SAM Thorpe-Spinks first made his mark on the York stage scene in student productions while reading History and Politics at the University of York.
He later trained at Guildhall School of Music and Drama and now returns to the city as one of two professional actors leading a 100-strong community cast and choir in York playwright Mike Kenny’s adaptation of C J Sansom’s Tudor-set thriller, Sovereign.
PlayingJewish sidekick Jack Barak to Irish actor Fergus Rattigan’s disabled lawyer Matthew Shardlake in the York Theatre Royal co-production with the University of York, Sam’s role just happens to combine history and politics, as well as murder and mystery, in a story to be staged outdoors at King’s Manor, one of the key locations in Sansom’s novel, from Saturday (15/7/2023) to July 30.
“That’s why doing this play is interesting, having studied History and Politics at university here from 2011 to 2014. I remember being at Clifford’s Tower one night from three till five in the morning and not realising its historical significance at the time,” he recalls.
“My Jewishness is something I’ve only rediscovered in the past five years. My mother’s side of the family escaped the pogrom in the early 20th century, went to Belfast and set up a synagogue there.
“When I was at drama school, I was aware of antisemitism in the theatre world. Before that, my grandmother, Gillian Freeman, wrote the novel The Leather Boys  and the screenplay [for Sidney J Furie’s 1964 film], writing the book based on her Jewish history.
“I got in touch with my Jewishness culturally, rather than through faith, and last year I set up Emanate with my friend Dan Wolff [his fellow actor-producer] to champion new Jewish writing. Last August, we sold out a two-night run of six short scenes by Jewish writers at the Kiln Theatre (formerly the Tricycle Theatre), and we’ll be going to the Soho Theatre (London) in August for two weeks with three new plays by Alexis Zegerman, Ryan Craig and Amy Rosenthal, exploring birth, marriage and death.
”So, my Jewish curiosity has filtered its way into my work. Once I finish Sovereign on the Sunday (30/7/20230), I’ll start rehearsals on the Monday for Alexis’s play, The Arc, the one that looks at marriage.”
Since June 14, his focus has been on rehearsals for Sovereign, linking up with Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster and co-directors John R Wilkinson and Mingyu Lin’s community cast, whose rehearsal schedule for this summer’s world premiere had begun in March.
“Jack Barak is the Dr Watson role, the assistant, and there’s been a lot of fun acting alongside Fergus’s detective. Barak is certainly more the lovable rogue character of the detective duo. He’s not a strong man but he’s lot more equipped to sniff out trouble and deal with it – and he has a charming propensity to find women for himself,” says the six-foot tall, blue/green-eyed, black-haired Sam.
“He has a little love interest in the play that leads him into trouble, but the book series concludes with him marrying and having children, so he does learn about love!”
Kenny’s adaptation focuses on Sansom’s story of lawyer Shardlake and Barak being sent from London to York to await the arrival of Henry VIII at King’s Manor, only to be plunged into a mystery that could threaten the future of the crown when a York glazier is murdered.
“It’s such a privilege to be performing at King’s Manor,” says Sam. “Normally you have to use your imagination, but I don’t have to use any for this! York is steeped in Tudor times, and to be appearing in a play performed where the story happened is quite rare.
“The Minster is a constant reminder of the city’s history, so you can never escape the play, and that’s a good thing.”
As for Henry VIII, already given a hard time in SIX The Musical at the Grand Opera House in late June, “they hate Henry in York, or certainly they do in this play,” says Sam. “He’s a southerner trying to exert his southern ways on the north, and both Shardlake and Barak are from the south too, so they’re treated with suspicion as well.”
Sovereign is Sam’s third play since leaving drama school, in the wake of Emanate and Peter Gill’s Something In The Air (Jermyn Street Theatre, London). “It’s the first one I’ve done on this scale, with so many cast members,” he says.
“The way Mike Kenny has adapted such a vast novel, bringing the characters into a palatable play that you can follow easily, he’s done an amazing job, keeping it really lean to the bone, and it feels like a play that was born to be performed by a community cast.
“You should see it because it’s a rich and colourful portrait of York in the 16th century, with murders, blood, treason and romance, and a cast of 100-plus performing in the actual location where the story took place. A crime drama in situ!”
No need for a sales pitch: Sovereign has sold out already.
York Theatre Royal and University of York present Sovereign outdoors at King’s Manor, Exhibition Square, York, from July 15 to 30. Tickets update: Sold out. Box office, for returns only, 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Copyright of The Press, York
What’s in a name? Sam Thorpe-Spinks
Sam: Hebrew origin, meaning “told by God” and “God hears”.
Thorpe: Derived from Old Norse or Old English, denoting a hamlet or village. Many place names in England have the suffix “thorp” or “thorpe”. Those of Old Norse origin abound in Yorkshire, Northumberland, County Durham, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.
Spinks: ‘Spink’ (noun) denotes a finch or the sound of a particular bird cry. ‘Spink’ (verb) denotes a finch calling or chirping or making a characteristic sound.