REVIEW: Pilot Theatre in A Song For Ella Grey, York Theatre Royal, Hull Truck Theatre and on tour ****

Pilot Theatre’s Jonathan Iceton, left, Beth Crame, Olivia Onyehara, Grace Long and Amonik Melaco in A Song For Ella Grey

NEWCASTLE. Shopping for vintage clothes. Nights on the toon. Bamburgh Beach. Camping out. Beach parties. Cheap supermarket plonk. Best friends for life. First tingle of love.

Such is the teenage stuff of David Almond’s novel for young readers, and the stuff too of Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson’s days of growing up in the North East. Been there, done that, bought the book, the first one she read after taking up her post with the York company.

Eight years later, Richardson is directing Pilot’s touring co-production in partnership with York Theatre Royal and Northern Stage, in Newcastle, where rehearsals and the first peformances took place.

Almond has adapted past works for the stage, but this time Pilot commissioned Zoe Cooper, a playwright and dramaturg who has an M Phil in playwriting from the University of Birmingham and cut her teeth on the Royal Court Young Writers programme. Both her script and Almond’s book are on sale alongside the brownies and chai lattes at the café counter.

Working in tandem, Richardson and Cooper have pitched this particular theatrical tent on the cornerstones of storytelling, music, sound and vision to seek to capture the elusive nature of Orpheus, the “man-god” (as Richardson calls him). I say ‘him’, but this Orpheus is called ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’, at various points, depending on who is speaking.

Pilot’s primary target audience is teenage, studying Eng Lit, maybe theatre, and indeed schoolchildren were clustered in the dress circle at Thursday’s matinee, but peppered around the stalls were Theatre Royal matinee regulars.

Overhearing one in the interval and chatting with them afterwards, they praised the performances but had reservations over the storytelling. More specifically, the clarity of what we were watching. In a nutshell, not only was Orpheus elusive, so too was the story.

Your reviewer wholeheartedly agreed about the uniformly excellent cast, but did find himself drawn into the mysteries and murk of Almond’s modern-day re-telling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, one that carried this contents notice in the foyer: References to death of a young person, bereavement/loss and adoption.

Already, on stage in York, at Stillington Mill, in Australia too, Wright & Grainger have explored the myth in a trilogy of exhilarating spoken-word and music shows, Orpheus, Eurydice and The Gods The Gods The Gods, billed as “stories from Greek mythology, told as if they were happening today”.

What Pilot Theatre’s production shares is both modernity and rich imagination in the storytelling, in this case the story of Ella Grey (Grace Long), who was adopted at the age of two and dreams of Orpheus singing to her in the company of her biological parents.

Ella prefers to spend her days and nights with Claire (Olivia Onyehara), her intense best friend since she was four, and Claire’s more open parents, with their baked aubergine suppers and ultra-comfy, tweedy sofas from a Scottish cottage industry. They understand her better, she protests.

Studying Eng Lit etc at A-level, they hook up regularly by the Northumbrian coast with Sam (Amonik Melaco), with his perfectly manicured eyebrows and far from perfect attitude towards young women; the more sensitive birdwatcher Jay (good name for a birdwatcher, Jonathan Iceton) and the ever-curious-to-experiment Angeline (Beth Crame, outstanding).

Craving a feeling of belonging, Ella is ever more drawn to Orpheus, represented here by a silhouetted figure with a crown of twigs behind white curtaining, by distant song and music too. Only she hears the voice at first, but gradually…well, that would be telling.

The content warning serves as a spoiler alert of her death, represented at the sea’s edge by her vintage dress, leaving so many questions to be answered for her friends, audience and Orpheus alike in Act Two.

Designer Verity Quinn switches the colour scheme for the two circular mounds that serve as beds and rocks on the beach from white to funereal black, accompanied by the squawk of a murder of crows and even a crow in the twig head gear worn by Claire.

All the while, Adam P McCready’s all-pervasive sound design (water, water everywhere), Chris Davey’s lighting and especially Si Cole’s video designs on the white backdrop give the atmosphere psychological depths.

Most evocative of all are the compositions of Emily Levy, whose programme note talks of her starting points of “voice (spoken and sung), folk song, and the crossover point where naturally occurring sound morphs into music”. Her songs “pass through and between the performers”, beautifully, spellbindingly so, and they evoke the mystical North East as much as The Unthanks do.

The links with the Orpheus and Eurydice of yore grow ever clearer in song and storytelling alike, as the tragedy and pain of human fallibility, the impossibility of immortality, heighten once in the underworld, but come the finale, Almond and Cooper still allow teenage dreams to be so hard to beat as new worlds beckon for Ella’s friends.

Musician Zak Younger Banks rightly joins the cast on stage to take a bow: thoroughly deserved for his vital contribution. 

Performances: York Theatre Royal, tonight, 7.30pm; tomorrow, 2.30pm, 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or Hull Truck Theatre, March 5 to 9, 7.30pm; 2pm Wednesday & Saturday matinees. Box office: 01482 323638 or

Orpheus in the underworld moves to Ella Grey’s teenage world on the beach in Pilot Theatre premiere at York Theatre Royal

Grace Long as Ella Grey, left, and Olivia Onyehara as Claire in A Song For Ella Grey. Picture: Topher McGrillis

THE first book Esther Richardson read after being appointed Pilot Theatre’s artistic director was A Song For Ella Grey.

Eight years later, she is directing the York company’s co-production of Zoe Cooper’s stage adaptation of David Almond’s Northumbrian novel. Next stop for a play full of music, sound and storytelling will be York Theatre Royal, from Tuesday to Saturday.

“It’s my favourite of David’s books,” says native north easterner Esther, who is directing a work deeply connected to her own story and upbringing for the first time. “I got totally swept up in his translation of the timeless myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to the locations in which I grew up.

“I lived in Teesside until I was 11, then we moved to Durham, to be nearer to my dad’s family, and my aunts were all in Newcastle. If you grow up in Durham, you go out in Newcastle, so that was a big part of my youth.

“My uncle used to take us up to the beach at Bamburgh Castle, and that’s where I camped when I did the Duke of Edinburgh awards.”

Monday morning was Esther’s first official working day back in York since she began rehearsals on January 2 at production partner Northern Stage’s rehearsal studios in Byker, ahead of its February 1 opening in Newcastle, where “it’s gone really well”.

Esther has wanted to stage A Song For Ella Grey ever since reading it. “Landscape is very important to the story and that landscape was very much part of my growing up,” she says. “That entry to Newcastle on the train, with all those bridges across the Tyne is so mythic; it’s majestic, so is the coast. Doing this play is a love letter to them both.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson

“When I read the book, it spoke to my heart, as I recognise the kids; the running away to Edinburgh; hanging out in very specific places in Newcastle; traipsing around the shops there. It’s that whole rendering of what it’s like to be a teenager in Newcastle.”

Published in 2014, Almond’s novel for young people relocates the Orpheus and Eurydice myth and its story of enduring love and loss to the north east in a lyrical retelling set among a group of teenage friends – “ordinary kids from ordinary families in an ordinary world” – that fall in and out of love, play music and dance, stare at the stars, yearn for excitement, and have parties on Northumberland’s beaches.

“So often working-class stories are told through a male lens, but this one is told from the perspective of a survivor, of a young queer woman,” says Esther. “It takes place in the liminal space between childhood and adulthood when you become aware you can never go back. You can never be a kid again.”

The focus falls on the bond between Claire and her friend Ella Grey, one that is as close as it could be until one day they encounter a stranger, Orpheus, a lyre-playing, Dr Martens-wearing young man, on Bamburgh Beach. He entrances them all, especially Ella, but what path will she follow in this tale of modern teenagers and ancient forces?

Cooper’s stage adaptation is written from Claire and Ella’s perspective as they re-tell their story to one another and the audience. “The idea is that they are making what happened to them into a myth,” reasons the playwright.

“The myth of Orpheus is so powerful,” says Esther. “Is he a man or a god? He’s a man-god, who goes into the underworld and is told, ‘you can bring someone back from the underworld, but only if you don’t look back at her before you re-enter the world above.

“But of course, there’s an inevitability that he will look back. Our humanity is our mortality, and we know you can’t bring someone back from the dead.”

Incoming message: Grace Long’s Ella Grey. Picture: Topher McGrillis

Esther continues: “It’s also about creativity and art, and that thing of something being out of reach when you’ve woken and it first seemed so clear. What that’s doing is chasing a fever dream, and that’s the most powerful part of being human.

“How we want to over-reach, to be immortal, to turn back the clock. Modern art can do that, like a photograph freezing a moment in time. So there’s a really spiritual dimension to the story that connects with us really deeply, and it was a beautiful, tantalising prospect to put it on stage.”

She commissioned Zoe to write the adaptation on account of the lyricism she shared with Almond. “I wanted someone who wouldn’t be afraid of that lyricism. I didn’t want it to be domestic; I wanted it to be epic,” she says.

“With Orpheus, David has created this elusive figure; you have a character who is a spirit, who is music, who’s in the landscape; sometimes he’s there and he’s real; sometimes he’s not real and can’t be found as he disappears into the night – which is really difficult to stage.

“The first thing that Zoe and I talked about was how do we adapt that for the stage, and we decided we should not make the slippery Orpheus a single human form because that would have killed the lyricism.

“What Zoe has done is create a text where Orpheus has the potential to appear in many different forms, sometimes human, but mainly an elusive being in the world.”

Pilot Theatre’s cast for A Song For Ella Grey. Picure: Topher McGrillis

Teenage audiences have “really hooked into” Cooper and Richardson’s production in the Newcastle run. “At first we thought, ‘are we being too oblique?’, but you have to commit to imagination, and if you create a really good structure and architecture for the story, audiences will go with it,” says Esther.

“We trusted our audience, having tested a scene at a school in Cramlington, which gave us the confidence that we were doing the right thing.

“As theatremakers, we try to stay in touch with childhood, and with our shows, whether Noughts & Crosses or A Song For Ella Grey, quite often teenagers get what’s happening ahead of adultds, with teens explaining things to perplexed adults!”

From the very start, Esther knew music would be important in A Song For Ella. “There was a clue in the title!” she says. “You think, ‘well, what is the ‘song’?”

She duly commissioned composer Emily Levy – noted for her use of folk traditions and song – to work with Pilot for the first time. “I love music and I love working with composers,” she says. “I had Emily at the edge of my thinking, as I’d heard her work with Streetwise Opera, who work with homeless people, and I knew she was passionate about using the voice as an instrument and that she could do amazing choral scores.

“A happy accident was that David [Almond] was a huge fan of Emily’s music, which I didn’t know in advance – and I trust him as being so creative, with amazing insights. So I met Emily, Zoe thought she was terrific too, and everything span off from there.”

Beth Crame as Angeline in A Song For Ella Grey. Picture: Topher McGrillis

The music in Pilot’s production is “incredible,” says Esther, “But it can’t offer all the solutions. That’s when I got the designer, Verity Quinn, involved to bring Orpheus into the play in a different way.

“Making theatre on the mid-scale, looking into that rectangle, you have to deliver something epic: that starts with the words but you disregard the visual at your peril.

“In the end, my work is very stripped back, not just because of Pilot’s level of resources, but because we all respond to colour emotionally, and the visual is rocket fuel to how you create meaning and how you connect to the human heart and mind in the audience. By stripping back you encourage the use of imagination.

“Theatre offers a reflective space, and in that moment, you use your imagination and your humanity comes to the fore. You are aware of who you are. It’s so difficult to find a space where you can just be present, listening to a story, being part of a story, and kids need that more than anyone else.”

In that last sentence, Esther sums up the essence of Pilot Theatre and why the pioneering York company continues to be at the forefront of theatre with a young voice.

 Pilot Theatre, Northern Stage and York Theatre Royal present A Song For Ella Grey, York Theatre Royal, February 20 to 24, 7pm plus 1pm, Thursday and 2pm, Saturday; Hull Truck Theatre, March 5 to 9, 7.30pm plus 2pm, Wednesday and Saturday. Box office: York, 01904 623568 or; Hull, 01482 323638 or

Author David Almond on A Song For Ella Grey

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson, left, with novelist David Almond and playwright Zoe Cooper. Picture: Mark Savage

Why revisit the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice?

“People have been telling this story forever,” he says. It’s one of the oldest stories ever told. There are endless versions of it, in cinema, on stage, in books and poetry and songs. I knew, at some point, I was going to write my version of it.”

Why Newcastle and Bamburgh beach?

“It made sense to set it among a group of normal Tyneside teenagers,” says Almond, whose daughter was a teenager at the time he wrote the book, giving him the awareness of “being young and falling in love, experiencing the possibility of loss, the possibility of bliss. Plus, I like the idea of Hades being under Newcastle.”

What does his lyrical writing celebrate?

“The beauty of northern rhythms, of the beats of northern language, to find something that is distinctively regional which can reach out to the rest of the world.”

From page to stage…

“There’s nothing like live theatre,” says Almond. “It’s our oldest form of art. It’s a very ancient way of telling a story. It’s how we told each other stories when we were still in caves 1000s and 1000s of years ago.”

“There’s nothing like live theatre,” says Almond. “It’s our oldest form of art. It’s a very ancient way of telling a story. It’s how we told each other stories when we were still in caves 1000s and 1000s of years ago.”


This one will run and run as Pilot Theatre present premiere of Manjeet Mann’s teenage tale Run, Rebel at Theatre Royal

Keep on running: A scene from Pilot Theatre’s Run, Rebel, with Kuldip Singh-Barmi’s  movement direction the key to capturing the sensation of running. Picture: Pamela Raith

BLACK Country actress and writer Manjeet Mann was feeling directionless.

Her father had died, she was working as a personal trainer as well as treading the boards, but getting out of bed was becoming a struggle. Where had her drive gone?

“I thought, ‘right, I’m going to run a marathon’,” says Manjeet, “I started the 22-week plan, where if I just run the prescribed 20 minutes each day, I’m winning – and I did. I got out of my slump.

“I’m an advocate of how sport can really help your mental health, and that’s when I thought about writing the book.”

The book in question is Manjeet’s multi award-winning debut verse novel, Run, Rebel, now transferred to the stage in Manjeet’s own adaptation, premiered by York company Pilot Theatre in the latest co-production with York Theatre Royal, Mercury Theatre, Colchester, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Derby Theatre.

Children’s author Manjeet, who was a runner in her schooldays, tells the story of schoolgirl Amber Rai, 15, who is trapped by her Punjabi family’s rules, their expectations, her own fears, yet on the running track feels completely free. There the world slows down as her body speeds up.

Jessica Kaur and Pushpinder Chani in Run, Rebel. Picture: Pamela Raith

Defining her place in that tangled world, Amber (played by Jessica Kaur) navigates a difficult home life and bullying at school, her sanctuary coming through running and running fast. Now is the time to kick-start a revolution, for her mother, her sister and herself in a play suitable for 11-year-olds and upwards that addresses violence, domestic violence, alcoholism, bullying and discrimination and makes reference to “honour” killings.

“Running is Amber’s one form of escape, and that story partly comes from personal experience at school,” says Manjeet, who now lives by the sea, where she swims every day, weather permitting.

“The other symbolism of running is that life is a  marathon, not a sprint, and there will be knockbacks and injuries along the way.”

The name of Amber was chosen with significance too. “I like my main protagonists’ names to have meaning. Amber has a few meanings, depending on what culture you’re from. Amber is a healing stone and a stone for courage too,” says Manjeet, explaining her choice.

She had been equally particular in seeking out Pilot Theatre for the premiere, aware of the impact of their co-productions with the York, Colchester, Coventry and Derby theatres since they forged a partnership in 2018 to develop, produce and present theatre for younger audiences, adapted from young adult novels.

Run, Rebel follows Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses, Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights and Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow on to the touring stage, this time directed by Tessa Walker with a combination of physical theatre  and “mesmerising visuals”.

Jessica Kaur, front, as Amber, with Asha Kingsley and Simran Kular in Pilot Theatre’s production of Manjeet Mann’s Run, Rebel. Picture: Pamela Raith

As Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson reflects: “Our project has sought to bring brand new stories to the stage for young adults and secondary school-age children, introducing them to characters who are living and experiencing the world as they are too in the 2020s.

“The goal has been to inspire an expansion and diversification of the range of work that is made and programmed for this age group, including on the school curriculum: we’ve aimed to enable theatres and schools to offer to young people and their carers and educators, narratives that are fresher and may feel more immediately relevant and relatable to their lives, than might be said of existing set and ‘classic’ texts.”

Hence Manjeet and Tessa’s determination that Pilot “would be the very best company to collaborate with”.

“I’d worked with a Tessa at Birmingham Rep, where I was an associate for a couple of years, when she was a mentor as well as working on projects with me, so we became great friends,” recalls Manjeet, whose two solo tour shows, Flying Solo and A Dangerous Woman, were directed by Tessa.

“The book came out in March 2020 – what a great year to become an author! – and she read it in 2021. I said I could really see it as a play, and after we did research and development with Arts Council funding, she thought, ‘Yes, this does have legs’.”

Unbeknown to Manjeet, Tessa gave a copy of the first draft to Esther Richardson, a draft that Manjeet considered to be “rubbish”. Nevertheless, Esther, who had done a previous R&D project with Manjeet, had “really liked” the author’s second book, 2021’s The Crossing. So far, so good.

Manjeet Mann: Novelist, playwright and actress

“Then I told her it would only be Pilot that I would want to do Run, Rebel on stage.” A production was born, and Manjeet took on her new writing challenge, adapting a story for the theatre. “It’s been a real learning curve,” she says. “I was naïve going into it, thinking ‘it’s my book, it’ll be easier for me to adapt, right? I’m not reinventing the wheel’. But I was!

“The first draft was very much just the book on stage, and then I started doing something very different with it, and now the play is a mix of the two. I found that things in the book can go in a different order on stage, and what drives a book  doesn’t necessarily drive what’s going on on stage.

“With Tessa being not only an amazing director, but a great dramaturg [script editor] too, it became really fun to do, especially when I put the book down, because I knew the story, and just let the play live.”

Has Manjeet participated in the rehearsals? “As an actor, I know what it’s like to have the writer in the room,” she says. “Tessa said, ‘Come in as often as you want’, but I think it can be stifling to be there.

“It’s best to leave it to the directors and actors, so I was only there on the first three days for the readthrough.”

Running is at the core of Run, Rebel. “The cast has been working with movement director Kuldip Singh-Barmi, who’s fabulous, to represent ‘running’ with lots of movement sequences in the performance,” says Manjeet.

Pilot Theatre’s poster for Run, Rebel, running (what else!) at York Theatre Royal from March 7 to 11

“I remember watching a comedian, Richard Gadd, who ran on a treadmill for the entire show, Monkey See Monkey Do [his story of training for the Man’s Man Final in Mansfield, ‘the ultimate competition of manly masculinity’]. That was awesome! The running in Run, Rebel won’t be too literal; it’s more showing running in a stylistic way, which really works.”

Manjeet’s next book had been scheduled for publication in 2023 until the task of adapting Run, Rebel for Pilot’s premiere took precdence during the past year. “It’s now coming out in June 2024,” she says

“It’s another verse novel, with another underdog , another female protagonist, set in India. She’s a teenager who gets accused of being a witch and then comes back later to take her revenge.

“There are 2,000 deaths a year of women accused of being witches, but the true fuigure is probably higher because they’re not all reported. The women are burnt or hanged from a tree, or witch doctors give them something that will kill them in the end, like having chillis put down their throat. It’s horrific.”

The title? Wait and see: it is yet to be confirmed with the publishers.

Pilot Theatre in Run, Rebel at York Theatre Royal, March 7 to 11, 7pm, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 1pm, Wednesday to Friday matinees; 2pm, Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Copyright of The Press, York

REVIEW: Charles Hutchinson’s verdict on Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses ****

Thwarted love: James Arden’s Callum and Effie Ansah’s Sephy in Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses. Picture: Robert Day

Pilot Theatre in Noughts & Crosses, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

PILOT Theatre likes to pioneer new work…and then the next new work. Rarely does the York company retrace its steps. Only Marcus Romer’s revisit of his definitive take on Lord Of The Flies springs to mind.

Now, artistic director Esther Richardson jumps at the chance to re-examine Pilot’s award-winning Noughts & Crosses in the light of George Floyd’s murder, the rise of Black Lives Matter and in turn incidents of racial hatred since the premiere co-production with York Theatre Royal, Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre, Derby Theatre and Colchester’s Mercury Theatre in 2019.

Since then too, the BBC has made two series of its South African-set, militaristic adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s ground-breaking novel for young adults, losing momentum and impact on its return.

Like father, like son: Daniel Copeland’s Ryan and Nathaniel McCloskey’s Jude, Liberation Militia freedom fighters united. Picture: Robert Day

Your reviewer will not be alone in much preferring Sabrina Mahfouz’s stage adaptation, one that has a circular structure, puts the teens to the fore as narrators and openly invites comparisons with Shakespeare’s star-cross’d young lovers in Romeo & Juliet.

From that ancient grudge, Blackman and in turn Mahfouz break to new mutiny in Noughts & Crosses in contemporary Britain, but one where Noughts are the white underlings; no orange juice; milk only on Fridays; no mobile phones; second-rate secondary education. Crosses are the black ruling class; apartheid divisions turned on their head.

In this metropolitan tinderbox – to all intents and purposes London – their worlds are segregated, capital punishment prevails, but love will out for the Romeo and Juliet of the piece, Nought Callum (James Arden), 15, and Cross Sephy (Effie Ansah), 14. 

Home but often away: Home Secretary Kamal Hadley (Chris Jack) with his daughter Minerva (Steph Asamoah) and wife Jasmine (Amie Buhari). Picture: Robert Day

His mother, Meggie (Emma Keele), is the housekeeper to Sephy’s high-society parents, the government’s hard-line Home Secretary, Kamal Hadley (Chris Jack, reprising his role from 2019) and weary wife Jasmine. 

Thrown together by circumstance, they have been friends throughout childhood, meeting secretly on her family’s private beach. However, when Callum is picked to be among the first three Nought teens to attend Sephy’s Crosses-only school, their relationship will come under duress in new surroundings.

Unhappiness is all around. Sephy’s mum Jasmine (Amie Buhari) seeks solace in the bottle, rejected by her play-away, always busy husband. Her sister Minerva (Steph Asamoah) is bored, bored, bored.

Family at war: Callum (James Arden), brother Jude (Nathaniel McCloskey) and mother Meggie (Emma Keele) listening to father Ryan (Daniel Copeland), making his dissident point. Picture: Robert Day

Callum’s dad Ryan (Daniel Copeland, even better in this heart-breaking role than he was in 2019) bonds with older brother Jude (Nathaniel McCloskey) by taking up the freedom-fighting cause of the Liberation Militia. Callum’s sister, battered in an assault, sinks inside her hoodie, never going out.

In a Britain where The Queen’s passing has brought a sense of unity, however briefly, the greater reality remains one of division, one where the jam sandwich keeps landing jam side down; if a wrong decision can be made, it will be.

Blackman and Mahfouz present a damning report on a damned, destructive world, one that will crush Callum and Sephy’s love, just as it squeezed the life out of Romeo and his Juliet.

Noughts & Crosses “serves up a a new heroine figure in Sephy’s bright, bold black teenage girl”, played by Effie Ansah. Picture: Robert Day

A new life signifies new hope, says Sephy, and of course she and Callum hoped for a better place to be, but where could they go? “Terrorist” bombs go off; bullying is rife; love cannot soar above hate.    

Noughts & Crosses does serve up a new heroine figure in Sephy’s bright, bold black teenage girl, played so vividly in her first lead role by Ansah. But while we have an Ansah, we do not have a new answer to what would improve relations, just the same questions asked in a different way.

That in no way diminishes the impact of Esther Richardson’s electrifying shock of a production; instead it heightens the sense of frustration. Arden’s first lead announces a talent to watch; Buhari and McCloskey excel too.

Simon Kenny’s set design for Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses. Picture: Robert Day

Simon Kenny’s set and costume designs, with his clever use of tables, lit-up boxes and walls that open up like cupboards, are complemented by Corey Campbell’s movement direction and Ben Cowens’ outstanding lighting design.

Xana and Arun Ghosh’s music and soundscapes and Ian William Galloway’s video designs have a suitably unnerving impact, adding to the feeling of a Big Brother bully at work.

Pilot Theatre’s tour of Noughts & Crosses will run from September 27 to November 26 2022, then January 18 to April 1 2023. In Yorkshire: Laurence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, November 1 to 5; box office, 01484 430528 or

Technical prowess: Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses combines emotional power with design brio. Picture: Robert Day

Pilot Theatre’s revival of Noughts & Crosses at York Theatre Royal has topicality top-up amid rise of Black Lives Matter

Effie Ansah and James Arden, left, in rehearsal for Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses. Picture: Robert Day

YORK company Pilot Theatre’s revival of Noughts & Crosses is even more topical than its award-winning 2019 premiere.

Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s young adult novel of first love in a dangerous fictional dystopia, rife with racism, will be on tour from this autumn to spring 2023, opening on home turf at York Theatre Royal from September 16 to 24.

“Yeah, things have changed,” says Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson, whose original production played the Theatre Royal in April 2019. “That makes it really interesting to put it on again now.

“What’s changed is that, obviously the pandemic was a huge moment, but what also happened in 2020, the murder of George Floyd, had a massive impact across the world.

“There we were, teetering out of the first lockdown, with this huge anger about the state of the world; people taking to the streets to have a proper conversation for the first time about racial injustice, which had been swept under the carpet before that.

“Even though it was deeply painful, there are always possibilities of change at these times, and so people who hadn’t had the opportunity to take part in the discussion, or hadn’t been aware of the issue, were suddenly alive to it because of Black Lives Matter.”

In Blackman’s Romeo & Juliet story for our times, Sephy is a Cross and Callum is a Nought. Between Noughts and Crosses come racial and social divides as a segregated society teeters on a volatile knife edge.

When violence breaks out, Sephy and Callum draw closer, but this is a romance that will lead them into terrible danger. Told from the perspectives of two teenagers, Noughts & Crosses explores the powerful themes of love, revolution and what it means to grow up in a divided world where black rules over white. 

Pilot’s premiere – launched before the BBC television adaptation – was seen by more than 30,000 people on tour, 40 per cent of them being aged under 20, en route winning the award for excellence in touring at the 2019 UK Theatre Awards.

The 2022-23 revival is expected to draw big numbers again, not least among the young target audience. “The whole topic of racial equality has really been taken up by university institutions and teachers talking about it, especially about decolonising the curriculum,” says Esther.

“So, suddenly there was a wider focus on what Pilot had been focusing on before the pandemic, but this is a conversation that everyone should have been participating in, just as we were by staging Crongton Knights, Noughts & Crosses, and before my time at Pilot, Roy Williams’s Antigone.”

George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has been the tipping point for racial equality to be taken more seriously, not least in the classroom. “Continuing Proficient Development sessions for teachers now sell out to help them address prejudice, racism and every other form of discrimination that young people may encounter at school,” says Esther.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson

“But the downside is that we’re in a time where so-called ‘culture wars’ are prevalent, where it’s prescribed that you must be on one side or the other, and that doesn’t help, stirring up strong feelings and even hatred.

“I’ve just been looking at the statistics for hate crimes in 2020-2021 and regrettably they’ve increased. The Home Office points to the reaction to Black Lives Matter as the most likely reason, leading to a rise in right-wing intolerance.

“That’s why Noughts & Crosses is so important because it’s an educative piece of theatre, a powerful story, a love story too, where young people get caught up forbidden love, and very often people have left the show seeing things through a different lens.

“We have a lot of evidence of how it’s not only been taken on in schools, but also by audiences in general who say how it has helped to change their awareness. That will be our mission again in bringing the play back.”

The Noughts & Crosses cast – bigger by two than last time – will be fronted by Effie Ansah and James Arden in their first leading roles as Sephy and Callum.

“I saw the open call, which was great, because opportunities like this don’t often come around,” says Effie. “So, I submitted a self-tape and contacted my agent to let her know.

“Prior to this, I’d actually submitted a time the first time Pilot did it, but I didn’t hear anything so perhaps I’d missed the deadline.”

This time, she was picked, to her delight. “I feel like I’ve wanted for the longest time to get my head around a black, confrontational female lead, and Sephy is all those things,” says Effie. “She’s young, complex, naïve, going on this incredible journey where she discovers her flaws and the flaws of her society.”

James, who is not represented by an agent at present, was tipped off about the auditions by his housemate. “The only experience I had of Noughts & Crosses was auditioning for the TV series, and I have to say Callum is a completely different beast in the play; much more exciting,” he says.

“Sephy and Callum get to tell the story more themselves, and telling it through soliloquies is an amazing opportunity. The play is epic, Shakespearean.”

Tickets for the York run are on sale on 01904 623568 or at Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses will then tour from September 27 to November 26 and January 17 to April 1 2023.

Copyright of The Press, York

Pilot Theatre confirm casting for revival of volatile love story Noughts & Crosses

The Noughts & Crosses cast for Pilot Theatre’s 2022-2023 tour

YORK company Pilot Theatre’s casting is complete for the revival of their award-winning production of Noughts & Crosses.

First staged in 2019, Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s young adult novel of first love in a dangerous fictional dystopia will be on tour from autumn to spring 2023 under the direction once more of artistic director Esther Richardson.

Noughts & Crosses will open on home turf at York Theatre Royal from September 16 to 24, having first played there in April 2019.

In Blackman’s Romeo & Juliet story for our times, Sephy is a Cross and Callum is a Nought. Between Noughts and Crosses come racial and social divides as a segregated society teeters on a volatile knife edge.

When violence breaks out, Sephy and Callum draw closer, but this is a romance that will lead them into terrible danger.

Told from the perspectives of two teenagers, Noughts & Crosses explores the powerful themes of love, revolution and what it means to grow up in a divided world. 

In 2019, the premiere formed the inaugural co-production between Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal, Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Colchester, who had formed a new partnership in 2018 to develop, produce and present theatre for younger audiences. 

Pilot’s premiere – launched before the BBC television adaptation – was seen by more than 30,000 people on tour, 40 per cent of them being aged under 20, en route winning the award for excellence in touring at the 2019 UK Theatre Awards.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson

The Noughts & Crosses cast will be fronted by Effie Ansah (The Maladies, Almeida Theatre) and James Arden in their first leading roles as Sephy and Callum.

Emma Keele (East Is East, Birmingham Rep and National Theatre and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, UK tour) will play Meggie; Nathanial McClosky (Macbeth, Box Clever Theatre), Jude; Amie Buhari (Flowers, Channel 4), Jasmine.

Steph Asamoah (Billy Eliot, Curve Theatre) will be Minerva; Chris Jack (Brighton Rock, Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal and Our Town, Royal Exchange Manchester), Kamal; Daniel Copeland (Invincible, Orange Tree Theatre and The Jungle Book, Leeds Playhouse), Ryan, and newcomer Tom Coleman, Nought Man, Andrew Dorn and understudy to Callum and Jude. 

Daniel Norford (Small Island and The Welkin, National Theatre and The Lion King, UK tour) will join the cast next spring in the role of Kamal. All actors will play ensemble roles too.

After the York Theatre Royal home run, Noughts & Crosses will tour: Richmond Theatre, London (September 27 to October 1; Exeter Northcott (October 4 to 8); Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (October 11 to 15); Northern Stage, Newcastle (October 18 to 22); Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield (November 1 to 5); New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich (November 8 to 12); The Alexandra, Birmingham (November 9 to 15) and Liverpool Playhouse (November 22 to 26).

The tour will resume in 2023 at: The Lowry, Salford (January 17 to 21); Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (January 24 to 28); Rose Theatre, Kingston (January 31 to February 11); Theatre Royal, Brighton (February 21 to 25); Oldham Coliseum (March 14 to 18); Poole Lighthouse (March 21 to 25) and Curve Theatre, Leicester (March 28 to April 1).

Esther is joined in the production team by designer Simon Kenny; 2022 lighting designer Ben Cowens; original lighting designer Joshua Drualus Pharo and composer Arun Ghosh.

Tickets for the York run are on sale on 01904 623568 or at

Class act: Heather Agyepong as Sephy and Billy Harris as Callum in Pilot Theatre’s 2019 premiere of Noughts And Crosses at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Robert Day

REVIEW: Pilot Theatre’s detention centre tale The Bone Sparrow, York Theatre Royal

Yaamin Chowdhury’s Subhi, the boy dreamer in refugee captivity in Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow

The Bone Sparrow, Pilot Theatre & York Theatre Royal, at York Theatre Royal *** Performances: 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2pm, 7.30pm, Saturday, then on tour. Box office: 01904 623568 or at Age guidance: 11 plus

ZANA Fraillon’s 2016 Australian detention centre novel, The Bone Sparrow, is rooted in the power of the imagination in brutal circumstances.

S. Shakthidharan, an Australian playwright born in Sri Lanka with Tamil ancestry, retains the importance of imagination in his stage adaptation for York company Pilot Theatre’s world premiere.

Pilot’s pioneering social, cultural and political theatre is targeted at teenage audiences – Leeds Trinity Academy pupils in smartest blazers were seated in the two rows in front of your reviewer, who passed two more excited school groups en route to Thursday afternoon’s matinee – and Shakthidharan and director Esther Richardson have made two bold decisions.

One is to entrust young audiences with taking in all the minutiae of a highly theatrical, if episodic production that runs to Shakespearean lengths, as the clock ticked towards 10.20 from a 7.30pm start on press night.

Australian writer S Shakthidharan

The other is to place so much faith in imagination, in tandem with our need for stories as a mechanism for survival in the face of adversity, in a piece full of symbolism, from the bone sparrow of the title to a talkative, comical, “riduckulous” duck that looks like Shakespeare (should that be a Duck Bill Platypus?).

All is seen through a 12-year-old child’s eyes, albeit with the writer’s secondary voice ever present too. That means not everything is easy to comprehend, which in turns makes Richardson’s production more challenging for younger audience members, although those Leeds schoolchildren were fully attentive throughout.

Could the storytelling have been clearer? Could the running time have been shorter? Yes to both questions, and potentially, a snappier running time would have demanded a more concise, less florid form of storytelling.

Yet, to counter that instinctive reaction, there is a freedom to the storytelling that matches the birds seen in flight so often in Daniel Denton’s beautiful video designs and illustrations. Not everything, however, lifts off from the page amid the text-heavy burden of subplots.

The 12-year-old boy is Subhi (Yaamin Chowdhury), who was born in an Australian refugee camp and remains a limbo kid there with his mother (Kiran L Dadlani) and his firebrand sister Queenie (Siobhan Athwal), their persecuted Rohingya Muslim family having fled the violence of Myanmar without the father.

Elmi Rashid Elmi’s Eli, left, Yaamin Chowdhury’s Subhi and Siobhan Athwal’s Queenie in a heated scene in The Bone Sparrow

The play begins in Subhi’s world of his imagination, as he is shown forever making drawings in his little book, as depicted in Denton’s backdrops.

Suddenly the fences close all around him in Miriam Nabarro’s design, and the daily dirge of a future constantly on hold is mirrored in the menu of endless porridge meals and confinement to sleeping on steel beds in tents.

One guard, Harvey (Devesh Kishore) strives to be considerate, even helpful; another, the over-assertive Beaver (Mackenzie Scott), calls the refugees by their numbers only and is a racist thug and a bully, clashing with Elmi Rashid Elmi’s freedom-craving Eli.

Into the story – leading to comparisons with The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – comes the outsider, Jimmie (Mary Roubos), an illiterate but inquisitive girl from up the hill who wants Subhi to read the stories collated in her late mother’s notebook.

As with Subhi’s bursts of imagination – where he conjures the seas he has never seen – these stories are told with the camp barriers removed and the mythical characters of newly-weds Oto and Anka represented by oversized puppet heads, miming the horrors of facing another menacing regime.

The girl from the outside: Mary Roubos’s Jimmie

There is humour and mystery, escape and discovery, drama and danger in this account of a burgeoning friendship, captured so well by Chowdhury and Roubos, as it is interwoven with the grim realities of camp life.

Is Jimmie real or pulled from Subhi’s dreamscapes? The way that Roubos plays her at first makes you wonder, another plus to her engaging performance opposite Chowdhury’s Subhi, a resilient boy bursting with restless thoughts, undaunted by authority and stymied circumstances.

For comic relief, look no further than puppeteer Jummy Faruq and his Duck, as opinionated as Ray Alan’s indiscreet Lord Charles.

Yet like Arun Ghosh’s score, that comic relief takes a back seat. Such is the overpowering shadow of this week’s plight of fleeing Ukrainians seeking sanctuary in Poland and beyond, and the intolerant message given by Brexit and now the Nationality and Borders bill over here, when there is such need for a common humanity, heightened by pandemic times.

Alas the bitter reality is that it will take more than a captive boy’s imagination or a novel to trigger change, but everything must start with highlighting what’s wrong and positing how we could make a better world.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Yaamin Chowdhury’s Subhi and fellow Pilot Theatre cast members, against the backdrop of Daniel Denton’s video design, in Pilot Theatre’s co-production with York Theatre Royal, Derby Playhouse, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Colchester

How Australian writer Shakthi and York’s Pilot Theatre came together to tell Subhi’s tale from inside a detention centre

Yaamin Chowdhury as Rohingya refugee Subhi in Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

YORK company Pilot Theatre’s world premiere of The Bone Sparrow is international, not only in its subject matter of asylum seekers but in its journey from page to stage.

Artistic director Esther Richardson and her cast have ‘met’ playwright S. Shakthidharan only on Zoom, although he does plan to travel from Australia to Britain later during the tour of a co-production mounted with York Theatre Royal, Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Colchester.

Shakthi, as he is known for short and on the corner of his Zoom screen for this interview, is a writer, storyteller, composer and film and theatre director-producer, from western Sydney, with Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry.

“The commission came from Esther. She contacted me out of the blue,” says Shakthi. “She’d heard about the play I wrote and premiered in Australia in 2019 [Counting And Cracking], and I think she’d read the script.”

This was no ordinary debut play. Staged by Belvoir and Co-Curious at the 2019 Sydney and Adelaide Festivals, his script won the Victorian Premier’s Literature Prize and the New South Wales Premier’s Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting; the three-hour epic production won seven Helpmann and three Sydney Theatre Awards.

“Esther had been interested in adapting Zana Fraillon’s book for some time and so she approached me,” recalls Shakti. “When I read it, I immediately connected with it because I’d worked with a lot of asylum seekers in Australia and was familiar with the different types of stories that were being told.”

In the story by children and young adults’ novelist Fraillon, Subhi is a 12-year-old Rohingya refugee boy, born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled the violence of her distant homeland. Life behind the fences is all he has ever known, but as he grows, his imagination grows too, until it is bursting at the limits of his world. 

One night, Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl, appears from the other side of the wires, bringing a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family’s mysterious and moving history, but will Subhi and Jimmie both find a way to freedom as their tales unfold?

Mary Roubos as Jimmie in The Bone Sparrow at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Robert Day

“Subhi, the protagonist, lives in the world of his imagination and doesn’t realise what’s going on around him,” says Shakthi. “Instead, he’s lost in his own charming world, and it’s fascinating that he can have such an enchanting world in such a brutal situation.”

By now, Shakthi had been joined on the Zoom screen by his own young son, awoken from his sleep – it was 8.45pm in Sydney – by the sound of voices.

“So often we are beaten down by the world,” says Shakthi. “We reshape ourselves to fit into it. Subhi’s story is different. In The Bone Sparrow this imaginative young boy discovers within himself a strength that will change the world around him.

“It’s a classic coming-of-age story and yet so much more. The Bone Sparrow is by turns a wondrous tale of epic, mythical adventure; a realistic appraisal of what it means to grow up without freedom; and a vision of renewed solidarity across our supposed divisions.”

Jimmie’s story is as significant to Shakthi as Subhi’s tale. “Immigration, asylum and race is such an important issue in Australia, where it has swung elections for 20 years now and changed government policy,” he says.

“What the children’s relationship does is bring out a common humanity within people, unlike so much of the dialogue, both by those who are well meaning and those with no compassion. Subhi and Jimmie’s friendship obliterates all that: they are two kids who develop a love for each other and have a lot of fun together as well.”

Shakthi continues: “It’s a political play but it’s not a didactic one. I love works that present the complexity of humanity, so the central relationship is so important here.

“What wasn’t in the book so much is that it’s a Rohingya Muslim family. In Zana’s story it’s portrayed with a lighter touch, but I’ve been very keen to have the Rohingya community involved in the project.”

Mackenzie Scott, as Beaver, left, and  Elmi Rashid Elmi,  as Eli, in the detention centre in The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

To that end, Esther has liaised with the British Rohingya community, based in Bradford and especially with Sirazul Islam, who began the project as a consultant and is now the assistant director. Like Subhi, Sirazul was born into a refugee camp, and he speaks in public about his experiences of being Rohingya.

In addition, the production team has spoken to other Rohingya people and young sanctuary-seekers, who have been consulted on the script. “The play has a stronger sense of that culture now,” says Shakthi.

Reflecting on his own childhood, he says: “I was born in Sri Lanka in 1982; when the riots happened in 1983, it deepened into civil war, and that’s when my family moved to Chandhai in India, hoping to come back to Sri Lanka.

“That’s the thing about war; it can take a while before anyone calls it a war. We moved first to India, then Singapore, then Australia by the time I was three. We never did go back to Sri Lanka. I’m an Australian, with a lot of family in England as the Tamil diaspora spread everywhere.”

Fraillon’s story of Subhi has many resonances for Shakthi. “I understand what it means not to be in your homeland because of your race, and I understand what it means for a relatively small country to descend into violence,” he says.

“Subhi’s tale is one of growing up distanced from his culture, but he reaches a crisis point in his young life where he finds strength in that culture.

“In my case, my parents pushed me into assimilation in Australia, and so I didn’t really connect with my [Tamil] culture until my late-20s.”

Assimilating meant doing things like supporting Steve Waugh’s Australian cricket team, recalls Shakthi. “I would follow what my white Australian mates were doing, whether it was music or sport,” he says.

The Pilot Theatre company on stage at York Theatre Royal in The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

“But then you find your own culture is far more sophisticated than you realised, and through all that pain of leaving your own country, now I really appreciate both my Sri Lankan culture and my Australian culture, so that’s a bonus that other people don’t have: being able to look at the world in different ways. That stops you from being pompous.”

Addressing the thorny subject of immigration, detention centres and sanctuary seekers, Shakthi says: “You can talk about this stuff endlessly politically, but the thing I always come back to is thinking: ‘is it fair to make one group a scapegoat for everyone else?’.

“The Australian government thinks that putting one group of people in detention will be a deterrent to others, but what does it say about that one group? We have to find other ways.

“It’s very easy to make people have knee-jerk reactions on this issue – all that talk of ‘taking our jobs and protecting our borders’ – but the success of the UK, USA, Canada and Australia is co-dependent on welcoming people. You can’t have one without the other. Generally, when people come, they work their butts off, doing jobs others aren’t willing to do.

“That’s why Jimmie’s relationship with Subhi is so vital in the story. She doesn’t apply labels to him. She just sees him as a boy and a friend.”

Living in suburban western Sydney, Shakthi is in a community where many migrants have settled. “In its time, it’s had the most diverse population in the world,” he says. “Going for a cup of coffee in the morning, you pass every culture.”

Plenty of cups of coffee later, The Bone Sparrow is up and running at York Theatre Royal. “I’ve had a great deal of fun collaborating with Pilot to develop a grand theatricality for this work and deepen its relationship with the Rohingya community,” says Shakthi. “I hope audiences are as delighted and moved by this story as we were in the process of adapting it.”

Pilot Theatre’s premiere of The Bone Sparrow runs at York Theatre Royal until Saturday, then on tour from March 8 to April 2. York box office: 01904 623568 or at

S. Shakthidharan: Writer, storyteller, composer, director and producer for stage and screen

S. Shakthidharan in profile:

Shakthi is a western Australian writer, producer, composer and director for screen and stage of Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry. His 2019 debut play, the three-hour epic Counting And Cracking, had a profound effect on the Sri Lankan community in Sydney.

He has a new commission in development with Sydney Festival; a number of plays with Belvoir; a feature film with Felix Media and two new television projects.

He is the artistic director of Kurinji and lead artistic consultant at Co-Curious, a sister company to CuriousWorks, where he was the founder and artistic director from 2003 to 2018.

Seeing asylum through a child’s eyes in Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow premiere

Yaamin Chowdhury in rehearsal for his role as refugee Subhi in Pilot Theatre’s world premiere of The Bone Sparrow

AFTER racism in Noughts & Crosses and gang culture in Crongton Knights, York company Pilot Theatre now address immigration and asylum seekers in The Bone Sparrow.

The world premiere opens tomorrow (25/2/2022) at York Theatre Royal, Pilot’s partners in the third in a series of co-productions with Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Coventry.

Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson directs Australian playwright S. Shakthidharan’s adaptation of children’s author Zana Fraillon’s story of a Rohingya refugee boy who has spent his entire life living in a detention centre in Australia.

Directing a cast of eight, who have been rehearsing in a bubble in the De Grey Rooms and taking lateral flow tests every second day, Esther says: “It’s the biggest project we’ve done since the start of the pandemic, with a team of 12 on the road – the cast and four stage managers – for the tour.

“This show was already on the slate to do in 2022, and we just thought ‘let’s do it’ as we really believe in the importance of the project because how we treat migrants is so topical.

“Immigration and racism are very important subjects, as we ask searching questions about who we are as a country if we’re not going to support those who are fleeing their homes to seek a better life – whereas before Brexit we were seen as a nation that did accept asylum seekers.”

In The Bone Sparrow, refugee Subhi is born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled her violent homeland. Behind the fences, his imagination grows as he grows, until bursting at the limits of his world. 

One night, Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl, appears from the other side of the wires, bringing with her a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family’s mysterious and moving history. Will Subhi and Jimmie find a way to freedom as their tales unfold?

“The play is set in Australia, where the system for asylum seekers is horrendous, and it’s the one that [Home Secretary] Priti Patel is talking of implementing here,” says Esther.

“The play seeks to raise awareness about detention centres and how people are treated, but it’s also a story of the power of imagination for a boy who is born in a detention centre but has this relentlessly optimistic way of seeing the world through that imagination.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson

“That’s an important metaphor for everyone, but especially young people, as we come out of the pandemic and those lockdowns.”

The role of Subhi will be played by Yaamin Chowdhury, who says: “I always used to say that kids ‘play pretend’, but I didn’t ‘play pretend’; I ‘play believe’. That’s how Subhi resonates with me.

“Then, doing plays that are political, especially this boy, carrying the story, being the hero of the story, I feel like I’m the custodian of people who are disenfranchised, which is important, no matter what geographical world a story is set in.”

Subhi is 12, Yaamin, 23. “Tapping into my inner child, and a child’s curiosity, is the best way to play this character, and I have to be true to every moment, every stimuli, I can be.

“That can be hard sometimes, when remembering that I can look at the world differently, whereas Subhi can only do so by looking at the outside world through the fence’s diamond shapes.

“A lot of people are hermetically sealed from Subhi’s world, and it’s the harsh reality that seeing is believing only when confronted by his story, but that’s the journey we have to take educate people about the sensitive issues of what’s going on in these detention centres for anyone seeking asylum.”

Esther rejoins: “Subhi has never been able to see the sea, for example, so he has to imagine what the sea looks like as he only has people’s stories to draw on. He’s driving his older sister mad by always asking her what she remembers of living in Burma.”

Just as Subhi uses his imagination, so must the audience. “Theatre is about us doing that,” says Esther. “It’s the human act of profound connection with a story that enables us to empathise or project on to a character to understand someone in a way that only theatre can do.”

Yaamin picks up that point. “Experiencing a play, someone’s story, can change someone, and it’s good to have that feeling that if we have changed someone, we’ve done something right,” he says.

From tomorrow, let the power of theatre meet the power of the imagination at York Theatre Royal.

Pilot Theatre presents The Bone Sparrow at York Theatre Royal, tomorrow (25/2/2022) until March 5, then on tour until April 2. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

Copyright of The Press, York

Forster and Forster’s The Machine Stops starts again, now online from York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre UPDATED 1/4/2021

Caroline Gruber (Vashti), Maria Gray (Machine 2) and Gareth Aled (Machine 1) in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

AS Covid-19 took its relentless grip, Juliet Forster kept finding her thoughts returning to E M Forster’s The Machine Stops, the stage adaptation she first directed for York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre in 2016.

“What was in my head was how we would be struck by it even more under Covid,” she says.

“Over this last year, I have thought about this piece many times as the world around us seemed to grow more and more like the incredible world that E M Forster imagined.

“And it’s even more striking today than it was at the time: things like human contact and human touch becoming something that’s almost taboo, things that didn’t seem relevant back in 2016 but are really, really striking and even more relevant now.”

This spring, The Machine Stops is starting up all over again, available to watch on a Theatre Royal webcast until April 5. Reactions so far have affirmed Juliet’s own feelings. “People are saying how eerily relevant it is,” she says.

“No windows; no natural day and night; no physical communication”: the life that Kuno (Karl Queensborough) wants to escape in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

E M Forster’s 1909 short story is set in a futuristic, dystopian world where humans have retreated far underground and individuals live in isolation in “cells”, with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. 

“That’s what has felt very strange, particularly the lack of human contact: the things that we laughed at in 2016, but now we’re all having to try to avoid each other,” says Juliet.

Adapted by Neil Duffield, The Machine Stops premiered in the York Theatre Royal Studio in  May and June 2016 at the outset of a three-venue run and was revived there in February 2017 before embarking on a national tour of nine venues. 

Juliet’s stage premiere won the Stage Production of the Year in the 2016 Hutch Awards. “In the year when Phillip Breen directed the York Minster Mystery Plays on the grandest scale and York Theatre Royal re-opened with Bryony Lavery’s new adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, it wasn’t the expected big hitters that left the deepest impression,” Hutchinson said in The Press, York.

“Instead, an obscure EM Forster sci-fi work, The Machine Stops, became a play for our times in the hands of the Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and Pilot Theatre in the Theatre Royal Studio.

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster

“Amid the stench of Brexit and Trump intolerance, here was a cautionary story of science friction and human heart told superbly artistically by a cast of four, writer Neil Duffield and electronic composers John Foxx and Benge with humanity’s worst and best attributes thrust against each other.”

Esther Richardson, Pilot Theatre’s artistic director, shares Juliet’s thoughts on The Machine Stops’ rising resonance: “When we produced The Machine Stops in 2016, it already seemed an eerily prescient piece of work. A story-world in which humans have become isolated from one another and living underground, communicating only through screens, offered an engaging space for reflection on perhaps the pitfalls of how our relationship with technology had been evolving,” she says.

“To be able to explore this in a live theatre space with an audience gathered together in person and with their technology switched off made it all the more dynamic a tale.

“It’s fantastic that, having spent the last year in different forms of isolation and on screens, we have the opportunity to share this great production, which will now sing with new meaning, meeting a new audience in a new context.”

The Machine Stops features a soundtrack composed by John Foxx, electronic music pioneer and founder of Ultravox, and analogue synth specialist Benge. The production was directed by Forster and designed by Rhys Jarman, with lighting design by Tom Smith and movement direction by Philippa Vafadari.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson. Picture: Robert Day

It stars Caroline Gruber as Vashti, Karl Queensborough as Kuno, Maria Gray as Machine/Attendant and Gareth Aled as Machine/Passenger.

Analysing the reasons why The Machine Stops transferred so convincingly to the stage, Juliet suggested in 2017: “When you use human beings to the height of their potential, theatre is at its most interesting; when you realise the incredible ability of human body; but at the same time, you can’t shoehorn that into a play. Here, though, to represent the Machine through movement, it absolutely suited it.

“It also helped that we had the finest soundtrack for a play in living memory, composed by John Foxx and Benge.”

That soundtrack went on to form much of the music on the John Foxx And The Maths album, The Machine, released in 2017 on the Metamatic Records label with artwork by Jonathan Barnbrook, the designer for David Bowie’s last two studio albums, 2013’s The Next Day and 2016’s Blackstar.

Caroline Gruber as Vashti in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

The filmed recording was edited by digital wiz Ben Pugh for its release online, with kind permission granted by the E M Forster estate. “We had taken a three-camera capture of the show in 2016 in the Theatre Royal Studio, when we were thinking of doing a streaming, but we didn’t have permission at the time, but now we do,” says Juliet.

“I asked Ben to do the editing because he’s fantastic at pulling digital theatre shows together, and it works really well on screen.”

The Machine Stops is available to view for free at, although York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre are asking for donations from viewers, with all contributions being split equally between them.

What was Charles Hutchinson’s verdict in May 2016?

Gareth Aled as Machine 1 in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

The Machine Stops, York Theatre Royal/Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal Studio

IN between those two pillars of early 20th century English literature, A Room With A View in 1908 and Howards End in 1910, E M Forster wrote a science-fiction short story, apparently in response to the outpourings of H G Wells.

It was pretty much ignored until being included in an anthology in the 1930s, but now it should take its rightful place alongside the prescient works of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

York Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster has cherished wishes to present it since 1999, and at last everything has fallen into place in a brilliant re-opening show in The Studio.

Forster and Forster makes for a perfect combination, assisted by her choice of writer, the experienced Neil Duffield; electronic musicians John Foxx and Benge in their first theatre commission, and designer Rhys Jarman, whose metallic climbing frame stage and hexagonal floor tiles could not be more fitting.

Centre stage is Vashti (Caroline Gruber), soft-boned, struggling to walk and wrapped in grey swaddling wraps, as she embraces her new, post-apocalyptic, virtual life run by The Machine, in the wake of humans being forced underground to self-contained cells where everything is brought to you: food, ambient music; lectures; overlapping messages.

John Foxx: Soundtrack hits the right note

No windows; no natural day and night; no physical communication; all you need is at the touch of the screen beside you as technology rules in this dystopian regime. It is the age of the internet, conference calls and Skype, the age of isolation (and the teenage life), foretold so alarmingly accurately by Forster.

In the best decision by Juliet Forster and the writer, they have decided to represent the omnipresent Machine in human form, cogent cogs that slither and slide and twist and turn acrobatically, responding to Vashti’s every request, with an urgent physicality that has you worrying for the health and safety of Maria Gray and Gareth Aled.

Not that The Machine is merely compliant. Just as Winston Smith rebels in Orwell’s 1984, Vashti’s son Kuno (Karl Queensborough), on the other side of the underground world, craves breaking out into the old world above the artificial one, to breathe real air, see the sky, feel the sun on his face, but The Machine will do its utmost to prevent him.

Queensborough’s physical performance, as the desperate Kuno puts himself at risk, is even more remarkable than the gymnastic Machine double act, as he hurls himself around the frames.

Forster’s production has bags of tension, drama, intrigue, and plenty of humour too, especially when Gray and Aled transform into a plane attendant and passenger. Throughout, the Foxx and Benge soundtrack hits the right note, futuristic and mysterious, yet noble too when Kuno makes his move.

Nothing stops The Machine Stops: it is 90 minutes straight through, a story of science friction told superbly artistically with humanity’s worst and best attributes thrust against each other.

Review: Copyright of The Press, York