For those who lived through the time of the Yorkshire Ripper, much of his reign of terror was characterised by an intermittent series of horrific news items and, as the number of victims increased, lots of analysis about the case. Unless you lived in West Yorkshire. There it was an entirely different experience, particularly so if you were a woman.
Just how different has been vividly captured by Charley Miles in her new play There Are No Beginnings, produced by the rechristened Leeds Playhouse in its new Bramall Rock Void studio. Too young to have any memories of life under the Ripper, Miles has nevertheless created a world based on research that feels totally accurate, and explores how four different Leeds women navigated the horror.
Julie Hesmondhalgh plays June who works at a centre which looks after young women who are in trouble with the law. Tessa Parr plays her daughter, Sharon, who is 15 when the play starts and 20 by the time it ends. Meanwhile, Natalie Gavin portrays Helen, aged 14 at the outset, who has been pimped out by her ‘boyfriend’ and brought to June by the police. As the hostel is full, June brings her home. Jesse Jones is Fiona, the young police constable who introduces Helen to June.
Through the interactions of these four women over six years of terror, we see what the lives of many thousands of women in West Yorkshire must have been like at that time. The young girl who wants to go out on the town, the worried mother, the sex worker trying to make a living, the policewoman upholding the law – these are roles we can understand but because the writing is beautifully nuanced and detailed, there’s much more to it, not least a lot that resonates now.
The acting is uniformly excellent, but Natalie Gavin is exceptional. She is devastating as the young sex worker who manages to make us comprehend all her difficult and damaging choices. There is a great moment early in the first act when Helen is introduced to Sharon in the latter’s bedroom and, after a spiky start, Sharon tries to get Helen to dance, something she has never done before. Watching Helen gradually give into dancing is sheer magic and the most, and possibly only, joyful moment in the show.
In this incarnation, the Rock Void comprises two raked banks of 40 seats and a small rectangular stage a metre high in the middle. There’s no wing space, nowhere to hide and nowhere to change unless you leave the room. Amy Leach’s excellent production uses this to advantage as the actors sit at the side, watch each other perform and change their outfits in view of the audience. It creates a claustrophobia that fits and enhances the storytelling. Designer Camilla Clarke has created an absolute minimum of set – a chair or two – and costumes that do exactly what is necessary.
If I have a quibble, and it is only small, I found the beginning hard to follow. It’s a rapid series of short speeches directed at the audience and, on reflection, I don’t understand its point. And the ending, a strong image, seems equally disconnected to the narrative. I did ask around and it wasn’t just me. I also have strong philosophical objections to the title.
But quibbles apart, this is that thing I’m always looking for, an excellent piece of theatre about important things, personal and political, that informs the way we live today. Go and see it.
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor
Main image: Julie Hesmondhalgh (June) in There Are No Beginnings at Leeds Playhouse. Photography by Zoe Martin.
There are No Beginnings is on at Leeds Playhouse until November 3, 2019. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.