Review: 'Queen of Chapeltown' at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Adam Bruce

  • OnStage United Kingdom Critic

Leeds is renowned for being a vibrant cultural melting pot, and a beacon of art and trade at the heart of West Yorkshire. In the 50s, many West Indian migrants made their way to Leeds in the hope of finding a better life, making their own opportunities and adding to the cultural diversity of the Yorkshire city. In 1967, a proud annual tradition was born – the Leeds West Indian Carnival. Now, fifty years later, the West Yorkshire Playhouse has brought to life a new drama, Queen of Chapeltown, in a bid to mark the special anniversary of the Carnival’s creation.

Queen of Chapeltown is based on the testimonies of those involved in the creation of the festivities back in 1967. It follows the story of Beverly (Elexi Walker), a young migrant who hopes of making her own way in Leeds. After meeting hairdresser Hilary (Emily Butterfield), and subsequently being turned away from employment because of the colour of her skin, she longs to return home to the West Indies. Meanwhile, friends Tidy Boots, Raymond and Arthur (Gabriel Paul, Benjamin Cawley and Raphael Bushay respectively) find themselves in a similar situation. Working together with Beverly, they conjure up the first Leeds West Indian Carnival as a homage to their homeland and their dreams of the future.

Somehow, the play manages to squeeze all of the trials and tribulations of each character into a speedy one hour running time. Under the direction of Amy Leach, the cast and community chorus manage to execute Colin Grant’s text without any major bumps in the road, and bring this highly important cultural narrative to life.

There are a few times, however, when I feel things aren’t pushed to their fullest. The general shape of Queen of Chapeltown is enjoyable and coherent, but there are many dramatic moments that don’t feel truly finessed. For instance, intimate conversations between Beverly and Hilary are lost amidst the play’s overbearing desire to convey the narrative to the audience. Moments such as Hilary’s betrayal of Beverly on a night out, ignited by racial tensions at the time, don’t feel quite as striking as they could, and end up being clouded by stage action that doesn’t effectively give them the necessary focus.

An hour long running time might just be enough to encourage those who aren’t Playhouse regulars to come and see some vibrant, educational theatre in our modern world where we simply don’t have enough time, but it may not be enough to quite let this important narrative breathe. The cast and community chorus do a decent enough job, though sometimes words and narrative points are lost through a sense of rushed excitability from the company as a whole. Perhaps a more focused authorial perspective here might have really allowed us to grapple with the emotional struggles that the Carnival’s creation would have undoubtedly brought to the fore.

Such important moments and points of emotional turmoil could have been further pinpointed by dramaturg Burt Caesar, though dramaturgical expertise and focus seems to have been given more to Set and Costume Designer Emma Williams, whose costumes echo perfectly the social era of the time. Her set design just about gets away with garnishing the cavernous Quarry Theatre with an air of simplicity that allows us to focus on Grant’s narrative and the characters that carry it through.

The idea and premise of Queen of Chapeltown certainly mean well, and do offer us a glimpse at a different style of performance scheduling and crafting could do for the West Yorkshire Playhouse in a bid to further enhance its excellent reputation as a cultural beacon and facilitator. While I do think that this piece could do with some more general confidence to boost its dramatic and artistic value, it is a piece of theatre that engages and connects us with one of this great Yorkshire city’s most important cultural events.


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