“This is not a story about the Yorkshire Ripper” states the programme notes. And while that may be correct, the notorious serial killer casts an unmistakeable shadow over proceedings.
Under James Brining’s stewardship, the Leeds Playhouse (as it is now known) has always been proud to reflect the local community’s history. Charley Miles’ script is very much in that tradition – set over the five year period where the Yorkshire Ripper killed 13 women, There Are No Beginnings looks at the effect this cast on the women of West Yorkshire.
The unlikely friendship of two teenage girls from Chapeltown form the core of Miles’ tale: Sharon is a 15 year old schoolgirl obsessed with Donny Osmond and Supertramp, while Helen is a year younger, from a broken home and being exploited by her older boyfriend. They meet when Sharon’s mother June brings Helen home when there’s no room for her at the unit for vulnerable women where she works.
While the story of Helen and Sharon’s friendship is at the core of There Is No Beginnings, it’s the little details of how growing up in such a traumatic time can affect women which hit home the most – the mother’s horror at her daughter’s outfit, the sense of terror which descends when a 16 year old shop girl is murdered, rather than a sex worker. Charlotte Bickley’s sound design is eerily effective, consisting of radio static and footage from news reports, while Amy Mae’s lighting flickers ominously.
All four of the cast are excellent – Julie Hesmondhalgh gives a typically warm and passionate performance, while Natalie Gavin is completely convincing as the vulnerable schoolgirl forced to wrap a sheet of emotional armour around her. Tessa Parr, who was so good during the Playhouse’s repertory season, transforms as easily into a stroppy and argumentative teenager as she did into Hamlet earlier in the year. Jesse Jones has less to do as police officer Fiona, but her uneasy relationships with both Helen and June add to the play’s emotional weight.
It’s a necessarily dialogue-heavy piece, and Hesmondhalgh in particular shines during one scene where she despairs of “one pathetic little boy” who’s cast such a shadow over the community. And despite such a grim premise, it’s often very funny, especially in the interplay between Parr and Gavin. As well as handling the more talky pieces, director Amy Leach is also adept at the odd memorable set-piece: the two teenagers dancing to Supertramp’s Dreamer, locking out the evil and losing themselves in music, or the sight of Helen slowly letting her anger erupt with a chant of “all men are wankers” at a Reclaim The Streets demonstration.
Camilla Clarke’s set is as minimal as it comes – simply a raised brown stage with enough space either side for the cast to change costumes between scenes – yet this only allows Miles’ often glorious dialogue to shine even brighter. Also, Leach’s decision to stage the play in traverse form suits the brand new Bramall Rock Void space: it’s intriguing to think of the number of ways this new intimate stage could be adapted in the future.
With an all-female cast and crew, There Are No Beginnings is an unblinking and sensitive look at how male violence can mar the lives of a whole generation of women. It’s also a fine way for the renamed and gorgeously refurbished Leeds Playhouse to start a new chapter in the city.
There Are No Beginnings runs at Leeds Playhouse until 2 November. More info here.