There is always a hum in any theatre before the lights go down, but tonight as creatives and an audience make that unique communion after months apart it feels like the air of expectation is off the scale as we uncomfortably sit in our masks.
Typically, the Playhouse have not made it easy for themselves by offering returning theatre lovers six monologues that attempt to meld events from the seventies right through to lockdown with a potted social history of Leeds
For me monologues are biggest of all challenge for the writers, performers and this audience who are just relived to be sat in a dark space at last. It is like stand up with a script as there is no place to go if goes wrong, no-one to bounce off and if the writing is even marginally off it can be torture for all concerned. It is the ultimate theatrical high wire.
Tonight, there are three of the Decades monologues starting with Maxine Peake’s witty Don’t You Know It’s Going to be Alright as Danny drops a couple of Es on an empty Leeds outdoor market stall reflecting on the high and lows of early 90s rave culture across the city, and her tangled family history.
Anyone who have ever interviewed an actor always hears they attracted to the writing above all else, and Peake has worked with some of the very best. She has clearly been paying attention as there are plenty of laughs in this bittersweet piece, aided by Eva Scott’s finely tuned comedy timing and another directing masterclass from Amy Leach. Peake cleverly weaves New Labour and Mel B in as she skilfully peels away the layers to reveal why Danny is sat alone off her head on Bonfire night watching the fireworks explode.
Next up is Pie in the Bus Stop as Stan Owens brings us right up to date as Leeds lad Jamie stands at a desolate bus stop wrestling with his caring responsibilities and a desire to follow his dreams. Sadly, despite Akiel Dowe’s efforts on an impressive professional debut, Jamie just comes across as a wet mummy’s boy, not helped by Owens’ text just not really going anywhere. It seemed odd that in a room full of masked up people that the pandemic wasn’t even mentioned.
Kamal Kaan’s poetic after we sailed a thousand skies fuses verse and song as musician Layla reflects on her dangerous journey from a land where music is the devil’s work to a nation preparing to divorce itself from Europe. The Playhouse was the UK’s first Theatre of Sanctuary, and Kaan offers a nuanced and powerful response to the xenophobes who don’t understand why people step into a dinghy to cross the Mediterranean in the hope of a better life.
When Cassie Layton walks back on with her guitar to sing her final song she looks out at the audience and quietly says ‘you’re here’. Many of those who had passed though the Playhouse’s understandably rigorous safety measures would have a lump in their throats as after this awful year we could see once again that at its core theatre always reveals some part of our common humanity.
Two out three ain’t a bad return for a night of monologues, and tonight demonstrated that while theatres were right to offer digital alternatives to keep going it was never going to be anything like a substitute for the real thing.
Decades runs in Leeds Playhouse Courtyard Theatre and At Home from Wednesday 19th – Saturday 29th May.
Available online At Home Monday 24th May – Saturday 5th June.
Book online at www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk or over the phone 0113 213 7700.
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 20th May 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★
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