Hot on the heels of their previous production of The Damned United earlier this year, Red Ladder Theatre Company are back with another new show called Leeds Lads. Three years in the making, the company have finally brought the production to the Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds, with a community cast of around thirty. Directed by Artistic Director Rod Dixon, I couldn’t wait to see Red Ladder’s new show.
Leeds Lads is an original story that flits back and forth between the conflict of the First World War and the repercussions of modern conflict in Afghanistan. In the modern day, when Susan (Emma Tugman) gets out an old tin of photographs of her husband on a day commemorating the war, old and new conflicts arise within her daughter Tara (Leah Francis). We occasionally visit the past, and see the comradeship of the Leeds pals in the trenches. As the story progresses, past and present collide, and ultimately the play asks us to reflect on the world around us and how it’s defined by conflict and companionship alike.
The moving, inspiring story is brought to life beautifully by the many exclusive facets of theatrical storytelling, excellently harnessed by the theatre company. The first point of contact with an audience is of course the actors, so it’s certainly important to develop strong characters to carry the narrative. This is exactly what’s gone on here in Leeds Lads. Aside from a handful of prominent characters that bind the story together, including Tara’s soldier brother Liam (Jamie Jones-Buchanan) and ex-boyfriend Peter (Noel Noblett), the piece is largely made up of a multi-roling ensemble.
This welcome storytelling method that Red Ladder employ frequently in their productions is superbly executed by the whole cast. Francis and Jones-Buchanan craft compelling characters that are realistic, honest and engaging to watch. There’s a welcome, energetic undercurrent which excellently supports the performances of the whole company, thanks in part to the sharpness of their ensemble work. There’s a real sense of atmosphere which resonates from the core of such ensemble work; the bodies of the performers respond and react differently to the environments they’re in. We buy into the wide array of locations we’re taken to throughout the narrative, making the play all the more engaging to watch.
Harmoniously accompanying the well-crafted performances are the various production aspects, which work well together to construct a compelling scenography. There’s a pleasant, uncluttered vibe permeating throughout these aspects; Tim Skelly’s lighting design exemplifies this. Bright washes of colour and specific illuminations help to draw the audience’s attention to specific areas of the stage when required. Ali Allen’s set design adopts a similar approach, with a few set pieces and raised platforms giving the performers plenty of space to navigate the time-spanning narrative with ease and imaginative power.
For me, the icing on the cake in this production has to be the use of live music. The company often comes together in between and during scenes to sing original songs penned by Boff Whalley, Beccy Owen and Sam Sommerfeld. These musical interludes perfectly round off the atmospheres of each scene, the piece as a whole and the overall tone of the production.
Leeds Lads is a fine example of powerful community theatre, and of the power and resonance that theatre can have in terms of the events that take place around it. It’s a poignant, relevant and well-executed narrative that speaks volumes about sensitive subject areas. In speaking such volumes, it’s a piece that is firmly poised to create debate, respond to the world we live in and ask several questions of its audiences.
Leeds Lads is at the Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds, until 25 June. For more information and tickets, visit Red Ladder website. Photo: Malcolm Johnson