May queen

Yasmin Dawes as Leigh, the May Queen. Pictures:  Nicola Young

May Queen

Coventry Belgrade


Yasmin Dawes is an astonishing, superb, and deeply enriching performer. This 90 minute play she performs totally on her own, solo, and the quality she brings to every aspect of it is overawing. It’s a real tour-de-force.

She is onstage, and joyfully entertaining us, throughout. Endlessly resourceful, exuberant, effervescent. And deeply passionate. One is lost in admiration for it, and for her. The way she holds the audience, and interacts with it, is marvellous.   

May Queen is a collaboration – certainly not the first – between the Belgrade and the vastly acclaimed Paines Plough, the company founded (unbelievably) half a century ago (1974) by prolific playwright and radio dramatist David Pownall and director John Adams. Two obvious connections here are that the ever-versatile Paines Plough has established itself as a leading new writing company; and has as another prime aim a tradition of collaborating with venues, and sundry touring partners, across the country.

May Queen is a story, or a mix of stories or intermingled narratives, that requires of her incredible tenacity, and wondrous acting mastery to learn and then keep going without a slip. The visual aspect is right at the play’s heart; but her voice just on its own is immensely appealing, and inviting, and the sheer range she brings to her alluring intonation is mind-numbingly remarkable.  

But the same, maybe more, goes for her moves, her gestures, obviously in part if not largely worked out with Director Balisha Karra, who is Creative Lead (one of the company’s co-Artistic Directors) at the Belgrade during Coventry’s extended Year of Culture, and in addition distinguished Director in Residence at the Old Vic.


 Actually it’s a wonderful example of teamwork. A trio in fact; or if one adds in (as we surely must) Movement Director Kimisha Lewis, perhaps more than a threesome. All these remarkable, so vivid and fruitful lines we, and they, owe to May Queen’s Midlands-based playwright, Frankie Meredith.

This is her second Coventry premiere this June. Frankie’s play Petticoat Council was seen at the Warwick University Arts Centre just a few weeks ago. She and Karra had worked together on another play three years ago. The success of that, entitled Seventeen, led on to the present commission. And working as a team with other women has the effect of providing what the writer has significantly, and also reassuringly and memorably, described as ‘a really safe space’.      

Folklore, the way we think of it now, and consequently the whole business of how we envisage or manufacture stories nowadays, is at the heart of this bracing show. The central character, a 16-year-old girl named ‘Leigh’ (played by Dawes), has just been crowned Coventry’s May Queen. The May Queen is a medieval (or quite possibly earlier) tradition. It imagines a girl who rides (or walks) at the front of a parade to initiate, and participate in, the May Day celebrations, partway between the Spring, or Vernal (March), and Summer (late June) equinox.

The maiden appears, crowned by flowers, in a white gown (to symbolise purity), and usually on her head has in addition a tiara or crown. As by the late 14th century Coventry was the fourth largest city in England, it’s not surprising that it would have seen a major celebration of this kind, just as it gave birth to the (still performed) medieval Mystery Plays. Indeed ‘(Lady) Godiva’ – and her courage, arguably an example of women’s liberation - is a kind of Leitmotif to the play. She matters.

Meredith spent her teens growing up in Coventry, so it obviously has important resonances for her which have helped yield this intriguing and fast-shifting script. But that provided a starting point. The whole story – a thrilling monologue (it is, Meredith suggests, ‘like a modern folk tale’) – is spoken by a teenager: one of many aspects Dawes carries off so brilliantly.

She is alive, her eyes shine like bright lights, her vivacity, her intermittent angsts, her first teen experiments with love, all capture our own imaginations. She carries us with her.  


We are lured into her every utterance, dazzled by her zest and joy, hopes and disappointments, expectations fulfilled or dashed, have the enticement, vigour and allure of a maturing youngster. The way Dawes achieves this is staggering. She shines. She beams. Constantly and throughout.

Talking about bright lights, several other aspects brought the production to life (no less than 19 credited creatives for this one-person show!) Chris McDonell’s lighting rang frequent, indeed endless strikingly productive changes. Apart from the main high spotlights (of various colours), a row or array or tier of small lights above the stage on each side – pink, white, blue, amber, green, scarlet, orange – all benefited and varied quite subtly the look of Dawes as she hurtled with such brio and animation around the stage.

The ways they are used to highlight her changes in mood is ingenious; sometimes those lights flash in sequence – another inspired touch. Her costume (Lydia Denno designed the show) was stunning: a kind of wedding cake of cascading frills, cream in colour but often picking up extra tinges from the focused lighting; plus spectacular rose-pink and lime green underwear. Daring, in fact.  

And the sound (Kieran Lucas) was especially well judged, because it was largely kept low and lulling. Occasionally a voice (hers?) spoke from the sides. Some exchange, perhaps with a similarly teenage inamorato (the woods figure in her memory: ‘No one told me what to do when it got to this bit’). Or an adult. One lightly puzzling element is that this interaction only occurred a very few times. Just possibly more of it might have been needed to give the pattern and flow consistency.

Yasmin Dawes’ character (16 year old Leigh’), with not so much a butterfly as an endlessly fertile, active and certainly intelligent young mind (‘I need something to calm me) – I think at one or two points she lights up a spliff experimentation, inevitably - hurtles us from one brilliant line, or paragraph, to another. Her invention, her inventiveness, is phenomenal.

three team    

Yasmin Dawes, Balisha Karra and Frankie Meredith. Picture: Joe Bailey

She holds us agog, from start to finish. She’s so full of beans they’re spilling over. So rapid are her boisterous moods and mood shifts, like her outstandingly, indefatigably well-choreographed moves (she sometimes transforms miraculously into dance), you almost can’t keep up with her. Even the elephant she so affectionately mentions near the start and finish is not just fanciful but relevant: the Elephant and Castle is Coventry’s historic Coat of Arms.  

And what shines out so obviously is her artistry. Not always just in the spoken text. Her and Balisha Karra’s timing of gaps, spaces, pauses, patches of extended silence even, is a part of the unremitting excellence of this performance, of this show. Professionalism shows at every turn, in every detail. Just as at the curtain calls at the end, she is constantly swinging so as to address another section of the audience, and ensure none is left out.

If anything, this increases the intimacy. Apart from her scintillating outfit, headband, etc., there isn’t much by way of props. Yet give her what she says is (I think) a Morris Dancer’s cudgel, and she turns it into a visual feast as well. Everything she touches on seems to be redolent of genius. Imagine robins (medieval as well?) She makes them fly for us, just as she herself, she says at one point, is flying.    

Her exciting performance – those countless and fascinating confidences she shares with us - is in part a re-enaction or series of memories – family, friends, boyfriend(s), events; in part unveils current, recent or impending happenings, ranging from pure rapture and optimism to moodiness, frustration, teenage irritation or puzzlement; and to some extent eager imaginings. She’s not afraid to be provocative – ‘fuck’ (‘What the fuck?’ ‘In that really fucking, annoying voice’, ‘This is fucking brilliant’), ‘shit’ (‘Kids get annoyed at shit like that’), ‘shitloads’, turn up a fair bit (they’re almost de rigueur for stagings these days): but then she’s naughty, frequently very funny indeed, sometimes risqué, just as, at the opposite end, we find her deadly serious. Perhaps above all, she has a teenager’s – as so often - profound insight. Teenagers are not to be dismissed, or scorned: they matter.

So it’s a lot (says the author) to do with growing up and finding out who you are. But just as crucial, for those most closely involved – writer, actor, director – the fact that the play’s one character is female is central, from its initiation, to the whole concept: a prime intention, or at least aspiration, is to counter what used to be, or are, gender stereotypes and explore ‘how women have been treated, and how women are believed or not believed; who believes us and who doesn’t.’

Roderic Dunnett


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