The week in theatre: There Are No Beginnings; Solaris; A History of Water in the Middle East – review

The theatre formerly known as the West Yorkshire Playhouse has reopened after 15 months of renovation. It has reverted to its original name of Leeds Playhouse, which is clearer. The main entrance now overlooks the city, which is bolder. Auditoria and front-of-house areas have been spruced up, lightened, made easier for wheelchair users. And, in an unused hollow at the bottom of the building, a new studio theatre has been created. The uncompromisingly named Bramall Rock Void (which has a totemic pile of masonry at the side of the entrance) seats 120. It is cosy but airy, and it carries a promise: that here is a place where new work can be tested. Its opening production comes through with flying colours.

There Are No Beginnings is not the first play to show a region shaken to its core by a serial killer of women. It’s a subject that provoked Liverpool Everyman’s lacerating Unprotected in 2006 and, five years later, the National Theatre’s unsettling London Road. Still, Charley Miles’s play belongs to Leeds. Set in the city between 1975 and 1980, when Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, was at large, it features neither Sutcliffe nor the women he murdered. Miles’s concern is with the effect the killings had on all women’s behaviour. How, living with a running commentary of terror (“Grrrrruuuuesome”, rasps the radio) they began always to lock their doors. How they were roused to anger by the advice that they, rather than men, should observe a curfew. How they came together to protest; how distinctions made on grounds of “decency” – on whether a woman was a prostitute – began to be questioned. Meanwhile, the floor in the police department holding the reports on the killings began to sag under the weight of the paperwork.

After some artful opening flutters, Amy Leach’s production is direct, personal and crisp. And often funny. The speeches of the four-strong cast are based on dozens of interviews Miles conducted with women who were in Leeds in the 70s; the performances are exceptionally distilled. Julie Hesmondhalgh, sombre, merry, stolid in her pinny while she runs a women’s refuge. As her daughter, Tessa Parr moves dextrously from being a Donny Osmond adorer to a woolly-hatted protester, always slipping between pert and precarious. Jesse Jones is cleverly inscrutable as the ambitious, wary young policewoman. Natalie Gavin – the working girl – is remarkable: she never cries, but her face seems to be bruised with tears. The women put on their costumes in full view of the audience in the opening moments, as if to say we could any of us put on each other’s skin.

Stanisław Lem’s 1961 novel Solaris is a tremendous lure and snare for any adapter. The real yeast of the fiction is not plot but a stirring central concept: the idea that on a distant planet there is an ocean that has consciousness: a cerebral sea which, when approached by humans, seems to give physical substance to their thoughts and fantasies. This is not as easy to embody as a gloomy love entanglement, and it was that gooier aspect to which both Steven Soderbergh and Andrei Tarkovsky were drawn – to Lem’s dismay. He thought Tarkovsky’s jowly 1971 film “amputated the scientific landscape”. Reimagining Solaris for the stage (in a co-production with the Lyric, Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre and the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh), David Greig has some fun with the romance: the fantasy love object bops to the Beach Boys. Greig and director Matthew Lutton don’t indulge in the “emotional sauce” that so repelled Lem, and they do go some way to catching the all-encompassing impersonality of that ocean, in black-and-white videos of surging waves and in lighting by Paul Jackson that flushes and blanches and blues the stage.

Polly Frame in Solaris. Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic

It’s a coolly intriguing evening. Polly Frame is very adroit as the psychologist (in Lem’s novel the genders were the other way around) who arrives from Earth to find things in a bit of a pickle, but she has to spend an awful lot of time looking aghast with mouth open. As her love interest, Keegan Joyce is a beguiling will-o’-the-wisp, but obviously not a good bet as a boyfriend: his skin has the texture of cling film, his eyes do a lot of rolling and he often simply repeats what is said to him. Not a penetrating look at human interaction, but an arresting picture of physical isolation.

More H2O power in Sabrina Mahfouz’s A History of Water in the Middle East: part lecture, part gig. This exploration of mainly British interference – from the 1916 Sykes-Picot treaty to Suez to Palestine – throws out and throws away possibilities at each turn. As a British Egyptian, Mahfouz has a promising double focus and a riveting tale of being recruited as a spy after working as a cocktail waitress. Swaying as she – almost – raps, she draws on the musical talent of Kareem Samara on drums and oud, and on the magnificent voice of Laura Hanna.

But the ingredients are not melded together: anecdote and didacticism fight each other. Save in one amazing episode. A flash-forward to 2050 and a female plumber in Jordan, designated the plumbing capital of the Middle East: a place where it is possible for a girl to say “pass the spanner” with no sexual innuendo. The vision is delivered in a cascading aria at once funny and provoking: “Leeeeaks!” Get that on tap.

Kareem Samara, Sabrina Mahfouz and Laura Hanna in A History Of Water In The Middle East.

Kareem Samara, Sabrina Mahfouz and Laura Hanna in A History Of Water In The Middle East. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Star ratings (out of five)
There Are No Beginnings ★★★★
Solaris ★★★★
A History of Water in the Middle East ★★

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