REVIEW: Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough ****

“Spatial continuum anomaly”: Naomi Petersen’s wartime Lily and Bill Champion’s pandemic-times Rob bridge the age gap in Alan Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Alan Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until July 3. Box office: 01723 370541 and at sjt.uk.com

WHO else but director emeritus and Scarborough knighted playwright Alan Ayckbourn could be at the helm of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s first in-house production of 2021.

He has been chomping at the bit, as the racehorse saying goes, writing even more prolifically and recording and sound-editing two audio plays, Anno Domino and the reawakened ghost story Haunting Julia, as lockdown followed lockdown.

He has missed the interaction with actors and audience alike, as last summer’s premiere of Truth Will Out never did reveal its topical virus truths in The Round.

How joyful to see Sir Alan, 82 and stick in hand, taking his familiar back-row seat for the Tuesday’s press night performance. It was another sign of live theatre’s resurrection, even with the continuing need for face masks, social distancing and a reduced capacity.

The Girl Next Door is premiere number 85, and glory be, it is inventive, witty, poignant, moving and surprising in the best Ayckbourn tradition, with plenty of mischievous humour too, whether digging into politics, Zoom, love, war, English characteristics, our past and present, what has changed, what hasn’t.

All this is wrapped in a tale suffused with magic realism (or not, you decide!) and Ayckbourn’s familiar relish with playing with time. In this case, he applies the term “spatial continuum anomaly” for surely the first time, along with references to Doctor Who and Star Wars.

Standard attire for a Zoom meeting: Alexandra Mathie’s Westminster civil servant Alex at home in The Girl Next Door. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Ayckbourn’s frustration at his absence from the rehearsal room and stage since 2019 finds a messenger on stage in the form of actor Rob Hathaway (Ayckbourn stalwart Bill Champion), head in his hands, stuck at home in August 2020, sixty, sagging and sad.

He laments the hiatus from all that he loves about theatre, above all the connection, and no, Shakespeare sonnets being performed by glove puppets online is no substitute.

Bored with the prospect of watching yet another box set or daytime TV after losing his role, for disciplinary reasons, as the star of the nation’s favourite TV period drama, National Fire Service, he keeps re-living his past as George ‘Tiger’ Jennings, wartime hero and living firefighter legend, rather than living for the day or even having his morning Cornflakes.

Lockdown has been shared with his big sister, very sensible civil servant Alex (Ayckbourn regular Alexandra Mathie), who has just finished a Zoom meeting with the Chancellor (female, as it happens). We know the ever-sharp Ayckbourn is on the ball because she is wearing pyjamas beneath a jacket, as so many have!

Champion’s enervated Rob is suddenly perked up by the sight of a stranger, a young woman hanging out the washing in the next-door garden. Who is she, he wonders, as the owners, the Jessops, have chosen to isolate at their second home in the Dorset country.

She, we shall learn, is Lily (Naomi Petersen), and on her side of the hedge, it is August 1942, wartime London is under bombardment; the garden has been given over to growing vegetables, with an Anderson shelter beyond. Husband Alf (Linford Johnson) is away doing his bit for Blighty in a tank regiment in Africa; their two children, six and seven, are away too, out of contact, evacuated to somewhere in the country.

What’s it all about, Alfie? Linford Johnson’s 1942 soldier-on-leave Alf sips on a 21st century bottled beer in The Girl Next Door. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

We note the differences, beautifully drawn out by designer Kevin Jenkins: a hosepipe, security lights and characterless all mod cons in the Hathaway kitchen; a watering can, no outdoor lighting and a stove and hand-operated washing equipment for Lily. As ever in an Ayckbourn production, the doors are cut off at halfway but are used almost as regularly as in a farce.

For all the presence of Alex, Rob is adrift; Lily is alone, and through Ayckbourn’s aforementioned “spatial continuum anomaly”, their worlds meet, with all the bewildering confusions and misunderstandings that go with that.

Born in 1939, and so a wartime London child, Ayckbourn recalls a “sort of lockdown”  of that time, crowding into Anderson shelters and subway stations, and so he draws parallels with the pandemic lockdowns of 2020-2021. Rob keeps mentioning social distancing; Lily mistakes the security lighting for searchlights; Mathie’s Alex mentions she has a wife; Lily is unnerved by the machine-dominated kitchen. Ayckbourn revels in both the similarities and contrasts with the past.

He even plays with knowing about the past, and what  burden that may place on Rob if he were to try to change the course of history. Rather than Back To The Future fun and games, however, Ayckbourn keeps this thread – in the story of Alf – on a more serious trajectory, one of intrigue and mystery in the more melancholic yet still hopeful second half.

On top of it all, in his own words, The Girl Next Door is “an affirmation of love across the generations”, a love that stops feckless, twice divorced Rob in his tracks.

There is a second love story too here: Ayckbourn’s abiding love of theatre, its magic, mystery, wonder, profundity and possibilities, brought to life by a wonderful cast, with a typically brilliant Ayckbourn drinking scene to boot. How blessed we are to be sharing his vision, his playfulness, his wisdom, anew.

Review copyright of The Press, York

More Things To Do in York and beyond as Step 3 gathers pace away from home. List No. 34, courtesy of The Press, York

York Minster, west front, by Susan Brown at Kentmere House Gallery, York

THE Roadmap route to recovery is becoming ever busier, like the roads into York. This has prompted Charles Hutchinson to resume his weekly, rather than fortnightly, eerie to spot what’s happening.

Exhibition launch of the week: Susan Brown, Kentmere House Gallery, Scarcroft Hill, York, until July 4

HUDDERSFIELD artist Susan Brown has returned to York Minster, one of her favourite locations for her architectural paintings, for her spring and summer show at Kentmere House Galllery, York.

Her artistic focus is on city life and our relationship with our environment, exploring the rhythm and movement within buildings and interiors, along with creating beautiful abstract paintings, inspired by still-life subjects and landscapes, with an emphasis on texture and pattern.

“Susan’s paintings are bold and striking, predominantly worked in watercolour and acrylic,” says gallery owner Ann Petherick. “The gallery is open anytime by prior arrangement or chance: you can ring 01904 656507 or 07801 810825 or email ann.petherick@kentmerehouse.co.uk, or just take pot luck by ringing the bell. Please ring in advance if travelling any distance.”

Kentmere House Gallery’s next open weekend will be on June 5 and 6, 11am to 5pm; the gallery has a weekly late-evening opening on Thursdays to 9pm.

Jonty Ward: Recital organist and director of music at St Lawrence Parish Church, York

Festival of the week: St Lawrence Trinity Festival, St Lawrence Parish Church, Lawrence Street, York, May 29 to June 5

A £410,000 restoration has perked up the 1885 Denman organ transferred from St Michael-le-Belfrey for installation by organ-building firm Nicholson & Co at St Lawrence Parish Church.

A celebratory festival programme will include a demonstration by Nicholson & Co ahead of the inaugural recital by Robert Sharpe, York Minster organist and director of music, on May 29 at 10.30am.

Further organ recitals will be performed by musicians associated with St Lawrence and the City of York: William Campbell, May 31, 4pm; David Norton, June 1, 4pm; St Lawrence director of music Jonty Ward, June 3, 4pm, and Timothy Hone, music and liturgy administrator at York Minster, June 4, 4pm. The Black Sheep Consort will give a 7pm recital on May 31.

Attendance is free, but booking is required for the Inaugural Recital at festival@stlawrenceparishchurch.org.uk.

A T-shirt to mark the Super Cool Drawing Machine exhibition at The Crescent, York

Hippest exhibition of the week in York: Yuppies Music presents Super Cool Drawing Machine, The Crescent, York, today (26/5/2021) until Sunday

YUPPIES Music’s touring exhibition of musicians’ “other” work, will run at The Crescent community venue for four days from today. This celebration of art created by international touring independent musicians is billed as a “much-needed exploration of fun stuff”, on show each day from 11am to 9pm with Covid-secure measures in place.

Under social distancing restrictions, attendees will have to book in advance, choosing a specific time slot to view the exhibition. Consequently, only a small number of tickets are available at £5 for each time slot at seetickets.com.

Among the artists will be will be trailblazing jazz saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings; Welsh singer/producer Cate Le Bon; experimental folk musician Richard Dawson; African-American experimentalist Lonnie Holley and drummer/composer Seb Rochford, plus members of This Is The Kit, Mammal Hands, Haiku Salut, Snapped Ankles and more besides.

Ben Caplan: Singer-songwriter, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, playing Pocklington Arts Centre in November. Picture: Jamie Kronick

Gig announcement of the week outside York: Ben Caplan, Pocklington Arts Centre, November 11, 8pm

CANADIAN folk-rock singer-songwriter Ben Caplan will play Pocklington on his European autumn tour. 

His extensive itinerary will mark the tenth anniversary of his October 2011 debut, In The Time Of The Great Remembering, and will follow hot on the heels of Recollection, a retrospective collection of stripped back re-interpretations of songs from his back catalogue, out in October. 

Venue manager James Duffy says: “I saw Ben perform at Cambridge Folk Festival in 2019 and was blown away. He has a fantastic stage presence and mixes a wonderful blend of musical styles from folk to gypsy through to rock. Imagine the love child of Tom Waits and Gogol Bordello and you’re getting somewhere close.”

Caplan’s support act will be fellow Canadian Gabrielle Papillon. Tickets are on sale at pocklingtonartscenytre.co.uk.

The girl next door in The Girl Next Door: Naomi Petersen in rehearsal for Alan Ayckbourn’s 85th premiere. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Premiere of the week ahead: Alan Ayckbourn’s 85th play, The Girl Next Door, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, June 4 to July 3

THE SJT’s first in-house production of 2021 will be director emeritus Alan Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door, a lockdown love story.

Veteran actor Rob Hathaway is stuck at home during the summer of 2020 with only his sensible older sister for company. Rob has little to do but relive his glory days as fire-fighting wartime hero George “Tiger” Jennings in the nation’s favourite TV period drama, National Fire Service. 

Then, one day, Rob spots a stranger hanging out the washing in the adjoining garden, when the neighbours have not been around for months. Who is the mysterious girl next door? And why is she wearing 1940s’ clothing?

“The Girl Next Door is an affirmation of love across the generations,” says Ayckbourn. “I hope it’s positive and hopeful for those today crawling out of their metaphorical Anderson shelters blinking into the light.”

Benjamin Francis Leftwich: Playing The Citadel in his home city next February

Gig announcement for next year: Benjamin Francis Leftwich, The Citadel, Gillygate, York, February 25 2022

YORK singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich, now resident in Tottenham, London, will return to his home city to play The Citadel on his 26-date British and Irish tour next year. 

The tour will follow the June 18 release of his fourth album, To Carry A Whale, on June 18 on the Dirty Hit label.

His first to be written and recorded entirely sober, it was made over four months last year at home, at Urchin Studios in Hackney, in a hotel room in Niagara and at a Southend studio owned by Sam Duckworth, of Get Cape. Wear Cape. Tickets are on sale at benjaminfrancisleftwich.com.

Alan Ayckbourn returns to his rehearsal room for the first time in 19 months

Alan Ayckbourn in the garden of his Scarborough home in May 2020 during the first lockdown. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

ON Tuesday, playwright Alan Ayckbourn returned to his empty, dark, silent rehearsal room next door for the first time since September 2019.

After months and months of work, restlessness but no live play, the Scarborough knight is back where he feels most at home: directing a new Ayckbourn work, The Girl Next Door, from the rehearsal studio in his Longwestgate abode.

“My spirit in lockdown had begun to pall, especially in this one, as I’ve had no springboard for my work,” he says. “Like everyone else, I decided to keep busy at all costs: I wrote play after play, four actually, but they just lay there, unexplored, neglected, unfulfilled, because I had no feedback from actors or audiences of course, so I couldn’t move forward.

“I was parked on the runway, seeing where I might fly off to next.” The permission for take-off has now been granted: The Girl Next Door, 82-year-old Sir Alan’s 85th premiere, will open in The Round at his beloved Stephen Joseph Theatre, where he is Director Emeritus after 37 years as artistic director from 1972 to 2009.

“I wrote it back in spring 2020. I like to think of it as a lockdown love story,” he says of his touching, tender and humorous reflection on the ability of love to rise above adversity and reach across the years.

Sir Alan, who turned 82 on April 12, had experienced the frustration of his 2020 world premiere of Truth Will Out, ironically a prescient play about a virus, albeit of the computer variety, being knocked into the long grass by the first lockdown as the SJT lay dormant from March 17.

For all his unstinting productivity – not only the four plays but also audio-stream recordings of the previously unproduced Anno Domino and a Christmas revival of his ghost play Haunting Julia – Sir Alan has been itching to intereact with actors again.

“Just go for it,” he said as he anticipated Tuesday’s first session. “I’ve been counting down the days to when we start rehearsals just after the Bank Holiday.

“All I can say is, we will be ready! The theatre has been terrific in that respect, so supportive; the play being confirmed for the summer in January; one production meeting; auditions on Zoom, even if the reality with Zoom is there’s always a beat between what they say and what you hear, so it just sounds flat. All we need now is for Boris to panic.”

Panic not. Let’s stay positive and eagerly await The Girl Next Door, a play Sir Alan set about writing as soon as he finished work on Anno Domino in early May and completed by late-May in the best Ayckbourn tradition of quick work.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre poster artwork for Alan Ayckbourn’s June world premiere of his 85th play, The Girl Next Door

The play is a four-hander, as Ayckbourn adapted to Covid times when large casts are not viable for the foreseeable future in this new age of social bubbles, and the setting is two neighbouring houses on the same London street during August 2020.

“But all is not as it seems,” he says. It never is in a play by a playwright who loves playing with time. Here he populates one house with actor Rob Hathaway, 60, and his sister, Alex, 62, a government financial advisor. In the other are the Tindles, soldier Alf, 26, and wife Lily, 24.

“The opening image is Rob seeing the young woman putting washing on the line and in his mind he’s thinking, ‘she has no right to be there’ because the couple who live next door have chosen to go away to their house in the country in lockdown.”

Without giving too much away, past is meeting present, drawing on Sir Alan’s own childhood experiences in London in the Second World War.

“I felt that spirit of optimism as I wrote it because the country needs a bit of optimism right now,” he says. “The last thing anyone wants to watch is someone saying ‘there’s no more hope, folks’.

“So writing the play, it was my life meeting me coming back, because my first memories were of lockdown in wartime, sheltering under the beds, waiting for the bombs to drop. Now we’re sheltering at home, waiting for the germs to land.

“It’s interesting that the parallels are there, though I don’t want to rub them in, so all I can say is, ‘don’t worry, folks, we’ve been here before; the world won’t end’, though many feared it was in wartime.”

Ayckbourn was born in April 1939. “So I have these images of being on my mother’s lap down in the tube station, not wanting to wake her up, and she not wanting to disturb me,” he says.

“I remember the shelters that were great for children, and you could play under the kitchen table, so it was quite a time – and then there was my Mickey Mouse gas mark, with the big mouse ears, which they gave out to children as standard issue. They were like something Stephen King would have been proud of.”

Ayckbourn enjoys playing with the two eras separated by 80 years. “It’s fun to do; there’s a sort of selective release of information where the art is to make the audience feel secure, with a level playing field, but then you hopefully stay slightly ahead of them, trying to get them to second guess you!” he says.

Alan Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door will run at a socially distanced, Covid-secure Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from June 4 to July 3. Box office: sjt.uk.com.

Copyright of The Press, York

More Things To Do in York and beyond, and not still bedded down in the home bunker. List No. 31, courtesy of The Press, York

Let Ian Massie take you to Another Place in his Northern Soul show at Ryedale Folk Museum, Hutton-le-Hole from May 17

NO mention of home entertainment here, as Charles Hutchinson decides to cast fears aside – albeit while acting responsibly – as he looks forward to theatres, bars, galleries, museums and music venues opening their doors once more.

Cupid, draw back your bow and let the beer flow, straight to the York Theatre Royal patio

LOVE is in the Step 2 air, and soon on the York Theatre Royal stage too for The Love Season from May 17.

Cupid’s Bar: Follow the arrow to the York Theatre Royal patio. Picture: Livy Potter

Perfect timing to launch Cupid’s Bar for five weeks on the Theatre Royal patio, where the bar will run from midday to 9.30pm every Thursday to Sunday, providing an outdoor space in the heart of the city for residents and visitors to socialise safely.

Working with regional suppliers, Cupid’s Bar will offer a range of drink options, such as draught beer from Black Sheep Brewery, Masham, and York Gin from, er, York.

Ian Scott Massie: Finding Northern Soul in his landscape watercolours and screenprints. Picture: Steve Christian

Exhibition of the month ahead outside York: Ian Scott Massie, Northern Soul, Ryedale Folk Museum, Hutton-le-Hole, North York Moors National Park, May 17 to July 11

MASHAM artist Ian Scott Massie’s Northern Soul show of 50 watercolours and screenprints represents his personal journey of living in the north for 45 years.

“The north is the truth of England, where all things are seen clearly,” he says. “The incomparable beauty of the landscape; the harsh ugliness left by industry; the great wealth of the aristocracy; the miserable housing of the poor; the civic pride of the mill towns and a people as likely to be mobilised by political oratory as by a comedian with a ukulele.”

The Waterfall Of Nikko-Zan In Shimotsuke Province, by Utagawa Hiroshige, 1853, from York Art Gallery’s show of rarely seen Japanese prints, Pictures Of The Floating World. Image courtesy of York Museums Trust

Reopening exhibition of the month ahead in York: Pictures Of The Floating World: Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints, York Art Gallery, from May 28

YORK Art Gallery’s display of rarely seen Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, complemented by much-loved paintings from the gallery collection, will go on show in a new Spotlight Series.

Marking next month’s gallery reopening with Covid-secure measures, Pictures Of The Floating World will feature prints by prominent Ukiyo-e artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige, along with works by those influenced by Japanese art, York artist Albert Moore and Walter Greaves among them.

This free-to-visit exhibition will highlight the significant impact of Japanese art on the western world and the consequential rise of the artistic movements of Aestheticism and Art Nouveau.”

Van the manoeuvre: Morrison’s York Barbican gigs put back to July

On the move: Van Morrison’s York Barbican shows

NO reopening date has yet been announced for York Barbican, but Irish veteran Van Morrison’s shows are being moved from May 25 and 26 to July 20 and 21.

“Please keep hold of your tickets as they will be valid for the new date,” says the Barbican website, where seats for Van The Man are on sale without social distancing, in line with Step 4 of the Government’s pandemic Roadmap to Recovery, whereby all legal limits on social contact are potentially to be removed from June 21.

Morrison, 75, will release his 42nd album, Latest Record Project: Volume 1, a 28-track delve into his ongoing love of blues, R&B, jazz and soul, on May 7 on Exile/BMG.

Lockdown love story: The taster poster for Alan Ayckbourn’s new play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre

New play of the summer: Alan Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, June 4 to July 3

AFTER the 2020 world premiere of his virus play Truth Will Out lost out to the Covid pandemic restrictions, director emeritus Alan Ayckbourn returns to the Stephen Joseph Theatre to direct his 85th play, The Girl Next Door, in the summer season.

“I wrote it back in Spring 2020. I like to think of it as a lockdown love story,” says Ayckbourn, introducing his touching, tender and funny reflection on the ability of love to rise above adversity and reach across the years.

Influenced by his own experiences in two “lockdowns”, one in wartime London in childhood, the other in the on-going pandemic in Scarborough, Ayckbourn will play with time in a plot moving back and forth between 2021 and 1941. Box office: sjt.uk.com.

May and April in tandem: York Barbican date for Imelda next spring on her first tour in five years

Gig announcement of the week in York: Imelda May, York Barbican, April 6 2022

IRISH singer-songwriter Imelda May will play York Barbican next April in the only Yorkshire show of her Made To Love tour, her first in more than five years.

“I cannot wait to see you all again, to dance and sing together, to connect and feel the sparkle in a room where music makes us feel alive and elevated for a while,” says May. “Let’s go!”

Last Friday, the 46-year-old Dubliner released her sixth studio album, 11 Past The Hour. The box office opens tomorrow at 10am at yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Dance like Fred Astaire…or more likely like Tim Booth as James end the summer at Scarborough Open Air Theatre

Gig announcement of the week outside York: James, Scarborough Open Air Theatre, September 9

WHERE better for James to announce a summer show in the week they release new single Beautiful Beaches than at Scarborough Open Air Theatre?

The Manchester legends will play on the East Coast in the wake of launching their new album, All The Colours Of You, on June 4. Tickets go on sale tomorrow (23/4/2021) at 9am at scarboroughopenairtheatre.com.

This will be the third that James, led by Clifford-born Tim Booth, have played Scarborough OAT after shows in 2015 and 2018.

The writers, actors, directors and organisers in a Zoom gathering for Next Door But One’s Yorkshire Trios at The Gillygate pub, York

And what about?

GOOD news: Live theatre bursts into life in York for the first time since December 30 when York community arts collective Next Door But One presents Yorkshire Trios in The Gillygate pub’s new outdoor seating area tomorrow and on Saturday.

Themed around Moments Yet To Happen, trios of actors, directors and writers will bring to theatre-starved York a quintet of short stories of laughter, strength, dreams and everything in between: a neighbour with a secret; a delivery driver full of wanderlust; an optimistic carousel operator; a poet inviting us into her world and a Jane McDonald fan on a soapbox.

Bad news for tardy readers? The 7.30pm shows have sold out.

More Things To Do indoors in and around York in Stay Home Lockdown 3. List No 24, courtesy of The Press, York

A Long night: Josie Long will be performing for the Your Place Comedy live-stream from her living room on January 24

AS LOCKDOWN 3 urges everyone to “stay home”, Charles Hutchinson takes that advice in selecting entertainment for the dark days and nights ahead.

Somewhere over the pandemic horizon, he highlights a couple of shows in the diary for the autumn.

Ahir Shah: Joining Josie Long in a remote double bill for Your Place Comedy

Live-stream lockdown humour from living room to living room: Josie Long and Ahir Shah, Your Place Comedy, January 24

LOCKDOWN 3 has brought another round of Your Place Comedy home entertainment. “As before, we’ll be broadcasting from comedians’ living rooms, kitchens and attics or, as was the case with Lucy Beaumont, her homemade pub,” says virtual comedy club organiser Chris Jones, Selby Town Council’s arts officer.

The format remains the same: two headline comedians, some stand-up and some chat, all juggled by regular compere Tim FitzHigham. First up will be Josie Long and Ahir Shah on January 24; line-ups are yet to be confirmed for February 28 and March 28.

The live-stream shows will be free to watch but with donations keenly encouraged at yourplacecomedy.co.uk.

Pea’s home; green: Story Craft Theatre storyteller Cassie Vallance looks forward to next week’s Crafty Tales session

Interactive stories for children: Story Craft Theatre’s Crafty Tales

CASSIE Vallance and Janet Bruce cannot hold their Crafty Tales sessions in person during Lockdown 3 but will continue to deliver sessions “directly to you via the power of Zoom”.

“Each 50-minute session is packed full of crafting, storytelling and educational fun with lots of activities to keep your little folk’s imagination alight,” says Cassie. “There are still a few spaces left for next week’s 10am sessions based around Julia Donaldson’s The Runaway Pea on January 20, 22 and 23.”

Coming up on January 27, 29 and 30 will be Elaine Wickson’s Super Stan. For more details and to book, go to storycrafttheatre.co.uk.

Parasols aplenty: A scene from the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company production of The Pirates Of Penzance at the 2019 International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, now available online. Picture: Jane Stokes

Operetta on screen: International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, G&S Opera TV On-Line Streaming Service

WHEN the Coronavirus pandemic put paid to the 2020 International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival at Harrogate Royal Hall, the festival launched its online streaming subscription service at gsoperatv.

“New content is being continually added,” says festival stalwart Bernard Lockett. “It features the very best of more than 26 years of the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, along with top amateur productions performed at our festival, G&S films and fascinating documentaries and interviews, and is the only place to experience so many outstanding Savoy operas.”

The subscription rates for general viewers is £9.99 per month or £99 annuallyThe 2021 festival is in the diary for August 8 to 22 in Harrogate, preceded by Buxton Opera House the week before.

Chelsey Gillard: Stephen Joseph Theatre associate director, hosting online script-reading sessions

Play for the day appraisal: Online script-reading sessions, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from January 20

RUNNING online on Wednesdays from 11.30am to 1.30pm for five weeks, the fun sessions will dive into five classic comedies: Aristophanes’s Lysistrata on January 20; Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, January 27; Moliere’s Tartuffe, February 3; Sheridan’s The Rivals, February 10, and Feydeau’s A Flea In Her Ear, February 17.

Participants will read sections of the plays aloud and work with SJT associate director Chelsey Gillard to consider their themes, stories, writing styles and historical context in a relaxed discussion. Session bookings can be made at sjt.uk.com.

Clowning around: Jon Marshall’s Ringmaster with Steve Collison’s Clown in Magic Carpet Theatre’s Magic Circus

Online children’s show of the month: Magic Carpet Theatre in Magic Carpet, Pocklington Arts Centre YouTube channel

HULL company Magic Carpet Theatre filmed their fun family-friendly show, Magic Carpet, behind closed doors at Pocklington Arts Centre last October. By public demand, its free streaming run is being extended to January 21 at: youtu.be/CNrUixTMWdQ.

Performed by director Jon Marshall and Steve Collison with magical illusions, comedy, circus skills and puppets, it tells the humorous tale of what happens to the ringmaster’s extravaganza plans after the artistes and elephants fail to arrive and everything has to be left in the calamitous hands of the clowns. Disaster!

His master’s voices: Alan Ayckbourn recorded his audio version of Haunting Julia at home. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Online ghost play of the season: Alan Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

ALAN Ayckbourn’s 2020 audio version of his ghost play Haunting Julia is being given an afterlife. Originally available at sjt.uk.com/event/1078/haunting_julia until January 5, the winter chiller now will be online until January 31.

Revisiting his 1994 play, Ayckbourn’s audio recording features the voice of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 81-year-old director emeritus. Or, rather, the three voices of Ayckbourn, who plays all three parts.

Rufus Wainwright: Songs inspired by middle age, married life, fatherhood, friends, loss, London and Laurel Canyon

Baroque’n’roll gig of the autumn: Rufus Wainwright, York Barbican, October 13

LAUREL Canyon singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright’s October 27 2020 tour date at York Barbican has moved to October 13 2021. Tickets remain valid for the rearranged date with his new band.

Last July, Wainwright, 47, released his ninth studio album, Unfollow The Rules, his first since 2012. “I consider it my first fully mature album; it is like a bookend to the beginning of my career,” says Rufus, whose fearless, mischievous songs were inspired by middle age, married life, fatherhood, friends, loss, London and Laurel Canyon.

Taking the mic: Omid Djalili looks forward to letting the Good Times roll again

Ready for a laugh: Omid Djalili, The Good Times Tour, Grand Opera House, York, November 10

OMID Djalili cannot wait to be back where he belongs, on stage, after experimenting with a Zoom gig where he was muted by no fewer than 639 people and a drive-in gig when he witnessed one audience member leave his car, attach a hose pipe to his exhaust and feed it through the window.

The British-Iranian stand-up’s 2021 excursions could not have a more positive title: The Good Times Tour. Let’s hope he is right, although who can predict if his shows at Harrogate Theatre on May 6 and Hull City Hall on May 26 will be given the go-ahead.

In his diary too are: Platform Festival, The Old Station, Pocklington, July 22, and Masham Town Hall, September 18 and 19. Oh, and Leeds Town Hall on October 28 in faraway 2022.

Alan Ayckbourn’s ghost play Haunting Julia will keep you awake for an extra month

Alan Ayckbourn in his garden at his Scarborough home in May 2020. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

ALAN Ayckbourn’s 2020 audio version of his ghost play Haunting Julia is being given an afterlife.

Originally available through the Stephen Joseph Theatre website from December 1 to today (5/1/2021), the winter chiller now will be online until January 31.

Revisiting his 1994 play, Ayckbourn’s audio recording features the voice of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 81-year-old director emeritus. Or, rather, the three voices of Ayckbourn, who plays all three parts.

Directed by Ayckbourn, the “comic but scary” Haunting Julia was recorded at his Scarborough home studio, where he and his wife, Heather Stoney, had made his first ever audio play, his 84th premiere Anno Domino, in Lockdown 1.

Haunting Julia is set 12 years after the suicide of Otley-born musical prodigy Julia Lukin. Her father Joe, still struggling with her death, meets with former boyfriend Andy and psychic Ken to seek out the truth, but some questions are better left unanswered.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre artwork for the 2020 audio version of Haunting Julia, performed and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Ayckbourn, who voiced characters ranging in age from teenage to septuagenarian in Anno Domino, here plays the parts of Joe, Andy and Ken, while “other voices” – previously off stage – are provided by Naomi Petersen.

The online version of Haunting Julia is going global, drawing bookings from the USA and beyond after a “really positive review” in New York City’s Wall Street Journal.

Bookings have come in from: Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Torrevieja, Alicante; Tucson, Arizona; Victoria, British Columbia; Los Altos, Santa Barbara, Oakland, Eureka, Clovis, Los Angeles, Woodside, Los Osos and Palo Alto, California; Denver, Colorado, and Washington, District of Columbia.

Bookings also have been made from: Decatur, Georgia; Evanston, Warrenville, Oak Park, Illinois; South Bend, Indiana; Madison, Maine; Silver Spring, Chevy Chase, Maryland; Holliston, Wellfleet, Carlisle, Milford, East Falmouth, Boxford, North Brookfield, Massachusetts, and Walled Lake, Michigan.

Naomi Petersen: Voices from beyond in Haunting Julia

So too from: Winona, Minnesota; St Louis, Missouri; Morris Plains, Mountain Lakes, Jersey City, New Jersey; Corrales, New Mexico; Waccabuc, Brooklyn, Larchmont, Rochester and multiple New York addresses, New York; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Media, Easton, Pennsylvania, and Granbury, Texas.

Likewise from: Mission Hills, Kansas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Boca Raton, Sarasota, Jacksonville, Ocala, Belleair, Boynton Beach, California; Salt Lake City, Taylorsville, Utah; Glen Allen, Vienna, Virginia; Bainbridge Island, Seattle, Washington; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Nicosia, Cyprus, and Auckland, New Zealand.

How to listen to Alan Ayckbourn times three in Haunting Julia:

TICKETS for Haunting Julia can be booked any time up to and including January 31 2021, either via https://www.sjt.uk.com/event/1078/haunting_julia or on 01723 370541.

Once a £12 ticket has been bought, the buyer can access the audio show as often as they want between now and January 31, and as many people as are in their household or social bubble can listen in. Go to the website, sjt.uk.com, for more details.

REVIEW: Haunting Julia, audio version, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, online at sjt.uk.com until January 5 2021

All in the voice: Alan Ayckbourn, in his garden in Scarborough in May, in the year when he has recorded two audio plays. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

ALAN Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia was last mounted by the SJT in 2008 as part of The Things That Go Bump, his farewell season as artistic director that brought out the ghosts lurking in the dark corners of all our minds.

Richard Derrington guest-directed that revival of Ayckbourn’s claustrophic, ever chillier 1994 response to Woman In Black, the SJT hit that went international. This time, in the wake of SJT director emeritus Ayckbourn’s online premiere of his 84th play, Anno Domino, in the first pandemic lockdown, he becomes a triple threat again for Haunting Julia.

Make that quadruple threat, because the Scarborough knight, now 81, is the writer, director, performer and sound designer for his only all-male play…although “other voices” are added to his triptych of roles, courtesy of Naomi Petersen.

Three men, a father, a lover and a medium, are each struggling to fathom why Otley-born classical musical genius Julia Lukin died at only 19, the victim of an accident or maybe suicide, or perhaps murkier, sinister circumstances shrouded in drugs and alcohol.

The day the music died in 1982, her father’s life stopped in its tracks. Twelve years on and no nearer the truth, bewildered, bluff, big-in-industrial-fencing-supplies businessman Joe Lukin has opened the Julia Lukin Centre for Performing Studies in her former attic student digs and two adjoining houses as a tribute to “Little Miss Mozart”.

Joe has made alterations to the building and the actress voicing Julia’s story is too buoyant: symbols of how this caring, but over-bearing West Yorkshireman never quite struck the right note with her, applying stultifying parental pressure as she struggled with a gift that made her sick, its uncontrollable insistence on being let out being “like a great cloud in front of the sun”.

On the recording, Julia’s distressed real voice can be heard, not only by Joe, but also by her close college friend Andy Rollinson, whose ever more apparent discomfort at having to dig up old ground will be brought to the surface by the arrival of Ken Chase, an over-enthusiastic psychic, the Madame Arcati of Haunting Julia. The truth will out, ultimately willingly from Ken, less so from Andy, who goes from distracted awkwardness to confronting his shut-down past.

May your reviewer make a suggestion, dear reader? Despite the play’s afternoon setting, listen to this audio version in the still of the night, in candlelight or by fire light, or even in the dark, curtains drawn, no distractions, maximum concentration, in part to contrast with the collective experience of a theatre audience, in part too to enhance the new format.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre poster for Alan Ayckbourn’s audio version of Haunting Julia

The shards of humour, often released as a form of relief from the rising tension in a packed auditorium, are less forthcoming on a solo journey through an audio recording, but the psychological impact of Ayckbourn’s ghost story grows in the loneliness of the socially distanced listener.

Ghost stories are as much a part of Christmas as pantomime dames and carol services, and so whereas the 1994 premiere and subsequent SJT revivals were staged in the summer, this is the perfect time for Haunting Julia to start haunting all over again.

“I consider Julia Lukin to be among the most complex and intriguing of my characters never physically to appear,” Ayckbourn has said. “Although a male three-hander, the play definitely belongs to her.”

Yes, and no. Yes, she possesses the three men, and in turn the listener, but Haunting Julia very definitely belongs to Ayckbourn too, not only as the consummate story-telling writer, but also in now voicing his three troubled protagonists.

Just as it was a pleasure to discover his dormant acting skills, alongside his wife Heather Stoney, in Anno Domino’s tale of marital breakdown and toxic politics, so his trio of accents and characters here is as enjoyable for us as it must have been for Ayckbourn to record in a year when his rehearsal room has had to fall silent.

What’s more, former BBC sound engineer Ayckbourn’s sound design adds hugely to the immersive audio encounter, playing on your imagination’s worst fears, as a ghost tale should.

“You have to build up the audience’s confidence in the story first, and then scare them, which is not that different from a farce, where you’re trying to make them laugh by surprising them,” said Ayckbourn of his first ghost play. Sure enough, surprise follows surprise here, and Haunting Julia is even better in this re-incarnation.

How to listen to Alan Ayckbourn times three in Haunting Julia:

TICKETS for Haunting Julia can be booked any time up to and including January 5 2021, either via https://www.sjt.uk.com/event/1078/haunting_julia or on 01723 370541.

Once a £12 ticket has been bought, the buyer can access the audio show as often as they want between now and January 5, and as many people as are in their household or social bubble can listen in. Go to the website, sjt.uk.com, for more details.

Post-Lockdown 2, lights on for More Things To Do in and around York and at home. List No 20, courtesy of The Press, York

Travelling players: York Theatre Royal pantomime stars Robin Simpson’s dame, Faye Williams’ hero, Reuben Johnson’s villain, Anna Soden’s fairy and Josh Benson’s comic. Picture: Ant Robling

EXIT LOCKDOWN 2, enter Tier 2 for York and North Yorkshire, Tier 3 for next-door neighbours The Humber and West Yorkshire.

That means plenty of openings and re-openings for Charles Hutchinson to highlight, but no roads leading to Leeds, Hull or…Pocklington.

The pantomime season in York

NO Dame Berwick Kaler comeback in Dick Turpin Rides Again at the still-closed Grand Opera House, alas, but after two nights at the Theatre Royal this week, York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime will be making its way around York’s wards until December 23.

Dame for a laugh: Alex Weatherhill’s Dame Trott in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

Audience members will vote for whether they want to see Jack And The Beanstalk, Dick Whittington or Snow White. All performances have sold out but more may yet be added.

Tickets are still available for York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk, directed by Nik Briggs and choreographed by West End hotshot Gary Lloyd at Theatre @41 Monkgate from December 11 to January 3. Fans of York drag diva Velma Celli should look out for creator Ian Stroughair’s transformation into baddie Flesh Creep.

The Marian Consort: Live at the NCEM for the York Early Music Christmas Festival and online for York Christmas At Home

Festival at the double for 2020: York Early Christmas Music Festival, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 4 to 12 and York Christmas At Home, December 11 to 13

THE 2020 York Early Music Christmas Festival will be not one, but two festivals, one at the NCEM, the other online. Festive concerts will be performed with Covid-secure safety measures and cabaret-style seating at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York, complemented by a new digital weekend festival.

York Christmas At Home will be streamed from December 11 to 13, with the Yuletide music concerts available on demand throughout the Christmas period until January 6 2021.

Performing live will be Palisander, The Marian Consort, Illyria Consort, Joglaresa, The York Waits and Bethany Seymour, Helen Charlston, Frederick Long and Peter Seymour. Add The Chiaroscuro Quartet, Matthew Wadsworth and Kate Bennett Wadsworth, Spiritato!, Steven Devine and Stile Antico to that list for the At Home programme.

On your mask, get set, go: Susan Bower’s Christmas Party 2020, newly on show at Kentmere House Gallery, York

Post-Lockdown 2 gallery re-opening: Kentmere House Gallery, Scarcroft Hill, York, from this evening (3/12/2020)

NEW work by Susan Bower, John Thornton and Rosie Dean has arrived at Kentmere House Gallery in good time for Christmas. Ann Petherick will re-open her home art-space tomorrow evening from 6pm to 9pm, followed by weekend opening each Saturday and Sunday until December 20 from 11am to 5pm.

Oils, watercolours, pastels and original prints by 70 British artists are on display, along with books, greetings cards and Christmas cards exclusive to the gallery.

Visits arranged by appointment will be resuming too, on 01904 656507 or 07801 810825 or by emailing ann@kentmerehouse.co.uk.

Climate change: Danny Mellor and Anastasia Benham in Badapple Theatre Company’s The Snow Dancer

Christmas snow: Badapple Theatre Company, in The Snow Dancer, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, December 5, 2.30pm, 7.30pm; December 6, 1pm, 6pm

GREEN Hammerton’s Badapple Theatre revive their 2019 Christmas hit, The Snow Dancer, for two days only at the Covid-secure JoRo Theatre, newly equipped with chair wraps to denote the socially distanced seating plan.

Last year’s cast of Anastasia Benham and Danny Mellor will re-assemble to perform writer-director Kate Bramley’s cautionary global-warming tale, set in the Great Wood, where something is awry.

Welcome back: Stu Freestone wants a word with you at Say Owt’s December 11 return to live performance

Owt and about again: Say Owt word weavers at The Crescent, York, December 11, 7pm

SAY Owt, York’s loveable gang of performance poets, are back in live action for the first time since the summer for a night of socially distanced spoken word at The Crescent, re-opening that night with Covid-secure measures and a seated capacity of 60.

Stepping up to the mic will be Say Owt’s A-team of Henry Raby, Hannah Davies, Stu Freestone and Dave Jarman, joined by special guest poets Katie Greenbrown and Ruth Awolola.

“The night will feature a set of banging poems, full of wit and humour to warm your soul this December,” says artistic director Raby. “Expect some brand-new pieces, improv poetry and a few silly surprises hiding up our spoken-word sleeves.”

A guided quest with Potions Professor, magical spells and afternoon tea add up to A Very Magical Christmas on the streets of York

New children’s attraction of the week in York: A Very Magical Christmas, York city centre, until January 5

FROM the creators of A Very Magical Adventure comes A Very Magical Christmas: a live interactive theatrical quest with magical spell-casting and a fun, festive afternoon tea with special effects to knock your socks off. Even a visit from old St Nicholas is promised.

The quest will begin at St Michael le Belfrey, where you will meet your guide, the Potions Professor from Old Jacob’s School of Magic, who will teach you how to cast spells and find clues that will lead you to the secret location of the wizard school. For more details, go to averymagicaladventure.co.uk.

A Peter Rabbit Winter Adventure Activity Trail: Solve clues at Beningbrough Hall on various dates in December

Children’s attraction of the week outside York: A Peter Rabbit Winter Adventure Activity Trail, Beninbrough Hall, Beningbrough, near York, December 5 and eight other open days, 10am to 3pm

GRAB a £2 goody bag per child while stocks last, complete with an activity sheet, pencil, certificate, badge and play pack, to embark on a family-friendly Peter Rabbit Winter Adventure Trail in the Beningbrough Hall gardens and grounds.

The task is to solve the clues to help Peter and his friends prepare for the winter ahead, while spotting nature in all its seasonal glory. Expect to find Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Mr Jeremy Fisher, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail before having your photograph taken beside the Peter Rabbit board.

Do check availability of the goody bags before setting off at nationaltrust.org.uk/beningbrough-hall-gallery-and-gardens

Ghost story for Christmas: Alan Ayckbourn has voiced all the roles for the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s audio version of his 1994 play Haunting Julia. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

And what about?

TUNE into Alan Ayckbourn’s ghost story for a winter chill, his 1994 play Haunting Julia, in an audio version for the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, with all three roles voiced by Ayckbourn, at  sjt.uk.com/event/1078/haunting_julia until January 5.

Don’t miss the SJT’s Christmas show, Nick Lane’s one-woman version of The Snow Queen, starring Polly Lister at some shows, Jacoba Williams at others, from December 7 to 31.

York Barbican has been busy booking shows for 2021: artist and TV presenter Grayson Perry’s existentialist distraction from the very meaningless of life, A Show For Normal People, September 6;  London indie-pop trio Scouting For Girls, October 10; astronaut Tim Peake’s Journey Into The Unknown, November 2, and comedian Sarah Millican’s Bobby Dazzler, November 12 and 13.

“You’ll leave safe and warm in the knowledge that nothing really matters anyway,” promises Grayson Perry

Alan Ayckbourn finds his voice for audio online version of ghost play Haunting Julia

Alan Ayckbourn in his garden at his Scarborough home in May 2020. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

GHOST stories are as much a part of Christmas as pantomime dames.

What a delight, then, that Alan Ayckbourn is revisiting his 1994 play Haunting Julia in a brand-new audio recording that will feature the voice of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s director emeritus.

Or, rather, the three voices of Ayckbourn, 81, who will be playing all three parts in the online version, available exclusively on the SJT website, sjt.uk.com, from December 1 to January 5.

Directed by Ayckbourn, the “comic but scary” Haunting Julia was recorded at his Scarborough home studio, where he and his wife, Heather Stoney, had made his first ever audio play, his 84th premiere Anno Domino, in the first lockdown.

Released by the SJT in May, Ayckbourn’s tale of marital breakdown and toxic politics drew a worldwide audience. “We enjoyed the experience,” says Alan. “I think it went pretty well and the response was good, very positive.

“Although we did jump in at the deep end a bit, as we hadn’t acted on stage for years, Heather even more so than me.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre poster for the 1994 premiere of Haunting Julia, described by Alan Ayckbourn as “a second Woman In Black”

“The only time I would act is when doing a new play and I would act it out at the first reading.”

After the Coronavirus pandemic put paid to this summer’s Ayckbourn’s stage premiere of Truth Will Out, he turned his attention to Anno Domino instead. “That kept my hand in, when the lockdown was announced and we thought, ‘what the hell are we going to do?’,” he recalls.

“My new play was kicked into touch, along with everything else, but then I got the taste for the audio play and we ended up rather enjoying it – though Heather has had enough after one play! So, I thought I’d do my only all-male play.”

Ayckbourn, who played characters ranging in age from teenage to septuagenarian in Anno Domino, will now take the parts of Julia’s father, Joe, her former boyfriend, Andy, and psychic Ken in Haunting Julia, wherein “other voices” – previously off stage – are provided by Naomi Petersen.

Haunting Julia is set 12 years after the suicide of musical prodigy Julia Lukin. Her father Joe, still struggling with her death, meets with her boyfriend and a psychic to seek out the truth, but some questions are better left unanswered.

“Over the years, I have always enjoyed creating off-stage characters almost as much as on-stage ones. They serve to provide, at their simplest, a depth and perspective to an overall stage picture,” says Alan. 

“I consider Julia Lukin to be among the most complex and intriguing of my characters never physically to appear. Although a male three-hander, the play definitely belongs to her.”

The Stephen Joseph Theatre artwork for the 2020 audio version of Haunting Julia, performed and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Haunting Julia was premiered at the SJT in its former home at Westwood in 1994 and its ghostly presence has haunted many theatres since then, not least in two revivals at the SJT.

“I started it as a response to the phenomenal success of The Woman In Black, the most successful play we ever did, thinking ‘oh, there’s gold in them thar hills’.”

Seven years would pass between the SJT premiere of Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novella and Ayckbourn’s birth of Haunting Julia, his first ghost play, as he strove to settle on a distinctive, winning format.

“You have to build up the audience’s confidence in the story first, and then scare them, which is not that different from a farce, where you’re trying to make them laugh by surprising them,” he says.

“The first thing I discarded was the supernatural. Instead, I wanted to explore these three men, with the girl, Julia, being a very strong off-stage character, having an enormous influence on them.

“I became interested in writing a séance, where the three men see her from different angles, creating her as a hologram where the audience will know her better than the three men.

“It was an exploration that took me on another journey, rather than pursuing the P D James thriller style, but it still has a spooky element to it, though the aim was not to make people jump from horror shocks.”

Alan Ayckbourn with his cast for the 1994 premiere of Haunting Julia. Picture: Copyright of Scarborough News

Dealing with pressure became the driving force of the play. “I wanted to set up a story where the parents had a gifted child and the obvious gift you could give them was a musical talent,” says Alan.

“Children rarely write a novel at three or four, but they do create elemental music, so I wrote about an ordinary couple who gave birth, quite by chance, to a musical prodigy, and then show their bewilderment, yet pride, thinking ‘it’s not our music, we listen to pop music’, whereas she becomes a serious Radio 3 composer.

“Then, because of the mounting pressure that ends her life, it was fascinating for me to explore what that meant to the people left behind. Suicide is tragic and awful, but what about those people left, who ask ‘what did we do wrong?’. The questions they ask themselves are just as awful as the suicide itself.”

Analysing how being gifted, be it musical, sporting or whatever, can be isolating, even to the point of someone contemplating suicide, Alan says: “It’s always interesting reading about people you admire, and you read the section where they say they ‘got so depressed, they felt they were going nowhere’.

“You think, ‘why did they lose confidence in their special gift?’. On the other hand, is it something they don’t quite understand or treat in the way they should? I don’t think I solved that question.”

As with Anno Domino, Alan faced the prospect of recording differing, distinguishable voices for the audio play. “Joe is much older than the other two, and they are all well-defined,” he says. “Joe is a bluff, successful northern businessman; Andy was a contemporary of Julia, being her boyfriend, and his accent is more southern RP [Received Pronunciation].

“Ken, I had to find another voice for, and he comes into my stock range of little men that started with Sidney Hopcroft [a small-time tradesman] in Absurd Person Singular in 1972, so I’ve given Ken my own native Cockney.”

The Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 1999 revival of Haunting Julia

The age range “wasn’t that challenging,” reveals Alan. “I would do Joe in the morning, when my voice was rougher, and Joe and Ken in the afternoon.”

Important to the recording too is Ayckbourn’s prowess with soundscapes, or “sound effects as they used to be called”. “When I do a new play, I always do the soundscapes,” says Alan, who honed his skills when working for five years at the BBC Sound Studios in Leeds.

“For years, back in the Sixties, I was dubbing stuff on reel-to-reel recordings, tapes, then mini-discs. Now it’s all computers and it’s become increasingly sophisticated, where I can mix in all sorts of effects.

“When doing a production at the SJT, the main scenic elements, apart from the set, are sound and lighting, so the soundscapes can be even more crucial to an audio play – though Haunting Julia doesn’t call for huge soundscapes, except at the end.” You will have to listen to find out what that ending involves.

Rather than recording a new work, Alan settled on exhuming Haunting Julia for the SJT’s winter season. “I could see a time-frame, once I’d finished Anno Domino, that if we started another recording, we wouldn’t be finished much before autumn, which would be good for the Christmas programme, and Paul [artistic director Paul Robinson] jumped at it,” he says.

“With the second lockdown now happening, thankfully we got it in the can in good time. It’s opportune timing for a ghost story; I don’t think I could have launched it on Midsummer’s Day, but now, with the light drawing in for winter, if you’re going to tell a story around a fire, then a ghost story is ideal.”

Alan Ayckbourn and his wife, actress Heather Stoney, in their garden in the spring when they recorded his debut audio play, Anno Domino. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

At 81, prolific writer-director Alan is at an age where the greatest care must be taken in the face of Covid-19; likewise, Heather has turned 80.

“I’m still optimistic for the future of theatre, but not so optimistic for myself. We’re in the vulnerable bracket,” he says. “Days of jumping into rehearsals with a lot of actors breathing all over each other is not a good idea, so I’m not going to be doing that.

“The other thing is, how long will I keep going? The only dispiriting feeling is thinking, ‘Are my new plays going to get done?’. There are four or five now. Normally, a play is written and then it’s performed and that’s wonderful encouragement, but for me, until a play is done, has run the gamut of rehearsals, performances, audience response and post-mortem, I’m marking time, but the plays keep coming.”

Tickets for Haunting Julia can be booked any time up to and including January 5 2021, either via https://www.sjt.uk.com/event/1078/haunting_julia or from the box office, initially by phone only from 10am to noon, Monday to Friday, on 01723 370541 until December 2. Opening times for booking in person will be announced as soon as possible.

Once a £12 ticket has been bought, the buyer can access the audio show as often as they want between December 1 and January 5, and as many people as are in their household or social bubble can listen in. Go to the website for more details.

Naomi Petersen: Voices from beyond in Haunting Julia

The SJT to close for Lockdown 2 but The Snow Queen rehearsals WILL go ahead

Rehearsals can go ahead in Lockdown 2 for The Snow Queen at the Stephen Joseph Theatre

SCARBOROUGH’S Stephen Joseph Theatre will close its doors to the public again from Thursday to December 2, re-opening on December 3, pending further Government Covid-19 pronouncements.

In the light of last night’s confirmation from Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden that rehearsals can continue behind closed doors, the SJT will be going ahead with its vibrant Christmas production of Nick Lane’s The Snow Queen throughout December.

The SJT had re-opened its McCarthy cinema in late-August and has been presenting live theatre from the start of October: one of the first theatres in the country to do so.

November’s live shows – My Favourite Summer and Orpheus & Eurydice, plus play readings of Canton, Worldly and With Bells On! – will move to next spring. New dates will be announced as soon as possible.

As much of the November cinema programme as possible will be switched to December. Again, new dates will be posted ASAP.

Haunting Julia, an audio version of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1994 play directed and performed by Sir Alan himself, is unaffected. Theatre-goers who prefer to stay at home can book to listen between December 1 and January 5 via the theatre’s website, sjt.uk.com. Raven’s sold-out Christmas concert on December 15 will go ahead as planned too.

The SJT’s box-office team is working hard to contact everyone with bookings affected by the changes. Ticket-bookers can choose whether they would like a refund, a credit to their account, or to donate the cost of their ticket to help secure the theatre’s future.

Those with bookings are asked not to contact the box office if possible. The team is making its way through November’s bookings in date order as fast as it can.

The SJT’s executive director, Caroline Routh, says: “Of course, it’s a huge disappointment to us all to have to close again. Our audiences have been so appreciative that we reopened our cinema in August and recommenced live theatre in October, and really generous in their support in so many ways.

“Most of our screenings and shows, includingJohn Godber’s Sunny Side Up! just last week, have sold out, although our capacities have been reduced because of social distancing.

“But the safety of our audience, our in-house team and our visiting companies is, of course, paramount. When we do re-open, we‘ll still be following the same stringent safety procedures that have made our audiences feel so safe recently.

“And we’re so thrilled that we’re still able to bring The Snow Queen to Scarborough for Christmas. It promises to be a really lively and memorable show, starring the fabulous Polly Lister and, on certain performances, her talented ‘alternate’ Jacoba Williams. We’re confident it’ll be a Christmas must-see for 2020!”

Please note, if you do need to contact the box office for any reason, you can do so on 01723 370541, between 10am and noon, Mondays to Fridays, until 2 December (phone queries only; the building will not be open for in-person visits.

Tickets for all December events can still be booked online through the lockdown period at sjt.uk.com.