Ode to Leeds

Zodwa Nyoni

West Yorkshire Playhouse

The Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse

From 10 June 2017 to 01 July 2017

Review by Mark Smith

A love song to Leeds and a hopeful testament to the city’s youth, Ode to Leeds follows five teenagers as they hone poems for an international slam competition and butt heads over crushes, aesthetic direction, and a plethora of group dynamics and tensions.

Opening with a bare stage and five microphones, the performers start to conjure the story from just their words. Filled with faltering thoughts, pride and uncertainty, the opening poem sums up their teenage lives and the form of the night: some clashing clichés, some stepping out from behind the fourth wall, all coming over as deeply heartfelt. It’s also a testament to the spoken word, a stream of consciousness where “there is so much, the page can’t catch it all”.

The simple set gradually blossoms into life thanks to a tight lighting design by Katharine Williams, interlocking perfectly with Simon Wainwright’s impressive video design. The video makes use of the world of Snapchat and video calling with some cleverly blended live and premixed footage.

The soundtrack is a paean to the power of the human voice, with beatboxing, breaths and some beautiful singing merging to provide backdrops to the rhythmic pulse of the poetry.

The story woven between and out of these moments is perhaps the least interesting element of the night, as no twists or character developments truly surprise. One really bold storytelling device late on sees a crucial plot point delivered without our ever really hearing it, veiled in one of the strongest poems of the night, full of powerful metaphor but telling a very different tale to the one the group members hear and experience. More of these metaphorical moments would have given the show a greater shot of intellectual adrenaline.

But the great joy of the performance comes from seeing these young characters experimenting with—and deriving such pleasure from—the words and rhythms of the language. The duets and group pieces see beautifully dovetailing lyrical sequences, the performers beaming at the power of their own interlocking lines.

These performers are uniformly youthful and deeply charming. The characters are a perhaps to-be-expected ragtag collection of differing backgrounds, experiences and anxieties. Queenie (Genesis Lynea) is the most experienced poet and the leader of the group; she’s the calming organising presence and the oldest of the teenagers.

Chance Perdomo plays Theo, the second-oldest and the only real contender for leadership status; a seventeen-year-old boy whose father has gradually faded from the picture and who is now struggling to establish his place as a man.

We’re set up to expect the love story between Theo and Devika (Aryana Ramkhalawon) from early in the show, and to some extent we get the expected star-crossed lovers: Theo swears on kisses and promises to be a faithful worshipper in a Shakespearean echo which, in the writing, is perhaps more sexualised than this performance gives us.

In fact, one thing that struck me was just how chaste the production is, given that its characters are all at ages where hormones run riot, and many of them clearly “have feelings” for at least one of the others. Not all of this is down to production choices by director James Brining, and perhaps writer Zodwa Nyoni—herself a graduate of such youth poetry collectives—wanted to ensure the emphasis was on the youngsters’ love of language rather than their lust for lower pleasures. It’s just that the characters are frequently emotional in ways learnt from X-Factor and soap opera, more than they’re passionate in deeply felt yearning.

Occasionally there are discussions of why they’re doing this—what they’re in the poetry slam game for—and these are interesting and perceptive on the misleading temptation to feel that such outlets have the power to fix all other problems and struggles.

On this note, Archie Rush plays Mack, a cheeky Leeds lad with the gift of the gab and a fine line in true-to-life comic tales, who believes the competition will solve all his troubles with family, gangs and fitting in. And Darcy, played by Leah Walker, is also seeking escape and an outlet for the anxieties she sees in her close family ties. Some of the best expository poetry arises in a duet between Darcy and Devika, as the latter debates between religion, expectation and emotion, while Darcy gives way to the last of these.

All these performances are strong, charming and skilful in delivery of some intricately interwoven poetry. If at times a little earnest, the production succeeds in showing us young people working out where they are in the world, between rough draft and too tidied up: all loose ends clumsily hidden, finding that poetry’s a lightning rod but not a faith healer.