A Wondrous Place

Luke Barnes, Alison Carr, Matt Hartley, Sarah McDonald Hughes

Northern Spirit

Unity Theatre, Liverpool

From 15 May 2013 to 18 May 2013

Review by Martin Thomasson

It’s a neat idea: commission four young writers, each to write a piece about her or his home city, aimed at countering that old cliché ‘it’s grim up North’, and then tour the production to the cities in question—Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle and Manchester.

Lois Maskell’s set is an arching Advent calendar, with props and treasures hiding behind each window. This backdrop also serves as projection screen, used sparingly and effectively to create a sense of place and mood.

Each piece is at heart a monologue, but director Chris Meads wisely elects to keep all four actors onstage throughout; listening to the storyteller, occasionally chipping in lines of dialogue, or working as stage hands.

Alison Carr’s opener, What Space Between, is almost pure monologue. Carr’s play is set in Newcastle, referencing not just the river and its famous bridges, but less glamorous parts of the city, some now derelict and in the case of Derwent Tower (aka the Dunston Rocket) in the throes of demolition.

It’s a witty and well-crafted story, about the unsettling nature of change and how the past remains a part of us, even when the places and the people who made that past change or disappear.

Kathryn Beaumont makes us believe in the young woman who, after an hour in her new flat, is so homesick that she takes a bus ride back across the Tyne to one of her familiar haunts. It’s a good start to the evening, giving us the sense of a writer with Newcastle in her bones.

Electricity, by Sarah McDonald Hughes, moves us to Manchester; a Manchester so tightly bound in the grip of a heatwave that Angel (played by Sally Hodgkiss) longs for the familiar relief of rain. People can do daft things in a heatwave and, while her parents are distracted setting up a barbecue, Angel (only a week after passing her test) decides to “borrow” her Mum’s car.

Still at that novice-driver stage where a car can feel like a runaway chariot, Angel takes a wrong turn and finds herself on ‘Mancunian Fucking Way!’. Fear not, Angel’s impulsive journey won’t lead her to Manchester Royal Infirmary, it will lead her to love. Love in the form of Ryan (‘like Giggsy’).

Ryan (Joshua Hayes) is a student (or ‘a twat’ as Angel calls them). He’s on a short trip home to breathe the air and feel the ‘beat’ of his home town. When Ryan and Angel touch hands, though, it’s the ‘buzz’ rather than the beat that really matters. Sparks, literally, fly.

Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl finds boy again, girl and boy journey together through the city until dawn. Although the brief is less skilfully fulfilled here than in the opener (with Manchester landmarks name-checked rather than woven into the fabric of the piece), McDonald Hughes gives us a love story packed with humour and charm.

Electricity captures the fears and thrills of burgeoning romance with aplomb, as Angel and Ryan win our hearts as well as each other’s. There is something—in demeanour rather than appearance—of the young Victoria Wood about Sally Hodgkiss and audiences are likely to take her to their hearts.

Luke Barnes’s play Dog relocates us to Liverpool. A young man, carrying a terrible burden, is bent on self-destruction via drink and drugs, and needs the help of another to guide him home.

The least successful of the four plays, Dog is a dark piece and, though it closes with a glint of hope, there is no firm case put here for Liverpool as a ‘wondrous place’. Nevertheless, Barnes is attempting to present a serious and truthful journey of grieving and regret, and there is enough quality in the writing to hold our interest. The piece is greatly helped by the focused emotion of Adam Search, who commands our attention throughout.

The evening closes with Matt Hartley’s cleverly conceived Porters Brook. A cycling accident robs Adam of his memory, so that he can no longer recognise parents, girlfriend or the city, Sheffield, in which he grew up.

Joshua Hayes plays Adam. Hayes’s portrayal of a young man cast adrift in an unfamiliar world, full of “strangers” who claim to know and love him, could have used more help from writer and director, but he is in his element once the recovering Adam begins to find a brave new world in the city of his birth.

Adam’s best mate, Kev, is a gift that Adam Search grabs with both hands, presenting us with what might be two fundamental truths about the universe:

  1. one mate’s vulnerability is another mate’s perfect opportunity to stitch him up;
  2. never trust a Sheffield United fan.

This commendable new writing project, produced by Northern Spirit, is given its clearest expression in Adam’s closing realisation about his home town:

‘I always felt happier arriving at the station than I ever did leaving it.’

Four thirty-minute pieces that leave us feeling it’s not so grim up North, after all.