Meet the Bolshee trio, the York company behind female-driven creative projects

Driving forces: Bolshee’s Lizzy Whynes, left, at the wheel, Megan Bailey, back seat, and Paula Clark, co-driver

BOLSHEE, the York company for creative projects set up by theatre practitioners Paula Clark, Megan Bailey and Lizzy Whynes, will be performing at Green Shoots tonight and tomorrow at York Theatre Royal.

One of 20 new commissions from York professional artists, Boss B***h will “explore the infamous statement made by influencer Molly-Mae Hague and ‘celebrity nightmare’ Kim Kardashian that we all have the same 24 hours in a day as Beyonce”.

“Let’s challenge the toxic boss bitch narrative,” proclaim the Bolshee trio, who will deliver five minutes of female voices, beats and moves.

“We set up Bolshee creative projects in lockdown after I decided to leave my job at York Theatre Royal,” says Paula, who is now a freelance creative director and artist and runs Paula Clark Co-Creative Projects.  

“There were loads of reasons why I left, but it’s important to say I’m still good friends with YTR! It’s where Megan, Lizzy and I all met and we still have a lot of love for it.

“But it was time for me to move on. Over that decade, I’d been a youth theatre practitioner, director (when cover for maternity leave), creative skills promoter, overseeing the TakeOver festival, and outreach director.

“There’s always a glass ceiling,” says Paula Clark after 20 years of working in theatre

“I found I enjoyed my job in the pandemic because I could do more than I would normally do, but there’s always a glass ceiling, and that’s not unique to York Theatre Royal. It’s across arts buildings.”

Coincidentally, Megan had left her job and so had Lizzy. “It wasn’t connected, but there were lots of similarities about our negative experiences of the arts industry,” says Paula.

“We’ve all experienced profound sexism in the arts industry and I’ve struggled, being from a working-class background, to make headway, be heard and create change in the way I wanted.

“It feels like there’s a holding on to power by people who are worried about a disruption of power, a sharing of power across the industry and all the talk of wider representation. People are frightened, so they’re holding on to the old way. It’s not a level playing field.”

Paula recalls “starting to feel like a tick box”. “I was tired of being called ‘authentic’ by patronising old men on boards. I wanted to be in charge of my own creative direction, and I want to do more for social justice,” she says.

Cue the arrival of Bolshee. “I have over 20 years’ experience in theatre and community arts and my dream is that Bolshee creates projects that promote social justice, lift people up and include everyone in a creative industry environment that still doesn’t value women enough,” says Paula.

“We have something to offer that isn’t quite like anyone else in York because we are not afraid to be Bolshie,” says Paula Clark, left, of her Bolshee partnership with Megan Bailey, centre, and Lizzy Whynes. Picture: Matthew Jopling

“It’s important that as a company we particularly support and encourage working-class women and girls. That’s why I’ve teamed up with Megan and Lizzy, both extremely talented young women. We feel like we have something to offer that isn’t quite like anyone else in York because we are not afraid to be Bolshie!”

The name Bolshee is a reclaiming of that word, ‘bolshie’ (definition: deliberately combative or uncooperative). “Assertive women have always been told they are Bolshie. We want to cast off the negative connotations. We’re ready and proud to be Bolshee women!” says Paula.

Megan is delighted that Bolshee is up and running. “It’s been a long while in the pipeline,” she says. “In those two years during lockdown, we’d sit on Zoom thinking about what we could do to be our own bosses on projects.

“There’s an elite that doesn’t want to let younger, bolshie women challenge what they’ve been doing, sitting in their leadership roles for a long time, but we want to find our space.”

Lizzy points out how the working environment in the arts world has changed. “Now you’re only employed for six months, a year at most,” she says. “All the jobs I went for were for three months; all short-term contracts.”

Paula rejoins: “People are holding on to the idea of arts buildings, but I don’t want to work in that structure. There’s all sorts of forms that can be brought together to involve people in culture. What’s brought the three of us together is that we’re more than just theatre makers.”

“We want to find our space,” says Megan Bailey

Megan, for example, has a background in set design from her theatre degree days at the University of York and has worked on websites too. “I also did an MA at Leeds University in culture, creativity and entrepreneurship because you need to have business acumen to run theatre and arts organisations.

“I definitely feel that can be lacking, particularly in human resources structures, where these things can get forgotten but it’s important to make your workforce happy, and important to learn how to make the arts sustainable financially.

“Because I worked for so long in buildings, doing funding applications and strategies, I’m very aware of what’s needed.”

Paula, 40, feels lucky to be working in tandem with Lizzy, 29, and Megan, 25. “The landscape has changed, and younger people have their finger on the pulse, understanding how things work,” she says. “It’s harder for older people in theatre to understand that, but we have the right mixture: Lizzy and Megan with their finger on the pulse and me with 20 years of experience.

“We don’t need a building, but we have a good understanding of theatre in York and we know that partnerships are a good way to work.”

Lizzy adds: “We want to be collaborative, rather than competitive, bringing some fun, bringing some culture, through the art we make.” Just as she did when she was artistic director of York Theatre Royal’s TakeOver Festival at the National Railway Museum in October 2015, picking up two awards to boot.

“We want to be collaborative, rather than competitive, bringing some fun, bringing some culture, through the art we make,” says Bolshee’s Lizzy Whynes, left

Bolshee may have taken root when all three left their jobs at the time, “but I think it’s important to say, we all love the jobs we’re now doing,” says Paula. “I’ve worked on the York St John University Prison Partnership Project and also work with Stockton ARC as a freelance, as well as with the Listening Project for Pilot Theatre.”

Theatre maker, dance artist, director, movement director and facilitator Lizzy works for CAST’s youth theatre in Doncaster and as a freelance for York Dance Space and Phoenix Dance Theatre’s youth academy in Leeds.

Megan is a creative producer at Kaizen Arts Agency in York, working on York Design Week, the Drawsome Festival and the ArtBank at Spark:York. At the time of this interview, she had just been offered the job of community and participatory knowledge exchange co-ordinator at Leeds Arts University.

“One of the reasons why we think this makes us a little different is that we celebrate all the work we do in different areas,” says Paula. “That keeps us relevant and keeps us connected with different organisations, but Bolshee is what connects us all.”

Megan adds: “Bolshee empowers us in what we want to do and what we want to make, and I’m very much a believer that anyone can be an artist, from a child to someone who has retired and wants a new hobby. We want people to find their voices.

“It’s about wanting to celebrate who we are, what we do, in the city we love, with all the people we get to work with.”

“Because we have a diverse skill set, we can be varied in what we do,” says Lizzy Whynes

A feeling of wellbeing should be encouraged too, says Megan: “We believe in being kind to ourselves. That’s important at a time when we need to respect ourselves, when we all do jobs where contracts are short.”

Paula adds: “Our thing about championing women and girls is that it’s our time. I’m 40, and after all that grafting, I want to have some of the joy with people I like, sharing our imaginations.

“I was a young mum at 19, experienced childhood hardships on more than one occasion, things that make this artistic path a difficult one to choose, and because of that, I will work the hardest, stay the longest, always trying to prove to myself that if I work the hardest, I could be the next manager, working in that hierarchy…

“…but now I believe success is being comfortable with yourself, owning who you are and helping other people in similar circumstances see their opportunities come to fruition.”

Bolshee have already held a free workshop at Young Thugs Studios at the Drawsome Festival in York in May and have funding applications in place with universities, rather than Arts Council England, for future projects.

“Our work will be diverse,” says Lizzy. “It could be a Bolshee open-mic night; a participatory workshop in a school hall or a neighbourhood pop-up installation. You might find us working in a school with at-risk girls. Because we have a diverse skill set, we can be varied in what we do.”

Tuned in: Bolshee trio Paula Clark, left, Lizzy Whynes and Megan Bailey at Dance Dance Dance, A Damn Big Dance Party at At The Mill, Stillington Mill, near York

Paula adds: “We want everyone to feel they belong because everyone is invited. It’s not about stepping into a cultural place; it’s about joining in.”

Megan concurs: “It’s about that connection with people; making work in that space, not putting work on in conventional arts spaces, which won’t be our ambition.”

Paula rejoins: “We want people to feel safe. We want to talk about what matters to women; urgent things that need addressing.”

Lizzy loves taking projects out of theatres, whether in her TakeOver days at the National Railway Museum, or doing community work with young people in informal settings for Harrogate Theatre, or now for a CAST youth theatre production at Danum Gallery, Library and Museum and a York Dance Space project at York Art Gallery. “I have loads of experience of site-specific work and I’m all about getting people together to do amazing things,” she says.

Exit “Bolshie” women; here comes Bolshee. “Being called ‘bolshie’ implies women don’t have a right to be assertive,” says Megan. “But it’s our prerogative to be how we want to be, and we want to be Bolshee,” says Paula.

Bolshee perform Boss B***h at Green Shoots, York Theatre, Royal, tonight and tomorrow, 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

The logo for York creative projects trio Bolshee

REVIEW: Charles Hutchinson’s verdict on Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It ***

Joe Morrow’s drag queen Touchstone in Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It

Northern Broadsides in As You Like It, York Theatre Royal, 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow, and on tour. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

COVID had kept Northern Broadsides away from York since 2019, rudely curtailing Quality Street’s travels before the Theatre Royal run in 2020.

York’s wait to see a Laurie Sansom production following his appointment as artistic director in 2019 finally ended on Wednesday, with the sight of Sansom himself on stage.

Always a nervous moment: a director standing on the boards. Would he be delivering last-minute bad news? Thankfully not, instead expressing his delight at Broadsides being back in York, before announcing a couple of Covid-enforced substitutions after last week’s positive tests scuppered the Stephen Joseph Theatre run.

Jo Patmore would be stepping up from Amiens and William duties to stand in for Isobel Coward as devoted cousin Celia. Robin Simpson, his Ugly Sisters double act with Paul Hawkyard still fresh in the mind from the Theatre Royal’s Cinderella pantomime, would play the melancholic Jacques, a still grave but more bookish figure with safety-net book in hand after filling in at short notice for Adam Kashmiry.

Ironically, Simpson almost missed out on his week under the lights, Sansom revealing that he had damaged his knee ahead of the first night and would take to the stage with a pronounced limp and a stick. Limp, yes, stick, no, as it turned out; the book being his more important crutch.

As You Like It was dismissed as a mere crowd-pleaser by George Bernard Shaw, a gibe that suggests it is an inferior work, made for laughs rather than weightier impact. In truth, aside from Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy, it has always been nothing more than an As You Only Quite Like It play, one that demands graft as much as craft from its cast.

What Laurie Sansom has done, however, is to make it a play for today, newly resonating with our pandemic-shadowed times in its celebration of (our return to) the joys of live performance; the right to work out who you are and who you want to be, and the heightened appreciation of the transformative power of the natural world. In a nutshell, what better time to go wild in the country in a tale of mistaken identities and changing attitudes.

From Sansom’s impromptu stage announcement onwards, his production is marked by informality, with a flexibility to the delivery of Shakespeare’s text to rival the gender fluidity.

Although the play’s initial tone is determined by the rigidity of Duke Frederick’s macho court, the mood is set by Joe Morrow’s drag-queen Touchstone, given freedom to roam, to improvise, as he would in his other lives as cabaret turn Joe Morose and Café de Paris master of ceremonies.

EM Williams’s Rosalind climbs a hatstand in Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It

Sansom modernises the wrestling clash, bringing it into the WWF age with American- accented entries, Bailey Brook’s Charles becoming Chainsaw Charles and Shaban Dar’s Orlando adding ‘Dynamite’ to his moniker.

Morrow’s Broadsides debut is an utter joy, born for the centre stage, quick on the quips and asides, his voice a delicious tease throughout, playing the wise fool.

Elsewhere, this production revolves around an EM and an E.M.: namely non-binary actor EM Williams’s Rosalind, banished from the court, and duly taking the guise of a boy once in the Forest of Arden, and E.M. Parry, a designer who specialises in work that “centres Queer bodies and narratives”.

Parry delivers fabulous costumes, with a flourish reminiscent of Lez Brotherston, while the forest takes the form of hatstands, both a fashion statement and a bravura way to represent the wooded natural world and our roles as mere players going through the costume changes of life.

Williams’s Rosalind is teased in Morrow’s banter for being so serious, and indeed Williams’s performance is intense, earnest, yet lithely energetic and liberated too, before turning into Puck for the epilogue.

Reuben Johnson’s Oliver, Dar’s Orlando, Ali Gadema’s Duke Frederick and Patmore’s Celia keep the story moving; Simpson’s Jacques steps in with his glum commentary, breaking down the fourth wall once to acknowledge coming in too soon for his next line.

Morrow makes light of being the conductor for so much of the comedy, albeit aided by Brook’s Silvius and Gemma Dobson’s Phoebe. An out-of-the-blue cameo by three cast members as misbehaving sheep draws the biggest laughter, nudging towards pantomime in a scene orchestrated by Morrow seemingly on the hoof.

Tellingly, it is not the only moment where Morrow’s own wit is funnier to modern ears than Shakespeare’s script, although he is equally adept at spinning the Bard’s words like plates.

Robert Bentall’s music is industrial and harsh for the court, beautifully pastoral for the forest, adding to the contrast. Ultimately, Sansom’s As You Like It is more successful as a visual delight and as a piece of political theatre in tune with cultural and social issues in its diverse casting and sensibilities than as a comedy, Morrow aside. That makes it a better play for today. Job done.

Further Yorkshire performances will follow at Leeds Playhouse, May 17 to 21; The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, June 9 to 18; CAST, Doncaster, June 21 to 25, and Harrogate Theatre, June 28 to July 2. Box office: Leeds, 0113 213 7700 or leedsplayhouse.org.uk; Halifax, 01422 849 227 or theviaducttheatre.co.uk; Doncaster, 01302 303959 or castindoncaster.com; Harrogate, 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk.

Coronation Street star Ashley Hope Allan to play Shirley Valentine for Esk Valley Theatre

Exit-the-kitchen-sink drama: Ashley Hope Allan as Shirley Valentine in Esk Valley Theatre’s Shirley Valentine. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

ESK Valley Theatre complete a hattrick of Willy Russell plays with Shirley Valentine at the Robinson Institute, Glaisdale, near Whitby, from Thursday to August 28.

In Russell’s one-woman show, Coronation Street star Ashley Hope Allan plays middle-aged, bored Liverpool housewife Shirley in a story of self-discovery as she takes off to Greece with a friend, who promptly abandons her for a holiday romance. Left alone, Shirley meets charming taverna owner Costas.

After a gap year brought on by the Covid lockdown, Esk Valley Theatre, a professional theatre company rooted in the North York Moors National Park, return with Russell’s 1986 play, the winner of two Olivier Awards and a Tony before its conversion into Lewis Gilbert’s 1989 film starring Pauline Collins and Tom Conti.

Ashley Hope Allan in rehearsals for Esk Valley Theatre’s August production of Shirley Valentine. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Director Mark Stratton says: “Shirley Valentine is the third Willy Russell play we’ve produced after Educating Rita, with Amy Spencer as Rita and Ian Crowe as Frank in August 2016, and One For The Road, with Laura Bonnah, David Smith, Andrew Cryer and Joanne Heywood, in our tenth anniversary show in August 2014.

“It’s always a joy to direct his work. He has an economy of style and precision in his writing that always hits home and his ability to capture the wit and humour of Liverpudlians is second to none.”

Actor Ashley Hope Allan played the television medium Crystal Webber in Coronation Street, having appeared earlier in Emmerdale, The Crown and Nuzzle And Scratch.

Esk Valley Theatre’s Ian Crowe as Frank and Amy Spencer as Rita in Willy Russell’s Educating Rita in 2016. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Among her stage credits are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and As You Like It for the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival and Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

Director Stratton is joined in the production team by producer Sheila Carter, designer and lighting designer Graham Kirk and costume designer Christine Wall.

Mark, who set up Esk Valley Theatre with Sheila in 2005, has had a varied career in theatres across Britain, as well as appearing in numerous television shows and films, most notably with Anthony Hopkins in Across The Lake, as a guest detective opposite Felicity Kendall and Pam Ferris in Rosemary & Thyme and as an American professor opposite Vidya Balan in the Bollywood movie Shakuntala Devi, released in July 2020. 

The Esk Valley Theatre cast and production team for Willy Russell’s One For The Road in 2014

Mark has performed in more than 20 pantomimes and will add Widow Twankey in Aladdin at Cast, Doncaster, to that list this winter.

Sheila has choreographed for many of Britain’s leading theatre companies, enjoying a long association with Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, where she has worked on many of his premieres.

She choreographed By Jeeves, the Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that ran in London, played at several theatres in the United States and ended up on Broadway.

Valentine’s day: Ashley Hope Allen in an early scene in Esk Valley Theatre’s production of Shirley Valentine, in rehearsal for the Robinson Institute run in Glaisdale. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

She directed and choreographed Where Is Peter Rabbit? in its two London runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and has choreographed for film and TV too, including Franco Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre in 1996.

Esk Valley Theatre’s Shirley Valentine can be seen at 7.30pm, Mondays to Saturdays, from August 5 to 28, complemented by 2.30pm matinees on August 7, 12, 14, 17, 19, 24, and 26. A post-show talkback will be held on August 18. 

Tickets cost £16, concessions £15, on 01947 897587 or at eskvalleytheatre.co.uk.

Kate Rusby to stream Hand Me Down lockdown covers concert tonight at 7.30pm

Kate Rusby: Hand Me Down concert will be streamed from Cast, Doncaster, tonight

FOR the first time, tonight Barnsley folk singer Kate Rusby will perform her lockdown covers’ album, Hand Me Down, in full on stage in a worldwide stream at 7.30pm BST.

Released on her Pure Records label on August 14 last summer after recording sessions with husband musician Damien O’Kane, the collection of her favourite songs brought Kate, 47, her highest-charting album to date.

Bar the odd part recorded remotely by a band member, Hand Me Down was made by Kate and Damien when dividing days between home studio and home schooling their daughters.

Tonight will be the first chance to hear the likes of Manic Monday, Friday I’m In Love, Shake It Off and Three Little Birds performed live by Kate and her regular band in a two-hour concert including an interval.

Kate Rusby with daughters Daisy and Phoebe making the Singy Songy Sessions home video recording of Manic Monday during Lockdown 1

Hand Me Down debuted at number 12 in the Official Album Charts – number three in the CD album chart and number four in the independent release chart – and a vinyl version followed on January 15.

Tickets are available at live.katerusby.com, from where Kate’s globally streamed concert will be available on demand until May 22, a date that would have been the last day of her cancelled spring tour.

As with her streamed Christmas concert, Kate Rusby’s Happy Holly Day on December 12 last year, the location for tonight’s recording will be Cast in Doncaster.

To watch a trailer, go to: youtube.com/watch?v=7v7Ag1y­_OcM

The covers’ cover: Kate Rusby’s album artwork for Hand Me Down

Hand Me Down’s track listing:

  1. Manic Monday (written by Prince; a hit for The Bangles in 1986)
  2. Everglow (Coldplay)
  3. Days (The Kinks, covered by Kirsty MacColl, Elvis Costello)
  4. If I Had A Boat (Lyle Lovett)
  5. Maybe Tomorrow (from The Littlest Hobo, a Canadian TV series, performed by Terry Bush)
  6. The Show (theme song for TV series Connie, written by Willy Russell, performed by Rebecca Storm)
  7. Shake It Off (Taylor Swift)
  8. True Colours (written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly; a hit for Cyndi Lauper in 1986 )
  9. Carolina On My Mind (James Taylor)
  10. Love Of The Common People (written by written by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkinsa hit for Paul Young in 1983)
  11. Friday I’m In Love (The Cure) 
  12. Three Little Birds (Bob Marley) 

Kate Rusby releases vinyl version of lockdown covers album Hand Me Down

The vinyl front ‘ere: Kate Rusby shows off the cover and orange discs for Hand Me Down

BARNSLEY folk nightingale Kate Rusby is to release her 2020 lockdown covers album, Hand Me Down, on vinyl tomorrow (22/1/2021) on her Pure Records label.

“Ooooooh it looks so beautiful,” says Kate on Instagram. “Gatefold, 180g double translucent orange discs. Very pretty! Sooo excited.”

Available in a limited edition at https://purerecords.net/collections/kate-rusby-vinyls, Hand Me Down had its roots in Kate’s rendition of Oasis’s Don’t Go Away on Jo Whiley’s BBC Radio 2 show.

That wistful ballad later featured on her 2019 studio album, Philosophers, Poets And Kings, and became a concert favourite, whereupon a return visit to Whiley’s studio elicited a mournful reading of The Cure’s Friday I’m In Love, now one of the stand-outs on Hand Me Down.

Kate and her guitar and banjo-playing producer-husband, Damien O’Kane, set about completing an album of covers in Lockdown 1, recorded in their Penistone home studio. “As a folk singer, it’s what I do: reinterpret existing songs,” says Rusby. “The only difference is that usually the songs are much older.”

Some were chosen from childhood or teenage memories (The Kinks’ Days, but from Kirsty MacColl’s sublime version; Cyndi Lauper’s True Colours), two much-covered songs you might have predicted, rather more than Maybe Tomorrow (The Littlest Hobo theme song) or The Show, from family friend Willy Russell’s musical Connie.

The artwork for Kate Rusby’s live Christmas album, Happy Holly Day

Covering a song is as much about what you uncover as you cover, prime examples here being Coldplay’s Everglow, Lyle Lovett’s If I Had A Boat and in particular “role model to her children” Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off, newly revelling in O’Kane’s swing-time banjo.

Nothing evokes lockdown more than the opening Manic Monday, Prince’s song for Kate’s teen favourites The Bangles, slowed and turned to acoustic melancholia for not-so-manic days of longing at home, away from the city buzz. Add South Yorkshire vowels, and who can resist.

The album closes with a ray of perennial summer sunshine, Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, as Hand Me Down becomes balm for fretful, fearful pandemic days. “I’ve always had overwhelming urges to cheer people up at times of sadness,” says Kate. “I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse, but it’s always been part of my genetic make-up.”

A second winter release from Pure Records is Happy Holly Day, a live CD recording of Kate’s online Christmas concert of South Yorkshire pub carols and winter songs, streamed from Cast, Doncaster, on December 12.

That night, Kate’s folk band assembled for the first time since the March lockdown, joined by her “Brass Boys”, spread across a socially distanced stage shared with the Ruby, the fairy-lit reindeer.

As always with Kate Rusby At Christmas concerts, the two sets were followed by an encore in fancy dress, Kate in a halo and angel wings, recovered from her attic from the 2017 album cover photo-shoot for Angels And Men, as she sang Sweet Bells and Yorkshire Merry Christmas alongside Damien in Virgin Mary mode.

Tier 3 status knocks out Red Ladder’s tour of My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored

Red Ladder Theatre Company’s artwork for My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored

GONNA tier your playhouse down. Again.

West and South Yorkshire’s impending impediment of Tier 3 status from next Wednesday has put paid to Red Ladder Theatre Company’s December tour.

The Government’s latest Covid-19 restrictions have enforced the postponement – “with great sadness” – of performances of Nana-Kofi Kufuor’s debut play My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored at CAST in Doncaster, Cluntergate Centre in Horbury and The Holbeck social club in Leeds.

Already, earlier tour dates had been postponed at Leeds Playhouse, The Dukes, Lancaster, Grove Hall, South Kirkby, and Oldham Coliseum, having fallen foul of the second national lockdown stretch in November.

Red Ladder artistic director Rod Dixon says: “While this is the news that none of us wanted, we are incredibly proud of our cast and creative team, company and freelance staff who have worked incredibly hard to create this new play. 

Rehearsing in Covid times: Red Ladder actors Misha Duncan-Barry and Jelani D’Aguilar

“Whether adapting to making this work in a Covid-secure rehearsal room or working remotely, everyone has put an incredible amount of time, passion, dedication and hard work into bringing Nana Kofi-Kufuor’s powerful debut play to life.”

Reflecting on the curse of Covid-19 2020 but looking ahead too, Dixon adds: “More than anything, we wish that circumstances were different and that we were welcoming our audiences on tour of our new production.

“We press on with hope and optimism to bring our show to the stage in 2021 – and Red Ladder stands in solidarity with all our fellow theatre-makers in these difficult times.”

Directed by Leeds actor, director, filmmaker, dramaturg, lecturer and teacher Dermot Daly, My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored would have played CAST, Doncaster, on December 4; Cluntergate Centre, Horbury (Red Ladder Local), December 6, and The Holbeck, Leeds, December 11 with a cast of Jelani D’Aguilar and Misha Duncan-Barry.

The first play by 29-year-old Ghanaian-English writer Nana-Kofi Kufuor is an urgent interrogation of black identity, wherein a question is posed: if you see something you do not agree with, do you intervene?

The cast and creative crew for Red Ladder’s My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored, left to right: artistic director Rod Dixon;, Jelani D’Aguilar (Reece, front row), director Dermot Daly (back row); Misha Duncan-Barry (Gillian) and writer Nana-Kofi Kufuor. Picture: Anthony Robling

What happens if you are a teacher, and the issue is with your student? What happens if you are outside of work and you see them being stopped and searched and manhandled by the police? Do you run over and stop the act, or do you watch, waiting to find out all the facts?

This is the case for Gillian Akwasi, a black twenty-something teacher who witnesses her student, Reece Ofori, 15, being accosted by the police outside M&S but does not question or intervene in the disturbing scene that plays out. The next day, Reece confronts her, locking them both in her classroom at the end of the school day.

For his writing, Kufuor draws influence from his experiences when growing up in Stockport with Ghanaian parents and then working in education with young people from a range of backgrounds.

Revealing the real-life situation that inspired his hard-hitting drama, Kufuor explains: “Working at a Pupil Referral Unit, I once had a student try to take a knife to stab another student. Once I’d calmed him down, we sat in the canteen and he explained to me he wasn’t going to go quietly.

“The police were outside and they took him. I saw him a few weeks later, and he asked why I didn’t help him? That rush of guilt changed to anger and quickly to sympathy as he saw me as his protector.

Red Ladder cast members Misha-Duncan Barry and Jelani D’Aguilar in rehearsal. Picture: Anthony Robling

“But I knew I couldn’t do anything. The crux of this play is how two people react to the same situation: they go on a journey; a journey a lot of people of colour go on – a realisation that where you are now isn’t necessarily where you come from.”   

My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored was developed as part of a year-long writing commission for Box Of Tricks and staged as a rehearsed reading at HOME, Manchester, in January 2020, where it was seen by Red Ladder’s Rod Dixon.

For five decades, Red Ladder has produced new writing by voices whose work often is unheard on our stages, and the Leeds touring theatre company has been thrilled to develop Kufuor’s play for its first tour.

Ahead of the now-postponed tour, Dixon said: “We’re very excited to be working with Nana-Kofi Kufuor. This important play addresses key issues about race and identity at a time when society needs to heal division and strife.

“We’ve brought together a fantastic creative team, including director Dermot Daly, and look forward to taking this new work on tour and welcoming back audiences in theatres and community venues in a safe way.”

Roll on that day.

Playwright Nana-Kofi Kufuor. Picture: Emma Bailey

Who is Nana-Kofi Kufuor?

NANA-KOFI Kufuor – or Kofi Kufuor, as he goes by to friends and family – is a 29-year-old Ghanaian-English writer from Stockport, North West England.

He attended the University of Cumbria, attaining a BA Hons in film and television production in 2014 and a master’s degree in screenwriting in film, television and radio in 2018.

Kofi won a BBC 1xtra monologue prize in 2017 and was shortlisted for the Theatre Uncut political playwriting prize in 2019.

He was attached to Box Of Tricks’ year-long writers’ commission, PlayBox Takeover, in 2019 that culminated in a reading of his play My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored at HOME, Manchester in January 2020.

Kofi is now working on a television project and focusing on writing two other plays before the year is out. Over this summer, he worked with Northern Broadsides on a lockdown project that was filmed and shown on the Halifax company’s as part of a collection of short plays. Kofi is a supported artist at Oldham Coliseum.

A Pilgrim’s Tale leads Seth Lakeman to Doncaster to mark Mayflower’s 400th anniversary

Seth Lakeman: telling A Pilgrim’s Tale to mark the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower setting sail

DEVON folk musician Seth Lakeman heralds Friday’s release of his album A Pilgrim’s Tale with a tour that opens at Cast, Doncaster, South Yorkshire, tomorrow night (February 5).

This year marks 400 years since The Mayflower ship departed these shores for the Americas.

Lakeman was raised and still lives on Dartmoor, within sight of the sea at Plymouth, from where the Puritans sailed on The Mayflower in 1620.

His album tells the epic and soulful tale of the Pilgrim Fathers, and consequently, the ten tour dates are routed in a trail of towns and cities that, for various reasons, hold significance to the Mayflower journey.

Locations such as Immingham – where Separatists made a dangerous escape from England to Holland in their search for religious freedom – and Dartmouth, where the ship was anchored for repairs. Doncaster, Harwich, London and, of course, Plymouth feature too.

“If you’d never heard anything about The Mayflower and the birth of the modern USA, these words and music could be your primer,” says Seth, whose album is narrated by actor Paul McGann and features guest performers Cara Dillon, Benji Kirkpatrick, Ben Nicholls and Seth’s father, Geoff Lakeman.

The Mayflower carried British and Dutch passengers with hopes of fresh settlement, who were met by the Wampanoag first nation tribe on arrival. Bottling the spirit of the 17th century pilgrimage, Lakeman has written and performed a selection songs that shape a fictional narrative of the journey, informed by research from text, such as the journals of William Bradford; conversations with modern-day ancestors of the Wampanoag people at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts, and information sourced at the national heritage sites that still exist in the UK. 

The artwork for Seth Lakeman’s album A Pilgrim’s Tale

Chronicling the voyage and early settlement in these songs, Lakeman has created a drama that celebrates the history but does not lose sight of the journey’s tribulations. It stays sensitive to important facets of the story; the religious liberation that passengers were trying to achieve, the nefarious deeds enacted on the Wampanoag, and the deaths that followed on both sides.

Lakeman feels linked intrinsically to the story. “I didn’t have far to go for inspiration,” he says. “The Mayflower Steps, on Plymouth’s cobbled Barbican streets, are 20 minutes away from me.

“I fished from this quay as a boy, sang songs on tall ships tied up here and played music in just about every old sailors’ pub in this Elizabethan quarter.” 

The stories in the songs are told from a variety of perspectives, from personal accounts, such as the opening number, Watch Out, detailing deadly premonitions of a Wampanoag girl, to tales of the collective travellers in songs such as Pilgrim Brother and Sailing Time, each marching at a hopeful cadence, reflecting their early optimism.

In an immersive tale of struggle, songs bring to life anew 17th century characters: a crewman wrestling to control the ship; a pilgrim celebrating in rapturous faith, or the solemn Wampanoag tribesmen forlornly surrendering to the new way of life thrust on them. 

Inspiration for the project came when Lakeman was on tour in Robert Plant’s band and paid a visit to the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts to talk to the Wampanoag that still reside in the area.

It did not take long for the songs to form on his return to England. “After I travelled home from the ‘New World’ to Plymouth, everything happened in a quite mystical way. The songs came together so speedily and with exactly the vibe I wanted, and we recorded in a very short time in my Crossways Studio at home on Dartmoor,” says Seth, who at present is hosting the BBC Radio 2 series Seth Lakeman’s Folk Map Of The British Isles on Saturday nights..

To supplement the recordings, a between-song narration was written by the associate director of Plymouth’s Theatre Royal, Nick Stimson, and read by Paul McGann, who Lakeman was elated to have on board.

“As we finished the album, another quite magical thing happened, when Paul agreed to voice the narration between the tracks on the record. He pitched it perfectly,” he says.

Released on BMG, the album track listing is: Watch Out; Pilgrim Brother; Westward Bound; A Pilgrim’s Warning; Sailing Time; The Great Iron Screw; Dear Isles Of England; Saints And Strangers; Foreign Man; Bury Nights; The Digging Song and Mayflower Waltz.

Tickets for Lakeman’s 7.30pm concert in Cast’s Main Space tomorrow (February 5) are on sale at castindoncaster.com or on 01302 303959.