Kevin Clifton must wait year longer to play dream role after Strictly Ballroom delay

Clifton suspension: Kevin Clifton’s dream role is put on hold for a year after postponement of the Strictly Ballroom tour. Picture: Dan Hogan

KEVIN Clifton will not be in Strictly twice over this year.

In March, the 2018 champion announced he was leaving the Strictly Come Dancing professional squad after seven seasons in annual pursuit of the BBC One glitter ball trophy, filling his diary instead with the 2020/2021 UK and Ireland tour of Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom The Musical, directed by Strictly judge Craig Revel Horwood, no less.

The tour should have run from September 26 to June 26 2021, but the Covid-19 pandemic has necessitated its postponement until a new starting date of September 27 2021 in Plymouth.

“Kevin from Grimsby”, 37, will play his dream role of Scott Hastings at the Grand Opera House, York, from November 15 to 21 2021, rather than November 23 to 28 this autumn.

Further rearranged Yorkshire dates are: Bradford Alhambra Theatre, November 22 to 27 2021, Hull New Theatre, April 25 to 30 2022, and Sheffield Lyceum Theatre, May 30 to June 4 2022, on a tour that will end in where else but the ballroom-dancing mecca of Blackpool on July 2 2022.

“You can still expect a simply fab-u-lous show for all to enjoy,” promises director Craig Revel Horwood

Announcing the tour’s postponement, the producers say: “To ensure everyone’s safety in these uncertain times, we had to take the difficult decision to reschedule the original tour dates.

“But the good news is that all of the shows in the touring schedule have been rearranged and tickets for each performance will be exchanged automatically, so fans will not miss out on this musical extravaganza. Details of how to exchange tickets will follow in the coming weeks.” 

Clifton says: “I’m really delighted that the Strictly Ballroom tour has been rescheduled.  As I’ve mentioned before, it’s my all-time favourite film and Scott Hastings is my dream role, so I can’t wait to bring this musical to theatres across the UK next year.  In the meantime, please stay safe and keep well, everyone.”

Director Craig Revel Horwood enthuses: “I’m thrilled that our new production of Strictly Ballroom The Musical has been rescheduled for 2021/2022.  The tour may be a year later, but you can still expect those same sexy dance moves, scintillating costumes and a simply FAB-U-LOUS show for all to enjoy, starring the one and only Kevin Clifton.”

Clifton joined Strictly Come Dancing in 2013, performing in the final five times, missing out only in 2017 and 2019, and he was crowned Strictly champion in 2018 with celebrity partner Stacey Dooley, the BBC documentary filmmaker, presenter and journalist.

“I’m beyond excited to be finally fulfilling a lifelong ambition to play Scott Hastings,” says Kevin Clifton, dressed a la mode as Hastings goes into battle on the ballroom floor

A former youth world number one and four-time British Latin Champion, Clifton has won international open titles all over the world. After making his West End musical theatre debut in 2010 in Dirty Dancing, he starred as Robbie Hart in The Wedding Singer at Wembley Troubadour Park Theatre and as rock demigod Stacie Jaxx in the satirical Eighties’ poodle-rock musical Rock Of Ages in the West End, a role that also brought him to Leeds Grand Theatre last August.

Clifton last performed at the Grand Opera House, York, in the ballroom dance show Burn The Floor last May.

Strictly Ballroom The Musical tells the story of Scott Hastings, a talented, arrogant and rebellious young Aussie ballroom dancer. When his radical dance moves lead to him falling out of favour with the Australian Dance Federation, he finds himself dancing with Fran, a beginner with no moves at all.

Inspired by one another, this unlikely pair gathers the courage to defy both convention and family and discover that, to be winners, the steps don’t need to be strictly ballroom.

Featuring a book by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, the show features a cast of 20 and combines such familiar numbers as Love Is In The Air, Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps and Time After Time with songs by Sia, David Foster and Eddie Perfect.

Rock on: Kevin Clifton as rock demigod Stacee Jaxx in Rock Of Ages at Leeds Grand Theatre last August

Strictly Ballroom began as an uplifting, courageous stage play that Luhrmann devised with a group of classmates at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art in Australia in 1984. Eight years later, he made his screen directorial debut with Strictly Ballroom as the first instalment in his Red Curtain Trilogy.

The film won three 1993 BAFTA awards and received a 1994 Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture. Strictly Ballroom The Musical had its world premiere at the Sydney Lyric Theatre in 2014, and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, staged the first British production in December 2016 to January 2017.

When announcing his full-time move into the world of musical theatre only a week before the Covid-19 lockdown in March, Clifton said: “I’m beyond excited to be finally fulfilling a lifelong ambition to play Scott Hastings in Strictly Ballroom The Musical. When I was ten years old, I first watched the movie that would become my favourite film of all time. This is my dream role.

“Plus, I get to work with Craig Revel Horwood again. I really can’t wait to don the golden jacket and waltz all over the UK in what’s set to be an incredible show.” Now, alas, he must wait for a year longer.

Tickets for the York run are on sale at atgtickets.com/york; Bradford, “on sale soon”;  Hull, from May 15, at hulltheatres.co.uk; Sheffield, “in the autumn”.

Joanne Clifton, Kevin’s sister, as Janet Weiss in The Rocky Horror Show at the Grand Opera House, York, last June

Did you know?

KEVIN is not the only member of the Clifton dancing family of Grimsby to have graduated from Strictly champion into musicals. Sister Joanne, 36, appeared at the Grand Opera House, York, as demure flapper girl Millie Dillmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie in February 2017; combustible Pittsburgh welder and dancer Alex Owens in Flashdance in November that year and prim and proper but very corruptible Janet Weiss in The Rocky Horror Show in June 2019.

From York’s Snow White to London’s Musical Theatre Academy, Louise Henry vows to take next step

Louise Henry: From Liesl and Snow White to the musical theatre diploma at MTA in London

“FINALLYYYY the day has come that I can say this… I got into drama school!!!!!” So read Louise Henry’s ecstatic Facebook announcement that she has been accepted for the fast-track diploma course at the Musical Theatre Academy (MTA), in London, from October.

Louise, you may recall, made her professional debut in December as “York’s very own” Louise Henry – in reality from Knaresborough – playing Snow White in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at the Grand Opera House, York. From 30 auditionees, she had landed the part while working at the Hoxton North café bar in Royal Parade, Harrogate, 

In the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown, she secured her MTA place through a Zoom audition – “how bizarre,” she says – and now comes the challenge of raising the finance for her two years of musical theatre studies in Tottenham Green.

First, however, let 22-year-old Louise celebrate her good news. “Anyone who knows me will know this has been my dream forever,” she wrote at https://www.facebook.com/louise.henry.311/posts/.

“Some of the most vivid memories of my childhood are centred around shows and performing, the earliest being chosen to play Whoops A Daisy Angel in Year 1 – a role I played with absolute conviction, I’ll have you know.

Louise Henry as Shelby in York Stage’s Steel Magnolias at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, her last role before securing her place at MTA

“If I were to ask you what your wildest dream was, beyond all imagination, what would you say? Genuinely, what would it be? Mine would be to perform for a living. My heart is so happy on stage.”

Now, the bad news. “To attend this phenomenal school and receive the training I have long yearned for, I must fund the £32,000 fees with no government funding,” she revealed on Facebook.

“The MTA is not linked with a university and therefore I cannot apply for a student loan in the same way other courses can. Yes. I know. BUT, and humour me here, if every one of my 1,481 Facebook Friends generously donated £20 (or £21.70 to be precise), I would make the amount in full.”

Louise understands that such a proposal is “wishful thinking on my part”, but her Facebook post added: “However, if, by chance of incredible generosity, half, a third, or even a quarter, of said friends donated anything possible, I would be in a much more promising position to be able to attend this school.

“If people kindly donated even £1, I’m £1 closer! If you could share it to reach your friends and family further afield, my chances are immediately increased.”

Louise Henry, back left, in her role as Liesl von Trapp in York Stage Musicals’ The Sound Of Music at the Grand Opera House, York, in 2019

CharlesHutchPress is delighted to spread the word, having enjoyed Louise’s performances in such York Stage Musicals roles as 16-year-old Liesl von Trapp in The Sound Of Music and 40-year-old Jane in Twilight Robbery, as well as a young Australian woman, Gabrielle York, in Rigmarole Theatre Company’s When The Rain Stops Falling last November.

Since then, there have been her dark-wigged Princess Snow White in pantoland and her latest York Stage outing as plucky, resolute but physically fragile Louisiana bride-to-be Shelby in Steel Magnolias in February.

“We are living in such strange, difficult times,” her Facebook open letter continued. “Everything is uncertain for everyone I know and the world is suffering every day. I’m hoping, by this point in the post, that you can appreciate that I simply have to continue as if we aren’t in the middle of a global pandemic.

“Please believe me, I wish I wasn’t asking for help at a time like this. I understand and agree that there are far more worthy and important causes but I feel I have to consider the potential of my future career.

“Of course, I have spent every minute since I received my offer considering how I could logistically, carefully and respectfully raise money under the current circumstances. But making sure I abide by the Government’s restrictions is leaving me with little I can offer by way of help in exchange.

Louise Henry after she learnt she had been picked to make her professional debut as Snow White in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, last winter’s Grand Opera House pantomime .Picture: David Harrison.

“Saying this, if there really is anything – walking dogs with my gloves on, helping in the garden, an online singalong or bedtime story for your children – I will help in any way I can! Equally, if you have any suggestions, please send them my way! Once these restrictions are lifted and we are all much less at risk I will, of course, help in any way possible.”

Summing up her situation, Louise says: “I have to be optimistic in that I don’t know who’s hands/Facebook timeline the post might fall into. I’m doing all I can to make this dream a reality, and that means, for me personally, asking kindly for any help I can get.”

To assist Louise, go to gofundme.com/f/mta-musical-theatre-training.

“My first love has always been musical theatre,” says MTA-bound Louise

Charles Hutchinson puts the questions to Louise Henry as she chases her acting dream and the means to secure that future

WHAT attracted you to MTA in particular? How long will you be studying there and what are your hopes and expectations with this course, Louise?

“MTA’s diploma is only a two-year course and so your training is intensified throughout this time.  

“The school only accepts 22 students per year and, therefore, you’re in a very elite group of performers, and the contact time, as with many drama schools, is incredibly high at 40 hours per week.

“Equally, the course is split 50/50, 50 per cent focused on stage and 50 per cent on screen acting, which is always something I have wanted to study alongside musical theatre. Everything I read about MTA made me feel as though the course would fully prepare you to be a triple-threat musical theatre performer, but also be trained thoroughly as a screen actor.” 

Louise Henry as a young Australian woman, Gabrielle York, in Rigmarole Theatre Company’s When The Rain Stops Falling at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, last autumn

What steps did you have to go through to land a place at MTA?

“The audition process was obviously very different to that I’m used to: the lockdown implemented by the Government on the outbreak of Covid-19 meant that travelling to the audition would be impossible and potentially very dangerous.

“I soon received an email from Annemarie [Lewis Thomas], the school’s principal, who stated that the auditions would go ahead regardless and instead be held over Zoom, which I was actually very excited about as it would be a totally different experience!

“When the day came, I set up my laptop in my bedroom and had prepared the monologue and song I’d have taken to the audition anyway and from then on it was actually very simple!

“It felt much less daunting than actually being in the room, and I suppose if that translates through people’s auditions it would make the panel’s decision much easier in that it’s based off a very true and honest performance.

“We were even able to do some improv over Zoom with the other auditionees, which was such an interesting experience, led by their head of acting, Tilly Vosburgh, and a group vocal workshop with the head of voice, Josh Mathieson.

“They work very quickly there and so once I had sent in a dance audition – to a song of my choice – I heard back within about 24 hours actually! It was record timing and meant I didn’t spend two anxious weeks refreshing my emails – a feeling I’d grown used to over the past few years’ auditioning.”

Louise Henry playing Liesl von Trapp in York Stage Musicals’ The Sound Of Music

Over the past year, you have done a variety of roles on the York stage – musicals, a pantomime, an Aussie play, an American play – showing an all-round talent. Why pick a musical theatre course?

“My first love has always been musical theatre and was initially what I wanted to study straight out of A-Levels. However, it felt as though my dance ability was always letting me down and so I spent a few years going to dance classes with Lyndsay Wells in Harrogate and instead chose to audition for a few years for straight acting. “That being said, singing and acting have always been my strong point and so musical theatre was always my preference.

“Working with Nik Briggs’s York Stage has been invaluable and being able to perform in a few predominantly acting roles has been a great opportunity to exercise that skill without relying on song and dance.

“Equally, working in the Grand Opera House pantomime over Christmas only intensified my drive to pursue musical theatre and so, on being recommended the MTA, I felt led to audition.” 

Louise Henry’s Princess Snow White lies prone after biting the poison-drugged apple in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at the Grand Opera House, as the distraught dwarfs and Martin Daniels’ Muddles, right, look on. Picture: David Harrison.

What did you learn from making your professional debut in the 2019-2020 Grand Opera House pantomime?

“Performing in the pantomime was such a brilliant insight to the kind of life I could be working towards. Every day I would try to remind myself that actually soon it would be over and everyday life would assume, and in actual fact you don’t go through every day singing and dancing and dressing up!

“I constantly allowed myself to feel grateful for each performance and despite the intense hard work put into every show, I never tired of performing it. In fact, I really wish we could’ve had more shows somehow crammed into that mad month!

“It taught me that performances can be put together under your very nose and all of a sudden your show is ready and you’re opening. It also taught me that the illusion of a show is one of the most magical and fulfilling experiences for both the performer and the audience member.

“There was no better feeling than getting to the end of the show and being able to see our audiences dancing in the aisles and singing along with us. I’m just really grateful I had that experience and insight to what my life could be like – with a lot of hard work and luck obviously!”

Louise Henry as Princess Snow White, before the dark wig was added, at the press day to launch Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Picture: David Harrison

How did it feel playing the title role in your professional debut in Snow White?

“Playing the title role was a little bit of a shellshock experience every day really; everyone else I was working with – even the incredible children playing the dwarves – had worked a panto run previously, so I was a total newbie.

“The cast and crew made me feel so welcome and I learnt so much from the friends I made. There was also something pretty lovely in that, because I wore the black wig, which was in total contrast to my hair at the time, very few people recognised me leaving the stage door. This was nice as it kind of protected the magic of the show for the kids who had come to watch.” 

Louise Henry, right, front, with fellow Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs cast members Mark Little, left, Steve Wickenden, Martin Daniels, Jonny Muir and Vicki Michelle at the Grand Opera House, York. Picture by David Harrison.

Did you pick up any good tips from the old pros in the company such as Vicki Michelle, Martin Daniels and Mark Little?

“Working so closely with Vicki, Martin and Mark was incredibly insightful and I got so many opportunities to chat with them about their experiences with performing and acting.

“Mark and I were interviewed by BBC Radio York at the same time and so we had a good chat that morning about his career and I spoke to him about how different things are now, in terms of getting into performing.

“Everyone was so encouraging and supportive, they were always spurring me on to try and keep working for this career. It was incredible watching the show being put together and acting with them was a real joy.” 

Louise Henry as Shelby in Steel Magnolias: “Probably my favourite show I’ve ever been involved with,” she says

How had your year gone before lockdown, on stage and off?

“Before lockdown, I was applying to any auditions I could find via the National Youth Theatre member’s board, having been a member since 2015 when I was lucky enough to be invited to attend their intensive summer-school course.

“I sent off applications for a film in which I was cast as an extra, so drove down to London to film for a couple of days in February. That was a fab experience and something I’d never done before.

“I auditioned to attend a workshop with Katie Greenall, a National Youth Theatre associate, and was asked to go down and work for three days on an idea of a performance she is devising.

“I had a couple of auditions and recalls for National Youth Theatre’s REP company, and throughout all the trips to and from London I was working on Steel Magnolias back in York with York Stage.

“This was probably my favourite show I’ve ever been involved with, from the incredible cast I was lucky enough to work with, to the direction and production of the play.

“I just feel so grateful that it came together and we could perform before this  lockdown was implemented. So, actually, I had quite a busy few months!”

“I’ve been training my family in ‘bootcamp’ sessions three times a week, then one big workout on a Sunday morning,” says Louise of her lockdown routine

How are you coping with lockdown?

“Lockdown has been a little bizarre and definitely an adjustment. But I really do love a routine, so once I’d established my routine at home, I got comfortable very quickly! “I love exercise and training in different ways, so I’ve been training my family in ‘bootcamp’ sessions three times a week, then one big workout on a Sunday morning.

“I’ve been creating workouts for three friends separately and doing many Zoom dance classes and yoga sessions. It’s probably the most active I’ve ever been! “Alongside this, I’ve been trying to learn a new song each week, focusing on songs that I wouldn’t usually go for. I try and sing these when my family are out walking, so I don’t deafen them with a loud belt!

“Obviously, I had a lot of preparation for my audition and also was asked by Nik [Briggs] at York Stage to get involved with his Songs From The Settee, singing Doctor’s Orders from Catch Me If You Can.

“I’m really glad to have the offer from MTA, so it feels like I have something to work towards once this is all over.”

Louise Henry, top left, in a promotional picture for York Stage’s Steel Magnolias

What would going to MTA mean to you after all the work you have put in already to develop your skills?

“I’m not going to lie… it’s been a long few years, auditioning to train at drama school, and it has always felt really gutting to have not secured a place despite usually getting to final recalls.

“Every time you feel so close and then can’t help but wonder what it is you were lacking? Or if they already have ‘x’ amount of 5’6 females with brunette hair? You hear that it can be down to issues that small, and it becomes really frustrating trying to pinpoint what it was about you that they didn’t want.

“So, this year, to finally secure a place, in the middle of so much uncertainty, I really feel overwhelmed by it! I know it is so clichéd but this is really my one dream to try and achieve making a career of performing, so the place at MTA, I believe, is the first step towards that dream becoming reality.

“I can’t put into words what it was like finally seeing ‘we are delighted to inform you…’ on my acceptance email. I ran downstairs screaming; I feel bad for my neighbours!”

“Your whole chest is just full and you feel like you might just ‘Mary Poppins’ it at any second and take off,” says Louise Henry, describing her love of performing

It may be an obvious question, but what makes you want to be an actor?

“Not at all an obvious question as I have absolutely had moments over the years of ‘oh god, why am I doing this?’. ‘Why am I putting myself through this?’. But quite simply, there’s no better feeling to me than being on stage and performing.

“I don’t know how I can describe this concisely, but there’s a feeling I get when I’m taking my bow or at the end of a run or in the ‘big bit’ of a song and it’s just like you’ve won the marathon or the lottery or you’re reunited with someone, and your whole chest is just full and you feel like you might just ‘Mary Poppins’ it at any second and take off.

“And that feeling to me makes everything else worth it. It’s massive lows but MASSIVE highs and for some peculiar reason the highs make you forget all the lows.

“It’s all I could ever see myself doing, and I would regret it forever if I didn’t throw myself at it and give it everything I have.” 

Grim question: If you can’t get the money together, what happens to your plans to go to MTA?

“Interesting. I suppose I can’t really answer this, as that simply isn’t an option for me. I will, and am, doing everything I possibly can, given the current circumstances, and I truly believe I will make this work.

“To me, there is really no alternative: this training is all I have longed for over the past four years. Obviously, so far, I have received some wonderful and incredibly generous help from friends and family, and alongside that I’m saving every penny and plan to work alongside my course.”

No turning back: Louise Henry, pictured in the promotional shots for Steel Magnolias, is determined to take up her place at the Musical Theatre Academy in London in October

“I plan on creating a series of videos, mini-performances of songs or spoken word to post online hopefully for the viewer’s enjoyment – which might encourage people to donate whatever they can.

“The payments are termly and so that breaks down the sum, and I’m incredibly lucky as the MTA are very keen on not letting money be an issue between you attending the course.

“As I said, they choose only 22 students per year and so they have spent a lot of time in selecting who they truly want to train. Not only is this a real honour to have been offered a place, but it also reassures me that the school wants me there. There’s no better feeling after working so hard over the years.” 

Expect peak performance from Sir Ranulph Fiennes at York Barbican next March

SIR Ranulph Fiennes’s destination on March 24 2021 will be York Barbican, his mission to deliver his live show Living Dangerously for the third time in the city. 

Named by the Guinness Book of Records as “the world’s greatest living explorer” and in Burke’s Peerage as Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet of Banbury,  he has spent his life in pursuit of extreme adventure, risking life and limb in “some of the most ambitious private expeditions ever undertaken”.

Among his many record-breaking achievements, he was the first explorer to reach both the North and South Poles, the first to cross the Antarctic and the Arctic Ocean, and the first to circumnavigate the Earth’s surface along its polar axis.

In Living Dangerously, Sir Ranulph, takes a journey through his life, from his early years to the present day. Both light-hearted and poignant, the show revisits the 76-year-old explorer’s childhood and school misdemeanours, his army life and early expeditions.

He will share insights into his transglobal expedition and his present global reach challenge:  his goal to become the first person in the world to cross both polar ice caps and climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents.

Sir Ranulph presented Living Dangerously previously in York at the Grand Opera House in July 2018 and June 2019.

Tickets for his 2021 return go on sale on Friday, April 24 at 10am at yorkbarbican.co.uk.

We Will Rock You will rock you in 2021 with rearranged tour and new York shows

We Will Still Rock You: The Queen and Ben Elton musical will rise again in 2021

THE 2020 tour of We Will Rock You bit the dust with the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown, but the show must go on for the Queen and Ben Elton musical.

Not only have many of the original dates been re-scheduled for 2021, but several venues have been added too, not least the Grand Opera House, York, for a run from March 22 to 27.

“The producers did not want to disappoint fans who had bought tickets, so they have been working hard to reschedule as many of the shows as possible, giving people something to look forward to in these unsettling times,” says the official statement.

“We are delighted to announce the good news that the musical extravaganza will once again rock theatres across the UK from January next year, playing many of the original 2020 dates and several additional venues too.”

Kicking off in Cardiff on January 18 2021, the tour will then play Milton Keynes; Southend; Stoke; Bristol; Wimbledon; Bournemouth; Ipswich; Bromley; York; Newcastle; Northampton; Peterborough; Norwich; Reading; Liverpool; Birmingham and Southsea, with more dates to follow. Details of how to exchange tickets will follow in the coming weeks.

Queen guitarist Brian May said: “Happy to say our magnificent UK tour of We Will Rock You, the rock theatrical, will rise again. The Coronavirus has had us all on the run, but live theatre will win in the end. Keep hold of your bookings and the vibe will be yours in 2021.”

Drummer Roger Taylor added: “This is great news, I’m so pleased to see the show on the road again.”

Writer Ben Elton agreed: “I was so pleased to get the great news that We Will Rock You is to be remounted next year, after being forced to close mid-tour, and I hope Queen’s incredible music can help to make us feel like champions again.”

Tickets for the York run are on sale at atgtickets.com/york.

Doors shut, stage silent, but the Grand Opera House has a habit of bouncing back

The Grand Opera House sign for these Coronavirus lockdown days

TODAY is World Theatre Day, although the day-to-day world of theatre has ground to a shuddering halt, its stages silenced by the Coronavirus pandemic.

Nevertheless, today is still the chance to celebrate Shakespeare’s sentiment in As You Like It that “All the world’s a stage”.

Shakespeare’s Melancholy Jaques went on to mull over exits and entrances, how one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. Let’s turn that life model to theatre itself, and none more so than the Grand Opera House in York, a theatre, a building, a site, that has been through so many ages, so many stages, that seven would be an underestimate.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who appeared at the Empire Theatre, York, on March 22 1954

Its life before theatre can be traced back to 71AD as part of the Roman Quayside; 450AD, a nunnery; and Victorian days as a “sink or stew”, brothels, crowded slum housing, until the area was cleaned.

The Grand Opera House building in Cumberland Street began life as a Corn Exchange, designed in 1868 by architect G A Dean to double as a concert room, hence an ornate blue/vermillion/ gold gilding colour scheme.

Conversion to a 1,540-capacity theatre followed in 1901, undertaken by theatrical manager William Peacock, who presented the first performance at the Grand Theatre and Opera House, as it was first named, on January 20 1902 when Australian music hall entertainer Florrie Forde starred in Little Red Riding Hood.

The SS Empire, pictured in the 1970s. Note the Roller Skating sign

The 1916 introduction of the Amusement Tax was not amusing, putting all theatres at risk, but The Empire, as it was now known, survived. Charlie Chaplin, Gracie Fields, Lillie Langtry and Marie Lloyd played there; so too, later, did Vera Lynn, Laurel and Hardy, on their last tour, and Morecambe and Wise.

A huge rates increase in 1945 ruined the theatre, forcing Marie Blanche, Peacock’s daughter, to end 44 years of family ownership by selling it to F.J. Butterworth. Audiences declined against the competition of television, to the point where the theatre closed in 1956, blaming the “crippling entertainment tax, when TV pays no tax”.

Ernest Shepherd of Shambles acquired the theatre in 1958, duly adding the ‘S’ and ‘S’ to the Empire name, removing the stage and levelling the stalls floor for roller-skating, wrestling and bingo.

Special knight, special night: Sir Ian McKellen in Ian McKellen On Stage With Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others…And You! at the Grand Opera House, York, last June

The end of Empire days came in 1985, but after the India Pru Company acquired the building in 1987,   Henley-on-Thames architect Gordon J Claridge was given the brief to restore it to its 1909 glory. The Art Nouveau wallpaper was copied; the chandelier duplicated; the carpets rewoven from the original pattern with the Grand Opera House motif added to the design.

Stalls boxes were restored and a new stage built; the Clifford Street entrance was turned into a box office; Cumberland Street became the main entrance. The £4 million renovation complete, the theatre re-opened on September 26 1989 as the Grand Opera House, but tempted fate by presenting Macbeth – traditionally a harbinger of bad luck in the theatre world – as the first production, 33 years since the last professional stage performance.

Only two years later, the theatre closed suddenly, staff arriving to find the doors locked, as the curse of Macbeth did indeed strike.

E&B Productions brought to an end two and a half years of darkness after acquiring the premises for a nominal sum, re-opening the theatre on February 26 1993, since when the Grand Opera House has remained open, hindered only occasionally by the River Ouse in flood.

From Strictly Come Dancing to Strictly Ballroom: Kevin Clifton is to star in his dream role of Scott Hastings at the Grand Opera House, York, in November 2020

The theatre’s ownership passed from E&B Productions to Apollo Leisure in 1995 and American company SFX in 1999. After SFX merged with Clear Channel in 2000, and later set up a new company, Live Nation, to focus on live entertainment, in 2006, the latest change of hands came in 2010 when Britain’s largest owner/operator of theatres, the Ambassador Theatre Group added the York theatre to their roster.

The ownership baton may be passed on, but each has favoured a programme of lavish musicals, often straight from the West End; stand-up comedy; opera; ballet; dance; concerts; tribute acts; celebrity talks; classic theatre; new plays; in-house youth theatre summer projects; myriad shows by York stage companies and a star-studded commercial pantomime each Christmas.

Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, Cabaret, Chicago, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Rocky Horror Show, Blood Brothers, Legally Blonde and Once The Musical; the Royal Shakespeare Company in The Winter’s Tale; the National Theatre’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, Hedda Gabler and Jane Eyre; The Waterboys, Antony & The Johnsons, Adele at 19, Echo & The Bunnymen; Ken Dodd so many times, Danny La Rue, Ross Noble, Jimmy Carr, Paul Merton, Julian Clary; Sir Ian McKellen, on his 80th birthday solo tour. The list goes on…

Dame Berwick Kaler with his pantomime co-stars AJ Powell, left, Suzy Cooper, David Leonard and Martin Barrass at the launch of Dick Turpin Rides Again at the Grand Opera House, York, on February 14. Picture: David Harrison

In the deepening shadow of Coronavirus, we await to discover when that list will start up again, but let us hope that once more we can gather for such upcoming shows as The Commitments, from October 26 to 31 and Strictly Ballroom, with Strictly Come Dancing’s Kevin Clifton, from November 23 to 28.

Come the winter, all eyes will be on Berwick Kaler as the grand old dame of York becomes the Grand’s new dame after his crosstown transfer, with villain David Leonard, perennial principal girl Suzy Cooper, comic stooge Martin Barrass and luverly Brummie A J Powell in tow, for Dick Turpin Rides Again from December 12 to January 10.

There to greet them and you, unmoved by the tide of theatre history, will be the Grand Opera House ghost: a nun in the Dress Circle.

Happy World Theatre Day, but happier still when theatre days and nights can return.

Charles Hutchinson

Lights out, but what are York’s theatres doing to keep the fat lady singer at bay?

“Critical situation”: Dark nights, dark days too, at York Theatre Royal until further notice

CLOSED. Closed. Closed. Closed. Closed. York’s theatres have shut down en masse in response to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Monday briefing on Black Monday to avoid unnecessary social contact at pubs, clubs and theatres.

One by one came the measured official statements in response to the rising Coronavirus pandemic, announced with regret, sadness and heavy hearts.

By way of contrast, a tide of anger rose ever higher on social media from the entertainment industry, feeling shafted by the PM not legislating closure, merely advising it.

In doing so, he placed the decision in the (no doubt frequently washed) hands  of theatre managements, boards and trusts, whose sense of moral responsibility left no option but to announce closure until further notice as a precaution amid the Coronavirus crisis. When insurance effectively amounts to no insurance, hell by hand cart is the only journey in town.

Lights out: Ellen Kent Company’s La Boheme, at the Grand Opera House tomorrow is snuffed out by the Prime Minister’s Coronavirus dictum

The Grand National, the first post-Brexit Eurovision, the Chelsea Flower Show, Glastonbury Festival, the Euro 2020 football championships, are all scrapped for 2020. A tsunami of further announcements will follow, not least from theatre companies cancelling or postponing tours.

Keep Calm and Carry On may be the mantra, but the fear is that Keep Calm and Carry On may well turn to carrion on account of, well, the accounts.

York Theatre Royal, in St Leonard’s Place, Theatre @41 Monkgate, the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, in Haxby Road, and Riding Lights Theatre Company’s Friargate Theatre, in Lower Friargate, have individual boards and managements addressing urgent, previously unimaginable requirements and strictures.

Likewise, the Ambassadors Theatre Group, owners of the Grand Opera House, is co-ordinating the Coronavirus-impacted strategy throughout ATG, making statements for the Cumberland Street theatre, whose staff are now working remotely from home.

Clock stopped: PIck Me Up Theatre’s Tom’s Midnight Garden was curtailed after Monday’s performance at Theatre @ 41 Monkgate, York

These are unprecedented circumstances. Circumstances not even seen in wartime when theatres – some, not all – across the land stayed open through 1939 to 1945.

Circumstances where the new C-word has led to theatre after theatre – together with cinemas, music clubs, museums, galleries, visitor attractions, SparkYork, et al – to issue variations on: “It is with enormous sadness that we take these measures, but the safety of our audiences, staff and community is of utmost importance.”

So, where does each of these York theatres stand now, in a city where, like the rest, the theatre focus is turning to those of the medical variety? The best advice is to visit the theatre websites for information on the present closures, ticket refunds, and, in light of the harsh financial reality, Donate Today requests. “Your support is vital to our survival,” pleads York Theatre Royal bluntly.

A spokesman for the Theatre Royal – take it as read that it was executive director Tom Bird – said: “The closure of theatres in the UK puts York Theatre Royal, along with hundreds of other theatres, into a critical situation.”

Road closed: Riding Lights Theatre Company have had give up The Narrow Road tour for Lent

Does that make it theatre’s version of the intensive care unit? Time will tell, but the arts have a way of defying the last rites, always have, always will, keeping the fat lady singer waiting, the final curtain up in the flies. What they will make of Richmond Rishi’s £330 billion loan scheme is another discussion point for the in-tray, however.

In a nutshell, York Theatre Royal’s shows and public events initially are cancelled until April 11, but there surely will be no miraculous resurrection on Easter Sunday. The York Theatre Royal building, box office and café remained open initially, but the building closed to the public today (March 19). The box office is still taking phone calls on 01904 623568; ticket refunds are underway.

Shows at the Grand Opera House, in common with all Ambassadors Theatre Group theatres, are “temporarily suspended with immediate effect”, with a policy of postponement and future re-arranged dates to be confirmed, rather than cancellations, at this stage.

“We are following government guidance which is currently ambiguous,” say ATG. “It is unclear how long theatres are to remain closed. We will reopen them once the government and medical authorities confirm that there is no risk to our audiences, performers and staff. 

The Missing Peace: one of the now missing pieces at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, but with plans for re-arranged dates later

“We are working hard with our producers and performers to understand how this will play out, so we can’t confirm that at this time. We will try, wherever possible, to re-programme shows that have been suspended.”

The Joseph Rowntree Theatre will remain closed “until we receive further instruction that it is safe to reopen”. “We will be issuing further advice in the coming days on how we are going to manage ticket refunds and exchanges,” says trust chairman Dan Shrimpton. “We would ask that you please bear with us and wait for us to contact you.”

The Theatre @41 Monkgate website is yet to be updated following Monday’s Coronavirus ultimatum – the About Us section has Covid-19 Guidance from before – but Pick Me Up Theatre artistic director Robert Readman announced performances would cease after Tom’s Midnight Garden that evening.

He also cancelled Pick Me Up’s Sondheim 90 birthday concert this Sunday and the April 17 to 25 run of The Pirates Of Penzance. Be assured that Coronavirus has been the death of York Shakespeare Project’s Macbeth from March 31 to April 4 too.

Riding Lights, York’s Christian theatre company based at Friargate Theatre, have cancelled their March 16 to April 11 tour of The Narrow Road. “We are very sorry not to be performing this Lent but wish you a happy and safe Easter,” their website says.

Meanwhile, prayers and thoughts go to all those working in the theatres at York Hospital and elsewhere, preparing for whatever is to come.

Copyright of The Press, York

Grand Opera House, York, suspends all shows with immediate effect, but Tom’s Midnight Garden goes ahead tonight at Theatre @41 Monkgate

Lights out: Ellen Kent Company’s La Boheme at the Grand Opera House on Friday falls victim to Coronavirus social contact measures

THE Grand Opera House, York, is suspending all shows with immediate effect in light of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Coronavirus statement to “avoid unnecessary social contact”.

Mark Cornell, group chief executive officer of the Ambassador Theatre Group, the theatre’s owners, has issued a group-wide statement. “In response to the Prime Minister’s statement this evening, advising the UK public to avoid unnecessary social contact, including in theatres, we regret to inform you that shows in all Ambassador Theatre Group UK venues are temporarily suspended with immediate effect,” he said.

“We understand that this decision comes as a disappointment, and a massive inconvenience for those of you already on the way to a venue this evening, but ultimately we all want the same thing: the health and safety of our communities, and we believe this is the correct decision to make.”

Mr Cornell’s statement continued: “Given the current ambiguity and lack of clarity as to how long our theatres may be closed for, we hope to provide you with an update within the next 48 hours regarding the exchange of tickets. We will be consulting with industry bodies including the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre and the government over the immediate future. 

“For now, we would like to thank you for your understanding and patience, and to recognise the incredible efforts and support of producers, artists, partners and customers over this difficult period.”

The Grand Opera House has no show tonight, but Round The Horne is in the diary for Wednesday; Psychic Sally, 10 Years And Counting for Thursday; Ellen Kent Company’s La Boheme for Friday and Madama Butterfly for Saturday, and the musical Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story for March 24 to 28.

Meanwhile, Tom Bird, executive director of York Theatre Royal, was holding a meeting this evening. A statement will follow.

Still on…then off: Jimmy Dalgleish as Tom, left, Olivia Caley as Hattie and Jack Hambleton asTom in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Tom’s Midnight Garden. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

Tonight’s 7.30pm performance of Tom’s Midnight Garden at the John Cooper Studio, Theatre @41 Monkate, York IS going ahead, but Pick Me Up Theatre artistic director Robert Readman will call off this week’s run after that.

His Twitter statement at 6.38pm this evening read: “In light of the Government’s latest measures, we will be closing Tom’s Midnight Garden after tonight’s show. Do come if you have tix for another day and we will accommodate as many as possible. We are also sad to announce the postponement of Sondheim 90 and The Pirates Of Penzance. “

Sondheim 90: A Birthday Concert, in celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday was to have taken place on Sunday; Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates Of Penzance from April 17 to 25, both at 41 Monkgate.

Strictly speaking, Kevin Clifton WILL still be in Strictly. Here’s why…

From Strictly to Strictly Ballroom: Kevin Clifton in his dream role as Scott Hastings. Picture: Dave Hogan

KEVIN Clifton will still be in Strictly after all this year…and next year too.

Not the 2020 series of Strictly Come Dancing, but the 2020/2021 UK and Ireland tour of Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom The Musical, directed by Strictly judge Craig Revel Horwood, no less.

“Kevin from Grimsby”, 37, will play his dream role of Scott Hastings, with Yorkshire dates in York, Hull, Sheffield and Bradford, after the 2018 Strictly champion announced his exit last week from BBC One’s ballroom dance show, ending  seven seasons in annual pursuit of the glitter ball trophy.

“I really can’t wait to don the golden jacket ,” says Kevin Clifton

Clifton is making a full-time move into the world of musical theatre, kicking off with the musical version of the 1992 Australian film that so inspired him in childhood days in Grimsby.

“I’m beyond excited to be finally fulfilling a lifelong ambition to play Scott Hastings in Strictly Ballroom The Musical,” he says.  “When I was ten years old, I first watched the movie that would become my favourite film of all time. This is my dream role.

“Plus, I get to work with Craig Revel Horwood again.  I really can’t wait to don the golden jacket and waltz all over the UK from September this year in what’s set to be an incredible show.”

Craig Revel Horwood: directing Kevin Clifton in Strictly Ballroom. Picture: Ray Burmiston

On tour from September 26 to June 26 2021, Strictly Ballroom will visit the Grand Opera House, York, from November 23 to 28, as well as Hull New Theatre, October 12 to 17; Sheffield Lyceum Theatre, April 12 to 17 2021, and Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, May 31 to June 5 2021.

Clifton joined Strictly Come Dancing in 2013, performing in the final five times, missing out only in 2017 and 2019, and was crowned Strictly champion in 2018 with celebrity partner Stacey Dooley, the BBC documentary filmmaker, presenter and journalist.

A former youth world number one and four-time British Latin Champion, Clifton has won international open titles all over the world. After making his West End musical theatre debut in 2010 in Dirty Dancing, he starred as Robbie Hart in The Wedding Singer at Wembley Troubadour Park Theatre and as rock demigod Stacie Jaxx in the satirical Eighties’ poodle-rock musical Rock Of Ages in the West End, a role that also brought him to Leeds Grand Theatre last August.

Kevin Clifton as Stacee Jaxx in Rock Of Ages at Leeds Grand Theatre in 2019

Clifton last performed at the Grand Opera House, York, in the ballroom dance show Burn The Floor last May.

Strictly Ballroom The Musical tells the story of Scott Hastings, a talented, arrogant and rebellious young Aussie ballroom dancer. When his radical dance moves lead to him falling out of favour with the Australian Dance Federation, he finds himself dancing with Fran, a beginner with no moves at all.

Inspired by one another, this unlikely pair gathers the courage to defy both convention and family and discover that, to be winners, the steps don’t need to be strictly ballroom.

Sam Lips as Scott Hastings and Gemma Sutton as Fran in the British premiere of Strictly Ballroom The Musical at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, in 2016/2017. Picture: Alastair Muir

Featuring a book by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, the show features a cast of 20 and combines such familiar numbers as Love Is In The Air, Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps and Time After Time with songs by Sia, David Foster and Eddie Perfect.

Strictly Ballroom began as an uplifting, courageous stage play that Luhrmann devised with a group of classmates at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art in Australia in 1984. Eight years later, he made his screen directorial debut with Strictly Ballroom as the first instalment in his Red Curtain Trilogy.

The film won three 1993 BAFTA awards and received a 1994 Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture. Strictly Ballroom The Musical had its world premiere at the Sydney Lyric Theatre in 2014, and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, staged the first British production in December 2016 to January 2017.

Joanne Clifton, Kevin’s sister, as Janet Weiss in The Rocky Horror Show at the Grand Opera House, York, last June

Kevin is not the only member of the Clifton dancing family of Grimsby to have graduated from Strictly champion into musicals. Sister Joanne, 36, appeared at the Grand Opera House, York, as demure flapper girl Millie Dillmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie in February 2017; combustible Pittsburgh welder and dancer Alex Owens in Flashdance in November that year and prim and proper but very corruptible Janet Weiss in The Rocky Horror Show in June 2019.

York tickets are on sale on 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york; Hull, 01482 300306 or hulltheatres.co.uk. Sheffield and Bradford tickets will be available soon.

Bohemian Paris, snow machines and a dog combine in Ellen Kent’s La Bohème

Ellen Kent’s production of La Boheme: lighting up the Grand Opera House, York, on March 20

OPERA producer and director Ellen Kent returns to the Grand Opera House, York, with a brace of Puccini productions next week.

Under the Opera International umbrella, she presents La Bohème on March 20 and Madama Butterfly the following night, with sopranos Elena Dee, from Korea, and Alyona Kistenyova, from Odessa National Opera, billed for the 7.30pm performances, subject to cast changes.

Ukrainian tenor and former military pilot Vitalii Liskovetskyi, from the Kiev National Opera, will be reprising his role as Rodolfo in La Bohème; Spanish tenor Giorgio Meladze, who sang with José Carreras in 2014, plays Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly; Moldovan baritone Iurie Gisca will be singing Marcello in La Bohème.

Soprano Marina Tonina takes the role of Musetta in La Bohème and both productions will feature a full chorus, orchestra and sumptuous sets and be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Set in the backstreets and attics of bohemian Paris, La Bohème tells the tragic tale of the doomed romance of consumptive seamstress Mimi and penniless Rodolfo.

Madama Butterfly’s heat-breaking story of the beautiful young Japanese girl who falls in love with an American naval lieutenant, with entirely predictable consequences in the world of opera, will be staged with a Japanese garden and antique wedding kiminos.

Tickets are on sale on 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york.

Look out for the dog in Ellen Kent’s La Boheme next week

Here, Ellen Kent answers questions on her 2020 production of Puccini’s opera of love and loss, La Bohème, a touring show inspired by Ellen reading George Orwell’s Down And Out In Paris.

What can the Grand Opera House audience expect from your production, Ellen?

I like to provide shows at a very high level and I like large productions, so the feel is very much of a big show.

I try to put everything into it, from the sets to the artists on the stage, and I like to add things. For example, with La Bohème, I have these fabulous visuals. I’m a very visual director and producer, so I give audiences the whole package.

The overall experience is of something that is very beautiful, with gorgeous and spectacular sets. The curtain goes up and, depending on the opera of course, I want the audience to feel the ‘Wow’ factor. The sets have got to be beautiful and I like to wrap something visually stunning around the plot.”

How are you staging La Bohème?

It’s set in the French Impressionist period, so my sets reflect that. For instance, I’ve gone for a beautiful Chagall and Renoir feel and it’s quite stunning. You get this beautiful French Impressionist flavour and everything is done to serve that, so when you look at it, it’s a bit like an Impressionist painting.

I like to dress my sets, so in La Bohème, for instance, Act One is set in an attic and it’s got all these wonderful rooftops, as if they’ve been painted by one of the great French artists.

Then I like to add something more realistic, so you have this sort of Impressionist painting but we’ve also got windows lit up and we have smoke coming out of a few of the chimneys.

I’ve got a human skeleton – though not a real one of course – which I’ve dressed with a hat and a scarf. We also have a dog on stage; a brass band; snow machines; a carnival effect; the cafe with waiters running around, a market stall.

“I want the audience to feel the ‘Wow’ factor ,” says opera producer and director Ellen Kent

The whole thing is a visual feast and I always like to draw on the period an opera is set in. I do have an Eiffel Tower, which of course was built later, but that’s a bit of poetic licence.” 

Why is La Bohème so beloved?

With [Jonathan Larson’s American musical] Rent basing itself on La Bohème, for example, people use Puccini’s operas as benchmarks to build modern musicals on, which shows how strong the stories and themes in his operas are.

The music is beloved because it’s so great and La Bohème is my personal favourite because you have this poignant story wrapped around this fabulous music. There’s something rather special about Puccini’s scores and the stories that go with them are very well constructed. Some of what the characters sing is heart-rending, and people love tragedy.

La Bohème is a very sad little story and it’s got Puccini’s wonderful music and moments of great poignancy. There’s something about the violins that brings up those goosebumps and goes straight to your soul.

“It also has a lot of comedy, which I like to bring out. Opera should be giving you the whole deal – wonderful music, gripping storylines – and these two really deliver.” 

How does La Bohème fit into the timeline of Puccini’s work?

Like Verdi, he started off with these great Biblical-style operas, such as Turandot, for instance. They’re big storylines, not necessarily personal dramas. Then everything changed around the 1830s, when realism and domestic storylines became fashionable.

“Puccini jumped on to the bandwagon. La Bohème is about a domestic tragedy and it is complete realism. It’s about very poor people living in the deprived parts of Paris: these artisans and poets starving in garrets and living in mindless poverty.” 

Has Rent opened up La Bohème to new audiences?

“Yes. I tend to take a musical theatre approach to operas, with lavish visuals, and I get a lot of people coming to the shows who haven’t been to an opera before but they’ve seen big musicals like Miss Saigon or Rent. I firmly believe in opening up opera to the masses.” 

Your production will be sung in Italian with surtitles, rather than in English. Does that reflect the purist in you?

I can’t stand operas in English! I am a purist in that regard; you start putting them into English and the whole sound changes. Puccini wrote with Italian vowels, and when you’re singing, you need that Italian in the voice, instead of clipped British intonations. “And, of course, surtitles open opera up to the masses and they’re much better than just having a synopsis in the programme.

We do that too, but the actual words used are poetic and moving. The librettos are extremely good pieces of writing and you get all this emotion coming out of the words, matched by the emotion coming out of the music. You put those two together and the audience gets a much better experience.” 

” I can’t stand operas in English!” says Ellen Kent. “I am a purist in that regard; you start putting them into English and the whole sound changes “

What first sparked your love of opera?

I was born in India to a colonial father and my mother was known as the queen of amateur operatics in Bombay. My mother loved producing and putting on shows – and they were really good, actually.

She managed to put me into every single opera from about the age of four. I’d be dressed in these wonderful costumes and I loved it. Then we moved to Spain and we’d go see all the – rather bad – travelling operas.

That said, from the age of six, I declared I wanted to be a film star. Eventually, after my father had retired, I enrolled at Durham University to do a degree in Classics to appease him because he insisted ‘You’ve got to have some academic education’.

“I don’t regret doing that degree now because it’s given me a wonderful background for all the operas I’m doing. After I finished my degree, I went to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, trained as an actress, singer and dancer, because although I got a place at the Royal Academy of Music to go be an opera singer, I decided it was too narrow a field.” 

What happened after you left theatre school?

I went on to acting and musicals and was putting on European children’s theatre when Rochester City Council, who were among the people funding me, asked me to put on a children’s show in Rochester Castle gardens.

I don’t know where these notions come from, but I found myself saying, ‘I don’t think that’s really suitable but opera might work’. So, that’s how it all started, with an outdoor production of Nabuccoin 1992 to 7,000 people.

I remember the sun sinking over the River Medway with all these people having picnics. We had champagne tents, candelabras, the whole works, and I thought, ‘this is what I want to do. It’s fantastic. I’m going to do opera’. Since then, it’s been a series of wonderful adventures.” 

Why is it important to take opera to regional theatres?

“I’m quite an instinctive person so, although I never really thought it through, I just knew audiences in the regions would be hungry for opera. And why go to London when you have these wonderful sites – these outdoor arenas and lovely big theatres – all around the country?

“I felt that half the population didn’t know how wonderful these works were and I’ve never changed my concept of it. The regions are where these shows need to be.”

REVIEW: What’s the secret to Ghost Stories’ success at Grand Opera House?

Ghost Stories from the past: lecturer Professor Goodman making a point (when Simon Lipkin played the role in London in this picture)

REVIEW: Ghost Stories, presented by Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, scaring all and sundry at Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york

IT is not every play day that the writers send out a polite request to reviewers, and normally it would be a red rag to that most bullish of breeds: the hacked-off hack.

However, the seriously bearded duo of Andy Nyman and Leeds-born Jeremy Dyson, he of the deeply, madly, darkly twisted League of Gentlemen, do have a point.

Ghost Stories has been around for a decade now, going global and being transformed into a film too, but all the while “it has meant so much to us that critics the world over have kept [secret] the plot and secrets of our show when writing about it,” they say.

“We appreciate it makes life a little trickier for you by not divulging [the] plot, but because of your help, Ghost Stories remains a rare thing: a modern experience you have to see ‘spoiler-free’.”

Spoiler alert: there will be no spoiler alerts in this review to blow the cover of their audacious spooky conceit. What your reviewer can reveal, however, dear reader, is that he first saw this immersive fright-fest at the Ambassadors Theatre – a typically compressed, crowded, everyone-close-to-the-stage, venerable West End locale – only last autumn, and frankly it was just as joyously, seat-of-the-pants, phew, glad-to-have-got-through-that scary, second time around at the Grand Opera House on Tuesday night.

Not-so-secret request: writer-directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson

Even when knowing what was coming next. Much like returning to a favourite fairground ghost train or high-speed ride. In fact, that even added to the experience, and apparently others share that view, gleefully inviting the uninitiated to join them to break their Ghost Stories virginity. Just do as Andy and Jeremy say: tell them nothing, except maybe pass on this message: “We hope you have a great night and maybe even scream a bit.”

A bit? In reality, there is as much laughter as screaming in response to the brilliantly executed storytelling, stocked with its 15-rated “moments of extreme shock and tension”. “We strongly advise those of a nervous disposition to think very seriously before attending,” says the programme cover, which is a tad late for a warning and amounts to more of a dare.

Do note this, however. Anyone who leaves once the ghosts have started their work for the night is not allowed back in, and nor is there an interval. So, the strongest advice is to think very seriously of heading to the loo beforehand, should that fear of a discomfort break be more likely to make you nervous.

Unlike Stephen Mallatratt’s The Woman In Black, Ghost Stories is not one ghost story but three ghost stories, wrapped inside an over-arching, far darker psycho-drama that begins with Joshua Higgott’s Professor Phillip Goodman, a parapsychologist in obligatory brown corduroy, delivering a lecture, glass of water and dry wit at hand.

In a theatre with its own ghost, opposite the York Dungeon tourist attraction with its love of gory history, and in “Europe’s most haunted city” with a ghost tour around every corner, even a ghost bus ride and a York Ghost Merchants shop to counter the spread of Pottervirus in Shambles, Goodman should be feeling very much at home as he guides us through the history of our fascination with ghosts and expert ghost analysis of the past. So far, so para-normal.

All of this is a way to trap us into a false sense of security/strap us in for the very bumpy ghost rides ahead, each more alarming than the last, as lecture and lecturer seep in and out of each suspenseful story.

The night-watchman on his guard in Ghost Stories (again pictured in the 2019 London production)

Without giving anything away, these involve a seen-it-all-before night-watchman in a depository (Paul Hawkyard); a novice motorist in a car at night in a murky wood (Gus Gordon) and a flashy father-to-be in a nursery (Richard Sutton, still as outstanding as he was in the London run). What happens next? Relax, Andy, relax Jeremy, my bitten lips are now sealed.

Except to say, writer-directors Nyman and Dyson and fellow director Sean Holmes work their ghostly magic deliciously devilishly in tandem with Jon Bauser, a sleight-of-hand magician of a designer, far outwitting Hammer Horror.

James Farncombe’s lighting adds heart-stopping menace to the juddering frights, hand-held torches and all; Nick Manning’s disturbing, disorientating, jagged, sometimes deafening sound design assaults you from all sides, and Scott Penrose’s climactic special effects are terrifically terrifying.

Do keep what happens secret, but don’t keep the show secret. It deserves big houses, being all the better, the more who share the experience, even amid the worrisome shadow of Coronavirus.

”Sweet dreams, Andy and Jeremy,” say the ghost-story weavers as they sign off their letter to the fourth estate, politely teasing to the last.

Sweet dreams? Lovers of gripping theatre, devotees of the paranormal world, your nightmare would be to miss Ghost Stories, especially on Friday the 13th. You won’t rest until tickets are safe and secure in your hand.

Charles Hutchinson