Winter Hill

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Bolton Octagon
16th May 2017

This is not a review, just some interim (and possibly random) thoughts on ‘Winter Hill’. I was lucky enough to be offered a ticket unexpectedly to see it very early in the run. However I’d already booked to see it in the final week so I reserve the right to reverse my opinions and change my thoughts after that!

I did not dislike the play and I so really wanted it to succeed for the following reasons

  • There should be more plays with a range of roles for women of all ages and backgrounds. Here’s one doing just that.
  • The Octagon has assembled one hell of a cast, and the chance to see the likes of Denise Black, Cathy Tyson and Louise Jameson work together on a piece of new theatre is a draw in itself.
  • An exploration of how far you would go for a cause when you feel that peaceful protest has achieved nothing is an incredibly relevant and interesting premise for a play. And to have that discussion set within the context of a group of women and some of the struggles they’ve been associated with brings a refreshing perspective.
  • There should be more plays tackling issues relevant to Greater Manchester staged in the city region. It couldn’t be more timely to look at some of the problems being thrown up by regeneration of our towns and cities. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play takes a quick jaunt around most of them. The disconnect between planning processes and local people. Developers running rings around local councils to make as much money from their investment as possible while minimising their contributions to any associated infrastructure costs. ‘Winter Hill’ takes a look at these issues and more.
  • Contrary to the view of some London-based critics the play’s premise that Chinese and/or Russian money would flow in to an area such as Bolton to fund a new building is not far-fetched. Nor is it unheard of for wealthy folk to congregate in unlikely places – privacy, security and a golf course is like catnip to some of these people.

Having said all of that – on first viewing I’m not sure it works yet as a fully formed play. Here are some thoughts in no particular order.

  • It’s clear there has been a lot of workshopping going on and interviews with ‘experts’. This is fine in itself but at this point should we still sense the influence of the focus group? Some of it feels less the work of a fevered imagination and more the result of cutting and pasting.
  • The Octagon can be a difficult space for audiences (especially for those on high) and the direction here exacerbates this. Having characters sit around in a circle talking for most of the time with their backs to the audience doesn’t make us feel part of the debate it means we feel excluded (we are outside the circle in every sense).
  • Discovering that a character has ended up in jail should elicit some response to their predicament. In this case it’s difficult to feel anything as we’ve never got to know them beyond a few banner waving headlines and allusions to their back story. This is the case with several of the characters. We hear, from Cathy Tyson’s councillor, about the problems women encounter as politicians but it feels like a general observation as opposed to that person’s lived experience.
  • Constantly alluding to great literary heroines is a totally appropriate topic for the book group that the women are part of to discuss. It also provides a useful device for jumping off in to debates about the nature of heroism and the roles of women. Here however it may risk your audience reflecting on the skillful plotting and complex characterisation achieved by the authors of these works of fiction and lead them to contrast that with what they see before them.
  • Without going in to too much detail (to avoid spoilers) if you are going to introduce a character from another dimension (myth or the past) it needs to be handled carefully. Angels in America is one example of how it is possible to do this and enrich a play as a result. Here it feels contrived and doesn’t necessarily add anything.
  • The production is in danger of squandering the huge range of talent it has brought together on stage. At this early stage only Janet Henfrey seemed to inhabit a fully developed character and, as a result, to be at ease in her role.
  • And finally, even if a play is written in the near future it should still be possible to create an authentic sense of place. It’s about Winter Hill in Bolton. It’s being produced in that town. The play ‘Winter Hill’ could be set anywhere. Dropping in unexpected and random references to things such as the number of refugee children in the town doesn’t signal ‘this is Bolton’ – it says this play was work-shopped.

Don’t be put off going to see ‘Winter Hill’ as a result of these observations, I’m looking forward to seeing it again. But behind that anticipation is a hope that the production will have evolved and settled down. It’s understandable that Winter Hill is a work in progress. As a result, these thoughts are too.

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