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Transform: My Leeds My City (Leeds)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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The Transform festival, organised by West Yorkshire Playhouse, took the sub-title “My Leeds My City” – and justified it. Unfortunately I attended events only in the second of its two weeks, seeing two of the four major site-specific shows. The Playhouse itself was home to a last-night Cabaret Club on April 27th, plus providing the base for all other activities, from music in the Band Stand in the first floor foyer to the starting point for Navigators walks to the exterior events.

Burmantofts Stories was a highly effective piece of community theatre/story-telling staged in the rather too cool of the evening on the grass outside the Shakespeare Towers high-rise. The theme of the festival saw the 20-minute walk from the Playhouse punctuated by pauses to re-examine views of the city with the aid of suitably adapted photographs. At Burmantofts Pauline Mayers, with the collaboration of poet Rommi Smith and musician Simon Beddoe, presented a picture of life in Burmantofts through a team of seven telling their stories and the occasional pre-recorded narrative from other locals.

The staging was simple, basically a series of tea-chests giving up their secrets in the form of props, but song, movement and audience participation illuminated the narratives. Most pleasing to me was the fact that the event foregrounded modern-day cosmopolitan Burmantofts. There were reminiscences of the old Quarry Hill flats and Burton’s factory, it’s true (and both were authentic and enjoyable), but we also had, among others, a young Polish-Irish man talking movingly about his mother’s funeral, a formidably articulate Nigerian expounding his positive views on society and a francophone African from Cote Ivoire extolling the virtues of coffee!

The wide open spaces of the Royal Armouries Tiltyard hosted The Johnny Eck and Dave Toole Show, presented in collaboration with Slung Low and co-created by Mark Catley and Dave Toole. In a rather clunky story-line the City of Leeds wished to honour Dave Toole, the legless dancer who starred in the Paralympic Opening Ceremony, but he was too modest and only wanted to pay tribute to Johnny Eck, his role model and most famous for his appearance in the 1932 Tod Browning film, Freaks.

But, if the premise was a bit corny (with the ringmaster-presenter mounting watch for the return of Dave), it really didn’t matter. The circus came to town, with a dog, a horse and a whole troupe of “freaks” (Siamese twins, the world’s oldest woman, even the only Yorkshireman at Lady Thatcher’s funeral!); the audience (the lucky ones, that is) got candy floss; the flares flared and we enjoyed film excerpts from Freaks and Dave Toole in action. Consistently good-humoured, the show still had a serious message and Toole proved an engaging stage personality as well as a remarkable dancer.


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