Theatre is back at the Leeds Playhouse with six new monologues – one for each decade since the 1970s – each by a different Northern writer.
There was a moment before I took my seat in Leeds Playhouse’s Courtyard Theatre when I thought oh lord. It’s three hours. Of monologues. This might be a bit much. I worried that my attention span, eroded by hours of Zoom boredom, might not be able to cope. Then I remembered we’re back, back in a theatre! Leave that at the door and enjoy the show.
In a way, monologues are the perfect way to come back to the theatre – and I don’t just mean because it's easier to socially distance in rehearsal. The performers have no choice but to speak directly to you: the audience. All the connections, the stories that we have been missing over the last year, being able to see the actors’ entire bodies as they move and breathe and rant and joke – it all came back in an instant. The show wasn’t flawless by any means – but it felt so, so good to be back.
Presented out of sequence – a slightly jarring order of 1980s, 1970s, 2000s, 1990s, 2020s, 2010s – each mini-play gives a snapshot into the lives and concerns of each generation, from fear of the Yorkshire Ripper to radical youths, rave culture, terminal illness, being a refugee in Britain, and finally family values (with, mercifully, only a cursory reference to COVID-19). The strength of the connections to their historical context varies – Simon Armitage’s The Bodyguard, for example, is 70s to the core, with nasty jumpers, the Sex Pistols, and reference to Maggie Thatcher’s ‘curl of butter’ hairdo fleshing out the teenage narrator’s anxiety of being snatched by the Ripper; Stan Owen’s Pie in the Bus Stop, however, wisely avoids suggesting to us how we should reflect on the tumultuous first eighteen months of this decade, if perhaps at the cost of a clear ‘message’ or identity. My personal pick of the segments was Alice Nutter’s Nicer than Orange Squash – a fantastically dynamic 80s set story about living in a commune, radical politics, feminism and relationships, with Isobel Coward bringing a ton of energy into her monologue. Special mention must also go to Cassie Layton’s performance as a refugee settling in Leeds in Kamal Kaan’s and after we sailed a thousand skies (2010s) – intimate and poetic, she exuded warmth and vulnerability – and she closed the show with style, bringing a guitar onto the stage and singing to the audience in a finale. It was a moment worthy of ending a play put on to remind us of everything we have missed about theatre and live performance in the last 14 months.
The play was commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Leeds Playhouse, tell stories from the North and promote writers with close ties to the theatre – from our very own University of Leeds Professor of Poetry Simon Armitage, to celebrated actress Maxine Peake, to emerging local talents like Kamal Kaan and Leanna Benjamin. Despite all the restrictions in place on the performers, the half-empty, socially distanced auditorium, and often anxiety-provoking subject matter taking place on stage: Decades felt like an apt return both to theatre and to a city coming out of its coronavirus-induced hibernation. Looking back on old times, good and bad, celebrating the people of Leeds and the North more broadly – and looking forward to coming back with more.
Decades: Stories from the City is streaming online until 5th June. Tickets are available from: https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/decades/.