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.

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 division of 78 years yet only a hedge.

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