At last we were able to see the World Premier of the new musical Say Yes To Tess. It was due to happen a couple of years ago but was one of the casualties of lockdown. It is the true story of an accidental female politician and, while no Evita, it was fun and just the thing needed for these turbulent times.
The plot centres on Tess Seddon, a playwright originally from Ilkley but who, in 2016, when the play begins, was living in London. She had just experienced a disastrous time at the Edinburgh Festival which had cleaned her out of money so was having to relocate back to Yorkshire to live with her mother. Before she headed back to civilisation she came across a chap in a blue polyester suit addressing a crowd who were queuing to get into the toilet. She went to investigate only to find that he was a politician trying to drum up support for the Yorkshire Party. After initially laughing at him she saw the potential in writing a musical about the party and so, when she had settled into a house-share in Leeds, her mother having split up with her father and been forced to move in with a relative, she went to investigate the Yorkshire Party to see if there was indeed any potential for her magnum opus.
During her time in London she had met a ‘friend with benefits’ called Sacha on Tinder who just so happened to be a political commentator and musician, handy, and they arranged that he would visit her up North to assist, in more ways than one. Obviously this didn’t happen and she was left to her own devices when it came to infiltrating the Yorkshire Party for her source material. Equally obviously, she was drawn into the organisation and found herself standing as their candidate for North-East Leeds in the 2017 General Election.
The record shows that she failed to get elected, a fact borne out by a piece of film at the end which was taken in Leeds Town Hall on election night after the result had been announced, but there is a lot of political skulduggery and bias exposed. I hasten to add that this was done in an even handed way, all politicians deemed dodgy, so was not party political at all in the conventional sense.
I said that this was a true story, well, Tess Seddon not only wrote the piece, Co-Directed it along with composer Harry Blake, but also starred in it as – you’ll never guess who. There were only four other cast members, each of whom played multiple parts very effectively; Kofi Dennis, Purvi Parmar, Jamie Noar and Andrew Whitehead.
The singing was delegated to the four above-named actors as it was made plain by Sacha that Tess was totally tone-deaf when he mocked her for attempting to write a musical. She obviously responded by saying that she was only writing it not singing in it.
When the show opened I was a bit wary that it might not be my pint of Boltmaker as Kev, the founder of the party, played by Andrew Whitehead, fired questions at members of the audience, but it was just to set up the appearance of Tess from the back of the auditorium. There was another part where we were encouraged to join in one of the songs with the lyrics displayed on a board in pantomime fashion. The characters were straight out of the Yorkshire stereotype dressing up box, except for Tess that is, who kept her immaculately white trainers, designer cropped joggers, and sweat top in a French tuck (glad I got that right), along with her posh accent.
Fortunately the comedy turned out to be parody rather than farce and evolved into something resembling an elongated sketch in the style of, the still much missed, Victoria Wood. I can’t give much higher praise than that! My impression was reinforced by Purvi Parmar whose various characters were defectors from the cast of Dinnerladies. Kofi Dennis, whose main character, Ben, was the Yorkshire Party strategist, dressed in well cut grey suit, added an intelligent element to the piece, showing that not all Yorkshiremen are whippet racing rhubarb growers. Having said that, he was also the man in blue polyester whose two-piece ensemble left something to be desired in the taste and tailoring department. Andrew Whitehead, along with being Kev, who reinforced the whippet and rhubarb image, also played Tess’s estranged father with some pathos, accentuated by his refusal to acknowledge his dire plight to his wife and daughter. Finally, Tess herself, who carried the whole show by some great acting and eventually proving that Sacha had been spot-on in his assessment of her vocal abilities. Whether this was actual or acting I am not sure but it brought the house down.
Speaking of bringing the house down, it seemed as though the auditorium, which was full to capacity, was mainly made up of friends and associates of the cast and crew as almost every song and line of dialogue was answered with accentuated laughter and whooping. There were also ‘in’ jokes which brought exaggerated responses from the audience, the mere mention of Cafe 164, the artisan bakery and coffee shop in the next block to the theatre, garnered more mirth than any of the jokes.
Speaking once again of bringing the house down, there was an incident about two-thirds of the way through the show when a piece of equipment descended from the top of the set and remained dangling over the stage for the rest of the night. It was pretty bulky and was fortunate to avoid the players. I am not sure whether it was a prop, such as a roller blind, which didn’t deploy correctly or just a badly secured piece of the gantry but it was a scary moment.
The songs were varied, with comedy ones about ‘putting the rad in Bradford and the oo in Goole’, see below for my favourite, ranging to more plaintive ones regarding failure and frustration. I found the best staged one to be ‘Twitter Storm’ which got the place rocking. With one spectacular exception, the singing was of a very high standard with some good harmonies and a level of clarity you don’t often get. This is doubly important when the words are vital to the humour.
There is no mention of a choreographer on the fact sheet which we were given, just a Movement Director, Yukiko Masui. I think that this is a better description as the dancing was kept to a basic level, which even then seemed beyond the point at which synchronisation could be maintained but this all added to the humour. The Set and Costume Designer, Rūta Irbīte, did a wonderful job. There were three components to the set; A piano/synthesiser to one side of the stage, which was so that Jamie Noar, also the Musical Director, could provide the backing for the songs and dances, four ‘polling booths’ with coloured LED lights surrounding the curtains which served as changing rooms where the actors could swap outerwear when morphing into other characters, house doors when Tess was electioneering, and refuges when the actors were not in a scene. There was also a great touch when they were spun round 180 degrees to reveal – I won’t spoil it for you! Finally there was an Olympic Games style podium which doubled as a rostrum and a props store. Very imaginative indeed. The Lighting Designer, Amy Mae, did a sterling job in setting the various scenes and creating atmosphere.
Finally, my hero, and someone without whom a trip to Leeds Playhouse is not complete, Keren Seabrook, the BSL interpreter. She has become as much a part of the action as any of the performers and was translating resplendent in a Yorkshire Blue polyester suit. My only gripe was that I was sitting to the front left of the auditorium and that was the side on which she was standing so I had to turn my head to see her in full flow. I don’t know how she manages to cope with some of the dialogue and was so sorry that I was not able to swivel quickly enough to see what she made of a line in one of the songs which referred to putting the Penis in Penistone!
In conclusion, Say Yes To Tess is a great way to escape from the grim realities of life at the moment and experience a feel-good show extolling the virtues of God’s Own County, even if we don’t really know what we want from our politicians.
Say Yes To Tess is created by TheatreState in association with Leeds Playhouse and supported by Camden People’s Theatre. It runs at Bramble Rock Void in Leeds Playhouse until Saturday 2nd April. For more details and tickets please go to https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/say-yes-to-tess-a-new-musical-3/
You will be pleased to know that, not only has the Playhouse Kitchen reopened for a pre-show meal, but so has the Front Room Cafe should you just be in need of a coffee and sandwich or cake.
All photographs by Zoe Martin for Leeds Playhouse