Review: "Searching for the Heart of Leeds" at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Adam Bruce

  • United Kingdom Theatre Critic

For those of you that have been reading my recent reviews, you’ll know that the West Yorkshire Playhouse is about to undergo major refurbishment and will be closed until later next year, and in the meantime, will be presenting a selection of work in a new pop up space. Last night I was invited to attend the unveiling of its new name and identity, Leeds Playhouse, along with its final show in the Quarry Theatre before the redevelopment, Searching for the Heart of Leeds.

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Searching for the Heart of Leeds is a new piece of theatre written by Mark Catley that engages with the city’s residents, and puts them at the very centre of the piece. We are guided through a selection of stories as we collectively endeavour to discover what gives the city its characteristic community values of sticking together and looking out for one another. The stories, inspired by and told by the community cast, are heartfelt, poignant and touching, and present a rich tapestry of views and perspectives that have embedded themselves into the city’s history.

Under the direction of Alexander Ferris, Searching for the Heart of Leeds is a real celebration of the city and its stories; there is a clean, focused directorial vision that allows the community cast to really shine and radiate infectious positivity outwards into the cavernous Quarry Theatre. The action underpinning each of the stories is given plenty of room to breathe, and allows the audience to really appreciate the source material behind Catley’s text.  The community cast, aided by movement direction from Phoenix Dance Theatre, effectively navigate Katie Scott’s spacious and expansive set; her simplistic, well-wrought design allows the celebratory atmosphere of the piece to really soar. David Bennion-Pedley’s lighting design also enhances this atmosphere, and concisely and economically focuses the action of the piece.   

Artistic Director James Brining certainly made a wonderful decision when it came to selecting the theatre’s final piece of work in the Quarry; Searching for the Heart of Leeds is a great example of the theatre’s commitment to involving the people of the city in the theatre’s artistic endeavours. Previous work that has involved the community includes Alice Nutter’s Barnbow Canaries, which stood out as one of my favourite pieces of theatre the Playhouse has done. This was mainly due to the way in which the community cast was integrated into the piece, portraying the wider body of workers at the Barnbow Factory. In Searching for the Heart of Leeds, the company take centre stage and actively tell the story of the piece – and while this was exciting to see, I did find there were a few issues with sound, and I occasionally struggled to hear key points in some of the stories.

This is, however, only a minor niggle with the piece, and credit must be given to Ferris for nurturing a strong ensemble feel amongst the company, while the cast must also be congratulated for stepping up to the plate and presenting their stories with their individual, unique energies that proudly make up the fabric of the city.

Searching for the Heart of Leeds makes for a great celebration of the city and unique points in its history, but most importantly, it sensitively celebrates the people that form its lifeblood. I cannot wait to see Leeds Playhouse build on its vibrance and cultural importance and evolve into an even greater theatre over the coming months.

Searching for the Heart of Leeds is at Leeds Playhouse until 23rd June. For more information and tickets, visit: https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/searching-for-the-heart-of-leeds/