Review: Winter Hill (Octagon Theatre)

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new play has a group of women turning a building site into a new anti-corporate Greenham Common

Imagine, just for a moment, that you’re a member of the global super-rich private jet set, and you’re thinking of going on holiday. Where do you fancy? The Palm Islands off the coast of Dubai, maybe. Swing the yacht into Italy’s Marina di Portofino or shoot down the slopes at Verbier? Hang on though. Here’s a thought. What about Bolton?

That fanciful idea is the foundation of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s strained new play: an exclusive, luxurious mega-spa-hotel under construction in the West Pennines. It’s a way of framing a big old debate about public land, rampant privatisation and the betrayals inherent in Tony Blair’s neoliberal Third Way, but it is also, quite frankly, ludicrous. Wish you were here, Kanye and Kim? White truffle pasty barm, anyone?

An absurd premise allows for an equally absurd protest. Wertenbaker posits a women’s reading group sneaking onto the construction site, ostensibly for a literary chat with white wine, only to find itself morphing into an accidental anarchist-terrorist cell. Taking the helm, the always-indignant, ever-idealistic Dolly – a feisty and slightly doolally Denise Black – wants to turn this site into a new anti-corporate Greenham Common. To that end, she claims to have rigged the place up with explosives.

It’s a kick against Irene (Cathy Tyson) in particular – a local left-wing councillor who waved the big bucks development through, even as its promised social benefits slid by the wayside – but also against her old friend Beth (Louise Jameson), a make-do-and-muddle-along sort. The tone is akin to the Calendar Girls ditching racy charity shots for small-scale guerrilla warfare.

Even if it loses all sight of credibility, Winter Hill does, at least, air some interesting ideas along the way, as the women weigh up their options in a ranging ethical debate. Juxtaposing literary discussion and direct action – violent action, at that – Wertenbaker questions the efficacy of art and, indeed, activism as methods for change. She undercuts the romantic figure of the lone literary heroine, but also picks at the fragility of truly collective action.

If only there were some dramatic tension at play, not just propped-up ideology with a side helping of allegory. Wertenbaker stirs a cod Polynesian legend and a ghostly World War Two spirit into the mix – all in the vicinity of protest to preserve the past, not to affect change, but it’s just another idea without dramatic impetus.

Amanda Stoodley’s design brings that dichotomy to life – a huge bank of scaffolding over an ersatz antique marble floor – but Elisabeth Newman’s production can’t wring much from a script that’s mostly staged debate on silly pretences.

Winter Hill runs at Octagon Theatre, Bolton until 3 June.