The Howard Assembly Room is an intimate venue with a sound desk at the back, movable seating covering most of the floor, a low stage at the front, and galleries with seating on both sides. For this performance, the galleries were used by members of the numerous cast when they were not on stage.
The production was directed by Dick Bonham, Lizi Patch and Jamie Fletcher. Jamie Fletcher was sitting behind an upright piano and surrounded by his other instruments when the show started. He was a one-man orchestra. The musical accompaniment was just right for the show, with piano, an instrument that looked like a ukulele but had more strings, and electric guitar all used to convey a wide range of moods, as well as being part of the entertainment in themselves.
The cast seemed to number about 40 or 50, and ranged from little children in school uniforms to tall and intimidating teenagers. 18 of the teenagers took to the stage first, and the background to the story was told in a mildly comic style, with a single microphone on a long flex being laboriously handed from one player to another and back again, like the acoustic equivalent of pass-the-parcel, with seething resentment manifested on the face of whoever lost the mic.
The story was a weaving-together of the history of variety and ventriloquism in Leeds, two lovers, and a vengeful curse manifested by a pair of ventriloquist dummies. The dummies themselves are found in an old trunk in the catacombs under the Grand Theatre, and then the story is told in retrospect, forwards, starting in Victorian times. The female dummy reminded me instantly of Barbara Cartland.
The narration was taken over by the younger members of the cast, one of whom needed a prompt, but valiantly kept going.
The staging featured no scenery, just an Elizabethan-style bare stage; little in the way of make-up (other than two false Zapata moustaches, both worn by girls), but plenty of costumes. Two of these which caught my eye around this point in the performance were a tall kid in a tail-coat, dress trousers, and trainers, and a small, mischievously enthusiastic boy playing a stagehand in a very fetching brown overall.
After the lovers’ misunderstanding and start of the curse in the Victorian era, the action moved to the 1940s, where the dummies which now manifested the curse were found and adopted by an act called Rupert and Becca (played by two girls, one with one of the moustaches I mentioned). The first half finished with a kind of play within a play, which was a portrayal of a 1940s radio play, complete with voices speaking in received pronunciation and sound effects (achieved mechanically, not by means of electronic samples). I also noticed Lizi Patch moving about at the back of the stage, marshalling her troops in the face of some minor dislocation, and making duck and chicken noises.
The second part of the show featured the older players, the younger ones having taken their seats in the gallery. Young, moustachioed Rupert (played by a girl) was replaced by a suave young man in a zoot-suit (and with shoes, not trainers). He and Becca danced to Glen Miller’s ‘Moonlight Serenade’. I was not the only member of the audience who was moved by this. Rupert and Becca are re-united after a long separation caused by another misunderstanding. Rupert’s mysterious reappearance is met by agonising conflict in Becca’s mind, which was portrayed in the manner of a Greek tragedy, with competing angel and devil choruses on each side of the stage. After their reconciliation, the couple dance again and, when they kissed, it brought the house down.
A comic interval before the final chapter of the tragedy arrived in the form of a teenage boy in drag who was supposed to represent Mrs Thatcher (to convey the 1980s). This was certainly comic, but the hair was completely the wrong colour.
A magician called The Great Carter, the current owner of the ventriloquist dummies, was about to perform the Bullet-catch trick, with himself as the target. Becca and Rupert arrive just as the show is about to start. The curse works its evil magic again. Becca ends up as the “volunteer” who will try to catch the bullet, but it is Rupert who gets hit, in slow motion, portrayed very convincingly without any special effects: the bullet was simply carried across the stage by a member of the cast in black clothes, and a tossed handful of red rose petals served – in a surprisingly macabre fashion – for Rupert’s blood.
The Great Carter has an attack of guilt and denial. A fight between him and Mrs Tranny Thatcher ensues, with Thatch, true to her reputation, laying-in brutally with the handbag. The play descended briefly into meta-fiction, with actors accusing each other of not sticking to the script, in a way that was obviously scripted. Finally, the source of the curse is removed, and everybody lives happily ever after, except the two dummies, whose state of animation and century-long reign of evil comes to an abrupt end.
It was a memorable, entertaining and surprisingly-varied production, with music, singing, and dance as well as acting. It contained comedy, pathos, tragedy, fear, anguish, and joy. There were several members of the cast whom I expect to see in further productions. As a piece of theatre in itself, I would give it 9 out of 10. As a means of engaging young people with live theatre, and showing them a range of the techniques it uses and effects that it can produce – without synthesisers or digital animation – I would give it 10 out of 10.