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Playhouse’s New Season is Making History

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West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Spring and Summer programme includes five full in-house productions and co-productions, plus visits from such eminent companies as Middle Ground, Out of Joint, Northern Broadsides and Hull Truck.

Much of the attention, rightly, will fall on the co-production with Theatre Royal, Bath, of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, one of the few 21st century plays to have achieved undoubted classic status. Apparently last year saw a non-professional production staged at Ermysted’s School, Skipton (an institution with a passing resemblance to Bennett’s Cutlers’ Grammar School), but professionally the play has until now remained in the hands of the National Theatre. Several tours of Nicholas Hytner’s original production have featured, in turn, Richard Griffiths, Desmond Barritt and Stephen Moore in one of the great modern roles: the eccentric and expansive English teacher Hector. For the Playhouse Christopher Luscombe reinterprets Bennett’s humanely comic and urbanely subversive vision of the education system, but I can only speculate about the identity of the next actor to don Hector’s academic gown and motor-cycle leathers.

The History Boys runs from February 2nd to March 6th and the later programme includes two contrasting 20th century classics. Sarah Esdaille returns to the Playhouse after His Dark Materials with a very different play: Arthur Miller’s ever-challenging tragedy of the small man in mid-century America, Death of a Salesman (April 30th to May 29th). From June 11th to July 10th it’s the turn of Playhouse Artistic Director Ian Brown to re-visit the work of a 20th century master, Noel Coward, whose Hay Fever is one of his most blissfully uninhibited comedies: not so much mannered as madcap.

In what seems to me the best balanced programme for many years the Playhouse also collaborates with Talawa and English Theatre on Rum and Coca Cola (March 5th-April 3rd) and presents a new version of The Count of Monte Cristo (April 16th-May 15th). Rum and Coca Cola is an early work by award-winning Trinidad-born Mustapha Matura which he has re-visited in a 2010 re-working which marks the directing debut of Don Warrington, well remembered for his effortless superiority over the appalling Rigsby in Rising Damp. The Alexandre Dumas classic is adapted by Joel Horwood and directed by Alan Lane, last seen in Yorkshire creating the site-specific They Only Come At Night: Visions in Huddersfield. Having toured the streets of Huddersfield pursued by mysterious dangers, I can only hope that Mr. Lane does not consign the audience to the dungeons of the Chateau d’If! It should be an original take on the splendid old historical melodrama!

And the originality doesn’t stop with the fully staged West Yorkshire Playhouse productions. A bold move is to give Country Music, Simon Stephens’ disturbing play about a violent offender, in a semi-staged production in the Courtyard Theatre for four performances (June 24th-26th) before taking it to prisons.

It’s difficult to pick the highlights from a baker’s dozen of touring productions. The longest stay is from March 30th to April 17th when old favourites, Northern Broadsides, this time in partnership with the New Vic, present Mike Poulton’s adaptation of The Canterbury Tales, directed by Conrad Nelson. It sounds like the sort of thing that Broadsides excel at, as is also the case with Hull Truck playing John Godber: Men of the World (June 14th-19th). Big name visitors in February include Kelly McGillis and Rolf Saxon in Terrence McNally’s American love story, Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune staged by Middleground Theatre Company (15th-20th), and Niamh Cusack, part of a formidable creative team of writer Sebastian Barry and director Max Stafford-Clark in Out of Joint/Hampstead Theatre’s Andersen’s English (23rd-27th), an exploration of the lives of Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Dickens. For myself I’m much drawn to Interplay Theatre’s This Land: The Woody Guthrie Story (July 15th-17th). Having found the Dust-Bowl Balladeer’s autobiography, Bound for Glory, disappointingly indigestible, I look forward to seeing his story brought to vivid life.

Add in a few top comedians (Arthur Smith, Sean Lock, Andy Hamilton) and the usual mix of community and education projects, and it looks like being a lively few months at Quarry Hill.

- Ron Simpson


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