Podcasters’ question of the day: Just how pretentiously French is The Velvet Queen?

IS the French snow leopard documentary La Panthere Des Neiges (The Velvet Queen) the moist pretentious nature film of all time?

Two Big Egos In A Small Car culture podcasters Graham Chalmers and Charles Hutchinson pass judgement in Episode 90.

What else is on their mind? Bono and The Edge go underground in Ukraine. What happens when critics change their mind on second acquaintance? Messums Gallery closes in Harrogate. Charm’s homecoming Karl Culley gig for the Harrogate Theatre restoration appeal.

To listen, head to: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1187561/10615841

Who was Ellen Wilkinson, the pocket dynamo revolutionary Labour politician? Let Red Ellen tell her crusading story

Rallying call: Bettrys Jones as Ellen Wilkinson MP, the groundbreaking first female Minister for Education, in Red Ellen

WHO was the Elfin Fury, the Mighty Atom, the Fiery Particle?

The answer is Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947), a working-class northern woman in a man’s world, whose presence inside the walls of Westminster prompted the reaction: “If that is not espionage, I do not know what is.”

Seven years since the initial commission from Lorne Campbell – Northern Stage’s artistic director at the time – playwright and poet Caroline Bird’s play Red Ellen has taken flight at last, “full of life, passion and humour” in Wils Wilson’s touring production.

Next stop, York Theatre Royal, from May 24 to 28, in the wake of Northern Stage turning the spotlight on another should-be-better-known inspiring political story in The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff at the Theatre Royal last October.

Labour of love: “I knew little about Ellen, but then I got obsessed,” says playwright Caroline Bird

“Ellen was a complex person by anyone’s standards and she never stopped, but despite her herculean efforts, she is largely forgotten by history,” says Leeds-born Caroline. “The irony, of course, about ‘forgotten women of history’ is invariably the facts of their lives turn out to be acutely memorable: they’re not forgotten because they’re forgettable.

“I’ve been living with Ellen Wilkinson in my head for seven years now and I can honestly say, after writing this play, Ellen has done the impossible: she has given me back a glimmer of faith in politics.

“We need politicians like Ellen, and we also need to look after them and support them. She failed at so many things, and yet she was a total, stonking, miraculous, life-affirming, bl**dy wonderful triumph. A bright and particular star. I hope that some of Ellen’s light can still reach us all the way down here, and that this play might reignite a spark or two.” 

In a nutshell, Red Ellen depicts a woman “forever on the right side of history, forever on the wrong side of life, caught between revolutionary and parliamentary politics, as she fights against the odds with an unstoppable, reckless energy for a better world”. 

On the front foot: Ellen Wilkinson (Bettrys Jones, centre) leading the Jarrow March

These are the facts: Ellen Wilkinson, MP for Middlesbrough East and later Jarrow, campaigned tirelessly for social change, raising the school-leaving age, bringing in free school meals and leading the Jarrow March from the North East to London through York, Nottingham and the Midlands to deliver a petition to reduce unemployment and poverty. 

Not only was she the only female minister in Attlee’s government, she also served as a vital member of Churchill’s war cabinet, taking sole charge of air raid shelters as “the Shelter Queen” during the Second World War.  

Further afield, Ellen campaigned for Britain to aid the fight against Franco’s Fascists in Spain, battled to save Jewish refugees in Nazi Germany and published some of the first anti-fascist literature in Britain. 

She encountered Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway, had affairs with Communist spies and government ministers alike but still found herself on the outside looking in.  

The short and the long of it: “Mighty Atom” Ellen Wilkinson MP (Bettrys Jones) and British Communist activist Isabel Brown (Laura Evelyn) in Red Ellen

Rather like her under-appreciated place in British political history, Caroline? “When I was commissioned, I knew little about Ellen, but then I got obsessed,” she says. “I found most people hadn’t heard of her, but it’s like a magician’s top hat: the more you reach in, the more material you find.”

Ellen’s personal papers were burnt after her death, leaving gaps in the story. “I wasn’t interested in writing a eulogy; I wanted to focus on both the personal and political side of her and how her personal side affected her political life,” says Caroline.

“In the absence of her papers, the play is fictionalised, in that I don’t have written proof, but everything has been written with the clout of research behind it for me to make a dramatic representation of her personality and what makes her a beacon of humanity.”

Ellen was always in such a rush, always running, that she often fell over. “She was only 4ft 9 tall, she just couldn’t move fast enough to do everything she wanted to do – and she had asthma too – but nothing would stop her,” says Caroline. “Like when she was driving in a blackout in the war, colliding with lorry and fracturing her skull but went back to work.”

Ellen Wilkinson (Bettrys Jones) speaks out as a lone working-class northern woman in a man’s world in Caroline Bird’s Red Ellen

Caroline felt “sad and reflective” when being struck by Red Ellen’s pertinence as she wrote her story. “There’s a feeling that Ellen spent her whole life walking, marching down a moving walkway that was going in the opposite direction,” she says.

“She had the wind in her face. Sometimes she was having to fight just to stay still. And sometimes it feels like that now. We have to fight to keep what we’ve got before we can even move further along – and there was so much further to go on this march, so much further to go. 

“And the left is divided. That’s the other thing that Ellen really fought for. She wanted unity.”

Northern Stage, Nottingham Playhouse and Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh present Red Ellen, York Theatre Royal, May 24 to 28, 7.30pm nightly; 2pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

The tour poster for Red Ellen, marching into York from Tuesday

REVIEW: Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming at York Theatre Royal, until Saturday

Sticking it to them: Keith Allen’s cruel patriach Max pours scorn on sons Teddy (Sam Alexander), left, and Lenny (Mathew Horne)

Theatre Royal Bath presents The Homecoming, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm, tonight; 2.30pm and 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

KEITH Allen, actor and comedian, reckons Jamie Glover’s revival of Harold Pinter’s bewildering 1965 psychodrama is the funniest of his three acquaintances with The Homecoming, spread over 25 years.

That assessment just adds to the puzzle emanating from Pinter’s fantasist family wars. Funny, you say, Keith? Well, not as in funny ha-ha, but darkly, bitterly humorous in its jaw-dropping mind games, sexual power plays and gruff misogyny, even more uncomfortable to observe in this age of #MeToo and heightened gender politics.

As a programme note forewarns, Pinter gave short shrift to “any director or actor who dared to ask him what a line or a scene might actually mean”. You may well be on the side of those befuddled actors and directors, feeling cast adrift on a sea of ambiguity, unsure of what is going on, maybe incredulous too, and yet somehow still fascinated by the shenanigans unfolding.

It turns out Noel Coward was a fan, writing to Pinter after experiencing the convention-smashing, fragmented, disturbing The Homecoming. “You cheerfully break every rule of the theatre that I was brought up to believe in, except the cardinal one of never boring for a split-second,” The Master voiced.

Urbane airs: Mathew Horne’s smooth operator pimp Lenny in The Homecoming

“I love your choice of words, your resolute refusal to explain anything, and the arrogant but triumphant demands you make on the audience’s imagination,” he enthused.

There you have it: the “resolute refusal to explain anything”. Over the years, that baton has been passed to the theatre critic, student and historian, and this particular critic has too often found his Pinter to be half empty, rather than half full, frustrating rather than fulfilling, a night to endure, more than enjoy.

Glover’s production, however, is a more rewarding encounter, the mystery, menacing comedy and muscular machismo language brought to the boil by a superb cast on a memorably distorted set design by Liz Ascroft.

Yes, you have to work hard; yes, you have to use your imagination, and yes, The Homecoming still carries its shock value, no longer the angry young man shock of the new; more, ‘did he just say that?’…’did she just do that’, but that is because the cast as one commits to Pinter’s “pause and effect” rhythm of language and its subsequent verbal punch.

Keith Allen’s Max: A cantankerous King Leer

Having played Teddy in 1997 and Uncle Sam in 2015, Keith Allen graduates to patriarch Max, the retired butcher who still rules the North London family house with a simmering temper from his armchair, using his walking stick as much to threaten violence as to hobble around the living room.

Max, a cantankerous King Leer, sets the mood, switching without warning from vicious viper to florid sentimentality, belittling his brother, quietly resolute chauffeur Sam (Ian Bartholomew), and winding up his sons with his bragging.  

The middle son, sarky pimp mobster Lenny (Mathew Horne), and youngest son, slow-headed, slow-footed aspiring boxer Joey (Geoffrey Lumb) have never left home despite Max’s derision. Like father, like son, all three are deluded, unhinged.

The one who did break away, eldest son Teddy (Sam Alexander), is a smug philosophy professor at an American university with educated airs and a cultivated voice. Without warning, he is paying a visit to show off his wife, mysterious, unpredictable, stultified former model Ruth (Shanaya Rafaat).

Family tensions: Warring Sam Alexander’s Teddy, left, and Mathew Horne’s Lenny with Ian Bartholomew’s mediator, Uncle Sam

This is a change-resistant house devoid of female presence since Max’s wife died, and Ruth becomes a pawn in a power struggle of toxic masculinity. Or does she, because amid the appalling misogyny, in a world where all the men talk, but none of them listens in games of one-upmanship, she is the one who does exactly that and then makes her play, picking them off in turn, as she breaks free from smug Teddy’s condescending control.  

It is said the word is all in a Pinter play, but here director Glover, designer Ascroft and lighting designer Johanna Town have a vital impact, at once physical and visual. Glover uses choreographed movement, a sudden change of posture, as the prelude to a mood switch; Ascroft has built a house interior that is worn, faded, stale, but is also stretched beyond reality with high walls and an endless staircase, bringing a sense of warped perspectives and being trapped.

Town’s lighting switches from drab domestic ordinariness to gothic shadows or flashes brightly on and off to reveal characters in different positions from before to indicate a juddering shift in the play’s tectonic plates.  

Leave the pauses and disdainful social comments to the deconstructionist Pinter, and he leaves you to fill in the narrative gaps, to cling onto the coat tails of non-sequitur conversations and to make sense of it all…or not. He is playing with us, toying with us, ever the agent provocateur out of love with man’s foibles and failings, our idiocy and crassness. Is it funny? The joke is on us.  

York Musical Theatre Company determined to take “phenomenal” Jekyll & Hyde The Musical out of niche status at JoRo Theatre

Steven Jobson, who plays Jekyll/Hyde, and Nicola Holliday, in the role of Lucy Harris, pictured at York Castle Museum

YORK Musical Theatre Company are marking their 120th anniversary with a new staging of Jekyll & Hyde The Musical.

Directed by Matthew Clare, York’s longest-running amateur theatre company are presenting Robert Louis Stevenson’s story of love, betrayal and murder from May 25 to 28, when the epic struggle between good and evil comes to life to the pop-rock score of Grammy and Tony Award-nominated Frank Wildhorn and double Oscar and Grammy-winning Leslie Bricusse.

Jekyll & Hyde has been described as a “niche musical”, prompting Matthew to say: “It was first done in Texas in the 1990s and it’s true it’s not been done commonly. Maybe its subject matter is off-putting to those who want something more family orientated: Annie comes without seven murders, doesn’t it – and I once did 17 productions of Annie in one year!

“But given that the music is phenomenal, we stood the chance of getting a really good cast, doing some music nights with musical director John Atkin going through some of the score, and we ended up with a really good turnout for the auditions.”

Among those auditionees was Glyndebourne Academy alumna Alexandra Mather, who will play Emma Carew. “The music has some operatic elements and strong musical theatre ones too,” she says.

“So, the show has that crossover appeal between the populism of Lloyd Webber and the sophistication of Sondheim. It’s Phantom meets Sweeney Todd, with the big power ballads for the Lloyd Webber factor and the interplay of Sondheim in the ensemble scenes.”

Matthew Clare: Directing York Musical Theatre Company’s production of Jekyll & Hyde The Musical

Stevenson’s tale of two men – one, a doctor, passionate and romantic; the other, a terrifying madman – and two women – one, beautiful and trusting; the other, beautiful and trusting only herself – finds both women in love with the same man and both unaware of his dark secret.

A devoted man of science, Dr Henry Jekyll is driven to find a chemical breakthrough that can solve the most challenging of medical dilemmas. Rebuffed by the powers-that-be, he decides to make himself the subject of his own experimental treatments, accidentally unleashing his inner demons, along with the man that the world would come to know as Mr Hyde.

“It’s a really powerful story rooted in Dr Jekyll looking for a cure for his father’s dementia,” says Matthew. “Most people can probably sympathise with that emotion, that desire, but the issue is that he becomes obsessed with it.”

Alexandra adds: “Jekyll doesn’t have a way to pursue this through the proper channels because it’s a one-man crusade and he ends up having to push Emma away because of what he’s doing.”

Anthony Gardner, cast as lawyer John Utterson, joins in: “Hyde is a diminished part of Jekyll. He’s juxtaposed with Utterson, who has all the correct moral values and represents stability.”

Matthew notes how Hyde is the only honest character in the story. “That’s a really weird thing to say about your villain, who’s always within Jekyll.”

“It’s Phantom meets Sweeney Todd,” says principal cast member Alexandra Mather, describing the musical style of Jekyll & Hyde

How we might behave in any given situation depends on where we are in our lives, suggests Alexandra. “We are not constant,” she says. “Depending on where we are, it can bring out that other side.”

Anthony is playing “one of the more relatable characters”. “Utterson is Jekyll’s best friend but he’s also someone who steps out of the story and becomes a narrator, so as such his voice is one of the ones you can trust,” he says.

“He’s desperate to save his friend but he’s also blind to his faults so he’s always one step behind.”

Anthony has been “knocking around I don’t know how many companies all these years”, from York Light Opera Company to York Opera, the Bev Jones Music Company to York Musical Theatre Company. “But the draw to Jekyll & Hyde for me was very specific,” he says.

“I met my fiancée doing an abridged version at the ROSS Musical Theatre Performance School at Lancaster: a 45-minute version that still had all the murders and the full story.

“I had to play two characters: my first take on Utterson, a role suited to my style, and Spider; my now fiancée was playing Lucy Harris, the prostitute, and now she’s playing Lady Savage next week.

Devoted man of science: Steven Jobson’s Dr Henry Jekyll

“We’re due to get married next year. We got engaged over lockdown, and we’ll be getting married on Kirkgate at York Castle Museum, where, as it happens, we did the photocall for Jekyll & Hyde.”

Anthony’s bride-to-be is Elizabeth Vile. “No, she will not be keeping her maiden name! I had always thought I would go double-barrelled when marrying, but ‘Vile Gardner’ doesn’t quite work, does it?!”

Should you be seeking further reasons to be “immersed in the myth and mystery of 19th century London’s fog-bound streets” in Jekyll & Hyde, here are two more from director Matthew.

“Because of Covid, York Musical Theatre Company haven’t had a full-scale production for two years since Jesus Christ Superstar, just a couple of online concerts, so it’s great to be back,” he says.

“It’s also very interesting to have two performers playing Lucy – Nicola Holliday on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evening; Claire Pulpher on Thursday and at the Saturday matinee – and seeing how they play her in their different ways.”

York Musical Theatre Company in Jekyll & Hyde The Musical, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, May 25 to 28, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

York Musical Theatre Company’s poster artwork for Jekyll & Hyde The Musical

Who’s taking part in York Theatre Royal’s Green Shoots showcase of new works?

Bolshee trio Paula Clark, left, Megan Bailey and Lizzy Whynes: Premiering Boss B***h at Green Shoots

NEW work commissioned by York Theatre Royal from dozens of York and North Yorkshire professional artists will be premiered in Green Shoots on June 7 and 8.

Poets, performers, singers, dancers and digital artists will take part in this sequel to Love Bites, last May’s two-night showcase that marked the Theatre Royal’s reopening after the lifting of Covid lockdown restrictions.

Forming part of the Rumours & Rebels season, Green Shoots’s diverse bite-sized performances will be focused on “rebooting post-pandemic and looking to the future of the planet”.

Twenty commissions have been selected by the Theatre Royal from the call-out for submissions for a scheme that offers £1,000 per commission plus £150 each time they are performed.

Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster says: “Love Bites last year was a joyous event that will live long in my mind, not just because we were re-opening after 14 months of enforced closure, but also because our stage was filled to overflowing with the tremendous talent and ingenuity of local artists.

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster

“It was moving, spectacular, surprising, thought-provoking and funny in equal measures. We have created this new opportunity with Green Shoots because we are excited to see what they will do next.”

Those who were commissioned have been asked to respond to the title Green Shoots in any way that it can be interpreted. “Pieces might be about hope, recovery, new beginnings, revolution, new life, growth, the environment or anything else that can be imagined as a response,” says Juliet.

Participating next month will be Hayley Del Harrison; Dora Rubinstein; Sam Bond; Fladam; Bolshee; Butshilo Nleya; Ana Silverio; Esther Irving; Gus Gowland; Nettle Soup and Polychrome Studios; Paul Birch and Sam Conway.

So too will be Ella Portnoy; Kate Bramley/Badapple Theatre Company; Robert Powell, Ben Pugh and Kitty Greenbrown; Libby Pearson and Emily Chattle; Alexander Flanagan-Wright; Hannah Davies and Jack Woods; Joe Feeney and Carey Simon.

Hayley Del Harrison: Choreographer and theatre-maker

Hang On Little Tomato, Hayley Del Harrison.

HANG On Little Tomato is about a young woman, growing her very first tomato plant. Some people believe that plants respond emotionally when you talk to them but our novice gardener takes this to the next level. It turns out the shared experience delivers mutual support, faithful companionship and that tiny bit of vibrancy they both needed to feel a little less alone. 

Spring In My Step!, Dora Rubinstein

THIS contortion and acro-dance piece is a physical exploration of how it feels when the sun shines again after a long winter. The feeling of sunlight on your skin; the smell of freshly cut grass; the sight of daffodils. The feeling that light, connection, joy, is back, and the dark days are over.

All The World Is Green, Sam Bond

LONELY retirees Jamie and Clara meet by chance at a concert in their Yorkshire Dales village, bringing love unexpectedly back into their lives. A story of new beginnings, All The World Is Green blends live performance and film to look at the power of memories, life after loss and finding love again in old age.

Greenfingers, Fladam

DID you ever hear the tale of Greenfingers? The wicked boy born with unsightly green hands, who spoils all he touches. But has history misjudged this green-fingered boy? Is he even a boy at all? Find out in this deliciously Dahl-esq treat from madcap musical duo Fladam, alias Adam Sowter and Florence Poskitt.

BOSS B***H, Bolshee

BOSS B***H explores the infamous statement made by influencer Molly-Mae Hague and celebrity media personality Kim Kardashian that we all have the same 24 hours in a day as Beyonce. Cue five minutes of female voices, beats and moves. “Let’s challenge the toxic boss bitch narrative,” say Paula Clark, Lizzie Whynes and Megan Bailey.

Butshilo Nleya: Healing stories

Tatu Dances: Stories Of Healers, Butshilo Nleya

A PLAY with dances, songs, poetry about healing the mind, the body and the spirit celebrated by three generations of displaced, dejected, denigrated and defiant African healers. 

Green Shoots, Ana Silverio (Terpsichoring)

ANA’S solo dance piece, specially created for the Green Shoots commission, explores the processes and emotions of starting over again after an unexpected interruption. This work is about perseverance and the search for possibilities.

Her Face/My Face, Esther Irving

WHAT do you do when you no longer recognise the face that looks back at you in the mirror? How can you re-connect the life you had with the one you live now?

Your Own Road, Gus Gowland

THIS original song takes its inspiration from a quote from James Herriot’s memoir All Creatures Great And Small: “When all t’world goes one road, I go t’other”. Performed by Joe Douglass, this uplifting and empowering anthem encourages you to follow your own path and see hope in the world around you.

Stones On The Riverbed! Nettle Soup and Polychrome Studios

HAVE you ever heard of the legend of the five white stones? This piece of verbatim theatre explores what the residents of York are looking forward to in the future, unearthing their hearts’ truest desires.

Gus Gowland: Uplifting and empowering anthem

Beanstalk, Paul Birch

FOR hundreds of years, you have been telling the story of Jack And The Beanstalk completely wrong.  Beanstalk is the recently discovered true account of the tale, told from the Giant’s point of view. Any similarities to any persons now living, lying or misusing public funds is entirely coincidental. 

‘Don’t Mow, Let it Grow!’, Sam Conway (Little Leaf Theatre)

THIS piece extols the benefits of letting the grass in your garden grow throughout spring. Incorporating dance, music and video, Little Leaf Theatre endeavour to bring a serious message to the stage in a light-hearted and engaging way.

Baby Bird, Ella Portnoy

A MONOLOGUE about breaking out of an egg and feeling new-born after lockdown – being a gosling and pottering around in the world, full of curiosity.

The Three Allotmenteers, Kate Bramley/Badapple Theatre Company

A CURIOUS late-night game takes place at The Gardener’s Arms as The Three Allotmenteers play for what was left after the sudden death of their friend. An unexpected discovery sows the seeds of a joyous outcome to their current situation

Beckon, Robert Powell, Ben Pugh and Kitty Greenbrown

THIS five-minute performance and film-poem drew initial inspiration from a remarkable medieval church window in York. Beckon invites its audience on a brief but powerful journey through a landscape of shared memory, confusion, fear and wonder towards a sense of hope.

The dramatic collage of spoken word, film and sound conjures both past and present times to address our current situation – a world at once treasured and threatened.

Alexander Flanagan-Wright: “Just words, and a little bit of music”

The Sapling!, Libby Pearson and Emily Chattle

SASHA’S history has bonded her to nature in general and to trees in particular, and she knows that sometimes even the smallest of gestures can have the biggest of impacts. Meet Sasha as she tells her personal story of discovery and making a difference.

If There Was Ever Anything Worth Hoping For Then I Hope, Alexander Flanagan-Wright

“THIS is a story. It’s a short story. It’s only five minutes long. But it’s about loads of stuff. It’s about everyone, I guess,” says Alex. “It’s about everything that got each of us to here and it’s about what we do next and, importantly, what we hope will happen after that.

“It’s just words, and a little bit of music. But it’s come from your yesterday, your week before, the years that got you here. And it’s about tomorrow, or next week, or next year. If you’re after a fresh start, they perhaps don’t exist. But tomorrow does, so let’s pin some of our hope on that, shall we?”

The Ballad Of Blea Wyke!, Hannah Davies and Jack Woods

THE traditional selkie myth is reworked for the Yorkshire East Coast, set against the dramatic landscape of Ravenscar. Here the ancient story of the seal-people is re-imagined, placing it in a world not too far off from our own, where cliffs are crumbling and some people have never seen the sea, despite the rising water levels.

Green Man!, Joe Feeney

AT the end of his tether witnessing the climate emergency’s destructive charge towards certain oblivion, and feeling utter powerlessness, an ordinary man calls on the mythical Green Man of yore to save the world.

Ocean/Jura, Carey Simon

PRESENTING two poems with a backdrop of classical music. Ocean focuses on the seething fury of the mighty unabashed ocean, the passion and the volatility of its rolling motion that conceals its briny, gloom-shrouded depths from frail eyes above.

Jura is an elixir that transcends the bounds of the spirit-taste divide. Smoothness, translucence overflowing the senses into something more. Deliciousness, a notion leading to Nirvana’s devotion.

Tickets for the two 7.30pm performances are on sale on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Keith Allen plays The Homecoming to the Max in third role in Pinter’s brutal comedy

Keith Allen as brutal patriarch Max, ruling his sons with threats and violence, in The Homecoming

KEITH Allen is completing a hattrick of roles spread over 25 years in Harold Pinter’s darkly comic power struggle The Homecoming, on tour at York Theatre Royal from tonight.

At the National Theatre, in 1997, the Welsh actor, comedian, television presenter, documentary maker and rousing punk musician played university professor Teddy, returning from America with his wife Ruth to find his two brothers, Joey and Lenny, and elderly father Max still living at their North London family home.

In 2015, at the Trafalgar Studios, London, he was cast as Uncle Sam. “Now I’m playing Max but that’s as far as I can go because I’m too old to play Joey or Lenny,” says Keith, 68. “Max is the patriarch of a very misogynistic household. Every character is repressed to the nth degree but while most of them repress their rage Max doesn’t.

“He had a very interesting relationship with his now-dead wife that has coloured his whole life and he’s in a household where they’re all playing games and trying to top each other. Everything that’s done is for a reason and it’s usually to get one over on someone else.”

Keith compares former butcher Max to a raging sheep: “If you’ve ever been in a field with a very angry tup, you don’t want to be there. I’ve been there and they don’t back down.”

Director Jamie Glover and actor Mathew Horne, who is playing pimp Lenny, always had Allen in mind for their Pinter project “They’re close mates, and the genesis of the idea to do a Pinter play came from them. They took their idea to Danny Moar at [the Theatre Royal] Bath, originally wanting to do The Caretaker, but the Pinter estate offered the rights to The Homecoming instead.”

Glover and Horne were unsure whether Allen would want to return to Pinter’s 1965 fractured family drama, but “Max is a part I’ve always had my eye on,” says Keith. “I was very lucky to be offered it and I’m very pleased to be doing it.”

After all, The Homecoming is considered to be Pinter’s finest work in its exploration of toxic masculinity, stultifying patriarchy, one-upmanship feuds and sexual powerplays. “I’ve always thought Pinter was a poet before he was a playwright and the poetry is amazing. This whole play is about language and very particular choices of words, which is why as an actor you have to be very on-the-ball about the grammar.

Keith Allen’s Max, seated, and Mathew Horne’s Lenny, centre, in The Homecoming

“I think the lyricism of the play is extraordinarily attractive and the tension has people constantly going, ‘What on earth is happening and what’s going to happen next?’.”

Keith praises not only the writing, but the “brilliant structure” too, describing it as a feat of engineering. “As an actor, you just get your skis on and let the skis guide you,” says the skiing enthusiast.

What does Keith recall of his first performance in The Homecoming? “That was in 1997, directed by Roger Michell, who died last September, bless him. I remember feeling I’d let the cast down in rehearsals, as I would forget my lines, make things up and trip my way through it, playing Teddy to Lindsay Duncan’s Ruth.

“But I got a handle on it in the end, and it was a brilliant way to learn about being still on stage, which is a great skill to master, when a lot of actors get scared if they’re not doing anything.”

Comparing the productions, Keith says: “I have to say that all three have had very different qualities. This one is very funny, much funnier than the other two, because the director chose that path. Jamie Lloyd’s production in 2015 was much bleaker; this one is genuinely funny but also very discerning.

“A hefty contributory factor to that humour is that these men are idiots. They’re fantasists, all trying to be top dog, and that’s funny to watch.”

Assessing The Homecoming’s impact on audiences in 2022, by comparison with 1965, Keith says: “Misogyny is very present in the play, as is generational jealousy within a family. The mother is dead but she looms very large in everyone’s memory, especially Max’s because he loathed her.

“When the play was first performed, I don’t think anyone had seen anything quite so vicious and measured before. Now it’s interesting for different reasons because we’re living in a time where women are becoming far more recognised and are on a far more equal footing.

“As an actor, you just get your skis on and let the skis guide you,” says Keith Allen of the art of performing in a Pinter play

“There are things in the play that could be misconstrued as being abusive to women and, because of the times we’re living in, audiences might react very quickly to certain things which they wouldn’t necessarily have reacted to before.”

Keith has “previous” for Pinter, not only appearing in The Homecoming but also in Pinter 3: Landscape/A Kind Of Alaska in the West End and The Celebration and The Room, both directed by Pinter himself at the Almeida Theatre, London, in 2000 and in New York in 2001. 

“You very quickly realised that Harold chose people for what they could do; he was very careful in his casting,” Keith recalls. “He wouldn’t ask you to act a part, but to ‘be’, so he left you alone and watched.”

As for Pinter’s advice on his notorious use of pauses, “he once quite frivolously said to us, ‘if the pauses don’t work, **** it’, but actually they do work,” says Keith. “It works like a musical score in that what comes before dictates what comes after. It’s all about rhythm.”

After a five-year hiatus, Keith will enjoy his return to York, where he was last seen on stage as Inspector Rough in Patrick Hamilton’s thriller Gaslight at the Grand Opera House in February 2017. ” York is lovely because you’re near the river and there are some lovely pubs,” he says.

“I really like touring. I like the fact that you’re on the move and it’s as if you’re having an opening night every week because you’re in a different space, in a different theatre, with a different ambience.

” I like to fit in some golf wherever I go and I have an ingrained curiosity about corrugated iron chapels and buildings, so I always see if I can find one or two to go and have a look at.”

Theatre Royal, Bath, presents Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, York Theatre Royal, tonight until Saturday; 7.30pm, plus 2pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, . Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

Keith Allen as Inspector Rough and Kara Tointon as Bella Manningham in Gaslight at the Grand Opera House, York, in February 2017

Podcast question of the day: Are Fontaines DC in too much of a hurry?

The album artwork for Fontaines DC’s Skinty Fia

AS album number three arrives so soon, why are the Irish band being as prolific as the early Beatles? Two Big Egos In A Small Car culture podcasters Graham Chalmers and Charles Hutchinson discuss Skinty Fia in Episode 89.

Plus: what happens to the BBC when the licence fee ends? Anything else? Sheffield Leadmill update; The Divine Comedy at York Barbican review; Gary Barlow’s show with a difference, and why Mischief and Penn &Teller’s Magic Goes Wrong is wand-erful.

To listen, here is the link: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1187561/10570721

Paul Merton’s ad-libbing Impro Chums want a word with you on first travels since 2019

Paul Merton, front, and his Impro Chums Mike McShane, Richard Vranch, Kirsty Newton and Suki Webster

HAVE I Got News For You regular Paul Merton teams up with his Impro Chums to flex their off-the-cuff comedy muscles tonight at the Grand Opera House, York.

In their first antics roadshow since August 2019, seasoned improvisers Merton, Richard Vranch, Suki Webster and Mike McShane are accompanied by latest addition Kirsty Newton on piano.

“What audiences like about what we do is that we haven’t lost our sense of play, our sense of fun, the sort of thing that gets knocked out of you because you have to get married or get a mortgage or find a job,” says Merton. “We play and they enjoy watching us play.”

Let the adlibbing fun and games sparked by audience suggestions begin at 8pm, with tickets still available on 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York.

Here, the Impro Chums discuss their return to the stage.

Do you expect Covid to be mentioned during a game?

Richard Vranch: “I did quite a few shows back at the Comedy Store after a 16-month break and weirdly it hasn’t come up from an audience in any of the suggestions. I’ve made a couple of jokes about it, because they were very funny, but other than that it hasn’t actually been mentioned.” 

Paul Merton: “My own view is that people would want to get away from it. Not every comedy show has to hold up a magnifying glass to society and be about how we live today. The whole idea of entertainment, for me, is to take you somewhere else, not to remind you of where you are.”

Suki Webster: “I think the particular form of comedy we do is about us having fun and being silly; it doesn’t lend itself to satire or in-depth discussion on difficult subjects because you’ve got four or five minds on stage all weaving in and out.

“The depth of it is in the joy and connection with each other and the audience. And we’re all so giddy with excitement at being back together that I can’t see it being a focus.”

 What have you missed about the touring life since 2019?

Richard: “The thing I’ve missed is laughter. I’ve been watching a load of telly and there has been wonderful stuff produced by an arts industry that has been having a hard time. But I’ve really missed laughing with mates on the bus on the way to the gig and on stage during the gig.” 

Mike McShane: “The last tour was exemplary for us as a group; it felt like a Marx Brothers show in the best way possible. We now had music from Kirsty [on her first tour] and it was all very nice. Getting on the bus, checking in on each other, hanging out, acting like idiots. And doing the show is fantastic and everything you hope for. “

What was your over-riding memory of Kirsty’s first Impro Chums tour of duty in 2019?

Kirsty Newton: “I felt as though I’d been let into the coolest, funnest club ever and we had such a wonderful time. My over-riding sense of it is that it’s probably the best job in the world; just consistent fun and loveliness all the way.

“I’d say I have the best seat in the house: I’m up close and personal with everyone on the stage and I get to direct the music, making them explode into song mid-scene. Quite often I don’t know what’s going to come out of my fingers; that’s the joy of it.” 

Paul: “To adapt an old saying, you can lead Paul Merton to music but you can’t make him sing. But it was great having Kirsty there and there was more music in that show than before. Mike and Suki are very strong singers and Richard is very musical, of course, but I stay out of the way.” 

Kirsty: “I have one brilliant memory of going through the Scottish Highlands and sticking my head out of the bus going, ‘this is wonderful’!” 

For a show without a script, how do you get the comedy muscle moving before the start?

Paul: “The most important thing is to be together beforehand. So, we’ll throw a ball around to be in each other’s orbit and to just tune in to each other.”

Richard: “The preparation for the show is the decades that we’ve known and worked together. With a scripted show or a rock band, you’d start to get ‘musical differences’ round about year 15. I think I first appeared on stage with Paul in 1984, and with impro it’s about a group attitude and sense of fun.

“Weirdly, that matures like a good cheese or wine over the years and doesn’t fester like a rock band. So, we put the work in by simply having done it for all this time and it just gets better and better.” 

How important is the audience to making an Impro Chums show the best it can be?

Suki: “If you’re doing a play or stand-up there’s a bit of us and them, but with our show it’s about everybody, because their energy and their suggestions build it in a way that no other show can have. Everything is happening in the moment and what they’re doing is absolutely crucial. When it goes right that means everyone is involved and having a good time. It’s like a big party!”

More Things To Do in York and beyond as Pinter’s pause and effect comes home to roost. List No 82, courtesy of The Press

Keith Allen: Homing in on The Homecoming arriving at York Theatre Royal on Monday

AVOIDING the “devastation of stag and hen parties” (copyright Rachael Maskell, York Central MP), Charles Hutchinson finds reasons aplenty to venture out.

Play of the week: Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, York Theatre Royal, Monday to Saturday, 7.30pm; Thursday, 2pm; Saturday, 2.30pm

GAVIN & Stacey star Mathew Horne and Keith Allen star in Jamie Glover’s new production of The Homecoming, Harold Pinter’s bleakly funny 1965 exploration of family and relationships.

University professor Teddy returns to his North London childhood home from America, accompanied by his wife Ruth, to find his father, uncle and brothers still living there. As life becomes a barely camouflaged battle for power and sexual supremacy, who will emerge victorious: poised and elegant Ruth or her husband’s dysfunctional family? Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Tom Figgins: Introducing new material tonight at Stillington Mill. Picture: Daniel Harris

Outdoor gig of the week: Tom Figgins, Music At The Mill, Stillington Mill, near York, tonight, 7.30pm

SINGER-SONGWRITER Tom Figgins returns to At The Mill’s garden stage after last summer’s sold-out performance, with the promise of new material.

Figgins’ vocal range, guitar playing and compelling lyrics caught the ear of presenter Chris Evans, who hosted him on his BBC Radio 2 show and invited him to play the main stage at CarFest North & South.

His instrumental works have been heard on Countryfile and Panorama and he is the composer for the Benlunar podcast, now on its fourth series. Box office:  tickettailor.com/events/atthemill.

Martin Roscoe: Guest piano soloist for York Guildhall Orchestra

Classical concert of the week: York Guildhall Orchestra, York Barbican, tonight, 7.30pm

YORK Guildhall Orchestra’s final concert of their 2021-2022 season welcomes the long-awaited return of pianist Martin Roscoe, originally booked to perform in May 2020.

Retained from that Covid-cancelled programme are Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite, with its combination of cheeky jazz tunes and the Russian’s mastery of orchestration, and Dohnanyi’s mock-serious take on a children’s nursery rhyme. Leeds Festival Chorus join in for Elgar’s Music Makers. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Go West and Paul Young: Eighties’ revival at York Barbican

Eighties’ nostalgia of the week: Go West & Paul Young, York Barbican, Sunday, 7.30pm

PETER Cox and Richard Drummer’s slick duo, Go West, and Luton soul singer Paul Young go north this weekend for a double bill of Eighties’ pop.

Expect We Close Our Eyes, Call Me, Don’t Look Down and King Of Wishful Thinking, from the Pretty Woman soundtrack, in Go West’s set. The chart-topping Wherever I Lay My Hat, Love Of The Common People, Everytime You Go Away and Everything Must Change will be on Young’s To Do list. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Paul Merton’s Impro Chums: Wanting a word with you at the Grand Opera House

Fun and word games of the week: Paul Merton’s Impro Chums, Grand Opera House, York, Monday, 8pm

HAVE I Got News For You regular and Comedy Store Players co-founder Paul Merton teams up with fellow seasoned improvisers Richard Vranch, Suki Webster and Mike McShane and accompanist Kirsty Newton to flex their off-the-cuff comedy muscles on their first antics roadshow travels since August 2019.

“What audiences like about what we do is that we haven’t lost our sense of play, our sense of fun, the sort of thing that gets knocked out of you because you have to get married or get a mortgage or find a job,” says Merton. Let the fun and games sparked by audience suggestions begin. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York.

Hayley Ria Christian: All aboard her Midnight Train To Georgia for a night of Gladys Knight hits

Homage, not tribute show, of the week: Hayley Ria Christian in Midnight Train To Georgia, A Celebration Of Gladys Knight, Grand Opera House, York, Friday, 7.30pm

HAYLEY Ria Christian’s show is “definitely not a tribute, but a faithful portrayal that truly pays homage to the voice of a generation, the one and only Empress of Soul, Ms Gladys Knight”.

In the late Sixties and Seventies, Gladys Knight & The Pips enjoyed such hits as Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me, Help Me Make It Through The Night, Try To Remember/The Way We Were, Baby, Don’t Change Your Mind and her signature song Midnight Train To Georgia. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York.

Milton Jones: International spy turned comedian in Milton: Impossible

Comedy gig of the week: Milton Jones in Milton: Impossible, Harrogate Theatre, May 21, 7.30pm

ONE man. One Mission. Is it possible? “No, not really,” says Kew comedian Milton Jones, the shock-haired matador of the piercing one-liner, as he reveals the truth behind having once been an international spy, but then being given a somewhat disappointing new identity that forced him to appear on Mock The Week.

“But this is also a love story with a twist, or at least a really bad sprain,” says Jones. “Is it all just gloriously daft nonsense, or is there a deeper meaning?”  Find out next weekend. Box office: 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk.

Grace Petrie: Carrying on the fight for a better tomorrow when every day you are told you have lost already

Protest gig of the week: Grace Petrie, The Crescent, York, May 23, 7.30pm

DIY protest singer Grace Petrie emerged from lockdown with Connectivity, her 2021 polemical folk album that reflects on what humanity means in a world struggling against division and destruction.

Petrie’s honest songs seek a way to carry on the fight for a better tomorrow when every day you are told you have lost already. Bad news: her York gig has sold out. Good news: she will be playing Social, Hull, too on May 18 at 8pm (box office, seetickets.com). On both nights, she will be accompanied by long-time collaborator, singer and multi-instrumentalist Ben Moss.

Taking trouble at At The Mill to build a community for the arts and the people

Daniel Kitson: Testing out new material in six Outside performances at Stillington Mill

SUMMER At The Mill is returning for a second season of creative, culinary and community events in the gardens of Stillington Mill, Stillington, near York.

“After the spectacular, gorgeous, fun, exciting, beautiful and heart-warming time we had throughout our inaugural summer last year – what a ride! – we’re over the moon to present the mixed bag of goodies that is Summer At The Mill 2.0,” says programmer, theatre director, writer and performer Alexander Flanagan-Wright.

“Until September 4, we’ll be hosting a load of wonderful events all about community, art, food and flipping good times. We’ll have a pop-up café and bar, community gatherings, theatre, music, comedy, supper clubs and special events.”

The “Wright stuff” is the work of outdoor theatre co-builder Alex, sister Abbigail Ollive (Saturday café cuisine queen and supper club supremo) and their retired headteacher parents Maggi and Paul Wright, together with partners Megan Drury and Paul Smith. That “stuff” also takes in weddings, events and shepherd’s hut accommodation: truly a village cottage industry, you could say, albeit somewhat larger than a cottage.

A Supper Club gathering at At The Mill

“We just had a blast summer,” says Alex. “It was kind of by accident. It felt very serendipitous or of its moment, saying, ‘here is a way we can gather safely, our local community and the arts community, post-lockdown’.

“So this summer is a chance to see if people still care, and so far the evidence is that they do, with the return of the busy Saturday café, the Crafty Tales show [The Case Of The Missing Bunny] that sold out, our Pizza & Cocktail Night and the Dance Dance Dance Big Bank Holiday Silent Disco.

“Last year felt like a huge rush of adrenaline, and then you think, ‘OK, where do we go forward this year for beautiful experiences together?’. Already this year, we’re meeting new people coming to the events and the café.”

Summing up the essence of At The Mill, Alex says: “We believe a feeling of community is so important when people want to have an evening out. Whereas commercial theatre can feel merely transactional, with us, the means is the art, but the end result is a sense of community, and that feels the right way round.

Alexander Flanagan-Wright: At the heart of At The Mill

“On top of that, eating outside together, drinking outside together, is a lovely thing to do, and we have the space and setting to do that.”

Where once Stillington Mill’s 18th century mill would produce flour, now the At The Mill combines food with food for thought, new recipes at the Supper Club, new works on stage. “We’re very clear with the artists about that. Everyone we’ve asked, we’ve said, ‘we think you’re cool, we like your work, do you want to come and play with us?’,” says Alex.

“What we have in abundance is space and time, imagination and a community. What we don’t have in abundance is cash, but we find most performers end up walking away with cash in their pocket.

“We don’t say to them, bring a particular show. What you get instead is artists testing out new material, so it becomes a genuine relationship with the audience built around nurturing new work. We’re seeking an equal balance between the two communities, where they care about each other, and if we do our part well in bringing them together, then they will meet in a beautiful way, and hopefully that process is more valuable, than, say, a Q&A session in a theatre.”

The Saturday cafe at At The Mill, baked by Abbigail Ollive

Alex continues: “Hopefully too, we’re going to be able to sustain that culture of being able to welcome artists for whatever they want to try out, and of audiences being continually excited about seeing new work at such an early stage, performed by people they wouldn’t expect to be passing through their village.”

A case in point is Edinburgh Fringe favourite Daniel Kitson, the Denby Dale stand-up comedian, who asked to take part in the Theatre At The Mill programme after he was tipped off by storytelling performer Sam Freeman.

“Daniel got in touch to say hello, could he come and do a show? I don’t know what the show is about; I don’t know if Daniel does yet, but that feels a pretty exciting thing to be going on, and testament to our aim for brilliant performers to test out their work to our community,” says Alex.

“I’m also aware that there will be those who don’t know who Daniel Kitson is and would just see him as someone standing up in a garden! But it feels beautiful to know that his shows in May will be his first in two years and it’s great to be part of that work-in-progress experience.”

Chris Stokes: Storytelling comedy in Lockdown Detective at At The Mill on May 26

Clearly, plenty of people know exactly who Daniel Kitson is: his 8pm performances of Outside on May 23 to 25 have sold out already and his June 8 to 10 run looks close to following suit.

What’s in store from Kitson? Here’s the show blurb: “Daniel hasn’t been on stage for over two years. And, to be entirely honest, he’s not really missed it. It is, however, his actual job and everyone’s gone back to work now. So, he’s picked out a comfy pen, bought a new notebook and booked himself a summer’s worth of outdoor shows to find out whether he can still do his job and what, if anything, he has to say to large groups of people he doesn’t know.”

Given his performing hiatus and lack of practice, Kitson predicts the shows are “likely to be relatively rickety affairs”. “But Daniel’s already written the question ‘Do worms feel fear?’ in his new notebook, so we should be okay,” the blurb adds. “Also, if it gets boring – you can just use the time to look at the sky and feel small.”

At The Mill’s role in nurturing new work ties in with Alex’s own creativity as a writer and director, whether directing The Flanagan Collective, heading off to Australia with songwriter/musician/performer/magician Phil Grainger or spending last September to December in New York, making the immersive piece Tammany Hall for the Soho Playhouse.

Gary Stewart: Hosting regular Folk Club nights at At The Mill

“We meet loads of brilliant people when touring our work, and it’s great that they want to come here to test new pieces,” he says. “We’re delighted that people will hone shows here just before the Edinburgh Fringe kicks off, or will do shows here that aren’t going to Edinburgh but fit that vibe.”

Picking out upcoming highlights, singer-songwriterTom Figgins follows up last summer’s gig – his first in four years – with a return tomorrow; Chris Stokes’s storytelling comedy show, Lockdown Detective, is booked in for May 26, and Scottish musician Gary Stewart, now resident in nearby Easingwold, will host his regular Folk Club night on May 27, June 24 and July 8.

“For his first night, it’ll be just Gary and his guitar, performing Paul Simon songs solo rather than with his Graceland band. It’s lovely for us that a local musician, who’s internationally renowned, came here and said, ‘I want to play here every month and bring acts here regularly’,” says Alex.

At The Mill’s ERII Platinum Jubilee celebrations will take in Jubilee Jubilee, A Very Jubilant Cabaret, on June 3 and A Right Royal Knees Up, with live music and pizza, on June 5.

Maddie Morris: 2019 BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winner, playing a Music At The Mill gig for the first time

Leeds folk duo Maddie Morris & Lilian Grace will make their At The Mill debut on June 12, performing together as Death And The Daughter and playing solo works too. Their 2022 project, The Sticky Monsters, is influenced by the artwork of Swedish artist John Kenn and their compositions deal with childhood, poverty and more general reflections on culture and the idea of fear.

“I saw Maddie, the 2019 BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winner, at The Courthouse, Rural Arts’ home in Thirsk, and she’s an absolute folk musician, studying folk music at Leeds University and looking at contemporary politics through the lens of the folk tradition,” says Alex.

Gemma Curry’s York company Hoglets Theatre will perform the children’s show The Sleep Pirates on June 19 (10am to 1pm); York spoken-word collective Say Owt will host a poetry-writing workshop on June 25 (5pm), followed by an evening showcase (7.30pm); Heady Conduct will combine physical storytelling with live music to tell the Greek myth of Tiresias on July 10, and Paperback Theatre will stage their charming account of roguish Toad’s misadventures, The Wind In The Willows, on July 30 at 2.30pm and 7pm.

Alex himself has a couple of contributions to the season: Monster, a work-in-progress new story, on June 16 and 17, and The Gods The Gods The Gods, the Wright and Grainger show whose Australian premiere tour was curtailed by the pandemic, now making its British debut on July 23, 24, 27 and 28 at 8.45pm.

Gemma Curry in Hoglets Theatre’s The Sleep Pirates

“In its full iteration, it’s a big, heavy show, but this will be a lighter version before we take it to the Edinburgh Fringe,” says Alex of the final work in Wright & Grainger’s trilogy of myths, after Orpheus and Eurydice, both sell-outs at last summer’s At The Mill season.

The Gods The Gods The Gods, with its four stories and 14 compositions, corals big beats, soaring melodies and heart-stopping spoken words as it “calls us to the crossroads where mythology meets real life”.

“The Gods are gathering and you’re invited,” says Alex. “We’re excited about testing it out here, to wrangle up the story, to see that all the text and music works, and then add lights for Edinburgh, where we’ll be doing it in the Assembly’s 200-seat spiegeltent.”

The Mill’s summer programme will continue to add new events, with full details, including tickets, at athemill.org. Shows start at 7.30pm unless stated otherwise.

The Flanagan Collective’s Alexander Flanagan-Wright and Gobbledigook Theatre’s Phil Grainger staging Orpheus and Eurydice at At The Mill’s socially-distanced summer season in 2021. Picture: Charlotte Graham