Octagon Theatre Bolton
From 11 May 2017 to 03 June 2017
Review by David Chadderton
To those of us who grew up in the North West, Winter Hill is familiar as the site for many years of the major TV transmitter for the area; to Timberlake Wertenbaker (as she explained to us for the BTG podcast), it was the inspiration behind her latest play.
On a set backed with scaffolding and plastic sheeting but with an elaborate pseudo-Egyptian floor (designer Amanda Stoodley), a women's book group discusses its latest subject on the site of a new hotel on Winter Hill, which will apparently bring tourism and jobs to Bolton. However the work chosen is just a chapter of a book about Easter Island, where the male chiefs compete to have the tallest, most impressive statue.
To answer complaints that there is no story, and particularly no strong heroine, they make up their own plot with resonances of Aristophanes' Lysistrata (Felicity—played by Janet Henfrey—who gets all the best funny lines, points this out) in which the women protest about the men building monuments to their power and vanity.
When I spoke to the cast and writer, they were reluctant to say very much about the plot, but I'm sure the parallels drawn between the story they are improvising and the building project which surrounds them are screamingly obvious just from this brief account. Reactions to the building range from local councillor Irene's (Cathy Tyson) justification of the project and what it can bring to the region to veteran protestor Dolly's (Denise Black) proposals for action that to most of the others seem extreme.
Interspersed with this action are little inserts where Emma (Fiona Hampton), obviously some time later, is questioning the women individually to find out what happened on that day, particularly to Dolly, her mother.
The rest of the group are Souad Faress as Vivan who was not born in this country but can hack into anyone's computer system and Louise Jameson's Beth, who claims that Dolly has been bullying her into doing things that have got her into trouble since they were kids. Susan Twist makes an appearance later as a Greek Fury and Eva-Jane Willis completes the cast as the site security guard, Alex.
It's a play packed full of ideas that appear to be very much of the moment—citizen protest, development of green space, local residents against big corporations, the male domination of the political and corporate world, the point at which protest becomes terrorism—but in fact these are all old, ongoing issues and the play doesn't bring a great deal that's new to them.
Wertenbaker does pose the questions with eloquence and ties the issues in with literature and mythology, but the political arguments are a bit thin. The play seems to want to generate discussion and disagreement, but the substance of the arguments isn't strong enough for political theatre. It isn't really until the last scene that Irene counters the idealism and the apparent addiction to the adrenaline-fueled thrill of protesting of Dolly, whatever the cause, with her political pragmatism. Even at the basic plot level of a group of people with an idea that gets out of hand, it doesn't quite work.
Director Elizabeth Newman has brought an extremely impressive cast to Bolton who all play their parts well, but their hesitancy at times suggested that the production hadn't quite played in by press night—or perhaps changes were still being made to the script.
It's great to have a new Timberlake Wertenbaker opening in the region (although other than the title it could be set anywhere), but at the moment both the play and the production show a lot of promise but aren't quite there yet.