A quick word at the start of this review – if you’ve been around here a little while, you might recognise the name Charley Miles as she’s featured several times on the blog over the years! Charley is one of my best friends from school, and she’s now a pretty incredible writer – we’ve seen her first play, Blackthorn, twice, and her current play, There Are No Beginnings is currently showing at the newly relaunched Leeds Playhouse. So while I paid for the tickets myself for There Are No Beginnings, I just kind of need to let you know that the writer is my BFF, bridesmaid and Emmy’s guidemother – that’s a little bit disclosure, and a little bit showing off ;D
The first thing you need to know about There Are No Beginnings is that it is not a story about the Yorkshire Ripper. Set in 1975, 4 women from 4 different walks of life attempt to live their lives in peace – Sharon, a schoolgirl; her mum, June, who works at a unit to look after vulnerable girls; Helen, one of the vulnerable girls; and Fiona, a policewoman fighting to make her way off the bottom rung. In the background, the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror begins, and slowly their world changes, in ways that have no apparent beginning or end.
Isn’t it weird to think that we used to sleep with our doors unlocked? That were only five year ago.
It’ll go back to normal after he’s caught though.
D’you think? I reckon it might be different forever now.
I actually watched There Are No Beginnings twice in 2 days! On the Friday, I attended the Leeds Playhouse’s first ever Parent and Baby performance. Emmy and I went to a Big Scream showing at the cinema in York during the summer, this is a thing that runs nationwide weekly, but I’d never heard of theatres offering a performance that allowed babies before. And it was absolutely incredible. The whole experience was so successful in my eyes, and I imagine the theatre thought so too. It’s really a massive credit to the actors who didn’t even miss a beat when a baby whined, cried or screamed (or made Darth Vader type noises in the case of my own child…).
The nature and themes of the script made this particular performance all the more special. There was just something so poignant about the fact that the theatre, Leeds’ very own, was filled with mothers and babies. Strong women on stage; strong women directing and writing; strong women in the audience. 1975 and the years that followed were a time of fear for women, and a time I admit I knew very little about really. I’d never stopped to consider how truly scary those times must have been, nor how suffocating. Women were encouraged not to leave their homes without men, curfews put in place, told not to draw attention to themselves, with strong allusions to being careful with what they wore and how they presented themselves, lest they were considered not to be “innocent” women.
Can you believe that it’s one man doing this to us?
One little man.
One pathetic boy.
The directing of the play and the effects on and around the stage, though seemingly very simple on first glance, were excellent. The script directs: “The play should be surrounded by male voices/recordings/music. They should be pressing in on every side.” This was in the form of original recordings of the Yorkshire Ripper, news reports from the time, contemporary music, and it was so effective. At no point during the play are men present on the stage – they are referred to in the background, yet their constant presence is always felt.
Charley interviewed dozens of women and spoke in passing to dozens more. These real experiences helped to define the story, which is, as she says, not about the Ripper, but of the “significant, beautiful and terrible details of everyday life.” The author’s note describes how it is a play written “for and about” the women of Leeds:
Women who have failed to be portrayed with voices and agency, women who continue to be underestimated and forgotten.
As the title boldly proclaims, there really are no beginnings in this story. There are several moments where the story comes full circle throughout – brides; certain phrases that are echoed years later; the scene where young Sharon dances without inhibition and encourages Helen to join her, then later encourages Helen against to drop her inhibitions again at the Reclaim the Night march; the first scene and the last, also echoed in the middle of the play. Seeing the show twice (and reading through it later) really helped me to spot these and understand just how clever the script is – it sounds strange to say it, but it’s the type of story I can imagine dissecting in an English lesson, picking out the parts where the themes develop, earlier parts echo in later parts. The script comes not only from years of research, but from years of passion. It’s the type of thing I wish I could write!
It’s just about having choices, isn’t it.
It’s about being able to change your mind.
I was so glad to be able to see the play on two occasions not only to be able to take it in more the second time, but also so I could see Ben’s reaction to it. I knew, of course, that he would enjoy it, but as we sat waiting for it to begin, I was bouncing in my seat with excitement as I knew Ben would love it. We spent the car journey home discussing so many different aspects of the play, and I pulled out my copy of the script that I bought at the theatre to pick out some favourite quotes as soon as I got home. It was also really interesting to see the difference between the way the two different audiences reacted – there were jokes that were laughed at loudly during one performance that didn’t hit with the same gusto in another; and the atmosphere during a very important speech made towards the end that was very relevant to the mother and baby audience (I don’t want to give any “spoilers”!) was incredible – you could literally feel the emotion in the room, even the actors said they felt it too. Honestly, both performances were wonderful, but there was just something magic about experiencing that play in that place with that audience.
I think we’re getting better. I think it will get better still. It’s not always going to be like this.
I think it’s changing now and I think it will change. I mean it better, or they’ll have me to answer to. I think in fifty years’ time, things will be different.
What I think appealed to me so much about this play is that, while it clearly has a moral, it’s not just a moral. It’s only too easy for stories that centre around feminism (or other big issues, like here from consent to domestic abuse, from prostitution to complex relationships) to become a statement and lose their creativity, but this didn’t. The characters were so well developed even though they were all so different, and their relationships were fascinating – they really made you proud of women supporting women, the solidarity that arose during that time, between “pros” and “innocent” women, as the media divided them. And the story was gripping. I felt I was right there with those women, feeling what they felt, the terror and the need to fight. And there were glimpses through the fear too – the joy of youth, losing inhibitions, and dancing to music; the ecstasy of fighting the fight; the humour in the everyday; the joke that made even a 7 month old laugh in the first scene.
The actors were absolutely wonderful too – such a fantastic group of women who had excellent chemistry on stage and, like I said, didn’t even bat an eyelid at an audience full of babies. They portrayed the characters so genuinely and with the passion that the script deserves. On top of that, they were just genuinely lovely people who came out to meet us at the end of the play, not once, but twice! Julie Hesmondhalgh particularly, who you might know from Broadchurch, Happy Valley or Coronation Street, came rushing up the stairs to meet Emmy (who she’d obviously heard about from Charley), and remembered her the next day enough to want another cuddle with her – not that Emmy approved all that much, separation anxiety is currently hitting over here!
The theatre also put on an exhibition with posters and literature from Reclaim the Night marches which made for a fantastic all round experience in the theatre. Speaking of which, the Leeds Playhouse has just recently relaunched, and There Are No Beginnings is the first play to be shown in their new Bramall Rock Void, an intimate, flexible space dedicated to new and emerging talent. It was ideal for this, highlighting the suffocating atmosphere of the time even more and allowing the audience to really feel part of it. Other new facilities include better accessibility with new entrances that allow direct access to two of the auditoriums and larger lifts; better family areas such as baby changing, and all gender toilets; new restaurants and bars; and upgraded seating in the existing auditoriums. The newly upgraded Playhouse is definitely a space for the now, and it really makes a destination to visit in Leeds.
There Are No Beginnings is currently showing at the Leeds Playhouse, but I strongly believe it should be shown elsewhere once it’s finished here, and if so, I highly recommend you keep your eyes peeled and get tickets – and get them quickly! It sold out entirely at the Leeds Playhouse and for very, very good reason.