Callie O'Brien reviews...
Image: Johnny Byron (Tom Grice) stood, surrounded by partygoers outside his trailer, tells tale of his legendary, not-quite-believable antics.
As the lights went down in Stage@Leeds on a sold-out opening night, the audience was immediately enchanted by a haunting rendition of Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem (the hymn, not the play) captured brilliantly by Hannah Whiteway - with a voice and costume reminiscent of the dark English faerie tales of old. This quiet, spotlighted moment is then shattered as the whole stage is lit up in striking red and blue, silhouetting an energetic whole-cast Morris performance with all the joy, cheering, and whacking of sticks one would come to expect from a village faire. These two back-to-back musical moments introduce us to the village of Flintock, and really sets the tone for the rest of the play’s 3-hour run: there will be cheering, boisterous chaos, and there will be chilling moments of quiet.
Image: Mr Parsons (Siobhan Ward) records Ms Fawcett (Lexi Prosser) on an old camcorder as she delivers a final eviction notice to Johnny Byron’s trailer.
Image: Phaedra (Hannah Whiteway) delivers a chilling folk song in white floral dress and stylistic fairy wings.
After a brief comedic interlude from a pair of council workers delivering an eviction notice (played by Lexi Prosser and Siobhan Ward), Act 1 kicks off proper with an unceremonious introduction to the iconic, drug-dealing, tall-tale-telling and horridly hungover Rooster Byron who is embodied incredibly by Tom Grice. Sporting a decent west-country accent and with costume and limp an homage to the original West-End production, Grice is as much convincing and compelling in his role as the terror of Kennet and Avon council.
We are then one-by-one introduced to Rooster’s “band of educationally subnormal outcasts” as they one by one appear out of the woods following a wild night at the trash heap, with impressive performances from every cast member that would be a disservice not to mention; Scarlett Allen and Tamsyn Rodliffe imbued a sense of beaten-down maturity into the otherwise deeply stereotyped ‘party girls’, whilst Charlie Crozier brought a reluctant and infectious joyfulness to the one somewhat upstanding member of society who managed to crawl his way out of the Rooster’s pit of despair (and into the local Morris group). Ben Greenwood was handed an enigma of a character, but handled the Professor’s whimsical, somewhat biblical monologues with skill and sincerity, while Malachy O’Callaghan brought a strong stage presence and brilliant moments of comedy to Davey. Most standout though for me were the performances from Jess Payne as Rooster’s right hand Ginger and Angus Bell as the Australia-bound Lee: both utilising brilliant body language and voice work with impeccable comedic timing, the two brought a much needed breath of fresh air to the show as it descended into the dark and twisted.
Image: Wesley (Charlie Crozier) in full green white and gold traditional Morris tatters dances for the mocking band of Rooster Wood.
Image: Davey (Malachy O’Callaghan), Ginger (Jess Payne), Lee (Angus Bell), and Johnny Byron (Tom Grice) watch an embarrassing video on an old 2000s Slide Phone.
Act 2 takes a turn for the sinister as more of the town’s secrets are brought to light - from a drunken midday bender that opens cracks in the tight-knit gang of Rooster Wood, to striking (though brief) appearances from Johnny Byron’s estranged ex-wife Dawn (Imani Fletcher) and son Marky (Lauren Robinson), who revealed to us a softer side of the Rooster: that of the failing father figure. Contrasting this, Tom Whitworth truly shone with an intimidating, commanding presence who’s second appearance (underscored by Grice’s truly chilling screams and gurgles of pain) made for a gruesome twist to round out the play. Prod Team Lousia Walsh, Becca Burge, and Eden Vaughan demonstrate a clear commitment to a faithful rendition of the original play with costume and cluttered (in a good way) set design inspired by the show’s most recent West End run (complete with tree, trailer, and sprawling lawn), and with collaborations with the Thackray Sage Morris Society to inform their impressive choreography.
Co-Directors Kate Matthews and Lucy Yellow truly brought us something special with their rendition of Jerusalem, evoking the chaotic, sunbleached sentiments of the Old English village faire. A brilliant direction of an expansive cast that really made use of the stage space and impressive set, the show was at all times compelling and a testament to the skill and care put into the show.
Words: Callie O’Brien
Image Credit: Abby Swain