Searching for the Heart of Leeds
West Yorkshire Playhouse
Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse
Closing the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s season as the last production in their mainstage Quarry, Searching for the Heart of Leeds is more a statement of intent for the coming months of redevelopment work and rebranding than it is a taking stock or a reminiscence. At its heart are two key elements: community and stories.
The piece has been constructed from interviews with over 200 Leeds residents, reaching out to local groups, community centres, refugee organisations, the young, the retired, and everyone in between. Writer Mark Catley adopts an anthology format, enabling many of the 50-strong community cast to have a moment in the spotlight.
The framing device is the loose, self-referential one of a young woman tasked with collecting stories as part of a theatre project. She meets a mysterious stranger, who offers her clues to the elusive “heart of Leeds”. This core duo is skilfully performed by Kirsty Reid and Sam Milnes, and the dialogue neatly crafted.
This goes for the production as a whole, and for Alexander Ferris’s slick direction and stewardship of the project. The tales which Reid gathers as she loiters at bus stops and gets invited in to different communities within the city have the ring of truthfulness to them, while also being clearly shaped and structured for dramatic purposes. At times it seems the performers are probably voicing their own opinions and tales; at others it’s less clear, and this uncertainty is both tantalising and testament to the talent of the performers and writing team.
There are dance interludes, choreographed by local company Phoenix Dance Theatre. And music pulses throughout the piece, led by a talented onstage band who vamp funkily under several scenes, adding atmosphere and interest.
As you’d expect, many of the stories are celebratory of the city, with references to familiar locations and mythologies, and a distinct Leeds twang to the voices heard (“we caught us bus home”, “I aren’t sure about this one”). The people are, we’re told, “infectious and funny, and sometimes sad”. Indeed, the production doesn’t shy away from this last characteristic: despite the warmly congratulatory feel, it also acknowledges some of the problems living in a large provincial city can present.
So we see drunks staggering across the stage, petty vandalism and poverty, and we’re presented with a list of the city’s darker sides, including “corrupt police” and “historic sex abuse”. “I hate the place sometimes”, our story-collecting protagonist tells us at one point.
Yet ultimately we’re left with an optimistic patchwork of individuals muddling together within various diverse communities. And the play leaves us with the image of a city which has always, historically, opened itself up to all-comers.
There’s even a commentary on the theatre’s own position here: with its entrances up on Quarry Hill, the West Yorkshire Playhouse has felt as though it’s “turned its back” on the city. Soon to be renamed the Leeds Playhouse, and with the redevelopment work set to open up a way in on the city side, the stage is set for the sharing of more of these local stories, with the clear aim of welcoming all.
Reviewer: Mark Smith