REVIEW: Gus Gowland’s Mayflies, York Theatre Royal, flying until May 13 ****

Not always seeing eye to eye: Nuno Queimado’s May and Emma Thornett’s Fly in one version of Gus Gowland’s Mayflies at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Sam Taylor

OH, the app-hazard nature of modern love under Covid’s black cloud.

You shadow box tenderly, tentatively, expectantly, for two years online after dating app initiations, then finally meet for one fateful night in a seaside hotel, shedding skins as much as clothes, a knockout blow that turns the morning after into the mourning after. The chatter, then the shatter.

All this mirrors gone-in-24-hours life of the mayfly (the insect here making an appearance on the cover of May’s jigsaw, Mayfly On River, Germany).

What a brief breath of life in flight, after up to two years spent twiddling thumbs and knotting scarves in gestation underwater, only to crash and burn on impact.

York Theatre Royal artist-in-residence Gus Gowland’s musical world premiere has followed a similar path of anticipation. Already an award winner for Pieces Of String (Mercury Theatre, Colchester, 2018), he had tantalised York audiences with five-minute showcase contributions to Love Bites in 2021 and Green Shoots in 2022, and now the wait is over.

Be assured, Mayflies will not die after one day (or three if you choose to see all three configurations of Tania Azevedo’s flexible casting). An afterlife is deserved by Gowland’s concept, book and songs alike.

Gowland eschews burdening his putative lovers with defined gender, race, sexual orientation or age, further extending its potential shelf life.

For +Juliet director Azevedo’s premiere, two from three will perform in any show. It could be Nuno Queimado’s May with Emma Thornett’s Fly; Rumi Sutton’s Fly with Queimado’s May or Sutton’s May in a gay coupling with Thornett’s Fly. Clear so far?

Raising a glass: Rumi Sutton’s May and Emma Thornett’s Fly in a second configuration of Mayflies. Picture: Sam Taylor

It is not essential to see all three combinations, but the potential of both Gowland’s book and in particular his songs are better revealed the more pairings you meet, rather than only one match of the day. Both the idealistic Fly’s restless urges in Looking Back and realist May’s pile of relationship debris in Running On Empty will fly, whoever sings them. Queimado’s account of that heartrending ballad is especially affecting.

As much as the mayfly is Gowland’s motif for a love affair’s arc from joy to sorrow, matched by the mayfly hanging lamps’ choreographed movements in TK Hay’s design, equally significant is May’s love of jigsaw puzzles, one of the quirky revelations that builds a picture of a character.

The audience is invited to piece the jigsaw together, not without a picture, but with the extra challenge of Gowland detailing the relationship in both flashbacks and flashforwards.

As with jigsaw pieces, some scenes have jagged edges, others are rounded, and gradually the full picture emerges before the pieces are put back in the box for reassembling in different hands (as the magician’s flourish of a finale portends).

Just as the casting presents differing versions of the coupling, so Gowland highlights how we present differing versions of ourselves depending on the circumstances. Which is the truthful version: the one played out online, at a distance, or in the compression, the intensity, the heat of the moment, in that hotel hothouse?

Does May not want children, as is revealed at the hotel, or want them, as had been indicated in passing conversation online? Preferences on custard creams or shortbread, pizza consumption and more besides provoke doubts on what may have been said and whether it matters whose recollection is right.

Where goofy awkwardness has never blighted them behind the online shield, once May and Fly are together, in that room, wondering what to do next – whether and when to make a move, watch TV, eat a biscuit, order pizza – the sheer ordinariness of it all has the tea cup stain of familiarity that elicits both humour from cringy own goals  and vulnerable deeper emotions in Gowland’s dialogue as he walks the tightrope between warm-hearted romcom and angsty kitchen-sink drama.

The best speech – and the longest – goes to Fly, an epistle to love, to connection, to being a “defining feature in someone else’s story”, that signals the death knell to May and Fly and has you thinking, not for the first time, “Shut up, please shut up, you’re blowing this”, but also recognising the truths within the compulsive behaviour.

The juddering rhythms of the staccato scenes, a fusillade of snapshots that go to the heart, are countered by beautiful, choreographed scene changes where May and Fly entwine, flit flirtatiously or throw a prop from one to the other as if living their best life.

In the heat of the long-awaited moment: Nuno Queimado’s May and Rumi Sutton’s Fly in the third pairing of Mayflies. Picture: Sam Taylor

The songs, closer to Sondheim and Willy Russell than Lloyd Webber, contain wit, authorial wisdom and sometimes withering truths, ranging in content from conversational to confessionally dramatic, from playful, wishful or jousting duets to hopeful or wistful internal monologues.

Gowland doesn’t write OTT chart bangers, but consistently his storytelling songs – intelligent, incisive, funny or poignant – have an impact. Tellingly, Queimado, Sutton and Thornett find full expression in their nuances.

Azevedo’s direction is both musical and lyrical, orchestrating scenes as much as directing them, complemented by musical director’s Joseph Church’s lean, clean arrangements for his piano and Joel Benedict’s guitar.

This intricate but never ornate production is full of work of the highest standard, not only from the performances that can switch from charming to charmless, funny to foot in mouth, thoughtful to thoughtless in both characters, but also in Chris Whybrow’s sound designs and David Howe’s lighting, in turn transforming from warm to chill to match the ever-changing moods.

T K Hay’s breath-taking set design for Nick Payne’s multiverse in Constellations last November at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre whetted the appetite for his creativity for Mayflies. The profusion of ever-moving mayfly lamps delights, while he cleverly wraps a standard-fare hotel room inside multi-levelled building blocks, with a staircase leading to a balcony/kitchenette above.

This enhances the contrast between their online ‘connectivity’ in separate spaces – using the Theatre Royal stage to the full – and the sudden sardine-tin claustrophobia of the hotel.

Previously Gowland played with time, setting Pieces Of String simultaneously in the 1940s and present day (just as Alan Ayckbourn did in The Girl Next Door in 2021). Now he joins Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years and University of York alumnus Payne’s Constellations in giving differing perspectives on the path and fragile nature of love, the greater truths emerging from the writer rather than his players on life’s stage. How wonderful if Mayflies could match their success.

What’s more, just as Fly says there is a difference between running and knowing when to leave, so Gowland judges his running time spot on at 90 minutes of longing, loss and love in its all ridiculous yet enriching madness.

Mayflies, York Theatre Royal, tonight, 7.30pm (Emma & Rumi); Thursday, 2pm (Nuno & Emma) and 7.30pm (Rumi & Nuno); Friday, 7.30pm (Emma & Rumi); Saturday, 2.30pm (Nuno & Emma) and 7.30pm (Rumi & Nuno). Box office: 01904 623568 or

Mayflies composer, lyricist and writer Gus Gowland, seated, with cast members Emma Thornett, left, Rumi Sutton and Nuno Queimado