I hate being late for anything, so much so that when I have to be somewhere I always catch the bus before the one I need. I was so pleased to be going back to the theatre on Saturday that I didn’t go for the bus before the one I needed, I didn’t even go for the one before that but I went for the one before that. Due to some roadworks at Moortown and the fact that Harrogate Bus Company had contrived to have all of its fleet in Leeds at 1.00pm, none of the three arrived so I didn’t get to the bus station until 2.50 by which time the performance at the Leeds Playhouse had begun. Whoopee!
I toyed with the idea of getting straight back on a bus and going home as I was more than a little stressed and worried that I might not be in the correct frame of mind to do the plays justice. Fortunately Decades is a collection of six specially commissioned plays to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Leeds Playhouse and so the wonderful front of house staff calmed me down and showed me to my seat during the gap between the one covering the 1980s and the 1970s. As you will gather, they don’t run in chronological order. Within a few seconds of the beginning of the play entitled The Bodyguard written by Simon Armitage and directed by James Brining I was totally immersed in the moment and the journey to the theatre was a distant memory.
As with all of the plays I saw, this was a single-hander and, again, like all of the plays I saw was brilliantly performed. There was no plot as such to any of them, they were muses on the plight of the character within the context of the year in which the piece was set. In The Bodyguard Connor Elliott played Wilf, a teenager living in Huddersfield who was regularly charged with meeting his mother at the bus stop after work. This was the period in which the Yorkshire Ripper was at large and striking fear into the North of England. It was a wonderful illustration as to how having a serial killer – or mass murderer as they were known in those days – on the loose impacted on the lives of men as well as women. The character, Wilf, who was just beginning to take an interest in current affairs was at the stage of his development when he viewed life with a mixture of naivety, as illustrated by his seeing Margaret Thatcher’s hairstyle as a curl of butter on a knife, mixed with the sense of the sombre reality of life whereby the dark brown Marmite on the toast became the Ripper and jam, the intestines of his victims. Don’t be put off, there were a lot of amusing moments in the piece which added to the impact of the macabre.
The third play, or in my case the second, The Unknown, was ostensibly covering the 2000s but the action occurs on 31st December, 1999. It was performed by Nicole Botha as Sophia who was getting ready to go to the Majestyk nightclub in Leeds to see in the new millennium. Her posh frock was hanging up and her sparkly shoes ready to be donned. As she is drying her hair she drops the brush and is unable to get up off the floor after kneeling down to pick it up. It is then we learn that she is suffering from a debilitating condition which will eventually see her confined to a wheelchair. Again, there are flashes of humour in the play and fond recollections of her mother who has recently died. Ms Botha’s performance was poignantly delivered and brilliantly conveyed the character’s helplessness and frustration . The Unknown was written by Leanna Benjamin and directed by Amanda Huxtable.
There is a choice between seeing all six of the plays in one go or opting for three at a time. As this was the full monty there was an interval enabling me to demolish a bottle of Guinness and a bag of crisps to replace the lunch I was too late to get – I hadn’t totally forgotten my commute!
At this point I would like to mention the set which was designed, along with the costumes, by Amanda Stoodley, and built and painted by Leeds Playhouse Scenic Workshop and Technical Stage Department. It consisted of a series of scaffold structures both of single and double storey varieties. The appropriate one was wheeled swiftly to centre stage between the plays and one was so versatile that it served for the both of the next two pieces after the interval. Very efficient and ingenious.
The first play in the second half was Don’t You Know It’s Going To Be Alright by Maxine Peake and concerned the 1990s. It was directed by Amy Leach and acted by Eva Scott who played Danny. This was the most overtly political play of the evening combining diatribes on the class struggle and interweaving them with stories of illegal raves and family secrets and relationships. The strands explored the concept of identity and conflict, along with being sick down your clothes. The scaffold set was a stall in Leeds Outdoor Market on Guy Fawkes Night where Danny had escaped with some cans of booze and a couple of Es to avoid the mayhem of the local bonfires.
We then skipped to the present day for the 2020s and the market stall had been converted into a bus shelter by adding a poster urging social distancing and the use of face coverings. It was called Pie In The Bus Stop, written by Stan Owens, directed by Tess Seddon and performed by Akiel Dowe as Jamie. It concerned the internal struggle being experienced by Jamie between leaving home and finding his freedom by flat sharing with his new friend Scott, or staying at home where he is his mother’s only carer. Her condition is deteriorating and we see his plight being played out in a series of mobile phone calls he gets whist waiting for a bus. Again, there is a strong mix of pathos and humour but this time with a twist in the tail – or should that be tale?
The final piece was ‘and after we sailed a thousand skies’ (sic) dealing with the 2010s. It is a play ostensibly about a break-up and concerns Layla, played by Cassie Layton and an unseen man to whom she talks. It becomes clear that the break-up is not from a lover but a country in the Middle East from which she has fled. This is a very poetic piece and even ends with Layla playing guitar and singing, no, not THAT song. It was written by Kamal Khan and directed by Sameena Hussain.
What about the 1980s I hear you cry. Well, those wonderful people at Leeds Playhouse kindly supplied me with a link so that I could watch the streamed version which was put on-line on Monday 24th.
Nicer Than Orange Squash by Alice Nutter, directed by Evie Manning takes its title from an old music hall song ‘Joshua, Joshua, nicer than orange squash you are’. The Joshua in this instance is part of a rent-a-mob who live in a squat and go to protests and demonstrations against whatever is perceived to be the current threat to humanity. Loz, played by Isobel Coward, is a twenty-one year-old girl who has been recruited to the cabal by the aforementioned Joshua and has become his girlfriend. The piece concerns the internal dynamics of the group and the way in which someone can be manipulated by flattery and faux acceptance by the crowd. Loz gradually comes to realise how she is actually perceived and has to make a choice.
Having been given access to the streamed versions I thought that it would be interesting to watch a couple of the plays I had seen live to compare and contrast. As with a lot of streamed performances I have seen during lockdown, the viewer is at the mercy of the director in that the cameras are trained on sections of the stage they wish you to concentrate on. This can be a good thing, for example, in The Unknown we were able to see in close up the photographs that Sophia was looking at whilst lying on the floor. They were too small to garner the detail in the theatre although we obviously knew what they were.
My one quibble about the streamed version is that the scripts are acted in the same way as they would be if on tv, i.e. there are several takes rather than doing the play in one piece as in the theatrical version. In my naivety I would probably not have noticed this but, in one lapse in continuity, when Wilf is performing a piece from The Bodyguard wearing his jacket, the collar at one side keeps changing from being turned up to lying flat, indicating that it was an amalgamation of at least two takes.
I would once again like to thank Leeds Playhouse for the way in which I was treated despite my tardy arrival, and the continued COVID protocols they are stringently enforcing. It is great to be back.
The theatrical version of Decades runs until
26th May for the 1970s, 1980s and 2000s
28th May for 1990s, 2010s and 2020s
29th May for the complete six play version
The streaming version is available in the three play formats until 5th June
For booking and full details please go to
Finally I would like to congratulate Harrogate Bus Company who managed to choreograph their buses for the return journey in such a way that, at 5.30 after leaving the Leeds Playhouse, my app showed that I had just missed two buses which were travelling in convoy, and that the rest of the fleet appeared to be in Harrogate. The next one arrived at 6.45, it must have taken some planning to get things so very wrong.
All images supplied by Leeds Playhouse