Review: Ode to Leeds (West Yorkshire Playhouse)
Zodwa Nyoni's play is about five young poets from Leeds who compete in an international poetry competition
You can't help but notice the marketing posters at the West Yorkshire Playhouse denoting the forthcoming summer programme and phrases such as 'Refugee Week', Ode to Leeds, 'Festival of community performance' stand out. There's no doubting artistic director James Brining's intent is clearly geared to that buzz word of the moment: diversity.
Here, he smartly directs an engaging new play written by Leeds' Zodwa Nyoni. Ode to Leeds charts the journey of a group of Leeds teenagers who have found poetry together. They're each enveloped in their own adversity: the situations, the relationships with each other and money amongst other things become major obstacles that threaten to halt them in their tracks to making it to a big time poetry slam in New York.
This piece attempts to delve in to political waters and it manages to reference the ranging issues of these troubled times, often a tad randomly. There was a comical allusion to Brexit - we really can't get away from it - and Trump got his mention by being somewhat tepidly likened to a Wotsit (at least, I think I heard that right).
The poetry itself often came in politically directed or abstract interjections which sat almost apart from the dramatic sections, and it did flirt with being heavy-handed once or twice. The team of poets delivered a brazen set piece which included thoughts about 'Shell militarising the Niger Delta and Boko Haram still having Chibok's daughters'. As arresting a section as it was, it seemed difficult to reconcile these complex sentiments with the five young characters, who surely had their own worries back on the streets of Leeds.
Ode to Leeds's most fascinating sections evoked the individual tensions and conflicts between the very disparate characters as they found both solace and desolation through each other and the poetry.
Nyoni's characters were drawn skilfully by such a talented cast of five, who cleverly interpreted significantly contrasting characters, knowing just when to hold back or accelerate. Archie Rush was a chipper and genuinely funny Mack, and Genesis Lynea maintained a subtly restrained tone as leader Queenie, until she stopped the audience in its tracks as she delivered a painfully emotional speech at the point of crisis.
The fact that the play was grounded truly in Leeds came as much from Lucy Sierra's impressive design than the text itself. A multi-level set added to the atmosphere as the team conducted web chats together from their own bedrooms and on to the walls were projected maps of the Leeds streets and faces of the characters as they talked through problems together. An urgent, spirited and compelling play.
Ode to Leeds runs at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 1 July.