Concrete Youth to stage multi-sensory learning disabilities show The Whispering Jungle at York Theatre Royal Studio

Laura Kaye Thomson, Ewan S Pires and Finn Kebbe in Concete Youth’s The Whispering Jungle. All photos: Charles Flint

THE Whispering Jungle, Concrete Youth’s new multi-sensory theatre production for young audiences with profound and multiple learning disabilities, plays York Theatre Royal Studio on Thursday and Friday.

The 50-minute show was developed off the back of Concrete Youth’s pioneering ASMR Project, an international research project that brought together British, American and Singaporean academics, artists and professionals to explore for the very first time the impact of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) on people labelled with these disabilities.

What can humans do to make the world better for rainforest animals, ask Concrete Youth in The Whispering Jungle. Laura Kaye Thomson sets to work, brush in hand

The ASMR Project’s research findings from 750 people led to this stage production being developed by Hull company Concrete Youth in association with Mercury Theatre, Colchester, supported by Arts Council England, Hull City Council and Back To Ours.

Bringing together ASMR, sensory play and sensory puppets, the immersive The Whispering Jungle invites the audience to help the animals of the rainforest realise that home really is wherever you are with your family.

Ewan S Pires in a scene from The Whispering Jungle

In the story, the Turtle (Ewan S Pires), the Monkey (Finn Kebbe) and the Bird (Laura Kaye Thomson) have all lost their home after men in big, bright, yellow jackets chopped down all the trees.

Now the animals are forced to fend for themselves, make their own new homes and pick up the pieces of the mess left behind by humans. How will they cope on their own? What can humans do to make the world better for rainforest animals? And why is the Turtle so clumsy?

Hard hats at the ready for Ewan S Pires, left, Laura Kaye Thomson and Finn Kebbe

Discover the answers in performances at 11am and 1.30pm on both days. Tickets can be booked on 01904 623568 or via Watch the tour trailer at:

The Whispering Jungle was devised by the company with music, lyrics and musical direction by Frew, lyrics and direction by Belle Streeton, set design by Lu Herbert, sound design by Tom Smith, puppet design by Amy Nicholson and lighting design by Jessie Addinall. Daniel Smith is the creative producer and associate director.

Finn Kebbe playing the Monkey in Concrete Youth’s The Whispering Jungle

Long-lost portrait of Fairfax House financier Elizabeth Clifford bought for Georgian townhouse with Art Fund support

Elizabeth Clifford: Portrait acquired by York Civic Trust for £14,500

A LONG-MISSING portrait of Elizabeth Clifford, the female financier of Fairfax House, goes on display this week at the Georgian townhouse in York after a successful campaign to raise £14,500 for its acquisition.

The portrait’s existence had been known for many years but its location was lost. Research undertaken at Fairfax House by collections manager Rachel Wallis revealed the painting was in danger of being sold into a private collection and potentially exported.

Fairfax House launched a campaign to raise sufficient funds to buy the portrait, attributed to Sir Godfrey Kneller, and return it to permanent public display, with support from Art Fund, the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, as well as generous public donations.

Fairfax House curator Sarah Burnage says: “We are so grateful that we were able to save this portrait from going into private collection and are instead able to display it, especially given its significance to the house’s history.”

A wealthy woman in her own right, the Hon. Elizabeth Clifford married Charles Gregory Fairfax, later 9th Viscount of Emley, in November 1720. Sadly, Elizabeth died only six months later from smallpox and Charles Gregory inherited all of Elizabeth’s money and possessions, including a townhouse in London. Whereupon he used this inheritance to stabilise the shaky Fairfax finances and later down the line purchased Fairfax House. 

The townhouse museum, in Castlegate, hopes this purchase will support its plan to reveal the stories of other women who have been forgotten by history. Rachel Wallis says: “It is undeniable that Elizabeth’s wealth is the reason that we have Fairfax House as we know it today, and yet we barely know anything about her.

“We want to use this portrait to help support our plan to tell the stories of the forgotten Fairfax women. We have already started undergoing new research into Elizabeth’s life and can’t wait to share what we uncover about her.”

The portrait goes on display from tomorrow (4/8/2023) to coincide with York’s inaugural Georgian Festival ( Children and under 16s go free at Fairfax House, where admission for adults is £7.50. Opening hours are 11am to 4pm every day except Fridays (guided tours only).

Fairfax House, Castlegate, York

Fairfax House: the back story

ONE of England’s finest Georgian townhouses, it was restored by York Civic Trust in the 1980s and has been open to the public ever since.

Originally the city home of Ann Fairfax, bought for her by her father, the 9th Viscount Fairfax, the house’s richly decorated interiors and stucco ceilings make it a masterpiece of Georgian design and architecture.

A beautiful collection of furniture, donated by Noel Terry, brings the house alive, recalling a lost world of townhouse-living in the 1760s for visitors.

Find out more at: 

Portrait of the artist

THE portrait of Elizabeth Clifford has been attributed to Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt (1646-1723). Born in Germany, Kneller studied on the continent before moving to England. Here he established himself as the leading portraitist of the period, founding a studio that churned out portraits of the rich and famous on an almost industrial scale. 

Elizabeth’s portrait is a fine example of one of Kneller’s more intimate female studies. The emphasis is placed directly upon the sitter’s alluring femininity, enhanced by her hair falling over her shoulder.

Her fine features have been rendered sensitively:  the bold handling or flesh tones and free fluidity of brushstrokes draws in the viewer. The sizeable area of grey ground is typical of Kneller’s later works. A method developed by the artist to speed up the painting process, it meant his studio could cope better with the many demands of a large circle of patrons.  

At the time of his­ death in 1723, around 500 works remained unfinished in his studio. To date, he is the only artist to be commemorated in Westminster Abbey. 

The framed portrait of Elizabeth Clifford

Who was Elizabeth, Viscountess Dunbar?

THE Hon. Elizabeth Clifford was born in April 1689 in Ugbrooke Park, Chudleigh, Devon. She was the daughter of Hugh Clifford, 2nd Baron Clifford of Chudleigh, and Anne Preston, daughter of Sir Thomas Preston, 3rd Baronet. 

She first was married to William Constable, 4th Viscount Dunbar, 1717-1718, and second to Charles Gregory Fairfax, 9th Viscount of Emley, in 1720. The marriage only lasted until April 1721 when Elizabeth died from smallpox in Bath, where she was on a visit to take in the waters. She is buried in Bath Abbey.

Charles remarried very quickly in 1722, tying the knot with Mary Fairfax, a distant cousin, who had been left a substantial part of Elizabeth’s wealth.  

It was this wealth that created the opportunity for Charles Fairfax to renovate his country estate at Gilling Castle and purchase and fund his daughter Ann’s remodelling of the grand townhouse on Castlegate, York.

York Civic Trust’s collection already contains the portraits of Mary Fairfax and her daughter, Ann, as well as a modern copy of Charles Fairfax’s portrait. Elizabeth completes the family picture. 

Innovative art to bolster summer fayre as New Visuality charity collaborates with Bluberry Academy on June 8 event

Artwork by Alex Utley for Blueberry Academy Summer Fayre

YORK charity New Visuality is bringing newly designed innovative artworks to the Blueberry Academy Summer Fayre the Melbourne Centre, Escrick Street, York, on June 8.

“This annual event is increasingly popular with its learners, learners’ families, and its staff,” says charity co-founder Greg McGee. “Traditionally it has consolidated the work of Blueberry Academy’s commercial arm, Blueberry Academy Pop Up Shop, now at 108 Walmgate,York. Now organisers are keen to widen the net to attract the wider community.”

Curriculum manager Laura Kent says: “The promise of lovely items available for purchase, plenty of tea and coffee and as much cake as you can eat has served us well in the past and is a good reflection of the positive energy created at our events.

“However, we’d like to see members of the public attend, so if people could please spread the word, that would be great. Our collaboration with New Visuality has meant that we have been able to work on the exhibitions we have here on display, as well as items for sale that have been designed using AI software.”

Alex Utley: Artist and activist

Formed in 2007 by Andy Bucklee and Andrew Cambridge, Blueberry Academy provides specialist support for young people and adults with learning differences, autism, social, emotional and mental health needs and/or other disabilities, with employability and independence as educational priorities.

New Visuality, directed by artist husband-and-wife team Greg and Ails McGee, has collaborated on visual arts projects since the beginning. “We received funding from Arts Council England’s National Lottery project grants to work with York’s wheelchair-using community,” says Greg.

“The project, Better Wheels, has gathered a groundswell after working with wheelchair-using residents in Acomb, Westfield, Rawcliffe and Clifton Without. Our plan is to integrate York’s wheelchair-using community with artists in sessions and exhibitions, interfusing traditional skills with innovation, celebrating access to cultural sites.

“It’s been a great success with art displays at Sanderson House, Take5 and Dalton Terrace’s Art Camp. When it comes to Blueberry Academy’s Summer Fayre, we thought, ‘this is an opportunity to build on the work we’ve been doing and to bring in some humour, AI technology and a game-changing exhibition’.”

Be Your Best Planet, by Alex Utley

New Visuality invited digital artist Alex Utley to participate. “Alex is an activist and artist, whose vision on accessibility provides the perfect portal for what Better Wheels has become,” says Ails. “The paintings I created were inspired by him, and the title, Shot In The Dark, a tribute to the Ozzy Osbourne song, was his idea.

“Basically, it’s a series of paintings shot through with positivity. That’s what we got from Alex, and the curatorial decisions were in the main part taken by him, with help from other Blueberry learners.”

Shot In The Dark will be on view for visitors to the summer fayre, alongside stalls selling prints, candles, jewellery, cards and much more, including coasters designed by Alex using innovative AI software, Canva.

He is pleased with the results. “Accessibility is such a massive issue in York, and though I and thousands like me have frustrations, there has been a lot of good work over the past few years,” he says.

 Blueberry Academy learner Joe P curating the summer fayre exhibition 

“I thought it would be better to focus on the humorous side of what it is to be a resident like me in a heritage city in 2023. The coasters incorporate my ideas visually, I’m really proud of them and I’m looking forward to the next limited-edition series.”

Greg is confident the project will continue to engage. “We have kiosks around Acomb where members of the public can leave ideas in a light-hearted way on what access means to them. We have plans to exhibit art based on access with the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre in Blossom Street.

“We’re set to sit down with policy makers from City of York Council on how we can continue to make progress on York’s accessibility. In the meantime, the summer belongs to Blueberry Academy. We hope to see you there.”

Blueberry Academy Summer Fayre, Melbourne Centre, Escrick Street, York, June 8, 1pm to 3pm. Please note: no parking is available.

Next Door But One reflect on death and lessons for life in Operation Hummingbird

Next Door But One chief executive officer and artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle directing a rehearsal for Operation Hummingbird

YORK community arts collective Next Door But One are taking part in the 2023 TakeOver Festival at York Theatre Royal next week, performing a revival of Operation Hummingbird.

NDB1 premiered artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle’s one-act two-hander to sold-out audiences in the socially distanced summer of 2021. Now, buoyed by being among 984 arts organisations to be granted National Portfolio (NPO) status by Arts Council England and winning the award for Resilience and Innovation at the 2023 Visit York Tourism Awards, they have launched their new programme.

“It’s quite apt that our first touring production as an NPO is Operation Hummingbird,” says Matt. “‘We’ve spent ten years working hard, dreaming big and forging fruitful partnerships. That’s how we got here. Now we’re looking into the future and are so excited for what the next three years hold. A reflective, hopeful story about looking back and looking ahead feels perfect for now.”

Already this month NDB1 have staged Operation Hummingbird in library performances York Explore, Haxby Explore, Clifton Explore, Tang Hall Explore and Acomb Explore, from May 9 to 12, and now they are heading to the theatre and arts centre circuit. 

Midday and 7pm performances on May 23 and 24 on York Theatre Royal’s main stage will be followed by Pocklington Arts Centre on May 25 and Helmsley Arts Centre on June 2, both at 7.30pm.

David Lomond, back, and James Lewis-Knight in Next Door But One’s 2023 tour of Operation Hummingbird

“I realised it could work as a main-house piece when I watched Pilot Theatre’s Run Rebel, when they had sold only the stalls, but there was something nice about playing a performance to the stalls,” says Matt. “We’ll make it intimate by using only the front half of the stage, working with a new lighting designer, Abi Turner, from London,  who has designed  previously for the Donmar Warehouse.”

Based on his own memoir of living with loss, Matt’s two-hander tells the story of teenager Jimmy, who is dealing with his mum’s terminal diagnosis by diving into computer games. Through this virtual reality, he meets his future self and asks: will everything turn out OK?

“Operation Hummingbird is a humorous and uplifting exploration of grief, loss and noticing just how far you’ve come,” says Matt, whose cast features NDB1 associate artist James Lewis-Knight, returning in the role of Jimmy, and Scarborough actor David Lomond, joining the company for the first time to play James, the future version of Jimmy, 35 more years on the clock.

“For me, the concept is: this play is a really specific look at terminal illness, death and bereavement, but the narrative is universal. If we could fast-forward time and then be able to go back, older and wise, to stop our younger self by passing on advice. We’ve all had those questions that our older selves would like to have been able to give the answer to our younger selves.”

The two-hander format is ideal, suggests Matt. “After Covid, people are wanting shorter shows – this one is only 50 minutes – where you don’t have to travel far to see it and you could even see it at lunchtime if you went to a library performance.

James Lewis-Knight’s Jimmy in a scene from the 2021 premiere of Matt Harper-Hardcastle’s Operation Hummingbird. He returns for the new production

“We’ve brought Operation Hummingbird back after we had brilliant feedback from the first run, when we had only just come out of Covid restrictions and so only small, socially distanced audiences were allowed.

“For the 2023 revival, we decided we’d go to the satellite Explore York libraries we didn’t play before. Now we’ve been able to pick up the project and say, ‘we know it works but what’s the full iteration?’.

“That means also performing it on the Theatre Royal main stage and taking it to Pocklington and Helmsley. It’s actually our first ever show at the Theatre Royal because we’ve never looked into doing one there before, as the heart of our work is taking it to the community, places on people’s doorsteps, such as libraries, community centres and the Camphill Village Trust (with our show The Firework-Maker’s Daughter).”

Matt continues: “It feels like a significant moment of growth for us. We’re known to the communities we engage with, like the Snappy Trust and York Carers Centre, who appreciate our values, and this revival is an introductory chance for us to say, ‘if you don’t know our work, this is what we do’.

“I hope I have turned a story that started from a very personal place into something that we can all relate to,” says writer-director Matt Harper-Hardcastle

“One of the first pieces of feedback we had was someone saying, ‘I can’t believe how much you can tell in a story with so little. We’re the opposite of doing big-scale theatre productions. It’s still a big story, about death and bereavement, and for me, as a director, the main thing has to be the story.

“You could detract from it with a big set and a light show, so we tell a story with three boxes, a few props and two actors and no blackouts of the auditorium. The focus is on the story.”

Matt concludes: “There’s something in this show for everyone. I hope I have turned a story that started from a very personal place – with the sudden death of my mum in 2016 – into something that we can all relate to. I know that audiences in 2021 left entertained and reflective about their own life. I hope we can achieve the same this time, but reach an even bigger audience across the region.”

Tickets for all venues can be booked at Also: York Theatre Royal, 01904 623568 or; Pocklington, 01759 301547 or; Helmsley, 01439 771700 or

Copyright of The Press, York

Theatre’s virtual reality future feels at home with the avatars at York Theatre Royal

Home X: Theatre, dance, music, gaming, avatars, widescreen projections, virtual reality and 3D design combine in Kakilang and Don’t Believe In Style’s collaboration in the York Theatre Royal Studio

The arty bit

THE future of theatre arrives at York Theatre Royal Studio tomorrow night in the cutting-edge form of Home X, an experimental UK and Southeast Asian collaboration that piches musicians and dancers into a virtual reality world.

Presented by Kakilang (formerly Chinese Arts Now) and Hong Kong partner Don’t Believe In Style and soon to open the Kakilang Festival 2023 in London, An-Ting Chang, Ian Gallagher and Donald Shek’s show combines theatre and music, gaming and virtual reality technology, live performance and audience participation. Soprano Colette Wing Wing Lam and actor gamer Mia Foo play their part too.

After tech rehearsals all this week, tomorrow and Saturday’s previews at a reconfigured Theatre Royal Studio, with 270-degree widescreen projections on three sides and the audience in the middle, can be followed online worldwide too. Further live performances will follow at the Barbican in London later this month.

Created in tandem with technologists and artists in London and Hong Kong, Chang, Gallagher and Shek’s three-dimensional world can be joined by digital audience members as avatars. 

Live performers in York (Si Rawlinson) and Hong Kong (fellow choreographer-breakdancer Suen Nam) will be captured as 3D images by depth-sensing cameras and then added to the world. In-person audience members in both locations will see one performer live in the venue, the other half as 3D projections on the widescreen.

After winning Arts Council England’s Digital Culture Award for storytelling, director, composer and Kakilang artistic director Chang, creative technologist Gallagher and architect in 3D design Shek are inviting audiences to “witness the future of live performance”, first in York.

“In Home X, we’re using technology as a form of artistic expression to create a new way of experiencing and telling stories,” says An-Ting. “Through this project, we aim to explore the potential of technology to bring people together and transcend physical boundaries.

“The remote audience will actively participate in the game, while the live audience witnesses these different realities intersecting in various ways. We aim to create a powerful and engaging experience that brings people together in a meaningful way.”

Home X explores the concept of home while celebrating the power of connection and togetherness in the belief that this show has the potential to revolutionise the way people experience theatre through fusing live performance with gaming technology, and “seeing where this technology can take us in the future”.

An-Ting Chang: Electronic musician, composer and director for Home X

“The two dancers have only ever ‘met’ on the VR headset; I’ve only ‘met’ Suen online, but what’s incredible about technology is that you can reach out to people you can’t meet physically,” says An-Ting. “It opens your eyes because there must be things you can learn from each other, from each other’s worlds, when you’re working in different spaces.”

An-Ting first brought a show to York Theatre Royal in February 2020, just before the pandemic lockdowns, presenting Overheard in the theatre foyer, where the audience used headphones to eavesdrop on family discussions (“because they often take place in cafés”).

“It’s lovely to be back here, doing Home X in a co-commission with York Theatre Royal as one of the partners,” she says. “After we did the digital theatre show Every Dollar Is A Soldier online during lockdown, where we used the gaming engine too, that show became very important for Home X, where we wondered how a digital audience could really engage with a live performance, choosing an avatar and taking part in a promenade performance where you can really feel yourself jumping around in the space and engaging with other avatars. For those in the Studio, you can turn it into a theatre people couldn’t imagine.”

An-Ting has a background is both science and art with a degree in Chemistry from National Taiwan University and a MMus and PhD in performance from the Royal Academy of Music.

“I came to the UK 14 years ago, first to study at the Royal Academy as a concert pianist, and afterwards went to Germany to more studies, and then came back to do a PhD at the Royal Academy, looking at how to bring piano and theatre together,” says the director,  who has since put those studies into practice by combining different media, music, physical theatre and technology, while also travelling hither and thither as a concert pianist.

Where is ‘home’ for Taiwan-born An-Ting? “Home X is my personal story. Coming here 14 years ago, ‘home’ for me is confusing. Even after 14 years, I can still feel quite foreign but when I go back to Taiwan, I also feel foreign,” she says.

“Because ‘home’ is such a universal subject, I also interviewed lots of people about how they feel about ‘home’. People who had to leave Ukraine and Iraq. ‘Home’ is complicated but important to everyone, and I wanted to share those stories through Home X.”

Brought up in the Taiwanese countryside, An-Ting’s next move will be to move into the English countryside, a new home.

Home X, York Theatre Royal Studio, tomorrow (10/2/2023) and Saturday, 7.45pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or Online: 

“The future of theatre”: Home X at York Theatre Royal Studio tomorrow and Saturday night

The science bit

IN Home X, live on stage in the UK and Hong Kong, depth-sensing cameras capture 3D video of the performers, using infrared light to convey the shape and movement of the performers’ bodies in real time.

The live audience will watch as they are digitised and streamed into the 3D world. This world will come alive for the audience through a 270-degree widescreen projection, with a live in-game camera following the digitised performers, the digital audience and the other creatures of the world.

Home X uses the gaming engine Unity to create a three-dimensional, virtual world. The digital audience members can engage fully with the performance by entering the virtual world as avatars. They may interact with other audience members and the performers using gestures and emojis, and even play a role in driving the story forward.

The use of bespoke streaming technology allows for a lag of less than half a second between the UK and Hong Kong performers, making it feel as though they are truly performing together in the same space.

Copyright of The Press, York

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North’s Tosca, Leeds Grand Theatre

Opera North beneath Tim Scutt’s cupola in Tosca. All pictures: James Glossop

Opera North in Tosca, Leeds Grand Theatre; further performances on January 28, 2.30pm; February 3, 22, 25 and 28 and March 2, 7.30pm. Box office:  0113 243 0808 or On tour to Salford, Nottingham, Newcastle and Hull until April 1; more details at

EDWARD Dick’s updated production of Tosca has returned to Leeds after four and a half years and under his continued aegis on the surface not much has changed.

Still with us, remarkably, is Robert Hayward, who has held onto the role of Scarpia since Christopher Alden’s 2002 production. Giselle Allen is back in the title role. Those two alone are surely enough to bring Yorkshire audiences back in droves. Both have been stalwarts in Leeds for at least two decades, virtually company principals throughout that time.

Otherwise, interest centres on the British debut of Ukrainian tenor Mykhailo Malafii – in fact he had never set foot on these shores until the rehearsals – and the conducting of new music director Garry Walker, taking over from the (now) principal guest conductor Antony Hermus. This quartet makes a tasty combination of the tried and tested on the one hand with innovation on the other.

So, this is no mere rehash. Quite the contrary. From the moment that Callum Thorpe’s lithe Angelotti shins down the rope from Tom Scutt’s central cupola there is the excitement of fear in the air, although it is balanced by Matthew Stiff’s amusingly bumbling Sacristan and Malafii’s smiling Cavaradossi, who seems not to have a care in the world.

Giselle Allen as Tosca and Robert Hayward as Scarpia in Opera North’s Tosca

When the net tightens, the contrast is heightened. We are reminded that Scarpia is not universally despised when the priest at the close of a rousing Te Deum appears to bless him (echoes of Patriarch Kirill’s espousal of Vladimir Putin). More importantly, Tosca and Cavaradossi establish the warmth of their love in their brief rendezvous.

But Act 2 is the real clincher. The scope of Allen’s soprano is breath-taking, thrillingly determined at the top, a chesty growl of revulsion at the bottom. She has surely never sung better. As she and Hayward chased each other over and around Scarpia’s bed – his “office” in every sense – we were on the edge of our seats. This was for real.

Hayward has refined his Scarpia from a straightforward monster into something more nuanced and sinister, a wily pervert. When he wipes a tear from Allen’s cheek with his finger, it is virtually an act of abuse.

He leaves no doubt of his intentions by pleasuring himself against a bedpost. But his baritone tells us that although his lust is up, so is his anger. This is more than menace; it is hell-bent lechery. His death is horrendously gory. When his body twitched just before the curtain, the person in the next seat almost jumped out of their seat.

Bar sales undoubtedly soared in the interval as nerves were soothed. There are not the same shocks in Act 3 although Tosca’s fall backwards through the cupola, now on its side, is hair-raising enough. By now, Malafii’s tenor has reached full flow. His Act 1 sound was dry and quite tight, but as relaxation kicked in his tone warmed and resonated more broadly.

Mykhailo Malafii, in his British debut, as Cavaradossi and Giselle Allen as Tosca

As the run progresses the stars in ‘E lucevan le stelle’ will doubtless glow more brightly. Alex Banfield is a lightweight Spoletta, more PA than gangster, but Richard Mosley-Evans’s thuggish Sciarrone compensates. Bella Blood (double-cast with Hattie Cobb) is a sweet-toned Shepherd Boy. The modern tech paraphernalia of mobiles and laptops only serves to underline that there are plenty of despots still around.

In the overall analysis, Garry Walker’s orchestra is a character in its own right and pulls no punches. The horns, deprived by retirement of their legendary principal Robert Ashworth, are still right on the button at the start of Act 3; the brass in general are fiercely edgy. One can only admire the way Walker’s orchestral punctuation, especially in Act 1, is so tautly disciplined.

In last November’s round of Arts Council England grants, Opera North was “awarded” a stand-still £10.677 million per annum until 2026, effectively a serious cut. Amid the general whingeing in the British operatic world, Opera North has remained silent and simply got on with it. It’s called Yorkshire grit (as a transplanted southerner I can afford to say that). The proof of the pudding is a Tosca that any company would have been proud to mount.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Opera North’s Tosca plays Hull New Theatre on March 30 and April 1, 7pm. Box office: 01482 300306 or

Tom Bird bids farewell to York Theatre Royal after 5 years of momentous change

Tom Bird: Goodbye York Theatre Royal, hello Sheffield Theatres. Picture: Esme Mai

CHIEF executive Tom Bird is leaving York Theatre Royal after five years on February 3 to take up the equivalent post at Sheffield Theatres, England’s largest producing theatre complex outside London.

Head hunted for a post he “just couldn’t turn down”, he will migrate southwards to replace Dan Bates, who exited Sheffield last year after 13 years to become executive director of Bradford’s UK City of Culture 2025 programme.

From February 6, North Easterner (and Newcastle United fan) Tom he will be in charge of the South Yorkshire trio of Sheffield’s Crucible, Lyceum and Tanya Moiseiwitsch Playhouse (formerly the Studio), working closely with artistic director Robert Hastie and interim chief exec Bookey Oshin, who will stay on as deputy CEO, and the senior team.

He leaves behind a York Theatre Royal where he has overseen an emphasis on community productions and the showcasing of York talent; the departure of innovative artistic director Damian Cruden after 22 years and Britain’s longest-running pantomime dame, Berwick Kaler, after 41; the promotion of Juliet Forster to creative director with a programming team, and new partnerships with Emma Rice’s Wise Children company (and in turn the National Theatre) and Evolution Productions for the pantomime’s new chapter.

Such change could be planned, but then there was Covid, a shadow cast from March 2020, one that not only shut down the theatre in lockdown but led to redundancies and later the loss of £250,000 takings in a flash when the Christmas and New Year week of Cinderella last winter fell foul to a glut of positive tests.

York Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird, centre, with creative director Juliet Forster and Evolution Productions director and pantomime writer Paul Hendy

“We were on to our fourth Cinderella by then,” recalls Tom. “It was impossible to continue. It couldn’t have happened in a worse week. Losing those performances was awful, even though we  got going again for the last performances.”

Twelve months on, Tom bids farewell with the Theatre Royal in a healthy position. “There’s money in the bank; there’s a great team working here; the pantomime is reinvigorated; the programming is good; there are excellent partnerships in place. I’m really proud of everything we’ve done,” he says.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a mission as such as I guess I wanted to learn that mission as I went along, and I certainly think the Theatre Royal is in a strong position. The relationship with Arts Council England is so important, and to still be on the NPO scheme [for National Portfolio funding for £1.8 million for 2023-2026) is so important.

“If I have one regret – and I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to run Sheffield – it is that it would have been nice to now have had two or three ‘normal’ years at York Theatre Royal as it’s such a wonderful place.”

Looking back on becoming the Theatre Royal’s executive director at 34 – he would later change the title to chief executive – after he and his family moved to York in December 2017, Tom says: “It was a massive change because my unofficial title at the Globe [Shakespeare’s Globe in London] was ‘Mr International’, producing a tour of Hamlet to 189 countries, but my personal circumstances had changed already.

A scene from The Coppergate Woman, York Theatre Royal’s 2022 community play. Picture: Jane Hobson

“We’d moved out to Kent; I’d been working as executive producer nationally and internationally, and though there was a lot of gloom about regional theatre at the time, I just thought, I’d love to get back north, to run a theatre.

“We’d co-produced plays to York, and there’s just something about the Theatre Royal, the building; the gorgeous auditorium.”

Nevertheless, Tom admits he was in for a surprise. “At first I thought, if you just transplanted London theatre here, it would work, but that was not the case,” he says. “York is a city of inequality, not the city that you would expect, and therefore not the theatre you would expect. You need to offer a cultural menu that caters for everyone. You have to fully fit in with the needs of the community, which is an exciting thing to do.

“After Damian left (in summer 2019), we wanted to make sure that we would be programming in a more collaborative way than we’d done before.  I think there’s since been the same amount of co-producing of shows, but we also said we wanted to do ‘very Yorkshire’ productions, like The Coppergate Woman community play and David Reed’s world premiere of Guy Fawkes last autumn.

“We’ve created the programming team, led by Juliet Forster, with associate director John R Wilkinson and resident artists, that naturally produces a wide range of voices and makes sure everything is rigorously tested as to what we will put on that stage and why.”

Wise Children’s co-production of Wuthering Heights with the National Theatre and York Theatre Royal

Community theatre is crucial, Tom says: “It’s what audiences want. It’s absolutely what people in the community say they want to see. The audiences for our community plays are phenomenal. July’s production of CJ Sansom’s Sovereign is already on track to sell out. York wants theatre shows that tell stories of the city and we’ve always tried to do that in an experimental way, which leads to us taking risks.”

For all the weight of its history, York needs to be averse to standing still. “The city has to make sure it’s always being dynamic in its culture and outlook, otherwise it will take on the profile of being frozen in aspic,” warns Tom.

“That’s why we did a hippy-trippy, Covid-influenced Viking story [The Coppergate Woman] and a dark comedy version of Guy Fawkes that people didn’t expect. You have to be ambitious and surprising. That’s a word we use all the time: the reward for York audiences is to be pleasantly surprised.”

As for the changing of the old guard in the pantomime, Tom says: “I’m conscious that it’s what I’ll be remembered for here, which is a shame. Bringing down the curtain on something is not what I want to be remembered for, but, to an extent, whoever had my job at the time, was going to have to deal with it in some way.

“Maybe someone else would have taken a different route, or taken it earlier, but I worked on three of Berwick’s pantomimes, so it wasn’t as though I didn’t know what I was dealing with, but there was an issue coming down the road in ten to 15 years’ time , maybe earlier: family audiences were not coming to the panto in2017-2018, so what was going to happen in future years?

“I’d grown an affinity with the company in those three years, as everyone does; you realise the exceptional quality of performers like David Leonard, but in all conscience, I could not responsibly leave the situation as it was.

Berwick Kaler playing Molly Motley in his last York Theatre Royal pantomime, The Grand Old Dame Of York, in 2018-2019. He co-directed and wrote the next year’s show, Sleeping Beauty, his last involvement with the Theatre Royal panto after 41 years

“I got a lot of public criticism – and a lot of private criticism too – and really there was a lack of understanding of what I was trying to achieve in making the change, which may have been my fault as I could have it explained it earlier, but everything I said at the time still stands.

“The audiences were declining and there was no obvious way of turning it around with that product still in place, and I would say that the decision to go into a partnership with Evolution Productions has been proved to be the right one.

“The new pantomime is still growing and we know there’s still work to do, but we’re really happy with how it’s going.”

After such highlights as The Travelling Pantomime’s socially distanced performances to York neighbourhoods in the first winter of Covid, the Love Bites and Green Shoots showcases for York professional theatre-makers, the Wise Children/National Theatre/York Theatre Royal co-production of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and Tom’s groundwork for Kyiv City Ballet’s first ever British visit in June, he moves to Sheffield in the year he turns 40.

In the words of Lord Kerslake, chair of Sheffield Theatres Trust board: “We have appointed a driven, experienced and creative leader who will help shape the next chapter of this world-class organisation.”

Just as Tom Bird has shaped York Theatre Royal’s future too.

Next Door But One plan ahead for 2023 and beyond after gaining National Portfolio Organisation funding status for first time

Next Door But One founder and artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle. Picture: Esme Mai

NEXT Door But One may be new to Art Council England’s National Portfolio, but this York community interest company (CIC) has been a familiar, welcoming face to many in the community for ten years.

When Arts Council England announced its £446 million investment in 990 organisations each year from 2023 to 2026, to “bring art, culture and creativity to more people in more place across the country”, six York organisations were given funding, alongside such big hitters as the Royal Opera House and Royal Shakespeare Company.

Maintaining their previous NPO status are York Theatre Royal, York Museums Trust, the National Centre for Early Music and Pilot Theatre, while Next Door But One (NDB1) and Explore York/York Explore Library and Archive both join for the first time.

“It might sound bizarre, but it’s OK if people haven’t heard of us yet,” says NDB1 founder and artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle. “We’ve been busy in residential settings, youth centres, pub courtyards and even the odd portable cabin or two – making sure that we get theatre to people who want it, in a way that is accessible, relevant and meaningful to them.

“People have always come first, and profile second. But now becoming an NPO allows us to shout louder about our work and reach out to even more people.”

Set up by Matt in 2013, the applied theatre company cum community arts collective began by using improvisation to tell the stories of women’s groups, Muslim families and people new to York.

“Soon our storytelling was being used to make research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and enabling City of York’s training programmes to be more engaging and accessible,” he says.

Ceridwen Smith in Next Door But One’s production of The Firework Maker’s Daughter. Picture: James Drury

“Our original productions were then showcased at York Disability Pride, the Great Yorkshire Fringe and York’s Dead Good Festival. From 2016, we’d honed our model of co-production and created partnerships with Camphill Village Trust, The Snappy Trust, York Carers Centre and Converge, to name a few.

“In the last year, we engaged more than 600 participants and 2,000 audience members. Something that, as a part-time team of five, we’re incredibly proud of.”

At the height of the Covid pandemic, NDB1’s activity went up by 61 per cent. “This was due to our community partners turning to us and saying ‘Can you help keep our communities connected and creative?’,” says creative producer El Stannage.

“So, we made digital performances for neurodivergent young people, online Forum Theatre to support the wellbeing of adults with learning disabilities and ran three online theatre courses for adults accessing mental health services, LGBTQ+ teenagers and unpaid carers.

“The need for our work has not decreased, even once lockdown restrictions were lifted, and that’s why we applied to be an NPO; to sustain our increased programme and to reassure our community groups that we’re still going to be there for them.”

This work’s impact on the York community has been acknowledged with formal recognition and awards from the Lord Mayor of York, the Archbishop of York and as a finalist in the Visit York Tourism Awards for “Innovation and Resilience”.

Anne Stamp, service manager at The Snappy Trust, is delighted that NDB1 are to become an NPO, helping to continue their long-standing collaboration. “Next Door But One is a much-needed service in York: a great resource for many and a service that helps to provide children and young people with a wider range of experiences, enabling them to learn, grow and have fun,” she says.

NDB1 are finalising their plans for 2023 but are working already on revivals of performances that toured to their fellow NPO, York Explore, including The Firework-Maker’s Daughter and Operation Hummingbird, as well as expanding their professional development offer for local performing arts professionals that originally produced Yorkshire Trios at The Gillygate pub in April 2021; the first live, in-person performances that year in York once lockdown restrictions were lifted.

“All NPOs must go into a negotiation phase with Arts Council England until early 2023, but for now what Next Door But One are saying is, ‘We are here and we can’t wait to continue working with communities across York or meet new people for the first time, and create together,” says Matt.

Artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle answers CharlesHutchPress’s questions on what lies ahead for Next Door But One, York’s community arts collective

Next Door But One artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle making a point in rehearsal as actress Emma Liversidge-Smith looks on

From Harrogate Theatre to Pocklington Arts Centre and English National Opera, venues and companies have suffered blows in Arts Council England’s National Portfolio awards for 2023-2026. What were the factors that meant Next Door But One NDB1) was selected as one of the new recipients in a climate where ACE talked of “levelling up” in its allocations?

“While we’re delighted to receive the NPO support, we are equally devastated for our peers across the industry who did not receive the support they had hoped for.

“We see us receiving the funding as validation for our community-driven approach, which makes our work inclusive and relevant to those we serve, while also taking on the responsibility to support our peers and create partnerships with those who aren’t part of the portfolio, so we can all continue to deliver our equally valuable work.”

York has come out of the NPO awards with tails up: York Theatre Royal, York Museums Trust, the National Centre for Early Music and Pilot Theatre retaining NPO status; Next Door But One and York Explore Library and Archive joining for the first time. What does that say about the health and diversity of arts provision in York?

“I think we’ve known for a long time just how much the city is steeped in arts a culture, and as you suggest, this goes towards celebrating that – and what a diversity of offerings York will have over the coming three years.

“From central building-based theatres, to touring companies, music, museums, libraries and a nimble participatory company like us, there really is going to be something for everyone, and we’re proud to be contributing to that collective.”

What are the benefits to NDB1 of acquiring NPO status?

“The main benefit for us is sustainability. Over the years, we’ve been able to do what we do by working hard on securing project grant funding, but this can become time consuming and resource heavy.

James Lewis Knight, left, as Jimmy and Matt Stradling as James in Next Door But One’s Operation Hummingbird. Picture: James Drury

“Knowing that we have our core funds secured for three years means we can really invest in current delivery while also having more headspace to think strategically about how we continue even further into the future.

“On the day we got the funding announcement [November 4], I phoned or emailed every partner we work with to tell them ‘We will still be here for you’ and that’s what it really means to us to become an NPO.”

Being a participatory arts and community-focused performance organisation gives you a different profile to other arts organisations in the city. All that with a part-time team of five. Discuss…

“It does, and I think that’s the real joy of the portfolio, particularly in York. We’re part of this great network of arts and culture creators, all approaching it from different angles, which should mean that everyone in York can access the things they want in a way that works for them.

“There can be a mistake when there are lots of organisations doing similar things into viewing it as ‘competition’, when it’s not. It’s complementary and collaborative. In fact, we’ve already had many discussions and meetings with fellow NPOs to see how we can support one another; how our work can go to their venue or how our participatory approach can strengthen a certain one of their projects.

“As for the part-time team, it’s great to have stability in our roles, which means we can grow both in terms of impact and by working with more York freelancers on upcoming projects.

“Even though it’s a full-time passion, we see our ‘part-timeness’ as a real strength; among our team we have those that in other areas of their working week are arts and mental health programme managers, music specialists, campaigners and directors of other theatre companies. All that additional skill and insight is really welcomed into NDB1.”

Is this the key: “Making sure that we get theatre to people who want it, in a way that is accessible, relevant and meaningful to them. People have always come first, and profile second”? 

“Yes, we pride ourselves on meeting people where they are, in terms of geography but also in terms of experience and aspiration. So, whether that is taking performances to community libraries or residential gardens, or workshops to children’s centres and support groups, we go to where we’re needed, connect and create together.

First orders: Next Door But One’s Yorkshire Trios reopened outdoor theatre in The Gillygate pub garden after lockdown restrictions were lifted. Picture: James Drury

“This can often mean we don’t inhabit large, prolific buildings or that our work has huge visibility, but as long as we remain meaningful to those we do engage, then that’s what counts to us. And being an NPO will enable us to sustain this work while also reaching out to new communities and asking them what they want from us.”

Within the York community, you involve people who would not otherwise participate in the arts. Discuss…

“Well, rather than saying ‘We have this thing and you need to get involved’, we approach it the other way around by saying ‘We know about theatre, you tell us how you want that to work for you’.

“For example, our programme of Forum Theatre came about through communities of people with learning disabilities, their support staff and family wanting safe yet productive ways of exploring independent living.

“So, we worked with members of The Snappy Trust and Camphill Village Trust to gather the tricky situations that they wanted to explore, trialled the format with them, evaluated together and now this has become an embedded process and programme of engagement.

“This has been the same with us using storytelling and performance skills to increase the self-confidence of unpaid carers wanting to apply for volunteering and employed work, or offering online creative writing sessions to keep LGBTQ+ young people connected and openly exploring topics important to them.

“Our approach is for the community to identify what they want, and then our responsibility is to shape the theatre with them to meet that goal.”

Lastly, Matt, put some flesh on the bones of what you have planned for next year…

“So, as every NPO now must do, we’re in a negotiation phase until the end of January 2023 to confirm the first year of plans with ACE, but in short, both programmes of Forum Theatre for people with disabilities will continue and increase, as will our training course in Playback Theatre for adults with mental ill health.

“We’ll also be remounting our 2021 production of Operation Hummingbird with York Explore, creating new audiences with our adaptation of The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, building on our relationships with schools and universities with a new tour of She Was Walking Home and supporting a cohort of local performing arts professionals with a series of mentoring and skills-based workshops.”

She Was Walking Home: the back story

“We cannot let statistics dehumanise what’s actually happening or forget the real voices behind each lived experience,” says Kate Veysey, associate director of Next Door But One

PROMPTED by the kidnap and murder of York-born Sarah Everard in March 2021, Next Door But One mounted a city-centre audio walk last year, in response to “the reaction from women in our community and the unfortunate subsequent attacks and murders”.

Subsequently, it was expanded by Rachel Price into a live adaptation this spring, performed by a cast of four women at York Explore on May 5, Theatre@41, Monkgate, on May 20, The Gillygate pub, May 26, and University of York, June 14.

“She Was Walking Home aims to put the focus on the voices of local women, but not the responsibility or accountability for their safety,” says NDB1 associate director Kate Veysey.

Last year, for the first time, The Office for National Statistics (ONS) released data on how safe people feel in different public settings. One in two women felt unsafe walking alone after dark in a quiet street near their home, or in a busy public place, and two out of three women aged 16 to 34 experienced one form of harassment in the previous 12 months.

Cast member Anna Johnston in the rehearsal room for She Was Walking Home

“Behind every one of these statistics is a true story of harassment, abuse, rape or even murder – a life changed forever,” says Kate. “We cannot let statistics dehumanise what’s actually happening or forget the real voices behind each lived experience.”

She Was Walking Home takes the form of a series of monologues created from the testimonies of women living, working and studying in York. “We created this production in response to the heart-breaking murder of Sarah Everard and the understandable shock and uncertainty it caused in our local community,” says Kate.

“We wanted to amplify the voices of local women, while also prompting conversations around where responsibility and accountability lies for their safety. Since the original audio walk, listened to by almost 800 people, there have been further attacks and murders of women, including Sabina Nessa and Ashling Murphy, and still the rhetoric seems to be skewed towards rape alarms, trackers, self-defence classes and dress codes being the solution. We needed to continue and challenge this conversation.” 

The 2022 tour to libraries, pubs, theatres and universities in May and June aimed to “bring this very real issue home with the experiences encountered on the very streets that make up York. “The invitation was to come and watch, listen, but also to think ‘What is it that I can do in making the women in our community safer?’,” says Kate.

Cast member Emma Liversisdge-Smith with Next Door But One artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle alongside her

Alongside the touring performance, Next Door But One have created a digital pack for schools and community groups, including a recording of the performance and a workbook containing prompts for debate and conversations that will lead to change.

“As a company, we want the theatre we make to be as useful as it can be; a tool that supports people in the ways they need,” says creative producer El Stannage.

“The tour reached different communities through the venues we visited, but equally the digital pack can be used to evoke conversations now, for change that will be seen into the future; empowering girls to report experiences of abuse and harassment and raising awareness of how boys and young men can be better allies in keeping women safe, for example.” 

Watch this space for details of the upcoming performances in 2023.

Next Door But One’s tour poster for She Was Walking Home

Can you help put the finishing touches to the slithering dragon at Nunnington Hall?

The Nunnington dragon: “Slithering down the exhibition corridor” at Nunnington Hall

VISITORS to Nunnington Hall, near York, have until September 4 to help to determine the look of the Nunnington dragon as part of a story creation project in Ryedale.

Literacy specialist Rosie Barrett and artist Karen Thompson have been working with school groups and families to retell this folktale.

The story features in the Creatures Of Curiosity project, funded by grants from Arts Council England and Ryedale District Council, to encourage young people to engage with stories rooted in local places.

“There are some fascinating stories from the region, but the dragon has really captured imagination,” says Rosie. “Lots of regions have their own version of a dragon story, but most of us have only really heard of the most famous dragons – those featured in stories such as The Hobbit, for example, or Beowulf.

The Nunnington dragon’s head at the Creatures Of Curiosity exhibition at Nunnington Hall

“The project was a great opportunity to engage Ryedale people with our own dragon and find out a bit more about it.”

Rosie and Karen took their retelling of the story into schools in Ryedale to gauge their responses, inviting children to create their own illustrations and writing. “They had very strong ideas,” says Rosie.

“The original folktale has a devastatingly sad ending. We asked the children about it and how we should tell this element. We thought they’d want a happy ending and were surprised by their stoicism!”

Artist Karen illustrated the dragon based on the children’s ideas and consequently it slithers down the exhibition corridor. “The children helped us to get an idea of what the dragon should look like at the exhibition,” she says. “Based on details in the story, they were quite clear that the dragon should be long and worm-like.”

Scale drawing: Nunnington Hall visitors can add to the design of the dragon’s body and tail

Now Rosie and Karen are inviting more visitors to participate by creating a scale to go on the dragon’s body and tail.

“It’s been fantastic to see the dragon develop over the summer, but we’ve only got until September 4 to get enough scales to finish it,” says Karen. “We’re really hoping it will be complete by the end of the exhibition.”

Other stories featured in the Creatures Of Curiosity exhibition at the National Trust property include moorland myths about “hobs”, the secretive and mischievous creatures believed to have helped around farms and houses on the North York Moors, and an original tale based on the prehistoric creatures whose fossil remains were found at Kirkdale Caves.

Look out too for artwork by children’s author and illustrator Tim Hopgood, who has illustrated the Kirkdale creatures, such as hyenas, lions and long-tusk elephants, once native to the region, and for sensory textile creations by Wanda Szajna-Hopgood, based on Tim’s illustrations, that showcase the story of the Kirkdale Caves. Artwork by schoolchildren is on display too.

A close-up of the Nunnington dragon at Nunnington Hall

Based on a range of real and mythological creatures from the Ryedale area, the exhibition pulls together history, archaeology, science and folklore. The real creatures are themselves in some ways fantastical: creatures that lived there during the Ice Age, including mammoths, hyenas and giant deer.

The exhibition offers the opportunity to explore how local myths were created and how even real stories can take on mythical status.

On August 25 comes the chance to join Dr Liam Herringshaw, from the Fossil Roadshow and Scarborough Museums, to learn about fascinating fossils. Hands-on art and storytelling activities will take place on August 30 from 11am to 3pm.

Find out more at:

Bunker Of Zion brings burst of Zimbabwean joy to Bridlington tonight and tomorrow

Bunker Of Zion dancer Kudzanai Chikowe and musician Tawanda Mapanda standing on the Bridlington sea front

HOT on the heels of two work-in-progress performances of her climate-change cautionary tale The Ballad Of Blea Wyke at the Stilly Fringe last weekend, York theatre-maker, writer, spoken-word slam champion, university lecturer, poet and performer Hannah Davies is the associate artist for tonight and tomorrow’s performances of Bunker Of Zion in Bridlington.

Funded by Arts Council England, the first Collaborative Touring Network project with Arcade and The Old Courts brings a joyous and colourful celebration of Zimbabwean culture to St John’s Burlington Methodist Church at 7pm this evening and 2pm and 7pm tomorrow.

Musician, actor and performance artist John Pfumojena’s theatre piece will combine acrobatics and breakdance with a jazz and hip-hop vibe.

Hannah Davies: Associate artist for Bunker Of Zion

“Come and immerse yourself in something totally new at the Bunker; a taste of Zimbabwean theatre on your doorstep. Experience the artists’ stories through live music, dance and songs,” reads the invitation to a 60-minute performance devised by John with Kudzanai Chikowe, Tawanda Mapanda, Farai Nhakaniso and Niyi Akin. “Expect influences of jazz and hip-hop and the distinctive sounds of Zimbabwean instruments such as the mbire and marimba.”

​Arcade’s Young Women’s Creative Company members have worked with the artists to share their individual stories and talents to make the show.

Introducing Bunker Of Zion in a blog, associate artist Hannah says: “Imagine a world without creativity; no stories, no dance, no music, no art. Self-expression is forbidden, on pain of death. Then imagine a secret bunker in that world. A place where people meet illicitly, to tell their tales, dance their passions, and save their souls.

Zimbabwean musician Tawanda Mapanda, part of the Bunker Of Zion ensemble for tonight and tomorrow’s performances

“Bunker Of Zion is a performance experience created by John and his ensemble, rooted in the lived traditions and cultures of the Shona people, a vibrant explosion of music, storytelling, playfulness, and dance.”

When Hannah and the Collective met up with John, dancer Kudzanai Chikowe and musician Tawanda Mapanda for the first time, they spent time experiencing the Marimba music and learning the rhythms and dance that will define the show.

They were joined by Diana Logan, Arcade’s producer for the Bunker Of Zion project, who is a leader on Coventry University Scarborough’s Actor Training course in partnership with the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

Bunker Of Zion dancer Kudzanai Chikowe

“Diana brought some of the course’s first graduating students along with her to join us for the sessions with John and his team,” Hannah’s blog continues.

“We all spent a joyful weekend in workshops that brought us together, clapping and dancing the Shona people’s traditional Mhande rhythm – a tempo that is used to call on higher powers and to connect with the wisdom of ancestors.

“Led by John and his ensemble, we all had fun embedding this tempo into our bodies, and though we started out with shuffling, giggling and getting claps and steps all over the place, by the end of the weekend we were all able to hold time together and move as one through the sequence.

The poster for tonight and tomorrow’s performances of Bunker Of Zion in Bridlington

“John taught us how essential rhythm is to their culture and likened the very nature of being human to a drum, the heart within us beating our life force out with every step we take through life.”

They also played playground games, an important Zimbabwean tradition. “As John said, ‘we are serious about playing’! We all worked together swapping and sharing games with Tawanda and Kudzanai while John played live music to support our running, jumping, leaping and laughing,” Hannah says.

“When you commit with full-focused intent to playing and being silly, the joyful energy you get in return is threefold, and I cannot wait to see how we bring audiences together in Bridlington to remind them of the simple life-affirming power of play.”

Musician, actor and performance artist John Pfumojena

Recognising and celebrating our lineage and passing on stories on our own terms are key themes in Bunker Of Zion. “There was time in the weekend to swap stories and consider the way that we tell them,” says Hannah.

“The Shona people’s culture is an oral tradition, which means that storytelling and narrative is truly sacred. When stories are oppressed and silenced, the culture is destroyed. Whose story we tell, how we tell it, when, how and why, are all important factors within the imagined world of the bunker.

“In the workshop we shared snapshots, fragments and moments from our own ancestry, and thinking about how we celebrate and engage with stories and traditions from other cultures was a powerful way to end the weekend.”

All three performances tonight and tomorrow have sold out.

Kudzanai Chikowe dancing on the Bridlington sea front