A Wondrous Place is a celebration of all things northern and seeks to challenge the gritty, downtrodden stereotypes sometimes associated with cities Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester and the current host city; Sheffield. As a Rotherham lass, I am already well aware that it’s far from grim up North, so in my case the central message was in some ways preaching to the choir.
A collaboration between Sheffield Theatres, Northern Spirit, Northern Stage, New Writing North, and the Royal Exchange Theatre, this innovative project comprises of a strong four-piece cast, a captivating white-wall backdrop designed by Lois Maskell onto which images and text are projected, and an original soundtrack by Caro C. The format of each piece was similar; mostly monologue, incorporating the other three cast members in some more than others.
Despite my existing knowledge of Henderson’s Relish, Phil Oakey, the Botanical Gardens and Jarvis Cocker, Matt Hartley’s Porters Brook reminded me how special the city of Sheffield really is. It tells the sentimental tale of Adam, who loses his memory and rediscovers the steel city through the warmth and soul of the locals, highlighting how important a sense of belonging to a particular place is to our identity and purpose.
Alison Carr’s What Space Between follows Eme’s rite of passage as she moves down the road from home in Dunston to a new flat in Newcastle, her homesickness, and how a building she’s never been in, the Dunston Rocket, anchors her in terms of her memories and who she is. Actress Kathryn Beaumont had impeccable comic timing and even threw a quick (suspected) adlib at an audience member whose phone rang.
Sarah McDonald Hughes’ Electricity explores the buzz and excitement of Manchester past and present through the story of Angel. The story follows her parents’ recollection of the heady days of their youth at the Hacienda, her Mother’s infatuation with Ryan Giggs, Angel’s longing for her best friend who has moved away and her discovery of a new love, Ryan. This love story sees a boat trip on the Manchester Ship Canal morphed into a Venetian Gondola ride, proving that imagination and spirit can transport and transform experiences. My only criticism, having lived in Manchester for a year myself, was the omission of (in my opinion) key cultural aspects of the city such as Canal Street and the Curry Mile.
Whilst I enjoyed Luke Barnes’ Dog it was significantly more morbid than the other three plays. Jonny is haunted by the death of a loved one, and searches the nighttime streets of Liverpool for consolation and answers. It lacked the multiple references to local landmarks which the other plays embodied, which didn’t anchor it to a specific place in the same way. Jonny’s ‘scouse’ accent is authentic, but if this play were to stand alone I am not sure it would disprove that the North is miserable and bleak.
There were more than a couple of moments during A Wondrous Place where I got goosebumps and felt overwhelmingly proud to be from the North, and moved by the emancipatory journeys of the four protagonists. The characters all realise that, however clichéd, whatever they were missing or looking for was already within them and all around them in their home cities.
A Wondrous Place is touring all four featured cities and is at Sheffield’s Studio Theatre until 1 June before moving onto Newcastle’s Northern Stage and Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. For tickets and more information regarding the Sheffield shows go to www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk or contact the Box Office on 0114 249 6000.