Charles Hutchinson’s review of the year of culture & art in York & beyond in 2023

Sleuth and sidekick: Fergus Rattigan’s Matthew Shardlake, left, with Sam Thorpe-Spinks’s Jack Barak in Sovereign at King’s Manor. Picture: Charlotte Graham

Community show of the year: Sovereign, King’s Manor, York, July

YORK Theatre Royal’s best show of the year was not at the Theatre Royal, but across Exhibition Square in the courtard of King’s Manor, the setting for C J Sansom’s Tudor sleuth yarn, adapted typically adroitly by the golden pen of York playwright Mike Kenny.

Henry VIII was given the Yorkshire cold shoulder by a cast of 100 led by Fergus Rattigan and Sam Thorpe-Spinks, complemented by Madeleine Hudson’s choir.

Livy Potter in Iphigenia In Splott at Theatre@41, Monkgate

Solo performance of the year: Livy Potter in Black Treacle Theatre’s Iphigenia In Splott, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, March

GREEK myth is smacked in the chops by modern reality in Gary Owen’s scabrous, “horribly relevant” one-woman drama Iphigenia In Splott, a stark, dark 75-minute play, played out on a single blue chair, with no props, under Jim Paterson’s direction.

Livy Potter kept meeting you in the eye, telling you the bruised, devastating tale of Cardiff wastrel Effie, and her downward spiral through a mess of drink, drugs and drama every night, with shards of jagged humour and shattering blows to the heart.

Crowded in: Comedian Rob Auton’s artwork for The Crowd Show

Comedy show of the year: Rob Auton in The Crowd Show, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, February 24

COMEDIANS tend to play to a room full of strangers, hence the subject matter of Rob Auton’s The Crowd Show, with its discussions of crowds, people and connection.

Except that the crowd for this (London-based) York comedian, born in Barmby Moor and educated in Pocklington, was made up of friends, family, extended family, and loyal local enthusiasts. The home crowd, rather than the in-crowd, as it were. Auton revelled in a unique performing experience, even more surreal than usual.

Honourable mention: Stewart Lee, Basic Lee, York Theatre Royal, March 20. Serious yet seriously amusing dissection of the rotten state of the nation and comedy itself.

Christmas In Neverland at Castle Howard. Picture: Charlotte Graham

Exhibition of the year: Christmas In Neverland, Castle Howard, near York, running until January 7

IS it a Christmas event, an installation or an exhibition? All three, in that Charlotte Lloyd Webber Event Design makes an exhibit of the 300-year-old stately home at Castle Howard each winter.

This time, the theme is a Peter Pan-inspired festive experience, transforming rooms and corridors alike with floristry, installations, props, soundscapes, and projections, conjuring a Mermaid’s Lagoon, Captain Hook’s Cabin and the Jolly Roger with new innovations from Leeds company imitating the dog.

Honourable mention: Austrian artist Erwin Wurm’s absurdist sculptures in Trap Of The Truth, his first UK museum show, at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield, bringing a whimsical smile until April 28 2024.

Kevin Rowland leading Dexys through The Feminine Divine and old hits sublime at York Barbican

Favourite gigs of the year?

SPOILT for choice. At York Barbican: Suzanne Vega, vowing I Never Wear White in droll delight on February 22; James, bolstered by orchestra and gospel choir, hitting heavenly heights, April 28; Dexys’ two sets, one new and theatrical, the other laden with soul-powered hits, September 5; Lloyd Cole’s two sets, one ostensibly acoustic, the other electric, both eclectic, on October 22.

At The Crescent: The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster, performing with his son; March 14; Lawrence, once of Felt and Denim, now channelling Mark E Smith and the Velvet Underground in Mozart Estate, October 7; The Howl And The Hum’s extraordinary, deeply emotional three-night farewell to the York band’s original line-up in December.

The long-dormant Pulp’s poster for their This Is What We Do For An Encore return to performing live

Outdoor experience of the year: Pulp, Scarborough Open Air Theatre, July 9

THE rain swept in on the Eighties’ electronic nostalgia of Being Boiled at the Human League’s Music Showcase Weekend at York Racecourse on July 28 too, but that was a mere watering can by comparison with the deluge that befell the Open Air Theatre half an hour before fellow Sheffield legends Pulp took to the Scarborough stage. “Has it been raining?”, teased Jarvis Cocker, but huddled beneath hastily purchased sheeting, the night was still plastic fantastic.  

Cherie Federico: At the helm of all things Aesthetica in York

Driving force of the year in York: Cherie Federico, Aesthetica

2023 marked the 20th anniversary of Aesthetica, the international art magazine set up in York by New Yorker and York St John University alumna Cherie Federico. The Aesthetica Art Prize was as innovative and stimulating as ever at York Art Gallery; the 13th Aesthetica Short Film Festival, spanning five days in November, was the biggest yet. On top of that came the Future Now Symposium in March and the launch of Reignite to bolster York’s focus on being a fulcrum for the arts, media arts and gaming industry innovations of the future.

A star performance: Andy Cryer in The Comedy Of Errors (More Or Less) at Stephen Jospeh Theatre, Scarborough. Picture: Patch Dolan

Best Shakespeare of the year: The Comedy Of Errors (More Or Less), Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, April

THE SJT teamed up with Shakespeare North Playhouse, Nick Lane paired up with co-writer Elizabeth Godber, and Eighties’ pop guilty pleasures rubbed shoulders with Shakespeare’s rebooted comedy as Yorkshire clashed with Lancashire and everyone won. This Comedy Of Errors got everything right. Not more or less. Just right. Full stop. 

Nuno Queimado and Rumi Sutton in Gus Gowland’s Mayflies at York Theatre Royal

New musical of the year in York: Mayflies, York Theatre Royal, May

YORK Theatre Royal resident artist Gus Gowland deserved far bigger audiences for the premiere of the intriguing Mayflies, as confirmed by no fewer than nine nominations in the BroadwayWorldUK Awards.

O, the app-hazard nature of modern love under Covid’s black cloud, as two people meet up after two years of tentative communication online. In Tania Azevedo’s flexible casting, you could pick any configuration of Rumi Sutton, Nuno Queimado or Emma Thornett for the couple of your choice. Better still, you should have seen all three; the songs, the nuances, the humour, grew with familiarity.

Leigh Symonds’ engineer Winston and Naomi Petersen’s automaton house maid ED in Alan Ayckbourn’s Constant Companions. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Still delivering the goods in Yorkshire

ALAN Ayckbourn’s visions of AI in Constant Companions, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough; John Godber’s Northern Soul-powered Do I Love You?, on tour into 2024; Barnsley bard Ian McMillan’s Yorkshire take on The Barber Of Seville, St George’s Hall, Bradford; Robin Simpson’s dame in Jack And The Beanstalk, York Theatre Royal.

Copyright of The Press, York

REVIEW: Gus Gowland’s Mayflies, York Theatre Royal, flying until May 13 ****

Not always seeing eye to eye: Nuno Queimado’s May and Emma Thornett’s Fly in one version of Gus Gowland’s Mayflies at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Sam Taylor

OH, the app-hazard nature of modern love under Covid’s black cloud.

You shadow box tenderly, tentatively, expectantly, for two years online after dating app initiations, then finally meet for one fateful night in a seaside hotel, shedding skins as much as clothes, a knockout blow that turns the morning after into the mourning after. The chatter, then the shatter.

All this mirrors gone-in-24-hours life of the mayfly (the insect here making an appearance on the cover of May’s jigsaw, Mayfly On River, Germany).

What a brief breath of life in flight, after up to two years spent twiddling thumbs and knotting scarves in gestation underwater, only to crash and burn on impact.

York Theatre Royal artist-in-residence Gus Gowland’s musical world premiere has followed a similar path of anticipation. Already an award winner for Pieces Of String (Mercury Theatre, Colchester, 2018), he had tantalised York audiences with five-minute showcase contributions to Love Bites in 2021 and Green Shoots in 2022, and now the wait is over.

Be assured, Mayflies will not die after one day (or three if you choose to see all three configurations of Tania Azevedo’s flexible casting). An afterlife is deserved by Gowland’s concept, book and songs alike.

Gowland eschews burdening his putative lovers with defined gender, race, sexual orientation or age, further extending its potential shelf life.

For +Juliet director Azevedo’s premiere, two from three will perform in any show. It could be Nuno Queimado’s May with Emma Thornett’s Fly; Rumi Sutton’s Fly with Queimado’s May or Sutton’s May in a gay coupling with Thornett’s Fly. Clear so far?

Raising a glass: Rumi Sutton’s May and Emma Thornett’s Fly in a second configuration of Mayflies. Picture: Sam Taylor

It is not essential to see all three combinations, but the potential of both Gowland’s book and in particular his songs are better revealed the more pairings you meet, rather than only one match of the day. Both the idealistic Fly’s restless urges in Looking Back and realist May’s pile of relationship debris in Running On Empty will fly, whoever sings them. Queimado’s account of that heartrending ballad is especially affecting.

As much as the mayfly is Gowland’s motif for a love affair’s arc from joy to sorrow, matched by the mayfly hanging lamps’ choreographed movements in TK Hay’s design, equally significant is May’s love of jigsaw puzzles, one of the quirky revelations that builds a picture of a character.

The audience is invited to piece the jigsaw together, not without a picture, but with the extra challenge of Gowland detailing the relationship in both flashbacks and flashforwards.

As with jigsaw pieces, some scenes have jagged edges, others are rounded, and gradually the full picture emerges before the pieces are put back in the box for reassembling in different hands (as the magician’s flourish of a finale portends).

Just as the casting presents differing versions of the coupling, so Gowland highlights how we present differing versions of ourselves depending on the circumstances. Which is the truthful version: the one played out online, at a distance, or in the compression, the intensity, the heat of the moment, in that hotel hothouse?

Does May not want children, as is revealed at the hotel, or want them, as had been indicated in passing conversation online? Preferences on custard creams or shortbread, pizza consumption and more besides provoke doubts on what may have been said and whether it matters whose recollection is right.

Where goofy awkwardness has never blighted them behind the online shield, once May and Fly are together, in that room, wondering what to do next – whether and when to make a move, watch TV, eat a biscuit, order pizza – the sheer ordinariness of it all has the tea cup stain of familiarity that elicits both humour from cringy own goals  and vulnerable deeper emotions in Gowland’s dialogue as he walks the tightrope between warm-hearted romcom and angsty kitchen-sink drama.

The best speech – and the longest – goes to Fly, an epistle to love, to connection, to being a “defining feature in someone else’s story”, that signals the death knell to May and Fly and has you thinking, not for the first time, “Shut up, please shut up, you’re blowing this”, but also recognising the truths within the compulsive behaviour.

The juddering rhythms of the staccato scenes, a fusillade of snapshots that go to the heart, are countered by beautiful, choreographed scene changes where May and Fly entwine, flit flirtatiously or throw a prop from one to the other as if living their best life.

In the heat of the long-awaited moment: Nuno Queimado’s May and Rumi Sutton’s Fly in the third pairing of Mayflies. Picture: Sam Taylor

The songs, closer to Sondheim and Willy Russell than Lloyd Webber, contain wit, authorial wisdom and sometimes withering truths, ranging in content from conversational to confessionally dramatic, from playful, wishful or jousting duets to hopeful or wistful internal monologues.

Gowland doesn’t write OTT chart bangers, but consistently his storytelling songs – intelligent, incisive, funny or poignant – have an impact. Tellingly, Queimado, Sutton and Thornett find full expression in their nuances.

Azevedo’s direction is both musical and lyrical, orchestrating scenes as much as directing them, complemented by musical director’s Joseph Church’s lean, clean arrangements for his piano and Joel Benedict’s guitar.

This intricate but never ornate production is full of work of the highest standard, not only from the performances that can switch from charming to charmless, funny to foot in mouth, thoughtful to thoughtless in both characters, but also in Chris Whybrow’s sound designs and David Howe’s lighting, in turn transforming from warm to chill to match the ever-changing moods.

T K Hay’s breath-taking set design for Nick Payne’s multiverse in Constellations last November at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre whetted the appetite for his creativity for Mayflies. The profusion of ever-moving mayfly lamps delights, while he cleverly wraps a standard-fare hotel room inside multi-levelled building blocks, with a staircase leading to a balcony/kitchenette above.

This enhances the contrast between their online ‘connectivity’ in separate spaces – using the Theatre Royal stage to the full – and the sudden sardine-tin claustrophobia of the hotel.

Previously Gowland played with time, setting Pieces Of String simultaneously in the 1940s and present day (just as Alan Ayckbourn did in The Girl Next Door in 2021). Now he joins Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years and University of York alumnus Payne’s Constellations in giving differing perspectives on the path and fragile nature of love, the greater truths emerging from the writer rather than his players on life’s stage. How wonderful if Mayflies could match their success.

What’s more, just as Fly says there is a difference between running and knowing when to leave, so Gowland judges his running time spot on at 90 minutes of longing, loss and love in its all ridiculous yet enriching madness.

Mayflies, York Theatre Royal, tonight, 7.30pm (Emma & Rumi); Thursday, 2pm (Nuno & Emma) and 7.30pm (Rumi & Nuno); Friday, 7.30pm (Emma & Rumi); Saturday, 2.30pm (Nuno & Emma) and 7.30pm (Rumi & Nuno). Box office: 01904 623568 or

Mayflies composer, lyricist and writer Gus Gowland, seated, with cast members Emma Thornett, left, Rumi Sutton and Nuno Queimado

Three actors, two roles, one relationship, add up to Gus Gowland’s musical premiere of Mayflies at York Theatre Royal

Entwined: Rumi Sutton’s May and Emma Thornett’s Fly in a scene from Gus Gowland’s musical Mayflies, in rehearsal at the Central Methodist Church, York. Picture: Sam Taylor

THE world premiere of York Theatre Royal resident artist Gus Gowland’s new musical, Mayflies, opens tomorrow with a cast of Nuno Queimado, Rumi Sutton and Emma Thornett.

Except that you will not see all three of them on stage that night (28/4/2023), nor indeed at any performance in the run until May 13.

To explain, Mayflies tells the story of a romantic relationship between May and Fly, who match up on a dating app and begin a tentative conversation, whereupon their romance grows into something real. Then they meet.

Same story each show, but Gowland uses a rotating cast whereby any performance could feature a configuration of Nuno (May), Emma (Fly) or Rumi (“the super-talented one” because she can play either May or Fly).

“Come on three nights and you will see all three configurations,” advises director Tania Azevedo, a specialist in bringing new musicals to the stage, with credits for the award-winning But I’m a Cheerleader (Turbine Theatre) and as resident director for & Juliet in the West End.

Nuno Queimado’s May and Emma Thornett’s Fly in a touching moment in Mayflies. Picture: Sam Taylor

“Gus has specifically written what to our knowledge is the only musical able to be played by anyone of any age, gender, sexuality or race. May and Fly don’t come from anywhere specific; they have no identity whatsoever, which feels really special because it’s such a joy to watch, whether it’s Nuno and Rumi, Rumi and Emma or Nuno and Emma: we’re making a show that is universal. You get to experience the bravery to fall in love, whether you’re straight, gay, young or old.”

Composer, lyricist and writer Gowland, director Azevedo and musical director Joseph Church ran a full week of auditions, seeing more than 300 actors. “There had to be some decisions made at the beginning,” says Tania. “We could have had just two actors but settled on three, which allows us to really show how flexible the script is.

“Within that, we wanted to select people from different backgrounds and with differing vocal qualities, not just your average musical theatre performers. We also needed playful actors, able to cope with changes, as this show will be as fresh as it can be, with the latest re-write finished only a few weeks ago.

“They need to be playful to discover the juice within it. It will always have their imprint on it, stretching the concept as far as possible.”

Portuguese-born Nuno, who played the alternate Alexander Hamilton in the West End run of Hamilton, says: “Gus hasn’t written specifically drawn characters but doesn’t shy away from very specific themes, but the device he uses to change the configurations is what’s so special. That’s the juice that sets it apart from other shows.

“Then they meet”: Nuno Queimado’s May and Rumi Sutton’s Fly in Mayflies. Picture: Sam Taylor

“What’s great in the rehearsal period is being able to carve out the characters in 3D, finding out what’s different in each of our characterisations.”

To aid that journey, mood boards have been steadily filled with ideas and notes in the rehearsal room at the Central Methodist Church in St Saviouragte.

Tania rejoins: “What’s been really interesting is how generous they’ve been to each other, truly working as an ensemble with a collective understanding of the story while searching for the differing nuances of each pairing, so we’re developing the individuality of each character. Even with the same blocking, each pairing will feel really different.”

Emma, whose credits include War Horse, says: “To get that distinction between the different combinations, Tania has allowed us to develop why my Fly is different from Rumi’s.

“Having two people playing the same character at different performances brings a different dynamic to each scene, which will end up with it feeling like it’s a different show.

Director Tania Azevedo and musical director Joseph Church overseeing a rehearsal for Mayflies. Picture: Sam Taylor

“This is so rare in musical theatre because it usually has a prescribed time and place and specific type of acting, with freedom being somewhat restricted, but here it’s unique for allowing the true actor’s craft to be infused into the songs.”

Nuno says: “Tania, as the director, will go back to what’s important to squeeze as much juice as we can from each scene, whether we have to be busy or relaxed or open to being vulnerable, but always sticking to what the scene needs. Keep asking what each character needs: that way it doesn’t ever let the oven of creativity get cold.”

Another dimension to the show is representing the world of online dating. “What’s fascinating is that for a third of the play they can’t see each other as they’re connecting through online dating, which has had such an impact, especially since the pandemic when it was the only way to connect and find a new partner,” says Tania.

“No longer do people meet in a bar if you’re looking for love now. Chances are they will meet online. It’s interesting to see how the relationships changes when they’re in the same room [at an hotel], reading texts, talking on the phone or voice noting…”

…”And whether they react and how they react or not, in each situation,” says Rumi, who is making her York Theatre Royal debut after appearing in Hex and Heathers The Musical.

Mayflies composer, lyricist and writer Gus Gowland, seated, with York Theatre Royal cast members Emma Thornett, left, Rumi Sutton and Nuno Queimado

“The impact on when they’re in the room together face to face is pretty extreme,” says Tania.

To add another ingredient, Mayflies does not plough the straight furrow from the relationship’s beginning to finale. “It’s not chronological!” says Nuno. “It keeps jumping between online and offline and we keep jumping backwards and forwards too!”

Those worlds have to be represented in the designs of TK Hay, who so thrilled audiences with his innovative geometric carapace of one and a half miles of fibre-optic cable lighting for the multiverse story world of University of York alumnus Nick Payne’s Constellation at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, last autumn.

“The main thing I told him is that it’s a musical with only two people but we need to make it exciting on a big, big stage,” says Tania. “People have an expectation of how opera will look and we have to find a way to present things in a new style.”

Gus Gowland’s Mayflies runs at York Theatre Royal from tomorrow to May 13, 7.30pm; 2pm, May 4 and 11; 2.30pm, May 6 and 13. In a special deal, you can see all three casting configurations for the discounted price of £15. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Gus Gowland’s romantic musical Mayflies finds myriad ways to tell the same story in world premiere at York Theatre Royal

Mayflies lyricist, composer and writer Gus Gowland, seated with cast members Emma Thornett, left, Rumi Sutton and Nuno Queimado

DO not confuse York Theatre Royal resident artist Gus Gowland’s musical premiere, Mayflies, with Peter Mackie Burns’s 2022 television drama of the same name.

“That series was based on an Andrew O’Hagan’s novel that came out in 2017, but my title is taken from an insect that’s been around since before humanity!” says Gus, whose musical tracks the romantic relationship of May and Fly from first flourish to final goodbye.

“When I started this musical, I didn’t know that the TV series would be coming out when it did, but I did then read the synopsis – and it’s very different from mine! I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d been asked to change the title as the whole point was matching the characteristics of the mayfly,” says Gus.

“It is true that predominantly mayflies live for only 24 hours but they have a gestation period that can last for two years, and that felt like a good metaphor for meeting online, then meeting in person for one night, and then the morning after.

“What happens in Mayflies is that after swiping right, left, up and down across the dating apps, May and Fly begin a tentative conversation. Over time, their romance grows into something real, something special. Then they meet!”

Watching a documentary on riverbanks triggered the musical. “I love rivers for some reason,” says composer, lyricist, songwriter and playwright Gus, who moved to York in 2019 after his partner was appointed chief executive officer of Rural Arts in Thirsk.

“Anyway, there was a section on mayflies and that’s what piqued my interest. That incubation period, which I didn’t know about before then, struck me as really interesting when we only know about the mayfly’s fleeting life, but nothing about that earlier period. I watched it last summer, so the musical has been incredibly quick in arriving.

“It would be nice if I could invest Mayflies with a longer life than a mayfly has, and it’s been brilliant for me that York Theatre Royal has had faith in me to stage this premiere as it’s so important to support new work.”

Running at the Theatre Royal from April 28 to May 13 under the direction of Tania Azevedo, the world premiere of Mayflies will feature alternating configurations of three actors performing the two roles in each performance: Nuno Queimado playing May, Emma Thornett, Fly, and Rumi Sutton either May or Fly.

Another production could have a different gender balance, but however it plays, each pairing is designed to give a different perspective on the relationships within this contemporary love story.

“I was really excited by the challenge of writing something that could be played by pretty much anyone, regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality,” says Gus. 

“As an audience, we bring so much of ourselves and our understanding of the world to the things we see, so I wanted to explore what happens when we see the exact same love story told by different people – how would the dynamics change? Which moments would hit harder in each telling?

Mayflies designer T K Hay, left, musical director Joseph Church, cast members Nuno Queimado, Emma Thornett and Rumi Sutton, director Tania Azevedo and composer Gus Gowland at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

“I know how much an actor brings to a role too and so I wanted to create people that the actors cast would be able to really imbue with their own sense of identity. We’ve seen some rotating casts before, but I really wanted to write the flexibility of casting into the material, rather than just have it as a production idea layered on top.”

Gus continues: “It’s a real challenge to avoid signifiers of characteristics, like age and gender, but I’ve adored finding ways to create rounded specific characters without those to lean back on. One way I’ve done that is to write the parts in different time signatures, which makes them musically very distinct.

“I’m over the moon with the extraordinary cast of actors we have for this first ever production of Mayflies and am so excited to see what they each bring to the characters.”

Gus, who lectures on the post-graduate musical theatre course at Leeds Conservatoire, has a two-year residency at York Theatre Royal, where his songs have been heard already in showcases for professional York talent.

For 2021’s Love Bites, he wrote a song for diarist Anne Lister (alias Gentleman Jack), performed by Dora Rubinstein, and for 2022’s Green Shoots, he used James Herriot quotes for I’ll Go T’Other, a song about the vet and his relationship with North Yorkshire, performed by Joe Douglass.

Settled into the city – he and his partner have bought a house here – Gus is aware of York’s love of musicals, whether staged by York companies or brought to the city on tour. “Mayflies’ Theatre Royal run is sandwiched between Strictly Ballroom and Heathers at the Grand Opera House: there is so much musical theatre staged here, so for me to have the opportunity to start a new musical’s life here is wonderful.

“So many people want to make their life is musical theatre, and it’s good for them to see that they don’t always have to go to London to be involved. There are theatres making musical theatre elsewhere.”

Brought up on watching Disney hits and classical musicals such as Kiss Me Kate, Gus had a love of musical theatre from the age of five, becoming obsessed with it, he says, whether Les Miserables or hearing the voices of Ruthie Henshall, Lea Salonga and Michael Ball.

“I just think it’s the best way to tell a story, though I know it’s certainly more complicated to get musical shows on because there are definitely more moving parts. They take more time to put on, which is the main challenge,” he says.

As with Gus’s Pieces Of String, winner of the 2018 Stage Debut Award for Best Composer or Lyricist and the UK Theatre Award for Best Musical Production for its Mercury Theatre, Colchester premiere, Mayflies has a book, lyrics and music by Gowland, a self-taught musician who composes on the piano.

“What’s rare is that both my main-house shows have been completely original, coming out of my brain and heart, rather than being an adaptation, where I’m more likely to be collaborative,” he says.

Gus had trained to be a classical actor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. “I didn’t do many musicals there, but I did write two songs for a new show called Spoon River that we did as our third-year show based on a book of poems from the late 1800s, where every poem told a person’s life story,” he recalls.

Mayflies composer Gus Gowland and director Tania Azevedo

“I did quite a lot of concert singing but I didn’t look after my voice, which I would have needed to do for musical theatre.”

Gus duly decided to focus on musical theatre writing after focusing initially on acting, going on to study for an MA in musical theatre writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, and latterly a PhD in musical theatre, specifically looking at gay representation in the artform, using Pieces Of String as part of his studies.

As for his style of musicals, Gus says: “Being an actor, I’m familiar with text and though I love sung-through musicals, like Rent or Les Miserables, I consider myself more of a dramatist or storyteller. I like songs to be ‘real moments’ and I like them to be moments of transition in the story, with ten songs in all in Mayflies.”

He divides Mayflies into three stages, matching the life arc of the mayfly: Nymph online, Dun for the night together in a hotel room and Spinner for the morning after, but be warned, the story’s path is not chronological.

“We jump from one to another at a moment’s notice, with a lighting change or a sound effect. What’s interesting is people being different versions of themselves at different times, when the safety net of separate spaces is taken away in moving from online to in-person,” says Gus.

“We are contrary creatures, so we’ll say things that are the opposite of what we said before; sometimes that’s intentional, sometimes it’s because you’ve forgotten what you said, but for the other person it might have been memorable.

“In Pieces Of String I had two time frames, and now what I get to do in Mayflies is show whether someone said something or not and whether they meant it or not, and by being really free in the casting, over gender, age and race, I let audiences play with their own assumptions, because we assume things when we see people of a certain age or sexuality.

“The dynamics between each pairing can be totally different in its compact with a song taking on a different meaning, depending on who is singing it. Using different time registers for each character, which I’ve never done before, it’s interesting to see how different it makes them sound too. It’s all part of what I want to do, to really push myself as a writer.”

Gus is picking up Pieces Of String once more this year with a view to its further development. “I started writing it in 2011 as part of my MA and then developed it over many years before premiering it at Colchester in 2018 after the Mercury Theatre came to one of the workshops and decided to take it on.

“Now it’s being optioned by Global Music, who produced SIX The Musical, and by Alchemation in America, so I’ve done a new draft, making changes from the premiere. It could have happened sooner but for finishing my PhD and the pandemic, but we’ve now done a reading of it at the Vaudeville Theatre [in London] in January.”

How long is Pieces Of String’s future? Wait and see!

York Theatre Royal presents Gus Gowland’s Mayflies, April 28 to May 13, 7.30pm, plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or

More Things To Do in York and beyond, strictly in the name of entertainment. Here’s Hutch’s List No. 17, from The Press

Boundary breakers: Kevin Clifton’s Scott Hastings and Faye Brookes’s Fran in Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom The Musical, on tour at Grand Opera House, York. Picture: Pamela Raith

SHAKESPEARE all shook up, a trio of musicals, a singular Magic Number, orchestral Potter and Tolkien and rocking Goths put Charles Hutchinson’s week ahead in good shape.

Dance show of the week: Strictly Ballroom The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, Monday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Wednesday and Saturday matinees

STRICTLY Come Dancing champ Kevin Clifton is joined by Dancing On ice runner-up and Coronation Street soap star Faye Brookes in Baz Luhrmann’s Australian romantic comedy musical.

Directed by Strictly’s Aussie-born judge Craig Revel Horwood, it follows rebellious ballroom dancer Scott Hastings (Clifton) as he falls out with the Australian Federation and finds himself dancing with Fran (Brookes), a beginner with no moves at all. Inspired by one another, this unlikely pairing gathers the courage to defy both convention and families. Box office:

From Ukraine, with love: Kyiv National Academic Molodyy Theatre, from Ukraine, will perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream at York International Shakespeare Festival on April 28. Picture: Oleksii Tovpyha

Festival of the week and beyond: York International Shakespeare Festival, various venues, running until May 1

THIS festival’s fifth edition combines more than 40 live events with others online, taking in international, national and York-made performances, talks, workshops, exhibitions and discussions.

Look out for the Kyiv National Academic Molodyy Theatre, from Ukraine, performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream (April 28); Flabbergast Theatre’s The Tragedy Of Macbeth (April 26); artists from Poland, Croatia and Romania and Tim Crouch’s exploration of King Lear in a post-pandemic world, virtual-reality head set et al, in Truth’s A Dog Must To Kennel (April 29). For the full programme and tickets, go to:

Virtual reality meets King Lear: Tim Crouch in Truth’s A Dog Must To Kennel at the York International Shakespeare Festival. Picture: Stuart Armitt

Soundtracks of the week: The Music Of The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit and The Rings Of Power In Concert, York Barbican, Monday, 4pm; The Magical Music Of Harry Potter Live In Concert, Monday, 8pm

THIS brace of concerts has been rearranged from April 6 to 24, both featuring a symphonic orchestra, choir, star soloists and an original actor. The first, a two-hour matinee celebrating the music inspired by the work of J R R Tolkien, spans the threatening sounds of Mordor, the shrill attack of the black riders and the beautiful lyrical melodies of the elves. 

The second showcases the Harry Potter film soundtracks by John Williams, Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper and Alexandre Desplat, complemented by music from the Harry Potter And The Cursed Child stage show. Box office:

Crowning gory: Harry Summers’ Richard, seated, becomes king in a York Shakespeare Project rehearsal for Richard III. Picture: John Saunders

“Petty, narcissistic and vengeful psychopath” of the week: York Shakespeare Project in Richard III, Friargate Theatre, Lower Friargate, York, Wednesday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee

PHASE Two of York Shakespeare Project, projected to run for 25 years, is launched with former British diplomat Daniel Roy Connolly’s modern-day account of “the York play”, Richard III, set amid the frenetic, calculating and brutal politicking of the House of Commons.

“Telling Shakespeare through what is comfortably the most corrupt institution in the country, the play explores the cut and thrust of power’s crucible, with laws ignored and lies sown,” he says. Harry Summers leads the cast. Box office:

Romeo Stodart: Solo night at the Fulford Arms for the Magic Numbers singer

Low-key gig of the week: An Evening With Romeo Of The Magic Numbers, Fulford Arms, York, Sunday, 7.30pm

O ROMEO, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo Stodart on Sunday night? The lead vocalist, guitarist and principal songwriter of indie rockers The Magic Numbers will be in lonesome mode at the Fulford Arms. Expect Magic Numbers gems and equally magic numbers from 2011 solo album The Moon And You. Box office:

Steve Tearle: Director, Narrator and Mystery Man in NE’s Into The Woods

Bewitching show of the week: NE in Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee

STEPHEN Sondheim’s darkly witty musical is a grown-up twist on the classic fairytales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack And The Beanstalk, here narrated by NE director Steve Tearle.

After the curse of a once-beautiful witch (Pascha Turnbull) leaves a baker (Chris Hagyard) and his wife (Perri-Ann Barley) childless, they venture into the woods to find the ingredients needed to reverse the spell.  Encounters with all manner of fairytale favourites ensue, each on a quest to fulfil a wish. Box office: 01904 501935 or

Mayflies writer-composer Gus Gowland, seated with cast members Emma Thornett, left, Rumi Sutton and Nuno Queimado

Musical premiere of the week: Gus Gowland’s Mayflies, York Theatre Royal, April 28 to May 13, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees

THREE into two will go when York Theatre Royal stages the world premiere of resident artist Gus Gowland’s musical Mayflies, wherein he explores how people present different versions of themselves in relationships and how it can then all come crashing down.

Three actors, Nuno Queimado (May), Rumi Sutton (May/Fly) and Emma Thornett (Fly), will alternate the roles, with each pairing offering a different perspective on the relationships within this contemporary love story, traced by Gowland from first flourish on a dating app to the last goodbye in person. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Cold Cave: Headlining the Friday bill at the Tomorrow’s Ghosts Festival in Whitby

Goth gathering of the week: Tomorrow’s Ghosts Festival Spring Gathering 2023, Whitby Pavilion, Whitby, April 28 and 29

BACK in black in the home of Dracula, Whitby’s premier gothic music and alternative arts festival returns with headline appearances by Cold Cave (April 28) and New Model Army (April 29) and a Friday club night into the early hours by Leeds living legends Carpe Noctum.

The Friday bill features a rare performance from American goth rock special guests Christian Death, alongside sets by The Rose Of Avalanche and Siberia. Saturday features special guests Lebanon Hanover, Ist Ist and The Nosferatu. Box office:

Meet the three who will become two for each performance of Gus Gowland’s musical Mayflies at York Theatre Royal

Mayflies cast members Emma Thornett, left, Rumi Sutton and Nuno Queimado with composer, writer and lyricist Gus Gowland

THREE into two will go when York Theatre Royal stages the world premiere of resident artist Gus Gowland’s musical Mayflies from April 28 to May 13.

Three actors, Nuno Queimado (May), Rumi Sutton (May/Fly) and Emma Thornett (Fly), will alternate the roles of May and Fly, with each pairing offering a different perspective on the relationships within this contemporary love story.

Not to be confused with Peter Mackie Burns’s 2022 television drama of the same name based on Andrew O’Hagan’s novel, Gowland’s Mayflies tracks the romantic relationship of May and Fly from first flourish to final goodbye.

After swiping right, left, up and down across the dating apps, they match, duly beginning a tentative conversation. Over time, their romance grows into something real, something special. Then they meet!

Award-winning composer, lyricist, songwriter and playwright Gowland’s musical explores the different versions of themselves that people become during relationships and how – in the blink of an eye – it can all come crashing down.

“I was really excited by the challenge of writing something that could be played by pretty much anyone, regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality,” says Gus. 

Nuno Queimado at a research & development session for Mayflies

“As an audience, we bring so much of ourselves and our understanding of the world to the things we see, so I wanted to explore what happens when we see the exact same love story told by different people – how would the dynamics change? Which moments would hit harder in each telling?

“I know how much an actor brings to a role too and so I wanted to create people that the actors cast would be able to really imbue with their own sense of identity. We’ve seen some rotating casts before, but I really wanted to write the flexibility of casting into the material, rather than just have it as a production idea layered on top.”

Gus adds:  “It’s a real challenge to avoid signifiers of characteristics, like age and gender, but I’ve adored finding ways to create rounded specific characters without those to lean back on. One way I’ve done that is to write the parts in different time signatures, which makes them musically very distinct.

“I’m over the moon with the extraordinary cast of actors we have for this first ever production of Mayfliesand am so excited to see what they each bring to the characters.”

Portuguese-born Nuno Queimado played the alternate Alexander Hamilton in the London West End production of Hamilton and has starred in Jesus Christ Superstar too. Rumi Sutton’s credits include Hex and Heathers; Emma Thornett has appeared in War Horse and Bedknobs And Broomsticks.

Directing this trio in rehearsals from the first week of April will be Tania Azevedo, who specialises in developing new work. Resident director on & Juliet in the West End, earlier she received best director nominations in the Off-West End Awards and Broadway World Awards for her work on Turbine Theatre’s world premiere of But I’m A Cheerleader, based on the cult LGBTQ+ film. The show won best Off-West End production at the What’s On Stage Awards.

Emma Thornett: Playing Fly in Mayflies

“When I first read Mayflies, one of the aspects of Gus’s work that immediately grabbed me was the flexibility with which May and Fly have been written,” says Tania. “It allows them to be played by any actor, regardless of age, gender or any other identifiers. This has led to a rich and thought-provoking casting process.

“It truly became about pairing actors and learning about their shared humour, approach to vulnerable conversations and chemistry with one another. Finding three actors who bring very different things to the table, and who have the craft to tackle this idea of ‘multiple configurations’, has been a joyous process and a unique approach to musical-theatre casting. We’re looking forward to making this piece with this incredible cast.”

Songs by Gowland, who lives in York, have been heard already on the Theatre Royal stage in showcases for professional York talent. For 2021’s Love Bites, he wrote a song for diarist Anne Lister (alias Gentleman Jack), performed by Dora Rubinstein, and for 2022’s Green Shoots, he used James Herriot quotes for I’ll Go T’Other, a song about the vet and his relationship with North Yorkshire, performed by Joe Douglass.

Before moving from London to York, Gowland enjoyed success with his first full-length musical Pieces Of String at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, named The Stage’s Best Regional Musical of the Year in 2018 and nominated for the UK Theatre Best Musical Production award. He won The Stage Debut Award for Best Composer/Lyricist and was nominated for the inaugural Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for Best Musical Theatre Bookwriting.

Gowland has been commissioned previously by Theatre Royal Stratford East and has developed shows with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Leeds Conservatoire.

In 2021, with Craig Mather, he wrote and released an EP of pop songs focusing on mental health, In Motion. His musical short Subway was produced by MPTheatricals that year.

Rumi Sutton: Playing May/Fly in Mayflies

His short musical Sick! was performed at LOST Theatre, London, and his short play Clocks & Teapots was performed at RADA Studios and the London Transport Museum.

Gowland was commissioned by Olivier Award-winning theatre collective Duckie to write songs for Copyright Christmas (Barbican, London). He co-wrote and directed Barren and Love Love Love, which toured to Canada, and wrote and performed the one-man musical Tell Me On A Thursday at the Camden Fringe.

Joining Azevedo in the production team will be designer TK Hay, whose hi-tech creativity was last seen on a North Yorkshire stage in Nick Payne’s intricate Constellations at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, last November. Past credits include Making Of A Monster for Wales Millennium Centre and The Apology for New Earth Theatre. Musical direction, arrangement and orchestration will be by Joseph Church.

York Theatre Royal presents Gus Gowland’s Mayflies, April 28 to May 13, 7.30pm, plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or For a video introduction to Mayflies, visit:

Did you know?

IN 2014, Gus Gowland was on the UK Jury for the Eurovision Song Contest.

Gus Gowland and director Tania Azevedo at a research & development session for Mayflies

More Things To Do in York in 2023. Hutch’s New Year List No. 1, courtesy of The Press

The horror, the horrror: Doctor Dorian Deathly swaps ghost walks for ghost talks at Theatre@41, Monkgate

AS the New Year fast approaches, Charles Hutchinson starts to fill the blank pages of a diary in need of cultural counters to so much front-page gloom.

From ghost walk to ghost talk: Doctor Dorian Deathly: A Night Of Face Melting Horror (or The Complete History Of Ghosts), Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, January 24 to 28, 8.30pm

COVID crocked York spookologist and ghost botherer Doctor Dorian Deathly’s Halloween season of macabre stories, paranormal sciences, theatrical trickery, horror, original music and perhaps the odd unexpected guest (with the emphasis on ‘odd’?) at Theatre@41.

The Visit York Tourism Awards winner has rearranged his five fright nights for late-January, when he will explore spine-chilling tales of hauntings, both local and further afield, dissemble horrors captured on film and trace the ghost story from its origins to Victorian classics and modern-day frights. Box office:

Ukrainian National Opera: First visit to York with Carmen

Ukrainians in York: Dnipro Opera in Carmen, York Barbican, February 12, 7pm

DNIPRO Opera, from Ukraine, perform Georges Bizet’s opera of fiery passion, jealousy and violence in 19th century Seville in French with English surtitles, to the accompaniment of a 30-strong orchestra.

Carmen charts the downfall of Don José, a naïve soldier who falls head over heels in love with Carmen, a seductive, free-spirited femme fatale, abandoning his childhood sweetheart and neglecting his military duties, only to lose the fickle firebrand to the glamorous toreador Escamillo. Box office:

Robert Forster: New album to showcase at The Crescent

York’s Australian gig of the year: Robert Forster, The Crescent, York, March 14, 7.30pm

BRISBANE singer, songwriter, guitarist, music critic and author Robert Forster, co-founder of The Go-Betweens with the late Grant McLennan, plays a rearranged date in York, now in support of the February 3 release of his eighth solo album, The Candle And The Flame.

Made an honorary Doctor of Letters at Queensland University in 2015, Forster, 65, is writing a novel, overseeing the upcoming Volume 3 of The Go-Betweens’ boxset series, G Stands For Go-Betweens, and touring the UK, Europe and Australia in the first half of 2023. Box office:

Tommy Cannon: Comedian in conversation at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre

Rock on, Tommy, for charity: An Evening With Tommy Cannon, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, April 15, 7.30pm

KELFIELD comedian Tommy Cannon, 84, takes to the JoRo stage for an evening of songs, stories, anecdotes and conversation, reflecting on his double act on television and the boards with the late Bobby Ball.

Cannon – real name Thomas Derbyshire – will take questions from the audience at this fundraising event in aid of The Snappy Trust, the York charity that seeks to maximise the personal development of children and young people with wide-ranging disabilities. The Boro Blues Brothers will be the support act. Box office: 01904 501935 or

Composer Gus Gowland: Premiering new musical Mayflies at York Theatre Royal

New musical of the year: Gus Gowland’s Mayflies, York Theatre Royal, April 28 to May 13

GUS Gowland, an award-winning London composer, lyricist and playwright now living in York, presents the world premiere of Mayflies, the story of a romantic relationship from its first flourish to its final goodbye.

First making his mark with debut full-length musical Pieces Of String in 2018, Gowland now charts May and Fly’s progress from dating apps to tentative conversations and blossoming romance…and then they meet! Box office: 01904 623568 or

The joy of SIX: Henry VIII’s wives weave their woes through Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s revenge musical on its return to the Grand Opera House, York. Picture: Pamela Raith

Quickfire return of the year: SIX The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, June 27 to July 2, 8pm, Tuesday to Thursday; 6pm and 8.30pm, Friday; 4pm and 8pm, Saturday, and 2pm, Sunday

HERE come the Spouse Girls again. After the history and hysteria of October’s sold-out debut run in York, the SIX pop queens make a regal return next summer in Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s all-female show for the millennial age.

In a pop concert with diva attitude, Henry VIII’s trouble-and-strife sextet air their grievances in song in chronological order to decide who suffered most at Henry’s hands once he put a ring on the wedding finger. From this talent-and-talons contest will emerge the group’s lead singer. Book early at

Miriam Margolyes: Booked into York Barbican for her Oh Miriam! musings

Outspoken national treasure speaks out: Miriam Margolyes, Oh Miriam! Live, York Barbican, October 16, 7.30pm

BAFTA-WINNING actress, chat-show regular and travel show presenter Miriam Margolyes, 81, will be telling tales from her new book, Oh Miriam!, “something that has been said to me a lot over the years, often in tones of strong disapproval,” she says.

“Reliably outrageous” Margolyes promises a riotous evening full of life and surprises, her conversation spanning revelations, stories and discoveries that she cannot wait to share. Box office:

Ross Noble: Geordie Jibber Jabber Jamboree joviality in Harrogate and York

Stream-of-consciousnonsense on tap:  Ross Noble, Jibber Jabber Jamboree, Harrogate Royal Hall, October 26, 7.30pm; Grand Opera House, York, November 15, 8pm

GEORDIE surrealist Ross Noble ventures out on his 53-date Jibber Jabber Jamboree itinerary, his 21st solo tour, from October 2023 to March 2024. Expect inspired nonsense in his freewheeling stand-up.

“Imagine watching someone create a magic carpet on an enchanted loom,” says Noble, 46. “Oh, hang on… magic carpets fly; that would smash the loom as it took flight. I haven’t thought that through… That’s what people can expect. Razor-sharp observations on things I haven’t thought through.” Box office:

Who’s taking part in York Theatre Royal’s Green Shoots showcase of new works?

Bolshee trio Paula Clark, left, Megan Bailey and Lizzy Whynes: Premiering Boss B***h at Green Shoots

NEW work commissioned by York Theatre Royal from dozens of York and North Yorkshire professional artists will be premiered in Green Shoots on June 7 and 8.

Poets, performers, singers, dancers and digital artists will take part in this sequel to Love Bites, last May’s two-night showcase that marked the Theatre Royal’s reopening after the lifting of Covid lockdown restrictions.

Forming part of the Rumours & Rebels season, Green Shoots’s diverse bite-sized performances will be focused on “rebooting post-pandemic and looking to the future of the planet”.

Twenty commissions have been selected by the Theatre Royal from the call-out for submissions for a scheme that offers £1,000 per commission plus £150 each time they are performed.

Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster says: “Love Bites last year was a joyous event that will live long in my mind, not just because we were re-opening after 14 months of enforced closure, but also because our stage was filled to overflowing with the tremendous talent and ingenuity of local artists.

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster

“It was moving, spectacular, surprising, thought-provoking and funny in equal measures. We have created this new opportunity with Green Shoots because we are excited to see what they will do next.”

Those who were commissioned have been asked to respond to the title Green Shoots in any way that it can be interpreted. “Pieces might be about hope, recovery, new beginnings, revolution, new life, growth, the environment or anything else that can be imagined as a response,” says Juliet.

Participating next month will be Hayley Del Harrison; Dora Rubinstein; Sam Bond; Fladam; Bolshee; Butshilo Nleya; Ana Silverio; Esther Irving; Gus Gowland; Nettle Soup and Polychrome Studios; Paul Birch and Sam Conway.

So too will be Ella Portnoy; Kate Bramley/Badapple Theatre Company; Robert Powell, Ben Pugh and Kitty Greenbrown; Libby Pearson and Emily Chattle; Alexander Flanagan-Wright; Hannah Davies and Jack Woods; Joe Feeney and Carey Simon.

Hayley Del Harrison: Choreographer and theatre-maker

Hang On Little Tomato, Hayley Del Harrison.

HANG On Little Tomato is about a young woman, growing her very first tomato plant. Some people believe that plants respond emotionally when you talk to them but our novice gardener takes this to the next level. It turns out the shared experience delivers mutual support, faithful companionship and that tiny bit of vibrancy they both needed to feel a little less alone. 

Spring In My Step!, Dora Rubinstein

THIS contortion and acro-dance piece is a physical exploration of how it feels when the sun shines again after a long winter. The feeling of sunlight on your skin; the smell of freshly cut grass; the sight of daffodils. The feeling that light, connection, joy, is back, and the dark days are over.

All The World Is Green, Sam Bond

LONELY retirees Jamie and Clara meet by chance at a concert in their Yorkshire Dales village, bringing love unexpectedly back into their lives. A story of new beginnings, All The World Is Green blends live performance and film to look at the power of memories, life after loss and finding love again in old age.

Greenfingers, Fladam

DID you ever hear the tale of Greenfingers? The wicked boy born with unsightly green hands, who spoils all he touches. But has history misjudged this green-fingered boy? Is he even a boy at all? Find out in this deliciously Dahl-esq treat from madcap musical duo Fladam, alias Adam Sowter and Florence Poskitt.

BOSS B***H, Bolshee

BOSS B***H explores the infamous statement made by influencer Molly-Mae Hague and celebrity media personality Kim Kardashian that we all have the same 24 hours in a day as Beyonce. Cue five minutes of female voices, beats and moves. “Let’s challenge the toxic boss bitch narrative,” say Paula Clark, Lizzie Whynes and Megan Bailey.

Butshilo Nleya: Healing stories

Tatu Dances: Stories Of Healers, Butshilo Nleya

A PLAY with dances, songs, poetry about healing the mind, the body and the spirit celebrated by three generations of displaced, dejected, denigrated and defiant African healers. 

Green Shoots, Ana Silverio (Terpsichoring)

ANA’S solo dance piece, specially created for the Green Shoots commission, explores the processes and emotions of starting over again after an unexpected interruption. This work is about perseverance and the search for possibilities.

Her Face/My Face, Esther Irving

WHAT do you do when you no longer recognise the face that looks back at you in the mirror? How can you re-connect the life you had with the one you live now?

Your Own Road, Gus Gowland

THIS original song takes its inspiration from a quote from James Herriot’s memoir All Creatures Great And Small: “When all t’world goes one road, I go t’other”. Performed by Joe Douglass, this uplifting and empowering anthem encourages you to follow your own path and see hope in the world around you.

Stones On The Riverbed! Nettle Soup and Polychrome Studios

HAVE you ever heard of the legend of the five white stones? This piece of verbatim theatre explores what the residents of York are looking forward to in the future, unearthing their hearts’ truest desires.

Gus Gowland: Uplifting and empowering anthem

Beanstalk, Paul Birch

FOR hundreds of years, you have been telling the story of Jack And The Beanstalk completely wrong.  Beanstalk is the recently discovered true account of the tale, told from the Giant’s point of view. Any similarities to any persons now living, lying or misusing public funds is entirely coincidental. 

‘Don’t Mow, Let it Grow!’, Sam Conway (Little Leaf Theatre)

THIS piece extols the benefits of letting the grass in your garden grow throughout spring. Incorporating dance, music and video, Little Leaf Theatre endeavour to bring a serious message to the stage in a light-hearted and engaging way.

Baby Bird, Ella Portnoy

A MONOLOGUE about breaking out of an egg and feeling new-born after lockdown – being a gosling and pottering around in the world, full of curiosity.

The Three Allotmenteers, Kate Bramley/Badapple Theatre Company

A CURIOUS late-night game takes place at The Gardener’s Arms as The Three Allotmenteers play for what was left after the sudden death of their friend. An unexpected discovery sows the seeds of a joyous outcome to their current situation

Beckon, Robert Powell, Ben Pugh and Kitty Greenbrown

THIS five-minute performance and film-poem drew initial inspiration from a remarkable medieval church window in York. Beckon invites its audience on a brief but powerful journey through a landscape of shared memory, confusion, fear and wonder towards a sense of hope.

The dramatic collage of spoken word, film and sound conjures both past and present times to address our current situation – a world at once treasured and threatened.

Alexander Flanagan-Wright: “Just words, and a little bit of music”

The Sapling!, Libby Pearson and Emily Chattle

SASHA’S history has bonded her to nature in general and to trees in particular, and she knows that sometimes even the smallest of gestures can have the biggest of impacts. Meet Sasha as she tells her personal story of discovery and making a difference.

If There Was Ever Anything Worth Hoping For Then I Hope, Alexander Flanagan-Wright

“THIS is a story. It’s a short story. It’s only five minutes long. But it’s about loads of stuff. It’s about everyone, I guess,” says Alex. “It’s about everything that got each of us to here and it’s about what we do next and, importantly, what we hope will happen after that.

“It’s just words, and a little bit of music. But it’s come from your yesterday, your week before, the years that got you here. And it’s about tomorrow, or next week, or next year. If you’re after a fresh start, they perhaps don’t exist. But tomorrow does, so let’s pin some of our hope on that, shall we?”

The Ballad Of Blea Wyke!, Hannah Davies and Jack Woods

THE traditional selkie myth is reworked for the Yorkshire East Coast, set against the dramatic landscape of Ravenscar. Here the ancient story of the seal-people is re-imagined, placing it in a world not too far off from our own, where cliffs are crumbling and some people have never seen the sea, despite the rising water levels.

Green Man!, Joe Feeney

AT the end of his tether witnessing the climate emergency’s destructive charge towards certain oblivion, and feeling utter powerlessness, an ordinary man calls on the mythical Green Man of yore to save the world.

Ocean/Jura, Carey Simon

PRESENTING two poems with a backdrop of classical music. Ocean focuses on the seething fury of the mighty unabashed ocean, the passion and the volatility of its rolling motion that conceals its briny, gloom-shrouded depths from frail eyes above.

Jura is an elixir that transcends the bounds of the spirit-taste divide. Smoothness, translucence overflowing the senses into something more. Deliciousness, a notion leading to Nirvana’s devotion.

Tickets for the two 7.30pm performances are on sale on 01904 623568 or at

REVIEW: Love Bites, The Love Season, York Theatre Royal, May 17 and 18

Send in the clown : James Lewis-Knight in his Love Bite, Staying Connected. Picture: Tom Arber

YORK Theatre Royal has reopened after 427 days. The longest, darkest hiatus since the Second World War at England’s longest-running theatre has ended with a declaration of love.

More precisely, 22 love letters to the power of theatre, a craving for freedom of movement, expression and identity and the need for human connection: a collective, anything-but-cautious hug that was as much a sigh of relief as a breath of fresh York air in the form of a fiesta of five-minute vignettes commissioned from 220 applicants.

Let’s repeat that. 22O applicants for £1,000 commissions from York’s diverse arts community that refuses to accept Rich Boy Risha Sunak’s slight that such talents are non-viable. A community that will laugh off the Beano comic’s laughable Hilarity Report finding that the average York resident laughs only 14 times a day, the second lowest in the country. Are you joking? Laugher aplenty could be heard on Monday night, alongside the joy, the sadness, the uncertainty but hope.

Indeed, The 22 would surely challenge York Mix e-letter writer John Wolfe’s scalding, agent-provocateur assertion that York is a city of “no real festivals or decent venues. No sports centres or entertainment for locals. No chance of change either. Why do you think all of the young people move away? Outside of its history it’s drab and bl**dy awful.”

Crying Wolfe? Well, John, in the city of the York Community Stadium, four state-of-the-art cinemas, myriad theatres, ever more restaurants, café bars, coffee houses, independent galleries and a rising tide of street art, perhaps you should go York Theatre Royal, one of the country’s great theatres, tonight (Tuesday) to see the spread of talent, both young and older.

Some were born in the city and are determined to stay here, when the arts are becoming less London-centric; others have been drawn to the city from, for example, Canada and Zimbabwe, and here they gathered under one rainbow umbrella to express their love for York and their place in it. 

Trouble is, John, you can’t buy a seat because, as with the first night, tonight’s Love Bites have sold out at the outset of a Love Season pulsing with life, vigour and, yes, love, topped off by Ralph Fiennes performing T S Eliot’s Four Quartets in late-July.

In the words of chief executive Tom Bird, Love Bites and The Love Season are a chance to “experience again the electric excitement that only live performance can bring. This spring and summer, we’re putting on a season of brave, bold love stories to celebrate the return of human connection. We’re doing it with passion, fervour and heart, as you’d expect.”

Monday night began with the much-loved veteran BBC broadcaster Harry Gration in host mode, toasting his 50-year love affair with the Theatre Royal before making way for the flurry of short pieces.

The screen backdrop could and probably should have been used for announcing each show title, writer and performer, especially as flicking through the e-programme on your phone in the dark would have been distracting for others, even in the socially distanced seating with the capacity reduced from 750 to 340.

Actor Toby Gordon’s hair has grown to Dave Grohl length in locks-down lockdown, but the golden tongue that delivered both Satan and later Jesus’s lines in the York Minster Mystery Plays now glistened anew in the questing, vexed poetry of W H Auden’s O Tell Me The Truth About Love.

Film would feature on several occasions through the night, first in a cinematic riparian soundscape by Ben Pugh to accompany the poetic ebb and flow of Robert Powell and Kitty Greenbrown’s The Angels Of Lendal Bridge, imagining those painted “angels” conversing above the Ouse, recalling so much water that has passed under their iron bridge amid a rising tide of love.

Luella Rebbeck, Jamie Marshall-White and Isla Bowles in The Art Of Losing. Picture: Tom Arber

CAPA College student trio Luella Rebbeck, Jamie Marshall-White and Isla Bowles, in glowing green and pink socks to suit the occasion, were nevertheless in contemplative mood in The Art Of Losing, tempo slow, bodies graceful, in what they emphasised were three “non-love stories”, but instead felt more like a lament; a year’s absence making the heart grow fonder for “what it means to have contact with one another”.

Playwright, poet and slam champ Hannah Davies’s tweets at @davieswords have charted her enervating health frustrations, but no York shaper of words captures a sense, meaning and memory of place so movingly, so evocatively, and what a joy it was to see back on a stage for Love Song To Spring.

Accompanied by Jack “Pascallion” Woods’s exploratory guitar paths, her lockdown love story journeyed through the freshly discovered joys of city walking and spring renewal in York’s myriad green spaces. Listen to Hannah, and you will step into spring with added spring in your step.

New discovery of the night was much-travelled Zimbabwean playwright Butshilo Nleya, who “wondered if my pockets are big enough to carry home with me” as he moved to York.

Explosive bursts of drumming and film imagery by Sunnie Hsia of Butshilo on York streets, stairways and in the dank Leeman Road tunnel formed a triptych with his soliloquy, Ekhaya, Love Them Both?, as he mulled over place, love and self, with humour rooted in observation of York’s idiosyncrasies, but a deeper wish to find his place, wherever he plays his drum, whatever life throws at him. One to watch, definitely.

For aeons, a Nightingale’s nocturnal song has had writers reaching for metaphors for love and beauty. Musician, performance writer and actor Tom Nightingale’s song, Elaine, is to “show everyone my gratitude to the only lady who has ever helped me”, his wife.

In its cautious yet unguarded way it was a song of love and beauty suffused with unshaven, wry, deadpan frankness, delivered in the spirit of John Otway and Jonathan Richman beneath Martin Stephenson’s cocked hat. Nightingale writes as a “therapeutic outlet”, to make sense of life; on Monday, it worked for your reviewer; hopefully it does for Elaine too.

The name in the Love Bites e-programme and in her Q&A answers to CharlesHutchPress is Erika Noda, but the Japanese-English actor and East 15 graduate born in York introduced herself on Monday as Aiaka, the name that a teacher found so difficult, she called her ‘Ai’ and banished her from the classroom for insubordination in challenging her.

So began the journey to Ai, Erika/Aiaka’s semi-autobiographical debut solo-writing work, examining her dual heritage and encounters with racist “microaggression”, growing up in York, (a city once so white it was dubbed “Persil Town”). On the evidence of Ai, this quest for identity remains unresolved, a bumpy ride with such familiar stones in the road as “no, but where are you really from?”.

Even the inventor of Zoom apparently has had enough of all those enervating Zoom-and-gloom meetings, but loveable York musical-comedy double act Fladam (pianist-singer Adam Sowter and funny face-puller and singer Florence Poskitt) found the funny side of this digital bridge to connecting in lockdown-separation in the tartly topical Love Bytes. Aptly, the cheeky, witty, melodious encounter was long-distance, Adam on stage, Flo online, filling the screen with a squelchy face as ripe for comedy as Thora Hird or Victoria Wood.

Surprise of the night? Seeing Paul Birch on stage and then wondering why he does not frequent this space more often. Maybe he is just too busy writing and directing, and running Out Of Character, the York company for artists with experiences of mental illness.

His twisting-and-turning five-minute gem, Lost For Words, was a mind-game in motion as the quicksilver Birch fought to save his most precious relationship in a race against time where a killjoy voice from beyond kept stripping him of the right to use letters from the alphabet, letter by letter. You found yourself joining him in his mental exercise, smugly spotting him still using a ‘V’ when barred from doing so, but cheering him on as he tried to keep his head above water as the wds rn t. Could this be a game show in the making?

All around is frown time, but clown time is never over for the red-nosed James Lewis-Knight, actor and artistic director of Clown Space, purveyor of comical pandemonium amid a pandemic. After a year as the Clown in Lockdown, wandering the busking streets of York turned silent, James unlocked his dusty case to make his mimed plea for Staying Connected. He kept saying “Picnic”, but where Birch was lost for words, James was a little lost for meaning, one punchline short of his Picnic having more bite.

If you heard Dora Rubinstein’s perkily assertive rendition of Gus Gowland’s The Streets Of York blind, you would swear it was from a musical. Sure enough, Gowland, latterly moved to York, is a musical theatre writer/composer with the award-winning Pieces Of String to his name. Gowland’s celebration of Gentleman Jack Anne Lister’s wedding vows in a York church will surely grow from a love letter to a full-blown show, a progression the Theatre Royal should encourage and activate.

Janet-Emily Bruce and Cassie Vallance in Story Craft Theatre’s She Can Go Anywhere. Picture: Tom Arber

In a night of storytelling, butter-rich with words, the shadow puppetry of children’s theatre company Story Craft Theatre silently spoke volumes to the accompaniment of Jonathan Glew’s beautiful score in She Can Go Anywhere. Who knew you could say so much with a sheet, folded and unfolded by Cassie Vallance and Janet-Emily Bruce as if a cotton version of origami, freeing imaginations when the pandemic has shrunk the world to the home, transforming life’s caterpillars into butterflies.

Hannah Wintie-Hawkins was a dancer at the double in her terpsichorean love letter In The Beginning, at once on stage and in digital artist Aaron Howell’s accompanying film, dancing with baby Mabel in her arms.  It was as though Hannah, like us, was watching in wonder at the joy of a new arrival: a beacon of hope amid the pandemic turbulence, only in her case it was moving her to break out into a dance. The dual focus, however, was not wholly satisfying, as she danced with herself, the one distracting from the other, rather than intertwining like mother and daughter on screen.

Richard Kay, actor, singer, pantomime writer and Zoom choir leader, asked his choir members two questions: how and why do you like singing? Whereupon he compiled the answers into the composition For The Love Of Singing, a song as nimble on its feet as Fred Astaire and wittily delivered in the crisply enunciated manner of a Richard Stilgoe, with digital choir backing and the projection of words dancing in and out of formation in David Todd’s playful animation. Clever, humorous, warm and briskly energetic, and tuneful to boot, it would sit well in a cabaret revue.

How did it feel to be back in the theatre after 427 days? Actor Maurice Crichton caught those feelings as he cast his net of observations in Where Are We Now, You And I?, and he looked in such a hurry to deliver his thoughts, it was as if he had come straight from a rehearsal room in tracksuit trousers and The Show Must Go On T-shirt, hair unkempt.

Not that he rushed through his sage counsel, instead understanding feelings of anger, advising a policy of gentleness with each other and not expecting too much too soon, while breathing in the wonder of theatre once more.  How right he was; how emotional too.

Canadian-born papercut artist Elena Skoreyko Wagner, countertenor and composer James Cave and libretto editor Bethan Ellis promised Magic and delivered it too in a four-minute mini-musical, set in a constantly evolving paper theatre that grew ever prettier under Elena’s delicate guidance.

Elena seeks to discover “magic and meaning in everyday, mundane experiences”, the transcendent magic rising through her imagery and the beauty of James’s singing, and in the stasis of the pandemic, a walk, birdsong, gardening, baking banana bread, have indeed taken on a heightened magical air.

On their Twitter account, non-binary, unapologetically autistic creator Ashleigh J Mills (they/them) calls themselves Angry Black Changeling. Identity and accessibility into theatre lay at the heart of In Progress, their spoken-word exploration of the “interplay between race, self-understanding and the shifting boundaries of gender over the span of a solitary year” when experiencing life on the margins.

Ashleigh has kept a Good Words List for four years, and on the screen behind them, the constant, measured flicking through a book revealed word after word standing proud from the text, each building a picture of Ashleigh’s questing, creative fascination with words.

Those words were knitted together to form their soliloquy, a still-evolving expression of Ashleigh as a work in progress in changing times, and only good words can be said of their poetic candour.

Of all the five minutes, nothing brought a broader smile than the sheer joy in dancing together of Alice Boddy and Leanne Hope, friends since Northern Ballet School days, who burst out of a restricted year of living-room creativity to revel in a Love Letter To Female Friendship on the dancefloor in the face of such trying times. They were so in their moment, they were in their own world, but one we all could recognise and wish to join in.

The title, Mise En Aby-Me, may have been baffling, but life model, milliner and costumier Claire Spooner made a fascinating body of work in her physical theatre piece that testified to her desire to tell a story through the human form, rather than words, in this case aided by Richard Stephenson’s artwork and LEMNIS’s music.

Claire turned herself into a Russian doll, peeling off layers, adding masks, revealing how she presented herself in relationships, love in different guises, until nothing could hide the constant persona within, beauty beyond the eye of the beholder.

Deaf director and “self-proclaimed proactive busy-body” Harri Marshall composed a semi-autobiographical love letter to oneself via cards and correspondence collected over the past year…and then handed over the task of interpreting them aloud to Sarah Huggett, accompanied by the exact wording on the screen behind.

I say “exact” because text and voice did not always say the same lines and you found yourself checking for differences as much as concentrating on Harri’s flow of meaning. What’s more, the rhythm of the language was broken too, screen and voice going in and out of synch. Hopefully, I Often Think Of You had a better second night.

Before Reverie came a nightmare, thankfully only briefly, as a flick of a switch belatedly awoke the somnambulant keyboard for composer, pianist and piano teacher Vanessa Simmons’s retelling of a dream in musical form. Ah, what peace, after the fizzing fireworks, as an unperturbed Vanessa rejoiced in “the beauty, sorrow and power of real love”.

Last, but anything but least and rightly chosen as the finale was 5 Minute Call, penned by esteemed York playwright Bridget Foreman, writer of 30 plays, both large and solo, with another, My Place, on the way.

Chief exec Tom Bird’s Irish-accented actor wife, Laura Pyper, took on the guise of a theatre “techie” five minutes before curtain-up, taking instruction on checking lighting for stage positions while capturing how the theatre itself felt about the return of life on its boards, warming up to the reunion with its lifeblood, both performers and audiences. The feeling of love was mutual, as the Pied Pyper led us back to our spiritual home.

These Love Bites left their mark, so much so, let’s hope York Theatre Royal can look to open further seasons with showcases for the city’s talents, £1,000 commissions et al.

Review written on May 18 with later additions

Bite-sized Q & A with…Gus Gowland on his Love Bites piece at York Theatre Royal

Lister scene: Gus Gowland’s Love Bite, The Streets Of York, will celebrate Gentleman Jack Anne Lister’s unofficial wedding at Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate

THE Love Season will soon set hearts pulsing at York Theatre Royal, where the Step 3 reopening will make its mark with Love Bites: a love letter to live performance and a toast to the city’s creative talent.

More than 200 artists from a variety of art forms applied for £1,000 love-letter commissions to be staged on May 17 – the first day that theatres can reopen after restrictions are lifted – and May 18.

The 22 short pieces selected will be performed each night at 8pm under the overall direction of Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster. Each “bite” will take hold for five minutes.

In the second in a series of CharlesHutchPress Q&As, musical theatre writer/composer Gus Gowland has five minutes to discuss his work, The Streets of York.

How did you hear about Love Bites, Gus?

“I always keep an eye on what is happening at York Theatre Royal so I was aware of their Love Season. I first saw the call-out for artists on the theatre’s Twitter.

“I’ve been keen to work at the Theatre Royal for a while and this was such a wonderful opportunity to be part of the reopening and share the space with a huge number of artists. It was too exciting an opportunity to miss!”

What is your connection with York?

“I moved here just over two years ago with my partner, Max May. He took a job as chief executive officer of Rural Arts, a charity based in Thirsk, and is from Yorkshire so it’s been lovely for me to get to know his hometown. Since being here I’ve really fallen in love with it. There’s so much art being made here that makes it feel exciting.”  

What will feature in your Love Bite, The Streets Of York, and why?

“My Love Bite is a musical theatre song, inspired by the unofficial wedding of Anne Lister (alias Gentleman Jack), which took place at Holy Trinity Church, in Goodramgate, in 1834.  It’s a fascinating moment, seen through the eyes of Lister herself (as performed, brilliantly, by Dora Rubinstein).

“I love that this incredible moment in LGBTQ+ history happened right here in York. It felt apt to be able to honour and acknowledge Lister whilst also paying homage to the very streets we all know so well.”

Dora Rubinstein: Playing Anne Lister in Gus Gowland’s The Streets Of York

What changes would you make to the streets of York?

“Right now, I’m loving all the outside seating that has popped up everywhere, so I’d make sure that was a permanent feature.”

In lockdown, what have you missed most about theatre?

“Oh gosh, where do I start? I’ve missed sharing an experience with other people. I’ve missed watching a story unfold in front of me, with the electricity of live performance. I’ve seen a huge amount of online theatre and it’s brilliant but there’s nothing that can replace that sensation of sitting in a theatre with an audience, collectively gasping, crying, laughing, at the show in front of you.” 

What’s coming next for you?

“I’m releasing an EP of original songs, co-written with Craig Mather, called In Motion. We met when Craig was in my musical Pieces Of String and wrote these songs via Whatsapp during Lockdown 1 and it’s very exciting to be sharing them with the world. That will be on all streaming sites from today (14/5/2021). 

“I’m also working on revisions to Pieces Of String and have a few other shows bubbling under that will hopefully be in a theatre before long.” 

What would be the best way to spend five minutes if you had a choice?

“Probably listen to a song. Right now, it would be anything by Ben Platt or MUNA [electronic pop group from Los Angeles]. That way I can be transported to a memory, a different place or time, just through the magic of the music.”

Tickets for Love Bites cost Pay What You Feel at or on 01904 623568.