There’s no doubt that after seven months away most theatre lovers were so desperate for any live experience they’d watch pretty much anything – good, bad or indifferent.
But that low benchmark was never going to be good enough for Leeds Playhouse and Opera North who have teamed up to create Connecting Voices as their comeback socially distanced mini-season of four very different short pieces.
These two powerhouses have carefully crafted stripped down pieces almost devoid of any staging focusing instead on both the safety of the creatives, and the small audiences safely dotted around the Playhouse’s different spaces.
It is a smorrebrod of styles that can be enjoyed in one sitting over a few hours that begins with Francis Poulenc’s short opera La Voix Humaine based on Cocteau’s play of the same name. As soprano Gillene Butterfield strides onto the Barber Studio stage you know she is getting the same rush as an audience just so grateful to be back in a dark room.
Butterfield’s powerful range and clear diction never overpowers her acting during a one-sided conversation on different phones with her former lover as their relationship crashes and burns. We’ve never quite sure whether she is at fault, or her unseen partner is gaslighting her, as Annette Saunders’ sensitive playing adds extra emotional texture on the piano.
Then it’s to the Courtyard for a specially commissioned Reflections on La Voix Humaine offering different views of grief and loss opening with four Opera North singers in the gods offering a chilling version of John Bennett’s Weep O Mine Eyes. On stage a desperate actress – well played by Amy J Payne – is most definitely being gaslit by her sullen boyfriend, and guest vocalist Keertan Kaur Rehal and sitarist Jasdeep Singh Degun offer a perspective from another continent.
Next up is Beckett’s timeless Krapp’s Last Tape, which is perfect for the stripped down Bramall Rock Void, as an old man plays tapes of his young self as he eats some bananas. This is the King Lear of minimalism, and rheumy eyed Niall Buggy makes the most of every of Beckett’s precisely placed words as he mocks and rages against his haughty young self, who he realises might have wasted his own golden years.
The final piece Orpheus In The Record Shop is the lightest of the quartet but packs a different punch as world champion beatboxer Testament subtly weaves the classic Greek myth into the goings on in a struggling record store he is running.
Whilst he exhorts himself not to look back he can’t help but reflect on his troubled childhood, lost love and his strange customers. Testament is a charming guide deploying all his beatboxing and rap skills gaining in confidence through the spoken passages around the music.
Throughout the piece players from Opera North’s orchestra drift on, and you can see the joy they have in trying something very different sans conductor. This must be only time a Leeds based rap artist has had the oboe playing the melody on his tunes.
Connecting Voices might sound like a misery fest, but in reality it becomes a robust examination devoid of the usual theatrical frills of what it is to be human, to be hurt, to be alone, to be loved, to lose and to hope which is exactly what many people need in the midst of this terrible crisis.
Connecting Voices, Leeds Playhouse until 17th October. Box office 0113 213 7700. Book online www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 6th October 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★