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Promised Land (Leeds)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Red Ladder’s latest production, Promised Land, is a splendid piece of community theatre, celebrating the city of Leeds and its ethnic diversity via a simple 1970s love story which often naggingly reminds us of Billy Liar and is set within the context of Leeds United fandom and a 70-year flashback to the protagonist’s grandparents. The promised land is the constantly re-made city and the football club’s dreams of European success, while for the Jewish community, central to the story, it has a more precise meaning.

The play, adapted from Anthony Clavane’s award-winning novel, tells the story of Nathan, Jewish, Leeds United-supporting and aspiring writer (though not a word has yet been written), and Caitlin, Irish Catholic university drop-out, protest singer and political agitator. Their fathers stand together on the Kop and the message of Leeds united across nationalities and faiths is clear. Nathan’s grandparents met in the sweatshop of prototypical early 20th century Jewish businessman Avrom Ber and that, too, plays a part in the creation of Leeds as a city built on “the sweat of strangers”. The huge cast cheers, chants, sings and sews as Leeds United fans and sweatshop workers.

In Rod Dixon’s vibrant production the technical side is unfailingly excellent. Kelly Jago’s set design, essentially a mini-football terrace, is ingenious and evocative. The songs by Clavane and Nick Stimson (who also collaborated on the text) are never less than serviceable, frequently a great deal more: “King of the Kop”, the best of the football anthems, a number of stirring sweatshop songs, and the Dylan-esque sort-of-love-song “Still Waiting”. Beccy Owen and Sam Sommerfeld achieve wonders with clever arrangements (much use of improvised percussion, including the inevitable clapping) and extremely well drilled singing – the singing of the principals, if never bad, is variable, but the chorus work is terrific!

Oddly enough, given the genesis of the play, the spoken text is not its strength, though Clavane and Stimson’s ability to create a character in short space is impressive. I guess the original book was a very different animal and on stage there are many compensations, not least the committed and expertly directed performances of a varied cast of aspiring professionals, one-off enthusiasts, hardened amateurs and Leeds United fans. Lynsey Jones and Paul Fox are outstanding as the young lovers, true, intelligent, unfussy, with real stage chemistry, but the quality of the ensemble is what matters most.

Promised Land runs at The Carriageworks, Leeds until 30 June.


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