Connection – At Harrogate Theatre Studio Until 5 October

I was invited by Leeds Living to review what turns out to be an amazing piece of work, performed at Harrogate Theatre on 2 October.

I urge you to make the effort to see Connection during its limited run. It was written by Rachael Halliwell who appears alongside Cathy Breeze, Andrew Turner and Emma Leah Golding.  The pre-publicity describes it as being a Yorkshire version of Thelma and Louise, but it’s so much more than that.  Yes, there is a road trip element but it is the relationships which are the mainstay of the production.

Rachael Halliwell as Catherine and Cathy Breeze as Elaine

The main relationship is that between care worker Elaine, played by Cathy Breeze, and a woman she meets in the waiting room of the A&E Department at Harrogate Hospital, the high-flying Amex Black carrying businesswoman, Catherine, brought to life by the playwright.  In turn, they are affected by unseen characters in an elderly lady who was a client of Elaine and whose ashes she has called to collect in order to scatter them in Scarborough; Elaine’s husband and Catherine’s mother, who is in need of constant care.  Unlike the compassionate Elaine, Catherine does not ‘do’ caring but her brother Steve – Andrew Turner – won’t allow their mother to be committed to a care home. The further relationships between Steve and his estranged wife, mother-in-law and daughter are also brought into focus.

Emma Leah Golding as Yasmin and Andrew Turner as Steve

Finally we have Yasmine, the priest who tends to the spiritual needs of Steve when he is admitted to the same A&E after an extremely heavy night on the lash to drink off the memory of the consequences of a visit to his erstwhile family. This is a role played by Emma Leah Golding, who was struggling with a sore throat, which she managed very well.  Emma is also in charge of Stage Management, so had to do a fair bit of scene shifting, along with Andrew Turner.

Catherine begins her conversation with Elaine by saying that she is going to ruin someone’s life today; but whose?

I might have over-complicated things, but isn’t that how relationships are? I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot because it’s the surprise twists in the interaction between the characters which make this play the triumph that it is and I want you to enjoy the reveals as much as I did. Stripped down to its bare bones, the play is about two women who meet, go on a journey to Scarborough to scatter the ashes of Elaine’s deceased client and then have to rush back to Harrogate Hospital when Catherine gets a phone call to say that Steve has been admitted with wounds sustained during a fight and is under police guard.

The underlying subjects of depression, suicide, infidelity, addiction and responsibility provide the interplay but, although it sounds like a dreary play, it is anything but as the two protagonists reveal their deepest secrets in such a way as to bring both pathos and humour in equal parts.

The thing which appealed most, apart from the incredible acting, was the structure of the piece. As this is live theatre in a small venue, the flashback couldn’t be signalled by wavy lines across a screen, so the second act opened with a repeat of a couple of lines from halfway through the first to show that the ensuing action was taking place simultaneously with the original. There was also a hip flask lost by Catherine in Act One which appeared again in Act Two in the hands of Steve, having been given to him by an unseen character.

Cathy Breeze as Elaine and Rachael Halliwell as Catherine

Whereas Act One was a two-hander between Mesdames Halliwell and Breeze, Act Two involved all four of the cast members, and after the scene setting, opened with Andrew Turner playing the most authentic drunk I have ever seen on stage. Anyone who has been the designated driver and had to stay sober whilst their friends have been relentlessly wrecked will know just how good this portrayal was. Emma Leah Golding’s priest was a vignette, but perfectly executed in both word and deed, especially when she was wandering around with a boxful of Steve’s vomit, wondering how she could dispose of it.

Rachael Halliwell as Catherine and Andrew Turner as Steve

The set, which along with the costumes, was designed by Caitlin Mawhinney, was minimalist in that it comprised a black background with white seating in front of it which kept being rearranged to signify the A&E seating, benches on a Scarborough clifftop and a table in the Jubilee Rooms. All worked excellently. The Lighting Design by Charlotte Robinson consisted of several light towers on each side of the set which changed colours to reflect the mood, as did the intensity of the overall ambient lighting. The composers of the original music were The Paper Waites with the Sound Design being taken care of by Stuart Mellor. I don’t know which one of them was responsible for the background music but you can’t hear Jo Stafford’s You Belong To Me too often in my book. The whole thing was directed by Nathan Marsh.

Every aspect of this play was executed to the highest order with small touches such as the Accident and Emergency sign above the entrance to the Studio – which most people missed – adding to the experience. If there is one thing I have learned during my time writing theatre reviews for Leeds Living it is that budget does not always mean quality, as some of the best plays I have had the pleasure to have seen have been done on a shoestring whilst the worst have had a cast list full of household names. The talent we have in this part of the world is amazing and should be encouraged and supported as much as is possible.  Connection is a prime example of this.

Connection runs at Harrogate Theatre Studio until Saturday 5th October with evening performances beginning at 7.45 and matinees at 2.30 on Thursday and Saturday.

Feature photograph is Andrew Turner as Steve.
All photography by Malcolm Johnson.

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