You might think I'm being a little over-eager if I start talking about "the Leeds school of playwriting". However, there does seem to me to be a commonality of approach and perspective amongst several writers to have emerged from that city's principal university in the last five or six years. Their preferred method is to use minute accounts of the quotidian to hint at the presence of something bigger and more numinous. Characters are almost always, literally or metaphorically, "on the verge of something vast", as John Donnelly puts it in the note to his first major Royal Court presentation Bone.
Donnelly has left behind his former student sensationalism in favour of more conventionally "Leeds school" writing: three intercut monologues which, after a half-tantalising, half-irksome start, we see are located not in some Sarah Kane-esque universe-next-door dystopia but in contemporary Britain. Farmer's wife Helen (Bríd Brennan, responding well to her finest role for some while) disintegrates in the wake of losing both her livestock, slaughtered in the draconian culling programme aimed controlling at foot and mouth disease, and her husband, who succumbed to a heart attack under the stress of the aforementioned. Marketing manager Stephen (Don Gilet) is increasingly, pathologically fixated upon his ex-girlfriend. Young squaddie Jamie (Bryan Dick), out for a last night on the tear before shipping out to a war zone, treats women as meat and foreigners as scum, attitudes possibly exacerbated (and, in his eyes, justified) by a past sexual assault suffered by his sister.
These monologues are independent even of a connection with the audience. Director Femi Elufowoju Jr and designer Ultz locate "the verge of something vast" as a grey, impersonal waiting room, partitioned off from the auditorium with one-way windows so that, when the "stage" is lit by its harsh fluorescent tubes, the performers cannot see us. It steers well clear of any portentous symbolism as the characters grope desperately for redemption and consider the possibility of angels in the everyday (yes, even the Tube station gets namechecked), but is so clinical a setting that it also severely attenuates the vague glimpse of hope Donnelly offers at the end.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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