Review: Ode to Leeds, West Yorkshire Playhouse

When James Brining arrived at the West Yorkshire Playhouse as its new artistic director in 2012 he pledged to do more work which reflected the city which gave the theatre its home. The Alan Bennett season which came afterwards was an obvious and a safe choice, but since then Brining has made good on his word and Zodwa Nyoni may yet prove his secret weapon.

Aryana Ramkhalawon as Devika, Chance Perdomo as Theo, Keah Walker as Darcy, Archie Rush as Mack and Genesis Lynea as Queenie in Ode to Leeds.

Born in Zimbabwe, Nyoni grew up in Chapeltown and found her voice through the Leeds Young Authors and performance poetry. It’s an experience which forms the basis of Ode to Leeds which proudly puts centre stage a side of the city routinely ignored and only brought to the fore in easy Benefit Street stereotypes.

Nyoni’s portrayal of five teenagers growing up in the suburbs is a much more nuanced affair. Yes, there are chaotic family lives, dads in prison, abuse and mental health problems, but Queenie, Theo, Mac, Devika and Darcy are much more than symbols of Broken Britain.

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They are at times funny, knowing and ambitious as well as being occasionally maddeningly self-obsessed and angst ridden. They are in short, teenagers.

Genesis Lynea as Queenie in Ode to Leeds.

The play weaves straight dialogue with slam poetry as the group try to find a way to get to New York and the finals of a major competition and it’s in the latter scenes where Ode to Leeds comes into its own. It’s political, heartfelt and at times heart-breaking.

The cast here deserve much praise, particularly Genesis Lynea as young matriarch Queenie, desperate to lead her troops to better things while her own life has hit a dead end and Archie Rush as Mack who sees a new life on the horizon, but seems at times fated to follow in the same dismal footsteps as his brother.

In truth, Ode to Leeds is a piece which may have worked better in the more intimate surroundings of a studio theatre and struggles occasionally to fill the space of the Courtyard.

Sadly, The Playhouse doesn’t have a studio, but next year’s redevelopment will right the wrong and audiences can hopefully look forward to a glut of new writing from new voices.

Archie Rush as Mack in Ode to Leeds.

That aside, with Nyoni’s writing and Brining’s direction, Ode to Leeds is an unapologetic red brick, working class slice of a city and one which should help create an appetite for more of the same.

To July 1.

Genesis Lynea as Queenie in Ode to Leeds.
Archie Rush as Mack in Ode to Leeds.