Simon Armitage, Leanna Benjamin, Kamal Kaan, Alice Nutter, Maxine Peake and Stan Owens
Leeds Playhouse Courtyard Theatre May 19 - 29; streaming via Playhouse At Home May 24-June 5
To mark the 50th anniversary of one of Britain’s most important producing theatres, the Playhouse commissioned six new plays from six authors associated with the theatre, each rooted in a different decade from the Seventies to the present day.
Live, Covid-safe performances are taking place at the Playhouse itself and the show is also available for online streaming. I opted for the latter, which proves to be a more intimate experience than any to be had live, thanks to the closer-than-close shots as the cameras zoom in.
The overall ambience is unashamedly that of a filmed performance of a stage show. These are monologues, but there is a setting of scaffolding, planked platforms and furniture. Though there isn’t the excitement of the night-out experience, there is the advantage of being able to break off whenever you fancy without having to wait for the interval. At around three hours for the complete experience, many will undoubtedly feel the need for a break.
The set of links I got scrambles the decades, so first up is Nicer Than Orange Squash, by Alice Nutter, a tale of squats and demos in the 1980s narrated by a wide-eyed and initially innocent Isobel Coward as Loz, who manages to survive a windy, vegan/soya diet and a slumming-it boyfriend.
The Bodyguard, by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, takes a cleverly oblique look at the Yorkshire Ripper years of the late 1970s, where Wilf – a convincingly juvenile performance from Connor Elliott – is deputed to escort his mother home from the bus on the dark nights with murder on the prowl.
Owing much to one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, Leanna Benjamin’s The Unknown has the just-30-year-old Sophia alone and helpless in her flat as a debilitating disease takes hold. Single, childless, jobless at her tender age, unable to get up off the floor, it’s Bennett with added tragedy. Another strong performance, this time from Nicole Botha.
Actor/playwright Maxine Peake provides some much-needed humour with Don’t You Know It’s Going To Be Alright. It’s bonfire night and the very believable Eva Scott, as Danny, is sitting on a Leeds’ market stall, reminiscing about a rave, police violence and the fact that she is the product of a liaison between her mother and a father who turned out to be an undercover police special agent.
Pie In The Bus Stop, by Stan Owens, has another draw-you-in performance, from Akiel Dowe as Jamie, a shelf-stacker from Lidl, waiting for a bus home to his domineering mother and contemplating whether or not to break free.
The six conclude with and after we sailed a thousand skies, by Kamal Kaan. Cassie Layton plays Layla, a refugee who has fled the violence in her native country for a town in which it takes some time to find her feet. Shorter and a little more enigmatic than the rest, the piece concludes with an uplifting song, Layton accompanying herself on guitar.
The association of the subject matter with Leeds and surroundings isn’t very specific in several of the plays, which is a little disappointing – they lack hoped-for local flavour. And I know the last 50 years haven’t always been a barrel of laughs, but I would have liked a couple of lighter episodes to leaven the mostly serious intent.
Whatever, they are all very well performed and directed and online you get a 48-hour pass, so you can mix and match them at your leisure.
Ticket info here