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Theatre Review Brecht's anti-war parable gets acute update from Red Ladder

Mother Courage and Her Children
Albion Electric Warehouse, Leeds

IT’S hard to think of many plays better suited to a promenade staging than Mother Courage and Her Children. Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 polemic about the futility of war does, after all, follow the titular anti-hero as she travels from town to town selling wares from her canteen.

In this production, which marks Red Ladder’s 50th anniversary, the audience becomes part of her travelling wagon, part of the sea of people displaced by conflict.

The bombed-out setting of a dusty, disused warehouse is an ideal location for this migration. Sara Perks’s design has integrated architectural features such as girders in the production rather than hiding them, with ragged curtains screening the vast space to create a sense of dislocation.

What the staging lacks in geography — the characters move across central Europe during the Thirty Years’ War — it compensates for by illustrating that all cities look the same when reduced to rubble.

It’s a universality that Boff Whalley’s compositions match. The actor-musicians variously play accordion and double bass in vaguely Eastern European style, with flashes of music hall and folk as the community cast join in on vocals. Wandering through the audience, they enfold them in the action as well as ushering them from scene to scene.

Credit goes to Pauline McLynn — best known as Mrs Doyle in Father Ted — in not dominating as the opportunistic and shrewd Courage, for whom sympathy is thin even when the last of her three children is killed. TJ Holmes more than holds his own as the Chaplain and Bea Webster as Kattrin adds new energy to the role as she signs through what is traditionally a mute role.

The staging never really translates to the current tragedy of human displacement. But, as a powerful piece of anti-war rhetoric, it will be hard to better this year.

Runs until October 20 2018, box office: leedsplayhouse.org.uk

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