This elegiac selection was smartly delivered, but the grimly sterile surrounds highlight that returning venues must offer a warmer welcome
Outside Leeds Playhouse there’s an illuminated sign that reads “I get knocked down but I get up again” – the refrain from defunct lefty band Chumbawamba’s best-known hit, Tubthumping. That could hardly be more apt given the current situation. But the Playhouse’s valiant reopening after six months of closure almost warrants something less cheery: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”, perhaps. Solitude, regret, loss, grief – these are the dominant themes of the chosen work.
The mini season, dubbed “Connecting Voices” (it nominally celebrates the power of the voice), and co-presented with Opera North, features the familiar, the less so, and the as-good-as-new in its selection. Once again exhumed (no complaints there) is Beckett’s haunting monologue, Krapp’s Last Tape, in which the risibly named title character, a failed writer, passes his solitary existence by listening to tape recordings of his younger self.
Alongside is another piece from 1958: Poulenc’s operatic version of Cocteau’s 1930 monologue The Human Voice, in which a suicidal woman vents at her unfaithful lover on the phone. The big novelty item here is Orpheus in the Record Shop, written and performed by beatboxer supreme Testament (aka Andy Brooks), with orchestral accompaniment. Loosely derived from the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, it centres on the likeable, rather lost manager of an ailing rare vinyls shop who is suffering a prolonged sense of romantic abandonment.
All in all, this elegiac selection (augmented by a strand of tangential creative ‘responses’) represents a bold and serious-minded artistic bid to address our lockdown year of emotional dislocation. My chief concern is the soulnessness of the visiting experience. Each performance takes place in a different space, as if to reanimate the building. But an abandoned spacecraft would probably have more atmosphere. Once you’ve gone through the sterilising rigmarole of donning face-mask, dabbing hand-gel, having bag and temperature checked, you’re pointed towards your socially distanced seat, then steered out of the building at the end (even if you’re due back for the next performance). My colleague Mark Monahan has written about the danger of this joyless period putting people off the performing arts. Here, that danger is writ large.
A warmer welcome-back needs to be extended. And, given the (recently renovated) Playhouse has just turned 50, would it be too much to ask to see memorabilia from bygone years when you arrive? The late Diana Rigg opened the venue in 1970; Tony Robinson was among the first to tread its boards. Why not celebrate that heritage?
Still, the performances rise above their grimly sterile surrounds. Last seen in the West End in a Covid-curtailed run of Sebastian Barry’s On Blueberry Hill, the Irish actor Niall Buggy (here directed by Dominic Hill) is spellbinding as Krapp. Sitting under a lonely halo of light, and cradling the old tape-machine like an alcoholic nursing a bottle, he combines sealed-eyed reverie with scoffing self-contempt as his character listens to a bygone version of himself and relives a long-ago moment of sensuous communion.
Meanwhile, La Voix Humaine – as exquisitely trilled by Gillene Butterfield with piano accompaniment – asserts itself afresh as a transfixing aria of discontent and distress. Here, the soprano crashes waves of emotion into different phone-receivers, tilting between clipped formality, ardent affection and roiling upset. It’s a bit de trop, truth be told, but seems almost restrained beside the barrage of sound cooked up by Testament and co in the main-house. What this rising star does with his larynx is a wonder – a technical box of tricks helping him build a looping polyphony. With the added force of the Opera North orchestra (brass, wind, harp, more besides), it sends pleasing shivers down the spine. More of that, but less of the ambient chill, please.
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World news – GB – Connecting Voices, Leeds Playhouse review: an elegiac bid to address our year of dislocation