Writer: Alice Nutter
Director: Max Webster
Designer: Ben Stones
Reviewer: S. E. Webster
Documenting nearly forty years of northern life between 1977 and 2013, My Generation, written by Alice Nutter, has fittingly opened at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, in which the play is set. As the title suggests, the drama looks back on the last generation and considers the day-to-day trials and tribulations of its characters through each of the last four decades, as well as more nationwide events, such as the miners’ strikes in the 80s and the changing influence of punk and electro on the music scene.
Divided into four Acts, each section is told from the point of view of one of four family members. Without a doubt, the second and fourth Acts (Mick and Emma’s stories) are far more convincing and realistic than Acts one and three, which portray the late 70s and early 90s and which are rather long-winded, lacking significant movement in the setting and plot development.
The 90s focuses upon rave culture and drug abuse, and Craig Gazey’s performance as Ben is not only convincing but highly comic. However, the scene never moves beyond the setting of the free festival, becoming increasingly repetitive. Meanwhile, Cath’s Story in the 70s labours heavily upon the radical feminism movement, while merely nodding to the punk scene, silver jubilee and anti-apartheid movement, all current events and issues at the time. Without denying the growth and presence of feminism in the 70s, and acknowledging that Helen Bradbury (Frey), Sheena Bhattessa (Helen) and Kaye Wragg (Cath Wilson) are all highly commendable in their performances, as a woman believing in equal rights, I can comfortably say there is only so much time I wish to, or can spend sitting in the auditorium of the theatre hearing women beat the anti-men argument. This may be an attempt to portray real-life women and events, but without the necessary plot movement, the drama essentially becomes stagnant and the women, unfortunately, sound exceedingly whiny.
The 80s are a different story entirely. Craig Conway as Mick is brilliant – a man betrayed by his best friend and ideologically torn concerning whether to support the miners’ strike or not, his character is very real and very moving. The 80s focus upon the miners works because it still resonates so powerfully today as the north continues to lament the collapse of the mining industry under the Thatcher Government, and the current Tory Coalition struggles to distance itself from her legacy. The choreography of the football scene, which takes place in this Act, is also a highlight of the show. Cleverly constructed, it is a fantastic example of physical theatre, which combines brilliantly with the talented musical abilities of the band, which crucially help to bridge the transition between the decades through the varied choice of musical repertoire.
Some theatre-goers may also be interested to explore Andrew Medcalf’s and Andrew Bannerman-Bayles’s exhibition of photographs, which is currently running alongside this production. On display in the foyer outside the Courtyard Theatre, the photographs trace the lives of squatters, punks, feminists and students in Leeds between 1984 and 1991. While My Generation covers a much broader period of time than this, and is partly autobiographical, these photos help to reinforce the sense of realism behind the production. They remind the audience that the lives of the characters acting on stage were experienced by significant numbers in northern communities, and it’s those lives that have helped shaped today’s world we know and live in.
For all its flaws and brilliance, My Generation is an openly honest account of northern heritage and experience, definitely worth seeing.