DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Decades – Leeds Playhouse

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Writers: Simon Armitage/Alice Nutter/Maxine Peake/Leanna Benjamin/Kamal Kaan/Stan Owens

Directors: James Brining/Evie Manning/Amy Leach/Amanda Huxtable/Sameena Hussain/Tess Seddon

Leeds Playhouse has reopened with an ingenious and dramatically effective response to past and present. The original Playhouse opened in 1971, so there’s a big anniversary to celebrate, and the Playhouse needed to find a way back into action that works with a rehearsal period under covid restrictions.

The solution is Decades, six monologues (20-30 minutes each) dealing with the Leeds area in each of the decades the Playhouse has been open. The result is substantial, but, as each play has a different writer, actor and director, all could work within a small-scale bubble.

In Amanda Stoodley’s set scaffolding covers the stage, with one main acting area in the form of a room. The order is not chronological and Isobel Coward’s 1980s punk, Loz, grabs the attention right from the off. Alice Nutter’s play Nicer than Orange Squash, directed by Evie Manning, is one of several that captures the Zeitgeist while telling a personal story. Loz lurches from wild enthusiasm to suspicion and disappointment as she finds the world of punk, protest and anarchy the answer to all her problems – and then the source of a few more, mostly connected with her boyfriend Gaz (who, mysteriously, is really called Joshua). Energetic, funny and true, it celebrates as it satirises.

The Bodyguard by Simon Armitage, directed by James Brining, similarly conjuring up the period in a personal story, is rather more sombre, but with plenty of sly humour. Connor Elliott (Wilf) conveys with an appealing gaucheness the problems of a teenager trying to expand his horizons in a house full of David Cassidy and Smash potato, but in 1979 there are more dangerous concerns to fuel his imagination – the Ripper is on the loose and Wilf is the one always delegated to collect his mother from the bus stop on her return from work. The Unknown by Leanna Benjamin has a more tenuous connection with the period, although the celebrations of the Millennium form a stark contrast to the incapacity of would-be party girl Sophia (Nicole Botha). Botha’s performance and Amanda Huxtable’s direction are, for the most part, powerfully subdued.

In contrast, the second half begins with the loud and boisterous, though sadly troubled, Danny (Eva Scott) enjoying a can and an ecstasy tablet in Leeds Market late on Bonfire Night. Don’t You Know It’s Going to be Alright is cleverly scripted by Maxine Peake to become almost a summary of popular culture in the 1990s, though tales of family quarrels emerge as Danny gets wilder as the tablet kicks in. Amy Leach’s direction is appropriately assertive, in contrast to the gentler charms of Pie in the Bus Stop, bang up to the minute with its covid poster in the bus shelter – in the second half we have moved out from the rather restrictive room setting. Jamie is an immensely likeable young man, but not the most decisive, and the monologue is a nicely judged and always entertaining depiction of his attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable: caring for his crippled and demanding mother and taking a flat with his friend and would-be fellow-DJ. Stan Owens’ script, Tess Seddon’s direction and Akiel Dowe’s performance dovetail perfectly.

Finally and after we sailed a thousand skies by Kamal Kaan is totally different. Layla, a young woman (Cassie Layton), sits in a café while the radio broadcast deals with the numbers of migrants from the Middle East attempting to cross to Europe – this is the 2010s. Layla’s half of a conversation with an unseen companion reveals her background in that area’s conflict and oppression – the urbane tone gives way to agonised grief. Sameena Hussain’s production is the first to roam all over the set and Elion Morris’ music becomes increasingly important as Layla’s pursuit of home ends with an evocative song.

Runs until May 29, 2021

Streams HERE until June 6, 2021

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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