Game Of Thrones actor Anton Lesser celebrates the life and work of Laurie Lee in Red Sky At Sunrise at Grand Opera House

Anton Lesser performing Red Sky At Sunrise, Laurie Lee in Words and Music, with the musicians of Orchestra of The Swan

AUTHOR Laurie Lee’s extraordinary story will be told in a weave of music and his own words in Red Sky At Sunrise at the Grand Opera House, York, on Sunday night.

Actors Anton Lesser (Endeavour’s Chief Superintendent Bright and Game Of Thrones’ villainous advisor Qyburn) and Charlie Hamblett (from Killing Eve, Ghosts and The Burning Girls) play the role of Laurie Lee, older and younger, along with a rich array of other characters.

Together, they celebrate Lee’s engaging humour, as well as portraying his darker side, in a performance that has startling resonance with modern events. 

Red Sky At Sunrise follows Stroud-born Laurie Lee through his much-loved trilogy, Cider With Rosie, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment Of War, when Lee famously walked out of the Slad valley one midsummer morning and ended up fighting with the International Brigades against General Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War.

“It has been a joy to discover more of Laurie Lee’s sublime writing,” says Anton. “In many ways, his account of what was happening in Spain in the 1930s is prescient of what is playing out now in Europe. 

“There’s a heartbreaking moment when Lee writes: ‘Did we know, as we stood there, our clenched fists raised high, and scarcely a gun between three of us, that we had ranged against us the rising military power of Europe, and the deadly cynicism of Russia? No, we didn’t. We had yet to learn that sheer idealism never stopped a tank’.”

Devised as a show by Judy Reaves, the text by Lee has been adapted by Deirdre Shields, to be accompanied by David Le Page’s musical programme for Orchestra Of The Swan.

His programme weaves around Lee’s writing, from the lush Gloucestershire countryside that Lee made famous in Cider With Rosie, to the dry landscapes of Spain, via the music of Vaughan Williams, Walton, Holst, Elgar, Britten, Grainger, Albeniz, Turina and De Falla. Guitarist Mark Ashford will be performing Asturias, Sevilla and Spanish Romance too.

Charlie Hamblett in the role of Laurie Lee, the younger

“To be asked to read great writing, and to read it aloud is a privilege,” says Anton. “To read it aloud supported by magnificent music is something more – I would call it a blessing. The words and the music combine, hopefully deepening and enriching the experience for both audience and practitioners.

“The audience can expect to be taken on a journey – which reflects Laurie’s actual travels from rural Gloucestershire to Spain, but also his inner journey from boyhood to maturity – all in the company of great musicians playing sublime music.”

Recalling Red Sky At Sunrise’s pathway to the stage, Anton says: “When Judy and Deidre were adapting the books for a performance piece, I just remember someone calling me up, saying ‘would you be interested and do you like Laurie Lee?’.

‘I had to say that to my shame I’d never read any Laurie Lee, but I then looked at Cider With Rosie and thought, ‘this is so beautiful’. I asked to be sent what Judy and Deidre had put together and then the first draft.”

Anton had already done Wolf Hall Live, a combination of words and Debbie Wiseman’s music, and events with the Trio Carducci, where he reads letters to accompany the music of composers such as Beethoven and Shostakovich.

Anton met up with producer Judy Reaves and musician David Le Page at Laurie Lee’s pub [The Woolpack Inn] in Slad, in Gloucestershire, whereupon Red Sky At Sunrise was first performed in 2022.

“The reaction has been fantastic because a lot of people, like me, assume they know Laurie Lee’s work or think, ‘I read that at school’, but then find they don’t know the full story behind the books that chart his journey to Spain to join the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War,” says Anton.

David Le Page: Leading Orchestra of The Swan in Red Sky At Sunrise. Picture: Lucy Barriball

“Red Sky At Sunrise is a really romantic, powerful record of that time, a period before motorised transport was around, where you travelled by horse in his village. So Laurie Lee goes from this bucolic, idyllic childhood to end up in this violent war and then comes back to the village, saying ‘it’s where I want to end my days’.”

Among the highlights so far for Anton have been a sold-out performance at the RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, in May 2023 and an hour-long version at the Chelsea Arts Club, Lee’s “home from home”, attended by Lee’s daughter in April.

“We tweak it a little the more we do it, spotting things that we think will make it better, both the words and the music, and we’ve added projections too,” he says.

“We’re continually layering the evening with more dimensions, not just the words and the music, but to show Lee’s growth as a human being, such as the implications of him going to Spain as a young man, learning a little bit to play the violin, which sustains him en route and then becomes a character in the performance.”

He cherishes each chance to perform Red Sky At Sunrise, feeling a “sweet resonance” with Laurie Lee’s writing. “You just feel so privileged, so blessed, because great text forces you to come up and meet it full on and give of your best.

“As an actor I’ve worked with some great writers but some who are not so great too, where you have to make it more authentic, but with Laurie Lee, you think, ‘I must up my game’, and I just feel inspired and very lucky.”  

Red Sky At Sunrise, Laurie Lee in Words and Music, starring Anton Lesser, Charlie Hamblett and Orchestra Of The Swan, Grand Opera House, York, Sunday, May 26, 7.30pm. Box office: