York Theatre Royal goes digital for Suffragette stream of Everything Is Possible protest play

Suffragette city: Women on the protest march in Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes on the York Minster Plaza in June 2017. Picture: Anthony Robling

YORK Theatre Royal will stream the 2017 community play Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes for free on YouTube from May 6.

Co-produced with Theatre Royal company-in-residence Pilot Theatre, this large-scale production was performed by a community cast of 150 and a choir of 80 from June 20 to July 1 that summer.

Set in early 20th century York, Juliet Forster and Katie Posner’s production began with Suffragette protest scenes and rallying calls on the plaza outside York Minster before moving indoors to the Theatre Royal’s main stage.

Leading professional actress Barbara Marten, who lives in York, played the lead role of Annie Seymour Pearson, a Heworth housewife who risked her life in 1913 to fight for women’s right to vote as women across the country, outraged by inequality and prejudice, began to rise up and demand change.

Barbara Marten as York Suffragette campaigner Annie Seymour Pearson at York Theatre Royal in June 2017.
Picture: Anthony Robling

Annie began her involvement in the Suffragette movement as an ordinary, middle-class housewife in a church-going family with a middle-management husband and three children.

She also was part of the Primrose League, who went out canvassing among women like themselves to influence them into urging their husbands to vote for certain candidates for election.

Yet you would struggle to find outward acknowledgment in York of Annie Seymour Pearson’s place in the city’s social history. “The house in Heworth Green, where she ran a safe house, no longer stands and there’s no blue plaque,” said Barbara at the start of rehearsals in late-May 2017. “Even her obituary made no mention of her having been a Suffragette.

“It’s interesting to choose Annie as a central character because she was such a genteel, respectable woman who didn’t start out as a militant, but various events propelled her forward.”

Barbara Marten, the one professional in the community cast of 150, in rehearsal for Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes

Not least, Annie was arrested in January 1913 when a union deputation of York Suffragettes headed to London as thousands of women converged on the capital to protest at the poverty that many women were living through.

“Annie was arrested for obstruction, just for walking on the pavement, and the charge was ‘obstruction’ simply because there were so many women there,” said Barbara.

“She was charged 40 shillings for her offence or three weeks in prison and she wrote to her husband to say that she would not pay her fine, but she would serve her sentence and was prepared to be imprisoned again.

“She’s there in prison for two days, when her husband comes down to London and pays the fine – and you can imagine the scene when she got home.”

Barbara Marten as Annie Seymour Pearson: wife, mother, Suffragette. Picture: Anthony Robling

Everything Is Possible highlighted how the Suffragette movement was not solely a London movement. “Instead, it was made up of women from all over the country, like in Manchester and Leeds, where lots of women worked in factories, and in York as well,” said Barbara. “Scarborough was very militant too.”

The 2017 “protest play” recalled how women in York ran safe houses, organised meetings, smashed windows and fire-bombed pillar boxes, the production telling the story of their dangerous, exhilarating and ground-breaking actions for the first time.

York playwright Bridget Foreman, who wrote Everything Is Possible, says of the timing of next month’s streaming: “It’s really poignant, in the midst of isolation and social distancing, to think about the making of Everything Is Possible; the extraordinary coming together of hundreds of local people, and the staging of huge crowd scenes both on the York Theatre Royal stage and outside York Minster.

“And now the stage is dark and the streets are empty. But looking back to the way in which that show brought people together, inspiring them in so many ways, is a wonderful reminder of the power of theatre and community.”

Playwright Bridget Foreman at the read-through for Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: John Saunders

Bridget continues: “We saw participants and audience members getting involved with theatre, politics, activism, local history, family research. Now, I really hope that people watching the production digitally will find their own inspiration, their own vision and energy for engaging with and changing the world when we come through this crisis.”

Directed by Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and Pilot Theatre associate director Posner, now co-artistic director of Paines Plough in London, Everything Is Possiblewaspart of the Theatre Royal’s 2017 season Of Women Born, curated by a team of women to focus on work made and led by female artists, built around women’s stories.

Everything Is Possible can be streamed online on the Theatre Royal’s YouTube channel from 7pm on Wednesday, May 6 to Sunday, May 31. In the run-up to the streaming, the Theatre Royal will be sharing messages on social media from the volunteers who helped bring this production to the stage.

“These responses from the theatre’s community, promoted by the question ‘What does ‘everything is possible’ mean to you right now?’, aims to spread messages of hope and courage to the wider York community during the Coronavirus pandemic,” says marketing officer Olivia Potter.

The full cast and choir for Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes on the York Theatre Royal stage in June 2017. Picture: Anthony Robling

The Theatre Royal is asking viewers to support the stream by making an online or text donation, “so that York Theatre Royal can continue to engage and entertain the York community in the future”.

The Everything Is Possible online stream is part of the theatre’s Collective Acts programme of creative community engagement, taking place while the building is closed under the Coronavirus pandemic strictures.

Further details on the Everything Is Possible online stream and Collective Acts can be found at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Deeds not words: Suffragette protesters leave the York Minster Plaza to make their way to York Theatre Royal in the 2017 community play Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: Anthony Robling

REVIEW: Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes, York Theatre Royal/Pilot Theatre, at York Theatre Royal and York Minster Plaza, from The Press, York, June 23 2017.

DAMIAN Cruden has no hesitation in naming his greatest achievement in his 20 years as artistic director at York Theatre Royal: the rise and rise of the community play.

The city already had the York Mystery Plys, the street plays staged in myriad forms through the centuries, and when Cruden and Riding Lights’ Paul Burbridge directed the 2012 plays on their return to the Museum Gardens, a template was established for the series of community productions that has ensued.

Each has told a chapter of York’s history: the chocolate industry in the dark shadow of the First World War in Blood + Chocolate on the city streets; the rise and fall of the Railway King, George Hudson, in In Fog And Falling Snow at the National Railway Museum, and now the York Suffragettes in Everything Is Possible, outside the Minster and in the Theatre Royal’s main house.

Street protest: One of the modern-day protesters in the opening scenes from Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: Anthony Robling

A rabble noise swells from the Minster Plaza, a canny way to make the city aware that a major production of political dimensions involving more than 300 people is taking place in their midst at a time when the political landscape is more divisive and more inflammatory than for years. The scene, a throng of rebel songs and impassioned speeches, replicates demonstrations of yore, suddenly suffused by placard-waving Suffragettes in 1913 attire, followed by policemen forcibly breaking up the crowd.

The likes of Sophie Walmsley on her acoustic guitar need to placed higher above the crowd, but where Barbara Marten’s Annie Seymour Pearson takes her place on the Plaza steps is a better sight line.

“Deeds Not Words” say the placards: a mantra that wholly applies to how these community plays are mounted, volunteers to the fore on and off stage, this time under the guidance of a professional production team led by the Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and Pilot Theatre associate director Katie Posner

Juliet Forster: York Theatre Royal associate director, co-director of Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes

Once we are ushered by the coppers to the theatre, there is a little lull for chatter and drinks refuelling before Bridget Foreman’s account of the previously untold story of York’s involvement in the Suffragette movement circa 1913 has its day and has its say.

Marten and Suffragettes historian Professor Krista Cowman have played significant parts in bringing the story to the stage, so too have Foreman and a research team, and now at last the role of Annie Seymour Pearson and her Suffragette safe house at 14, Heworth Green, next to the home of anti-Suffragette campaigner Edith Milner, has its rightful place in the city’s history.

Barbara Marten might strike some in the audience as being a little old for her role as a mother of four young children, but Foreman places her as much in the role of a narrator looking back on the events of a century ago as that of protagonist in the drama, and all of Marten’s passion for the story, as well as her celebrated acting skills come to the fore.

A scene from Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: Anthony Robling

York, it must be said, played rather less of a central role in the Suffragette drive for votes for women than it did in this year’s General Election with its visits by Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.

Yes, it played not even second fiddle to London and Leeds, but Emmeline Pankhurst (Liz Elsworth), leader of the British suffragette movement, made a speech here that forms the climax of the first half; leading Leeds campaigner Leonora Cohen (Loretta Smith) visited too, as did Lilian Lenton, the wild-card London arsonist, played by the breakthrough new talent of this show, University of York student Annabel Lee. A firecracker indeed, a professional career surely awaits.

Annie’s arrest in London for obstructing a policeman – when he had been the one to inflict a bloody nose – and the militant activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union in York, led by Jo Smith’s Violet Key Jones, are prominent in the play, A silent movie-style film sequence linked to live action shows the full horror of the prison practice of force-feeding hunger-strikers, showing off Sara Perks’s set to best effect too.

Rallying call: Two protesters on the York Minster Plaza at the outset of Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: Anthony Robling

Men have their place in the piece in the form of Mark France’s Arthur Seymour Pearson (rather reminiscent of the husband figure in Brief Encounter) and Rory Mulvihill’s stentorian Home Secretary.

A choir of 100 is tucked away out of sight in the gods, assembled by Madeleine Hudson to perform Ivan Stott’s folk-rooted campaigning compositions, but rightly they have their moment in the spotlight on stage at the finale.

Forster and Posner’s very lively, highly committed, educational and resolute production, peppered with anarchic humour as much as political zeal, forms the pinnacle of York Theatre Royal’s Of Woman Born season of women’s words and deeds. In straitened times for funding for the arts, Everything Is Possible affirms that anything is possible when a community comes together and turns York into Suffragette City.

Review by Charles Hutchinson. Copyright of The Press, York.

Nothing happening in these Lockdown limbo days. Everything off. Here are 10 Things To Do on the home front, courtesy of The Press, York. LIST No. 4

Nothing happening full stop. Now, with time on your frequently washed hands, home is where the art is and plenty else besides

EXIT 10 Things To See Next Week in York and beyond for the unforeseeable future in our now extended Lockdown hibernation. Enter home entertainment, wherever you may be, whether together or in self-isolation, in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic. From behind his closed door, CHARLES HUTCHINSON makes these suggestions.

Celebrating Shakespeare’s 456th birthday: Tamsin Greig as loyal servant Malvolia in the National Theatre’s Twelfth Night, screening on YouTube from tonight

Shakespeare’s birthday

WILLIAM Shakespeare’s 456th birthday falls today. The Bard, by the way, was no stranger to writing under debilitating duress, working in London amid the bubonic plagues of 1592 and 1603, when more than 30,000 Londoners died, and a third plague in 1606.

That year alone, Bill quilled three of his mightiest works, King Lear, Macbeth and Antony & Cleopatra. Tonight is a chance to celebrate on a lighter note, watching the National Theatre in the NT At Home YouTube streaming of Twelfth Night, starring Tamsin Greig as loyal servant Malvolia, at 7pm for free. Twelfth Night will be available for seven nights and days on demand.

No Morris dancing in York on St George’s Day under lockdown rules

St George’s Day

TODAY is not only the Bard’s birthday but also St George’s Day, in principle another cause for English celebration, given the dragon-slaying, princess-saving Roman soldier’s status as this nation’s patron saint. However, if outbreaks of Morris Dancing and Punch & Judy shows are the best we can throw at it in usual circumstances, maybe Lockdown is a chance for some home schooling instead.

Today’s task: Find out in more detail who St George was; why he is England’s patron saint and why the English flag is a red cross on white. Oh, and come up with your own way of celebrating at home; surely it must be better than dancing with bells on.

York Shut Studios…but artists embrace the virtual to compensate for Coronavirus-enforced cancellation

York Open Studios going virtual

THIS should have been weekend number two for York Open Studios, the chance to see work by 144 artists and craft makers in 100 locations in and around York, whether in their homes or studios.

Instead, as with last weekend, it will be York Shut Studios but that does not mean York’s artists have put their brushes into lockdown. Creativity demands improvisation, and so you can head to yorkopenstudios.co.uk for the “Virtual Open Studio”, where you can still bring their home work into your home.

Stream team: Compere Tim FitzHigham, left, and comedian Mark Watson in their living rooms for the first Your Place Comedy online show

Your Place Comedy, streamed from their living room to yours

AT the initiation of Selby Town Hall arts centre manager Chris Jones, here comes Your Place Comedy, a Sunday night when comedians stream a live show via YouTube and Facebook from their living room into yours. There is no charge, but you can make donations to be split between the ten small, independent northern venues that have come together for this Lockdown scheme.

The first one, featuring Hull humorist Lucy Beaumont and a pyjama-clad Mark Watson, drew 3,500 viewers last Sunday. Chris is planning the second 8pm online gig for May 3 at yourplacecomedy.co.uk; acts to be confirmed.

Puppet Theatre: the third Lockdown Legends Challenge set by York  Theatre Royal

Lockdown Legends Challenge, set by York Theatre Royal

EACH Monday morning, York Theatre Royal will post a theatrical #LockdownLegendsChallenge on its Twitter and Facebook pages for the whole family to take part in, just for fun. Even the participation of pets is “actively encouraged”.

After One-Minute Plays in week one and Costume Creation in week two, this week’s challenge is Puppet Theatre, or pup-pet theatre if your pooch partakes. “Re-create a scene from Shakespeare with household objects,” comes the invitation. “Then send your responses to lockdownlegends@yorktheatreroyal.co.uk and we’ll share these on our social media pages throughout the week.”

It’s time for Bingo in the street

Vintage game of the week: Bingo…in your street

BINGO is all about houses, and Lockdown Limbo is the chance to shout “House” in a game conducted with neighbours in our sunny springtime streets at Bruce Forsyth’s favourite social distance: “Nice two metres, two metres nice”.

What is bingo, should you never have ventured to Mecca Bingo or Clifton Bingo Club? Bingo is “a game in which players mark off numbers on cards as the numbers are drawn randomly by a caller, the winner being the first person to mark off all their numbers and exclaim ‘House’.” Repeat. Bingo.

The Boomtown Rats: Re-arranged York Barbican gig

Still keep trying to find good news

DEER Shed Festival, off. Courtney Marie Andrews at Pocklington Arts Centre in June, off. The Boomtown Rats at York Barbican, off. Jack Dee, Off The Telly, Barbican too, off. The list of cancellations grows like the spring grass, but do keep visiting websites for updates.

Deer Shed, at Baldersby Park, Thirsk? Definitely returning in summer 2021. Boomtown Rats? October 26. Jack Dee, October 1. No news on Courtney, yet, alas.

Venturing outdoors…

…FOR your daily exercise, be that a run, a cycle ride or a stroll near home, in a changing environment. Amid these disconnected, alien, strange days, your senses heightened, there is the chance to appreciate the previously unexperienced: the bird song in excelsis, a chorus no longer impeded by traffic; the bluer, bigger skies; the fresher air, the pollution levels so noticeably dropping.

York actor Mick Liversidge has taken to reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets in the fields, exercising mind and body alike. Why not Shake up your routine too?

York’s city walls lit up in blue for the NHS

Clap for Carers

STAND by your doors at 8pm every Thursday, no excuses. Theatre-goers, concert-goers, save your hand-clapping for our NHS doctors, hospital staff, carers, volunteers and key workers. How moving, too, to see familiar buildings and landmarks bathed in blue light: a tribute growing and glowing by the week.

Play at home: York country singer Twinnie’s new album, Hollywood Gypsy, released on April 17

And what about…

NEW albums by Laura Marling, Ron Sexsmith, Cornershop and York country singer Twinnie. Interior design books. Cerys Matthews and Guy Garvey on Sundays on BBC 6Music. The return of BBC One’s Killing Eve on Sunday nights and iPlayer. A themed new recipe of the week, whatever reason and seasoning grabs you.

Catching Rick Witter’s improvised home version of Shed Seven’s Chasing Rainbows on social media:. “I’m just staying home all the time”. Well, you are, aren’t you.

Copyright of The Press, York

York Theatre Royal sets up Collective Arts to keep you busy, arty and digital at home

Let’s play: York Theatre Royal is encouraging theatre activities at home while everyone is in the grip of lockdown limbo

YORK Theatre Royal is to run the Collective Arts programme of “creative community engagement” during the Coronavirus pandemic shutdown. 

The St Leonard’s Place theatre is planning a series of digital activities and events to bring together York’s creative community of all ages until the building reopens.

Associate director Juliet Forster says: “We’re all finding the current circumstances challenging and are missing the joy of social gatherings, external stimuli and shared experience.

“But challenges can also be a great spur to creativity, and we’re really keen to find as many ways as possible to bring people together, to inspire creative responses and enjoy what we make together.”

Juliet Forster: York Theatre Royal associate director

One activity up and running already and open to all is the Lockdown Legends Challenge, a weekly creative project that invites people to submit responses to challenges such as filming one-minute plays (week one), designing costumes (this week) and creating production model boxes (coming next).

A new challenge is released every Monday morning on the theatre’s social media channels and submissions are then posted on these channels during the week.

The Theatre Royal is also adapting the delivery of the nationally recognised Arts Award, now to be undertaken from a home setting. The new guide is specially designed to be used by children and young people aged five to 25 years old, supported by their parents/guardians, to keep them busy, engaged and inspired by the arts at home. 

Another project aimed at engaging young people during this time is the Coronavirus Time Capsule. Working with a group of 20 young people, week by week the Theatre Royal will create a cumulative video time capsule, recording teenage experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic.

York Theatre Royal : Out of bounds but stretching the boundaries of theatre. Picture: Matthew Holland

“The Coronavirus Time Capsule is a new international project run by Company Three and youth theatres across the world will be taking part and making capsules of their own,” says Juliet.

In addition, the Theatre Royal is organising the In Focus photography competition, open to all ages and abilities who are invited to send in their photos that show the realities of life in Coronavirus Britain.

The deadline for submissions is Friday, May 8. All entries will then be judged by a team from the theatre’s photography group.

Over the next few weeks, York Theatre Royal will release more projects and opportunities to take part in. All details on how to be involved can be found on the theatre’s website, yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Filmed at York Theatre Royal, Emma Rice’s Wise Children is streaming on BBC iPlayer

Showgirl memoirs: Katy Owen, left, Etta Murfitt and Gareth Snook in Wise Children. Pictures: Steven Tanner

YORK Theatre Royal’s co-production of Angela Carter’s Wise Children, made with Emma Rice’s company Wise Children and The Old Vic, is now available to stream on BBC iPlayer.

Adapted and directed by Rice, ever-innovative former artistic director of Cornish company Kneehigh Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe in London, the show marked the debut of her new Bristol company.

Wise Children was co-produced with The Old Vic, London, where the world premiere opened in 2018, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Oxford Playhouse and York Theatre Royal.

In March 2019, a performance of Rice’s exuberantly impish, musical vision of Carter’s last novel was filmed live at the York theatre with support from The Space.

The 138-minute play will be streamed for free for two months on BBC iPlayer as part Culture In Quarantine, the BBC’s arts and culture service to “keep the arts alive in people’s homes”. A screening on BBC 4 in May will be confirmed at a later date.

Billed as a big, bawdy tangle of theatrical joy and pain, Wise Children is a celebration of show business, family, forgiveness and hope as Nora and Dora Chance, twin chorus girls born and bred south of the river, celebrate their 70th birthday in Brixton.

Wise Children artistic director Emma Rice

Across the river in Chelsea, their father and greatest actor of his generation, Melchior Hazard, turns 100, on the same day. As does his twin brother Peregrine. If, in fact, he is still alive. And if, in truth, Melchior is their real father after all.

“When I set up Wise Children, I knew I would open with an adaptation of Wise Children after calling the company that name, presenting Angela Carter’s open love letter to theatre in all its aspects, its power and glories,” said Rice.

“I was a great fan of Angela Carter in my 20s. She has had a magical impact on people’s lives; she’s breath-taking in allowing the unimaginable to happen, so we fit together well!”

To create her adaptation, Rice read Carter’s novel, then wrote down the story or “what I remember of it”, she said. “I then started working on it with the actors, using their collective imaginations, so that they can pass on their own experiences in theatre.”

Rice has a track record for picking unconventional casts, typically so for Wise Children. “The actors I’m drawn to over and over again, and the way I tell stories, reflect how I always like to open up to diversity, expanding on my own experiences of humanity, especially in these polarised times, by looking at people who have had different experiences to your own,” she reasoned.

Against the 2019 backdrop of so much drabness, division, enmity and lost hope, Rice was determined to champion showbusiness, family, forgiveness and hope. “They represent a lot of my life,” she said. “When I talk of family, I mean not only blood family, but how we connect as humans.”

Emma Rice’s company Wise Children in Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers at York Theatre Royal last September

Now, Rice is delighted that Wise Children is being streamed from this week on BBC iPlayer amid the Coronavirus lockdown. “I dreamt about adapting Angela Carter’s Wise Children for years before it became a reality, and, when I finally did make it, it was the first piece I made for my new company,” she says.

“It’s a show I carry deep in my heart; a love letter to theatre, to survival, to family and family of choice. When The Space commissioned us to film it for the BBC, I almost burst with pride!

“I delight in the fact that we now get to share this glorious story with so many others, and hope that the fun, truth, love and generosity poured into it will find its way into sitting rooms across the country.”

Reflecting on Wise Children being part of the BBC’s Culture In Quarantine programming, Rice says: “What feels even more perfect is that we’re releasing it now. Today, more than ever, we need joy, resilience, hope and love of life, which runs through the veins of Wise Children. As Nora and Dora Chance tell us: ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing!’. Never has this been more true. We hope you enjoy.”

Last September, Rice and Wise Children returned to York Theatre Royal for a second co-production, Enid Blyton’s “original post-war Girl Power story, the naughty, nostalgic and perfect for now” Malory Towers: her “happy Lord Of The Flies”, as Rice called it.

Wise Children and the Theatre Royal are to complete a hattrick of collaborations in 2021, this time in tandem with the National Theatre for Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

The butterfly effect: Emma Rice’s Wise Children company in Angela Carter’s Wise Children

Charles Hutchinson’s review of Wise Children at York Theatre Royal, March 2019. Copyright of The Press, York.

IMAGINE a Victorian vaudeville troupe or a circus travelling across Europe picking up performers, musicians, speciality acts, en route.

It would look not unlike Emma Rice’s new Wise Children company, set up since she left the artistic directorship of Shakespeare’s Globe and more in keeping with her 20 years leading Cornish company Kneehigh.

Do not take it the wrong way when I say Rice’s Wise Children are a modern-day freak show, not in the overt manner of the Circus of Horrors, but in how Rice celebrates, liberates and embraces beauty in all forms: a message for this age of Brexit intolerance for “outsiders” and fashion magazine photo-shopped “perfection”.

Vicki Mortimer’s design echoes circus in its lighting, while the set is dominated by a caravan, again recalling travelling troupes in Rice’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s last novel: a “celebration of showbusiness, family, forgiveness and hope” that receives a big, bold, bouncy, exuberant, darkly imaginative, saucy interpretation.

Opening on the 75th birthday of The Lucky Chances, Brixton showgirl twins Nora and Dora Chance, Rice’s hyper-production jumps around in time to tell their life story.

On the way she employs puppetry; glorious live music; theatrical in-jokes; old Bob Monkhouse and Max Miller gags; Shakespeare quotes; much mischief making, scabrous scandal and mistaken identities; men playing women, women playing men, and multiple versions of the same character at different ages.

Fabulous show, fabulous performers, fabulous butterflies too.

Honor Blackman, Bond Girl, Avengers star… and York Theatre Royal repertory player

Honor Blackman as Amanda Wingfield with Helen Grace as disabled daughter Laura in The Glass Menagerie at York Theatre Royal in November 1999

HOW did Honor Blackman come to star in a repertory play at York Theatre Royal in 1999?

As news broke on Sunday of her peaceful passing at 94, thoughts turned back to when The Avengers’ Cathy Gale and Pussy Galore, the “Bond girl” – a term she never liked – played American southern belle Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s Depression-era play The Glass Menagerie.

Seventy-four at the time, it was a role the London-born actress had long craved, as Damian Cruden, the artistic director in his second year of cutting a swathe through the Theatre Royal, discovered.

“It all came about because I knew Honor’s agent,” Damian recalled this week. “We had a conversation about the agent’s clients. Various names came up, one of them, Honor Blackman.

“I’d been thinking about doing The Glass Menagerie, and so I said, ‘What about Honor playing Amanda? Would she be interested?’.”

The answer was affirmative, whereupon arrangements were made for Damian to meet Miss Blackman at her London abode. “I can remember going to see Honor at some place in Mayfair, and her instructions were very particular.

“She said, ‘you’ll need to ring the bell, I’ll buzz you in. Then, when you get in the lift, you’ll arrive at what it says is the top floor. The doors will open…but don’t get out. They’ll close again and the lift will bring you up to my flat’.”

What happened? “Exactly that! When the doors opened, I found I was inside her flat! Getting there was just like something out of a Bond movie!” Damian said. “It was a beautiful apartment too.”

Before rehearsals started in the Theatre Royal’s old Walmgate rehearsal rooms – now home to Brew York ­– Damian had another memorable Honor experience. “I went to see her in her one-woman show, Dishonourable Ladies, in Wales on the Sunday night before we were due to begin, and the deal was I would drive her to York…as it turned out, in her sports car, me driving, while she enjoyed a bottle of champagne! Glorious!”

Damian has fond memories of Miss Blackman’s time in York in autumn 1999. “She was enormously gracious and generous. She had friends coming to her dressing room each night, and liked to have a bottle of champagne in the fridge, but that dressing room didn’t have a fridge until she bought one for it and then gifted it to the theatre. It’s still there in dressing room one, as far as I know!”

As was his custom in his 22 years as artistic director, Damian liked to host meals for his casts at his home. “I cooked a meal on a couple of evenings when The Glass Menagerie cast came round,” he said. “Honor was very straightforward. There were no airs and graces to her.

Damian Cruden: York Theatre Royal artistic director drove Honor Blackman to York in her sports car; Honor sipping champagne by his side

“I can recall her sitting by the window with my son Felix, who was only three at the time. “My neighbour was standing watching, and I remember him saying, ‘Was that Pussy Galore in your window?’. ‘Yes’, I said. ‘My god, a Bond girl next door,’ he said.”

Damian spoke highly of Miss Blackman’s working relationship with The Glass Menagerie company. “She was great fun and very supportive of young actors, and there were a lot of young cast members in that company,” he said.

“Her performance was great too. Very intelligent, sensitive, mature. There was none of that ‘being starry’ thing about her. She wasn’t aloof. Instead, she enjoyed being part of a group. That was important to her.”

Honor Blackman would return to the York stage in February 2005 in the surprise guest role in The Play What I Wrote, The Right Size comic duo Sean Foley and Hamish McColl’s celebration of Morecambe and Wise. The Press review recorded how Honor’s role was “to be subjected glamorously and good humouredly to humiliation and mockery” at the hands of both the script and comic interjections in the playful Morecambe tradition. She handled it all with elan, of course.

Miss Blackman will forever be remembered for Pussy Galore, from the 1964 James Bond film, Goldfinger. “It is extraordinary. The damned film goes on marching, it doesn’t go out of fashion,” she told the Northern Echo in June 2004, going on to distance her role from the Bond girl stereotype.

“I hate being a Bond girl, because Pussy Galore was a character you would like to play in anything. She was not one of those who fall on their backs straight-away.

“But it was just a part I played, and that is all it was, and it queers your pitch in lots of ways, because people think of you as some sort of femme fatale; they don’t see you as a Shakespearean actress.”

Before Pussy Galore, there was Cathy Gale in The Avengers, and there was more of her in Cathy than in many of her other roles, she suggested.

“When we started, I was the first woman who had ever dared to be equal to a man, intellectually and physically, and the guys who wrote the script were used to writing about women waiting by the kitchen sink or wicked women in black satin,” she said.

“I couldn’t help but be aware of the impact it was having from the fan mail, because women loved it – at last a woman was standing there doing it all herself ­– and men loved it from quite a different point of view.”

Raise a glass to those memories, whether of Cathy Gale, Pussy Galore or cut-glass Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie in York in 1999.

Copyright of The Press, York


The Glass Menagerie, York Theatre Royal, until December 4

IN the long, distinguished, purring career of Honor Blackman, Amanda Wingfield was a role she still craved. Likewise, Roger Roger star Helen Grace believed The Glass Menagerie to be the best Tennessee Williams play and she “just can’t tell you” how much she desired to be cast as Amanda’s disabled daughter, Laura.

The Glass Menagerie, a memory play as subtle as silk, absorbing as cotton wool, unexpected as a midnight phonecall, has a habit of hooking you like that, such is its sentimental enchantment: an enchantment that masks a sting as potent as a drowsy wasp in autumn. Williams called it truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.

The Glass Menagerie, inspired by Williams’ own circumstances, is set in the Depression era St Louis of the 1930s, where former southern belle Amanda is the domineering matriarch, smothering as much as mothering her son Tom (Keith Merrill) and Laura.

Deserted 15 years earlier by her telephone-salesman husband, she clamps her children in the past with her suffocating memories, her fantasies, her anachronistic belief in the tradition of the gentleman caller (Douglas Cockle) and her impossibly romantic hopes of perfect marriages.

Her husband had sought his escape, so too her children – they are in their 20s – but with very different routes in mind. Tom, the narrator and effectively the mouthpiece for Williams himself, is the dreamer, the poet who goes to the movies and drinks “for adventure” and plans a Merchant Marine passage out of working at the dead-end shoe warehouse. Shy Laura, more emotionally crippled than physically disabled (she has a limp), seeks an inward path to safe, fairytale isolation, locking herself away at home with her glass menagerie to avoid the judgement of others.

Theirs is a claustrophobic, unreal world out of step with the times, a contrast emphasised in the superb jagged score of cellist Christopher Madin who juxtaposes the neon brightness of the jazz age with the dimly-lit mournful cello he plays to the side of Liam Doona’s revolving, spinning stage.

Doona’s design adds to the all pervasive presence of Amanda Wingfield, with its see-through walls of muslin drapes allowing you to see into the next room, enhancing the sense of there being no escape from her stifling ways.

Where Sonia Fraser’s Cherry Orchard dragged last month, when there should have been the sense of the sands of time tumbling ever faster, Damian Cruden’s beautifully weighted production captures slow movement, emphasising each nuance of Williams’s subtly shifting writing. He is blessed too with superlative performances: Honor Blackman, a picture of grand illusion; Helen Grace, frail, pale and shyly expressive; Keith Merrill suitably poetic yet pent-up; Douglas Cockle, charming and too worldly for their world.

The finest cut glass indeed.

Charles Hutchinson, November 16 1999

Copyright of The Press, York

No Horizon looks for a new horizon after tour postponed in Coronavirus shutdown

Adam Martyn: partially sighted actor playing the blind scientist Nicholas Saunderson in No Horizon, pictured in rehearsal

RIGHT Hand Theatre’s No Horizon, a musical celebrating a blind Yorkshire science and maths genius, is no longer on the horizon at York Theatre Royal. Exit stage left the April 9 and 11 performances under the Coronavirus shutdown.

However, the No Horizon team say: “Sadly, though we will be pausing our adventure for now, our No Horizon journey is far from over. When we are back – and we truly mean when, not if – we will be bigger and better than ever.

“This has been an amazing rehearsal process and although this [situation] is a hurdle, we will overcome this. Here’s to the future of the show and we are sure that the best is yet to come.”

No Horizon’s 2020 tour was to have opened at The Civic, Barnsley, on March 20. Now, the progress towards a new horizon can be followed at nohorizonthemusical.com and on social media.

The musical tells the life story of Nicholas Saunderson, a blind scientist and mathematician from Thurlstone, West Riding, who overcame impossible odds to become a Cambridge professor and friend of royalty.

Often described as an 18th century Stephen Hawking, Saunderson was born on January 20 1682, losing his sight through smallpox when around a year old. This did not prevent him, however, from acquiring a knowledge of Latin and Greek and studying mathematics.

As a child, he learnt to read by tracing the engravings on tombstones around St John the Baptist Church in Penistone, near Barnsley, with his fingers.

No Horizon premiered at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe, going on to draw an enthusiastic response from BBC Radio 2 presenter Chris Evans, who called it a “Yorkshire Les Mis”.

Next month’s York Theatre Royal shows would have been part of a now stalled northern tour of a 2020 adaptation “with a fresh look” by Right Hand Theatre, a company passionate about diversity and inclusivity within theatre.

Consequently, the 2020 cast has a 50/50 male/female balance, with the credo of delivering the show in a gender-blind way with a female Isaac Newton, for example. Both the director and lead actor are visually impaired.

Leading the company in rehearsals, in the role of Saunderson, has been the partially sighted Adam Martyn, from Doncaster, who trained at Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA).

Alongside him have been Yorkshire born-and-bred, Rose Bruford College-trained Larissa Teale in the female lead role of Abigail; Tom Vercnocke as Joshua Dunn; Louise Willoughby as Anne Saunderson; Matthew Bugg as John Saunderson; Ruarí Kelsey as Reverend Fox; Katie Donoghue and Olivia Smith as Company.

In the production team are director Andrew Loretto; vocal coach Sally Egan; movement directors Lucy Cullingford and Maria Clarke; costume designer Lydia Denno; costume maker Sophie Roberts; lighting designer David Phillips and tour musical director David Osmond.

No Horizon’s 2020 northern tour has been co-commissioned by Cast, Doncaster and The Civic, Barnsley and supported by Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind, with funding from Arts Council England and Foyle Foundation.

York Theatre Royal box office will contact ticket holders for refunds.

Remember Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art at York Theatre Royal? Now it’s online

Matthew Kelly as York-born poet W H Auden when Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art was rehearsed and staged at York Theatre Royal in August and September 2018. Picture: James Findlay

YORK Theatre Royal’s 2018 co-production of Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art has been made available to stream by OriginalTheatre Online.

Directed by Philip Franks, a second British tour was due to start this month with Matthew Kelly and David Yelland reprising their roles of poet W H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten.

However, both the tour and a trip to New York for the Brits Off Broadway have been scrapped after the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

In turn, this has prompted The Original Theatre Company, the Theatre Royal’s co-producers, to release the production online.

Matthew Kelly as W H Auden and David Yelland as Benjamin Britten in The Habit Of Art, now available to stream through Original Theatre Online

Leeds playwright Bennett’s The Habit Of Art imagines a 1972 meeting between friends and collaborators Auden and Britten – their first in 30 years – where they mull over life, art, sexuality and death.

What drew Matthew Kelly to playing York-born Auden? “He has a razor-sharp wit and we have a very similar outlook about work which is the habit of art. I am the same,” he says.

“I have to keep working – I’m nearly 70 [his birthday falls on May 9] – not  because I need the money, but because the theory comes into play that the longer you hang on, the longer you will hang on. Otherwise you fall off the perch.”

The Habit Of Art requires Kelly to play an actor playing an actor playing a real-life person. If this sounds confusing, “No, it actually clarifies things,” says Kelly, clarifying things.

Philip Franks, director of The Habit Of Art, who also directed Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in The Tempest in York last summer

“It’s a very clever device because it means you can be funny about what you do, you can comment on it and you can explain stuff. You can come out of the play Caliban’s Day, which the actors are rehearsing, and then it’s a play about the fictional meeting of Auden and Britten. 

“What’s wonderful about Bennett’s play is, not only have you got the finest composer of our time and the finest poet of our time, but you also, in my opinion, have the greatest playwright of our time.” 

Kelly continues: “So, you’ve got all those words being sewn together by our greatest playwright, who’s kind, accessible, very erudite and talks about sex in a very earthy way.

“He also gives a voice to the unregarded, who don’t usually have a voice. Generally, the great people, the stars of our time, get the final word and the people who look after them, what are commonly called ‘the little people’, really don’t get any say at all. They are the forgotten heroes who nurtured these stars.”

“He’s terribly kind and encouraging, which I love,” says Matthew Kelly of The Habit Of Art playwright Alan Bennett

Former Stars In Their Eyes presenter Kelly completed a hattrick of Bennett roles with The Habit Of Art, having appeared as unconventional teacher Hector in The History Boys in 2013 and Czech author Franz Kafka in Kafka’s Dick, opposite his son Matthew Rixon, as a younger Kafka, at York Theatre Royal in March 2001.

“We were hoping Alan Bennett would come to York because he lives in Leeds and it’s only a hop and a skip away, but he didn’t come,” recalls Kelly.

“A couple of years later, I met him at Heathrow and he came up to me and apologised for not coming to the York production. He was terribly kind about it. “Years later, I did The History Boys in Sheffield, then Kafka’s Dick again in Bath. On both those shows he sent champagne and a Good Luck postcard.

“He always knows what’s going on and he’s terribly kind and encouraging, which I love. The great thing about Alan is he’s very supportive of all productions, although he doesn’t go and see them.”

Original Theatre Online is streaming a second touring production too: Ali Milles’s The Croft, starring Gwen Taylor and again directed by Franks. Both that show and The Habit Of Art can be streamed any time until June.

“We are thrilled to be able to share these brilliant shows digitally: our own theatre without walls,” says The Original Theatre Company director Alastair Whatley.

Alastair Whatley, artistic director of The Original Theatre Company, says: “We know how disappointing it has been to our audiences, cast, creatives and Original Theatre to have to close our shows. We are thrilled to be able to share these brilliant shows digitally: our own theatre without walls. 

“However, the Original Theatre Company operates with no Arts Council support and relies almost solely on the box-office takings. With our two productions of The Habit Of Art and The Croft both out on national tours, the immediate cancellations are financially devastating for us.

“But we are determined, wherever possible, to meet our financial commitments made to our actors, stage managers and suppliers, who are all dependent on us to survive the coming months.  

“Every penny we make through this online release will go to the people who helped make this show, who now find themselves in a hugely precarious financial position.”

Both plays are free to watch although The Original Theatre suggests a minimum donation of £2.50. 

For full streaming details, visit originaltheatreonline.com.

On World Theatre Day, York Theatre Royal looks outwards to say We Pull Together

Marketing officer Olivia Potter’s We Pull Together poster at York Theatre Royal,, pictured by events producer Zach Pierce when he left the theatre for the last time before the Coronavirus-enforced closure.

TODAY is World Theatre Day, but a day when the world of live theatre and its eye on the world are shut down by the Coronavirus pandemic.

Nevertheless, theatres are still marking the occasion, be it York Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird’s Tweets throughout the day on his favourite theatres around the world, or reflections elsewhere on why theatre, in its myriad forms, is so important to British life.

At the Theatre Royal, show posters have been replaced by one message to the city of York, a rallying call reminiscent of wartime posters, designed in the Theatre Royal livery by marketing officer Olivia (Livy) Potter from an initial idea by development officer Maisie Pearson. 

In bold print, it reads: We Are Creative. We Are Sturdy. We Are Ambitious. We Are York. We Pull Together.

Bird’s eye view on World Theatre Day: York Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird is marking the day with Tweets highlighting his favourite theatres in the world

Here, Olivia answers Charles Hutchinson’s questions on how the poster came to be printed.

Why and how did you choose the wording of your poster, Olivia?

“The wording was inspired by York Theatre Royal’s values:

“We are ambitious
We are sturdy
We are welcoming
We are ambassadors for York
We celebrate the city’s true diversity; it makes us bloom
We are creative in every context
We pull together
We excel in every area”.

“The idea to take some of these values and work them into a message came from our development officer, Maisie Pearson, and it was a brilliant one.” 

Dumb question, but what prompted you to do it?

“We had to take the show posters down outside the theatre as they were promoting productions that had been cancelled, such as Alone In Berlin mid-run.

“The empty poster sites looked very forlorn and that got us thinking about putting up a poster with a message of support and solidarity for the city to see instead – something that could stay up for however long it needed to.”

Run halted: Alone In Berlin fell silent when York Theatre Royal closed in response to the Coronavirus pandemic

What is the overall message you are seeking to put across? Is it about theatre and the arts at large being woven so vitally into the fabric of York, or is it more about that wider message of the importance of all pulling together?

“I think it’s both these messages. It’s a very uncertain time for all industries right now, but particularly the arts and entertainment industry.

“We wanted to find some way of reassuring the people of the city that the curtain will rise again and we want everyone to be there when it does.

“Also, the narrative of the nation ‘pulling together’ by staying at home to save lives has really come into force, particularly over the last few days. The wording we’ve chosen for the poster seems to be quite vital now and in keeping with this narrative.”

Where are the posters on show at York Theatre Royal?

“One can be found by our Stage Door on Duncombe Place, next to Red House Antiques. Another can be found next to our patio area to the left of the theatre building on St Leonard’s Place.”

York Theatre Royal’s logo: colour palette is replicated in the new poster

Why are posters such a powerful medium in tumultuous times?

“Poster art and design is a really interesting medium, and very difficult to get right. I suppose the key is to keep it simple, find your message and present it in a way that is striking.”

How did you choose the charcoal and old-gold colour scheme for the poster?  Echoes of wartime posters, perhaps?

“The colours are actually the brand colours of York Theatre Royal, which unintentionally seem to have connotations of those famous wartime-era posters.”

Will there be more posters to come?

“We hope that won’t be necessary and that we can replace them with show posters soon.”

How are you spending your days during the theatre shutdown?

“I’m finding ways to engage with our audiences online; yoga; a bit of dancing; chatting to family and friends online; making fancy meals and drinking a fair bit of gin.”

Livy Potter in the role of Nina in York Settlement Community Players’ production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull at York Theatre Royal Studio, February 26 to March 7

On World Theatre Day, why does theatre and the arts matter so much to you, both in your work at the Theatre Royal and as an actor?

“There’s nothing quite like the arts as a means of bringing people together, not just physically but emotionally too.

“I love being part of an audience who are engaged, laughing as one and sometimes even crying together, too.

“One of the biggest joys in my life is being part of a group who come together with the purpose of creating something as one – a shared aim of telling a story for others to listen to and enjoy.

“In this difficult time, I think people are going to find really ingenious ways of achieving this and when this all does finally end, I can’t wait for us all to come together once more to experience the joys of theatre afresh.” 

York Theatre Royal postpones Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad until 2021

Balancing act: York Theatre Royal postpones The Penelopiad until 2021 but that enables “a little more dreamtime” for the creative team

YORK Theatre Royal’s summer production of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad has been postponed.

Originally in the 2020 diary for July 10 to 25, associate director Juliet Forster’s show will be staged in 2021 instead on dates yet to be confirmed. 

Uncertainty surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic is holding up pre-production work by Forster’s creative team.

Juliet Forster: York Theatre Royal associate director, directing The Penelopiad

Juliet says: “The joy of Atwood’s work is that it doesn’t date, so although we are disappointed that we have to postpone our production of The Penelopiad, I know it will be just as relevant and exciting to stage this wonderful play in 2021.  

“And on the upside, for the creative team involved, having a little more dreamtime on this story will only make the final staging of it all the more spectacular!”

Written by the Booker Prize-winning author of The Handmaid’s Tale and 2019’s The Testaments, The Penelopiad tells the story of Odysseus’ wife Penelope and the Trojan Wars from her point of view. 

Writer Margaret Atwood

Ticket holders will be contacted by the Theatre Royal box office in the coming weeks.

CORONAVIRUS: South African company Isango Ensemble cancels York Theatre Royal season in May

Isango Ensemble: May tour to York Theatre Royal cancelled; may tour next year instead,

ISANGO Ensemble’s three-week season at York Theatre Royal in May – the “highlight of their year” – has been cancelled in light of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The South African company, whose performers are drawn mainly from the Cape Town townships, was programmed to perform three shows from its repertoire, The Mysteries, The Magic Flute and SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill, from May 5 to 23 in Isango’s first visit to York in their two-decade span. Now they hope to visit Yorkshire next year instead.

Isango Ensemble in SS Mend; Dancing The Death Drill. Picture: The Other Richard

Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird says: “We are devastated that our friends Isango Ensemble are unable to make the trip to the UK. They have been in rehearsal for a specially curated season of work that was sure to delight and inspire our audiences with their joyous productions. We hope there will be another opportunity for us to welcome the company to York in the future.”

Director Mark Dornford-May, the Yorkshireman who co-founded Isango 20 years ago, says: “The whole ensemble were so excited to be visiting York for the first time in our 20-year history. It really was the highlight of the year. To have been rehearsing the shows and then not be able to play them in that beautiful theatre is a deeply felt blow.

Isango Ensemble in The Mysteries: Noluthando Boqwana as Lucifer, left, with Devils

“Tom and all his colleagues have been so supportive throughout the last few difficult days and together we hope to create a plan to get to play in Yorkshire next year.”

Ticket holders will be contacted by the Theatre Royal box office in the coming weeks.​​

Did you know?

ISANGO Ensemble is a Cape Town theatre company led by director and co-founder Mark Dornford-May and music directors Pauline Malefane and Mandisi Dyantyis.