Wednesday 13th September 2017 at a West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Colin Grant’s Queen of Chapeltown, written in celebration of the 50th year of the Leeds West Indian Carnival, offers a unique insight into the origins of one of Leeds’ defining features. Based on the accounts of founders and attendees, this drama centres around identity and balances the humour and the more sobering, dramatic aspects of life in Leeds in the 1960s with sharp dexterity.
Grant threads together the tales of Beverly, newly arrived to Leeds, with the informed and comically blunt observations of those who have been around long enough to know what’s what. While Beverly, played by Elexi Walker, takes us on the journey of disappointment and a ‘world of no’ as she arrives to England, three young men share their views on life in Chapeltown as ‘the place to start’ when arriving to Leeds. We see Beverly rejected time and again in a locality with no interest in anyone different to themselves. She cautiously finds herself in a friendship with the bouncing blonde, Hilary – played by Emily Butterfield. The two navigate the awkwardness of their differences to provide a warm example of the small signs of progress emerging at a divided time; even as audio is played to uncomfortably remind us of all the restrictions and rejections aimed at ‘coloureds’. Walker is excellent as Beverly – defiant, hopeful, endearingly uncertain and displaying a dignity and tenacity few achieve so well. Her character may be down-trodden, but she’s never a victim and at no point will she submit to failure. Butterfield makes a lively and captivating counter-part as her relentless positivity and good nature fail her and give way to insecurity and a tragic lack of integrity.
Within a pithy and charismatic script featuring many nods to the idioms of family ‘back home’ alongside local punchlines, the three young men half playfully, half passionately lament and celebrate everything about the events which brought them to this moment: preparing for the very first Leeds Carnival. Their intentions are to improve relationships and lift themselves out of their frustrations and they regale us with stories of how the Carnival celebrates identity and roots while also providing a bridge between clashing communities at a time of great anti-immigrant feeling. Gabriel Paul’s nay-saying performance as the pessimistic but realistic Tidy Boots fetches big laughs while Raphael Bushay inspires as the ever optimistic and driven Arthur. Benjamin Cawley’s performance as Raymond offers the gentler voice amongst the more opinionated members of the well combined trio. Yet even while the scenes with Arthur, Tidy Boots and Raymond are light and charming, their language and tales are shocking, reminding us again and again that the famous Carnival was brought into being for reasons beyond fun and games. We move swiftly between Beverly’s story of high hopes facing a domino run of rejection and the planning for the carnival with the bickering trio before the two eventually meet and Beverly becomes the first Queen of Chapeltown.
What struck me about this production was how little of the carnival made an appearance. I was expecting a substantial amount of spectacle, but excepting the feathers of the finale and a few sweeping glimpses of materials for costumes, the colours of the Carnival were not to be found; what we are given instead is altogether more compelling. The colours and the hype of the Carnival would detract from what is actually a very sobering glimpse into the hostile Leeds of the 1960s. It will never fail to astound me to hear appalling recordings of racist speeches delivered in reasonable, polite voices; Stella Litras and John Biddle’s sound design is superb in this production, from the musical interludes capturing the changing tones to the archive audio and audio of those more recently interviewed. Yes, those fleeting glimpses of costumes could have done with a little more time on stage or some additional appearances to remind us of the focal point, but I enjoyed the fact that the stories behind the carnival were faithfully centre stage here.
The two narrative threads are certainly engaging, with Beverly’s story being a particularly touching one and the scenes with Arthur, Raymond and Tidy Boots providing great energy and charisma. Amy Leach’s direction intertwines frustration and unease with humour and happiness wonderfully while Grant’s quips relating to local knowledge were clearly playing their part for the enthused attending audience. Also striking is that Grant’s humour is persistently laced with sharper undertones; the humorous unease about a bus going to Chapeltown betraying darker implications beneath the initial knowing laughter from the local audience. Humour in Queen of Chapeltown is undoubtedly strong, but the drama is much stronger and while there are visible rough edges in some of the chorus performances which interrupted the energy and a few clunky transitions, the piece comes together very nicely. By following Beverly’s story from her moment of arrival to her meeting with the founders and subsequent self-discovery as the Queen of Chapeltown, we are given an engaging and insightful glimpse behind the curtain. This is a great piece of theatre presenting a unique insight into the origins of the Leeds West Indian Carnival and the place it holds in hearts, minds and the community itself.
You can catch Queen of Chapeltown at West Yorkshire Playhouse until Friday 15th September and you can get your tickets here.