With a panoramic sense of empathy, Charley Miles’ heated play sees the reverberations of the Yorkshire Ripper killings on the lives of four women from 1975 to 1980. The first show at the newly refurbished Leeds Playhouse, it is surprisingly funny and full of fury.
Two young women from Chapeltown teeter on the edge of adulthood. Sharon (Tessa Parr) is 15 when we first meet her: proud, stubborn and overprotective about Donny Osmond. Helen (Natalie Gavin) is a year younger: volatile and vulnerable, curling in on herself as if absorbing all the pain around her. They grow in parallel to each other; while Sharon is at school, Helen is pushed into prostitution. Parr is wide-eyed as they talk in whispers about sex, while her friend – who knows too much – tugs at the trauma around her like a heavy blanket.
Reports of the violent killings take over the news, frayed sound clips buzzing anxiously between dialogue. At first, it’s mainly prostitutes being killed. Then they announce a new “innocent” victim. Miles furiously investigates this implication of guilt, and the idea that any blame lies with the women being killed rather than the man doing the killing.
Julie Hesmondhalgh plays Sharon’s mum, June, worn down by worry for both her daughter and for the vulnerable girls like Helen, who is part of her caseload as a care worker. Jesse Jones completes the quartet as Fiona, an austere, ambitious police officer trying to keep the girls safe. Arguments between the four are heated and loving and full of the charged confusion of trying to protect each other. As the number of victims grows, the adults deal with the mounting fear differently; where Fiona becomes ever more uptight, June becomes increasingly ragged with dread.
It is said that that women mature faster than men. This show suggests it’s because of what they’re put through. Every story of a woman abducted adds a month. Every time they’re followed home at night adds a year. When they first meet, Sharon puts on a record and leaps around her bedroom, awkwardly trying to get Helen to free up and join in. But dancing for fun quickly gives way to protesting for their rights, as later, a less innocent echo of the scene repeats when Sharon drags Helen to a Reclaim the Night march. Nervous at first, Helen is quiet and restrained, but following Sharon’s example, she begins to leap across the stage and finally releases her rage.
Amy Leach’s subtly dynamic direction has the show in traverse, with the majority of the action on a raised terracotta block, and the cast changing clothes around the outside. Few scenes have clear seams, with half-sentences feeding into each other and overlapping. Though the second half slows, with the plot driving somewhat off course in the search of a neat ending, Miles’ play is a raw, emotive depiction of a generation overshadowed by these murders.
“Can you believe that it’s one man doing this to us?” Hesmondhalgh rages. “One little man. One pathetic boy.” We never hear the killer’s name, and Miles’ script actively smashes the glorification of the violence and the mystery surrounding him. Instead, this stage is a platform for women’s voices. The real pleasure of There Are No Beginnings lies in watching the two teenage girls teach each other how to live, after being forced to grow up too fast.