Thursday, February 29

Blow Down – Leeds Playhouse

It’s certainly a first time experience watching a play billed as being about the demolition of massive cooling towers at a Yorkshire Power Station.

Garry Lyons, who lived near the massive cooling towers at Ferrybridge Power Station that dominated the landscape around the M62 for 50 years, recorded over 25 hours of interviews with people who worked there – or made a life in their giant shadows. The result is a moving, and often very funny, verbatim play musing on what really happens when a community loses its industrial heartbeat.

Act one focuses on the power station’s heyday as Matthew Booth’s almost stereotypical bluff Yorkshireman recalls the dangers and vast financial rewards of working in a close knit team at the plant.  It is a dry and often poignant testimony of what happens when your life’s work is blown up in front of you, devoid of the cosy sentimentality middle class folk often feel for industrial workplaces they would last five minutes in before running away screaming.

Allison Saxton and Nicky Filshie are great fun as a bawdy pair of Scottish women who follow their husbands over the border to Knottingley as they find work in the local mine working round Ruta Irbite’s stark set as photos of the vast power station are projected onto the back wall. They subtly trace the challenges migrants face with the ‘Yorkies’ who are initially suspicious of them, and how over time they do build bridges like the people arriving on boats today.

One of the problems with this overlong play is Lyons has too much rich source material, so tries to weave too many threads together, and whilst Matthew Bugg is great as a worker in a local glassworks it feels like his story is tagged on without adding anything interesting to the narrative. The same applies to Luke Adamson’s drumming Jack All-Trades who adds percussion on the drum kit as he floats around the industrial carnage around him, but too often it feels like he’s wandered in from another play.

It all comes crashing down for all the five when both the mine closes and the towers collapse in on themselves.  Lyons actually explores the mental health crisis caused by ruined bodies making the former proud workers unemployable in a much more powerful way than Jack’s musings.

It’s quite amusing to see Bugg’s funny turn gently mocking the well meaning middle class councillor who feels like he is climbing Everest as all the local community services that bind people together close one after another. The power of this play is real people reporting from a bleak frontline of loss as the guy who runs the local foodbank says the closure of every community asset means we are ‘forgottenly’.

Tess Seddon’s brisk direction removes any sense of self-pity but is more an indictment of how successive governments have abandoned once thriving communities like this one that lost their economic power through no fault of their own.

There is a danger when art tries to tell working class stories they end up as inauthentic as a Ken Loach movie, but by using real people’s words Lyons avoids the dreaded middle class filter. Instead, the people of Knottingley in their own words make a compelling case for some levelling up cash to rebuild their shattered community, but they probably shouldn’t be holding their breath.

Reviewer: Paul Clarke

Reviewed: 9th February 2023

North West End UK Rating: ★★★