More Things To Do in York and beyond when it ‘definitely won’t be boring’! Here’s Hutch’s List No. 9 for 2024, from The Press

Wise Children “open the bloody door” to Emma Rice’s beguiling but disturbing Blue Beard at York Theatre Royal from Tuesday. Picture: Steve Tanner

PANTO dame tales and a comedian’s first-time memories, a classic thriller and a feminist fairytale, a community choir festival and a prog-rock legend make Charles Hutchinson’s list of upcoming cultural highlights.

Play of the week: Wise Children in Emma Rice’s Blue Beard, York Theatre Royal, February 27 to March 9, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees

BLUE Beard meets his match when his young bride discovers his dark and murderous secret. She summons all her rage, all her smarts and all her sisters to bring the curtain down on his tyrannous reign as writer-director Emma Rice brings her own brand of theatrical wonder to this beguiling, disturbing tale.

Applying Rice’s signature sleight of hand, Blue Beard explores curiosity and consent, violence and vengeance, all through an intoxicating lens of music, wit and tender truth. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Rick Wakeman: Last return of the Caped Crusader at York Barbican

Catch him while you can: Rick Wakeman, Return Of The Caped Crusader, York Barbican, tonight (24/02/2024), 7.30pm

PROG-ROCK icon and Yes keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman, 76, is to call time on his one-man shows to concentrate on composing, recording and collaborating, but not before playing York. “I always planned to stop touring by my 77th birthday,” he says. “For those of you who wish to send me a card, it’s 18th May!”

Saturday’s show opens with Wakeman’s new arrangements of Yes material for band and vocalists, followed after the interval by his epic work Journey To The Centre Of The Earth. Box office for returns only: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Robin Simpson on dame duty in York Theatre Royal’s All New Adventures Of Peter Pan

Pantomime revelations of the week: Robin Simpson: There Ain’t Nothing Like A Dame, Rise, Bluebird Bakery, Acomb Road, Acomb, York, tomorrow, 6.30pm

ALREADY confirmed for his return for Aladdin from December 3 to January 5 2025, York Theatre Royal’s resident dame, Robin Simpson, takes a peak behind the wigs into the glitz and glamour of life as a pantomime dame.

Simpson provides an insight into the origins of the character, backstage antics and classic cheeky panto humour as he reveals “what it’s really like to frock up and tread the boards”. Expect cheesy gags, naughty nonsense and even a silly sing-song.

“I’ve run this event before and it was mostly for slightly older children and adults. Ages 7/8 and above really,” says Robin. “The show includes stories, song-sheet sing-alongs and silly poems. It’s not at all serious!

“It’s fun to approach storytelling from the perspective of the dame. It’s a little more anarchic. I also start with a brief history of the pantomime, from Roman times to the modern day.

“I do this while getting dressed and made up into the dame with the idea that, by the time I’m talking about Dan Leno and the Victorian dame, I’m completely changed. There’s room for questions and chat too about being in a panto and what happens on stage and backstage. Like I say, it’s for KS2 and adults really.”

Earlier in the day, at 4.30pm, in an interactive one-hour event for children aged three to six, Robin and Susanna Meese will be spinning the Storywheel to reveal much-loved nursery tales. “It’s a wheel of fortune-style story generator where random fairytales are told and there’s lots of dressing-up, musical instruments, songs, props, puppets and play,” says Robin.

Afterwards, children can delve into story bags full of goodies and stay and play with the hosts, who will have everything needed for the children to tell the tales, including puppets, props, and costumes. Box office: bluebirdbakery.co.uk/rise

Maura Jackson: Public speaker, charity boss and now comedian, playing Theatre@41 tomorrow

Storyteller of the week: Maura Jackson: More O’ Me, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, tomorrow, 7.30pm

AT 53 Maura Jackson cannot decide if she is a keynote speaker, charity CEO or comedian. Thanks to “the recklessness of menopause”, she is all three.

After living a life and a half and taking up stand-up in 2022 on a whim, storyteller Jackson takes tomorrow’s audience on a humorous rollercoaster of life-defining moments, good or bad. Despite her professed aversion to drama, she is surrounded by it. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Neil McDermott, left, and Todd Boyce in Sleuth, “the thriller about thrillers”, at the Grand Opera House, York. Picture: Jack Merriman

Thriller of the week: Sleuth, Grand Opera House, York, Monday to Saturday, 7.30pm; 2.30pm Wednesday and Saturday

TODD Boyce, best known for playing Coronation Street’s notorious baddie Stephen Reid, will be joined by EastEnders soap star Neil McDermott in Anthony Shaffer’s dark psychological thriller about thrillers, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh.

What happens? A young man arrives at the impressive home of a famous mystery writer, only to be unwittingly drawn into a tangled web of intrigue and gamesmanship, where nothing is quite as it seems. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.

Rob Auton: Star of The Rob Auton Show, full of firsts, from memories to girlfriends to jobs

Comedy gig(s) of the week: Rob Auton, The Rob Auton Show, Burning Duck Comedy Club, The Crescent, York, February 28, 7.30pm; Mortimer Suite, Hull City Hall, February 29, 7.30pm; The Wardrobe, Leeds, March 1, 7.30pm

ROB Auton, Pocklington-raised stand-up comedian, writer, podcaster, actor, illustrator and former Glastonbury festival poet-in-residence, returns north from London with his self-titled tenth themed solo show.

After the colour yellow, the sky, faces, water, sleep, hair, talking, time and crowds, Auton turns the spotlight on himself, exploring the memories and feelings that create his life on a daily basis. Box office: York, thecrescentyork.seetickets.com; Hull, hulltheatres.co.uk; Leeds, brudenellsocialclub.seetickets.com.

Skylights: Lighting up York Barbican in November

Gig announcement of the week: Skylights, York Barbican, November 2

YORK band Skylights will play their biggest home-city show yet this autumn, with tickets newly on sale at ticketmaster.co.uk in a week when latest release Time To Let Things Go has risen to number two in the Official Vinyl Singles Chart.

Guitarist Turnbull Smith says: ‘We’re absolutely over the moon to be headlining the biggest venue in our home city of York, the Barbican. It’s always been a dream of ours to play here, so to headline will be the perfect way to finish what’s going to be a great year. Thanks to everyone for the support. It means the world and we’ll see you all there.”

In Focus: York Community Choir Festival 2024

Jessa Liversidge: Directing Easingwold Community Singers’ performance at the York Community Choir Festival

York Community Choir Festival 2024, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, February 25, 6pm; February 26 to March 1, 7.30pm; March 2, 2.30pm and 7.30pm

THE 8th York Community Choir Festival spreads 31 choirs across eight concerts over six days at the JoRo. On the opening evening, Easingwold Community Singers will be premiering director Jessa Liversidge’s arrangement of The Secret Of Happiness from the American musical Daddy Long Legs, with permission of composer and lyricist Paul Gordon.

“Festival organiser Graham Mitchell wanted a choir to perform this song,” says Jessa. “I bought the music but couldn’t find a choral arrangement, so I chanced my arm on contacting the composer to ask if there were any arrangements or could I do one, and he said, ‘yes, you can’.

“It’s a lovely gentle song. Hopefully it will go well, and I can then send Paul a recording.”

Choirs range from York Philharmonic Male Voice Choir to The Rolling Tones, Sounds Fun Singers to York Military Wives Choir, Selby Youth Choir to Track 29 Ladies Close Harmony Chorus. Six choirs from Huntington School perform next Friday, taking up all the first-half programme. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

York Community Choir Festival: the programme

Sunday, 6pm

Selby Youth Choir, Bishopthorpe Community Choir, Eboraca, Easingwold Community Singers.

Monday, 7.30pm

Community Chorus, York Celebration Singers, Euphonics, York Philharmonic Male Voice Choir.

Tuesday, 7.30pm

Jubilate, Some Voices York, Sounds Fun Singers, Abbey Belles Chorus.

Wednesday, 7.30pm

Stagecoach Youth Junior Choir, The Garrowby Singers, In Harmony, Stamford Bridge Community Choir.

Thursday, 7.30pm

York Military Wives Choir, Harmonia, Spirit of Harmony Barbershop Chorus, Heworth Community Choir.

Friday, 7.30pm

Huntington School Choirs, Vivace! Aviva York Choir, Main Street Sound Ladies, Barbershop Chorus

Saturday, 2.30pm

Singing Communities, Fairburn Singers, Daytones Harmony Chorus,

The Rolling Tones.

Saturday, 7.30pm

Headlands Primary School, York Sing Space Musical Theatre Choir, Track 29 Ladies Close Harmony Chorus, The Wellbeing Choir.

‘It certainly won’t be boring,’ says Emma Rice as she turns Blue Beard into a wonder tale celebrating women at Theatre Royal

Wise Children artistic director Emma Rice. Picture: Carmel King

WISE Children director Emma Rice has an admission to make ahead of Blue Beard’s arrival at York Theatre Royal next Tuesday.

“I’ve actually never liked the story of Blue Beard. I love fairy tales, but this is one I’ve always avoided,” she says. “I thought it was just about controlling women, telling them off for asking questions and being curious. But something changed a couple of years ago, and the story started to nag at me.”

In what way, Emma? “I have become more and more haunted by the regular chime of women being attacked, murdered and abused. Sarah Everard’s shocking murder and the ensuing chaos of her vigil captured the public’s imagination,” she says.

“However, for me, it was the murder of Zara Aleena that really brought home my anger and made me think about adapting Blue Beard. She was just walking home. A week later, her family, friends, and people she would never know, met at the spot where she was killed and walked her memory home. This was the moment that I knew I wanted to walk Blue Beard’s victim’s home. I wanted to use my craft, my platform, and my experience to make a small difference.”

Emma realised her reasoning for telling this story was not to understand or excuse Blue Beard, but to breathe life into the women he tried to control. “I wanted to express not just the rage, grief and heartbreak so many of us feel at lives cut short, but also to celebrate brilliant living women in all their wild and surprising glory,” she says.

“So, my version of Blue Beard is very definitely about the women, about celebrating women and about saying enough is enough! We will not be afraid anymore.”

“I want the production to seduce with high comedy, tragedy, magic, romance and just a sprinkle of spine-tingling horror,” says director Emma Rice. Picture: Steve Tanner

Adapted for the stage by Emma, Blue Beard carries the weight and power of a classic drama, she contends. “It’s almost Shakespearean and most definitely Greek in structure; I hope audiences will feel entertained, moved and transported.

“We found the subject matter very powerful in rehearsals and there have been lots of laughter and tears. I hope audiences will share the joy, the darkness, the fury and the hope. It certainly won’t be boring!”

Blue Beard, Emma’s fifth show for Wise Children, finds her returning to her roots at Cornwall’s now disbanded Kneehigh Theatre, where she specialised in folk tales before her brief encounter as the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe.

“After the shared trauma of lockdown and, in its wake, the long haul of getting back into the world, it felt like the right time to go back to my roots. ‘Wonder tales’ (as I like to call them) are an enduring source of inspiration for me,” she says.

“Magical and universal, they are ripe for re-interpretation and reinvention. They challenge and delight in equal measure and allow me to explore complex and important themes without having to be literal or naturalistic. They lend themselves to music and movement and I love them! With Blue Beard, I am back in my theatrical element.”

Wise Children in a scene from Emma Rice’s Blue Beard, heading to York Theatre Royal from next Tuesday. Picture: Steve Tanner

Given the themes of male violence and control, can York audiences expect a challenging evening? “Well, yes – in some way,” says Emma. “Our production does not shy away from violence and its devasting effect, but it is also hopeful and empowering.

“I don’t think audiences will come away thinking everything’s awful and it’s never going to change. Instead, I want people to look these issues squarely in the eye and think: ‘right, that’s it. The world does not have to be like this, and I feel inspired to do something about it’.

“It’s also worth saying that I’m not a ‘naturalistic’ director. We use lots of different storytelling techniques to give the subject layers and nuance. This means a violent act could feature on stage as a dance, or a song. It won’t be graphic and unpleasant. Sometimes violence is suggested, sometimes it is shown in a metaphorical way and, at the end, we have a huge, bloody real life struggle.”

Although the underlying themes are urgent and dark, Emma’s show is not all darkness. “Blue Beard pulses with stylish theatricality, gritty reality and genuine emotion,” she says. There’s also comedy. Katy Owen, an actor I’ve worked with for many years, is one of the most brilliant comic actors working today, and she plays a nun at the Convent of the Fearful, F****d and Furious – so you can imagine where that goes!

“Using music, dance, and storytelling, I want the production to seduce with high comedy, tragedy, magic, romance and just a sprinkle of spine-tingling horror. It’s a blockbusting rollercoaster!”

Wise Children presents Blue Beard, York Theatre Royal, February 27 to March 9, except next Sunday and Monday; 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 7.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

By Charles Hutchinson 

More Things To Do in Ryedale, York and beyond when comedy bites. Here’s Hutch’s List No 3, from Gazette and Herald

Deaf comedian Steve Day: Playing on the Hilarity Bites bill at Milton Rooms, Malton

A DEAF comedian and history-charting musicians, a classic thriller and a feminist fairytale, a community choir festival and a prog-rock legend make Charles Hutchinson’s list of upcoming cultural highlights.

Ryedale comedy gig of the week: Hilarity Bites Comedy Club, Steve Day, Ashley Frieze and Carl Jones, Milton Rooms, Malton, Friday (23/02/2024), 8pm

THE first Hilarity Bites bill of 2024 will be headlined by Steve Day, who describes himself as “Britain’s only deaf comedian and if there are any others he hasn’t heard them”! Actually, a couple of others have started since he wrote that joke, but it is only a joke after all.

On the bill too are guitar-toting funny man Ashley Frieze, with his charming, daft and warm brand of music-infused stand-up, and Midlands storytelling comedian Carl Jones, a football fanatic who interviews comedy cohorts for his ​Premier League nostalgia podcast When Football Began Again. Box office: 01653 696240 or themiltonrooms.com.

Chris Green and Sophie Matthews: 600 years of music crammed into 90 minutes at Pocklington Arts Centre

Musical tour of the week: Green Matthews: A Brief History Of Music, Pocklington Arts Centre, Friday, 8pm

STRING player Chris Green and woodwind player Sophie Matthews take in 600 years of musical history in 90 minutes, spanning the Middle Ages to the 20th century in a whistle-stop tour of Western music.

Featuring long-forgotten songs, tunes and jokes too, Green and Matthews paint a vibrant and vivid picture of our musical DNA, mixing the familiar and the obscure, the raucous and the reflective and the courtly and the commonplace. Box office: 01759 301547 or pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.

Skylights: Lighting up York Barbican in November

Gig announcement of the week: Skylights, York Barbican, November 2

YORK band Skylights will play their biggest home-city show yet this autumn, with tickets going on sale on Friday at 10am at ticketmaster.co.uk in a week when latest release Time To Let Things Go has risen to number two in the Official Vinyl Singles Chart.

Guitarist Turnbull Smith says: ‘We’re absolutely over the moon to be headlining the biggest venue in our home city of York, the Barbican. It’s always been a dream of ours to play here, so to headline will be the perfect way to finish what’s going to be a great year. Thanks to everyone for the support. It means the world and we’ll see you all there.”

Rick Wakeman: Return Of The Caped Crusader at York Barbican

Catch him while you can: Rick Wakeman, Return Of The Caped Crusader, York Barbican, Saturday, 7.30pm

PROG-ROCK icon and Yes keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman, 76, is to call time on his one-man shows to concentrate on composing, recording and collaborating, but not before playing York. “I always planned to stop touring by my 77th birthday,” he says. “For those of you who wish to send me a card, it’s 18th May!”

Saturday’s show opens with Wakeman’s new arrangements of Yes material for band and vocalists, followed after the interval by his epic work Journey To The Centre Of The Earth. Box office for returns only: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Jessa Liversidge: Directing Easingwold Community Singers’ performance at the York Community Choir Festival

Choirs galore: York Community Choir Festival 2024, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, February 25, 6pm; February 26 to March 1, 7.30pm; March 2, 2.30pm and 7.30pm

THE 8th York Community Choir Festival spreads 31 choirs across eight concerts over six days at the JoRo. On the opening evening, Easingwold Community Singers will be premiering director Jessa Liversidge’s arrangement of The Secret Of Happiness  from the American musical Daddy Long Legs, with permission of composer and lyricist Paul Gordon.

Choirs range from York Philharmonic Male Voice Choir to The Rolling Tones, Sounds Fun Singers to York Military Wives Choir, Selby Youth Choir to Track 29 Ladies Close Harmony Chorus. Six choirs from Huntington School perform next Friday, taking up all the first-half programme. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Todd Boyce, left, and Neil McDermott in Sleuth, on tour at Grand Opera House, York. Picture: Jack Merriman

Thriller of the week: Sleuth, Grand Opera House, York, Monday to Saturday, 7.30pm; 2.30pm Wednesday and Saturday

TODD Boyce, best known for playing Coronation Street’s notorious baddie Stephen Reid, will be joined by EastEnders soap star Neil McDermott in Anthony Shaffer’s dark psychological thriller about thrillers, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh.

What happens? A young man arrives at the impressive home of a famous mystery writer, only to be unwittingly drawn into a tangled web of intrigue and gamesmanship, where nothing is quite as it seems. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.

Emma Rice: Writer-director of Wise Children’s Blue Beard, playing York Theatre Royal from next Tuesday

Play of the week: Wise Children in Emma Rice’s Blue Beard, York Theatre Royal, February 27 to March 9, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees

BLUE Beard meets his match when his young bride discovers his dark and murderous secret. She summons all her rage, all her smarts and all her sisters to bring the curtain down on his tyrannous reign as writer-director Emma Rice brings her own brand of theatrical wonder to this beguiling, disturbing tale.

Applying Rice’s signature sleight of hand, Blue Beard explores curiosity and consent, violence and vengeance, all through an intoxicating lens of music, wit and tender truth. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Rob Auton: Star of The Rob Auton Show, full of firsts, from memories to girlfriends to jobs

Comedy gig(s) of the week: Rob Auton, The Rob Auton Show, Burning Duck Comedy Club, The Crescent, York, February 28, 7.30pm; Mortimer Suite, Hull City Hall, February 29, 7.30pm; The Wardrobe, Leeds, March 1, 7.30pm

ROB Auton, Pocklington-raised stand-up comedian, writer, podcaster, actor, illustrator and former Glastonbury festival poet-in-residence, returns north from London with his self-titled tenth themed solo show.

After the colour yellow, the sky, faces, water, sleep, hair, talking, time and crowds, Auton turns the spotlight on himself, exploring the memories and feelings that create his life on a daily basis. Box office: York, thecrescentyork.seetickets.com; Hull, hulltheatres.co.uk; Leeds, brudenellsocialclub.seetickets.com.

More Things To Do in York in 2024…and beyond. Here’s Hutch’s List No. 1 for the New Year, from The Press, York

Shed Seven: Launching new album with meet & greet at HMV, York, on Friday

WHAT lies ahead in the New Year? Charles Hutchinson picks his path through highlights across the city’s venues.

It’s only A Matter Of Time before: Shed Seven release their new album

YORK band Shed Seven will mark the January 5 release of their sixth studio album, A Matter Of Time, on new home Cooking Vinyl with a meet & greet/signing session that day at HMV, in Coney Street, York, at 4.30pm (tickets: shedsevenn.lnk.to/instores). Their midday appearance and stripped-back performance on the same day at Vinyl Whistle, in Otley Road, Headingley, Leeds, has sold out.

In the summertime, when the weather is hopefully fine, The Sheds will celebrate their 30th anniversary with a brace of outdoor concerts in York Museum Gardens on July 19 and 20, supported by Peter Doherty, no less. Both have sold out already. Box office: seetickets.com.

Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company cast members peer out through and beneath the JoRo curtain in Curtains

It’s Curtains for…Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, February 7 to 10, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee

WHEN the leading lady of a new musical mysteriously dies on stage, a plucky local detective must solve this 1959 case at Boston’s Colonial Theatre, where the entire cast and crew are suspects in Kander & Ebb’s musical with a book by Rupert Holmes. Cue delightful characters, a witty and charming script and glorious tunes in the Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company’s staging of Curtains. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Steve Mason: Independent Venue Week gig at The Crescent. Picture: Gavin Watson

Beta times ahead: Brudenell Presents Steve Mason, The Crescent, York, January 30, 7.30pm 

SCOTTISH indie songwriter Steve Mason, founder of The Beta Band, returns to The Crescent as part of Independent Venue Week. Combining a rare melodic gift with an itch to experiment, as heard on his 2023 album Brothers & Sisters, he investigates where the boundaries lie between the craft of songwriting, technology and free expression.

Taking part in Independent Venue Week too will be Leeds band English Teacher, whose January 28 night of dreamy pop and post-punk noise has sold out already. Box office: thecrescentyork.com.

Monster show: The Apatosaurus in Jurassic Live, bound for York Barbican

Dinosaurs take over York: Jurassic Live 2024 World Tour, York Barbican, February 16, 5pm; February 17, 11am and 3pm; February 18, 1pm

LIFE-SIZED monstrous beasts roar into York in an interactive all-star theatrical spectacular featuring the world’s only Tylosaurus in a giant tank (new for 2024), the last flying Pterodactyl, a Tyrannosaurus Rex called Suzie and more dinosaur species than any other show on Earth.

Join little Amber, Ranger Joe, Ranger Nora and the rest of the Jurassic Live rangers on  a musical journey to help save the day from an evil man who is trying to shut down the Jurassic facility. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Amber Davies’s Hollywood prostitute Vivian Ward and Oliver Savile’s wealthy businessman Edward Lewis in Pretty Woman: The Musical at Grand Opera House, York

Most anticipated touring musical: Pretty Woman: The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, February 20 to 24, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm, Wednesday and Saturday

BILLED as “Hollywood’s ultimate rom-com, live on stage”, Pretty Woman: The Musical is set once upon a time in the late 1980s, when Vivian (Amber Davies) meets Edward (Oliver Savile) and her life is changed forever.

Strictly champ Ore Oduba’s Happy Man/Mr Thompson and Natalie Paris’s Kit De Luca will be in the cast too for a musical featuring original music and lyrics by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance and a book by Garry Marshall and the film’s screenwriter, J.F. Lawton. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.

The tour poster for Wise Children’s Blue Beard, opening the bl**dy door at York Theatre Royal from February 27

World premiere of the season: Emma Rice’s Wise Children in Blue Beard, York Theatre Royal, February 27 to March 9, 7.30pm and 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees

BLUE Beard will be Wise Children’s fourth visit to York after Wise Children, Malory Towers and Wuthering Heights, this time in a co-production between Emma Rice’s Bristol company, York Theatre Royal, Birmingham Rep, HOME Manchester and the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh.

Rice brings her brand of theatrical wonder to the beguiling and disturbing folk tale of Bluebeard meeting his match when his young bride discovers his dark and murderous secret. Summoning all her rage, all her smarts and all her sisters, she vows to bring the curtain down on his tyrannous reign. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Rob Auton: At his most Rob Auton in The Rob Auton Show at The Crescent, York

Welcome home: Rob Auton, The Rob Auton Show, Burning Duck Comedy Club, The Crescent, York, February 28, 7.30pm

AFTER nine Edinburgh Fringe shows on themes as diverse as the colour yellow, the sky, faces, water, sleep, hair, talking, time and crowds, York writer, comedian, artist and actor Rob Auton delivers his most autobiographical work, exploring the memories and feelings that create his life on a daily basis. Box office: thecrescentyork.com.

Rhod Gilbert’s poster for his tour show with a Giant Grapefruit at York Barbican

Comedy comeback : Rhod Gilbert & The Giant Grapefruit, York Barbican, June 20, 8pm

IN his last show, The Book Of John, firebrand Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert dealt with “some pretty pungent life citrus” and an idiot called John. Little did he know that things were about to turn even more sour.

Gilbert, 55, required surgery for metastatic cancer of the head and neck as well as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, receiving his first clear cancer scan in October after undergoing treatment.

“Not bitter, he’s bouncing back and feeling remarkably zesty”, returning with a dark, passionate and way-too-personal tour show that squeezes every last drop out of life’s latest curveballs…with a little help from an old adversary. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Jason Donovan: Doin’ fine at York Barbican in…wait for it…2025

Even further ahead: Jason Donovan, Doin’ Fine 25 Tour, York Barbican, March 8 2025, 8pm  

IF 2023 was the year of Kylie, all that attention on Tension, Padam Padam and ITV’s An Audience With, then 2025, yes 2025, promises a York date with her Neighbours beau, Jason Donovan, in celebration of his “incredible ride” through 35 years in music, theatre, film and television.

His long-awaited sequel to Doin’ Fine 90 will feature Jason’s most beloved songs from his stage shows, nods to his TV times in Neighbours and Strictly Come Dancing and his biggest pop hits. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

In Focus: York Actors Collective in Beyond Caring, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, cleaning up from February 6 to 10

Neil Vincent, left, Clare Halliday, Chris Pomfrett, Victoria Delaney and Mick Liversidge in rehearsal for York Actors Collective’s February production of Beyond Caring

YORK Actors Collective follows March 2023’s debut production of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane with Beyond Caring, a play that highlights the social damage inflicted by zero hours contracts. 

Devised by Alexander Zeldin and the original Yard Theatre cast in East London in 2014, later transferring to the National Theatre, the story of agency cleaners at a meat factory will be directed in York by Angie Millard, working with a cast of Victoria Delaney, Clare Halliday, Mick Liversidge, Chris Pomfrett and Neil Vincent.

Over 90 unbroken minutes, Beyond Caring follows two women, Becky and Grace, and one man, Sam (replacing Sarah from past productions in a directorial decision), as they confront the reality of low wage, zero-hour contract employment, never sure of how many hours they have to work, when they will be paid and whether their ‘job’ will continue.

Director Angie Millard says: “This play is remarkable in its structure and power. It totally represents 2024 where many workers are on the breadline, trapped in employment with no guarantee of further work and no way to improve their position. 

“What drew me to the play, however, is the message it conveys about people surviving and keeping a sense of humour. I loved the intensity of the piece with its silences, its disappointments and its determination to get pleasure out of the smallest things. It gave me hope.”

Stage managed by Em Peattie, Millard’s production will play nightly at 7.30pm, Tuesday to Friday, followed by Saturday shows at 2.30 and 5.30pm. “Ticket sales for our first production indicated that a Saturday matinee was very popular,” says Angie.

“We thought that having two early Saturday performances would give the audience an opportunity to see the show and still have time to go for a drink or meal afterwards, making a night of it.” Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Chris Pomfrett and Victoria Delaney in rehearsal for Beyond Caring

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.

York Theatre Royal chief exec Tom Bird to leave after five years for Sheffield Theatres

Tom Bird: Leaving York Theatre Royal for Sheffield Theatres

YORK Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird is flying off to take up the equivalent post at Sheffield Theatres.

He will migrate southwards from York in early 2023, replacing Dan Bates, who left Sheffield earlier this year after 13 years to become executive director of Bradford’s UK City of Culture 2025 programme.

“York Theatre Royal has been such a special part of my life,” says North Easterner Tom, who moved back north in December 2017 from his role as executive producer at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. “I’m enormously grateful to everyone at this outstanding theatre, and the wider community, for their support over the past five years.”

In South Yorkshire, he will work closely with artistic director Robert Hastie, interim chief exec Bookey Oshin, who will stay on as deputy CEO, and the senior team, pulling the strings of the Crucible, the Lyceum and the Tanya Moiseiwitsch Playhouse (formerly the Studio).

Together, these theatres make up the largest producing theatre complex outside London, presenting both in-house and touring productions.

Kyiv City Ballet dancers Nazar Korniichuk and Anastasiia Uhlova reading well-wishers’ messages at York Mansion House when invited to York by Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird

“I’m totally thrilled to be joining Sheffield Theatres as chief executive,” says Tom, who was headhunted for a post he “just couldn’t say ‘No’ to”. “For many years, I’ve admired these daring and beautiful theatres, and the wonderful city they’re at the heart of. I can’t wait to work with Rob, Bookey and the whole of Sheffield’s exceptional team.” 

In London, he directed the Globe to Globe Festival for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, before becoming executive producer at Shakespeare’s Globe, where he produced a tour of Hamlet to 189 countries.

In York, Bird ruffled feathers by implementing the Theatre Royal’s transition from the long-running Berwick Kaler era of pantomime to co-productions with Evolution Productions and met the challenges of the Covid lockdowns to staff, performers and theatregoers alike, while also changing his job title from executive director to chief executive.

On stage in York, in June, he arranged the first ever visit of Kyiv City Ballet to Great Britain, the dancers travelling over from France, where they had been based since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In the first winter of Covid, he and creative director Juliet Forster oversaw The Travelling Pantomime, a socially distanced show taken by van to every York neighbourhood in December 2020, and his Globe years with Emma Rice led to the forging of a partnership with her new company, Wise Children, and in turn the Theatre Royal’s first co-production with the National Theatre for Rice’s adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Changing of the panto guard at York Theatre Royal: Chief executive Tom Bird, centre, with creative director Juliet Forster and writer-producer Paul Hendy, of Evolution Productions. Evolution, by the way, are Sheffield Lyceum Theatre’s partner in pantomime too

What’s in store for Tom in Sheffield? Between them, the three stages welcome 400,000 people on average to performances each year. In addition, Sheffield Theatres runs community engagement and artist development programmes, notably the Sheffield People’s Theatre and Young Company, as well as the Bank Programme, whose purpose is to develops creative talent on a yearly basis.

Looking forward to Bird’s arrival, artistic director Robert Hastie says: “Tom Bird joining Sheffield Theatres as chief executive is great news. He brings a wealth of experience, most recently with our fellow Yorkshire theatre, York Theatre Royal, where he has led with ambition and aplomb. I can’t wait to work alongside him in Sheffield.

“Tom joins us at an exciting time, following our special 50th anniversary year and having welcomed so many people back through our doors to experience the magic of these very special theatres. As we look ahead, I know Tom will make such a positive impact on our work, both on our stages and beyond our walls.”

Lord Kerslake, chair of Sheffield Theatres Trust board, adds: “Sheffield Theatres is renowned for the quality and ambition of its work. It’s an organisation determined to serve its audiences, to deliver bold and brilliant theatre, to innovate, invest in talent and collaborate with its communities.

“In Tom we have appointed a driven, experienced and creative leader who will help shape the next chapter of this world-class organisation. Tom brings huge passion to this role, for the work on and off our stages. I’m excited to see what he, together with Rob and Bookey, and the fantastic Sheffield Theatres team, will achieve together.”

Wuthering Heights: York Theatre Royal’s first co-production with the National Theatre in tandem with Emma Rice’s Wise Childen company in 2021

REVIEW: Frantic Assembly in Othello, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday ****

Michael Akinsulire’s Othello in a street clash in Frantic Assembly’s 21st century Othello. Picture: Tristram Kenton

HOW reassuring to see packed houses for theatre shows in York this autumn, whether for Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d at the Theatre Royal or SIX The Musical at the Grand Opera House.

Sitting next to Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird on Tuesday night, he revealed that 60 schools – yes, 60 – had booked for Frantic Assembly’s combustible 21st century reimagining of Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy of paranoia, sex and murder.

“That’s the draw of Frantic Assembly, not Othello,” he said. Maybe, but you don’t have one without the other.

The crackle of excitement in the air, the cheers that greeted the company’s arrival on stage, brought to mind the electric surge triggered by the visits of Emma Rice’s Wise Children company, most recently for Wuthering Heights, that again drew young audiences in abundance.

Drink it all in: Joe Layton’s Iago, left, Tom Gill’s Cassio, Felipe Pacheco’s Roderigo, Oliver Baines’s Montano and Matthew Trevannion’s Brabantio (right) in a scene from Frantic Assembly’s Othello. Picture: Tristram Kenton

You could draw comparisons between the two companies: the importance of choreography; the almost dangerous physicality of the performances; the unexpected moments of humour; the chemistry and one-for-all and all-for-one commitment between actors; the instant bond with the audience; the drive to bring text to thrilling life; the propulsive power of thunderous music.

Yorkshireman Joe Layton, who plays an incorrigible Iago, puts it this way: “The way Frantic work, you are creating a physical sequence, finding a physical connection between characters,” he says. “Then story and characters are layered in on top of that. You throw yourself in and trust the director. You have to give yourself and trust the process,” he says.

From the off, that working practice is borne out in a fast, furious and, yes, frantic Othello, adapted, directed and choreographed by Scott Graham and Steve Hoggett, newly updated for the 2022 tour co-produced with Curve, Leicester.

That opening feels like plugging into the powerlines of The Prodigy’s Firestarter in a wordless, breathless scene-setter that introduces characters (Shakespeare), setting (Laura Hopkins) and soundscape (Hybrid) all at once.

Michael Akinsulire’s Othello listens to Joe Layton’s poison-dripping Iago as Chanel Waddock’s Desdemona looks on. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Think Shameless or This England; a bar with a pool table and a slot machine; bottled beers; everyone off their heads or on a short fuse in high-street zip tops, trainers, hoodies, stretchy sportswear and joggers.

One long Friday night, full of broken glass, jealousy, betrayal, revenge and the darkest intents; a darker brew of John Godber’s Bouncers, where the booze meets the bruise.

Let Frantic Assembly light the fuse, then stand well back, but feel the fierce heat from all that brutal physicality as Layton’s mendacious manipulator Iago winds up Michael Akinsulire’s Othello, the Moor, who is as muscular with Shakespeare’s words as he is physically, his eyes bursting, his mind mangled, his baseball bat never far away.

This is an Othello of myriad street accents, making it universal, from Tom Gill’s Scouse Cassio to Akinsulire’s North London Othello; Chanel Waddock’s Essex Desdemona to Kirsty Stuart’s Scottish Emilia.

Luck’s out: Chantel Waddock’s wronged Desdemona in Othello. Picture: Tristram Kenton

The pace is relentless, the dialogue hot on the tongue, the choreography dazzling, sometimes beautiful and sensuous, as in Akinsulire and Waddock’s pas de deux spread across the pool table, later to be repeated in such contrasting circumstances at the finale.

Frantic’s trademark physicality extends even to Hopkins’ design, suddenly coming to life in wave-like motions, first when a drunken Cassio staggers along the wall, and later when Othello is overcome with shock at what he has done, wishing it might swallow him.

Nothing sums up this Othello better than Iago’s prophetic T-shirt, Just Do It. Let’s hope Frantic Assembly will be back to “just do it” again, whatever the play, because Shakespeare all shook up this way demands a follow-up with more of this full-on brand of theatre.

Frantic Assembly’s Othello, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight until Saturday; 2pm, Thursday; 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office:  01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

Full steam ahead for Emma Rice’s take on Brief Encounter at Stephen Joseph Theatre

Anne-Marie Piazza’s Laura and Pete Ashmore’s Alec take time out from rehearsals for the SJT’s Brief Encounter to encounter LMS Royal Scot Class 46115 Scots Guardsman, the locomotive that featured in the 1936 film Night Mail. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

THE Stephen Joseph Theatre’s stage version of Noël Coward’s buttoned-up story of forbidden love, Brief Encounter, opens tomorrow in Scarborough.

Adapted for the stage by Emma Rice, of pioneering Kneehigh Theatre and Wise Children acclaim, SJT artistic director Paul Robinson’s actor-musician production is being staged in collaboration with Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, and the Octagon Theatre, Bolton.

Rice herself had staged the premiere in 2007, her script drawing on both Coward’s 1945 film, Brief Encounter, and Still Life, his short play in five scenes from 1936, for a comedy drama that combined actors with a live band and film sequences.

“I contacted Emma and didn’t have to persuade her very much to let us do it,” says Paul. “She first said she’d worked on it for so long, she was just delighted to see it being done again, and then she contacted me again to say the only thing she would still like to have done was to do it in the round. I said, ‘please don’t come!’.” Relax, Paul was joking! “Emma was so generous,” he says.

He did not see her production but was drawn to her version of Brief Encounter by reading the script. “I think I might have felt daunted if I’d seen it,” he says, revelling in being able to bring a fresh perspective both to Rice’s play and Coward’s story of Laura and Alec, both married but not to each other, whose chance meeting at a railway station hurls them headlong into a whirlwind romance that threatens to blow their worlds apart.

“The Round requires you to do it differently, like when we did The 39 Steps, where we knew Patrick Barlow’s end-on production couldn’t be bettered, so why do it that way again?” Paul asks.

“We’ve decided to take an actor-muso approach to Brief Encounter,” says Stephen Joseph Theatre artistic director Paul Robinson. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“We’ve decided to take an actor-muso approach with Brief Encounter. Emma had used actors and a band, and we’ll be showing off our company’s musicality too. This is a great way to see musicianship in a show, where they’re not only great actors but between them they can play 11 instruments at a drop of a hat – and often a hat really does have to be dropped to let them do that!”

As for the storytelling side of Brief Encounter, Paul says: “What Emma has encouraged us to do is to go back to Coward’s work in his Chekhovian portrayal of relationships and matters of class, and how he looks at first-time love, the couple who’ve been around the block, and then the illicit love of Alec and Laura.

“What we’d done is really explode all those emotions of being in love, making it not only visually explosive but tonally too. What Emma achieved that Coward didn’t was the ‘ridiculousness’ of being in love, though Alec and Laura’s love is more naturally shaped.

“Unlike the world Patrick Barlow created in The 39 Steps, their relationship is sacrosanct and needs to stay in a true place, which gives the play a core.”

Emma drew on Coward’s own songs and poems to highlight his own situation, where he never came out of “the closet”. “There were obviously a lot of parallels with what he could or could not say about love and his own relationships,” says Paul. “Society has still not moved to being polyamorous. We still have that push and pull of being attracted to people ‘we shouldn’t be’. ‘Thank goodness for that,’ says Emma. ‘It means we’re still alive’.”

Composer Simon Slater has given jazz arrangements to such Coward numbers as Mad About The Boy and set various Coward poems to new music. “They’re poems that Emma had picked out to go with the Coward script that she’d totally stripped back,” says Paul.

Forbidden love: Pete Ashmore’s Alec and Anne-Marie Piazza’s Laura in a Brief Encounter clench. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“She also used impressive, newly created film scenes to move characters seamlessly from stage to screen, but we can’t do that in the Round, which has given us added challenges, like how do we make Laura swim, how do we make waves, and how do we bring a train on stage without actually using film?

“That allows us to explore the wonderful expressionism of David Lean’s 1945 film without being too literal. They weren’t concerned with what a train sounded like, more with the cinematography, which was so extraordinary, as the story of Alec and Laura is told in such a heightened way, where they’re in rapture but also a high state of fear when they think of what they’re about to lose.”

Paul was adamant he would not undermine Brief Encounter’s truthfulness by sending up the clipped accents. “Yes, the film is very mannered and of its time, but I want the story to still feel resonant and I don’t want to take anything away from that, because the play is like Chekhov, where the subtext is vital. The accents will be RP (Received Pronunciation), but they won’t sound affected.

“I’ve also hinted at setting it in York. The film was filmed in wartime in the Lake District [at Carnforth station], because London was in blackout, but it was probably set in the Home Counties. I wanted to put more northern accents in it, implying it’s set at York station.

“We’re taking the production to the New Vic [Newcastle-under-Lyme], Bolton and Keswick, so we have north western and north eastern accents in the cast, because it’s fun to have a diversity of accents.”

Emma Rice’s Brief Encounter goes full steam ahead at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from tomorrow (22/7/2022) to August 27. Box office: 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com

By Charles Hutchinson 

Copyright of The Press, York

Will Daniel Craig’s James Bond requiem feature in Two Big Egos In A Small Car’s review of the cultural year just gone?

Exit Daniel Craig’s 007

NO time like the present to discover no-nonsense arts podcasters Graham Chalmers and Charles Hutchinson’s look back to the year of No Time To Die, Ralph Fiennes in York, Grayson Perry’s Pre-Therapy Years and Emma Rice’s Wuthering Heights.

For shooting from the hip with a quip, head to: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1187561/9817663

REVIEW: Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights, York Theatre Royal, until November 20 *****

Out on the wily, windy moor: Ash Hunter’s Heathcliff, Lucy McCormick’s Catherine Earnshaw and Nandi Bhebhe’s The Moor in Wise Children’s The 39 Steps

FIVE years ago, when Emma Rice all too briefly ruled the Globe, executive producer Tom Bird told her he would be fleeing the Shakespeare nest to move to York. “I’m going to do Wuthering Heights,” she told him that day.

Bird, now York Theatre Royal’s chief executive, recalled Rice’s vow at Wednesday’s post-show Q&A session, as the two friends from London days discussed Wise Children’s gothic musical play that felt like it had indeed “come home”, as both Bird and Kate Bush before him, put it.

In turn, Nottingham-born Rice remembered childhood walks up to the Top of th’ Withens – the West Riding house said to have inspired Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights – on her Yorkshire visits.

True to her word, Wise Children artistic director and former Kneehigh theatrical pioneer Rice has made her Wuthering Heights, in tandem with production partners York Theatre Royal, the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre, no less.

Rice’s association with Bird post-Globe has been a joyous and fruitful one for the York theatre, first hosting the premiere of Wise Children’s debut, Angela Carter’s Wise Children, then collaborating on her adaptation of Enid Blyton’s jolly-hocket-sticks Mallory Towers in 2019. Wuthering Heights would have followed far sooner but for the delay impact of Covid’s long winter.

As eggs is eggs, and Rice is Rice, the wait has been well worth it, and sure enough the Theatre Royal snapped, crackled and popped with excitement as smiling, exhilarated university theatre students took their turn to be photographed with an ever-obliging Rice in the foyer in the post-show buzz. If you could bottle the essence of theatre, why it can and should matter to all ages, why it still has limitless possibilities, then bottle that air right here, right now.

How come there is so much life in Emma Rice’s Wuthering Heights when there is so much death and “so little love” in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (with a helpful, if grim family tree at the beginning of the digital programme)? Because she doesn’t look at life the way that others might, or tell it the way others might. Take, for example, her opinion that Emily Bronte is an “overlooked comic genius”, presenting as evidence the foppish Lockwood (Sam Archer) and Little Linton Heathcliff (Katy Owen), “the most despicably funny character ever written”.

Or how Rice transforms the Yorkshire moorland into a character, The Moor, led by Nandi Bhebhe, the narrator in a crown of thorns and twigs. All but Lucy McCormick’s Catherine Earnshaw and Ash Hunter’s Heathcliff play The Moor in Rice’s ensemble and even McCormick is seen shaking a stick feverishly in the first evocation of the moorland, amid the sound and fury of the live band’s percussive clatter signifying everything about Yorkshire’s tight, stifling grip.

Bhebhe’s bad weather-forecasting Moor and cohorts become the equivalent of Macbeth’s witches, both McCormick’s Cathy and Hunter’s conversing directly with her, although the cautionary Moor is trying to save them  from themselves.

Who cannot but love the team play in writer-director Rice’s shows, as exemplified by those Moors: the Moors, the merrier, as it were. Her cast sits attentively to the sides, always in view, visibly enthusing in each other’s performances as they conjure what Hunter calls her “theatre magic”.

Rice pulls off the feat of being deadly serious and yet seriously funny too; one review even used the words “camp” and “pastiche” to describe elements of the performance style, and there is something of the affectionate irreverence of Lip Service’s Withering Looks show about Rice’s script, not least when she comments on why do so many men’s names begin with H and why do so many characters have similar names?

Helpfully, each death is registered on a chalk board – as well as being signified by dark birds in flight across the projection screen – but there is a greater motive behind those boards: Rice’s passionate belief in the importance of literacy, a learning tool that was denied to Hareton by Heathcliff.

Rice is an audacious theatre-maker; she takes chances and invariably they pay off, typically in her casting choices, most notably maverick, fearless performance artist Lucy McCormick as her “unwell, prisoner-of-her-time Cathy, neither tortured romantic heroine, nor minx”.

“Lucy is a rock star,” she reasoned, and as if to prove the point, banshee McCormick suddenly grabs a microphone at one point, her locks tossed asunder by a fan, for an ensemble dance number that could have come from Rent or Spring Awakening as much as from the people’s operas of Brecht & Weill.

There is so much to love about Rice’s Wuthering Heights; the echo of Lawrence Olivier’s black-and-white film 1939 film in the title wording on screen; Vicki Mortimer’s set and costume designs, especially the towers of chairs; the use of puppetry and dance and projections; Ian Ross’s  songs, whether in folk musical major keys or minor keys for bleaker undercurrents; the musicianship of Sid Goldsmith, Nadine Lee and Renell Shaw; the way this is anything but the Heathcliff and Cathy show.

Katy Owen brings such heart to her double bill of spoilt toffs, Isabella and Little Linton; Sam Archer is playful as the absurd Lockwood and grave as the inadequate Edgar Linton; Tama Phethean’s glowering, towering Hindley and Hareton Earnshaw, the one bruising, the other bruised, hit home, and while Rice’s company makes you feel they are all scene stealers, none does more so than Craig Johnson’s deathly-camp Dr Kenneth.

Ultimately, spread over this revenge tragedy’s ensnaring three hours, this is more Heathcliff’s Wuthering Heights than Cathy’s, on account of Rice’s most serious social commentary of all, on racism, prompted by her visit to the Calais Jungle. Hunter’s intense, brooding, raging Heathcliff is the refugee, the outsider, of Jamaican roots, abused and mistreated. “Cruelty breeds cruelty. Be careful what you seed,” cautions Rice.

And yet, amid so little love and so much 19th century grimness up north, Rice finds an uplifting finale so beautiful that it brings tears of joy.

Tickets are still available; crack the whip, like Rice’s Cathy and Heathcliff, and book every last seat. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.