Theatre Review: Europe, Leeds Playhouse
A railway station, probably somewhere in eastern Europe.
The station master, a man who takes his responsibilities very seriously, is puzzling over a new timetable that doesn’t make sense while his assistant is standing on the balcony waiting for the early morning express. It roars through the station. She loves that feeling. Two refugees turn up, a young woman and her father. There’s a war on somewhere and they have no papers. The assistant’s husband and his two mates have been made redundant from the town’s only factory and have nothing to do but sit in the town’s only bar and look for someone to blame. A well-dressed ex-school mate turns up. He has travelled all over Europe and made money moving things across borders. It’s not clear why he’s there.
There’s a lot to wonder about, and not many clues apart from the title. The pace of the language is slow and not much happens, so by the interval we were a bit bemused. Act two resolved some questions but two and a half hours after it began we left thinking “oh, is that it? we knew that already” (mind you, we’re very old; some youngsters in the bar loved it).
Our reaction had nothing to do with the acting, the direction, the design, or the sound design which were uniformly excellent. Tessa Par as Adele, the station master’s assistant, was fabulous to watch and meticulous in her attention to detail. Jo Mousely who played Katia, the woman refugee, brought lots of life to a downbeat role, and with director James Brining, she and Parr created some of the most believable, tender love scenes I have ever seen on a stage.
But there was an oddity. When they’re not in the action, the cast sometimes sit at the side of the stage, but there doesn’t seem to be a convention about what they’re doing when they’re off. Sometimes they watch the action, sometimes they sit like dummies waiting to be inhabited. I don’t suppose it bothered anyone else, but it puzzled me on the grounds that if you can see it, it must mean something.
Written in 1994, this was author David Greig’s first full length play. Greig is a successful playwright now whose work has been commissioned by the National Theatre, the RSC and many others, and the Charlie And the Chocolate Factory that any small or indeed fully-grown child you are related to demands to see, is his adaptation. This play was written after Greig had travelled through eastern Europe in the early 90s and the imagery (displaced people, the human effects of economic collapse, the power of the train to change horizons quickly) all come from that journey.
As I write, The Guardian carries a report of a survey of contrasting attitudes in deprived and prosperous areas of England. To be fair to Greig and the production, the world he identified in Europe in 1994 is here now, which makes it rather prescient, but we are familiar with its tropes and, while the play suggests you can escape its consequences by getting on a train, I’m afraid that is no longer the case.
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor
Image: Tessa Parr, Adele and Joe Mousley Katia in Europe. Photography by The Other Richard
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.