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North Country

Tajinder Singh Hayer
Freedom Studios
The Wild Woods, Bradford

Philip Duguid-McQuillan as Alleyne and Natalie Davies as Nusrat Credit: Maria Spadafora
Kamal Kaan as Harvinder Credit: Maria Spadafora
Natalie Davies as Nusrat Credit: Maria Spadafora

Bradford-based theatre company Freedom Studios specialises in performing new plays in unusual locations. In 2011, it staged The Mill—City of Dreams, a drama based on the stories of local and migrant wool workers, in an old textile mill. Last year, it produced Brief Encounters at Bradford Interchange, a promenade piece inspired by the people who work and travel through this particular train station.

North Country represents the company’s first foray into the speculative zone of science fiction. Like Stephen King’s The Stand (1978), Tajinder Singh Hayer’s play presents us with a world in which a mysterious plague kills off most of the human race. Among the survivors are three Bradford teenagers who struggle to survive in this new post-apocalyptic landscape. They each form their own communities and try to rebuild civilization as best they can.

Freedom Studios is devoted to telling stories that reflect Bradford’s rich cultural diversity, and the three characters each come from distinctly different backgrounds. Nusrat (Natalie Davies) is a young working class woman of British Pakistani descent, Alleyne (Phillip Duguid-McQuillan) is a white farmer’s son and Harvinder (Kamal Kaan) is a middle-class British Indian Sikh and the son of two doctors.

Despite the play’s dark and outlandish premise, Singh Hayer is not particularly concerned about frightening the audience. There are no zombies or cannibals in this production. Instead, he is more interested in exploring how communities try to survive under pressure, and this is achieved by tracking the characters’ lives over three time periods: the immediate aftermath of the plague, 2028 and 2058.

Singh Hayer’s dystopian vision is being performed in The Wild Woods, a community arts space located in the basement of a disused Marks & Spencer in Bradford city centre. Inspired by photographs of makeshift refugee camps, designer Uzma Kazi transforms the former food hall into a wonderfully convincing post-apocalyptic landscape filled with rubble, plastic sheets and mismatched furniture.

Given the delightful creepiness of the venue, it seems a shame that the action of the play is restricted to a square stage in the middle of the basement. That said, audience members are encouraged to explore The Wild Woods before the play begins.

For a large portion of the play, the three actors occupy different corners of the stage. This is problematic as certain audience members are denied the opportunity to see the performers clearly. Also, it is usually when the performers come together in the centre of the stage to interact with one another that the play truly springs into life.

The audience is plunged into darkness early on and from this point onwards the production is mostly lit by mobile 'phones and torches. Although this helps to create a sinister atmosphere, there are occasions when you wish you could see the actors more clearly.

Despite these reservations, there is much to enjoy in this production. The three characters are vividly drawn and engagingly performed, and it is refreshing to watch a dystopian drama set in Bradford rather than a thriving metropolis like London or New York.

Reviewer: James Ballands