Friday 22nd June 2018 at Leeds Playhouse (formerly West Yorkshire Playhouse).
Searching for the Heart of Leeds is the final show produced by West Yorkshire Playhouse prior to its major re-development. It marks a crossover from West Yorkshire Playhouse to the Leeds Playhouse rebrand and the production mirrors that sense of departure and arrival; it’s a fond but honest farewell to the past and a vibrant hello to the present and future. Written by Mark Catley and inspired by the people of Leeds, the show delivers a relatively small collection of Leeds stories selected from hundreds of options. Designer Katie Scott simply offers a contemporary vision of the Leeds skyline flanked by collections of windows both modern and archaic; sash windows, wooden frames, double glazing and every variety of panelling – each presenting the various homes and buildings of Leeds over the years. The stage space is flanked with signs of redevelopment via scaffolding and make-shift signs, offering a visual reminder of the function for this show in simultaneously waving goodbye and hello. Opening with a vision of Leeds scallywagging, we see a youth graffiti-ing a wall and this leads to a running joke of cat and mouse with a copper across the whole production which injects nice easy humour just as scenes begin to teeter towards being overly-long or too serious. The piece is framed around a journey of discovery; a young woman wanders through the streets of Leeds searching for its heart. Peter Bartram is a mysterious stranger with the answer to Hopi Gavin-Allen’s character’s question but while Bartram’s character has the answers, he sends Allen’s character on a journey of self-discovery and re-discovery before he will reveal what he knows. The production is charmingly self-aware; Allen’s character tells us she’s part of the company up at the Playhouse, and they’re working on a new piece called Searching for the Heart of Leeds; when they asked for a volunteer to run an errand, she made herself that volunteer and so spends the production talking to strangers and hunting down answers. Bartram’s character speaks to the audience in quips and confidences, proving later to be an early nod towards his big character reveal. Alexander Ferris directs a brilliantly diverse and capable cast – a cast representing a wide cross-section of the city’s population as one of many consciously inclusive choices demonstrated in this production – so here follows something of a role-call of notable moments and performances. Wonderfully vibrant stage presence comes from Janet Alexander, Sheila Howarth and Kafayat Adegoke, with Adegoke offering a sobering comment about her character’s history prior to moving to Leeds played just flippantly enough not to darken the tone but impactful in the lack of warning. Howarth too has a notably serious role to play as she takes the role of educator and lecturer towards the close of the play, demanding that a sense of community returns to the city and for action to be taken to improve the future for all; it’s all a bit Priestley and sentimental, but much like Leeds, it’s not perfect, but it is valuable. Sitting in a garden wondering about a plaque leads to the intertwining of tragedy and peace as Nikki Biram’s character crosses paths with a grieving gardener, marking the show’s honest retrospective of the city which accepts its darker characters and infamous villains before proving to us that it’s a much better place now, despite its flaws. Shreya Patel and Foluso Falade also deliver a meaningful dance sequence to accompany the inclusion of darker figures from Leeds’ history, namely the Yorkshire Ripper.There’s a lovely sequence between Lara Woodhouse and Liz Alcock which sees Woodhouse talk about bullying and support in her younger years and highlights the patronising approach taken towards those with disabilities, handling the interaction with wit while clearly seeking to make a statement. Sonia Wrightson and John Poulter deliver a moving narrative of father and daughter navigating modern life and the working class culture of Leeds – marking the shift between expectations and the growing opportunities for the young in the city. Sophia Becic is a bold force as the blunt and comical young lass challenging poor behaviour in the office. Teaming up with Kathryn Green to play the young selves of charismatic duo Maureen Kershaw and Anne Reynolds’ characters – friends for decades. Together, with great energy and some nicely crafted comedy, they represent playful personal histories and the young spirit of Leeds residents.Theres a beautiful dance performance to accompany a frenzied narrative of a desperate mother’s tale of near-tragedy which highlights the surprising and often unseen strength of community spirit, something likewise present in Hossein Ahmadi’s character’s story of arriving to the city as refugee – a tale with flippant humour but clear sentiment. Joshua Lewis doesn’t deliver a solo dance number, but he makes the most of the ensemble numbers and makes sure his moves are rightly noticed! Movement is the work of Phoenix Dance Theatre and Musical director and composer Christella Litras makes a big impact on the piece as a whole, with much of the show underscored with optimistic music which represents all corners and cultures of Leeds, as well as some enthusiastic music interludes. The band pick up the pace and energy during transitions with a triumphant repeat of the central refrain from Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping (I Get Knocked Down) as well as a song about inclusivity and hopes for the future, very much aligned with the optimistic vision of the famed activism song We Are the World. The young choir also deliver a memorable and beautiful performance which remains a clear highlight for me.From bus stops to the Leeds Market and from cafe to homes, the production shows everyday people in everyday settings around Leeds to hammer home a simple idea; ordinary people going through the motions of daily life have fascinating and even extraordinary stories and lives – their days may be ordinary, but they aren’t. Or, in some cases, they absolutely are ordinary, and that creates sense of unity and inclusion as they are celebrated as settled members of a wider community. It’s a community show unlike any other, in that it has clearly worked hard to ensure that as many people as possible who call Leeds home are represented on that stage – if other theatres and companies took note of the beautiful, organic diversity on stage last night, the land of theatre would be much better place for it. And finally, I loved the meta-fiction of this piece, as it plays nicely into the self-awareness that this is the closing of a chapter and the beginning of another; when Bartram’s character asks our protagonist something about the redevelopment along the lines of:
‘It’s going to be front facing? Entrance towards the city? Good. It always felt like they’d turned their back on us – it’s nice to see them turning around.’
It’s a humble self-reprimand and a promise for the future, marking the central message of both the Playhouse’s ethos for years and their mission for the future: total inclusion – making an ‘us’ of the people of Leeds.
Searching for the Heart of Leeds is a West Yorkshire Playhouse production and plays at the newly renamed Leeds Playhouse until June 23rd 2018. You can find tickets here.