Manchester Theatre Awards

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Winter Hill

Timberlake Wertenbaker
Octagon Theatre Bolton
Octagon Theatre
11 May 2017 to 03 June 2017

To those of us who grew up in the North West, Winter Hill is familiar as the site for many years of the major TV transmitter for the area; to Timberlake Wertenbaker, it was the inspiration behind her latest play.

On a set backed with scaffolding and plastic sheeting but with an elaborate pseudo-Egyptian floor (designer Amanda Stoodley), a women's book group discusses its latest subject on the site of a new hotel on Winter Hill, which will apparently bring tourism and jobs to Bolton. However the work chosen is just a chapter of a book about Easter Island, where the male chiefs compete to have the tallest, most impressive statue.

To answer complaints that there is no story, and particularly no strong heroine, they make up their own plot with resonances of Aristophanes' Lysistrata (Felicity—played by Janet Henfrey—who gets all the best funny lines, points this out) in which the women protest about the men building monuments to their power and vanity.

When I spoke to the cast and writer, they were reluctant to say very much about the plot, but I'm sure the parallels drawn between the story they are improvising and the building project which surrounds them are screamingly obvious just from this brief account. Reactions to the building range from local councillor Irene's (Cathy Tyson) justification of the project and what it can bring to the region to veteran protestor Dolly's (Denise Black) proposals for action that to most of the others seem extreme.

Interspersed with this action are little inserts where Emma (Fiona Hampton), obviously some time later, is questioning the women individually to find out what happened on that day, particularly to Dolly, her mother.

The rest of the group are Souad Faress as Vivian who was not born in this country but can hack into anyone's computer system and Louise Jameson's Beth, who claims that Dolly has been bullying her into doing things that have got her into trouble since they were kids. Susan Twist makes an appearance later as a Greek Fury and Eva-Jane Willis completes the cast as the site security guard, Alex.

It's a play packed full of ideas that appear to be very much of the moment—citizen protest, development of green space, local residents against big corporations, the male domination of the political and corporate world, the point at which protest becomes terrorism—but in fact these are all old, ongoing issues and the play doesn't bring a great deal that's new to them.

Wertenbaker does pose the questions with eloquence and ties the issues in with literature and mythology, but the political arguments are a bit thin. The play seems to want to generate discussion and disagreement, but the substance of the arguments isn't strong enough for political theatre. It isn't really until the last scene that Irene counters the idealism and the apparent addiction to the adrenaline-fueled thrill of protesting of Dolly, whatever the cause, with her political pragmatism. Even at the basic plot level of a group of people with an idea that gets out of hand, it doesn't quite work.

Director Elizabeth Newman has brought an extremely impressive cast to Bolton who all play their parts well, but their hesitancy at times suggested that the production hadn't quite played in by press night—or perhaps changes were still being made to the script.

It's great to have a new Timberlake Wertenbaker opening in the region (although other than the title it could be set anywhere), but at the moment both the play and the production show a lot of promise but aren't quite there yet.

Reviewer: David Chadderton


Comment by Alan Hulme

Yes, absolutely agree with David. It's currently more of a work in progress than a finished play. Various tell-tale signs point towards continuing re-writes and, especially in the first half, the uncertainty among the cast was palpable as they at times pressed on almost regardless.

Wonderful I suppose to have the author, and so eminent a one at that, on hand, but it's clearly not without its penalties.

The advertised finish time was 21.45 but, despite a slightly late start and slightly extended interval, we were out in the rain by 21.30, so it's pretty clear serious work is still going on to bash the show into shape.  

Comment by Diana Stenson

Communities, hotly reported by the press, are regularly embroiled in  bitter fights about new plans, historic preservation, local amenity cuts and so on - but a luxury sky scraper hotel on a windswept treeless hill nowhere near an airport? Yes, a blight but would any astute financiers even consider this? A base for nuclear weaponry say, would be a certainty for fierce opposition but no savvy investment group would back a towering edifice here. This may seem a minor observation but it rocks the central stability of the premise. The vitality of the drama itself and the gritty dialogue with its dedicated ensemble is remarkable but the background story is too weak to sustain credibility. Tough talk demands tough foundations.