FIRST came the Sonnet Walks around York from 2014 to 2019; next, the alliterative Sit-down Sonnets at Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, and now Sonnets At The Bar, in its third year in Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre’s “secret” garden.
Or not-so-secret, judging by the word-of-mouth popularity of York Shakespeare Project’s “entertaining and accessible” summer season of sonnets in the open air, delivered to the accompaniment of a complimentary drink in the admission price.
Each year’s splay of sonnets is supported by an overarching theme, devised this summer by Helen Wilson, who has been prompted by the Bar Convent’s convivial hospitality to conjure the merry-go-round whirl of a York hotel’s comings and goings, eccentric staff and guests on a mission in the rush of the summer wedding and tour traffic.
Judging by the character she plays – the hen-tending, egg-collecting Sister Augusta – she has been inspired too by the presence of the resident community of sisters at England’s oldest surviving Catholic convent.
The convent garden serves as the hotel garden, where York Shakespeare Project’s nine sonneteers make their entrances and exits and re-entries and re-exits too on the breakfast-is-served morning after the wedding the night before. The setting is modern-day, the language likewise until each sonneteer’s conversational thoughts elide into a Shakespearean sonnet and then back out again as each character reveals a secret.
First up is YSP veteran Frank Brogan’s deluded, ageing romantic rock god – long white hair, long dark coat, head band and gold chain – from the wedding party band, who is wondering what happened to the young sprat he failed to hook last night. His Flash Hunter struts and frets his five minutes upon the stage, gone in a flash, the failed hunter, returning later, still forlorn.
Your reviewer has been asked not to give too much away, as to what happens. Let’s focus on the coterie of characters instead. Judith Ireland takes willingly to a more comedic role than usual, Ireland turning Welsh to play the hotel’s psychic receptionist, Bronwyn Jones, with her vibes and talk of auras and energies.
Harold Mozley’s enervated hotel manager Mr S (for Scruton) is a no-nonsense sort, a stickler for timekeeping. We are told he “barks a lot”, but in this case his bite is even worse than his bite, especially if you happen to be tour guide Stevie Sykes from Betterway Travel, a dodgy East End firm run by Reggie and Ronnie. “Cut the bunny and hop it,” Mr S advises.
Director and YSP chair Tony Froud makes much of this slippery, often apologetic character, who turns the audience into his tour party.
We meet the agitated mother of the bride, Diana Wyatt’s mortified Moira; debutant sonneteer Sarah Dixon’s wedding guest Susie, as she encounters a former crush with hopes of re-kindling that flame, and the morning DJ with a cheesy lyric in every thought, Nigel Evans’s chirpy Colin.
Enter YSP producer Maurice Crichton’s “derelict” Scottish-born lobsterman Hector, in his eye patch and rather fetching fisherman’s gansey jumper, talking of coastal erosion at his adopted home of Skipsea. Aha, climate change comes to Sonnets At The Bar.
Hector has a lunch date, one to whom he will pick up a guitar to sing one of Crichton’s own compositions, a maritime ballad with a kiss at its heart and the chance for an audience singalong.
Northern humour, pathos, morsels of gossip, a missing guest, assorted love stories and spilled beans are stirred into the hotel melting pot by Wilson and Froud as each vignette adds more spice. As for which sonnets feature, you will have to attend to find out.
Next up from York Shakespeare Project will be Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, to be staged at Theatre@41, Monkgate, from October 17 to 21, as YSP spreads its wings beyond the Bard.
York Shakespeare Project presents Sonnets At The Bar in the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre garden until August 19, 6pm and 7.30pm, plus a 4.30pm Saturday performance. Box office: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/show/sonnets-at-the-bar-2023/ or 01904 623568.