My Generation (Leeds)
This new play at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is likely to divide audiences and spark discussion, says Hannah Giles.
My Generation is a spirited romp through the past four decades of highlights (or, more accurately, lowlights) of northern anarchy and disillusionment, with a bit of hedonism and financial misery thrown in for good measure. Written by Alice Nutter and performed by a talented cast of actors and musicians, this is entertainment with a clear political agenda that will no doubt polarise audiences and stimulate some lively discussions.
The play is split into four stories, each taking place in a different decade and focusing on one member of the same family. Opening in 1977, the first tale centres on matriarch Helen (Kaye Wragg), whose domestic life in the Leeds squat she shares with her husband and two kids is disrupted when radical feminist Frey (Helen Bradbury) shows up and introduces enticing ideas of a man-free existence.
We then skip forward to the 1984 miners' strike when Cath's husband Mick (the terrific Craig Conway) takes centre stage. This is by far the strongest story and could have filled an entire play by itself. It's also the only section in which it feels as though there's something wider at stake that might just be worth fighting for.
The far weaker second half tells the stories of the kids, Ben (a suitably spaced-out Craig Gazey) and Emma (Bradbury). Ben's story takes place in the rave and Ecstasy-induced nightmare that was the early 1990s where, for some, listening to head-splitting music and getting smashed on drink and drugs replaced growing up and assuming any kind of personal responsibility (good job those days are over).
The final story brings things bang up-to-date as Emma, who married her way into money, is forced to cope in the midst of the current economic crisis when her middle-class world collapses.
Along the way, the play touches on many cultural trends and political developments, including the search for the Yorkshire Ripper, the Arab Spring … and Cash Converters. Of course, it wouldn't be complete without a bit of good old-fashioned southerner bashing, so we have an Essex chav and a ridiculously posh bird from Radio Four. There's also a fair smattering of profanity (up to and including the c-word).
The whole thing is held together by a witty script, a wonderfully energetic cast and a great decade-spanning soundtrack, which is largely supplied by a brilliant live band. The choice of using live music really brings the whole production to life and even gets the audience warmed up pre-show. Once again, the vast space available in the Courtyard theatre has been used to great effect, with designer Ben Stones doing a great job with the minimalist set.
Overall, anyone who has lived, or is living, through similar circumstances will no doubt empathise with these characters and maybe even feel as though they have been given a voice. However, for anyone whose political allegiances and life experiences lie elsewhere, it's a struggle to become emotionally invested in these people and their predicament; despite the fact the whole thing is, at heart, a domestic drama in which family is the one consistent element in a turbulent and sometimes ugly world.
The ultimately disheartening message here seems to be that nothing's really going to change, so you might as well just accept your lot; which suggests that some writer four decades from now may well be penning a sequel that looks very much like this.
- Hannah Giles