By Ron Simpson
A community play usually means that the cast is made up of members of the community who have the opportunity to take part in a play under professional direction and with professional back-up. Leeds Lads, to be staged in June by Red Ladder Theatre Company in association with the Carriageworks Theatre and Leeds Civic Arts Guild, fulfils that criterion but, judging from the Press Launch on 22 February, is all about communities in many other senses: the community that built up withinthe production itself, the campaigning community for Red Ladder, the city community, the Rugby League community, and so on.
Leeds Lads commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme when the Leeds Pals battalion, in common with many other Pals battalions, suffered horrendous casualties. The play works in two time periods, with Tara, a young woman in 2016, discovering the story of the sacrifice of her great-grandfather and his contemporaries. With the theme of community, the play is not simply about the horrors of war and the sacrifices of the fighting men, but also “about the people of Leeds, past and present – their fears, their love and their friendships, performed by the people of Leeds for the people of Leeds.”
Straight from the exhausting task of trying to unravel the psyche of Brian Clough in rehearsals for Red Ladder’s collaboration with West Yorkshire Playhouse, The Damned United, Artistic Director Rod Dixon began by talking about Red Ladder’s 2012 community play, The Promised Land. The 35 people, with no obvious connection beforeworking on the production, became a community that lasted long after the play finished, even playing a leading part in the campaign to save Red Ladder when its Arts Council grant was suddenly and unexpectedly cut. For the 2016 production, there will doubtless be carry-overs from The Promised Land, but – apart from the expected numbers moving or being unable to find the time – several of them are ruled out because they are now making their way into professional careers in the theatre. So it will be essentially a new community for a new play, though Anthony Clavane, author of The Promised Land, is returning as co-writer of Leeds Lads with Nick Stimson.
Rod Dixon claimed that the production will form “a bridge between a professional company in Leeds and the world of amateur dramatics” and Anthony Clavane also looked to see diverse groups coming together. The play will celebrate the diversity of the British army when the Empire spread across the world and also the diversity of 21stCentury Leeds. The Promised Land was primarily about the Jewish community; Leeds Lads is also about Muslims, Afro-Caribbeans and the white working class.
Anthony Clavane was full of praise for Leeds Rhinos and Rugby League in general, which he now sees as much more active in the community than football – Leeds United, of course, was one of the inspirations for The Promised Land. Leeds Rhinos Foundation is supporting Leeds Lads and one of the stars of the team, international second-rower Jamie Jones-Buchanan, will make his stage debut, playing both himself and a First World War sergeant-major.
In fact, Jones-Buchanan was the final speaker at the launch, talking about how he was inspired by seeing Red Ladder’s Playing the Joker, about legendary Rugby League commentator Eddie Waring, and emphasising the need to operate outside your comfort zone. The presence of Jamie Jones-Buchanan in the cast will doubtless boost ticket sales, but listening to him talk about his involvement made it clear that this is no gimmick: his commitment to the project and the community were self-evident.
And, for a final touch of community involvement, Ruth Cooper of the Carriageworks Young Theatre Makers will take a team into schools to develop pupils’ own short plays, some of which will be used as curtain raisers before the main production.
Auditions for Leeds Lads take place in March, rehearsals start in April.
The production runs at the Carriageworks Theatre from June 17 to 25.
For further information:www.redladder.co.uk