Stilly Fringe takes over At The Mill for fiesta of theatre, comedy, music and metaphysics

Mouth-watering prospect: Holly Beasley-Garrigan in Opal Fruits on July 28

THE Great Yorkshire Fringe exited stage left from York in 2019 after five years, 1,200 shows, 9,000 performers and 110,000 visitors.

Frustrated by red tape, impresario Martin Witts pulled the plug on his fiesta of comedy, theatre, spoken word and children’s shows, since when the black hole in York’s summer entertainment calendar has never been filled.

In no way on the same scale, but occupying the same pre-Edinburgh Fringe slot, here comes the Stilly Fringe, out on the fringes of York at Stillington Mill, the home of the At The Mill arts hub, Saturday café and guest-chef supper club nights.

Running from tonight(July 22) until July 31, this is the latest enterprise from newly married Alexander Flanagan Wright, North Yorkshire writer, theatre-maker and visionary facilitator, and Megan Drury, Australian actor, writer and creative artist.

Selkie myth making: Hannah Davies and Jack Woods in The Ballad Of Blea Wyke on Saturday and Sunday night

“It’s come about because a bunch of our dear pals said, ‘can we come and do this?’, like most of the things we do here come about,” says Alex. “There seemed to be a critical mass to make us think these weekends would be a good way to test things out.

“We thought, ‘let’s do it in a communal and convivial way’ with that bond between audiences and performers giving it a different vibe, seeing new work with a chance to chat with the artists. We love doing that here.”

Presented in the mill gardens, either on the open-air stage on the repurposed tennis court or under the cover of the café-bar, the Summer At The Mill programme takes in theatre and spoken-word premieres, comedy, children’s shows, concerts, Gary Stewart’s folk club bills, even silent disco dance nights.

The Stilly Fringe largely mirrors that format but with the added intrigue of giving an early opportunity to see shows bound for the Scottish capital in August. “Six out of nine are going to Edinburgh,” says Alex. “The Lovely Boys, The Gods The Gods The Gods, Invisible Mending, Opal Fruits and Casey Jay Andrews’ double bill, The Wild Unfeeling World and A Place That Belongs To Monsters, are all heading there.”

The Lovely Boys: Opening Stilly Fringe tonight

First up, tonight at 7pm, will be Joe Kent-Walters and Mikey Bligh-Smith’s absurd clown bonanza, The Lovely Boys, followed by Harrison Casswell & Friends, an 8.45pm set of electric spoken word and live music fronted by the Doncaster poet and writer, who Alex first saw on a Say Owt bill in York.

Next will be Say Owt leading light, York poet, actor, playwright and spoken-word slam champion Hannah Davies’s The Ballad Of Blea Wyke, a lyrical re-telling of the selkie myth, set against the Yorkshire coast, complemented by original live music by Jack Woods, in work-in-progress performances at 7pm on Saturday and Sunday.

On both those nights at 8.45pm, and on July 27 and 28 too, Alex and fellow Easingwold School old boy Phil Grainger will give their first Stillington performances of The Gods The Gods The Gods, the third in their trilogy of spoken-word and live music shows rooted in ancient myths after Orpheus and Eurydice.

“We first did the show in Australia in early 2020 before the pandemic forced us home, and we’re going to do a big, loud, bopping version in the garden, different from the indoor production that had a pretty massive lighting set-up,” says Alex.

Three is a magic number: Alexander Flanagan Wright, left, Phil Grainger and Megan Drury in The Gods The Gods The Gods on July 23, 24, 27 and 28. Picture: Tom Figgins

“We’re having to look at how to play it within this landscape and within the Mill’s vibe, rather than trying to pretend we’re in a black-box theatre design. We’re just really excited to be telling these stories that we’ve been living with for three years.

“We’ve been doing loads of work with Megan as our dramaturg, and Phil and Tom (Figgins) have been re-working the music, re-writing some parts and writing plenty of new pieces.

“It feels like a two-year hiatus that has allowed us to think about these different story-telling modes to tell it with greater clarity.”

Why call this Wright & Grainger show The Gods The Gods The Gods, rather than plain old The Gods, Alex? “A lot of things come in threes and a lot of things in this show fall naturally  into threes,” he reasons. “It’s one of those powerful numbers: a triad, with the three of us [Alex, Phil and Megan] telling the story.

Small acts of creativity: Yoshika Colwell combines metaphysics, music and verbatim material in Invisible Mending on July 31

“There are in fact four stories, three of them everyday stories and one story of the Gods. Most of those stories are told in three parts, and we repeat things three times in parts – and it’s just a good title!

“It’s also the third in the series of storytelling pieces we’ve done, taking a big jump on from the first two with a lot bigger soundtrack of Phil’s songs and Tom’s music production and a more complex narrative that we’ve weaved into it.”

The Stilly Fringe also will present Opal Fruits, Holly Beasley-Garrigan’s solo show about class, nostalgia and five generations of women from a South London council estate, on July 28 at 7pm; Casey Jay Andrews’ The Wild Unfeeling World, a tender, furious and fragile re-imagining of Moby Dick, and A Place That Belongs To Monsters, a re-imagining of The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, on July 29 at 7pm and 8.45pm respectively.

Lucy Bird, originally from Ampleforth, will head back north with her Birmingham company Paperback Theatre for an “utterly Brummie” re-telling of The Wind In The Willows on July 30 at 2.30pm and 7pm.

Yoshika Colwell will return to the Mill for the Stilly Fringe finale, Invisible Mending, her exploration of power in small acts of creativity through original music, metaphysics and verbatim material, presented in collaboration with Second Body’s Max Barton, on July 31 at 7pm.

For tickets, head to atthemill.org.

Why Freddie Hayes is feeling chipper about her Faustian puppetry show Potatohead

Shed haven: Puppeteer Freddie Hayes contemplates life as a Potatohead

WHY is “gloriously bonkers” York performer, maker and writer Freddie Hayes a puppeteer?

“I’ve always made puppets from a young age,” she says. “But I lost in a puppet competition at Scarcroft School and it’s been revenge ever since.”

That act of revenge continues with the Edinburgh Fringe-bound Potatohead, her “starch-raving mad” solo adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s cautionary tale Doctor Faustus And The Seven Deadly Sins, directed by Sh!t Theatre.

Combining puppetry, stand-up comedy, physical theatre, film, singing, dancing and a sack of potato puns, Freddie’s hour-long “one-potato show” plays York Theatre Royal Studio on June 10, the McCarthy at the Stepehen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, on June 14, and Seven Arts in her adopted home of Leeds on July 20.

“I’ve always been interested in puppets as objects and creating characters from everyday people you might see in everyday life,” says Freddie, whose absurdist work hovers between childish puppetry and late-night entertainment in its story of humble York spud Charlotte, who dreams of becoming a cabaret superstar but is blighted by a chip on her shoulder.

 “I have quite a dark sense of humour too, and there seems to be something haunting about puppets that intrigues me.

“Puppetry can be very violent, with dark stories like Punch & Judy, where he defeats the Devil and death itself with his powers – so that story has a vague connection with Faust.”

After introducing York and beyond to grouchy pub landlords Fred and Sharon, unhappily married guvnors of a dated York boozer, in Fred’s Microbewery at the 2019 Great Yorkshire Fringe and York Theatre Royal Pop-up Festival, now Freddie switches her attention to the Swiss Army knife of the vegetable world, the potato, in her “unadulterated celebration of silliness”.

Jacket potato! Freddie Hayes in her Potatohead costume on stage

Expect elements of kitsch cabaret and old-school entertainment in her blend of puppetry, clowning and surrealist comedy with room for sexual content and references to religion and the devil, hence the age guidance of 14+.

Why re-tell Faustus, Freddie? “I like the darkness and the idea of being in between life and death, that power struggle, as you try to get your dream to become reality – and in the case of Potatohead, it becomes the struggle of trying to become a stand-up comedian,” she says.

Would that struggle involve selling your soul to the devil? “I’m yet to do so myself! I don’t have to worry about comeuppance! But there is connection between potatoes and Faustus…”

…Really? “The year that the potato arrived in Europe was the same year that Marlowe’s play was premiered,” says Freddie. “Back then, potatoes were very glamorous. They were considered to be exotic and aphrodisiacs too!”

Yes, but why transform Faustus into a potato, or, rather, a couch potato with aspirations of becoming a golden wonder? “What’s great about potatoes is that they can be anything, and I feel like everyone has an inner potato in them. Some days everyone feels a bit like a potato,” says Freddie.

“On top of that, there was the idea that you can become great [not grate!] one day by taking a risk and being brave. That’s the moral of this story.”

Potatoes are even more chameleon than usual in Freddie’s show. “There’s actually a little bit of puppet potato nudity!” she reveals. “They can also fly and shape-shift, disappear and re-appear, so they’re quite magical!

“What’s great is that the potato puppets play these demon spirit characters and they do have this unworldly quality about them, which works well with the narrative of Faustus.”

Spud work: Freddie Hayes’s Potatohead gets digging in the garden. Picture: Amy D’Agorne

Seeking to capture the stupidity of life in her puppetry, she also reflects on her own life through her characters, scenarios and themes. “There’s a part of the show that’s slightly autobiographical in that I talk about my relationship with puppets and how they integrate with my life,” says Freddie, who studied for a BA in puppetry at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama from 2015 to 2018.

“I have this awareness of being dressed as a potato running around with these puppet potatoes, so I give a side-eyed look at the audience, as if to say ‘what am I doing here?’!”

Puppet potatoes abound in Potatohead. “You can probably guess there are seven potatoes for the seven demons [the ‘deadly sins’ in Faustus], and there’s obviously a Mephistopheles, played by Maurice Piper! Beelzebub is a big secret I can’t reveal, though it’s something to do with a popular potato brand,” says Freddie.

Summing up Potatohead’s comedic style, Freddie says: “It’s a very strange one! Imagine if Cilla Black collaborated with The League Of Gentlemen and The Mighty Boosh, all in a one-potato show. Old-school glamour meets general weirdness!” What a mash-up!

As for Freddie’s favourite potato dish, “I love chips,” she says. “Keep it simple. Cheesy chips. Or cheesy chips and gravy if you’re feeling really naughty.”

As part of her debut national tour, Freddie Hayes presents Potatohead at York Theatre Royal, June 10, 7.45pm; Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, June 14, 7.45pm; Seven Arts, Chapel Allerton, Leeds, July 20, 8pm. Box office: York, 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk; Scarborough, 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com; Leeds, 0113 262 6777 or sevenleeds.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

Question? What is Freddie’s favourite among the seven deadly sins in Doctor Faustus?

“Gluttony. I think I feel I don’t think it’s a terrible sin! It seems quite sweet,” she says.

Freddie Hayes, minus the Potatohead

Freddie Hayes Fact File

Born: York

Lives in: Leeds

Occupation: Performer, writer, puppeteer and maker, crafting bespoke puppets, props and costumes.

Studied for: BA in Puppetry at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London, 2015 to 2018.

Since graduating: Created solo shows Fred’s Microbrewery and Potatohead, performing on UK comedy, festival and cabaret circuit for four years, playing Shambala Festival, Camden Fringe and Leeds International Festival.

Who’s the guvnor here? Puppeteer Freddie Hayes with Yorkshire’s grouchiest pub landlord, Fred, mean host of Fred’s Microbrewery

Home city works: Strut Club cabaret; former artist-in-residence at Southlands Studios; presented Fred’s Microbrewery at 2019 Great Yorkshire Fringe and York Theatre Royal Pop-up Festival; created and filmed short puppet film Fred And Sharon on York’s streets.

Projects: Artist-in-residence at Slung Low Theatre, working with Sh!t Theatre mentors, at The Holbeck, Holbeck, Leeds; associate artist of Slap York; resident puppeteer at Folkestone Puppet Festival.

Debut national PotaTour: Potatohead, May 19 to July 20, playing Leeds, Camden, Brighton Fringe Festival, Bristol, York, Scarborough, Greater Manchester Fringe Festival (July 14, 7pm, 9pm) and Leeds again (Seven Arts, July 20, 8pm).

Support: Started work on Potatohead project with Slap York in 2019. “They’re great at helping emerging artists,” says Freddie. “Without them, I don’t think I would have got going on this show.”

Mash of the day: Freddie Hayes in a Potatoheadshot

Funding: Arts Council National Lottery Project Grant to create Potatohead; Luke Rollason Memorial Bursary Award winner to programme show at Brighton Fringe Festival.

Performance style: Hovering between childish puppetry and late-night entertainment. Often autobiographical, reflecting on her life through relatable characters, scenarios or themes.

Pulling strings: Makes all her puppets, costumes and props. “I see it as a sort of sculpture, and I love making props,” says Freddie. “I do a lot of puppet-making commissions, making them for York Maze and Leeds City Varieties and working freelance for Leeds Playhouse for a while.”

Next up: Presenting Potatohead at Below, The Pleasance Courtyard, 60 Pleasance, Edinburgh, at 2022 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, August 3 to 29, 2pm. Directed by Sh!t Theatre, Freddie’s production will be appearing as a York Theatre Royal supported show with Pleasance Edinburgh National Partnerships. Box office: tickets.edfringe.com/venues/pleasance-courtyard.

For captivating chemistry, phenomenal physics and bonkers biology, here come spiffing science chaps Morgan & West

Morgan & West: Magic meets science at York Theatre Royal

GREAT Yorkshire Fringe festival favourites Morgan & West present their new show Unbelievable Science at York Theatre Royal on Saturday afternoon.

After a decade of magic shows for young and old alike, their time-travelling conjuring act is well established on the UK touring circuit, but these spiffing chaps hide a dark secret beneath their prestidigitatory prowess.

Rhys Morgan and Robert West are Oxford graduates with degrees in physics and chemistry and fully qualified secondary school teachers to boot. 

Unbelievable Science: “A show to marvel and wonder at what science and nature has to offer us all”

Unbelievable Science combines the duo’s trademark showmanship and silliness with genuine scientific knowledge and a lifelong love of learning to create a fun science extravaganza for all ages.

After their nomination for a Primary Times Children’s Choice Award at the Edinburgh Fringe, science communicators Morgan & West are taking the show all over England, where audiences will experience captivating chemistry, phenomenal physics and bonkers biology.

Fires, explosions, lightning on stage, optical illusions, mass audience experiments and 3D shadow puppets await all those “wily enough to come along to be intrigued by science”.

Morgan & West: “Throwing out the jargon and making everything plain, simple, clear and enormously exciting”

“In the age of ‘so-called experts’, we felt it was time to bring families together to marvel and wonder at what science and nature has to offer us all, provoking questions and discussions as to how things work and what regular people themselves can learn from it,” say Morgan & West.

“It’s time to throw out the jargon and make everything plain, simple, clear and enormously exciting.”

Tickets to see these Penn & Teller: Fool Us winners on May 7 at 2.30pm are on sale on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Morgan & West’s poster artwork for their new modus operandi as science communicators

Tony Burgess to top Wednesday’s Barbican bill for Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club

Headliner: Tony Burgess

LAUGH Out Loud Comedy Club hosts its final comedy night of 2021 at York Barbican on Wednesday, presenting Tony Burgess, Mike Newall and Sam Serrano, hosted by Damion Larkin.

Burgess has a starring role in BBC3 cult-comedy Ideal and pens jokes for fellow comedians Steve Coogan, Johnny Vegas and John Bishop.

He co-wrote the Sony Award-winning BBC Radio 4 comedy The Nightclass and featured among the writers for Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit.

“The real Magic Mike”: comedian Mike Newall

Mike Newall’s Nineties’ Britpop haircut gained him the nickname “the Real Magic Mike”, and when he appeared on Britain’s Got Talent, he impressed the judges so much that Simon Cowell said, “It was like an Oasis concert where the music ran out and Liam decides to tell a few jokes”.

Gender-fluid, dyspraxic comic Sam Serrano has been taking the comedy circuit by storm, not least in five shows at the online Hot Water Comedy Club. In 2018, Sam finished second in the Great Yorkshire Fringe Comedian of the Year Competition in York.

Host-promoter Damion Larkin likes to improvise his performance. Doors open at 7pm for the 8pm start in the Fishergate Bar. Tickets are on sale at yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Sam Serrano: First caught the eye in York at the 2018 Great Yorkshire Fringe

10 QUESTIONS FOR GREAT YORKSHIRE FRINGE DIRECTOR MARTIN WITTS

Martin Witts in happier times at the Great Yorkshire Fringe. Picture: Steve Ullathorne

THE comedy is over for the Great Yorkshire Fringe after five summers in York, blaming “city-centre management” for the decision to exit stage left.

In a formal statement, founder and director Martin Witts said: “Our experience of sponsoring, curating and managing an event in this small city of ours has led to the conclusion that until a well-managed and efficient is implemented, a festival of our size cannot thrive and does not have a place in York.”

Here Martin, who also runs the Leicester Square Theatre and Museum of Comedy in London, answers Charles Hutchinson’s questions.

1.What made you take this decision, Martin?

“My patience with all the red tape ran out of time. It was the same things every year, no matter what you try to do to address the most critical things on the Parliament Street village green site. Access. Drainage. The licence. Security.  What we were required to do changed every year.

“Right from the start, there were frustrations. We wanted to start the festival in 2014, but it took a year to get the licence from the city council for Parliament Street.”

2.What would constitute a “well-managed and efficient city-centre management”?

The City of York Council, Make It York and York BID are all involved in how the city centre is run. Everyone has great intentions, but there are too many chiefs, not enough Indians, and it’s got too complicated. That’s the frustration.”

3.Sean Bullick, managing director of Make It York, says he would “welcome the opportunity to discuss options with you to bring the event back”. Will you have that discussion?

“I had a meeting with Sean and Charlie Croft [assistant director of communities and culture at City of YorkCouncil] last year to say this needs to be resolved, but we still had problems at last summer’s festival with the drainage provision for the toilets.”

4. Last summer, some people said the ticket prices were high; some reckoned the quality of the newer acts had lowered; others felt the same names kept returning.  Your thoughts?

“We had no complaints about the festival content or the programming or the pricing. There were no negative comments from patrons on our social media and in the box-office day book. Indeed, only positives. The average ticket price remained the same.

“But there was a drop in audience numbers certainly, when the Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, running at the same time at the Castle car park, had an impact.”

5. Do festivals have a natural cycle, especially when the fickle world of comedy is prone to “the new rock’n’roll” going in and out of fashion?

“No, I disagree with that. Comedy always has a new audience and new acts. You only have to see the popularity of the New Comedian of the Year award we ran each year.

“Comedy is always changing, but people like to keep seeing their favourite comedian too.”

6.Emotionally, how do you feel about calling a halt to the Great Yorkshire Fringe after five years?

“I’m incredibly disappointed to be having to do this. You should see the messages I’ve had from the volunteers who worked for the Fringe saying it was the highlight of their career. It was the highlight of my career too.

“In an ideal world, if it had been easier, if there wasn’t the problem of the structure of the city-centre management, we would like to have continued the festival, but your patience runs out in the end when you want things to run smoothly.”

7. What did you achieve?

”We were committed to running the festival for five years and you hope that after those five years, you’ve covered your costs, broken even, and established yourself, which we had – and we proved Parliament Street could be a village green with shows and all the food and drink stalls.”

8. Would you consider taking the Great Yorkshire Fringe to another great Yorkshire city?

“No, absolutely not. I’m not planning to move it to Leeds. This festival was always designed for the city of York, the city where my family is from. York is the capital city of Yorkshire; the second city of the world.”

9. You say you will “continue to invest in the cultural scene of York”. In what ways will you do this?

“We’ll continue to do events in York, but not hold the festival, but do them in the spirit of the Great Yorkshire Fringe. We’ll probably have a year off but we’ll support The Arts Barge by doing a couple of things with them in York this summer.”

10. What else is happening in the world of Witts right now?

“We’re opening a scenery workshop in Pocklington, and I’ve bought the contents of the Goole Waterways Museum after it went into liquidation. We might look at doing something with antiquities and artefacts there.”