“Heroism is danger and risk, and frankly, until now, it’s been male”
Plays set in places I knew well as a child unexpectedly looks like it might be one of the theatrical memes of the year – Years of Sunlight explored the history of the neighbouring town where I learned to swim and now we have Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new drama Winter Hill, named for the West Pennine peak that was the location of many a childhood walk.
Wertenbaker’s play is set on the Winter Hill of the near future, as opposed to the not-so-near past, where a chunk of the land has been sold to developers who are constructing a luxury skyscraper hotel there, set to completely alter the way that the hill dominates the landscape and the town of Bolton below it. As a local women’s reading group sneaks onto the building site to have their meetings, hidden agendas bubble to the surface to make matters a little more serious than whether they’ve got enough wine to get through the evening.
For though Beth has great literary aspirations for the group, old friend Dolly has something much more radical in mind and so their discussions morphs from literary heroes to action heroes, their shared history of protests brought into stark relief by the unexpected proposal of direct action. Also in the mix is their friend Irene, a councillor who supported the hotel in exchange for the advantages promised, both in terms of putting Bolton on the map as a destination and in the smaller social benefits that have been pledged.
So Winter Hill even-handedly presents multiple sides to its debate, the ethics of taking a stand and just how far you can push it, whether the colossal weight of multi-national corporate interests can be countered with anything but explosive power. And directed by Elizabeth Newman, a strong company flesh out these women memorably, Denise Black’s Dolly and Louise Jameson’s Beth effortlessly showing the bonds and strains of lifelong friendship, Cathy Tyson’s Irene unable to disentangle herself fully from politico-speak, Janet Henfrey’s drily carefree Felicity dispensing bon mots from her wheelchair.
And in Amanda Stoodley’s design with scaffolding perched over a half-finished hotel lobby floor, the richness of the script’s detail washes over us from the stolen university boyfriends and the Northern insecurity complex to the results of industrial collapse in the UK and the erasure of women from the official historical narrative. It’s an ambitious piece of writing and perhaps a little over-full, especially once its flashback structure is established, but never less than pleasingly thought-provoking.