Wednesday 16th October 2019 at Leeds Playhouse.
Charley Miles’ There are No Beginnings is pretty stellar new work. Set in a time of apathetic approaches to women’s voices and performed in the era of #MeToo and the rising up of women across every industry and day to day experience, it makes for an incredibly timely play. Throw in a uniformly great cast and you’ve got yourself an ‘up the women’ winner the likes of Pankhurst could toast…
The play takes us back to the years of the Yorkshire Ripper reign but seeks to foreground the female voices which went unheard in the male-dominated handling of a male dominating Yorkshire’s psyche. Against the backdrop of grim, distorted news reports, jarring audio and recordings of the monster himself (sound design: Charlotte Bickley), we meet four women from a variety of backgrounds whose tales represent those sidelined lives as they intertwine.
June (Julie Hesmondhalgh) works at a centre for vulnerable teens and goes home to a husband we neither see nor hear and a daughter, Sharon (Tessa Parr), who is fed up of sharing her mum with the demanding day job. Enter the vulnerable Helen (Natalie Gavin) who is just the kind of monopolising presence Sharon resents but despite the odds, connections are made and sympathies and experiences shared. Fellow women are not the enemy. Fiona (Jesse Jones) arrives as a local copper working on the Ripper case and simultaneously trying to prove herself in a deeply masculine environment.
Hesmondhalgh plays the conflicted salt of the earth-come-mother constantly on edge with that sense of truth which is so difficult to capture. She’s also the kind of contact/acquaintance/friend you’d want in your corner – incredibly warm but unwilling to take any of your shit thank you very much. Her take on the parent of a rebellious teen who suddenly has to worry about her every second of the day is as sympathetic as it is compelling to watch.
On the flip side of that same safety anxiety is Sharon. Parr, after proving her mettle time and again in recent Leeds Playhouse productions, impresses once more in a role which allows her to flex her comedic muscles and take the trophy. Parr is absolutely one to watch – if she’s not set for a sparkling career of great longevity I’ll eat my hat. It’s so easy to fall into the overdone angsty teen stereotype but Parr offers something far more nuanced, highlighting all the central threads of adolescence rather than merely the loudest one. She’s equally impressive in the riled up later carnation of the character and the scenes between Hesmondhalgh and Parr as mother and daughter are some of the best to be found here.
Helen is a complex character. Again, Miles could have written a stereotype of the vulnerable, exploited female. She has the characteristics, definitely, but Helen is brilliantly portrayed in all her fragility and forceful survivor guise by the very talented Natalie Gavin. There are no heavy handed grab a tissue moments but rather a series of quietly devastating progressions in her story. Gavin is gifted some great comic ground in scenes with Parr too, but her primary function is to humanise the very same sub-sector of the population who were initially targeted by the Ripper and dismissed by both the constabulary and the ordinary population.
In much the same vein, Jesse Jones’ character is a fantastic vehicle for highlighting a sub-sector most definitely sidelined: women in the police force in the 1970s. Something of an enemy force for the frightened citizens faced with a failing investigation as well as back at the station, she’s a woman torn between ambition, prejudice and the suffocating expectations of women, and particularly women working within that masculine bubble. Jones forces us to look through yet another experiential lens and her role in particular flies in the face of expectations.
Amy Leach’s direction is sensitive and dextrous, balancing the northern witty warmth with the fiery underbelly Miles has crafted so beautifully. Camilla Clarke’s set is deceptively simple and offers the blank page on which the tale of invisible women is told. Costuming is as much a part of the characters as the dialogue, loudly declaring their shifting roles and experiences as the outrageously lengthy manhunt goes on and on across years. The costume changes side stage do feel a little too prominent, and there are a few blips on an otherwise seamless production. While the production is generally very fluid, there are sections which feel drawn out beyond their moment of impact and in truth the production could do with a little gentle trimming.
Miles’ play takes back the Ripper narrative the same way the women fought to ‘take back the night’. Exposing the double standards, crippling restrictions and blindly male-centric decision making, her characters offer up the untold stories of women living in a time which had them facing a role as lambs to the slaughter while female-centric action points were pennies that never dropped for the male population. Highly recommended.
There are No Beginnings is a Leeds Playhouse production. It continues its debut run as the debut production of Leeds Playhouse’s new Bramall Rock Void space until November 2nd 2019 and you can tickets here.