REVIEW: York Settlement Community Players in The 39 Steps, running until…fate intervened ****

Chemistry: Sanna Buck’s femme fatale and Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay in Settlement Players’ The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

John Buchan, Alfred Hitchcock, Simon Corble, Nobby Dimon and Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps, York Settlement Community Players, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, no longer dashing about with pencil-slim moustache panache until Sunday afternoon, alas, after cast illness.

DRINK in hand, it was time to sit back in the John Cooper Studio’s cabaret-style seating, relax and let the suspenseful comic drama begin.

Glass empty, (product-placed York Gin) bottle likewise, Aran MacRae’s Lieutenant Richard Hannay is slumped in his dull, lonely, newly rented Portland Place flat. He’s a man in an emotional pickle, on the edge, on the ledge, “tired of the world and tired of life” as the problems pile up. Suicidal, even, and in need of love as it later turns out.

So far, so sombre. What the dashing but hopes-dashed Hannay needs is “something pointless and trivial” to shake him out of his torpor. “I know,” he says. “Go to the theatre.” Boom, there goes the first big laugh, an insider knowing joke told against theatre, delivered with perfect comic timing, and so Harri Marshall’s production immediately hits its stride.

Writer Patrick Barlow: Fast-moving, snappily-clever, needs-must version of The 39 Steps

This is Patrick Barlow’s fast-moving, snappily clever version of The 39 Steps, the one he scripted for the West Yorkshire Playhouse and later West End and international success from an original Yorkshire-founded concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon.

In a nutshell, Marshall’s cast is charged with hitching John Buchan’s story of murder, suspense and intrigue to the thrills, spills and daring deeds of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film in a deranged marriage of comedy, farce, misadventure, mystery and thriller.

In Barlow’s National Theatre of Brent days, he would have his mock two-man theatre troupe, Desmond and Raymond, re-enact the Light Brigade and the Zulu Wars in a send-up of short-handed theatre companies.

Past productions of The 39 Steps divided its 135 characters between a cast of four, one man for Hannay, a woman for three women, and two men or a man and a woman (as in Rowntree Players’ 2015 production at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre), nominally called Man 1 and Man 2, for the rest.

Aran MacRae’s “tired of the world and tired of life” Richard Hannay. Picture: John Saunders

Marshall marshals rather more forces, calling on six men in black, Daniel Boyle, Andrew Isherwood, Matthew Lomax, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison and Stephen Wright, to take on Barlow’s trademark needs-must, bargain-basement theatre style as The Clowns.

This demands that they must improvise props on the hoof amid the dearth of resources, wear multiple hats metaphorically and sometimes physically in leaping from role to role, and somehow ensure the smooth delivery of a performance, (hoping the audience won’t notice the absence of an errant stage manager, but Barlow/Marshall knowing they will).

From Lip Service to Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong, this is a slick, precise, unflappable  comic device that has borne the ripest fruit, and here Marshall’s misrule of six brings a new dimension to both the madcap comedy capers and to the underlying darkness.

Barlow’s play often draws comparison with the anarchic spirit and teamwork of Monty Python; now, after Marshall’s innovation, the absurdist League of Gentlemen come to mind too. Daniel Boyle’s voice and looning eyes remind you of late Python Terry Jones; Matthew Lomax’s female characterisations echo the Gents.  

Unforgettable: Daniel Boyle as Mr Memory in The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

All the while, there is a story to tell, driven by narrator Hannay, MacRae’s upright Hannay playing it absolutely rod-straight, whatever hurdle is thrown his way from Hitchcock’s thriller and other Hitchcock works besides, as he ends up as murder suspect number one when a mysterious German woman with a gun, Annabelle Schmidt (Sanna Buck), dies in his arms after insisting on leaving the London Palladium by his side, desperate to impart important information.

On his tail as he heads to Scotland by train are policemen, secret agents and assorted women, and Marshall’s forces pull off Barlow’s obstacle course with elan, whether faced by re-enacting Hitchcock’s chase on the Flying Scotsman, the escape from the Forth Bridge, the first ever theatrical bi-plane crash [reprised from 1959’s North By Northwest] or a death-defying finale. Every Hitch homage defiantly goes off without a hitch.

Particularly strong is the chemistry between MacRae and Buck, a Swedish-born stage and film actor performing in York for the first time. MacRae, a professional with West End credits, now back in his home city, wholly lives up to Marshall’s billing that he would “balance brilliant playfulness against being earnest when required”, while Buck is to the Thirties’ manner born in her trio of roles as mystery German woman Annabelle, an alluring English femme fatale and a shy but helpful Scottish farmer’s wife. What a debut!

Caught on the hop: Harri Marshall’s company breaks into a dance step in The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

Praise too for Helen Taylor’s wardrobe, especially for MaCrae and Buck, and Richard Hampton and Graham Sanderson’s set and lighting designs.

What rotten luck that, after the supremely assured first night, cast illness should rob the company and audiences alike of further performances of such verbal vim, satirical brio, dextrous stage craft, inventive surprise and even a sudden outbreak of dancing, as taught in rehearsal to the ever-game cast by York Lindy Hop.

No matter how frustrating the sudden curtailment must feel to Harri and her cast, Settlement Players’ first live show since March 2020 has been totally worthwhile, reminding us of MacRae’s considerable talent, first shown in youth theatre days, introducing York to Buck and bringing together a pool of performers it would be good to see working together again.

Director Harri Marshall: Heavy heart at having to call off the remaining performances

York Settlement Community Players’ statement on Friday:

“We are very sorry to announce that, due to cast illness and circumstances beyond our control, all remaining performances of The 39 Steps are cancelled (Fri 12, Sat 13 and Sun 14 November).

“All ticket holders for these affected performances will be contacted by email and receive a full refund. We ask that you please bear with us and theatre@41 while the necessary arrangements are made and thank you for your patience at this time.

“We would like to express our utmost thanks to the cast and crew for their commitment and creativity over the past months. It is with a heavy heart that we make this necessary decision but look forward to putting on more great theatre in York next year.”

‘When I set out to perform, I always wanted to make my mother laugh and smile,’ says Aran MacRae as The 39 Steps opens

Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay: A man contemplating a boring life at the outset of The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

YORK actor, singer, songwriter, self-taught guitarist and percussion player Aran MacRae is playing his first lead role since returning to his home city in March 2019.

From tonight, he takes centre stage as Richard Hannay, “the man with a boring life”, in York Settlement Community Players’ production of Patrick Barlow’s West End hit comedy thriller The 39 Steps at Theatre@41, Monkgate.

Whereas Aran was breaking in a new character when he originated  the role of 14-year-old Tink in the West End premiere of Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf’s musical Bat Out Of Hell at the London Coliseum in 2017, Hannay has history aplenty on stage and screen.

Aran has broken with his previous practice, however, when preparing to play Hannay, whose state of torpor changes when he encounters a woman with a thick accent at a theatre who says she is a spy. He agrees to take her home, whereupon she is murdered, and soon a mysterious organisation called The 39 Steps is hot on Hannay’s trail in a nationwide manhunt that climaxes in a death-defying finale.

“This is the first project where I haven’t looked at any previous material, and that’s partly because I want the character to come from me,” says Aran.

Wanted by the police: Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay, whose his face splashed on the front of the papers

“I’ve truly learned what it takes to become a proper, conscious working actor during this project, with all the highs and lows that come with that, so I’ve been inspired not just by the play, its timeless appeal and the traditional values the British have, one of which is how ridiculous we are, but also by the cast and by the director, Harri Marshall, who is brash in such a way that it’s so intelligent. She’s a superhero, she really is.”

Aran has given Richard Hannay his own back story, beyond that description of a “man with a boring life”, one rooted in Hannay’s war experiences. “The trauma of war in Hannay’s time contrasts with how lucky I am to have been born in a country where we’ve not had to experience that, and we take it for granted, whereas across the world, wars and conflicts still happen,” he says.

“That’s something I realise as a millennial. It’s really pushed me to the edge of thinking about things, in the cause of going close to the edge of distress, but in doing so I’m showing my passion for the people, which is a great passion I have as an actor,” he says.

“When I set out to perform, I always wanted to make my mother laugh and smile, and then I realised that if I’m going to make everyone laugh, I’m going to have to learn a lot – and I’m still learning.”

Hannay is driven by a desire for truth, for knowledge, says Aran. “It’s that ancient thing of the human spirit, the curiosity to bite the apple; it’s something that powers him on,” he notes.

Arms and the man: Aran MacRae in rehearsal for York Settlement Community Players’ The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

In his own desire to reach that point in his performance, Aran has applied a technique he learnt from York, Leeds and Bradford drama teacher Matt Zina. “I sought him out for some acting classes a little while ago, and he talked about the ‘Seven Levels of Why’,” he reveals.

How does it work? “I realised that Hannay is searching for knowledge and truth, and then I asked the question ‘Why?’. The answer I arrived at is that Hannay wants to keep the peace, and then, at the end, when he’s kept the peace and found the truth, he gets the opportunity to be in love,” says Aran. “Maybe it comes by chance, but that’s the beauty of love.

“I set myself a super-objective with each piece I do, and there were many I could have set with this play because it demands that I make many decisions. I question ‘why?’ seven times, so by the time I go on stage, all that questioning is in my body and it all goes on stage with me. That means, if I have a moment of doubt, I remember my super-objective.”

Aran continues: “With each role, I’m trying to learn if I’m an actor-performer as an individual or as part of a collective, and that depends on the style of performance you’re doing” he says. “If it’s television, it’s about the individual, but with theatre, it’s collective: it’s like when birds take off together, you see them flying in formation, and then they move within that formation. It’s almost like a dance.”

Aran, who trained in musical theatre for three years at the Guildford School of Acting and built momentum in his career in the West End, on tour and overseas, is part of Harri Marshall’s cast of eight tasked with the breath-taking challenge of combining John Buchan’s 1915 novel with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film scenes in a blend of virtuoso performances and wildly inventive stagecraft.

Aran MacRae’s Hannay and Sanna Buck’s Arabella in a scene from the Settlement Players’ The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

He is playing Richard Hannay opposite Sanna Buck in three parts and Stephen Wright, Andrew Isherwood, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison, Matt Lomax and Daniel Boyle handling the rest of the 150 characters in the guise of The Clowns.

“Sanna is the most supportive actor to play opposite, and I couldn’t have done it without her,” says Aran. “The support and listening ear she has offered me has been priceless. The spirit she has shown during rehearsals has pulled me close to being a better actor and a better human being.

“All the rest of the cast are gentlemen and scholars, and again, the love for theatre and the support we have shown each other, when coming back to theatre and coming back to social interaction, with all the changes that have gone on, has been fantastic.

“One thing I’ve noticed is our desire to be happy, to have a laugh – though my personal thing is to create a feeling of peace with that lovely cool-down after all the laughter, but that doesn’t mean the clowns should be in charge!”

The pursuit of laughter is all important in Barlow’s version of The 39 Steps, but so is the authenticity of characterisation, not least in Hannay’s military disposition.

Handcuffed: Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay at a loose end in The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

“I’ve used YouTube for a really useful video on the ‘Attention’ and ‘At Ease’ positions, watching soldiers on parade, and I also visited Elvington Airfield a couple of time, talking to people around the air base, and studying planes,” says Aran.

“I’ve also done some movement to music, working to the soundtrack from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back In Town. Music, as I’m still learning, is a great healer and has the ability to take you back in time, so it’s a very useful tool for an actor to use.

“For Hannay’s accent, I was very lucky to have had good training at Guildford [School of Acting], where I had this amazing teacher, Chris Palmer, who taught me Received Pronunciation, so I have a good grounding in that accent.

“Overall, the performance comes down to the body, the mind and the voice; they are the three crucial things to study when you’re developing a character. But I’ve also realised that an actor is like a  magician, because we don’t want to show you the rabbit in the hat, revealing our secrets.”

Amid all the seriousness within this analysis of the art of performance, Aran smiles at the thought that these discussions are in the cause of a comedy being funny.

“He had this brilliant playfulness, balanced against being earnest when required,” says director Harri Marshall, recalling Aran MacRae’s audition

“The script is genius,” he says. “The lines are so funny, it could work just as a radio play, but then you add the physicality and the awareness of the need to be able to laugh at yourself  and to connect with that on stage,” he says.

Aran is an advocate of thinking on your feet as an actor when performing in a comedy. “Instinct! That’s where a lot of comedy comes from,” he says. “The ability to see something that might hurt and then finding something funny in it.

“Comedy makes us question ourselves, which is something we’ve all been doing in the pandemic, when other people keep you going through these moments. Family and a good cup of tea.”

Instinct applies not only to comedy but to casting too, hence the last word will go to Harri Marshall, as she explains her choice of Aran for Richard Hannay. “As soon as he walked in the room for the audition, I knew he’d be perfect,” she says. ”He had this brilliant playfulness, balanced against being earnest when required, and he always wanted to discover and apply new ideas and methods of doing things.”

York Settlement Community Players present John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, tonight and tomorrow, 7.30pm; Saturday, 2.30pm, 7.30pm; Sunday, 2.30pm. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Director Harri Marshall overjoyed as York Settlement Community Players return at last with The 39 Steps comedy thriller

Aran MacRae and Sanna Buck in rehearsal for York Settlement Community Players’ production of The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

PATRICK Barlow’s riotous West End comedy hit The 39 Steps marks York Settlement Community Players’ return to live performance for the first time since March 2020.

Harri Marshall’s cast of eight takes to the John Cooper Studio stage at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from November 11 to 14.

“For the past 18 months, the UK feels like it’s lost its theatrical mojo, which is why I’m so excited to bring this light, wickedly funny play to Theatre@41 to share in the love and laughter and to showcase some brilliantly inventive theatre,” says Harri, who previously directed the Settlement Players in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes at the Monkgate theatre in October 2019.

Settlement last trod the boards early last year, presenting Helen Wilson’s production of Chekhov’s The Seagull a week before the first pandemic lockdown locked in, since when the York company has hosted play readings and social meet-ups online.

Now, at last, Settlement’s players can breathe in stage air once more as they take on the breath-taking challenge of performing a two-time Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning comedy thriller that seeks to combine John Buchan’s 1915 novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, The 39 Steps, in a blend of virtuoso performance and wildly inventive stagecraft.

More than 150 characters must make an appearance as Marshall’s cast re-create both the book and film scenes, telling the story of Richard Hannay, a man with a boring life, who encounters a woman with a thick accent who says she’s a spy. When he takes her home, she is murdered. Soon, a mysterious organisation called The 39 Steps is hot on Hannay’s trail in a nationwide manhunt that climaxes in a death-defying finale.

Aran MacRae as Richard Hannay: “As soon as he walked in the room I knew he’d be perfect,” says director Harri Marshall. Picture: John Saunders

“Rehearsals are going very well,” says Harri, who identifies as a deaf director. “We started at the deep end, plunging into the logistics of how to re-create those fabulous iconic scenes that make The 39 Steps famous when it debuted on the West End.

“This includes re-creating chase sequences on board the Flying Scotsman and a live on-stage plane crash! I’m very lucky to be working with such a talented cast. Every single performer is a brilliant star in their own right. Their collective repertoire includes credits at the London Coliseum, York Theatre Royal, York Light Opera, the York Mystery Plays, Pick Me Up Theatre and Settlement shows such as The Cherry Orchard and The Red Shoes.”

Aran MacRae, who has returned to York after West End, national tour and overseas professional roles, will play Richard Hannay; Sanna Buck will split herself in three as Annabella Schmidt, Pamela and Margaret; Stephen Wright, Andrew Isherwood, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison, Matt Lomax and Daniel Boyle will handle the remaining roles between them in the guise of The Clowns.”

Harri was attracted to directing The 39 Steps in this crazy comic caper format – adapted by Barlow from an original concept by Simon Corble and North Country Theatre founder Nobby Dimon – by “the challenge of the play and how it could entertain an audience, drawing them back to the theatre after the venues have been shut for so long”.

“I really wanted to sink my teeth into something where my approach was a wild ‘how an earth do I do this?’. So many of the iconic scenes that make it well loved are insane for any director to choreograph and work through,” she says.

“I didn’t want to shy away from stretching my imagination and creativity. I also saw it as an opportunity for performers to flex their skill in the form of multi-role playing and working as disciplined ensemble. It’s the ultimate play that everyone can enjoy and revel in!”

Director Harri Marshall

Faced with staging a fast-moving piece with regular changes of location, Harri has settled on a design as relaxed it can be within Covid restrictions. “It was important to me to ensure that the audience and performers could feel relaxed at all times,” she says.

“This is why we’re going for a cabaret-style set-up, ensuring people are welcome to come and go as they please, get drinks from the bar whenever they like, and the performers can really interact and play with the space.

“It’s so fast paced that massive sets just weren’t going to work. Our performance will be a rollercoaster of activity that I have no doubt the audience are just going to love! “

To pull off this whodunit, with its multitude of characters, a plane crash, handcuffs, missing fingers and old-fashioned romance, Barlow’s “needs-must” style of comedy in the face of adversity requires completely straight faces from the actors. “That’s easier said than done!” says Harri. “There’s definitely going to be a lot of hidden smiles and giggles. In rehearsal this is one of my biggest notes ‘to not corpse’!

“The cast are just so playful and entertaining, it’s hard not to be swept up in the comedy of it all. They’re gradually getting there. The more we rehearse, the more everyone gets better at staying blank-faced. Although I do think this is half the joy of doing a comedy performance, if the cast and crew are having great fun and the audience can feel that everyone is going to have an excellent time.”

Have Buchan’s juicy spy novel and Hitchcock’s thriller been important research tools for Harri? “The novel not so much, but the film certainly, to find how the thriller elements of the play can be transcribed to the performance,” she says.

Squeezing out every inch of humour: Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay and Matthew Lomax’s Clown rehearsing a scene from The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

“My biggest research tool was having the privilege to chat to Simon Corble, one of the writers of the original stage adaptation. I took on a lot of Simon’s advice and, in a lot of ways, our version has ended up nodding to the original performance that was done before the show took to the West End in Patrick’s version. Elements such as focusing on the storytelling, the ensemble and how less can be more in terms of set, lighting and sound.

“In its original form, this play was meant to tour regionally to studio spaces, so it feels very much like a homecoming for The 39 Steps to be staged at Theatre@41.”

Further research tools involved making set and props to enable Harri and her cast to learn to play with objects so that they could have multiple purposes. “That way we could really stretch the parameters creatively to discover what worlds we could build within the play,” she says.

“The performance itself should be an adventure, a challenge, and a lot of fun for both the cast and myself, and we’ve certainly had fun in the last couple of months bringing this play to life.”

As the director, Harri must achieve the balance between the comedy and the thriller elements. “You have to find those human moments within the play that can get your heart racing or that will make you lean forward in your seat. Where the audience are desperate to listen and discover the secrets of The 39 Steps,” she says.

“It’s wonderful, once we’ve found those moments, to tease the audience into believing they know what’s going on and then subverting expectation. Balancing it against the comedy is certainly no easy task; it takes careful timing, pace and energy.”

Matthew Lomax, left, Jim Patterson and a stuffed cat in the rehearsal room. Picture: John Saunders

The lead role goes to actor, singer, songwriter and musician Aran MacRae, who made a low-key return to the York stage as a sonneteer in York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar at the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre in July, but now steps centre stage once more.

“I’d heard about Aran when he was playing Tink in the Bat Out Of Hell tour, so I was delighted to know that he wanted to audition,” says Harri. “It was one of those cheesy moments when I just knew, because as soon as he walked in the room I knew he’d be perfect.

“This was confirmed during his audition: he had this brilliant playfulness, balanced against being earnest when required, and he always wanted to discover and apply new ideas and methods of doing things. Aran, as with the rest of the cast, is so so talented and as a director it’s been a dream to work with them all.”

York Settlement Community Players present John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, November 11 to 14; 7.30pm, Thursday and Friday; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Saturday; 2.30pm, Sunday. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Please note, all performances will be captioned via the Difference Engine from Talking Birds (with captions delivered to audience members’ own mobile devices via a free app).

Sanna Buck, Stephen Wright and Aran MacRae look on as a prone Daniel Boyle takes centre stage in the rehearsal room. Picture: John Saunders

Settlement Players to return from pandemic hiatus with high-wire comedy The 39 Steps at Theatre@41 Monkgate

Harri Marshall: Directing York Settlement Community Players’ production of The 39 Steps

YORK Settlement Community Players return from lockdown mothballing with Harri Marshall’s production of The 39 Steps at Theatre@41 Monkgate, York, from November 11 to 14.

Patrick Barlow’s two-time Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning comedy thriller – a hit in the West End, on Broadway and on multiple tours – asks the cast to play more than 150 characters in recreating an against-the-odds combination of both John Buchan’s 1915 novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film.

The task is to tell the fast-moving story of Richard Hannay, a man with a boring life, who meets a woman with a thick foreign accent who claims to be a spy. When he takes her home, she is murdered.

Soon, a mysterious organisation called “The 39 Steps” is hot on the man’s trail in a nationwide hunt that climaxes in a death-defying finale in Barlow’s adaptation, based on an original concept by North Country Theatre’s Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble.

Aran MacRae: Cast as Richard Hannay in the Settlement Players’ The 39 Steps

Aran MacRae, a professional actor who returned home to York in lockdown after working on the London musical theatre stage and on tour overseas, will play Richard Hannay, fresh from Aran being one of the sonneteers for York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar 2021.

Sanna Buck will take the roles of Annabella Schmidt, Pamela and Margaret, while Stephen Wright, Andrew Isherwood, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison, Matt Lomax and Dan Boyle will be The Clowns, whereas normally they are played by only two actors rushing around frantically trying to do most of the 150-plus characters.

York Settlement Community Players’ last live theatre production was Chekhov’s The Seagull at York Theatre Royal Studio in March 2020, when the run ended a week before the theatre went dark for the first pandemic lockdown. Since then, the company has hosted play readings and social meet-ups online.

Benedict Turvill’s troubled playwright Konstantin and The Seagull of the title in York Settlement Community Players’ last stage production at the York Theatre Royal Studio in March 2020. Picture: John Saunders

The 39 Steps will be Harri Mashall’s second production for YSCP, after directing Nanci Harris’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes at Theatre@41 in the autumn of 2019.

“For the past eighteen months, the UK feels like it’s lost its theatrical mojo, which is why I’m excited to bring this light, wickedly funny play to Theatre@41 to share in the love and laughter and to showcase some brilliantly inventive theatre,” says Harri, who identifies as a deaf director.

“Rehearsals are going very well; we started at the deep end, plunging into the logistics of how to re-create those fabulous iconic scenes that made The 39 Steps famous when it debuted on the West End.

Playwright Patrick Barlow

“This includes re-creating chase sequences on board the Flying Scotsman and a live on-stage plane crash.”

Harri adds: “I’m very lucky to be working with such a talented cast. Every single performer is a brilliant star in their own right. Their collective repertoire includes credits at the London Coliseum, York Theatre Royal, York Light Opera, the York Mystery Plays, Pick Me Up Theatre and previous successful York Settlement Community Players’ shows, such as The Cherry Orchard and The Red Shoes.”

This amateur production of The 39 Steps is presented by arrangement with Concord Theatricals Ltd on behalf of Samuel French Ltd.

Tickets for the 7.30pm evening shows and 2.30pm Saturday and Sunday matinees in the John Cooper Studio are on sale at tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

The poster artwork for York Settlement Community Players’ The 39 Steps

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

When Harri and Jack meet you on March 21 in York, Technical Difficulties will ensue

Harri Marshall and Jake Williams: the partnership behind the next stage of Technical Difficulties

YORK theatre director Harri Marshall and associate artist Jake Williams are to hold a group interview session on March 21 for their new work, Technical Difficulties.

The open meeting will be held at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, from 10.30am to 1pm to add research to their verbatim piece on relationships and technology and how this has evolved over the years.

“We’re inviting the Yorkshire community to share their experiences about relationships when we host interviews that day,” says Harri, a deaf director, who directed York Settlement Community Players’ production of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes last October.

“By gaining new stories and opinions, we’ll be able to enhance and enrich the script by adding voices from different communities and create a play that’s ultimately for everyone. If you’d like to be involved in the group session, please follow our social media links (see below).”

Harri continues: “After the new interviews have been added to the script, we’ll cast the six roles with local actors, rehearse and go on to perform the piece, not only in a Yorkshire preview, but we’ll also take it to the 2021 Edinburgh Fringe.

“We feel this project is really exciting as it’s not only made for an audience but by the audience too.”

Defining Trechnical Difficulties, Harri says: “It’s a verbatim play about the search for human connection in an increasingly digitised world, where we unpick what it means to fall in and out of love as well as all the technical difficulties about relationships.

“I first created the play two years ago at the Oxford Playhouse with the Young Playmakers, led by Renata Allen. Like much of my work, it relies heavily on collaboration with the performers and the participants, who have given their voices to this script.

“Staying true to their original words by using verbatim techniques, we bring to life their experiences of relationships through ensemble work, movement and an immersive audience experience – such as rhetoric and shared stories – unlocking the dramatic potential of documentary theatre.” 

The documentary form of theatre has always inspired Harri’s work, both as a director and writer. “I feel that verbatim theatre is an art form that doesn’t dictate what the audience should think,” she says.

“Rather, it works with them through shared experience to create a piece of work that discusses and debates an experience or topic that’s shaped by the writer, then shared through the medium of theatre. To me, theatre is about shared story-telling that brings us together, which ultimately is what verbatim aims to do.”

Harri continues: “The piece creates a sense of belonging between the actors and the audience, as relationships, while very personal and unique to each individual, can be relatable and offer insight on the full spectrum of relationships. This shared experience makes the production real in a way that no other genre of theatre can replicate, creating a rich tapestry of shared experiences and genuine voices that unite the audience and allow them to see reflections of themselves within the characters on the stage. 

“It’s the idea of reflection that the audience will take away with them, allowing a better understanding of how we form our relationships, be that sexual or platonic. In our current society, with all its political upheaval and anger, it’s more important than ever to understand how we communicate to each other, which is why this play is important to share with the city of York.” 

The artwork for Technical Difficulties

The creative duo behind Technical Difficulties:

Harri Marshall is a deaf director, working in York. Since 2016, she has directed seven productions, in venues such as the Theatre Royal, Winchester, Canal Café Theatre, London, and John Cooper Studio, Theatre @41 Monkgate, York. in York, where she directed ‘The Red Shoes’ for the York Settlement Community Players. 

Jake Williams has joined Harri, as an associate artist, on her journey to continue to turn Technical Difficulties into a fully fledged piece of work. As a founding member of Out Of Bounds Theatre, he has produced and performed theatre and street arts since 2017. At the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe, he produced and performed in 44 Inch Chest at theSpace on North Bridge.

How you can be involved in the next stage of Technical Difficulties:

For more details and updates, or if you have any questions, go to:  

Twitter: @TechDiffs2020

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Technical-Difficulties- 101656841420950/?view_public_for=101656841420950 

Alternatively, you can email: technicaldifficultiesfringe@gmail.com