It is a play that is very difficult to review in a conventional way. As a piece of theatre in its own right it has its drawbacks. Performance standards are inevitably and justifiably variable and the case that it makes is so obviously right that tension is somewhat lacking. There is no effective opposition of ideas and not all that much in practical terms. On the other hand, as a presentation of the need to support the June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund, it is triumphantly successful.
The J.W. Roberts asbestos factory in Armley, West Leeds, was responsible over the years for many deaths, but June Hancock was unique. Diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1994, the same asbestos-based cancer that had killed her mother in 1982, she decided to take the owners of the factory to court. Her victory was remarkable in that nobody who had not worked with asbestos had ever previously brought such an action: June’s contamination had occurred when she had played at the factory as a child. June died in 1997; the fund created in her name continues to raise money for research into mesothelioma.
Kenneth F. Yates has dramatised this story via transcripts of the court case and interviews with the people of Armley and, like all the best verbatim drama, it has the ring of truth. Unfortunately, in dramatic terms, the case is so well made early on that much seems repetition: the Judge (a dignified Roger Boyle) agrees, so any tension is confined to the pathetic wrigglings of the owners whose appeals are instantly struck down. As a result, the human touches work better, with moving contributions from June (divided between Marcia Wright and Jo Heggie), family members and two nurses (Stephanie Peart and Ellie Manners).
The West Yorkshire Playhouse Associate Director, Alex Chisholm, co-directs with Christopher Hill and Madeleine O’Reilly, a simple staging with chairs and a raised platform, actors assuming characters via a wig, a hat or a coat, but spending much of the evening as a chorus of anonymous witnesses – some very effective choral speaking, incidentally. The passing of hand-mikes from one to another can distract, but the result is total clarity of delivery.
West Yorkshire Playhouse, about to start its summer break, can be well pleased with its part in creating an evening of viable community theatre and in drawing the ongoing work of the June Hancock Fund to the notice of a wider public.