This, to be clear, is not a play about the Yorkshire Ripper. That story has been told often enough, his name is known – rather it’s a play that sets out to tell the stories of a group of women living in Leeds during the period in the 1970s and 1980s when Peter Sutcliffe was at large.
Opening a new 120-seat space – the Bramall Rock Void – beneath the renovated Leeds Playhouse, There Are No Beginnings draws on interviews conducted by Charley Miles with women about their experiences of that time.
June (Julie Hesmondhalgh) is a care worker, helping to get vulnerable young women off the streets; her daughter Sharon (Tessa Parr) becomes friends with Helen (Natalie Gavin), a troubled young girl they take in when there’s nowhere else for her to go. Fiona (Jesse Jones) is an ambitious young police officer, who worries that as a woman her contribution to the investigation in the recent spate of brutal murders is being undervalued.
Miles shows how the crimes of one man created a climate of fear. His deeds impacted on the lives of women across the region, of all ages. They are told not to walk the streets at night or go out alone, to be watchful and vigilant at all times. They are urged to modify their behaviour and the way they dress; to restrict their movements.
She shows how some women’s lives were valued above others. The first few victims are sex workers, and it’s only when an “innocent girl” is killed that the investigation steps up a gear. Men are absent except as a chorus of voices, of reporters and detectives, the hoax caller known as Wearside Jack.
The play takes its time developing the relationships between all four women: the friendship between Helen and Sharon, which grows even after Helen begins working as a “pro”; the uneasy understanding between June and Fiona, both women who feel a responsibility to look after the community in which they live. This all takes place during a time of shifting societal attitudes to female sexuality but, aside from a few lines, Miles doesn’t hammer this home.
The cast is excellent. Hesmondhalgh gives a typically tender, warm performance as June. Gavin is resigned but far from hardened as Helen, Jones grounded and determined as Fiona. Parr – one of the stand-out performers of Leeds Playhouse’s repertory season – is endearingly goofy and convincingly youthful as Sharon.
The pacing of Amy Leach’s production, simply and intimately staged on Camilla Clarke’s rust-coloured cube set, could be tighter but that’s in part because it allows room for the relationships to build.
It’s not a dramatically flashy play – though Miles can write beautifully, and there’s a passage in here to rival that gorgeous sperm whales speech in Daughterhood. But it’s not intended to be – rather, it’s a story of mothers, daughters, female solidarity and the insidious way in which the violence of men colours our world.