North East & YorkshireReviewYouth Theatre

Nest – RSPB St Aidan’s Nature Reserve, Leeds

Reviewer: Martin T Brooks

Writer: Emma Nuttall

Director: Paul Roseby

Site-specific theatrical performances which involve the audience promenading through an outdoor setting to follow the characters, action and story, are extremely challenging under the best of conditions. And all those conditions were definitely at their best during the 90-minute production of Nest performed by the National Youth Theatre in collaboration with the Compass Collective, Leeds Playhouse and commissioned by LEEDS Year of Culture: 2023.

A former open pit goal mine, now the St Aidan’s RSPB Nature Reserve in Leeds, becomes the living backdrop and stage for a story which takes the audience back and forth through time to witness the cause and effect of not addressing the issues of climate change and apocalyptic environmental mismanagement.

Luckily, the script, written by Emma Nuttall, and directed by Paul Roseby, does not feel the need to shove this message down the leftist side of your throat, but instead brings it to life through compassionate and heart felt dialogue brought and imagery to life by a variety of characters from the past, present and future.

It only took about 30 seconds before your reviewer started to feel that they were actually in the middle of an outdoor rally, known as Nest Fest 2050, being staged by some agency of a futuristic UK dystopian government trying to explain why so many citizens are still homeless due to flooding from melting glaziers, fighting for the last few tickets to a new colony on Mars and why there are no more birds in the sky. A very appropriate theme for a production held in an RSPB nature reserve.

With characters popping up seemingly out of nowhere to protest the government’s continued lack of concern for the environment, the over 150 people attending this performance were caught up in and become part of the story as they follow the main character Skylar (played on this occasion by 4 different actors) who attempts to learn more about her environmental activist Nanna by reading from the journal she wrote between 2023 and 2043 as a warning to her granddaughter, and the future, about the pending environmental catastrophes.

Now, enter a group of time traveling ornithologist who have travelled back from 2050 to 2023 as this is the only way they can hear the real-life songs of long extent birds. To them, Nanna’s journal is looked upon as the Holy Grail or an almost biblical record of what life was like when the sky was full of birds with Skylar being perceived as some sort of Messiah.

As we walk farther down the path, and into a future where speaking out against the government’s prescribed and approved views of all environmental issues could result in your home being taken away, we see several old, discarded mattresses with ominous warnings spray painted in neon paint that read “This is not a Protest”, “U-LEZ Me More” and the most poignant “This is Not a Luxury Item” could be seen.

The ability and skills of all the actors to stay in character at all times, interact with the audience and adlib conversations with them, worked extremely well to make the audience feel that we were on the same journey as they were. It also helped to fill the somewhat lengthy time it took to get from one location to the other which, unfortunately, didn’t help to keep connected to the action or the story along the way. Luckily, once your reviewer arrived at the next location, the story continued, and they easily picked up from the scene before.

Only a space as large as a former open pit goal mine could have been sufficient enough to allow the over 100 talented and dedicated young actors to tell a story through their acting, dancing and singing skills. The thought provoking, moving and at times emotionally charged images created by a design team of over 31 specialists, all of whom used nature and the real world as their canvases, must have taken herculean efforts by the 21 strong production team to achieve considering the huge amount of sound, lighting and effects equipment needed to pull this off on what essentially is a 1.5km stage. From 20-foot tall ghostly, flowing representations of government officials to people afloat on a barge in the middle of a real lake, to the imaginary flight of birds glowing blue against the backdrop of the night sky accompanied by music composed by Nicola T. Chang, it really is a visually stunning show.

The climatic final scene finds Skylar perched atop a large ladder announcing to the crowd what her Nanna’s journal has revealed to her and how she is going to carrying on with her Nanna’s fight to enlighten the world about the fragile future of the environment, all while images of birds, natural disasters, goal mining and timeline of future events is projected behind her on the side of an absolutely massive, 3 story tall goal mining excavator which resides permanently on site.

Skylar uses the former location of the site, and the continued use fossil fuels to leave us with a final message “We Need to Heed the Warning of the Canaries”. And indeed, we should.

One hopes that this production can be scaled down in size, but not quality, to allow for its message to be seen by many more audiences in smaller venues around the country.

Runs until 9th September 2023.

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. 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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