For the most part, theatre has always prided itself on being a workplace of diversity and equal opportunities. However, it’s been fairly noticeable that there aren’t that many opportunities out there for older performers. The West Yorkshire Playhouse, however, is changing that with their new production Anniversary, co-produced with the Performance Ensemble. With this project, both companies are aiming to give older performers (some experienced, others novices) the chance to (re-)ignite their passion for performing.
Anniversary is a piece of contemporary theatre, whose conceit is clear from the start. A cast comprised of a mixture of seasoned performers and those who’ve never set foot onstage gently saunter onto the bare Courtyard Theatre. As the audience settles, they begin to execute a smooth woven tapestry made up of personal stories and snippets of contemporary dance and performance art. They’re accompanied by the music of the Leeds Citizens Orchestra, in a soundtrack that taps into the emotional and temporal journeys of each performer, and we’re encouraged throughout to think about what the word ‘anniversary’ means to us.
What follows is a relatively short piece that steadily unravels quite a lot in its running time of just over eighty minutes. As an audience member, you’re taken on a real journey, albeit a rather quiet one. If you’re looking for a show that blasts through its narrative and gives you a collection of themes to straightforwardly think about afterwards, then Anniversary isn’t for you. But if you’re looking for a show that harnesses a quiet authority and asks for your utter investment, then this is a piece that should sit at the top of your list.
The eclectic mix of performers, including Namron, the first black dancer to join a professional UK dance company, as well as Phoenix Dance co-founder Villmore James, work well together as an ensemble. Other members of the company include Hum Crawshaw, a former antiques dealer, and Maureen Willis, a retired teacher. It all sounds like an unlikely alliance – but this is a piece that sets out to engage with its community. The professional dancers display no signs of their talent fading, and the rest of the company add a unique texture to the whole experience.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Anniversary is its attitude to the stories told by its performers. Some are unspoken, especially by the dancers in the troupe, who let their bodies do the talking. Others are spoken clearly, delivered into microphones at the side of the stage, and in doing so, they help to make Anniversary feel like a rather unique setting for shared live experiences. As an audience, we feel compelled to engage with these stories, and celebrate the themes of this well-paced play.
Anniversary also boasts some lovely stage imagery, primarily in the form of its white balloons, which gradually become a recurring motif throughout. They are slowly brought onto the stage, and culminate in an eruption that marks the significance of the passing of time in a heartfelt climax that cements Anniversary’s status as a really special project.
Indeed, dramaturg Dominic Campbell has done an excellent job of bringing the various threads of Anniversary together, under the smooth direction of Alan Lyddiard. Pete Ayres’ lighting design helps to gently fade in and out several different atmospheres, ultimately helping to craft a unique theatrical landscape for the company to grapple with.
There are times when you feel like you might not get what Anniversary is, so to speak. But if you give this piece a chance, you’ll find that it’s quite a unique and moving shared experience.
Anniversary is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until September 17.
Photo: Anthony Robling