Writing about politics and the great and supposedly good is difficult. To write about politics in the life of an ordinary family over a span of 30+ years is a minefield. Politics is there is everything we do, every choice we make, even if we barely consider it most of the time. The personal is very much political.
Alice Nutter adapted her radio play, My Generation, for the stage (at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until October 26), and seeing the faces and actions of the characters brings a whole new dimension to the work. Starting in the late 1970s with Mick and Cath, along with their young children Ben and Emma, it’s a work that grows in the telling.
Early on, Mick and Cath are attempting to make sense of their lives. They’re squatters, involved in what was then a struggle that really seemed to have personal dimensions, with the sense that all their actions could really make a difference. Feminism is a vital issue, and there’s the underlying feeling that anything is possible, even with the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper stalking the streets.. In an era when punk was grabbing the headlines, they’re anything but. Yet the realisation comes that everything has a price, and that ideals, however grand in theory, can tear apart relationships.
And this is very much a play about relationships, between men and women, men and men, women and women, parents and children. Come 1984 and the miner’s strike, there are more choices to be made, between direct action and organising a soup kitchen. And all actions have consequences. It gives rise to one of the best scenes, Mick’s soliloquy as the police begin to gather, in funk-based choreographed menace, for the inevitable beating.
It’s a year that marks a turning point, and from here the story moves to the next generation, Ben necking drugs, on the free festival circuit of the early ‘90s, someone who’s chosen to abdicate responsibility for his own life as a reaction to the way his parents have lived. Hedonism has its own perils, though, with ripples that go all through a life, as he begins to understand.
And then there’s Emma, very much in the present day. Her reaction to the way she was brought up has been to marry into a champagne lifestyle that falls apart in the wake of the global crash – politics far outside the control of the everyday person, where we can rant and rage but our power to change anything has become blunted. But in having nothing she finds a kind of redemption (there’s a beautiful, moving scene at a school recital where she sees her younger self dancing), understanding that deep at the core her parents have given her something important – kindness.
It’s about family, but family is also what you make it, not necessarily blood relations, but the people you hold close and love. Kudos to the director for imaginative staging, and also to the live band (under the direction of Harry Hamer), who are an integral part of the play – as it should be when music is such a vital ingredient in everyday life – and the music is more than soundtrack, it’s another character to heighten the drama and bring texture to the performances. Praise, too, for the cast, especially the actor who plays Mick.
The problem with politics, especially radical politics, is that it’s all too often po-faced and dry. Nutter’s writing leavens everything with humour (including one self-deprecatory reference to her former career) and, above all, life. From the scrambling of youth to the lessons learned with age, there’s wisdom; we may carry our younger selves inside, but we can never remain who we were. These are people we care about. Their stories involve us and reflect us. Because of that, My Generation shines with humanity and compassion. It’s an affirmation that life’s very much worth living. Nutter’s woven a political play that succeeds because it’s about people more than issues. It finds subtle, honest beauty in with the grime and disappointments of the everyday, and laughter and love that sticks like glue through the decades.
Go and see it. Please.