There Are No Beginnings
The Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse
Charley Miles’s new play not only confirms her talent as a writer but also launches Leeds Playhouse’s brand-new performance space, reclaimed from the rock void somewhere between the established venues of the Courtyard and the Quarry.
The play, too, is about women reclaiming space from the insistent male presences which encroach all around: boyfriends, colleagues, newsreaders and, centrally, potential murderers, as personified by the Yorkshire Ripper. We’re transported to the second half of the 1970s, in a play which skips fleetly over the period from 1975 to early 1981.
“This is not a story about the Yorkshire Ripper”, though, as the press for the production informs us. Rather, it’s about the experience of being a woman at that time and—obliquely but nonetheless aptly—now. Miles has recent form on this topic, with the beautifully crafted study of family and female relationships, Daughterhood.
There Are No Beginnings, too, paints its characters with depth and lightness of touch. June, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh, is a support worker in a safehouse for women around the Chapeltown area of Leeds. Over the course of the play, we watch her daughter, Sharon (Tessa Parr), grow from a 15-year-old obsessed with Donnie Osmond and Supertramp into a Women’s Studies student whose involvement in the Reclaim the Night movement has led to a political awakening.
Into this family comes Helen (Natalie Gavin), a young woman whose coercive relationship has forced her into prostitution, and an ambitious police officer, Fiona (Jesse Jones), who’s out to prove herself the equal—no, the superior—of her dismissive male colleagues.
Fiona and June open up to each other as the former pursues both the sex workers June looks after and the mysterious Ripper. Through audio recalling news reports of the time (as well as the infamous “Wearside Jack” hoax confession), we’re shown the fear that these men—the reporters as well as the perpetrators of violence—introduced to the lives of women across the region. Sharon at one point wishes for a break from the seemingly constant news cycle: “It’s like every time I turn it on, there she is. I don’t want to think about it all the time.”
In this way, present-day parallels are lightly suggested but not insisted upon. This is a period piece which does not feel the need to emphasise its contemporary resonance, and its heart is the believable bond formed between Sharon and Helen.
Amy Leach returns to the Leeds Playhouse with another assured and compelling piece of direction, and all four of the performers are similarly confident: it’s a powerful ensemble. Tessa Parr and Julie Hesmondhalgh are highlights for me, the former convincingly, and never cloyingly, playing the growth from teen awkwardness to a more self-possessed young woman, and the latter grounding the whole play with a solid, empathetic portrayal of a character more complex than the mother archetype which my descriptions might suggest.
The design, by Camilla Clarke, and lighting by Amy Mae are sympathetic to the space and evocative of the era without being fussy, and Charlotte Bickley’s sound design conjures much through skipping songs, shrieking static and echoing loops of the male voices of authority and threat.
The writing and atmosphere take a few missteps at the beginning of the second half, with what to me felt like an odd set of lurches for the characters; despite Hesmondhalgh’s best efforts, it seems unclear what motivates June’s laughter at Fiona’s fairly weak jokes: genuine hilarity or the bubbling sense of panic and release? There might have been a more compressed one-act play in the material and form, but the evening at no point drags, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to spend the two hours or so in the company of these characters and in this world—unpleasant, claustrophobic and traumatic though the events depicted are.
And what a venue to house it. In a low-ceilinged traverse setting which reminded me of at least one show I’ve seen at the Hampstead Downstairs (though the Rock Void, too, is flexible), it’s just the place for productions which might take risks but which are, on this evidence, nonetheless skilfully crafted and polished. This inaugural production eases by with a sure-footedness which makes for an engaging drama and a confident opening to this promising new space.
Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith