SUGAR, spice, all things nice and not so nice make up the recipe for Waitress, the all-American musical based on the late writer-director Adrienne Shelly’s minor-key 2007 film.
Flavoured with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles and book by Jessie Nelson, the show made its West End bow in 2019 and is now doing the regional rounds on its first tour.
Like Heathers: The Musical earlier this season, Waitress has drawn a predominantly female, young, highly enthusiastic audience, out to cheer on heroine Jenna Hunterson (Lucie Jones), waitress and ace pie-maker at Joe’s Pie Diner, a drudge of a cafe off-Highway 27 in small-town Indiana.
Going nowhere in an abusive relationship with layabout, wastrel husband Earl (Tamlyn Henderson), she dreams of escape by winning a prestigious $20,000 pie contest. What a time to discover she has a bun in her own oven.
Newly arrived in town is gynaecologist Dr Pomatter (Matt Jay-Willis, busting out from boy band Busted), whose bedside manner is more akin to bumbling Mr Bean but is nevertheless most agreeably attractive, and you know where this will lead, married though they may both be, once he tastes her pies.
In other hands, other stories, the tone would be more bittersweet, more stridently feminist too, but brutish, feckless Earl stays in the wings for much of Act Two, the story instead being rich with comedic interplay, especially in the burgeoning relationships of Jenna’s fellow waitresses, one older and very self-assured, the other younger and nervous.
No-nonsense, sassy Becky (Emmerdale’s Sandra Marvin) makes out with the ponytailed grump behind the counter, Cal (Christopher D Hunt), while geeky, kooky Dawn (Evie Hoskins) discovers more than a shared love of historical re-enactments with fellow oddball Oggy (scene-stealing George Crawford, who lifts Act One just when it needs an extra ingredient).
Lorin Latarro’s choreography peaks with all three waitresses having their cherry on the cake at the same time, a climactic scene that brings the house down.
It would be misleading to suggest the savvy-humoured Waitress is too saccharine, even if the sung single-word refrain “Sugar” introduces each scene, but friendship and support, the pursuit of love, the search for joy and the quest for the perfect pie prevail over the darkness cast by Earl.
This is a musical, after all, and not a Tennessee Williams play, and so Diane Paulus’s direction is never too heavy on the salt, although always alive to the drive for female empowerment at the entertaining story’s heart.
Lucie Jones (The X Factor finalist in 2009 and Eurovision: You Decide participant in 2017) reprises her lead role from the West End, singing beautifully, especially in the signature song, She Used To Be Mine. Nelson’s book makes Jenna too sweetly accepting at first, but Jones absolutely captures the change into a woman determined to overcome adversity her way, ultimately free of male constraint.
Marvin’s Becky packs a punch, Hoskins’s Dawn is a daffy delight, and an unrecognisable Michael Starke makes a fine Midwestern gent as seen-it-all businessman and proprietor Joe.
Paulus’s direction is brisk, often as sharp as lime juice, sometimes sentimental; Bareilles’s songs have better lyrics than tunes but are delivered with energy and conviction; Scott Pask’s wheel-on set evokes the bustle of a diner and the wide expanse of Indiana beyond; and Paulus’s ensemble deliver sterling support, along with the band to the side of the stage.
Waitress’s musical pie is multi-layered, not perfectly balanced, more salted caramel than lemon zest, but certainly enjoyable.
Box office: 0113 243 0808 or at leedsheritagetheatres.com.
YORK Musical Theatre Company will head off to Hollywood in November with a desire for escapism from months of pandemic lockdowns.
Devised by director Paul Laidlaw, Hooray For Hollywood’s celebration of songs from Hollywood’s golden age was first performed by YMTC at the York Theatre Royal Studio in 2007.
From November 8 to 10 at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, Laidlaw’s revival of his slick and sophisticated six-hander show will explore the musical masters of the classic Hollywood of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
Laidlaw’s cast is made up of four women and two men: Cat Foster, Rachel Higgs, Henrietta Linnemann and Helen Spencer, joined by Richard Bayton and John Haigh.
This nostalgic, whirlwind journey through the sounds of Hollywood is packed with love songs, torch songs, and comic numbers from the bygone days of Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
Director Laidlaw says: “We’ve actually performed the show at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre before, as well as at the Theatre Royal Studio. As we head into our 120th year next year, it felt right to be a bit nostalgic and look back at some of our original pieces that audiences loved and revive them for new audiences.
“We loved performing The World Goes ’Round [a revue of Kander and Ebb’s songbook] a few years ago, and this show has a similar feel in that it’s a small cast and is fast paced and slick but will take the audience on a magical musical journey.”
Tickets for the three 7.30pm performances cost £15, £12 for age 18 and under, at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk or on 01904 501935.
THE John Godber Company returns to the Stephen Joseph Theatre next month with Sunny Side Up!, the coastal comedy premiered by the Godbers in a family bubble at the Scarborough theatre last autumn.
Rehearsed at home, John Godber’s play played to socially distanced sell-out audiences at the end of October 2020, just before the start of the second pandemic lockdown. From October 7 to 9, it will be performed before a socially distanced audience once more in the Round.
Writer-director Godber will reprise his role as Barney alongside his wife, fellow writer Jane Thornton, and daughter, Martha Godber. Daughter Elizabeth completes the family line-up as company stage manager; Graham Kirk provides the design and lighting.
In Godber’s moving account of a struggling Yorkshire coast B&B and the people who run it, down-to-earth proprietors Barney, Cath and Tina share stories of awkward clients, snooty relatives and eggs over easy.
“If you’re thinking of holidaying at home this year, why not book into the Sunny Side Boarding House soon,” invites Godber, whose seaside feel-good rollercoaster digs into the essence of “staycations”.
Godber’s play is told in his signature style, blending authenticity and pathos as he addresses the problems of levelling up, leaving home and never forgetting where you come from.
This John Godber Company and Theatre Royal, Wakefield production can be seen at the SJT on October 7 at 1.30pm and 7.30pm, October 8, 7.30pm, and October 9, 2.30pm and 7.30pm.
Tickets, priced from £10, are available on 01723 370541 and at sjt.uk.com.
AS part of At The Mill’s residency week at Stillington Mill, near York, Yoshika Colwell gives a work-in-progress performance of Invisible Mending tonight (16/9/2021).
At 8pm, the former University of York student explores creativity, knitting, the strange journey of grief and the transcendent act of swimming in the sea.
“In the summer of 2020, as a global pandemic raged, Yoshi was processing the unexpected dying and death of her beloved grandmother, Ann,” explains At The Mill programmer Alexander Wright.
“A woman of few words, Ann’s one great creative outlet was knitting. And not just any knitting. Her projects were glorious, intricate, virtuosic works of art, which still adorn the wardrobes of her nearest and dearest.
“As she reached the end of her life, Ann started a new project. Too wide for a scarf, too narrow for a jumper, this project had no end goal. She was simply using up the last of her wool.”
Yoshi now takes up this piece where Ann left off. “Like the fates who weave our destiny, like Penelope who works her wool all day and unpicks at night, and like the Lady of Shalott, who must keep weaving to remain alive, Yoshi explores what it means to pull loose threads together,” says Alexander.
“She weaves together live music, knitting, interviews, and diary entries into a tapestry that asks us what creativity is, and how it can help us as we navigate the inevitable journeys we must all take.”
Yoshi will complete her residency with Yoshika & Friends, Sunday’s 8pm concert of new music, showcasing her soul-searching debut solo EP, her first since Luuna’s 2016 EP, Moonflower. Fellow residency participants Max Barton and Jethro Cooke’s experimental outfit, Slowstepper, will perform too.
For tickets, go to: tickettailor.com/events/atthemill.
Mugabe, My Dad & Me, English Touring Theatre & York Theatre Royal, at York Theatre Royal until Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
IT has been a long wait for Zimbabwean-born writer-performer Tonderai Munyevu to premiere Mugabe, My Dad & Me.
The English Touring Theatre & York Theatre Royal production has gone through two pandemic-imposed postponements, three workshops and a transfer into an audio dramatization for Audible.com.
The play had long been billed as a one-man show but the published text states the presence of an Mbira player is compulsory, and sure enough, after Tonderai’s introduction and back story, the Theatre Royal curtain rose on actor-musician Millie Chapanda, in sun-bright African dress, with the Zimbabwean Shona people’s instrument by her side.
Mugabe, My Dad & Me has been in a state of flux, moving from its planned Studio baptism to the main house, growing in length from 70 minutes to an over-long 90 minutes, and switching from the Theatre Royal’s Summer Of Love programme to The Haunted Season.
Which would he prefer? “I think ‘Haunted’. It sounds longer lasting. ‘The Summer Of Love’ sounds impermanent,” Tonderai said in his interview with CharlesHutchPress.
As it turns out, the play suits both: there is love, for his late father and the motherland he left with his mother for a new life in London at the age of 12; and there is sex, Soho nights and all.
There is a haunting presence too: the figure of President Robert Mugabe, the freedom fighter turned despot, a permanent representation of Zimbabwe in Tonderai’s life until the barnacle president resigned at 93 in 2017.
Tonderai set himself the writing task of working out his identity, who he is, where he belongs, by constructing a memory play but one that does not stop in the past but informs the Tonderai of today, Tonderai at 39: a gay, Catholic, Zimbabwean writer and actor, who lives in London and will be marrying next year.
Taking to the stage in a white shirt, overlapping his blue jeans, microphone in hand as if for a stand-up comedy gig, he recalls being asked “Where are you from?”, as he poured a pint when working as a barman in one of those fallow times that actors grow accustomed to enduring.
It was this question that prompted him to look for answers in Mugabe, My Dad & Me. “I need to work things out, to understand – about my father, about Mugabe, about all these ghosts from the past,” he says in the prologue to Scene 2.
“I need to wrestle with where I stand in it all. With who I am today. This isn’t going to be an easy or straightforward story to tell,” he forewarns. It won’t all make sense, as much to him as to us, he cautions, but he turns out to be a highly coherent storyteller, shining a light on the chaos, chance and contradictions of life.
Set and costume designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen conjures memories and ghosts of Tonderai’s past by hanging row upon row of clothes above his head, a constant presence that is lowered or raised, depending on the scene.
The garments represent Tonderai, his mother, his father and Mugabe through the years, as well as uncles, aunts, his first lover, and Bob Marley at his famous Zimbabwe concert (although apparently Mugabe wanted Cliff Richard, considering Jamaican reggae icon Marley to be “too crude”).
Those clothes weigh heavy on the unfolding drama, like Banquo or the ghost of Hamlet’s father, but they rule out the need for any other means of evoking people or place, Tonderai’s words sufficing on their own.
The only “prop” is a chair for Millie Chapanda, as she changes position on the stage to suit the focus of each scene, under the concise yet poetic direction of Theatre Royal associate John R Wilkinson.
As the title suggests, Tonderai weaves together the impact of his father and Mugabe, the “father” of his homeland, and is unsparingly frank in his appraisal of both.
His father, a bright and good looking “everyman”, was a womaniser, a wife-beater, a drinker, who died in desperate circumstances, as impoverished as the “bread basket of Africa” became in the later years of Mugabe’s presidency.
His father had worked at an accountancy firm, until a dispute with a white colleague ended with him punching him. Told he would not be fired if he apologised, he declined to do so, losing his job, setting a spiral of decline in motion.
Piece by piece, Tonderai puts the jigsaw together to explain his father’s incendiary character, recalling how belatedly he learned of the trauma that had shaped him.
As for Mugabe, in the climax to the play, Tonderai confronts the late President, by now represented in full regalia, as to why he turned from revolution to tyranny, failing those who had been promised a fruitful farming future after guerrilla service in the name of freedom and ending colonial rule.
Encountering the personable, forthright Tonderai over these 90 confessional, conversationalist minutes, this son of the Zimbabwean diaspora has his heart in his still-troubled southern African homeland, its culture and heritage, and yet he appreciates the freedoms brought to him by London life. Does that leave him in a no man’s land or a place of opportunity? Both, but roll on next year’s wedding, he will say.
One frustration in this male-dominated story: we learn next to nothing of his mother, but maybe Millie, her mriba and her calming presence can be read as testament to her influence. After all, Millie, not Tonderai, has the last word.
BIG paintings, a night market, thrillers at the double, cookery chat, an anniversary celebration, a long-awaited Scottish return and a brace of comedians are the diverse focus of Charles Hutchinson’s attention.
Exhibition of the week: Freya Horsley, Contemporary Seascapes, According To McGee, York, running until October 11
ACCORDING To McGee is playing host to the biggest paintings the Tower Street gallery has ever exhibited: Liquid Light and Turning Tide, two mixed-media works on canvas by Freya Horsley.
The York artist is displaying a new series of seascape paintings depicting the Cornish, Scottish and north east coastlines.
“Her art makes you look twice because it has a calming quality and, like a good sunrise, it makes you go ‘wow!’,” says co-director Greg McGee.
York Creatives Night Market, Shambles Market, York, tomorrow, 7pm to 10.30pm
POSTPONED at short notice on August 20, the debut York Creatives Night Market goes ahead tomorrow in a chance to browse art and products by independent traders.
Street food, drinks and music all evening are on the menu too for this free event, open to all.
Celebrating ten years on: The Rusty Pegs, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Saturday, 8pm
TEN years ago, York country band The Rusty Pegs formed, drawn from volunteers at the Monkgate theatre, who were asked to perform their debut gig there at a Raising The Roof fundraiser.
To mark a decade of making music together, the Pegs have decided to come full circle by performing an anniversary gig in the same place where it all started, this time launching the autumn season. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
Long time coming: Del Amitri, York Barbican, Saturday, 7.45pm
DEL Amitri follow up the May 28 release of their seventh studio album, Fatal Mistakes, with a return to York Barbican after a 19-year hiatus.
Justin Currie’s Glaswegian band last played there in May 2002, the year they released their last album, Can You Do Me Good?.
“It’s been nearly 20 years since we toured with a new album, lord knows what took us so long,” says Currie. “The prospect of sprinkling our set with a few choices from Fatal Mistakes fills us with the sort of excitement that, for some men of our age, might call for light medication. We think the adrenaline will see us through.” Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
Comedy gig of the week: Daniel Sloss: Hubris, York Barbican, Sunday, 7.30pm
SUNDAY’S gig is third time lucky for Scotsman Daniel Sloss, whose October 3 2020 and May 8 2021 visits were ruled out by the accursed Covid.
Sloss, 30, has sold out six New York solo off-Broadway seasons, appeared on American television’s Conan show ten times and toured to more than 50 countries. Now, at last, comes his new show, with special guest Kai Humphries.
Look out for Sloss’s book, Everyone You Hate Is Going To Die (And Other Comforting Thoughts On Family, Friends, Sex, Love, And More Things That Ruin Your Life), from October 12. For tickets for Sunday, go to: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
Flavour of the month: Yotam Ottolenghi, A Life In Flavour, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday, 7.30pm
CHEF, restaurateur and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi reflects on A Life In Flavour, provides cooking inspiration and signs copies of his “flavour-forward, vegetable-based” cookbook, Ottolenghi Flavour, after the show on Tuesday.
West Jerusalem-born Ottolenghi will be discussing the tastes, ingredients and flavours that excite him and how he has created a career from cooking.
Expect “unique insights into how flavour is dialled up and why it works, from basic pairings fundamental to taste, to cooking methods that elevate ingredients to great heights”. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
The other comedy gig of the week: Burning Duck Comedy Club presents Dane Baptiste: The Chocolate Chip, The Crescent, York, September 23, 7.30pm
IN his own words, Dane Baptiste is now a “grown ass black man, too old to be concerned with chicken or trainers, too young to be considered a peer of Trevor McDonald”.
Has he got a chip on his shoulder? “Yes. A chocolate one,” says Baptiste, a south east London stand-up who once worked in media sales.
Noted for his boldly provocative material, he hosts the podcasts Dane Baptiste Questions Everything and Quotas Full. Box office: thecrescentyork.com/events.
Web of the week: Rowntree Players in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, September 23 to 25, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee
DIPLOMAT’S wife Clarissa is adept at spinning tales of adventure, but when a murder takes place in her drawing room, she finds live drama much harder to cope with in Rowntree Players’ autumn return, directed by Howard Ella.
Desperate to dispose of the body before her husband arrives with an important politician, she enlists the help of her guests.
In a conscious parody of the detective thriller, Christie’s Spider’s Web delivers suspense and humour in equal measure in an intricate plot of murder, police detection, hidden doorways and secret drawers. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
Mystery of the week ahead: Just Some Theatre in The Killer Question, Theatre@41 Monkgate, York, September 25, 7.30pm
THE Silence Of The Lambs meets Last Of The Summer Wine in Dave Payne’s dark comedy thriller The Killer Question, marking the York debut of Manchester company Just Some Theatre.
Did The Chair game show champion Walter Crump’s obsession with death ultimately lead to his own? Inspector Black believes so, and now Crump’s dopey widow, Margaret, finds herself accused of her husband’s murder.
Faced by more than one deadly twist in the tale, can Inspector Black solve the mystery? Will Margaret be home in time for Countryfile? Just as important, which actor – Peter Stone, Jake Urry or Jordan Moore – will play which character? The audience decides. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
AFTER 547 barren nights, the Grand Opera House, York, reopened on Monday as a ghost story blew away the cobwebs of pandemic-enforced closure at last.
Jennet Humphrey, the “Woman” in the title of The Woman In Black, has a habit of returning to this already crowded city of ghosts onregular occasions, such is the abiding popularity of Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation that began life at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in novelist Susan Hill’s home town of Scarborough in December 1987.
From that premiere, Robin Herford is still directing the award-garlanded fright-night and Michael Holt’s brilliantly atmospheric set is still adding to the chill factor with its clever use of gauze, a shadowy stairwell, passages, a mysteriously locked door and the faded grandeur of a disused theatre.
No matter how often you see the show, Rod Mead’s original sound design, now realised on tour by Sebastian Frost, unfailingly will tantalise, taunt, tease and terrify you. Every time!
Likewise, cast members Robert Goodale and Antony Eden are back in Black, albeit working in partnership for the first time on this revived tour of Mallatratt’s two-hander. Goodale was in the company for the last York visit, in November 2019, at the Theatre Royal, one of myriad old haunts for Eden too, who played there in February-March 2013 en route to notching up more than 1,000 performances.
Familiar faces were in the dress circle too. Not the Grand Opera House’s resident ghost, but the ghosts of Theatre Royal pantomimes past, now first-night guests in their new home, as Berwick Kaler, David Leonard, Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper and AJ Powell gathered ahead of this winter’s Dick Turpin Rides Again.
First, however, it was time for The Woman In Black’s pony and trap to be ridden again. I say ‘pony and trap’, but it is in fact a wicker trunk. Goodale’s Arthur Kipps, the haunted old solicitor seeking to exorcise the fear that has filled his soul for more than 50 years, looks puzzled.
Use your imagination, advises Eden’s now not-so-young Actor, employed by Kipps to help him turn his rambling book of notes into…well, don’t call it a performance, he says. “I’m not Olivier.”
However, “for my health, for reason”, his story must be told. “I cannot bear the burden any longer,” he says desperate to put his stultifying obsession to bed, to find a peace of mind at last, to end the curse on his family.
At this point, as Kipps and the Actor meet in a dusty old theatre, the tone is lightly humorous, Kipps’ lack of acting talent and sense of drama amusingly apparent; the Actor, sceptical and cocky.
And yet, as if the stage were made of quicksand, we are drawn into what becomes a celebration of the possibilities of theatre and the craft of acting, as much as a superbly executed, drip-drip telling of a ghost story.
In Mallatratt’s play within a play, the drama within takes over from the act of making it. Gradually, by now taking Kipps gravely seriously, Eden’s Actor becomes the young Kipps; Goodale’s stage novice Kipps becomes everyone else, from a convivial hotel manager to a taciturn pony-and-trap driver and an old lawyer, hollowed out by past encounters with the spectral woman in a black cape with a wasted face.
All the while, in his narrator’s role, old Kipps grows ever more paralysed by resurgent fears as the story unfolds of his ill-fated errand as a young solicitor to the haunted Eel Marsh House: an isolated place forever at odds with its wretched self.
The Woman In Black is old-fashioned, storytelling theatre-making, where not only Kipps, but we too, must engage our imaginations, as Herford eschews high-tech special effects. For example, Spider, a dog, is conjured simply with a click of a finger, a push of a stick, a hand stroke in mid-air, with no need for the distracting presence of a real mutt or puppet.
The terrifying theatrical re-enactment is rendered with only two chairs, a trunk of papers, a hanging rail of costume props, dust sheets over the stage apron and a frayed theatre curtain.
Then add smoke to create a disorientating murk that spreads over the auditorium, transforming the stalls into the eerie marshlands, allied to the restless, intrusive sound effects that thrive on surprise and sudden bursts of noise, from horse’s hooves to piercing screams. All the while, in Kevin Sleep’s lighting design, shadows and darkness wrestle with light for dominance, guaranteeing a sleepless night.
After month after month of silence, the Grand Opera House was being reawakened from its slumber with gasps, shrieks and nervous audience laughter, and we loved it. Goodale and Eden, wonderfully in control of delivering a storyline that is spinning beyond control, maybe forever, clearly love it too.
The Woman In Black will not be vanishing any time soon; the empty rocking chair will keep on rocking to big audiences, newcomers and veteran devotees alike
YORK Settlement Community Players return from lockdown mothballing with Harri Marshall’s production of The 39 Steps at Theatre@41 Monkgate, York, from November 11 to 14.
Patrick Barlow’s two-time Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning comedy thriller – a hit in the West End, on Broadway and on multiple tours – asks the cast to play more than 150 characters in recreating an against-the-odds combination of both John Buchan’s 1915 novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film.
The task is to tell the fast-moving story of Richard Hannay, a man with a boring life, who meets a woman with a thick foreign accent who claims to be a spy. When he takes her home, she is murdered.
Soon, a mysterious organisation called “The 39 Steps” is hot on the man’s trail in a nationwide hunt that climaxes in a death-defying finale in Barlow’s adaptation, based on an original concept by North Country Theatre’s Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble.
Aran MacRae, a professional actor who returned home to York in lockdown after working on the London musical theatre stage and on tour overseas, will play Richard Hannay, fresh from Aran being one of the sonneteers for York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar 2021.
Sanna Buck will take the roles of Annabella Schmidt, Pamela and Margaret, while Stephen Wright, Andrew Isherwood, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison, Matt Lomax and Dan Boyle will be The Clowns, whereas normally they are played by only two actors rushing around frantically trying to do most of the 150-plus characters.
York Settlement Community Players’ last live theatre production was Chekhov’s The Seagull at York Theatre Royal Studio in March 2020, when the run ended a week before the theatre went dark for the first pandemic lockdown. Since then, the company has hosted play readings and social meet-ups online.
The 39 Steps will be Harri Mashall’s second production for YSCP, after directing Nanci Harris’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes at Theatre@41 in the autumn of 2019.
“For the past eighteen months, the UK feels like it’s lost its theatrical mojo, which is why I’m excited to bring this light, wickedly funny play to Theatre@41 to share in the love and laughter and to showcase some brilliantly inventive theatre,” says Harri, who identifies as a deaf director.
“Rehearsals are going very well; we started at the deep end, plunging into the logistics of how to re-create those fabulous iconic scenes that made The 39 Steps famous when it debuted on the West End.
“This includes re-creating chase sequences on board the Flying Scotsman and a live on-stage plane crash.”
Harri adds: “I’m very lucky to be working with such a talented cast. Every single performer is a brilliant star in their own right. Their collective repertoire includes credits at the London Coliseum, York Theatre Royal, York Light Opera, the York Mystery Plays, Pick Me Up Theatre and previous successful York Settlement Community Players’ shows, such as The Cherry Orchard and The Red Shoes.”
This amateur production of The 39 Steps is presented by arrangement with Concord Theatricals Ltd on behalf of Samuel French Ltd.
Tickets for the 7.30pm evening shows and 2.30pm Saturday and Sunday matinees in the John Cooper Studio are on sale at tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
AS part of their At The Mill residency in Stillington, Second Body duo Max Barton and Jethro Cooke present Styx, their theatre-concert exploration of family, myth, memory loss and Max’s grandma, on Sunday and Tuesday.
In the wake of lockdown x 3, the show with Australian roots now comes with remixed music and bearing wounds wrought by 18 months of disrupted human connectivity.
“What does it mean to lose the memories that make us who we are?” they ask. “How can we continue to be ourselves when we are separated from our loved ones.”
CharlesHutchPress discovers the award-winning Max factor in a series of questions put to Mr Barton.
Introduce yourself, Max…
“I’m Max, a theatre maker, musician and climate activist, currently floating between various parts of the UK.”
“Jethro is a composer, sound designer and multi-instrumentalist based in Amsterdam.”
How did you meet?
“We first worked together on a piece called Boat by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, where we hung microphones around a little theatre in Balham, and then made a seascape out of the sounds made by our audience and actors.
“The connection was made through a designer called Shawn Soh who had done some collaborating with Guildhall [School of Music & Drama], where Jethro was training at the time.”
Explain the company name Second Body…
“We took the name Second Body from a book of the same title by Dr Daisy Hildyard, which is one of the best pieces of writing about climate change we’ve come across. It is built around the central idea that we have two bodies, one that’s made of flesh and blood and a second one which incorporates all the physical impact we’re having on the planet at any given moment.
“This metaphor interfaces really beautifully with the work we make. We play around a lot with scale, juxtaposing the personal against the structural in order to find emotional access into big topics.”
Why is the show called Styx?
“The story behind Styx is a bit more prosaic. We knew we were going to create a piece that incorporated music I’d written about Orpheus and Eurydice, and Styx is the river they cross to get into the underworld.
“We had to come up with a title before we knew exactly what the show was going to be about, and ‘Styx’ is a brilliant word, so we went with it.
“I then began recording interviews with my grandma, who had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and discovered that she and my grandpa had started a club called the Orpheus Club in the early 1950s, and the show began to take form.
“Since then, I’ve always thought that Lethe – the underworld’s river of forgetfulness – would have been a better title, but sometimes a name just…sticks.”
How do you know Stillington theatre-maker Alexander Wright and how did this residency at At The Mill come about?
“We met Alex out in Perth during the Fringe World festival in 2019, when he too was doing a show about Orpheus alongside Phil Grainger. Naturally both companies went to check out the competition.
“We loved what each other did, and then the following year we shared two venues for our remount of Styx and our first sharing of the piece that would become Terra (playing here at the Mill on September 18) and Alex’s remount of Orpheus and its sister show Eurydice.
“This is where we met the other artist on this residency, Yoshika Colwell, who was performing in Eurydice at the time, and with whom we’re now making work. So, I guess we’ve gradually become absorbed into the Mill family.”
What opportunities does the residency afford you?
“This is a brilliant opportunity to share a whole array of our work at various different stages of development. It’ll be lovely to share the seasoned Styx with the people of Stillington and its environs, and very exciting to do the first public performance of the music from Terra, a concept album and show that we’ve been developing throughout lockdown.
“It’s also provided space for Yoshika Colwell and I to develop her piece Invisible Mending, which will have its first work-in-progress sharing on September16.
“There’s something very special about going away somewhere to work: the energy shift of a new space, particularly one as beautiful as this, is really palpable. On our last night here, on September 19, we’ll also be doing the first public performance of Yoshika’s EP, which we’ve been working on with her for the past year.”
What attracts you to the theatre-concert format and why?
“First off, it’s the only art form we’ve found that brings together all our interests and skills in one place: writing, storytelling, music and visuals.
“Placing live music at the centre of the work enables an emotional scale that is really releasing, without the earnestness that this might bring in a different format, and it’s really satisfying being able to juxtapose that against cleaner, more factual content, or autobiographical verbatim material.
“It’s also a place where we feel we can excel as performers of our own work, which gives us a more immediate access to the creative process.”
In what ways have you created a “completely new form” – as it says on the At The Mill website – of theatre-concert shows?
“Ha-ha, uh-oh, that’s our marketing spiel coming back to haunt us. Obviously, this is a liberal use of the word ‘completely’ – anything completely new would probably be by definition awful and unwatchable.
“BUT… I think what we’re doing that is kind of new is fusing diverse, original music and theatrical storytelling with science research. It means that the pieces flit between some pretty varied modes, sometimes feeling almost like a TED talk, other times like a gig, and sometimes very confessional and emotionally vulnerable.
“Maybe this is a way of distinguishing the work from the sort of thing people think of when they hear the words ‘gig theatre’.”
Styx offers an exploration of family and myth. What draws you to putting those two elements together and what draws you to Greek tragedies?
“I guess this fulfils that same desire to play with scale. When dealing with something as intimate as one’s own family, I think there’s a compulsion to find something epic to flow alongside and against it.
“I suppose that’s a tendency with auspicious precedent, as it sits in Arthur Miller’s wheelhouse – finding the tragedic within the mundane. There are few literary examples as ubiquitously borrowed from or known than the Greek tragedies, so they’re really useful archetypes to bring to bear on more personal work.”
Memory loss? Are we talking dementia here or the fading of memories as one grows older or even memory loss by choice to eradicate life’s duff days?
“We’re talking dementia, yes, but also the slow fading, and also the neuroscience behind the creation of memory. We’re looking at what it means to remember and questioning all our preconceptions about how the past functions in our present.”
How does your grandma come into the storyline?
“Her voice sits at the heart of the piece, as we play back pieces of my interviews with her. The show is built around her love story with my grandpa Michael, her battle with Alzheimer’s and the founding of the Orpheus club. She is, I suppose, the star of the show.”
What is the history of this production?
“We first performed it in Perth in 2019 with a seven-piece band and were then invited to perform it in Edinburgh and London later that year, with extra dates added at Streatham Space Project following the Edinburgh run.
“We then performed it again in Perth in 2020, now with an eight-piece band, in the intimidatingly large Girl’s School space. We were due to do a UK tour later that year before Covid struck.
“We then did a virtual tour, where we streamed to the social-media pages of various venues. This year, it’s been very strange to come back out on tour, in a much-changed version, which we’ve performed in London, Edinburgh, Coventry and Kent.”
How has Styx changed for these new performances, “now bearing wounds wrought by 18 months of disrupted human connectivity”?
“Well, by far the most apparent wound is the gap where six musicians used to be. The show is now a two-man affair, as the rest of the band is stuck in Australia for the time being.
“But also this time has been horrendous for people like my grandma, and that subtly makes itself known in the work.”
How have you re-mixed the music for the new version?
“Well, it used to be a big eight-piece sax-resplendent experience, so now we’ve completely reworked the music to retain the epicness as a duo.
“This has involved the use of fresh-pressed vinyl records – my grandparents ran a record store, so it’s like we’re duetting with them – and embracing electronics, in addition to bowed percussion and a much more multi-instrumental Jethro.”
Styx has achieved award-winning success and ten five-star reviews. What ingredients/chemistry/magic make for a hit show?
“It’s now 13, I believe! We’ve won one award, and been shortlisted for two, including the Total Theatre Award, which was a massive honour. Oh man, I don’t know. I guess you’ve gotta just make stuff that feels true to you, and hopefully that will chime for some other people too, and if you’re lucky the plaudits come.”
One final question prompted by Styx: how can we continue to be ourselves when we are separated from our loved ones?
“I’m not sure we can. Part of the message of the show is that we are what we are right now, not some consistent narrativised self that spans our whole life.
“This is a way of finding hope in the loss of memories, and finding value in the interactions that you can still have with loved ones that are no longer cognitively healthy.
“But this last 18 months or so has wrought incredible damage on people in those positions. And that needs some heavy recognition.”
Residency At The Mill presents Second Body in Styx at Stillington Mill, near York, on September 12 and 14, 8pm, followed by Terra, music from a new climate change theatre-concert in development, September 18, 8pm.
In between, Yoshika Colwell performs Invisible Mending on September 16, 8pm, and her new EP in concert by Yoshika & Friends on September 19, 8pm. Box office: tickettailor.com/events/atthemill.
INVISIBLE MENDING: A work in progress exploring creativity, knitting, the strange journey of grief, and the transcendent act of swimming in the sea. Text, music, and performance by University of York graduate Yoshika Colwell. Directed by Max Barton.
TERRA: Marking the debut of Slowstepper, Max Barton and Jethro Cooke’s new experimental multi-media music outfit, the climate-change concept album Terra will have its first public sharing at Stillington.
YOSHIKA & FRIENDS: A first public performance of the epic soul-searching songs of 22-year-old Yoshi’s debut solo EP will be complemented by performances by Slowstepper and other acts.
ZIMBAMWEAN writer-performer Tonderai Munyevu’s new one-man show, Mugabe, My Dad & Me, appears in York Theatre Royal’s brochures for both the Summer Of Love and The Haunted Season.
“Which one suits it best, Tonderai?”, he is asked, when shown both. He smiles, then decides: “I think ‘Haunted’. It sounds longer lasting. ‘The Summer Of Love’ sounds impermanent.”
Tonderai is sitting by the first-floor bar at the Theatre Royal, ahead of his long-promised, pandemic-delayed world premiere opening tonight (9/9/2021), directed by Theatre Royal associate artist John R Wilkinson.
“I did a job in Bristol, then one week off, and we were going into rehearsals when everything stopped,” he says. “It’s just been postponed and postponed but I’m glad that John and the Theatre Royal have stuck with it.”
Mugabe, My Dad & Me, running until September 18 in the main house, charts the rise and fall of one of the most controversial politicians of the 20th century through the personal story of Tonderai’s Zimbabwean family and his relationship with his father, against the backdrop of the abiding legacy of British colonisation.
“Around the time when Robert Mugabe was deposed as president in 2017, I just felt like I needed to be back there,” he recalls. “At that point, I hadn’t been there for a few years, not for safety, but more for work and family. I found it was triggering a reaction in me, thinking, ‘I’m going to be in England, and not part of this amazing turnaround’, when I want to experience it’.”
Initially, Tonderai pondered doing a play based solely on freedom fighter-turned despot Mugabe’s speeches from 1962 to 2017, or “potentially to 2018, when he did that final press conference that was so telling”. “But then I thought, when I looked at my father’s story, being born in subjugated Rhodesia, I should tell that story too,” he says.
“I just knew my father’s basic story; I knew he was my dad; he drank too much; he womanised; he was fantastic, such fun, but he was a wife beater too. He lost his job as an accountant – I was about 11; he was in his 40s – and life just changed for him at that point.
“Just as Mugabe’s speeches changed from calling for equality and England knighting him to the speeches of the 1990s and his fall-out with [international development secretary] Clare Short and ‘Prime Minister] Tony Blair, going against the Lancaster Agreement, over how land was to be dealt with and how people would be compensated. That fall-out led to an impoverishment of Zimbabwe that was unparalleled.”
Based in London, Tonderai set to writing Mugabe, My Dad And Me. “I knew if I made it too political, we’d lose the sense of a story being told, but if we could see it through a family’s eyes, with the story of my father dying in an impoverished state, after I left for England with my mother when I was 12, that would work better,” he says.
“The story of Zimbabwe is the story of Mugabe and the story of my father’s generation, but also the story of my generation, who have moved away from home and are grappling with who they are, when you’re asked, ‘Where do you belong?’, and you know you are technically part of that culture but you’re not there anymore, so where do you belong?”
A quarter of Zimbabweans left southern Africa in the big exodus around 2003. “That happened once the economy tanked, the white farmers left and the land was not being cultivated. It started a very tragic downward turn,” says Tonderai.
What about his father losing his job? How come? “The issue involved my father and another accountant at work having a dispute. They said my father wouldn’t be fired if he offered an apology, but he felt hard done by and so he didn’t apologise.” Instead, he left the company.
“My mother and I then left [for London] before it got really bad for him, and I would keep in touch with letters, but not really knowing how things were for him. But then, when I went back, I learnt what really happened, with my uncle being killed when he was only 17 by white Rhodesians who had paraded his body as a warning to those who were guerrilla-fighting in the fields for freedom,” says Tonderai.
“My family was never offered the land that was promised to freedom fights, so Mugabe didn’t deliver on that promise. There’s no-one with moral authority in this story as you can’t defend Mugabe, but equally Blair had a superficiality about him.”
Learning more of his father and his family’s back story led Tonderai to feel more sympathetic towards him. “Though my mother says, ‘No, whatever happens in your life, it doesn’t justify you being a wife-beating, womanising drinker’.”
As for Tonderai’s own sense of identity as an African, Catholic, gay artist, he says: “It had always been connected with Mugabe’s long, long life, like his contemporaries, The Queen and Prince Philip. Now I had to grapple with the President no longer being on pictures everywhere, but also that joy that now we have a democracy, we can protest on the street.
“I started looking at things, about where I wanted to be, and I wanted to understand myself, and part of that was understanding my father. If you’re an artist, you’re an emotionally and intellectually mature person, and I want to investigate that.”
Nothing is simple in his assessment. “The colonisers were ostensibly a negative force in that land, but in some ways positive too, just as Mugabe was an icon of liberation but then tainted by his later actions, and my father was an amazing man, but he was violent too,” says Tonderai.
“In Africa, we have been colonised, but we have colonised ourselves too…some people think Zimbabwe is worse now [post-Mugabe]. I think it’s a very journey to having the opportunity for young people to have the choice of what happens in that country because Zimbabwe is still locked into that thing of ‘What war did you fight in? Why do you, as a young person, have the right to say what Zimbabwe should be?’.
“It does feel like we have to wait for a while to see what the future path will be for Zimbabwe. We have a military hold on religion. You feel despondency because you have hope, just like in South Africa, with Nelson Mandela’s presidency, so when we start looking at African culture, maybe it will be more attuned to Marxism, Socialism for sure, but not democracy as it stands now.
“What I have to do humbly in this story is to show how complex it is and to say there are no easy solutions.”
Tonderai ponders: “Is it more helpful to say that humans have always done it – subjugating people – but we don’t have to define ourselves now by the same standards, when we solve our problems by focusing on our resources, on education, to be fully human, without racism.
“Rather than having to be respected by a white person, or a white person having to admit that they did wrong, instead our priority is our children and our sense of worth that is not defined by subjugation or being considered lesser by another race.
“We move forward. The broader thing that has humbled me in doing Mugabe, My Dad & Me is I could write something where everything feels it’s about race, but instead in this play I’m writing about my culture, the complexities of that legacy and now not defining myself as a migrant in Britain. No-one is ever just a ‘migrant’.”
Tonderai, who last took to the Theatre Royal stage in Eclipse Theatre’s touring production of Testament’s Black Men Walking in September 2019, turns to discussing the “Me” in Mugabe, My Dad & Me. “There’s a point in this play when I say ‘I’m a gay man, I’ve just got engaged and I’m getting married next year’, and though there’s a necessity to say it, I’m a free man and I’m incredibly privileged to be supported,” he says.
“I think my father always liked me because I was confident, erudite, intelligent, fun, and for my father in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, he loved that about me, and I loved that about him. My parents were both bright people and I loved that about them.
“My father said, in the last conversation we ever had, ‘I know I don’t have to ask you if you have a wife’. My feeling is, I think he knew I was gay, rather than him saying I was too young to marry!”
Writing Mugabe, My Dad & Me has proved cathartic for Tonderai. “Yes, things have been resolved by writing it. I think I know who I am now because of writing it; I’m definitely a writer because, until I wrote this play, there were things that I’d never written about; things that were holding me hostage,” he says.
“I never had a straight answer about Zimbabwe, but to have the confidence to be able to talk to a white farmer, Ben, about his life there was important to me. He knew everything by the book and had a very clear argument as to what he thought.
“When I was doing my preparation for this play, I would say, ‘hey, I’m writing this play and I’d like a white man’s perspective on Zimbabwe’, and to have a conversation with such clarity about being Zimbabwean was fantastic. We’re friends now.
“Ironically, he stayed in Zimbabwe, unlike me, and his rhythms of life are dovetailed with the rhythms of nature.”
The pandemic lockdowns have held back the premiere of Mugabe, My Dad & Me, but that has worked to Tonderai’s advantage. “Originally, it was going to be in the Studio, but I’ve always wanted to be on the main stage with a piece like this because I believe it can hold the main stage and I can hold the main stage, and I’m really excited to be performing it on that stage,” he says.
Summing up his one-man show about three men, Tonderai says: “This play is not a raking-up of the past; it’s a play about the present. One of the things that the pandemic has made us realise is that a leader can **** up a country, and sometimes in Europe, we don’t realise how dangerous it is to put people in this position, taking you in a dangerous direction.”
Cue Mugabe, My Dad And Me, premiering from tonight in English Touring Theatre and York Theatre Royal’s co-production in York. For tickets: 01904 623568 or online at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.