REVIEW: York Settlement Community Players in Ayckbourn’s Woman In Mind ****

Desperately seeking Susan, as she loses her mind: Victoria Delaney in the Settlement Players’ Woman In Mind. All pictures: John Saunders

Woman In Mind, York Settlement Community Players, York Theatre Royal Studio, until Saturday, 7.45pm and 2.45pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

ANGIE Millard “seemed to have avoided Alan Ayckbourn” in her past directorial choices, but she had one play in mind for the Settlement Players’ return to York Theatre Royal after two years.

Ayckbourn’s sad, haunting, darker than dark-humoured psychological drama Woman In Mind had struck a chord in the pandemic climate of isolation and mental health issues.

Premiered in 1985 but still feeling present day in 2022, it remains Ayckbourn’s supreme study of a trapped woman, older than Nora in A Doll’s House but just as affecting as the desperate flight of Henrik Ibsen’s proto-feminist, Susan’s story being told from inside her woozy head.

The setting is 48 hours in her south London garden and beyond: the place where the world is refracted through the prism of Susan’s psyche.

Playing fantasy families: Victoria Delaney’s Susan raises a glass to husband Andy (Paul French), daughter Lucy (Amy Hall) and brother Tony (Neil Vincent)

Following in the footsteps of Julia McKenzie, Stockard Channing and Helen Mirren, in her first stage role since October 2019, Victoria Delaney opens the play on her back and never leaves the stage (interval aside).

Delaney’s suburban housewife is coming round from unconsciousness, after knocking herself out when stepping on a garden rake, as Chris Pomfrett’s cautious yet accident-prone family doctor, Bill Windsor, attends to her. In a brilliant Ayckbourn conceit, his words, like her vision, go from a gobbledygook blur to being clear.

With the bang on the head comes the comforting concern of her champagne-golden  family, as if torn from a Mills & Boon cover or a desirable clothes catalogue: first, handsome old devil husband Andy (Paul French); then tennis-playing brother Tony (Neil Vincent) and her auburn-haired darling of a daughter, Lucy (YSCP debutante Amy Hall).

Too, too perfect, surely, and yet played as straight down the line as Tony practising a backhand winner, they could – at first at least – be real. We see and hear them, just as Susan sees and hears them, but only she does so, just like only urbane novelist Charles Condomine and the audience see and hear his deceased first wife, Elvira, in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

Living on a prayer: Paul Toy as vicar Gerald

The grim reality is very different: husband Gerald (clergyman’s son Paul Toy) is a self-obsessed priggish vicar, always in another room writing his interminably dull, interminably long parish history since 1387. They have reached the separate bed stage already.

Live-in sister-in-law Muriel (Helen Wilson) is obsessed with reconnecting with her late husband and is forever making foul-tasting beverages and even fouler meals, defeated by the lack of labelling on kitchen ingredients.

Wastrel son Rick (YSCP newcomer Frankie-Jo Anderson) is estranged and strange, having joined a cult in Hemel Hempstead, but suddenly he arrives with news.

Where once Susan loved being a wife and mother, now she is neglected by husband and son alike and unfulfilled in her humdrum, loveless domestic domain, Symbolically, the garden plants in Richard Hampton’s design are reduced to twigs, with the only flowers being on the backdrop tapestries, Susan’s bench and Muriel’s cardigan. What lies ahead beyond Susan’s disillusioned forties, her days as frustrating and stuck as a buffering laptop screen?

Muriel (Helen Wilson) serves up another gruesome beverage to vicar Gerald’s (Paul Toy) distaste

Ayckbourn, and in turn Millard and Delaney, capture a “woman on the verge”, and as the real and unreal worlds collide increasingly beyond her control, so too do the ever-blackening humour and pathos, her sanity crumbling and the words returning once more to gobbledygook.

Delaney’s performance is deeply unsettling, her Susan being full of vulnerability, waspish of tongue, her mind grasping desperately at the cliff’s edge, happiness out of reach.

Pomfrett, in particular, provides the comedy, perfectly in step with Ayckbourn’s rhythms; Toy makes the supercilious vicar utterly unbearable but splendidly sets himself up for laughter at his expense; Wilson judges just right how to be annoying yet not annoying as the never-wanted-where-she-is Muriel. Anderson’s disingenuous Rick would fall out with anyone.

French, Hall and Vincent are perfectly well cast as the fantasy family that gradually turns into a nightmare and Woman In Mind becomes a woman out of her mind.

Angie Millard was right: Ayckbourn’s play has indeed taken on even more resonance under the pandemic microscope, where already unhappy marriages have cracked under the strain and the desire to escape has been heightened in enforced isolation.

‘There are so few plays that feature a woman like this,’ says Woman In Mind director Angie Millard. ‘Hedda Gabler and that’s it.’ Meet Alan Ayckbourn’s Susan

Victoria Delaney and Neil Vincent shelter under an umbrella in a February rehearsal for the Settlement Players’ production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman In Mind. Picture: John Saunders

ANGIE Millard has directed myriad plays but “seemed to have avoided” Alan Ayckbourn…until now.

“The present climate of isolation and mental health issues led me to Woman In Mind, which is a perfect choice for this time,” she says, ahead of her York Settlement Community Players production opening on Saturday in the York Theatre Royal Studio.

One of 87 full-length works by the Scarborough playwright, 1985’s Woman In Mind’s portrait of a woman in the verge finds housewife Susan stuck, unfulfilled and neglected in her humdrum marriage.

As played by Victoria Delaney, who remains on stage throughout, Susan’s growing disillusionment with everyday life is brought to a head when she steps on a garden rake and is knocked unconscious.

Whereupon her minor concussion and hallucinations combine to surround Susan with the ideal fantasy family, handsomely dressed in tennis whites as they sip champagne. However, when her real and imaginary worlds collide, those fantasies take on a nightmarish life of their own in Ayckbourn’s hotbed of humour and pathos.

“You can see Ayckbourn’s plays over and over again and still see something new in them each time; they’re so rich in detail,” says Angie. “I love Woman In Mind, and I’m working with very talented and creative people who make every rehearsal a joy, though the problem we’ve faced is the limited amount of time we’ve had to rehearse.

“We’ve been doing just three hours on Sundays, two hours on Mondays and Wednesdays, with the Mondays for intensive sessions for the two-hander scenes, followed by a week in tech.

Victoria Delaney: On stage from start to finale in Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman In Mind

“You need the time to explore the lines, to find the humour, to bring a light touch to it, as it’s that subtle, offhand way that Ayckbourn has in his writing.”

Explaining her reasoning behind selecting Woman In Mind, Angie says: “Because of Susan. I feel there are so few plays that feature a woman like this. Hedda Gabler and that’s it.

“That’s important now in a society where people are having mental health problems – and Susan has massive mental health problems. The pandemic has also thrown up an increased awareness of isolation and of not being happy in a relationship, which has been exacerbated in the lockdowns.”

Angie notes how Susan’s husband Gerald, busy writing his magnus opus on the history of the parish, “doesn’t know how to deal with Susan”. “Men in Ayckbourn’s plays rarely do. It’s a position they take where, over the years, they slide away from their responsibilities in relationships or in their workplace, and that’s rarely something women get to do,” she says.

“But this is where Ayckbourn is really clever, because you also see Susan for who she is. You ask yourself, ‘why did she marry him?’. When Gerald asks, ‘what did I do wrong?’, she says, ‘’Married me’.

“Yes, he’s let her down, he’s a disappointment, but marriages are about a contract and a bargain. It’s about acceptance.” 

Putting Susan’s character on the psychiatrist’s couch, Angie says: “Most people who end up unwell mentally have an addiction, though with Susan, I can’t attribute an addiction to her, except an addiction to perfection.

York Settlement Community Players’ poster for Woman In Mind

“If you’re classically depressed, it’s because the world doesn’t see you as you see yourself, but you have to get over that and not see yourself as so important.”

Victoria Delaney will be joined in Millard’s cast by company stalwarts Chris Pomfrett, Paul Toy, Helen Wilson and Paul French and newcomers Frankie-Jo Anderson, Neil Vincent and Amy Hall in Settlement Players’ first Theatre Royal production since Chekhov’s The Seagull in pre-Covid March 2020.

“This is the first role I’ve done since Covid started,” says Victoria. “My last one was in a play I wrote myself, Mad Alice, in October 2019, and my plan at the time was to start my own company, do a Yorkshire tour and then maybe take it to the Edinburgh Fringe, but then the pandemic happened and it just wasn’t possible. I’ll wait for things to settle down and then I can return to that plan or more writing.

“So, when I saw the casting call-out for Woman In Mind, I jumped at it. I did my research and requested to audition for two roles, Susan and Muriel, as I love comedy and I would have loved to play Muriel too, but what a peach of a part Susan is.”

Victoria initially took a break from her professional acting career after her divorce to focus on being a single mum with an autistic son – who will turn 20 in the summer – and she now works remotely from home giving legal advice on Zoom to families with special educational needs up to the age of 25.

Her acting and writing come into play when the opportunity arises.  “But in my work, I do also sometimes have to think creatively about how the law might get over a problem,” she says.

Rehearsing for an Ayckbourn play has been such a stimulating challenge. “It’s a comedy but it’s a dark comedy, which means I can show lots of sides to Susan. There are moments where I can play the comedy; moments where she’s really vulnerable, or indignant, or annoyed,” says Victoria.

“I’m going to really miss her because she takes you over,” says Victoria Delaney of playing housewife Susan in Woman In Mind. Here she is pictured by John Saunders, masked up in the rehearsal studio

“There’s just so much to her character, and because I never leave the stage, I get to interact with so many characters. I’m going to really miss her because she takes you over. I’ve been called for every rehearsal because Susan is in every scene, and as I have to go through so many emotions, I then need to let those emotions , that adrenaline, seep away.”

To learn all those lines, “I’ve been walking around the village, doing laps at 6am, listening to the play,” says Victoria, who lives in Wheldrake.

She finds liberation in playing a character of such emotional contrasts. “I’ll say things on stage that I would never say myself. Things that I would consider rude. I’d have too many filters to go through to say them!” she says.

“But the absolute drug of acting is to be able to show the audience all these emotions, this sadness, and when you feel them connect with you, I love that connection.

“I’ve meet lot of actors that have a certain shyness about them in their own lives. I mask it, but I have a shy side, and when people say, ‘but you go out on stage’, I say, ‘yes, but I’m playing someone else and I love doing that’.”

As chance would have it, when facing such a demanding week ahead, “luckily the performances are over half-term”, says Victoria, breathing a little more easily at the prospect.

York Settlement Community Players in Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman In Mind, York Theatre Royal Studio, Saturday until February 26, except February 20; 7.45pm plus 2.45pm, February 26. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Why Antony Eden keeps coming back to The Woman In Black after 1,000 shows

“You could say, I’m a bit of an old hand! I actually first did The Woman In Black when I was 14,” says Antony Eden, who has returned to the role of The Actor. Picture: Tristram Kenton

AFTER 547 days, the Grand Opera House, York, will step out of the darkness and into The Woman In Black from September 13.

Robert Goodale will play lawyer Arthur Kipps opposite Antony Eden as The Actor in PW Productions’ latest tour of Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story.

Neither is a stranger to performing the torrid tale of an elderly lawyer obsessed with a curse that he believes has been cast over his family by the spectre of a “Woman in Black” for 50 years now.

“That is true,” says Antony. “You could say, I’m a bit of an old hand! I actually first did it when I was 14 after I saw it in the West End. I was already acting, and we wrote to PW Productions , director Robin Herford and Susan Hill to ask if we could put it on in the school theatre at Winchester.”

The answer was affirmative. “James Orr was my co-star…and in fact he came to see me in the show in Cambridge this summer with his son. I’d played The Actor when I was 14, and when we met up afterwards, I said, ‘I’m still playing the same part I was at 14, so I haven’t progressed much’!”

Robert Goodale as Arthur Kipps and Antony Eden as The Actor in The Woman In Black, haunting the Grand Opera House, York, from September 13 to 18. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Antony first performed in Robert Herford’s West End production in 2010, followed by a couple of tours, visiting York Theatre Royal in February 2013, a return to the West End in 2016 and a tour of Asia and Singapore. Now both he and The Woman In Black are back on the road again.

Such is his perennial association with PW Productions’ production that he has become associate director Of The Woman In Black. “I’ve worked with Robert Goodale before because, when he and Danny Easton were doing the last tour, part of my job was to go and see them every six weeks or so,” he says.

That tour spooked out York Theatre Royal in November 2019, but after the lockdown hiatus, Easton has gone west. “He decided not to come back into the tour. He does a running podcast now,” says Antony.

And so, while Danny keeps on running, Antony has resumed the role of The Actor from June 21 at Cambridge Arts Theatre, once more under the direction of the ubiquitous Herford, who directed the premiere of Mallatratt’s splendidly theatrical stage adaptation when it began life as a bonus Christmas show at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1987 in novelist Susan Hill’s hometown of Scarborough.

Gripping moment: Antony Eden as The Actor with Julian Forsyth as Arthur Kipps at York Theatre Royal in February 2013

“We started working together for The Woman In Black and have done many things together since,” says Antony. “I think we have a shared philosophy of theatre, rooted in that Stephen Joseph Theatre, Alan Ayckbourn, Robin Herford mould. I love that small-scale way of making theatre.

“I’ve been a theatre fan since I was nine and I have to say that The Woman In Black is my favourite play. This piece is all about the audience, just as it is for Alan Ayckbourn, who sees the writing as only part of the process: the blueprint for the performance.”

Antony had the joy of performing in writer-director Ayckbourn’s company for the SJT premiere of A Brief History Of Women and revival of Taking Steps in summer 2018. “I was doing a tour of Relatively Speaking with Liza Goddard and Robert Powell that Alan came to see, and then did Kay Mellor’s A Passionate Woman with Liza and Russell Dixon, one of Alan’s regulars, at Cheltenham,” he recalls.

“When it then came to working with Alan, I’d already got a fair way along that path, as I was in that mindset from working with Robin and I’m naturally inclined to that style of theatre.

Antony Eden as Anthony Spates, Frances Marshall as Lady Caroline Kirkbridge, left, and Louise Shuttleworth as Mrs Reginald ffluke in Alan Ayckbourn’s A Brief History Of Women. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“Alan would apply the philosophy of painting to setting scenes, with the most details for the central character and then the others would fill in the background. My favourite piece of advice from him was: ‘Do as little as you can and then do even less’.”

“Less is more” applies equally to The Woman In Black, where a cast of only two must do everything and yet Mallatratt’s play and Herford’s direction are rich in detail, drawing in the audience hook by hook.

“You really feel they are connected: the performers and the audience,” says Antony. “This play is a drama, a mystery, a whodunit, even a comedy at times; there’s so much to it and it plays to theatre’s strengths.

“To me, what’s important and fun about theatre is that it’s all about empathy the actors have for each other and the audience, and likewise the audience have for the actors. That’s what makes it special. This circle of empathy is what theatre specialises in; there’s no other artform like it for empathy.”

“I’ve been a theatre fan since I was nine and I have to say that The Woman In Black is my favourite play,” says Antony Eden, right. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Antony had been playing Ron in Harry Potter And The Cursed Child in the West End when Covid shutdown theatres, with 12 weeks still to go on his contract at the Palace Theatre.

“It’s a totally different experience from doing A Woman In Black. You have a staff director re-creating John Tiffany’s original direction, whereas Robin Herford is still directing The Woman In Black, and that’s why actors really want to do it because it’s a different partnership each time, two actors, one script, that’s all.

“Harry Potter And The Cursed Child is 50 actors, a script, pyrotechnics, special effects. It’s filmic in its scope, and that’s different from the theatricality that The Woman In Black is all about.

“I’ve done this play more than 1,000 times now and I’ve never once got bored with it.”

The Woman In Black, Grand Opera House, York, September 13 to 18, 7.30pm; 2.30pm, Wednesday and Saturday matinees. Box office: atgtickets.com/york

Copyright of The Press, York

Review: Home, I’m Darling, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until August 14

Sandy Foster’s Judy and Tom Kanji’s Johnny in Home, I’m Darling at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

HOME, I’m Darling is back at work after taking leave from the SJT stage for an extended Covid-enforced hiatus.

A positive test among the company de-railed Liz Stevenson’s production from July 19 to July 27, then a second one until August 2, but as if with foresight, thankfully Laura Wade’s play had been booked in for a long run from July 9 to August 14.

This still leaves plenty of time to see the SJT’s co-production with Theatre by the Lake, Keswick and Octagon Theatre, Bolton.

Already this summer the SJT has played host to a play with past and present interwoven into one story: Alan Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door, where 1942 wartime rubs up against 2020 Covid times, a gap of 78 years yet only a garden hedge.

In Laura Wade’s 2018 comedy, the setting is now, but “perfect couple” Judy (Sandy Foster) and Johnny (Tom Kanji) embrace 1950s’ family values, from their clothes to their décor, their meals to their bedroom bliss.

It is like flicking through an old catalogue, all glossy and surely too, too perfect, behind the beautifully stylised playing of Foster and Kanji. 21st century reality is knocking ever louder on the door: Judy had been made redundant from her job in finance at 38, choosing to be the out-of-Stepford wife, cleaning, baking, making lemon curd, but this puts extra pressure on Johnny to gain a promotion and to meet the mortgage.

Twisting time is here: Susan Twist in rehearsal for her role as Sylvia in Home, I’m Darling

What’s more, withdrawing from the outside world leaves Judy as the bird in the gilded cage, controlling but losing control, switched off from the news, paddling against the tide with her impressionable friend Fran (Vicky Binns), vulnerable to being duped by the predatory Marcus (Sam Jenkins-Shaw).

Billed as a comedy, the tone turns from frothy farce to being ever darker, pricklier too, the stylish surface scratched away by the grit, the reality check coming in the form of a devastating lecture from Judy’s mother, Susan Twist’s Sylvia, whose Twist of the knife elicits provokes a spontaneous burst of applause from the entire audience.

Parallels have been drawn with Ayckbourn’s bleaker comedies, high praise indeed, and Stevenson’s direction elicits superb performances from her cast, who remain believable, for all the heightened playing of the early scenes, as the tension rises.

This production is all the more timely, when people have been asked to stay at home in Covid lockdown, and amid rising job losses for women, but Wade’s themes of feminism and gender roles pre-date the pandemic, as she bursts the bubble of outward contentment with an Ibsen scalpel.

By the end, Fifties’ nostalgia has had its day, but Wade’s couple have a future, Home, I’m Darling duly living up to Stevenson’s promise that it will “send people out on a high, and that’s something we all need at the moment after what we’ve been through”.

It is all the better for being staged in The Round, where Helen Coyston’s Fifties’ retro set looks so at home yet simultaneously awkward. Just as it should.

Box office: 01723 370541 or at sjt.uk.com

What can the arts learn from England at Euro 2020? We’re not talking tactics…

CHALMERS & Hutch apply Southgate’s template for an all-inclusive future in the latest Two Big Egos In A Small Car podcast.

Under discussion too are Nadine Shah and the streaming dilemma; Alan Ayckbourn vs Harold Pinter; why British avant-garde novelists fall behind their progressive counterparts, and the future of York’s Pop Up Piccadilly artists.

To listen, head to: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1187561/8875394

Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door to move back in for four days at SJT in September

Wartime reunion: Naomi Petersen as Lily and Linford Johnson as Alf in Alan Ayckbourn’s The GIrl Next Door. All pictures: Tony Bartholomew

ALAN Ayckbourn’s premiere of his 85th play, The Girl Next Door, will return to Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in September for a limited run of only six performances.

The SJT resumption from September 1 to 4 will be followed by a touring run at the New Vic Theatre, the SJT’s fellow theatre in the round in Newcastle-under-Lyme, from September 7 to 18.

Directed by Ayckbourn, The Girl Next Door received its world premiere in Scarborough from June 4 to July 3, performed by two alternate casts to protect against Covid-19.

Lolling around in lockdown: Bill Champion as jaded and jaundiced actor Rob in The Girl Next Door

September’s returning cast will be Bill Champion, Linford Johnson, Alexandra Mathie and Naomi Petersen, who performed the bulk of the shows in the original summer run.

Written by Ayckbourn in lockdown, The Girl Next Door finds veteran actor Rob Hathaway stuck at home during the summer of 2020, with only his sensible, Government mandarin older sister for company.

Rob has little to do but relive his glory days when, as the star of the nation’s favourite television period drama National Fire Service, he ruled the roost as George ‘Tiger’ Jennings: wartime hero and living legend among firefighters.

Alan Ayckbourn in his garden in Scarborough in May 2020 during the first lockdown

One day, Rob spots a stranger hanging out the washing in the adjoining garden. Strange, he thinks, because the neighbours have not been around for months. Just who is the mysterious girl next door, and why is she wearing 1940s’ clothing?

“I was born in 1939, so my earliest memories are of a sort of lockdown: of crowding into Anderson shelters or subway stations; of sleeping in deckchairs or on my mother’s lap. Things have come full circle for me,” says Ayckbourn, 82.

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

Dressed for a Zoom meeting: Alexandra Mathie as Alex in The Girl Next Door at the SJT

For a time-hopping story divided by 78 years but only a hedge, Ayckbourn is joined in the production team by the SJT’s departing associate director, Chelsey Gillard, designer Kevin Jenkins and lighting designer Jason Taylor.

The Girl Next Door can be seen in the Round at the SJT on Wednesday, September 1 at 7.30pm; September 2, 1.30pm and 7.30pm; September 3, 7.30pm, and September 4, 2.30pm and 7.30pm.

Tickets are on sale at £10 upwards on 01723 370541 and at sjt.uk.com. Prompt booking is advised.

The girl next door in The Girl Next Door: Naomi Petersen as Lily

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be in Laura Wade’s comedy of domestic blister, Home I’m Darling, at Stephen Joseph Theatre

When domestic bliss turns to domestic blister: Sandy Foster as Judy and Tom Kanji as Johnny in Laura Wade’s comedy Home. I’m Darling. Rehearsal picture: Ellie Kurttz

SWEET peas in the garden; homemade lemon curd in the kitchen; marital bliss in the bedroom; Judy and Johnny seem to be the perfect couple. Sickeningly happy, in fact.

Yet is their marriage everything it seems? Are there cracks in their happiness? What happens when the 1950s’ family values they love so much hit the buffer in the 21st century, as the couple discover that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be?

So runs the bumpy course of Laura Wade’s comedy, Home, I’m Darling, premiered in 2018 by Theatr Clwyd and the National Theatre and now revived in a co-production between Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, and Theatre by the Lake, in Keswick, with a cast of Sandy Foster, Tom Kanji, Vicky Binns, Sam Jenkins-Shaw, Sophie Mercell and Susan Twist.

The director is Liz Stevenson, Theatre by the Lake’s artistic director, best remembered in York for her beautiful 2018 touring production of The Secret Garden at the Theatre Royal.

“Home, I’m Darling is the perfect way to welcome back audiences to live theatre again,” she says. “Sharp, funny and incredibly timely, it’s one of those plays that will have everyone chuckling, discussing and debating long into the evening. I can’t wait to bring this brilliant play to life in-the-round with this incredible creative team and with three fantastic northern theatres.”

Director Liz Stevenson in rehearsals for Home, I’m Darling. Picture: Ellie Kurttz

Home, I’m Darling has taken longer than first planned by Liz to find a northern home (or three!). “I’d heard so much about the first production, read the script and thought it would be a really interesting play for Theatre by the Lake, but then the pandemic happened and stopped everything,” she recalls.

“There’d been no firm plans; I just thought, ‘one day I bet this play will sit really well on the Keswick stage’. But when Theatre by the Lake, the Octagon and the SJT started talking about play titles for a partnership, this play came up.

“Then we started an online play-reading club with a group of about 40 people of all ages, and this was one of the plays we discussed, and it just confirmed it would go down really well if we ever did it.”

Roll on to summer 2021, and here comes Liz’s production. “It’s very funny, very entertaining, and because it’s in this 1950s-style household, there’s lots of fun and colour to it, but because the play is set now, there are lots of relatable, modern-day issues: feminism, gender roles…” she says.

… “We spoke to Laura [Wade] during rehearsals about people thinking about spending more time at home when losing their jobs, and then of course that’s what happened with the Covid lockdowns.

“Shutting herself in a world that she’s kept so small”: Sandy Foster’s Judy in Home, I’m Darling. Picture: Ellie Kurttz

“People have had to spend time at home, where we’re all expected to have a family, hobbies, a clean home and a talent for baking. Pre-Covid, in this play, here we have someone who wants that life, who wants to be the contented housewife and wants to see people’s reaction to that.”

Perfect timing for her production, then. “It’s a play that will send people out on a high, and that’s something we all need at the moment after what we’ve been through,” says Liz.

Without giving too much away, Liz, what’s the plot? “Judy is 38, she’s been made redundant, and she’s thinking, ‘Do you know what, I’m not going to get another job, working in finance, working very long days, working at weekends’,” she outlines.

“Now she’s becoming an expert baker, an expert cleaner, and it looks like everything is perfect, but then cracks appear and over a fortnight you see things fall apart, as they think, ‘Do we want to spend our lives like this?’.

“She has a home that’s beautiful, where she has control, looking after that home and husband Johnny, but when you push that, it becomes unhealthy as friends start poking holes into this ‘perfect’ bubble, where she has shut herself in a world that she’s kept so small.

“That’s the realisation that Judy has by the end of the play, where she says, ‘I think I’m scared that I’m going to struggle to catch up with the world’. It’s about balance in your life and Judy doesn’t have that balance; she’s gone from one extreme to the other.”

Sam Jenkins-Shaw and Vicky Binns in rehearsal for Home, I’m Darling

“But what’s brilliant about Laura’s writing is that she’s not being heavy-handed; she’s putting questions out there, rather than coming up with answers, and those questions have become even more relevant with people working from home.”

Home, I’m Darling is a comedy with darkness at its edges. “A few people at the play-reading club who read it likened it to an Ayckbourn play, where it’s very funny, but there’s a lot of tension,” says Liz.

“The whole play is set in one space with the actors doing their brilliant thing as the characters’ behaviour affects each other and you see the tension rise within that concentrated setting.

“This production is the first time this play has been staged in the Round, so whereas previously the stage was like a doll’s house with the roof taken off, the benefit of the Round is you are so close to the actors, you will spot every pulling of a raised eyebrow.”

Like so many who work in theatre, Liz has experienced an unparalleled past 15 months. “It’s been really tough for us at Theatre by the Lake; we closed in March last year and we’re still closed, though we have lots of activity in the community and we’re doing a festival with English Touring Theatre at Crow Park [Keswick] in August,” she says.

“But when we do Home, I’m Darling from October 6 to 30, it will be my first show IN the theatre two years after my appointment as artistic director, though we have been rehearsing it inside the building, which has been lovely, and we can’t wait to see a show being put on here again.”

“Darlings, we’re home,” she can finally say at that point.

Home, I’m Darling, Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough, tonight until August 14. Box office: sjt.uk.com

A Twist at the end: Susan Twist in a scene in rehearsal from Home, I’m Darling. Picture: Ellie Kurttz

More Things To Do in and around York as ‘Byrne out’ strikes tonight’s comedy gig. List No. 39, courtesy of The Press, York

Shock of the new: Milton Jones looks startled at the prospect of replacing Ed Byrne at short notice for tonight’s comedy bill at York Theatre Royal

AWAY from all that football, Charles Hutchinson finds plenty of cause for cheer beyond chasing an inflated pig’s bladder, from a late-change comedy bill to Ayckbourn on film, York artists to a park bench premiere.

Late substitution of the week: Byrne out, Jones in, for Live At The Theatre Royal comedy night, York Theatre Royal, tonight, 7.30pm

ED Byrne will not top the Live At The Theatre Royal comedy bill tonight after all. “We are sorry to announce that due to circumstances beyond our control, Ed is now unable to appear,” says the official statement.

The whimsical Irish comedian subsequently has tweeted his “You Need To Self-Isolate” notification, running until 23.59pm on July 7.

Well equipped to take over at short notice is the quip-witted pun-slinger Milton Jones, joining Rhys James, Maisie Adam and host Arthur Smith. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Naomi Petersen and Bill Champion in Alan Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door at the SJT and now on film too. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“Film of the week”: Alan Ayckburn’s The Girl Next Door, from Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until Sunday

THE SJT’s film of Alan Ayckbourn’s latest premiere, The Girl Next Door, is available on the Scarborough theatre’s website, sjt.uk.com.

Directed by Ayckbourn, his 85th play can be seen on stage in The Round until Saturday and now in a filmed recording in front of a live audience until midnight on Sunday.

One day in 2020 lockdown, veteran actor Rob spots a stranger hanging out the washing in the adjoining garden, but his neighbours have not been around for months. Who is the mysterious girl next door? And why is she wearing 1940s’ clothing?

Ray of sunshine: Edwin Ray as Tick/Mitzi in Priscilla Queen Of The Desert at Leeds Grand Theatre. Picture: Darren Bell

Musical of the week ahead: Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, Leeds Grand Theatre, July 6 to 10

PRISCILLA Queen Of The Desert returns to Leeds for seven socially distanced performances in a new production produced by Mark Goucher and, for the first time, Jason Donovan, star of the original West End show and two UK tours.

Loaded up with glorious costumes, fabulous feathers and dance-floor classics, three friends hop aboard a battered old bus bound for Alice Springs to put on the show of a lifetime.

Miles Western plays Bernadette, Nick Hayes, Adam/Felicia and Edwin Ray, Tick/Mitzi, in this heart-warming story of self-discovery, sassiness and acceptance. Box office: 0113 243 0808 or at leedsgrandtheatre.com.

Solo show: Polymath Phil Grainger puts his songwriting in the spotlight in his Clive concert in Stillington

Gig of the week outside York: Clive, alias Phil Grainger, At The Mill, Stillington, near York, tomorrow, 7.30pm

CLIVE is the solo music project of Easingwold singer, songwriter, musician, sound engineer, magician, actor, Gobbledigook Theatre director and event promoter Phil Grainger.

As the voice and the soul behind Orpheus, Eurydice and The Gods The Gods The Gods, Clive finds the globe-trotting Grainger back home, turning his hand to a song-writing project marked by soaring vocal and soulful musicianship. Expect a magical evening wending through new work and old classics in two sets, one acoustic, the other electric. Box office: tickettailor.com/events/atthemill/512182.

Emily Hansen’s Pilgrim 14 as Mary Magdalene in a rehearsal for A Resurrection For York at Dean’s Park. Picture: John Saunders

Open-air theatre event of the weekend: A Resurrection For York, Residents Garden, Minster Library, Dean’s Park, York, Saturday and Sunday, 11am, 2pm, 4pm

THE wagons are in place for A Resurrection For York, presented by York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, York Festival Trust and York Minster.

Philip Parr, artistic director of Parrabbola, directs a community cast in an hour-long outdoor performance, scripted by Parr and 2018 York Mystery Plays director Tom Straszewski from the York Mystery Plays cycle of the crucifixion and the events that followed. Tickets are on sale at ticketsource.co.uk/whats-on/york/residents-garden-deans-park/a-resurrection-for-york/.

Autonomous, by Sharon McDonagh, from the Momentum Summer Show at Blossom Street Gallery, York

Exhibition of the week and beyond: Momentum Summer Show, Westside Artists, Blossom Street Gallery, by Micklegate Bar, York, until September 26

YORK art group Westside Artists, a coterie of artists from the city’s Holgate and West areas, are exhibiting paintings, portraits, photomontage, photography, metalwork, textiles, ceramics and mixed-media art at Blossom Street Gallery.

Taking part are Adele Karmazyn; Carolyn Coles; Donna Maria Taylor; Ealish Wilson; Fran Brammer; Jane Dignum; Jill Tattersall; Kate Akrill and Lucy McElroy. So too are Lucie Wake; Marc Godfrey-Murphy; Mark Druery; Michelle Hughes; Rich Rhodes; Robin Grover-Jaques, Sharon McDonagh and Simon Palmour.

The Park Keeper director Matt Aston, left, actor Sean McKenzie and writer Mike Kenny at Rowntree Park, York. Picture: Northedge Photography

Theatre premiere of the week ahead: Park Bench Theatre in The Park Keeper, The Friends’ Garden, Rowntree Park, York, July 7 to 17 (except July 11)

AFTER last summer’s trilogy of solo shows, Matt Aston’s Park Bench Theatre return to Rowntree Park with Olivier Award-winning York writer Mike Kenny’s new monologue to mark the park’s centenary.

Performed by Sean McKenzie, The Park Keeper is set in York in the summer of 1945, when Rowntree Park’s first, and so far only, park keeper, ‘Parky’ Bell, is about to retire. That can mean only one thing, a speech, but what can he say? How can he close this chapter on his life? Will he be able to lock the gates to his kingdom one last time? Box office: 01904 623568, at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or via parkbenchtheatre.com.

Andy Fairweather Low: Booked into Pocklington Arts Centre for next February

Gig announcement of the week outside York: Andy Fairweather Low, Pocklington Arts Centre, February 11 2022

ANDY Fairweather Low, the veteran Welsh guitarist, songwriter, vocalist and producer, will return to Pocklington next February.

Founder and cornerstone of Sixties’ hitmakers Amen Corner and later part of Eric Clapton and Roger Waters’ bands, Cardiff-born Fairweather Low, 72, will perform with The Low Riders: drummer Paul Beavis, bassist Dave Bronze and saxophonist Nick Pentelow. Box office: pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.

Jane McDonald: Lighting up York Barbican in July 2022 rather than July 4 this summer

Rearranged gig announcement of the week in York: Jane McDonald, York Barbican, July 22 2022

WAKEFIELD cabaret singer and television personality Jane McDonald’s Let The Light In show is on the move to next summer.

For so long booked in as the chance to “Get The Lights Back On” at York Barbican on July 4, the Government’s postponement of “Freedom Day” from June 21 to July 19 at the earliest has enforced the date change for a show first booked in for 2020. Tickets remain valid; box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Ayckbourn’s play of the summer The Girl Next Door is now the SJT’s film of the week

Naomi Petersen and Bill Champion in The Girl Next Door at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

THE Stephen Joseph Theatre film of Alan Ayckbourn’s latest stage premiere, The Girl Next Door, is available on the Scarborough theatre’s website from 6pm this evening.

Directed by Ayckbourn, his 85th play can be seen in The Round until Saturday and now via sjt.uk.com, in a filmed recording in front of a live audience, until midnight on Sunday (4/7/2021).

In The Girl Next Door, 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 when, as the star of the nation’s favourite TV period drama, National Fire Service, he ruled the roost as George ‘Tiger’ Jennings: wartime hero and living legend among firefighters.

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

Ayckbourn says: “I was born in 1939, so my earliest memories are of a sort of lockdown: of crowding into Anderson shelters or subway stations; of sleeping in deckchairs or on my mother’s lap. Things have come full circle for me.

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

Writer-director Alan Ayckbourn in his Scarborough garden. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

The filmed production features a cast of Bill Champion, Linford Johnson, Alexandra Mathie and Naomi Petersen.

The SJT’s artistic director, Paul Robinson, says: “We were delighted that part of the funding we received from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund last year was to go towards filming our productions.

“It means that audiences who can’t get to the theatre to see the show, for whatever reason, still have chance to see a high-quality version in the comfort of their own home, and Alan couldn’t have got us off to a better start than with this hit play.”

Written and directed by Ayckbourn, assisted by the SJT’s associate director Chelsey Gillard, The Girl Next Door is designed by Kevin Jenkins with lighting design by Jason Taylor.

Tickets for the film cost £12 each, with a group ticket available at £15 and a version with bonus features, including interviews with Ayckbourn and Jenkins, priced at £20, on 01723 370541 or at sjt.uk.com. To check ticket availability for the last week of the stage production, visit the website.