Leeds United Stories, Vol. 1
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uncertain identities: my generation at west yorkshire playhouse

uncertain identities: my generation at west yorkshire playhouse

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Photo by Keith Pattison  

If one thing has characterised the period covered in Alice Nutter’s play, My Generation, it’s uncertainty. From 1978 to 2013, few people, especially in the north of England, could tell you definitely what they were going to do with their life. They couldn’t look forward, and they couldn’t say.

Against a background of serial killers, strikes, drugs and economic collapse, it was difficult for anyone to say with any confidence who they were. Even in the squat where the play opens, in 1977, revolutionary anarchist Mick is only a beard away from having his identity as a friend of the people torn away and being arrested for the crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper; radical feminist Cath has already been robbed of her politics as the threat of the ripper keeps her indoors, but if she does step outside after dark, she might not only lose her politics, but her life.

The struggle for identity, and the emotional and physical violence that results when the struggle is lost, is a common strand through the four stories in My Generation. In the opening act, Cath’s Story, her realisation that chauvinism is as alive in a squat in Chapeltown as it is in the world she sought to escape – even gay anarchist men would rather listen to football on the radio than listen to a woman in the room – shatters the security Cath thought she had found by living a revolutionary life; new housemate Frey offers Cath a chance to redefine what it is to live as a female in late-seventies Leeds, but that new identity threatens to shatter her family.

Her son with Mick, Ben, off his tits in the consuming rave culture of the third act, searches for a self outside his self in a cocktail of pills and tequila. When circumstances suddenly change mid-rave, he’s surrounded by competing tribes of music styles, regional rivalries and class conflicts; but like his mother in 1977, at the moment when he casts off the confusion around him and finds a path to new identity, he finds the path doesn’t lead where he thought after all. Cath and Mick’s daughter, Emma, rejects her upbringing for the security of a middle class life as a rich man’s housewife; but when in the fourth act the husband turns out not to be who he claimed to be, Emma finds she can no longer be who she thought she had become.

Mick’s Story, set in 1984 during the miners’ strike, is the most resonant, perhaps because it has the biggest production; the deliberately sparse set takes the story out of the squat kitchen and to the streets, pubs and picket lines of mid-eighties Yorkshire; the plot brings the full cast of characters on to the stage; and the rhythm nation-style choreography of the police’s brutality is the night’s big show-stopper. Craig Conway’s performance in this act is also the best in the play, as Mick, energised by finding his true calling on the side of the striking miners, discovers that his battle against Thatcher’s government is not the only conflict he has to deal with. 

A leader of protestors who can’t find a way to make an impact; a father to a son going off the rails; a father figure to his comrades on the pickets; a peaceful revolutionary drawn towards the enemy’s violent methods; the one point of consistency that guides Mick is his father, whose death in the mines gave Mick his strongest conviction and only vocation: to support the miners. But the conviction on which Mick has built his identity is also his greatest point of weakness, and when he unburdens himself of the truth about his father to his closest comrade in arms, he finds out he is only putting one hidden identity against another. The result is violent, but it’s no longer the violence of certainty in the cause of what’s right, but the reaction to a loss of a sense of who he is. 

His father isn’t who he said he was, Mick isn’t who he said he was, and his closest friend isn’t who he said he was; so Mick can’t be who he wants to be. Cath, Emma and Ben can’t be who they want to be, either. It’s what links the four stories of punks, protestors, ravers and social climbers in My Generation; each era could never quite become what it wanted to be.

The play ends, like many a big night out, with a defiant, unifying sing-a-long, and for the first time you get a stable answer to the question posed throughout the play: who are these people? Individually, even after thirty years, the characters probably couldn’t tell you themselves; that’s what it’s been like in northern England since 1977. But singing together around a kitchen table at the end, they’re a family. And I reckon that is probably the point.

My Generation is at West Yorkshire Playhouse until October 26th; click here for more info.

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