“SOMETIMES we touch, connect, brough together by the tide. Sometimes we grind each other into sand like millstones. Sometimes we just break apart.”
York writer Tim Murgatroyd, eight novels to his name, and now penning his debut play, likes a metaphor. First-time stage director Martin Handsley loves the sound of the sea, and so the crashing of waves will greet this week’s audiences and accompany scenes staged at a lonely, low-key cottage by the coast, where Phil Goodman (Mick Liversidge) has retired after working as a doctor in conflict zones such as Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
In a play about relationships between fathers and daughters, we first encounter Jana Ilich (Ukrainian-born mezzo-soprano and actress Polina Bielova) and her “businessman” father Ratko (Ian Giles).
The year is 2000, ten years after the Yugoslavian Civil War; Jana is a lawyer, determined to prepare war trial prosecutions. Her father, who has more than something of the night about him, is always away on business overseas. He demands she should stop compiling her evidence; she will not be told.
Subsequently Jana will appear very briefly in Goodman’s cottage, without being seen by him and without naturalistic explanation, a moment of intrigue that establishes her presence but puzzles at the same time, until the narrative black hole is filled in later.
Liversidge’s Goodman is looking in his mirror; he appears to have a blood pressure kit around his arm, but again with no elaboration from Murgatroyd’s script. Maybe a daily routine, maybe later explained by the revelation that he is a former doctor, but such a prop is a mere distraction if not used.
Suddenly, Phil’s long-absent daughter, Sophie (Raqhael Harte), arrives. They have not seen each for more than four years; she was brought up by her mother and stepfather (who she calls ‘daddy’ on the phone) since her parents’ split, which may explain her Scottish accent, as opposed to Phil’s north-eastern brogue.
Sophie is brusque, nervous, needs a bath, has chips on both shoulders, doesn’t want to talk, but will have to. She may drive a swish Alfa Romeo – too flash for dad Phil – but she is in big trouble. The year is 2008, as denoted by the large numerals on the calendar on the wall, the year when the banks crashed, and, spoiler alert, Sophie has hit the rocks over her hedge fund-dealing.
Phil may be as good a man as his surname would indicate, but not so in the eyes of his daughter, who still resents him from his absence in childhood days.
Here we have two head-strong daughters whose relationships with their fathers come from the Lear and Cordelia playbook. Stones in the sea that grind each other into sand, but can they learn to touch, to connect, to re-connect?
Would it surprise you to learn that Ratko’s dodgy business dealings (prostitution etc) have brought him into connection with Sophie? Enter Ratko and his heavies, two staying in the car, one out back, as he demands money owed by Sophie.
Cue a long, restless night of confrontation and negotiation, suspense and surprise, truths and lies, revelation and even redemption amid further appearances by Bielova’s spectral Jana. This is a reckoning of good deeds versus bad deeds, of the seeds of greed and the lure of corruption versus the human capacity for helping others rather than helping yourself to others’ goods. Compassion versus contempt too.
Catching Monday afternoon’s dress rehearsal revealed a cast adept at building tension and intense, difficult relationships, matched by Murgatroyd’s ear for dialogue and astute perception of human complexities and contradictions.
The staging, however, worked against these attributes. The regular sight of the stage team taking the cottage furniture on and off and pulling the black-box curtain across the stage for scenes in Yugoslavia or by the sea broke the rhythm, a clunky manoeuvre that would have been eased by keeping the furniture in place and placing a curtain in front.
Since the dress rehearsal, music has been introduced to accompany the scene changes, but any re-staging of Sea Stones would require a design re-think.
Music already plays its part at the opening to the second half, Bielova parading her mezzo-soprano chops with haunting beauty to herald further troubles afoot.
A play for today drawn from recent yesterdays, Sea Stones marks a promising start for the Murgatroyd and Handsley partnership for York company Lumar Productions. Murgatroyd is already writing a second play, and Handsley has been bitten by the theatre bug, with a feel for the geometry and chemistry of staging scenes. Be assured he will furnish his next production with more finesse and less fiddling with furniture.
Further performances: 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
NOTHING will stop The Merchant Of Venice being a problem play, and that’s the problem. Especially against the backdrop of the hell of the Gaza Strip. Suella Braverman’s P45. The English Defence League on the attack. Peaceful Armistice Day protests in London and beyond, demanding a ceasefire, or was that antisemitism?
Amid this tempest, Jewish actress Tracy-Ann Oberman and director Brigid Larmour’s new adaptation of Shakespeare’s vituperative play arrives in York: a city with the darkest stain of history from the Jewish massacre at the site of Clifford’s Tower on March 16 1190, but with a new chapter opened after this autumn’s arrival of Rabbi Dr Elisheva Salamo as the spiritual leader of the York Liberal Jewish Community.
Is The Merchant Of Venice antisemitic, cursed by Shakespeare’s depiction of moneylender Shylock as English literature’s most archetypal Jewish character? “I think its legacy is antisemitic. So yes, I suppose it is an antisemitic play,” Oberman told the Guardian during rehearsals for this Watford Palace Theatre production in February.
Henry Goodman, who won an Olivier Award for his Shylock in Trevor Nunn’s 1999 National Theatre production, said in the same piece: “I think it depicts antisemitism, but is not antisemitic because it humanises.”
Abigail Graham, Jewish director of The Globe’s “radical” 2022 production, defined the play thus: “It’s not a play about antisemitism,” the Guardian quoted her. “It’s about the intersection between white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, antisemitism and racism”.
Why this preamble? You could make a case for each assessment, but ultimately the argument over whether The Merchant Of Venice is antisemitic will never be decided by any one production.
Ultimately, Graham has it right in referring to the intersection, one that now defines British or, more to the point, English discomfort at our colonial past and its continuing impact.
Let’s call The Merchant Of Venice an “uncomfortable” play, one where Shakespeare has Portia destroy Shylock in court, for the moneylender to slink away never to be heard again, only for a jocund ending to follow with fun and games over wedding rings as if we had strayed into one of his summer-lit comedies.
Unlike Shylock, Oberman and Larmour are not content to let it end there, instead adding a coda to round off the 1936 setting amid the rising tide of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascist Blackshirts, on the march through Cable Street in London’s East End on October 4 that year.
All Larmour’s cast strip off glad rags and fascist appareil to stand with Oberman’s Shylock, behind her banner They Shall Not Pass “We are stronger, prouder and safer together,” is her message, as she urges all the audience to its feet. (Well, that’s one way to ensure a standing ovation as sems to be becoming increasingly obligatory at theatre shows.)
Not everyone obliged, perhaps uneasy that the problems highlighted by this problematic play are more complicated, more nuanced, than that.
Shakespeare’s play has “always fascinated and repulsed” Oberman. “I don’t like it. I’ve never liked it,” she said. Does anyone “like it”, however? It is not Hamlet, nor King Lear, more questions than answers, but she wanted to “reclaim Shylock”, not to play Shylock for sympathy, nor shy away from the villainy, but to show why Shylock “becomes the monster that they make her” in the face of Jewish persecution.
Traditionally a male role, Oberman has taken inspiration from her great-grandmother’s hardy, dignified East London generation to depict Shylock as a Cable Street pawnbroker and single mother with an errant daughter (Grainne Dromgoole’s Jessica), played as righteous, resolute, rigorous and wronged.
This adds gender and misogyny to the degradation of the spat-upon Shylock at the hands of Raymond Coulthard’s sneering Antonio, dressed all in Mosley black, as he mocks her demand for her pound of flesh on failing to meet the terms of his bond.
Liz Cooke’s design depicts Shylock’s Cable Street home in drab, brutalist grey brick. By contrast, Portia’s film-noir high society elegance is denoted by a marble floor, a white curtain and silk dresses; Antonio’s business world by a chandelier.
Greta Zabulyte’s matching black and white video design begins with Mosley mid-speech, to be followed by fascist posters, newspaper headlines and period footage, all leading up to the Battle of Cable Street. Sarah Weltman’s sound design of smashed windows and loud, threatening voices and Erran Baron Cohen’s piano compositions shadow what is unfolding with haunting inevitability. The Star of David is highlighted on the wall, but Jew Dog is scrawled on Shylock’s door.
As mentioned earlier, one problem in The Merchant Of Venice is the contrasting tones: the chortling comedy of Portia’s hapless suitors seeking to win her hand, topped off by Gavin Fowler’s outwardly charming Bossanio, as if in a Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde comedy of manners, but the visceral, shocking hatred of Shylock, as exemplified by the thuggish excesses of Xavier Starr’s Gratiano. You can but choke on the comedy.
The transition of York-born Hannah Morrish’s Portia – my other character is a Portia too – typifies this dichotomy. Aloof but irresistibly attractive society belle, all-hours socialite, scheming aristocrat, as if she were the seventh Mitford sister, but then she becomes, as Oberman has indelicately put it, an effing bitch in her chilling courtroom humbling of Shylock.
This is a high-quality production, from design to vocal delivery, if fast-moving rather than moving, with well edited dialogue and a modernity to its theatricality and tone.
Does Obeman “reclaim Shylock” in what she calls her legacy heritage project? The play, the central character, Shakespeare’s motives, will still divide opinion, and new horrors will always inform them, but what Oberman and Larmour highlight is how unlikeable everyone is in The Merchant Of Venice. Until that unifying coda, but when will such a coda head over the horizon? Not any time soon.
Watford Palace Theatre in The Merchant Of Venice 1936, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday, 7.30pm nightly plus Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
AFTER eight novels, with his ninth on the way, Tim Murgatroyd has written his debut play, Sea Stones, an emotional, suspenseful night of the soul when four people are brought together in a lonely house by the sea.
Two fathers. Two daughters. Each confronted with the consequences of the past as a high tide is turning and tests to their relationships are escalating. Tests that might cost them not only their dearest hopes and loves, but their very lives. “The truth can set you free. Or drown you,” says York writer Tim.
Sea Stones will be premiered from tonight (14/11/2023) at Theatre@41, Monkgate, by Lumar Productions, the York company run by film and stage director Martin Handsley, with a cast of Mick Liversidge as Phil Goodman, Raqhael Harte as Sophie Goodman, Ian Giles as Ratko Ilich and Ukrainian-born York Opera mezzo-soprano Polina Bielova as Jana Ilich.
Introducing the storyline, Tim says: “The play opens in 2000 in a small town in the former Yugoslavia celebrating a new millennium. It is ten years since bloody civil war tore the Communist federation apart, unleashing horrific ethnic conflict.
“But some legacies are not easily forgotten, especially when the victims find no justice and the so-called victors are unpunished, even rewarded.”
Roll forward to 2008: “All around the world, greed-fuelled banking systems are collapsing, creating new victims among the ‘little people’ who trusted in their institutions and leaders. New winners and losers, all over the world.
“But some people never accept losing. It’s not just the corrupt bankers who seek to claw back what they can. The stage is set in an isolated cottage by the sea for further crimes against the best sides of human nature: love, reconciliation and compassion. Or perhaps, this time, for redemption.”
Martin was captivated immediately by Tim’s compelling story on two grounds. “Sea Stones delves into the intricate tensions and dynamics between fathers and their daughters, a theme that resonated deeply with me as I’m the proud father of three girls,” he says.
“This is also a story how history never quite dies. My personal experience as an aid worker during the Yugoslav Civil War [travelling from Leeds in 1992 to bring refugees from Bosnia to the UK] provided me with a profound understanding of the challenging circumstances the characters in the play find themselves in.
“Even in 2023, the world continues to grapple with the same issues that the play addresses. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine serves as a stark reminder that war and its aftermath still haunt us. That’s why we’re so excited to bring Sea Stones to life on stage, setting free the power of theatre to illuminate and provoke thought about the enduring challenges our world faces.”
Tim felt “more poacher than gamekeeper” when writing Sea Stones. “My career as a published writer has been exclusively as a novelist,” he says. “Eight in print to date, two of them translated into Chinese.
“I have written stories about Ancient China, a dystopian Yorkshire, even silent cinema musicians in York, but I had never written a play. So it came as a surprise when I found myself scribbling down stage directions, then dialogue, that would emerge as Sea Stones.
“It began with a man in a lonely cottage by a pebbly beach startled by the arrival of a car where no-one comes. Dark memories of the Yugoslav Civil War and anger at injustices in the world crept into his home with the sound of waves grinding the shingle.
“Then came a long-lost daughter corrupted by money and greed, dragging far worse in her wake, and the stage was set for conflict: love, morality, and bare survival. As the character Phil Goodman says: ‘Sometimes we touch, connect, brought together by the tide. Sometimes we grind each other into sand like millstones. Sometimes we just break apart’.”
First play for Tim, first stage directing challenge for Martin: “I’ve directed film before, which is completely different,” he says. “I never thought I’d enjoy theatre because it’s so ephemeral, whereas you put everything into getting the image right, you film it and it’s there forever.
“However, what I’ve learned with this production is that theatre’s ephemeral nature is what it’s about, being in the now, what’s going on live in front of you. I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’ve become a volunteer at Theatre@41, doing tech work, working behind the bar. I just love it.
“The fact that Sea Stones is a great play and we’ve got great actors helps as well! I’ve been with this play for over a year, and still the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I hear certain lines being said.”
Whether as a novelist, or now as a playwright, Tim says: “At the heart of all this writing is storytelling. If you think about how humans understand the world, it’s through stories, with bigger narratives in plays and novels.
“With novels, you can use descriptions, whereas plays rely on what’s being stated or implied by the characters in speech, so the real challenge was to make sure the play’s dialogue was naturalistic, but not too naturalistic because I wanted to have deeper philosophical and emotional layers to the characters’ experiences.”
Sea Stones has taken three years to evolve. “That’s when Tim first contacted me and sent me a copy of the original script,” recalls Martin. “I read it but just didn’t think I’d be the one to stage it. But then Covid came along, and afterwards I just wanted to do something different after the film.
“Tim contacted me again, we got some actors together, did some readthroughs and made sure that the heart of the story would remain, but we would need to lose some of the dialogue to make it more pacy.”
Further challenges were to secure a theatre for the production and to find the right cast. Tick and tick, albeit with changes in one role. “We’ve ended up with the highly experienced Ian Giles as our fourth iteration of Ratko Ilich,” says Martin. “He’s bringing a level of confidence to the role that we were struggling with before, and lots of humour too, and we have an ensemble that gets on really well.”
Ian has made such an impact that Tim is writing a role expressly for him in his next play. Meanwhile, Tim and Martin have found a way to integrate Polina Bielova’s operatic singing in Sea Stones. “I can guarantee people will have tears in their eyes,” says Tim.
Actress and yoga teacher Raqhael Harte brings 15 years of acting and performance studies, coupled with a few years of York productions, to her role as troubled daughter Sophie. “She’s a Scottish actress and when she auditioned, I just loved her accent and knew it work really well in the play,” says Martin. “Her character is jarring, and her voice can be quite jarring too, so she’s the whole package.”
Summing up his play, Tim says: “Essentially it’s about two parallel father-daughter relationships, with each one casting light on the other, and from that they learn lessons, some hard, some redemptive, but all of them life-changing.
“In many ways, the play is designed to work on two levels: the parent/child relationships and the wider content of the world, referring to the Yugolsav war and to the 2008 banking crisis, with questions about corruption and human behaviour in a difficult, flawed world.
“That makes it incredibly relevant to today, where there’s corruption that’s pretty much not even hidden now, and all the violence and war that we see on our TV screens every night. We ask, ‘are we powerless? What can a good parent do?’.”
Important to Tim too was the need to make the characters believable. “Looking at human nature, these characters can be contradictory in their beliefs and behaviour because people are contradictory, and you have to get that complexity across – which can be challenging for everyone involved, not only the writer.
“What I’m hoping the audience will take from the play is not only an emotional journey but also a lot of tension because the potential for violence is always lurking in what I’ve written, so in that sense it’s not just about their relationships but also about survival.”
As indicated by the title, the sea is a significant character in the play too. “A lot of the meaning of the play comes from the dialogue, but plenty will come from metaphors too, where you’re trying to connect the audience with places and feelings they have experienced. The sea is perhaps the best example of that,” says Tim. “It represents movement and change, and characters being swept along by the tide of history.”
From the moment of arrival in the John Cooper Studio, audiences will be surrounded by the rhythmic roll of crashing waves with the high tide on its way. “I love the sound of the sea, and we use it as background in pretty much all the scenes set at the cottage,” says Martin.
Tim adds: “It’s almost like a musical soundtrack in this play. There’s a theory that we evolved from aquatic apes and that’s why we have this immediate bond with the sea.”
Sea Stones is “as uncomfortable as possible” for the audience, or “intimate”, as Tim prefers to describe the viewing experience. “By creating four contrasting characters, I can show the different facets of humanity, so we see good in the play, sometimes incredibly heroic good deeds, but also the bad in people, the potential for corruption, which creates dramatic tension,” Tim concludes.
Lumar Productions present Sea Stones,Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, tonight (14/11/2023) to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk. Running time: 100 minutes plus interval.
Back story: Lumar Productions
SMALL independent film, video and theatre production company dedicated to creating innovative content and storytelling, delivered with energy and passion. Its latest film feature, Wiccan, is scheduled for release in 2024.
The company is run by Martin Handsley, an IT professional, who reinvented himself after a life-altering event as an actor, writer, producer and director.
Writer’s profile: Tim Murgatroyd
READ English at Hertford College, Oxford University, and now lives with his family in York. Internationally acclaimed author of several novels of historical fiction, a dystopian series, whose latest novel, October 2022’s The Electric, is set in the glamorous world of silent cinema in York in 1919.
Former weekly columnist for The Press, York.
Sea Stones is his first play. His next novel, Dust Of The Earth, will be published next year.
For a preview of Sea Stones, visit: https://youtu.be/pviM6iKB0dw
POLITICAL dramas, a heap of big comedy names, a newly revived Eighties’ band and a belated American debut will keep Charles Hutchinson out and about.
Controversial play of the week: The Merchant Of Venice 1936, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm, plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees
WATFORD Palace Theatre’s ground-breaking touring production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice has been adapted and directed by Brigid Larmour from an original idea by co-creator and actress Tracy-Ann Oberman.
As the tide of fascism swells in 1936, Oberman’s Shylock is a strong-willed single mother who runs a pawnbroking business from her house in Cable Street, where Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts will soon march. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Comedy at the treble at Grand Opera House, York: Dave Gorman, Monday, 7.30pm; Ross Noble, Wednesday, 8pm; Paul Smith, 7.30pm
DAVE Gorman’s Powerpoint To The People show aims to demonstrate that a powerpoint presentation need not involve a man in a grey suit standing behind a lectern and saying “next slide please”. Far more important things demand analysis, he urges.
Geordie surrealist Ross Noble returns to York on his 21st tour, Jibber Jabber Jamboree, for another journey into inspired, improvised nonsensical comedy with detours galore. Paul Smith’s Joker gig, full of audience interaction and everyday true stories, has sold out. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.
Exhibition launch of the week: Not Black Friday But Colour Friday!, Kentmere House Gallery, Scarcroft Hill, York, until December 22
ORIGINAL art by more than 70 artists features in the Christmas exhibition at Kentmere House Gallery. “Among them is Jonathan Hooper, a Leeds painter deservedly becoming recognised, winning awards and now showing in London and at the Millenium Gallery in Sheffield,” says gallery owner and curator Ann Petherick.
“Then there’s Susan Bower, a Marmite painter – most love her, a few don’t! Look out for Andrew Morris’s delightful view of Knaresborough’s marketplace. We have new work arriving all the time.” Open any day, 11am to 5pm; ring 01904 656507 or 07801 810825 or take pot luck.
Tribute show of the week: The Chicago Blues Brothers, Cruisin’ For A Bluesin’ Tour, Grand Opera House, York, November 12, 7.30pm
JOIN Jake and Elwood, The Sweet Soul Sisters and the amazing CBB Band for a hand-clapping, foot-stomping, hard-hitting night of soul, rhythm & blues, country and Motown. Expect exuberant spirit, irresistible energy and even a few surprises. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.
Premiere of the week: Lumar Productions in Sea Stones, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee
AFTER eight novels and a regular column in The York Press, Tim Murgatroyd has written his debut play, an emotional, suspenseful night of the soul when four people are brought together in a lonely house by the sea.
Two fathers. Two daughters. Each confronted with the consequences of the past as a high tide is turning and tests to their relationships are escalating. Tests that might cost them not only their dearest hopes and loves, but their very lives. “The truth can set you free. Or drown you,” says Murgatroyd. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
Double act of the week:Wright & Grainger in Orpheus, Rise@Bluebird Bakery, Acomb, York, Wednesday, 7pm to 9pm
ALEXANDER Flanagan Wright and Phil Grainger’s Greek myth adaptation in spoken word and song heads to Rise after Adelaide Fringe award-winning success in Australia and at the Edinburgh Fringe, as well as back home at Stillington Mill.
Dave is turning 30. Eurydice is a tree nymph. Bruce Springsteen is on the karaoke. Cue a tale of dive bars, side streets, ancient gods and how far you would go for love. Box office: bluebirdbakery.co.uk/rise.
Gig of the week: Ben Folds, What Matters Most Tour, Grand Opera House, York, Thursday,7.30pm
AT 57, North Carolina pianist, songwriter, author and podcast host Ben Folds plays his debut York show in support of What Matters Most, his first studio album since 2015.
At the only Yorkshire gig of his nine-date British and Irish tour, Folds will be combining his new material with songs from his 35-year career. Guitarist and singer Lau Noah, from Catalonia via New York, is the support act. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.
Jazz gig of the week: Snake Davis & Friends, Pocklington Arts Centre, Thursday, 8pm
JAZZ At PAC presents Snake Davis, saxophonist to the stars, from Paul McCartney, James Brown, Tina Turner and Eurythmics to Take That, Amy Winehouse, M-People and Lisa Stansfield.
First making his mark in York band Zoot & The Roots, Davis plays not only the saxophone family, but flutes, whistles and an ancient Japanese wind instrument, the Shakuhachi, too. Box office: 01759 301547 or pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.
Fantastic day to see: Haircut 100, York Barbican, Friday, 8pm
NICK Heyward’s short-lived Brit-funk band Haircut 100 are back together after more than 40 years, following up May’s Pelican West 40th anniversary shows in London and Oxford with the 15-date Haircut 100% Live tour that ends in York, their only Yorkshire location.
“We are coming back with a tour to beat all tours this autumn,” says Beckenham-born Heyward, now 62. “All the hits that you love [Favourite Shirts (Boys And Girls), Love Plus One, Fantastic Day et al] and new tracks that we are bursting to share with you.” The support act will be Brighton band of brothers Barbara. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
Lovely jubbly look-ahead: Only Fools And Horses The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, November 5 to 9 2024
DIRECT from a four-year sold-out West End run, Only Fools And Horses The Musical is heading to York in Paul Whitehouse and Jim Sullivan’s show, based on John Sullivan’s record-breaking 1980s’ BBC comedy.
Directed by Caroline Jay Ranger, it features a script and original score by John’s son and Whitehouse, bringing Peckham rogues Del Boy, Rodney, Grandad, Cassandra, Raquel, Boycie, Marlene, Trigger, Denzil, Mickey Pearce, Mike the Barman and the Driscoll Brothers to the stage with wide-boy humour and 20 songs. Bonnet de douche! Box office: atgtickets.co.uk.
Recommended but sold out already
THREE nights, three sell-outs for South Shields humorist Sarah Millican at York Barbican from November 14 to 16 on her Late Bloomer tour, where she discusses Sarah then and now, dinners and lady gardens at 8pm nightly. Come along, laugh at her, with her, beside her, reads the invitation.
In Focus: Best dog in show: Zeus the collie collars role in Jack And The Beanstalk
YOUNG Kennel Club Crufts trophy winner Zeus has won a lead role in this winter’s pantomime at York Theatre Royal.
The six-year-old Border Collie, from York, will make his stage debut alongside EastEnders star Nina Wadia, returnee panto dame Robin Simpson and CBBC’s Raven star James Mackenzie in Jack And The Beanstalk from December 8 to January 7 2024.
A theatre spokesperson says: “Zeus’s amazing audition gave us all paws for thought. He’s a natural stage performer whose dogged determination to win the role was a real tail-wagging moment.”
Already Zeus is a winner on the canine stage with three Young Kennel Club Crufts trophies to his credit. Those closest to him say he is very agile and loves to play but has an “off switch”and likes to wind down too.
Pantomime director Juliet Forster was delighted to hear that Zeus is “very eager to please, playful and up for learning” as she will be training him for his acting debut.
Zeus loves cream cheese, squeezy cheese too, and sometimes has carrots for breakfast. He eats at the table and even has his own chair. His favourite toys are balls and he has a collection of soft toys.
Zeus enjoys rounding up horses but not, as you might expect from a Border Collie, rounding up sheep. He is, however, best friends with two sheep, Maisie Midnight Fluffington and Wallace.
He is yet to meet cows but will have his first close encounter with the bovine world in the rehearsal room as one of his co-stars will be Dave the Cow.
Dave is a rare breed of pantomime cow. “You’d almost think Dave is human,” says York actor and musician Anna Soden, who will inhabit the role on her own, rather than the usual two people squeezed uncomfortably into a cow costume.
Writer Paul Hendy, director of York Theatre Royal’s producing partner Evolution Productions, says: “In 19 years of writing and producing pantomimes, we’ve never had a human cow before. We wanted to do something different and director Juliet Forster was very open to that. It makes more opportunities in the show for the cow. It’s a much bigger part than usual. Dave is very much one of the gang.
“Our company is called Evolution for a reason: we are constantly evolving. One of the reasons pantomime has survived for 150 years or more is that it changes. There has to be a formula but within that you have to be original.”
Evolution is producing three Jack And The Beanstalk pantomimes around the country this winter. York has Dave; the shows at The Grove, Dunstable (starring EastEnders’ Steve McFadden, by the way), and Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, will have a more traditional cow.
Meanwhile, the Theatre Royal’s legendary pantomime cow Patrica is heading for pastures new this Christmas with a role in Bridlington Spa Theatre’s pantomime, Beauty And The Beast.
Patricia’s career has taken in television appearances in The Crystal Maze with pantomime stalwart Christopher Biggins and Bargain Hunt, as well as starring in her own series of moo-vies on You Tube.
York Theatre Royal presents Jack And The Beanstalk, December 8 to January 7 2024. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
THE Grand Opera Houseand Ate O’clock are joining forces to “bring York’s theatregoers an entertaining night out”.
This new partnership combines the pre-show meal setting of the High Ousegate restaurant and bistro for food and drinks with a show afterwards at the Cumberland Street theatre.
Offers will be shared directly with Grand Opera House theatregoers, who are advised to keep their eyes peeled for the theatre’s pre-show emails and newsletters, sharing Ate O’Clock money-saving offers in the coming months.
Twelve months on since its refurbishment, Ate O’Clock has expanded its offering with new dishes on its a la carte and set menus, including steaks, burgers, and traditional dishes, all locally sourced. Cocktails are served up in Ate O’Clock’s new Social8 Lounge.
Laura McMillan, Grand Opera House theatre director, says: “We want to deliver memorable experiences for our guests, and by working with Ate O’Clock we are able to combine the best food in York with the best live entertainment in the city.”
Emily Crampton, Ate O’Clock and Social8 Lounge restaurant manager, says: “As theatre lovers ourselves, and given that we are only a stone’s throw away, partnering with the Grand Opera House is a great opportunity and one that we are so excited about.
“We cannot wait to do our bit in creating a fun and memorable evening out for all theatregoers, whether that be a pre-theatre meal or post-theatre drinks.”
Laura adds: “Whether you’re planning festive celebrations, a catch-up with your friends or a night out with your partner, we have you covered, giving you the chance to enjoy great food and fantastic shows. We have a packed programme of shows that you can attend after your exquisite pre-theatre dinner from Calendar Girls to Pretty Woman.”
NO director. No rehearsal. No advance sight of the script. Only a brief list of instructions sent to the actor in a pdf by the producer 48 hours before the performance. Novel indeed.
“An actor’s nightmare,” suggested Black Treacle Theatre producer Jim Paterson, “but an audience’s dream.”That said, Maurice Crichton, Lara Stafford, Maggie Smales, Alan Park and today’s two performers, Sonia Di Lorenzo (matinee) and Sanna Jeppsson (evening), were intrigued to take on the one-off challenge of a 70-minute script, each for one solo performance, passing on the baton without a word to the next in line.
CharlesHutchPress had been expecting to see Maggie Smales on Thursday, but when he chanced upon Lara Stafford in Micklegate on Wednesday, after his plans to attend the Aesthetica Short Film Festival launch or Teenage Fanclub at Leeds Brudenell Social Club came to nought, the reviewer resolved to review her that night instead.
Both were in the dark about what would unfold. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit was written in 2011 by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, when he was forbidden to leave his native Iran, but the play was designed to travel the world in his place; words without end.
Enter Lara, to be handed an envelope by Jim Paterson. Let the journey into the unknown begin, and quickly it emerges that this will not be a solo performance, but an immersive one with plenty of audience involvement.
Both on stage and off, in the case of your reviewer, who ticked the box for having a notebook to hand, at the writer’s request, to take notes…and subsequently send him an email as evidence of the night’s performance.
Without giving too much away, the tone of the piece turns from jocular to darker, bleaker, graver, a gradual switch handled well by Stafford, whose performance elides from playful to no messing about, this is serious.
More experimental performance art than play, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit does not call on Stafford to develop a role, a character, but to be a mistress of ceremonies, a malleable conduit through which the script will pass in a series of tests.
Not only her comic skills come into play, but her prowess at orchestrating an audience, as she would do in her physics teaching career too.
Above all, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit testifies to the power of the unexpected in theatre, when actor and audience are equally surprised and on edge, each reliant on the other for what will happen next.
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, Theatre@41, Monkgate, today at 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: https://tickets.41monkgate.co.uk. Tickets are £10 full price and any ticket buyers for one performance can see another one for £5 (plus booking fee). Running time is approximately 70 minutes.
YORK Light Youth’s tenth anniversary show is the York premiere of The Next Generation Edition of School Of Rock, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame.
This all-American celebration of music, friendship and the power of self-expression is described as “technically and musically challenging”. “Technically” because it features not one, but two bands, an adult one in the pit and a group of whippersnapper talents ready to knock rock into shape on stage.
“Musically” because Lloyd Webber’s rock songs do rock out, not to the level of screeching heavy metal pyrotechnics, but demanding muscular singing from Jonny Holbek’s lead character, substitute teacher Dewey Finn, especially in When I Climb To The Top Of Mt. Rock and Jack Black’s In The End Of Time.
“Any York production is always better for the presence of Jonny Holbek,” CharlesHutchPress opined when reviewing his scene-stealing Tobias Ragg in York Light Opera Company’s Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber Of Fleet Street in February.
That York Theatre Royal performance was marked by “humour and tragedy, light and darkness, hope and desperation, naivety and madness”. Move forward to School Of Rock, where Holbek brings buckets of humour and a dab of sadness, light and shade, hope and desperation, naivety and madcap mayhem to Dewey Finn.
A musician as well as an actor, here’s Jonny lapping up a well-deserved lead role, such fun to watch as he interacts brilliantly with the young company (aged ten to 17), the big kid among a bunch of them. Dewey is a ckeeky chappie role he was born to play, and he is indeed the Finnished article here.
Based on Mike White’s storyline for the 2003 film, Holbek’s Dewey is a failed wannabe rock star, who passes himself off as teacher flatmate Ned Schneebly (Flynn Coultous) to raise the rent by becoming the substitute teacher to a class of prep school students.
What can he teach them? Not history but the history of rock and how to play, so they can take on his old band No Vacancy in the Battle Of The Bands. They learn, he learns, and there is something of the vibe and spirit of both John Godber’s Teechers and Willy Russell’s Our Day Out in looking outside the box to stimulate children’s minds and actions.
Prominent among the adults in the story is Emma Louise Dickinson’s headteacher, Rosalie Mullins, repressed and orderly until Dewey brings out the Stevie Nicks butterfly from her dowdy chrysalis. She sings as beautifully as ever, best in show once more.
Multiple performers delight among the young company: whether Flynn Coultous revelling in the bossed-about adult role of Ned Schneebly; Georgia Foster as the insufferable Patty Di Marco; Olivia Swales’s precocious, bossy Summer Hathaway or Iris Wragg’s reserved Tomika Spencer-Williams, brought out of her shell by Dewey to reveal her singing talent. Look out for Isaac Patterson’s fashion-obsessed Billy Sandford too.
You will love the talented young musicians: Sam Brophy’s keyboard wizard Lawrence Turner, a Rick Wakeman in the making; Bella Smith’s too-cool-for-school bass player Katie Travis; Ollie Lee’s putative guitar god and Finley Walters’ all-action drummer Freddie Hamilton.
The first half is too long, with so many songs to fit in, but Sue Hawksworth’s direction elicits the best from individual and ensemble performances alike; musical director Martin Lay and his band power the songs to the max, and David Pumfrey’s set design ensures quick scene changes.
York Light Youth’s exuberant production really does Stick It To The Man, right down to an in-joke putdown at Lloyd Webber’s expense when Holkbek’s Dewey disses his lordship’s ballad Memory.
York Light Youth in School Of Rock, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, 2.30pm and 7.30pm today. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
EASTENDERS, Doctor Who and Friday Night Dinner star Tracy-Ann Oberman will play Shylock in a ground-breaking version of Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice on tour at York Theatre Royal from November 14 to 18.
Developed in association with HOME Manchester and with support from the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Merchant Of Venice 1936 has been adapted and directed by Brigid Larmour from an idea by co-creator Oberman.
Their thought-provoking and timely reimagining relocates the action to an electrifying new setting: London in 1936.
“It has a been a lifelong dream of mine to bring this play to the stage in a new way, reimagining Shylock as one of the tough, no-nonsense Jewish matriarchs I grew up around in Brent,” says London-born actress, playwright and narrator Oberman, 57, as she “takes this important, sharp, sexy and heartfelt production around the country”.
“I’m delighted this project is finally happening and look forward to sparking debate and enlightening people about a pivotal but largely forgotten part of British history – just how close the establishment were to Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists.”
In Watford Palace Theatre’s touring production, the capital city is on the brink of political unrest, fascism is sweeping across Europe and Mosley’s fascists are threatening a paramilitary march through the Jewish East End. Strong-willed single mother Shylock, Shakespeare’s anti-hero, runs a pawnbroking business from her house in Cable Street, where Mosley will march.
When charismatic, anti-Semitic aristocrat Antonio comes to her for a loan, a high-stakes deal is struck. Will Shylock take her revenge? Who will pay the ultimate price?
“The women in my family were as tough as nails,” says Tracy-Ann, recalling her great-grandmother and aunts, women with nicknames such as Machine-Gun Molly and Sarah Portugal, who arrived in London from anti-Semitic eastern Europe at the turn of the last century to build a life and make a living against the odds.
Oberman’s family history helped her to unlock Shakespeare’s most controversial play. Her relatives survived the Battle of Cable Street in London’s East End in 1936, when the Jewish community was targeted by Mosley’s Blackshirts, only to be confounded when the non-Jewish community stood by their Jewish neighbours.
In The Merchant Of Venice 1936, Oswald Mosley inspires Antonio (Raymond Coulthard), the sneering merchant who takes a loan from Shylock, while heiress Portia (Hannah Morrish) becomes “a beautiful glacial Mitford type – awful”, whose “quality of mercy” courtroom speech bears the mark of hypocrisy, not humanity.
Oberman’s single mother Shylock is fiercely committed, both to her independence and to her daughter. “I have one daughter,” she says. “It’s an intense relationship!”
The Merchant Of Venice had always fascinated and repulsed her, and this production duly sat in her head for years as she researched, planned and waited for lockdowns to pass.
Now that her female Shylock has come face to face with audiences at last, she says: “The thing that surprised me most was the court case. Just how powerful it was to see this woman backed into a corner by all these men, with the palpable hatred and misogyny. It was electric. You could cut the atmosphere in the auditorium with a knife. That was a revelation.”
Playing Shylock as a woman does not soften the character, emphasises Oberman. “I didn’t want to make her a victim or change her role in the story,” she says, before adding: “Maybe I underestimated the impact of a female Shylock. There are a couple of very shocking moments that really upset audiences.
“In an early scene, Antonio comes to borrow money, and Shylock describes him spitting on her and kicking her like a dog. When that behaviour is directed at a woman, it heightens the anti-Semitism.
“I think people also see a woman with her rage and anger. She loses her daughter, her money – she loses everything. And when you tell somebody that they’re a monster for long enough, they become that monster.”
The play speaks as much to the present as of the past. “At a time when we are looking at Britain’s involvement in colonialism and the slave trade, I think we also have to look at Britain’s flirtation with fascism,” says Tracy-Ann.
“Oswald Mosley and King Edward VIII, both great friends of Hitler, came close to power – we dodged a bullet. The great message of the play is about the pulling together of all communities. We’re better together, we’re stronger together, especially at times of huge financial and political insecurity. The past shows us what happens when we look inwards: we become very nationalistic and try to pit minorities against each other. We have to be vigilant.”
Oberman dreams of the Battle of Cable Street being taught as part of the British civil rights movement. “Mosley had been sending his Blackshirts down into Cable Street, smashing doors, breaking windows, attacking synagogues and people on the streets, putting up the most horrific leaflets straight out of Hitler’s playbook,” she says,
“But my great grandmother always reminded me that their neighbours – their Irish neighbours, the Afro-Caribbean community, the dockers, the working classes – all stood together. That was a beautiful moment.”
Oberman acknowledges how personal this project is to her but audience reactions testify to common ground. “What has been very moving is how many people want to stay and talk at the end,” she says.
“A lot of people talk about their own family’s immigrant experience. Young political people want to talk about the Battle of Cable Street, and people who’d never seen a Shakespeare play about why they’d found it so accessible.
“One man came in with about 20 fascist newspapers from the 1930s that he’d found in his father’s loft, which we’ve used as part of our graphics. There were big conversations: is the play anti-Semitic? Was Shakespeare? Lots of really interesting conversations.”
One factor behind Oberman’s wish to stage The Merchant of Venice 1936 was teachers telling her of their anxiety over discussing this contentious play in their classrooms. This has led to the touring production being accompanied by educational work, mounted in tandem with the activist group Stand Up To Racism.
The education team has not only visited schools and prepared a pack to support teachers, but “we’ve also created an online world which people can look at before or after seeing the play,” says Tracy-Ann. “It’s an incredible resource talking about the play, the 1930s, the history of anti-Semitism and racism, Oswald Mosley, everything you could want.”
After a diverse career on stage, taking in the RSC and National Theatre, iconic soap status as Dirty Den’s nemesis, Chrissie Watts, in EastEnders and TV comedy roles as Auntie Val in Friday Night Dinner and Mrs Purchase in Toast Of London, Oberman stands centre stage as the distaff Shylock.
“I can honestly say that when I went into this, it was never with an ego about playing Shylock, it was about wanting to tell the story. I just put my soul into it,” she says. “Every single bit of it has been a complete joy. It’s been more than a piece of theatre – for me, it’s been a mission. And it’s lived up to all my expectations.”
Audience tears and standing ovations have greeted The Merchant Of Venice 1936. “While they might not have liked my Shylock, they certainly understood why she wants that ‘pound of flesh’,” says Tracy-Ann.
“She stands in the courtroom with her handbag, with everything stacked against her. A lot of people know that feeling, believing the law is on their side, but discovering it’s only on the side of people that have power.”
The Merchant Of Venice 1936, York Theatre Royal, November 14 to 18; 7.30pm; 2pm, Thursday, 2.30pm,Saturday.Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
AN actor’s nightmare will be an audience’s dream, promises producer Jim Paterson, when White Rabbit, Red Rabbit makes its York debut from tonight (7/11/2023) to Saturday at Theatre@41, Monkgate.
This groundbreaking play requires the actor to perform the script having never seen it before setting foot on stage.
Originally written in 2011 by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, who at the time was forbidden to leave his native Iran, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is a play designed to travel the world in his place. Whereupon the audience will join each different performer on a journey into the unknown.
Soleimanpour’s 70-minuite play has been performed all over the world by actors such as John Hurt, Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane, Martin Short, Sinead Cusack and Dominic West, all taking to the stage with no prior sighting of the script.
Now White Rabbit, Red Rabbit receives its York premiere at the hands of six actors, each performing the script for one performance only. “They will never have seen the script until I hand them an envelope to open as they enter the stage,” says Jim. “They are told almost nothing in preparation. There is no rehearsal or director.”
Given that the play relies on no-one knowing the plot, details cannot be shared in advance, and so audience and actor alike will be in the same position of not knowing what will happen, duly creating an “exciting and truly unpredictable show”.
“One of the best things about going to the theatre is that it’s a live experience where each performance is different and unpredictable,” says Jim. “Times that by 100 and you’ve got this play. Both the actor and the audience don’t know what’s going to happen from moment to moment, which I think will create a really exhilarating atmosphere.
“Each of our six actors is only performing the play once with no preparation – so each performance will be entirely unique for that audience. That’s why we’ve put on a ticket offer, so that you can come back to watch another actor perform it for half-price, and see what will be an entirely different take on the play.”
Jim adds: “A lot of us have had that dream where we’re suddenly in a theatre and are expected to go on stage in a play when we don’t know the lines or what we’re supposed to be doing. So, I’m massively grateful to these performers for agreeing to take the leap and make that scary dream a reality!”
First to step into the unknown tonight will be Maurice Crichton, stalwart of York Settlement Community Players and much else besides on the York theatre scene. “I think it’s going to be about the audience experiencing an actor being surprised by what they’re in, and – to an extent – vicariously experiencing those feelings themselves,” he says. “It excites me to see if I can relax enough to do the play justice!”
Fresh from Settlement Players’ Government Inspector, Sonia Di Lorenzo will perform the Saturday matinee. “I’m looking forward to finding out what it’s about,” she says. “It sounds really intriguing from what I know of it – which is just the title! I’m excited to see how it unfolds and what it entails and where it’s all going to lead.”
Sanna Jeppsson will take on the Saturday night challenge. “It’s exciting and scary because I don’t know how I’m going to react in the moment: what my body’s going to feel like, what my pulse is going to be doing, what my breath is going to be doing – I just don’t know! But I’m very interested to find out,” she says.
Presented by York company Black Treacle Theatre, in association with Aurora Nova, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit will be performed by Maurice Crichton tonight; Lara Stafford tomorrow; Maggie Smales, Thursday; Theatgre@41 chair Alan Park, Friday; Sonia Di Lorenzo, Saturday matinee, and Sanna Jeppsson, Saturday night.
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, November 7 to 11, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: https://tickets.41monkgate.co.uk. Tickets are £10 full price and any ticket buyers for one performance can see another one for £5 (plus booking fee).
Did you know?
BLACK Treacle Theatre produced Nick Payne’s Constellations in March 2022 and Gary Owen’s Iphigenia In Splott in March 2023, both at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York.
NOT to be confused with the 1987 film of the same name or Richie Valens’ teenage hit from 1958, La Bamba! is a new musical fiesta of passion, pride and Latin pop anthems.
On tour at the Grand Opera House, York, from tonight to Saturday, it stars 2014 Strictly Come Dancingchampion Pasha Kovalev as Ricardo, rising star Inês Fernandez as Sofia and The Wanted’s Siva Kaneswaran as her best friend Mateo,performing to choreography by Strictly’s Graziano Di Prima and Erica Da Silva.
Written and produced by Paul Morrisey and directed by Ray Roderick, La Bamba! invites this week’s audiences to follow Fernandez’s young Los Angeles dreamer Sofia as she takes her first steps toward stardom and witnesses the power of music to unite communities.
That music will be such Latin favourites as Ricky Martin’s Livin’ La Vida Loca; Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie, Marc Anthony’s Vivir Mi Vida, Becky G’s Fulanito, Camilla Cabello’s Havana andJ-Lo’s Let’s Get Loud.
“La Bamba! is a musical about Latin and Mexican culture, and there’s a lot of Latin dancing in the show,” says Pasha Kovalev. “That’s my speciality, so the invitation to do the show was logical – but it’s the first musical I’ve done.
“I’ve done lots of dance productions in the past, but no musicals, and that’s why it’s very exciting to have this chance to shine. It was the perfect match because it’s a musical based around Latin dance and that’s been my passion since I was a little boy growing up in Siberia.”
Pasha, 43, will be playing Ricardo, an immigrant in Los Angeles. “He’s of Mexican descent and he has a daughter, Sofia, who the show is about,” he says. “She loves music, getting that passion from her father, and essentially, it’s a coming-of-age story, where you see how she grows and matures on her way to stardom.
“Even though La Bamba is a famous song, and there’s the movie too, there’s no connection to that. It’s more that it’s inspired by Richie Valens, loosely based on his spirit, his passion, his art, but not his story.
“It’s basically a jukebox musical, full of fun songs picked for being songs the audience will have heard thousands of times and will make them want to jump out of their seats. There’s a lot of partying going on on stage, and the best thing about the show is hearing them leaving the theatre smiling and singing and dancing.
“La Bamba! is two hours of entertainment that takes the audience to a completely different world, recharging them with a different energy and positivity.”
Pasha is delighted that Strictly’s Italian stallion, Graziano Di Prima, has brought his moves to the choreography. “He’s always been a choreographer as well as a dancer, and it’s the perfect match as his speciality is Latin dancing,” he says.
“He’s come up with amazing choreography to match the storyline and showcase the Latin flavour of the show. When we had rehearsals over an extensive period in June and July, it was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun too, creating dance routines that are energetic and fun.”
Summing up the show, Pasha says: “Besides being an educational piece, looking inside Latin American culture and the immigrant experience inside that culture, the strength of La Bamba! is that it’s a fun show that takes you out of your everyday life and gives you a reason to think about things you might not have thought about in relation to your own life. It will leave you feeling fully charged with beautiful emotions.”
As for the singing, Pasha says: Sofia and Mateo, and her mum Elena, are played by amazing singers, Ines and Siva and Stefani Ariza. Every day I can’t get enough of their voices. If you like fun dancing, and enjoy great singing, this is the show for you.”
Pasha, meanwhile, is enjoying dancing as much ever. “In the place where I grew up, in the far east of Siberia, dancing was very popular. My mum admired the dance world and would take me to dance competitions in the town,” he says. “I decided I wanted to be part of that world.
“It was cold, snow everywhere, in the middle of February, but once you go inside, on the dance floor it’s beautiful and light with all these beautiful couples doing the cha cha cha.
“I said to my mum, ‘take me to the place where all the beautiful girls are’, and I became the only boy to join the dancing lessons. That was the start for me, to go on to train and work in the world of dance.”
Pasha’s Strictly Come Dancing years ensued, chalking up 93 perfect tens, reaching four finals and lifting the glitter ball with the late Caroline Flack in 2014 before leaving the BBC dancefloor after eight years following the 2018 series.
“It’s time for me to find a new challenge,” he said, when announcing his decision in 2019. La Bamba! is the latest of those challenges, bringing him back to York, a city he loves.
“It’s always a lot of fun performing there,” says Pasha. “York audiences are very receptive, and in my business, we love that!”
La Bamba!, Grand Opera House, York, tonight (7/11/2023) to Saturday, 7.30pm; Wednesday and Saturday, 2.30pm. Box office: atgtickets.com/york