through the emotion of a young man. Sometimes comedically prancing other times more down or low choosing to sit on the floor.
For the 2000s decade we were treated to ‘The unknown’ (mysterious) by Leanna Benjamin: another short piece but with the now customary plethora of subject information. We were now at a stage of leaning into these lives that were being represented and were created for representation of the heart of Leeds itself. Set in her apartment, which was of nice furniture, we joined Nicola Batha (who played Sophia a young woman in the progress of the 2000s). She would laugh with glee when recalling her life that we were to see was filled with loss and heart ache.
At this point of revelations we were intimately involved in her performance as Sophia who walked around compassion and sensitivity and who listened and sang to songs of the time. We think she passes as the play ends but not before losing her beloved mother “I want my mum” was one of the final things she said. These plays were written to be felt and endured for such is the fate (apparent) of grass roots love.
The title of play number 4 of the 1990s was ‘Don’t you know it’s going to be alright’ which was set outdoors where a lonely figure of Eva Scott as Denny at and quickly produced a can of beer. She took us round the drugs world of the time but not really from the point of view of being any criminal until her sister was arrested during a rave of hundreds of people. As she spoke we went along with her through revelations and effects on her personal character and the character of the life she has found to live. But even after everything she finds that indeed don’t you know it’s going to be alright: As she makes a step in the right direction.
In the second to last performance Akiel Dowe as Jamie in Stan Owens ‘Pie in the bus stop’ set indeed at a bus stop in the city. We saw the very capable act of what turned out to be an exercise in discovering responsibility. Family and friendship was explored at every turn of these short plays. And in this one the phone rang and rang as his mother doted over him.
He wanted to start life as something, finding it hard to do when listening to different perspectives. He came up with the idea of music but his mother’s needs were great and too important for him to do anything but lovingly look after her. He became enflamed when given the choice between music or mother and left us with the line or rather the thought that maybe a bus stop is no place for decision making which was actually profound.
And now at the height of it but not for the fun of it we had Cassie Layton play the damaged Layla. The final decade was to be the 2010s in a short play by Kamal Kaan’s ‘And after we sail a thousand skies’ a work that earned this great title. We were at this height of finality when we saw her sitting at a cafe as we zoomed in she was perplexed by news she was listening to. She becomes upset and we were about to find out why.
As a stranger sits with her she smiles and engages in talk. But it soon followed that she has been through the worst possible thing of running from her home to find somewhere she can she put her freedom and safety in her great love of music. Her parent gave her this function when she was young but the same person had her tongue cut out during terrifying times abroad.
The control of emotion was as hard a thing as we are likely to see and so was of the best production. There were no barriers here no censorship at least not within because once you’ve come through such that the seemingly broken song will stand the test of time. The play came as honestly as it could, as Layla broke down and looked on in horror and wonder.
And in time, after certain directions, she stood tall with a guitar in hand to say yes but I can sing my song. And in her last words she sang; “England take me in your soil”, I flood with gushing sadness”, “Is this the place where we belong?”, “your lost words echo in my head” , We’ll meet again someday” , “This is the place we all belong”.
So the images, the differing sets, the six different actors, directors and performances built up with graceful direction from creative team to lighting made a great procession of life to life and world to world. Bonded together whirling up and up through some pain and suffering, through all these things and still to come up with music, experience or musing there was room for all of this in short 25 – 30 minute plays. An accomplished event that makes you grow perhaps from grass roots.
Reviewer: Daniel Donnelly