Squash champ James Willstrop tackles ‘mad scientist’ role in Mel Brooks’s spoof horror musical Young Frankenstein in York

Following the science? James Willstrop as Dr Frederick Frankenstein, creator of the Creature in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Young Frankenstein. Picture: Jennifer Jones

YORK company Pick Me Up Theatre’s delayed northern premiere of Mel Brooks’s comedy horror musical Young Frankenstein opens at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre next Wednesday.

Unforeseen circumstances had forced the late postponement of last autumn’s run at the Grand Opera House, but rehearsals re-started in York in early December under the direction of Andrew Isherwood.

All the original principal cast chosen by Pick Me Up artistic director and designer Robert Readman was still available, not least former squash world number one James Willstrop in the lead role of mad scientist Dr Frederick Frankenstein, first played by Gene Wilder in Brooks’s 1974 horror-movie spoof of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein.

“You hear of other shows where it’s happened, but it was a really sad feeling when we couldn’t do it as were just about to start our run,” recalls James.

“I was feeling pretty depressed afterwards, thinking ‘this show isn’t going to happen’ – and when people ask, ‘how are you feeling?’, it’s unusual to have to explain to anyone as it’s not ‘real life’, but you do feel really deflated.

Pick Me Up Theatre principals in Young Frankenstein: back row, from left, James Willstrop’s Dr Frederick Frankenstein, Helen Spencer’s Frau Blucher and Jennie Wogan-Wells’s Elizabeth Benning; front row, Jack Hooper’s Igor and Sanna Jeppsson’s Inga. Picture: Jennifer Jones

“But then we got this text from Bells [production management assistant and actress Helen Spencer] asking, ‘Can you do these dates?’, as Robert said we could go ahead with a new run.”

Out went Pick Me Up’s planned production of Chicago at the JoRo, replaced by Young Frankenstein. Rehearsals have been a matter of “going again”. “We had the best part of a month off when the last thing I was thinking of doing was listening to the soundtrack!” says James.

“It’s been a case of getting into the scenes again, with the choreography kept largely the same. Andrew has been really great on the detail, which actors love, and that’s been good. He’s trusted our instincts and he’s been very alive to the comedy.”

James, who made his Pick Me Up debut as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound Of Music in December 2022, has enjoyed becoming acquainted with Brooks’s parody songs.

“Going into the audition, I didn’t know a lot about the show, but I love Pick Me  Up and working with Robert, and I loved the opening number, The Brain, which I decided to learn for the audition.

James Willstrop: Men’s doubles squash gold medallist at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, his fifth Games

“A week out from the audition, I hadn’t been sure about the show, but by the time I did the audition, I was thinking, ‘this part is great, I’ve got to do it’!

“The first few times, listening to the soundtrack, it took me a while to get a feel for the songs, but then you realise they’re just great, simple songs. I love the tunes, they have a vaudeville quality, and the humour is always there.”

James, now 40, had first performed in “serious dramas” before branching out into musicals, and last year found him heading to the Cornish coast to play deluded mystery novel writer Charles Considine in Ilkley Playhouse’s production of Noel Coward’s supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit at the Minack Theatre.

“Doing that humorous role, and being tall [James is 6ft 4ins], with all the physicality that goes with that, just seemed to link perfectly to then playing Frederick Frankenstein,” he says.

. “It’s not subtle but it’s a great comedy genre,” says James Willstrop of Mel Brooks’s humour. Picture: Jennifer Jones

In Brooks’s spoof, the grandson of infamous scientist Victor Frankenstein, Dr Frederick Frankenstein, has inherited his family’s castle estate in Transylvania. Aided and hindered by hunchbacked sidekick Igor, Scandinavian lab assistant Inga, stern German Frau Blucher and needy fiancée Elizabeth, he strives to fulfil his grandfather’s legacy by bringing a corpse back to life.

Cue comedy in the bold Brooks style. “It’s lovely to be doing something silly, full of innuendos and jokes that some people might hate but are just daft,” says James. “It’s not subtle but it’s a great comedy genre,” 

James, whose father grew up in York, lives in Harrogate and now divides his time between coaching squash – and “still playing a bit” – at the Pontefract Squash and Leisure Club and performing on stage.

Coming next will be his role as recovering alcoholic Harry in Bingley Little Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company at Bingley Arts Centre, West Yorkshire, from July 1 to 6.

Pick Me Up Theatre in Young Frankenstein, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, January 31 to February 3 2024, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk

James Willstrop’s year: from squash world champion and Commonwealth gold medallist to Captain von Trapp in York

James Willstrop: A champion year in squash topped off with Captain’s role in Pick Me Up Theatre’s The Sound Of Music

WHEN James Willstrop emailed Robert Readman to request audition details for The Sound Of Music, Pick Me Up Theatre’s director did not recognise his name.

Nor indeed was he any wiser when James walked into the York auditions at Theatre@41, Monkgate, but he was struck by his presence, his height, 6ft 4ins, his gait, his demeanour. “I thought, ‘Ah, he might be just right for Captain von Trapp’.”

It was only when Robert returned home to Bubwith and mentioned James’s name to his mother that all became clear. She knew plenty. James Willstrop. That James Willstrop, Squash champion. Highest ranking: number one in January 2012. Lives in Harrogate. She had read his articles in the Yorkshire Post.

From then on, Robert watched his sporting deeds closely, in particular James’s gold medal at the age of 38 in the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games squash doubles at the University of Birmingham squash centre in August.

James, as it happens, had had another string to his racket since October 2015, when he returned to the stage with Adel Players at Adel Memorial Hall, North Leeds, aged 32, in R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, set in the First World War trenches in Northern France.

A year earlier, James had been recuperating from a hip injury, five months off, and in need of a stimulus during rehab. He contacted Adel Players, became involved and found himself taking the part of “a captain suffering with alcoholism whose experiences at the front have destroyed him”, as he told the Guardian in a self-written feature.  

His sadness and anger become positive and he is grateful and lighter again,” says James Willstrop of Captain von Trapp’s transformation. Picture: Helen Spencer

“I seem to have caught a bug. I’ve been lucky to have been given the chance. My dad, in jocular fashion, now refers to squash as my second job,” he wrote.

Roll on to those summer auditions in York, and now he is working with Robert Readman for the first time, making his York stage debut, playing Captain von Trapp for the first time, in Pick Me Up’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final collaboration, The Sound Of Music, from tomorrow until December 30.

“Like many, I did watch the movie quite a bit, and I always enjoyed how Captain von Trapp changed so much through Maria, the children and the music,” says James, outlining what attracted him to the role.

“His sadness and anger become positive and he is grateful and lighter again. That was interesting to watch. Then there are the Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes! The music is just pure melody.

“My dad Malcolm died last year and it was a film we watched and saw on the West End together. I still have a text he sent me where he said he thought the captain would be a great part for me to try when I started acting again a few years ago. I sort of laughed at the time but now here I am and I’m sad he can’t see us do it.

“I’d heard about Pick Me Up Theatre through a friend in Harrogate and so, when the auditions came up, I went for it. So glad I did, what a great group.”

James Willstrop’s Captain von Trapp with Alexandra Mather’s Elsa Schraeder in The Sound Of Music. Picture: Helen Spencer

James recalls first seeing The Sound Of Music “probably in my teens”. “I loved the melodies first, and then I think I really got the relationship between Maria and the children,” he says.

“Watching it as an adult, I then also appreciate the context, and the threat of the Nazi takeover. It must have been an incredible, uncertain time when many people just had no choice but to support Hitler.

“To do what the von Trapp family did was very brave. Nobody knew what was going to happen in 1938. It’s easy to see now, looking back, but it wasn’t then.”

James took his first steps on stage playing the lead in Joseph And the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at school. “I just remember it was a magical experience. I knew the stage was something I loved,” he says. 

“I didn’t act much when the professional squash career took over and then, when I got injured, I started watching more local theatre. I got into it and did lots of plays. “But music and story fused are the thing, and my favourite shows have always been musical, so I started singing much more and as a form of expression it’s the best.” 

Should you be wondering, James had no training in musical theatre. “I’ve had very little drama training, except for the odd course, and lots of books and the odd YouTube vid,” he says.

Marrage ceremony: James Willstrop’s Captain von Trapp and Sanna Jeppsson’s Maria Rainer. Picture: Resi Sledsens

How on earth does he find time to do theatre shows, given his squash commitments? “I have to. I’m slightly addicted to doing shows, so I just have to. There’s no choice,” he says, of his need to squash everything in, having first picked up a racket in his Norfolk birthplace in 1984/85. 

“I’m much older now [he turned 39 on August 15], and so I’m not in my prime as a player – and the tournaments are winding down. With a bit of juggling and a very understanding and helpful director (thanks Robert!), I can make it.”

His squash year has gone, in his own word, “well”. Very well indeed, in fact. “Myself and my partner Declan James became World and Commonwealth champions at doubles and England won the Euro team champs, which I was part of in April. 

“On the world tour, the ranking is going down [number 25, as of October 2022] but I’m enjoying playing as much as ever,” he says.

“It felt pretty incredible to win that Commonwealth Games gold medal. To go through the highs and lows with Declan, it was so intense. And after all the work we’d done, we were so thrilled to achieve a gold medal for England squash. Birmingham was a blast, it really was. The crowds, the excitement around the games.”

What makes James more nervous? Playing the lead in a big musical or stepping on court in a final? “They both have similar sensations and I think that gives them a great connection and similarity. Some of us just want and love that danger, those nerves and the adrenalin,” he answers.

James Willstrop’s Captain von Trapp with the von Trapp children in Pick Me Up Theatre’s The Sound Of Music. Picture: Helen Spencer

“In a way, the nerves can be more extreme in theatre because making mistakes is probably more obvious on stage. On court, if you hit the ball out, you can put it right next rally. 

“But I guess, on the whole, maybe the nerves are slightly more shattering in squash. There’s a loneliness in competition that doesn’t exist in theatre. You’re sharing it with a group and that’s a comfort.”

James does see how comparisons can be made between the disciplines of singing and squash (apart from them both having strings attached, sometimes!). “People don’t get it but I think there are similarities. Learning to breathe for one! The singing techniques have helped my squash, I think,” he says.  “You also need to think about light and shade in the song, and what’s important to the story, just as you do in a squash rally. It mustn’t all be one paced. You have to construct the rally.”

The repetition and practice and the learning of lines for a play is similar to squash practice, suggests James. “The discipline is crucial,” he says. 

“Then the match play element is the same to doing run-throughs of a show. In squash, you need to convert your practice into performance, so you play matches leading up to big events. It’s the same in theatre, where you need to run the show fully to find out where you are.”

Next year, James hopes to perform in Noel Coward’s supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit at Ilkley Playhouse. “We’re taking it to the Minack Theatre [in the West Yorkshire company’s 23rd visit to the Cornish coast from July 24 to 27]. That will be exciting!”

Pick Me Up Theatre in The Sound Of Music, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, December 16 to 30. Performances: 7.30pm, December 16, 17, 19, 21, 23, 27, 28 and 29; 2.30pm, 17, 18, 20, 22, 27, 29 and 30. Box office: https://tickets.41monkgate.co.uk/

Sanna Jeppsson’s Maria with the Von Trapp children in Pick Me Up Theatre’s The Sound Of Music

The Sound Of Music synopsis and back story, courtesy of Pick Me Up Theatre’s programme notes

THE final collaboration between Rodgers & Hammerstein was destined to become the world’s most beloved musical. Featuring a trove of cherished songs, including Climb Ev’ry Mountain, My Favourite Things, Do Re Mi, Sixteen Going On Seventeen and the title number, The Sound Of Music won the hearts of audiences worldwide, earning five Tony Awards and five Oscars.

The inspirational story, based on the memoir of Maria Augusta Trapp, follows an ebullient Salzburg nun who serves as governess to the seven children of the imperious Captain von Trapp, bringing music and joy to the household. But as the forces of Nazism take hold of Austria, Maria and the entire von Trapp family must make a moral decision.

PIck Me Up Theatre’s full cast list for The Sound Of Music

Sanna Jeppsson: Playing Maria

Maria – Sanna Jeppsson

Captain von Trapp – James Willstrop

Max Detweiler- Andrew Isherwood

Elsa Shraeder – Alexandra Mather

Mother Abbess – Helen Spencer

Sister Margaretta – Jennie Wogan-Wells

Sister Sophia – Cat Foster

Sister Berthe – Joy Warner

Franz – Mark Simmonds

Frau Schmidt – Jane Woolgar

Herr Zeller – Craig Kirby

Baron Elberfeld – Jonny Holbek

Admiral Von Schreiber – Jonny Holbek

Rolph – Sam Steel/Jack Hambleton

Liesl – Emily Halstead/Daisy Winbolt-Robertson

Friedrich – Elliot Hammond

Ursula – Charlotte Siemianowicz 

Nuns – Kika Maya & Alexis Jagger

Team Vienna

Louisa – Libby Greenhill

Brigitta – Violet-Evie Wilson

Kurt – Matthew Warry

Marta – Iris Wragg

Gretyl – Vienna Wilson 

Team Graz

Louisa – Katelyn Banks 

Brigitta – Scarlett Waugh

Kurt – Fin Walker 

Marta – Holly Hodcroft

Gretyl – Nancy Walker

Team Linz

Louisa – Lana Harris 

Brigitta – Poppy Kay 

Kurt – Freddie Heath

Marta – Freya Disney

Gretyl – Ida-May Delaney

Helen Spencer: Playing Mother Abbess