‘Twas the night before lockdown, which meant that the elevation of Leeds into Tier 3 of the government’s alert level was suspended and we remained in Tier 2 thus people from the same household or support bubble could go to the theatre one last time before returning to house arrest.
There could be no more fitting production with which to close the venue for a month (hopefully) than Nine Lives by Zodwa Nyoni. It is a solo performance by Lladel Bryant, directed by Alex Chisholm, and tells the story of Ishmael who has come from Zimbabwe to the UK to seek sanctuary. He has been allocated a place to stay in Leeds whilst he awaits the letter informing him of his fate.
Ishmael is a composite character pulling together some of the experiences, both good and bad, of refugees into one person. This is a very effective strategy as the issues raised are given more heft when you can see the effect they have on a person rather than a group.
The reason that this play was very apt is that Ishmael is confined to a room in a shared house and is under a kind of financial lockdown having only just over £30 per week on which to survive. In order to pass the time he does what a lot of people did in Lockdown 1.0 and set about a regime of exercise within his room – he obviously didn’t have the wherewithal to hit the pinot noir or watch a series of Netflix box sets one after another.
He pays a weekly visit to Cath’s Cafe as a special treat, where he spends his time listening to the conversations between the eponymous owner and her husband through the serving hatch. He also takes a trip to the park and befriends a single mother, Angela, and her child, Bailey. It is when talking to Angela that he instinctively tells her that his name is Sam, indicating that, not only has his dignity been taken away from him by having to live in squalor but also his identity, as the authorities refer to him by his reference number or case identification.
Whilst returning from buying some basic groceries he encounters Ricky, a fifteen-year-old yob and his pit bull, Blade, a moniker ascribed because of the sharpness of his teeth. After robbing him of his week’s supplies Ricky informs him that this will be a regular event so Ishmael ceases to venture out apart from one evening when he takes his going out clothes from the suitcase – the only prop on stage – and gets glammed up to visit a gay bar, thus revealing the reason he has sought refuge here. Zimbabwe does not have the most liberal laws and attitudes when it comes to the subject of homosexuality. This is the one time he feels truly liberated.
Nine Lives doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs but don’t be fooled. The story is sympathetically told and beautifully written balancing the ups and downs of Ishmael’s life in Leeds, avoiding piling on the agony to prove a point.
Lladel Bryant was wonderful as Ishmael running the gamut of emotions as well as having a brilliant ear for accents. Most of the piece was delivered with the Zimbabwe twang but he would do impersonations of Cath and Angela in their broad Leeds brogue, complete with exaggerated body language, which were hilarious. I tried to find out more about Mr Bryant but all I could glean was that he is based in Leeds. I would guess that he has been based here for quite some time as our accent is one of the most difficult to master. It usually consists of the ‘e bah gum’ variety but Lladel had it nailed. The secret is that you delete the letter ‘t’ from the alphabet and replace it with a soft grunt. You’re welcome. I have since been informed that he is a native Loiner and so I will now commend him on his Zimbabwe accent instead. Like I am totally conversant with the nuances of that particular tongue!
His body acting was also very good, from the initial simulated running to signify his flight from his home country, through to the scene in the bar where he strutted his stuff after having donned a pair of glittery stilettos! A small thing which I found very moving was the way in which he treated his track suit jacket. At the beginning, when he took it off, he folded it neatly and laid it carefully down. As his life and demeanour deteriorated it was casually discarded onto the floor.
As I have said, the only prop on the stage was Ishmael’s suitcase which contained a couple of other bits, but the stage itself was bare and the back wall painted dark grey. There was a light fitting suspended from the ceiling which provided the opening scene when a bulb was inserted.
The other people who contributed to the piece were Ema Pightling – Stage Manager, Ed Clarke – Sound Designer, Jonathan Girling – Composer and Kudaushe Matimbe Mbira – Soundtrack.
Nine Lives is a Leeds/Studio presentation in association with Leeds Playhouse
Because of Lockdown 2.0 the run was reduced from two evenings to one and I would love to see it get a second shot when this pandemic has passed, as it deserves to be seen.
If you are sad enough to read all of my reviews then you will know that I have a thing against audience members who have no idea how to behave in the theatre. There are some people who treat the theatre as if it were their lounge and no one else is there. This is annoying enough when the numpties are having a conversation whilst an artist is performing or checking social media on their mobile during a play or opera, but at this performance, I was appalled by a number of people who removed their face masks once in the auditorium. The virus does not stop to watch a play!
As I write this we are in a nationwide lockdown and, had we not been, Leeds would have moved up to Tier 3. Leeds Playhouse have gone to great lengths to make the theatre safe by deep cleaning the various spaces, insisting on hand sanitising before entry and taking theatregoers’ temperatures, but, all of this good work is useless if patrons don’t play their part and act responsibly. When lockdown is lifted on 2nd December the country is due to be reassessed and the Tier system reimposed locally. We want to get back to Leeds Playhouse as soon as possible to see some of the brilliant shows they have scheduled but the stupidity shown on Wednesday night is very likely to put us straight back into Tier 3 and make reopening nigh on impossible. It is not only our entertainment and culture which is at stake, it is also the jobs and livelihood of the staff.
The feature photograph is of Lladel Bryant and was supplied by Leeds Playhouse