Alan Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until July 3. Box office: 01723 370541 and at sjt.uk.com
WHO else but director emeritus and Scarborough knighted playwright Alan Ayckbourn could be at the helm of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s first in-house production of 2021.
He has been chomping at the bit, as the racehorse saying goes, writing even more prolifically and recording and sound-editing two audio plays, Anno Domino and the reawakened ghost story Haunting Julia, as lockdown followed lockdown.
He has missed the interaction with actors and audience alike, as last summer’s premiere of Truth Will Out never did reveal its topical virus truths in The Round.
How joyful to see Sir Alan, 82 and stick in hand, taking his familiar back-row seat for the Tuesday’s press night performance. It was another sign of live theatre’s resurrection, even with the continuing need for face masks, social distancing and a reduced capacity.
The Girl Next Door is premiere number 85, and glory be, it is inventive, witty, poignant, moving and surprising in the best Ayckbourn tradition, with plenty of mischievous humour too, whether digging into politics, Zoom, love, war, English characteristics, our past and present, what has changed, what hasn’t.
All this is wrapped in a tale suffused with magic realism (or not, you decide!) and Ayckbourn’s familiar relish with playing with time. In this case, he applies the term “spatial continuum anomaly” for surely the first time, along with references to Doctor Who and Star Wars.
Ayckbourn’s frustration at his absence from the rehearsal room and stage since 2019 finds a messenger on stage in the form of actor Rob Hathaway (Ayckbourn stalwart Bill Champion), head in his hands, stuck at home in August 2020, sixty, sagging and sad.
He laments the hiatus from all that he loves about theatre, above all the connection, and no, Shakespeare sonnets being performed by glove puppets online is no substitute.
Bored with the prospect of watching yet another box set or daytime TV after losing his role, for disciplinary reasons, as the star of the nation’s favourite TV period drama, National Fire Service, he keeps re-living his past as George ‘Tiger’ Jennings, wartime hero and living firefighter legend, rather than living for the day or even having his morning Cornflakes.
Lockdown has been shared with his big sister, very sensible civil servant Alex (Ayckbourn regular Alexandra Mathie), who has just finished a Zoom meeting with the Chancellor (female, as it happens). We know the ever-sharp Ayckbourn is on the ball because she is wearing pyjamas beneath a jacket, as so many have!
Champion’s enervated Rob is suddenly perked up by the sight of a stranger, a young woman hanging out the washing in the next-door garden. Who is she, he wonders, as the owners, the Jessops, have chosen to isolate at their second home in the Dorset country.
She, we shall learn, is Lily (Naomi Petersen), and on her side of the hedge, it is August 1942, wartime London is under bombardment; the garden has been given over to growing vegetables, with an Anderson shelter beyond. Husband Alf (Linford Johnson) is away doing his bit for Blighty in a tank regiment in Africa; their two children, six and seven, are away too, out of contact, evacuated to somewhere in the country.
We note the differences, beautifully drawn out by designer Kevin Jenkins: a hosepipe, security lights and characterless all mod cons in the Hathaway kitchen; a watering can, no outdoor lighting and a stove and hand-operated washing equipment for Lily. As ever in an Ayckbourn production, the doors are cut off at halfway but are used almost as regularly as in a farce.
For all the presence of Alex, Rob is adrift; Lily is alone, and through Ayckbourn’s aforementioned “spatial continuum anomaly”, their worlds meet, with all the bewildering confusions and misunderstandings that go with that.
Born in 1939, and so a wartime London child, Ayckbourn recalls a “sort of lockdown” of that time, crowding into Anderson shelters and subway stations, and so he draws parallels with the pandemic lockdowns of 2020-2021. Rob keeps mentioning social distancing; Lily mistakes the security lighting for searchlights; Mathie’s Alex mentions she has a wife; Lily is unnerved by the machine-dominated kitchen. Ayckbourn revels in both the similarities and contrasts with the past.
He even plays with knowing about the past, and what burden that may place on Rob if he were to try to change the course of history. Rather than Back To The Future fun and games, however, Ayckbourn keeps this thread – in the story of Alf – on a more serious trajectory, one of intrigue and mystery in the more melancholic yet still hopeful second half.
On top of it all, in his own words, The Girl Next Door is “an affirmation of love across the generations”, a love that stops feckless, twice divorced Rob in his tracks.
There is a second love story too here: Ayckbourn’s abiding love of theatre, its magic, mystery, wonder, profundity and possibilities, brought to life by a wonderful cast, with a typically brilliant Ayckbourn drinking scene to boot. How blessed we are to be sharing his vision, his playfulness, his wisdom, anew.
ON Tuesday, playwright Alan Ayckbourn returned to his empty, dark, silent rehearsal room next door for the first time since September 2019.
After months and months of work, restlessness but no live play, the Scarborough knight is back where he feels most at home: directing a new Ayckbourn work, The Girl Next Door, from the rehearsal studio in his Longwestgate abode.
“My spirit in lockdown had begun to pall, especially in this one, as I’ve had no springboard for my work,” he says. “Like everyone else, I decided to keep busy at all costs: I wrote play after play, four actually, but they just lay there, unexplored, neglected, unfulfilled, because I had no feedback from actors or audiences of course, so I couldn’t move forward.
“I was parked on the runway, seeing where I might fly off to next.” The permission for take-off has now been granted: The Girl Next Door, 82-year-old Sir Alan’s 85th premiere, will open in The Round at his beloved Stephen Joseph Theatre, where he is Director Emeritus after 37 years as artistic director from 1972 to 2009.
“I wrote it back in spring 2020. I like to think of it as a lockdown love story,” he says of his touching, tender and humorous reflection on the ability of love to rise above adversity and reach across the years.
Sir Alan, who turned 82 on April 12, had experienced the frustration of his 2020 world premiere of Truth Will Out, ironically a prescient play about a virus, albeit of the computer variety, being knocked into the long grass by the first lockdown as the SJT lay dormant from March 17.
For all his unstinting productivity – not only the four plays but also audio-stream recordings of the previously unproduced Anno Domino and a Christmas revival of his ghost play Haunting Julia – Sir Alan has been itching to intereact with actors again.
“Just go for it,” he said as he anticipated Tuesday’s first session. “I’ve been counting down the days to when we start rehearsals just after the Bank Holiday.
“All I can say is, we will be ready! The theatre has been terrific in that respect, so supportive; the play being confirmed for the summer in January; one production meeting; auditions on Zoom, even if the reality with Zoom is there’s always a beat between what they say and what you hear, so it just sounds flat. All we need now is for Boris to panic.”
Panic not. Let’s stay positive and eagerly await The Girl Next Door, a play Sir Alan set about writing as soon as he finished work on Anno Domino in early May and completed by late-May in the best Ayckbourn tradition of quick work.
The play is a four-hander, as Ayckbourn adapted to Covid times when large casts are not viable for the foreseeable future in this new age of social bubbles, and the setting is two neighbouring houses on the same London street during August 2020.
“But all is not as it seems,” he says. It never is in a play by a playwright who loves playing with time. Here he populates one house with actor Rob Hathaway, 60, and his sister, Alex, 62, a government financial advisor. In the other are the Tindles, soldier Alf, 26, and wife Lily, 24.
“The opening image is Rob seeing the young woman putting washing on the line and in his mind he’s thinking, ‘she has no right to be there’ because the couple who live next door have chosen to go away to their house in the country in lockdown.”
Without giving too much away, past is meeting present, drawing on Sir Alan’s own childhood experiences in London in the Second World War.
“I felt that spirit of optimism as I wrote it because the country needs a bit of optimism right now,” he says. “The last thing anyone wants to watch is someone saying ‘there’s no more hope, folks’.
“So writing the play, it was my life meeting me coming back, because my first memories were of lockdown in wartime, sheltering under the beds, waiting for the bombs to drop. Now we’re sheltering at home, waiting for the germs to land.
“It’s interesting that the parallels are there, though I don’t want to rub them in, so all I can say is, ‘don’t worry, folks, we’ve been here before; the world won’t end’, though many feared it was in wartime.”
Ayckbourn was born in April 1939. “So I have these images of being on my mother’s lap down in the tube station, not wanting to wake her up, and she not wanting to disturb me,” he says.
“I remember the shelters that were great for children, and you could play under the kitchen table, so it was quite a time – and then there was my Mickey Mouse gas mark, with the big mouse ears, which they gave out to children as standard issue. They were like something Stephen King would have been proud of.”
Ayckbourn enjoys playing with the two eras separated by 80 years. “It’s fun to do; there’s a sort of selective release of information where the art is to make the audience feel secure, with a level playing field, but then you hopefully stay slightly ahead of them, trying to get them to second guess you!” he says.
Alan Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door will run at a socially distanced, Covid-secure Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from June 4 to July 3. Box office: sjt.uk.com.
AS LOCKDOWN 3 urges everyone to “stay home”, Charles Hutchinson takes that advice in selecting entertainment for the dark days and nights ahead.
Somewhere over the pandemic horizon, he highlights a couple of shows in the diary for the autumn.
Live-stream lockdown humour from living room to living room: Josie Long and Ahir Shah, Your Place Comedy, January 24
LOCKDOWN 3 has brought another round of Your Place Comedy home entertainment. “As before, we’ll be broadcasting from comedians’ living rooms, kitchens and attics or, as was the case with Lucy Beaumont, her homemade pub,” says virtual comedy club organiser Chris Jones, Selby Town Council’s arts officer.
The format remains the same: two headline comedians, some stand-up and some chat, all juggled by regular compere Tim FitzHigham. First up will be Josie Long and Ahir Shah on January 24; line-ups are yet to be confirmed for February 28 and March 28.
The live-stream shows will be free to watch but with donations keenly encouraged at yourplacecomedy.co.uk.
Interactive stories for children: Story Craft Theatre’s Crafty Tales
CASSIE Vallance and Janet Bruce cannot hold their Crafty Tales sessions in person during Lockdown 3 but will continue to deliver sessions “directly to you via the power of Zoom”.
“Each 50-minute session is packed full of crafting, storytelling and educational fun with lots of activities to keep your little folk’s imagination alight,” says Cassie. “There are still a few spaces left for next week’s 10am sessions based around Julia Donaldson’s The Runaway Pea on January 20, 22 and 23.”
Coming up on January 27, 29 and 30 will be Elaine Wickson’s Super Stan. For more details and to book, go to storycrafttheatre.co.uk.
Operetta on screen: International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, G&S Opera TV On-Line Streaming Service
WHEN the Coronavirus pandemic put paid to the 2020 International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival at Harrogate Royal Hall, the festival launched its online streaming subscription service at gsoperatv.
“New content is being continually added,” says festival stalwart Bernard Lockett. “It features the very best of more than 26 years of the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, along with top amateur productions performed at our festival, G&S films and fascinating documentaries and interviews, and is the only place to experience so many outstanding Savoy operas.”
The subscription rates for general viewers is £9.99 per month or £99 annuallyThe 2021 festival is in the diary for August 8 to 22 in Harrogate, preceded by Buxton Opera House the week before.
Play for the day appraisal: Online script-reading sessions, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from January 20
RUNNING online on Wednesdays from 11.30am to 1.30pm for five weeks, the fun sessions will dive into five classic comedies: Aristophanes’s Lysistrata on January 20; Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, January 27; Moliere’s Tartuffe, February 3; Sheridan’s The Rivals, February 10, and Feydeau’s A Flea In Her Ear, February 17.
Participants will read sections of the plays aloud and work with SJT associate director Chelsey Gillard to consider their themes, stories, writing styles and historical context in a relaxed discussion. Session bookings can be made at sjt.uk.com.
Online children’s show of the month: Magic Carpet Theatre in Magic Carpet, Pocklington Arts Centre YouTube channel
HULL company Magic Carpet Theatre filmed their fun family-friendly show, Magic Carpet, behind closed doors at Pocklington Arts Centre last October. By public demand, its free streaming run is being extended to January 21 at: youtu.be/CNrUixTMWdQ.
Performed by director Jon Marshall and Steve Collison with magical illusions, comedy, circus skills and puppets, it tells the humorous tale of what happens to the ringmaster’s extravaganza plans after the artistes and elephants fail to arrive and everything has to be left in the calamitous hands of the clowns. Disaster!
Online ghost play of the season: Alan Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
ALAN Ayckbourn’s 2020 audio version of his ghost play Haunting Julia is being given an afterlife. Originally available at sjt.uk.com/event/1078/haunting_julia until January 5, the winter chiller now will be online until January 31.
Revisiting his 1994 play, Ayckbourn’s audio recording features the voice of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 81-year-old director emeritus. Or, rather, the three voices of Ayckbourn, who plays all three parts.
Baroque’n’roll gig of the autumn: Rufus Wainwright, York Barbican, October 13
LAUREL Canyon singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright’s October 27 2020 tour date at York Barbican has moved to October 13 2021. Tickets remain valid for the rearranged date with his new band.
Last July, Wainwright, 47, released his ninth studio album, Unfollow The Rules, his first since 2012. “I consider it my first fully mature album; it is like a bookend to the beginning of my career,” says Rufus, whose fearless, mischievous songs were inspired by middle age, married life, fatherhood, friends, loss, London and Laurel Canyon.
Ready for a laugh: Omid Djalili, The Good Times Tour, Grand Opera House, York, November 10
OMID Djalili cannot wait to be back where he belongs, on stage, after experimenting with a Zoom gig where he was muted by no fewer than 639 people and a drive-in gig when he witnessed one audience member leave his car, attach a hose pipe to his exhaust and feed it through the window.
The British-Iranian stand-up’s 2021 excursions could not have a more positive title: The Good Times Tour. Let’s hope he is right, although who can predict if his shows at Harrogate Theatre on May 6 and Hull City Hall on May 26 will be given the go-ahead.
In his diary too are: Platform Festival, The Old Station, Pocklington, July 22, and Masham Town Hall, September 18 and 19. Oh, and Leeds Town Hall on October 28 in faraway 2022.
ALAN Ayckbourn’s 2020 audio version of his ghost play Haunting Julia is being given an afterlife.
Originally available through the Stephen Joseph Theatre website from December 1 to today (5/1/2021), the winter chiller now will be online until January 31.
Revisiting his 1994 play, Ayckbourn’s audio recording features the voice of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 81-year-old director emeritus. Or, rather, the three voices of Ayckbourn, who plays all three parts.
Directed by Ayckbourn, the “comic but scary” Haunting Julia was recorded at his Scarborough home studio, where he and his wife, Heather Stoney, had made his first ever audio play, his 84th premiere Anno Domino, in Lockdown 1.
Haunting Julia is set 12 years after the suicide of Otley-born musical prodigy Julia Lukin. Her father Joe, still struggling with her death, meets with former boyfriend Andy and psychic Ken to seek out the truth, but some questions are better left unanswered.
Ayckbourn, who voiced characters ranging in age from teenage to septuagenarian in Anno Domino, here plays the parts of Joe, Andy and Ken, while “other voices” – previously off stage – are provided by Naomi Petersen.
The online version of Haunting Julia is going global, drawing bookings from the USA and beyond after a “really positive review” in New York City’s Wall Street Journal.
Bookings have come in from: Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Torrevieja, Alicante; Tucson, Arizona; Victoria, British Columbia; Los Altos, Santa Barbara, Oakland, Eureka, Clovis, Los Angeles, Woodside, Los Osos and Palo Alto, California; Denver, Colorado, and Washington, District of Columbia.
Bookings also have been made from: Decatur, Georgia; Evanston, Warrenville, Oak Park, Illinois; South Bend, Indiana; Madison, Maine; Silver Spring, Chevy Chase, Maryland; Holliston, Wellfleet, Carlisle, Milford, East Falmouth, Boxford, North Brookfield, Massachusetts, and Walled Lake, Michigan.
So too from: Winona, Minnesota; St Louis, Missouri; Morris Plains, Mountain Lakes, Jersey City, New Jersey; Corrales, New Mexico; Waccabuc, Brooklyn, Larchmont, Rochester and multiple New York addresses, New York; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Media, Easton, Pennsylvania, and Granbury, Texas.
Likewise from: Mission Hills, Kansas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Boca Raton, Sarasota, Jacksonville, Ocala, Belleair, Boynton Beach, California; Salt Lake City, Taylorsville, Utah; Glen Allen, Vienna, Virginia; Bainbridge Island, Seattle, Washington; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Nicosia, Cyprus, and Auckland, New Zealand.
How to listen to Alan Ayckbourn times three in Haunting Julia:
Once a £12 ticket has been bought, the buyer can access the audio show as often as they want between now and January 31, and as many people as are in their household or social bubble can listen in. Go to the website, sjt.uk.com, for more details.
ALAN Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia was last mounted by the SJT in 2008 as part of The Things That Go Bump, his farewell season as artistic director that brought out the ghosts lurking in the dark corners of all our minds.
Richard Derrington guest-directed that revival of Ayckbourn’s claustrophic, ever chillier 1994 response to Woman In Black, the SJT hit that went international. This time, in the wake of SJT director emeritus Ayckbourn’s online premiere of his 84th play, Anno Domino, in the first pandemic lockdown, he becomes a triple threat again for Haunting Julia.
Make that quadruple threat, because the Scarborough knight, now 81, is the writer, director, performer and sound designer for his only all-male play…although “other voices” are added to his triptych of roles, courtesy of Naomi Petersen.
Three men, a father, a lover and a medium, are each struggling to fathom why Otley-born classical musical genius Julia Lukin died at only 19, the victim of an accident or maybe suicide, or perhaps murkier, sinister circumstances shrouded in drugs and alcohol.
The day the music died in 1982, her father’s life stopped in its tracks. Twelve years on and no nearer the truth, bewildered, bluff, big-in-industrial-fencing-supplies businessman Joe Lukin has opened the Julia Lukin Centre for Performing Studies in her former attic student digs and two adjoining houses as a tribute to “Little Miss Mozart”.
Joe has made alterations to the building and the actress voicing Julia’s story is too buoyant: symbols of how this caring, but over-bearing West Yorkshireman never quite struck the right note with her, applying stultifying parental pressure as she struggled with a gift that made her sick, its uncontrollable insistence on being let out being “like a great cloud in front of the sun”.
On the recording, Julia’s distressed real voice can be heard, not only by Joe, but also by her close college friend Andy Rollinson, whose ever more apparent discomfort at having to dig up old ground will be brought to the surface by the arrival of Ken Chase, an over-enthusiastic psychic, the Madame Arcati of Haunting Julia. The truth will out, ultimately willingly from Ken, less so from Andy, who goes from distracted awkwardness to confronting his shut-down past.
May your reviewer make a suggestion, dear reader? Despite the play’s afternoon setting, listen to this audio version in the still of the night, in candlelight or by fire light, or even in the dark, curtains drawn, no distractions, maximum concentration, in part to contrast with the collective experience of a theatre audience, in part too to enhance the new format.
The shards of humour, often released as a form of relief from the rising tension in a packed auditorium, are less forthcoming on a solo journey through an audio recording, but the psychological impact of Ayckbourn’s ghost story grows in the loneliness of the socially distanced listener.
Ghost stories are as much a part of Christmas as pantomime dames and carol services, and so whereas the 1994 premiere and subsequent SJT revivals were staged in the summer, this is the perfect time for Haunting Julia to start haunting all over again.
“I consider Julia Lukin to be among the most complex and intriguing of my characters never physically to appear,” Ayckbourn has said. “Although a male three-hander, the play definitely belongs to her.”
Yes, and no. Yes, she possesses the three men, and in turn the listener, but Haunting Julia very definitely belongs to Ayckbourn too, not only as the consummate story-telling writer, but also in now voicing his three troubled protagonists.
Just as it was a pleasure to discover his dormant acting skills, alongside his wife Heather Stoney, in Anno Domino’s tale of marital breakdown and toxic politics, so his trio of accents and characters here is as enjoyable for us as it must have been for Ayckbourn to record in a year when his rehearsal room has had to fall silent.
What’s more, former BBC sound engineer Ayckbourn’s sound design adds hugely to the immersive audio encounter, playing on your imagination’s worst fears, as a ghost tale should.
“You have to build up the audience’s confidence in the story first, and then scare them, which is not that different from a farce, where you’re trying to make them laugh by surprising them,” said Ayckbourn of his first ghost play. Sure enough, surprise follows surprise here, and Haunting Julia is even better in this re-incarnation.
How to listen to Alan Ayckbourn times three in Haunting Julia:
Once a £12 ticket has been bought, the buyer can access the audio show as often as they want between now and January 5, and as many people as are in their household or social bubble can listen in. Go to the website, sjt.uk.com, for more details.
EXIT LOCKDOWN 2, enter Tier 2 for York and North Yorkshire, Tier 3 for next-door neighbours The Humber and West Yorkshire.
That means plenty of openings and re-openings for Charles Hutchinson to highlight, but no roads leading to Leeds, Hull or…Pocklington.
The pantomime season in York
NO Dame Berwick Kaler comeback in Dick Turpin Rides Again at the still-closed Grand Opera House, alas, but after two nights at the Theatre Royal this week, York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime will be making its way around York’s wards until December 23.
Audience members will vote for whether they want to see Jack And The Beanstalk, Dick Whittington or Snow White. All performances have sold out but more may yet be added.
Tickets are still available for York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk, directed by Nik Briggs and choreographed by West End hotshot Gary Lloyd at Theatre @41 Monkgate from December 11 to January 3. Fans of York drag diva Velma Celli should look out for creator Ian Stroughair’s transformation into baddie Flesh Creep.
Festival at the double for 2020: York Early Christmas Music Festival, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 4 to 12 and York Christmas At Home, December 11 to 13
THE 2020 York Early Music Christmas Festival will be not one, but two festivals, one at the NCEM, the other online. Festive concerts will be performed with Covid-secure safety measures and cabaret-style seating at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York, complemented by a new digital weekend festival.
York Christmas At Home will be streamed from December 11 to 13, with the Yuletide music concerts available on demand throughout the Christmas period until January 6 2021.
Performing live will be Palisander, The Marian Consort, Illyria Consort, Joglaresa, The York Waits and Bethany Seymour, Helen Charlston, Frederick Long and Peter Seymour. Add The Chiaroscuro Quartet, Matthew Wadsworth and Kate Bennett Wadsworth, Spiritato!, Steven Devine and Stile Antico to that list for the At Home programme.
Post-Lockdown 2 gallery re-opening: Kentmere House Gallery, Scarcroft Hill, York, from this evening (3/12/2020)
NEW work by Susan Bower, John Thornton and Rosie Dean has arrived at Kentmere House Gallery in good time for Christmas. Ann Petherick will re-open her home art-space tomorrow evening from 6pm to 9pm, followed by weekend opening each Saturday and Sunday until December 20 from 11am to 5pm.
Oils, watercolours, pastels and original prints by 70 British artists are on display, along with books, greetings cards and Christmas cards exclusive to the gallery.
Visits arranged by appointment will be resuming too, on 01904 656507 or 07801 810825 or by emailing email@example.com.
Christmas snow: Badapple Theatre Company, in The Snow Dancer, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, December 5, 2.30pm, 7.30pm; December 6, 1pm, 6pm
GREEN Hammerton’s Badapple Theatre revive their 2019 Christmas hit, The Snow Dancer, for two days only at the Covid-secure JoRo Theatre, newly equipped with chair wraps to denote the socially distanced seating plan.
Last year’s cast of Anastasia Benham and Danny Mellor will re-assemble to perform writer-director Kate Bramley’s cautionary global-warming tale, set in the Great Wood, where something is awry.
Owt and about again: Say Owt word weavers at The Crescent, York, December 11, 7pm
SAY Owt, York’s loveable gang of performance poets, are back in live action for the first time since the summer for a night of socially distanced spoken word at The Crescent, re-opening that night with Covid-secure measures and a seated capacity of 60.
Stepping up to the mic will be Say Owt’s A-team of Henry Raby, Hannah Davies, Stu Freestone and Dave Jarman, joined by special guest poets Katie Greenbrown and Ruth Awolola.
“The night will feature a set of banging poems, full of wit and humour to warm your soul this December,” says artistic director Raby. “Expect some brand-new pieces, improv poetry and a few silly surprises hiding up our spoken-word sleeves.”
New children’s attraction of the week in York: A Very Magical Christmas, York city centre, until January 5
FROM the creators of A Very Magical Adventure comes A Very Magical Christmas: a live interactive theatrical quest with magical spell-casting and a fun, festive afternoon tea with special effects to knock your socks off. Even a visit from old St Nicholas is promised.
The quest will begin at St Michael le Belfrey, where you will meet your guide, the Potions Professor from Old Jacob’s School of Magic, who will teach you how to cast spells and find clues that will lead you to the secret location of the wizard school. For more details, go to averymagicaladventure.co.uk.
Children’s attraction of the week outside York: A Peter Rabbit Winter Adventure Activity Trail, Beninbrough Hall, Beningbrough, near York, December 5 and eight other open days, 10am to 3pm
GRAB a £2 goody bag per child while stocks last, complete with an activity sheet, pencil, certificate, badge and play pack, to embark on a family-friendly Peter Rabbit Winter Adventure Trail in the Beningbrough Hall gardens and grounds.
The task is to solve the clues to help Peter and his friends prepare for the winter ahead, while spotting nature in all its seasonal glory. Expect to find Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Mr Jeremy Fisher, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail before having your photograph taken beside the Peter Rabbit board.
Do check availability of the goody bags before setting off at nationaltrust.org.uk/beningbrough-hall-gallery-and-gardens
And what about?
TUNE into Alan Ayckbourn’s ghost story for a winter chill, his 1994 play Haunting Julia, in an audio version for the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, with all three roles voiced by Ayckbourn, at sjt.uk.com/event/1078/haunting_julia until January 5.
Don’t miss the SJT’s Christmas show, Nick Lane’s one-woman version of The Snow Queen, starring Polly Lister at some shows, Jacoba Williams at others, from December 7 to 31.
York Barbican has been busy booking shows for 2021: artist and TV presenter Grayson Perry’s existentialist distraction from the very meaningless of life, A Show For Normal People, September 6; London indie-pop trio Scouting For Girls, October 10; astronaut Tim Peake’s Journey Into The Unknown, November 2, and comedian Sarah Millican’s Bobby Dazzler, November 12 and 13.
GHOST stories are as much a part of Christmas as pantomime dames.
What a delight, then, that Alan Ayckbourn is revisiting his 1994 play Haunting Julia in a brand-new audio recording that will feature the voice of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s director emeritus.
Or, rather, the three voices of Ayckbourn, 81, who will be playing all three parts in the online version, available exclusively on the SJT website, sjt.uk.com, from December 1 to January 5.
Directed by Ayckbourn, the “comic but scary” Haunting Julia was recorded at his Scarborough home studio, where he and his wife, Heather Stoney, had made his first ever audio play, his 84th premiere Anno Domino, in the first lockdown.
Released by the SJT in May, Ayckbourn’s tale of marital breakdown and toxic politics drew a worldwide audience. “We enjoyed the experience,” says Alan. “I think it went pretty well and the response was good, very positive.
“Although we did jump in at the deep end a bit, as we hadn’t acted on stage for years, Heather even more so than me.
“The only time I would act is when doing a new play and I would act it out at the first reading.”
After the Coronavirus pandemic put paid to this summer’s Ayckbourn’s stage premiere of Truth Will Out, he turned his attention to Anno Domino instead. “That kept my hand in, when the lockdown was announced and we thought, ‘what the hell are we going to do?’,” he recalls.
“My new play was kicked into touch, along with everything else, but then I got the taste for the audio play and we ended up rather enjoying it – though Heather has had enough after one play! So, I thought I’d do my only all-male play.”
Ayckbourn, who played characters ranging in age from teenage to septuagenarian in Anno Domino, will now take the parts of Julia’s father, Joe, her former boyfriend, Andy, and psychic Ken in Haunting Julia, wherein “other voices” – previously off stage – are provided by Naomi Petersen.
Haunting Julia is set 12 years after the suicide of musical prodigy Julia Lukin. Her father Joe, still struggling with her death, meets with her boyfriend and a psychic to seek out the truth, but some questions are better left unanswered.
“Over the years, I have always enjoyed creating off-stage characters almost as much as on-stage ones. They serve to provide, at their simplest, a depth and perspective to an overall stage picture,” says Alan.
“I consider Julia Lukin to be among the most complex and intriguing of my characters never physically to appear. Although a male three-hander, the play definitely belongs to her.”
Haunting Julia was premiered at the SJT in its former home at Westwood in 1994 and its ghostly presence has haunted many theatres since then, not least in two revivals at the SJT.
“I started it as a response to the phenomenal success of The Woman In Black, the most successful play we ever did, thinking ‘oh, there’s gold in them thar hills’.”
Seven years would pass between the SJT premiere of Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novella and Ayckbourn’s birth of Haunting Julia, his first ghost play, as he strove to settle on a distinctive, winning format.
“You have to build up the audience’s confidence in the story first, and then scare them, which is not that different from a farce, where you’re trying to make them laugh by surprising them,” he says.
“The first thing I discarded was the supernatural. Instead, I wanted to explore these three men, with the girl, Julia, being a very strong off-stage character, having an enormous influence on them.
“I became interested in writing a séance, where the three men see her from different angles, creating her as a hologram where the audience will know her better than the three men.
“It was an exploration that took me on another journey, rather than pursuing the P D James thriller style, but it still has a spooky element to it, though the aim was not to make people jump from horror shocks.”
Dealing with pressure became the driving force of the play. “I wanted to set up a story where the parents had a gifted child and the obvious gift you could give them was a musical talent,” says Alan.
“Children rarely write a novel at three or four, but they do create elemental music, so I wrote about an ordinary couple who gave birth, quite by chance, to a musical prodigy, and then show their bewilderment, yet pride, thinking ‘it’s not our music, we listen to pop music’, whereas she becomes a serious Radio 3 composer.
“Then, because of the mounting pressure that ends her life, it was fascinating for me to explore what that meant to the people left behind. Suicide is tragic and awful, but what about those people left, who ask ‘what did we do wrong?’. The questions they ask themselves are just as awful as the suicide itself.”
Analysing how being gifted, be it musical, sporting or whatever, can be isolating, even to the point of someone contemplating suicide, Alan says: “It’s always interesting reading about people you admire, and you read the section where they say they ‘got so depressed, they felt they were going nowhere’.
“You think, ‘why did they lose confidence in their special gift?’. On the other hand, is it something they don’t quite understand or treat in the way they should? I don’t think I solved that question.”
As with Anno Domino, Alan faced the prospect of recording differing, distinguishable voices for the audio play. “Joe is much older than the other two, and they are all well-defined,” he says. “Joe is a bluff, successful northern businessman; Andy was a contemporary of Julia, being her boyfriend, and his accent is more southern RP [Received Pronunciation].
“Ken, I had to find another voice for, and he comes into my stock range of little men that started with Sidney Hopcroft [a small-time tradesman] in Absurd Person Singular in 1972, so I’ve given Ken my own native Cockney.”
The age range “wasn’t that challenging,” reveals Alan. “I would do Joe in the morning, when my voice was rougher, and Joe and Ken in the afternoon.”
Important to the recording too is Ayckbourn’s prowess with soundscapes, or “sound effects as they used to be called”. “When I do a new play, I always do the soundscapes,” says Alan, who honed his skills when working for five years at the BBC Sound Studios in Leeds.
“For years, back in the Sixties, I was dubbing stuff on reel-to-reel recordings, tapes, then mini-discs. Now it’s all computers and it’s become increasingly sophisticated, where I can mix in all sorts of effects.
“When doing a production at the SJT, the main scenic elements, apart from the set, are sound and lighting, so the soundscapes can be even more crucial to an audio play – though Haunting Julia doesn’t call for huge soundscapes, except at the end.” You will have to listen to find out what that ending involves.
Rather than recording a new work, Alan settled on exhuming Haunting Julia for the SJT’s winter season. “I could see a time-frame, once I’d finished Anno Domino, that if we started another recording, we wouldn’t be finished much before autumn, which would be good for the Christmas programme, and Paul [artistic director Paul Robinson] jumped at it,” he says.
“With the second lockdown now happening, thankfully we got it in the can in good time. It’s opportune timing for a ghost story; I don’t think I could have launched it on Midsummer’s Day, but now, with the light drawing in for winter, if you’re going to tell a story around a fire, then a ghost story is ideal.”
At 81, prolific writer-director Alan is at an age where the greatest care must be taken in the face of Covid-19; likewise, Heather has turned 80.
“I’m still optimistic for the future of theatre, but not so optimistic for myself. We’re in the vulnerable bracket,” he says. “Days of jumping into rehearsals with a lot of actors breathing all over each other is not a good idea, so I’m not going to be doing that.
“The other thing is, how long will I keep going? The only dispiriting feeling is thinking, ‘Are my new plays going to get done?’. There are four or five now. Normally, a play is written and then it’s performed and that’s wonderful encouragement, but for me, until a play is done, has run the gamut of rehearsals, performances, audience response and post-mortem, I’m marking time, but the plays keep coming.”
Tickets for Haunting Julia can be booked any time up to and including January 5 2021, either via https://www.sjt.uk.com/event/1078/haunting_julia or from the box office, initially by phone only from 10am to noon, Monday to Friday, on 01723 370541 until December 2. Opening times for booking in person will be announced as soon as possible.
Once a £12 ticket has been bought, the buyer can access the audio show as often as they want between December 1 and January 5, and as many people as are in their household or social bubble can listen in. Go to the website for more details.
THE Stephen Joseph Theatre has won gold in Welcome To Yorkshire’s White Rose Awards.
The Scarborough theatre topped the Arts and Culture category, seeing off stiff competition from a shortlist of silver recipients Harewood House; bronze-placed Selby District Council (Selby 950); Hull’s Freedom Festival Arts Trust; Huddersfield Literature Festival; Hull Libraries (The Big Malarkey Festival), Bradford intercultural arts hub Kala Sangam and Yorkshire Sculpture International.
The judges said: “From their innovative approach to accessibility and inclusivity, the rave reviews and so much more, this business truly impressed the judges.
“The great online and social media presence, international profile and a real commitment to engaging the local community is what, for us, makes the Stephen Joseph Theatre such a worthy winner.'”
Caroline Routh, the SJT’s executive director Caroline Routh, says: “This has been a tough year for just about everyone, and it’s so nice to have something to celebrate for once.
“We were thrilled to win the White Rose Arts and Culture Award, and particularly to be shortlisted in such fantastic company. We’re now looking forward to bringing our Christmas show, The Snow Queen, to Scarborough, live on stage throughout December, as well as an online treat: an audio recording of Alan Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia, performed by the writer himself.”
Held online on Monday evening, the annual White Rose Awards – Britain’s largest tourism awards ceremony – showcase the best and brightest Yorkshire has to offer.
SCARBOROUGH’S Stephen Joseph Theatre will close its doors to the public again from Thursday to December 2, re-opening on December 3, pending further Government Covid-19 pronouncements.
In the light of last night’s confirmation from Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden that rehearsals can continue behind closed doors, the SJT will be going ahead with its vibrant Christmas production of Nick Lane’s The Snow Queen throughout December.
The SJT had re-opened its McCarthy cinema in late-August and has been presenting live theatre from the start of October: one of the first theatres in the country to do so.
November’s live shows – My Favourite Summer and Orpheus & Eurydice, plus play readings of Canton, Worldly and With Bells On! – will move to next spring. New dates will be announced as soon as possible.
As much of the November cinema programme as possible will be switched to December. Again, new dates will be posted ASAP.
Haunting Julia, an audio version of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1994 play directed and performed by Sir Alan himself, is unaffected. Theatre-goers who prefer to stay at home can book to listen between December 1 and January 5 via the theatre’s website, sjt.uk.com. Raven’s sold-out Christmas concert on December 15 will go ahead as planned too.
The SJT’s box-office team is working hard to contact everyone with bookings affected by the changes. Ticket-bookers can choose whether they would like a refund, a credit to their account, or to donate the cost of their ticket to help secure the theatre’s future.
Those with bookings are asked not to contact the box office if possible. The team is making its way through November’s bookings in date order as fast as it can.
The SJT’s executive director, Caroline Routh, says: “Of course, it’s a huge disappointment to us all to have to close again. Our audiences have been so appreciative that we reopened our cinema in August and recommenced live theatre in October, and really generous in their support in so many ways.
“Most of our screenings and shows, includingJohn Godber’s Sunny Side Up! just last week, have sold out, although our capacities have been reduced because of social distancing.
“But the safety of our audience, our in-house team and our visiting companies is, of course, paramount. When we do re-open, we‘ll still be following the same stringent safety procedures that have made our audiences feel so safe recently.
“And we’re so thrilled that we’re still able to bring The Snow Queen to Scarborough for Christmas. It promises to be a really lively and memorable show, starring the fabulous Polly Lister and, on certain performances, her talented ‘alternate’ Jacoba Williams. We’re confident it’ll be a Christmas must-see for 2020!”
Please note, if you do need to contact the box office for any reason, you can do so on 01723 370541, between 10am and noon, Mondays to Fridays, until 2 December (phone queries only; the building will not be open for in-person visits.
Tickets for all December events can still be booked online through the lockdown period at sjt.uk.com.
LIVE indoor theatre will return on the East Coast this autumn at both Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre and Hull Truck Theatre.
Today, the SJT announces an “innovative autumn and winter season for 2020 that has been carefully crafted to combine live theatre for socially distanced audiences with digital work for those that prefer to stay at home”.
In the SJT’s headline news, the waiting for Godber’s new play is over. The world premiere of the ground-breaking former Hull Truck artistic director’s Sunny Side Up! will be a family affair, starring John Godber, his wife Jane Thornton and their daughter Martha Godber from October 28 to 31 in The Round.
Written and directed by Godber, the humorous and moving Sunny Side Up! depicts a struggling Yorkshire coast B&B and the people who run it. “Join proprietors Barney, Cath and Tina as they share their stories of awkward clients, snooty relatives and eggs over easy in this seaside rollercoaster that digs into what our ‘staycations’ are all about,” invites John.
Further news bongs go to a new audio recording by former SJT artistic director Sir Alan Ayckbourn and a one-woman Christmas show, likely to be one of the few in the region, specially rewritten to adapt to prevailing Covid-19 pandemic circumstances.
After the lockdown success of his debut audio play, Anno Domino, premiered by writer-director Ayckbourn and his wife, actor Heather Stoney, Ayckbourn goes solo for Haunting Julia, his ghostly 1994 play, wherein he will play all three parts. As before, his master’s voice can be heard only via the SJT website, sjt.uk.com, with the play being available online “throughout December”, although the exact dates are yet to be rubber-stamped.
The SJT Christmas show, from December 4 to 30, reassembles the crack team behind the hit productions of the past four winters: director Paul Robinson, writer Nick Lane and musical director Simon Slater, the latter two both serving up shows earlier in the season too.
Adapted by Lane from the Hans Christian Andersen story, the solo version of The Snow Queen will be performed by Polly Lister, who played Mari in Jim Cartwright’s The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice and Di in Amelia Bullmore’s Di And Viv And Rose when part of the SJT’s 2017 summer repertory company.
Scarborough-born Slater, an SJT associate artist, will appear in Douglas Post’s one-man thriller Bloodshot from October 21 to 24 in The Round, where all productions will be mounted, save for the online performances.
Slater will play Derek Eveleigh, a photographer with a serious drinking problem, who pursues a mysterious female subject across 1957 London from racially troubled Notting Hill to the raucous entertainments of Soho.
Often comedic Nick Lane’s sardonic, surreal and “intensely autobiographical” first straight play, My Favourite Summer, was premiered at Hull Truck in January and February 2007. This autumn, the original cast and the belting Nineties’ soundtrack will return in the torrid tale of Dave, who spends a month working alongside a nutcase called Melvin in the summer job from hell in 1995.
Saving money to take the girl he loves away on holiday, before she disappears out of his life forever, has never been so hard. Still, at least the weather’s nice in a comedy for “everyone who’s ever been in love and lived to tell the tale”.
Lane, whose adaptation of The Sign Of Four was well received by SJT audiences last year, will direct the semi-staged 2020 performance of My Favourite Summer in a run from November 12 to 14.
The autumn/winter season will begin on October 1 with a live performance on Zoom of Love Letters At Home. “In response to our desire for connection in times of physical distance, Uninvited Guests have created an innovative, digital, wholly personal and wonderfully live experience,” the SJT announces.
By collecting song requests and dedications from audience members, Uninvited Guests create a show guaranteed to be unique to each audience. Join them on Zoom to raise a glass to long lost and current loves, to mums and dads, and to absent friends.
“Have you ever been treated like an inanimate object?” asks Katie Arnstein in her solo show Sexy Lamp on October 15. Katie has suffered that slight, she says, although in reality she is a “friendly, lovable and hilarious real-life person”.
Join her as she re-lives, through story and songs, all the times she was not seen as one, however. Billed as “somewhere between the comedy of Victoria Wood, the comfort of going for a drink with your best mate and the high drama of Hamlet”, Arnstein’s show won both Show of the Week and Pleasance Pick at last year’s VAULT Festival in London. “It’s nothing like Hamlet,” she corrects herself.
In Alison Carr’s dark comedy, Dogwalker, on November 6 and 7, Helen finds a dead body in the local dog park, whereupon suddenly everyone is paying attention to her. At least for a little while.
Now she has had a taste of the limelight, Helen will not fade into the shadows without a fight in a play that first dropped through the SJT Open Script Submissions window and is being developed for a potential run at the Edinburgh Fringe under the direction of Chelsey Gillard, the SJT’s Carne Trust associate director.
Carr, by the way, had the disappointment of her sold-out performances of The Last Quiz Night In Earth in March being scrapped under the Coronavirus theatre shutdown.
After writer Alexander Flanagan-Wright and musician Phil Grainger’s performances of linking shows Orpheus and Eurydice in the At The Mill season at Stillington Mill and York Theatre Royal’s Pop-Up On The Patio festival, Serena Manteghi will be in the cast for SJT performances from November 19 to 21.
Serena premiered Eurydice to award-winning success in Australia, when joined in the two-hander by actor and designer Casey Jay Andrews. She will be familiar to SJT audiences from playing LV in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice and Yasmin in the premiere of Christopher York’s Build A Rocket.
From The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre stable, Orpheus and Eurydice are modern re-tellings of ancient Greek mythology, interweaving a world of dive bars, side streets and ancient gods. (Newsflash: 21/10/2020: Flanagan-Wright, Grainger, Manteghi and Andrews will be performing the plays together in a new version at the SJT).
A series of rehearsed play readings will take place in the theatre on October 7, 13 and 20, then each Tuesday from November 3 to 24, including Sarah Gordon’s The Underdog, Katie Redford’s Tapped and Rebecca Jade Hammond’s Canton.
Further shows will be announced soon, among them an evening of conversation with Hull-born Maureen Lipman and an innovative online show from outspoken Denby Dale comedian Daniel Kitson.
The re-opened SJT has been showing films in the McCarthy at the former Odeon cinema building since last month and will continue to do so. Now, artistic director and joint chief executive Paul Robinson is looking forward to the return of live theatre.
“We’ve worked hard to create an ambitious season of relatively small-scale work, but one that promises great entertainment and really does have something for everyone, including shows for those who are happy to return to the building, and also for those who aren’t.
“We see it as part of our ongoing civic role to open as soon as is reasonably practicable and to present irresistible work alongside meticulously thought-through health and safety measures.
“Our family show at Christmas, for instance, was originally written for five actors, but that would have made rehearsing impossible under current guidelines. Writer Nick Lane has adapted it into a remarkable one-woman show that we’re confident will be every bit as much fun as the original and will really showcase the multi-talented Polly Lister.”
The SJT has introduced comprehensive measures for the safety and comfort of its audiences – full details at https://www.sjt.uk.com/were_back – and has been awarded VisitEngland’s We’re Good to Go industry standard mark, signifying adherence to government and public health guidance.
“Everything will pay proper heed to social distancing, for both the audience and for our staff and performers,” says Robinson. “The seating capacity in The Round will vary from show to show but the socially distanced maximum will be 185.”
All the autumn and winter events will be added to the SJT website shortly; booking will open for Circle members from September 8 and for general sales from September 11.
To book, visit sjt.uk.com/whatson or call the box office on 01723 370541. The box office is open Thursdays to Saturdays, 11am to 4pm, for both phone calls and in-person bookings.
HULL Truck Theatre will reopen with the Hull Jazz Festival from November 12 and a seating capacity reduced to 20 to 30 per cent, but The Railway Children will not go ahead.
A statement from the Ferensway theatre announces: “The Hull Jazz Festival is a key part of our autumn season and we are really pleased that after eight months of closure, we are able to work with long-term partners J-Night to open the building with their exciting programme. Audience capacity will be smaller as we adhere to social distancing, but the programme and experience will still be the same great quality.”
However, the theatre bosses have had to make the “difficult decision” to postpone the 2020 Christmas production of E Nesbit’s The Railway Children, scripted by York playwright Mike Kenny in a re-visit of his award-winning adaptation for York Theatre Royal at the National Railway Museum (2008/2009) and Waterloo Station, London (2010).
“The creation of one of our Christmas shows usually begins in August but without an announced date from the Government on when theatre performances can resume without social distancing, a show of this scale would not be economically viable,” the Hull Truck statement reads.
“The Railway Children will be postponed until Christmas 2021 and all tickets will be automatically transferred into the equivalent date, time and original seat selection. We will be contacting all customers with details of their ticket transfer and, with our reduced team, we ask that customers do not contact the box office at this time.”
The statement continues: “While we may not be able to do something in our auditorium on the scale of The Railway Children, we remain committed to creating magical Christmas experiences for our audiences and are delighted to announce we will be producing an alternative show for 2020.”
The new show will be a promenade production of Prince Charming’s Christmas Cracker that will enable audiences to enjoy a festive adventure within small groups and under social-distancing measures as they move through the theatre.
What lies in store? Every year on Christmas Eve, Prince Charming – soon to be King and deluded Crooner – celebrates the festive season with an annual knees-up: the Christmas Cracker. This year, a big announcement is imminent and you are all invited.
Further details and on-sale dates for Hull Jazz Festival and Prince Charming’s Christmas Cracker will be announced in September, alongside up-to-date information on how Hull Truck is being made a safe place to visit within Government guidelines.
Announcements on the updated January to March 2021 season will be made later in the autumn, once Hull Truck has more information regarding social-distancing guidelines.
“We are dependent on Government advice on social distancing regarding the ability to stage productions and therefore whether they are financially viable,” the statement emphasises.
Artistic director Mark Babych and his joint chief executive officer, Janthi Mills-Ward, say: “We are very excited to have a reopening date to bring alive our wonderful theatre again. We will obviously be operating at a much-reduced capacity – 20 to 30 per cent – while social distancing is in place, which makes re-opening a difficult financial jigsaw of what and how we present work.
“But with meticulous planning to ensure the theatre is a safe place and innovative ideas for a programme that is possible with social distancing, we look forward to sharing the joy of live theatre again.”
They continue: “Part of this will be doing Christmas differently this year, which presents lots of creative challenges for the Hull Truck team to work on together, as well as opportunities for freelance artists.
“Our vision is to create a joyful, fun and uplifting production that takes audiences on an exciting journey through the theatre and we are sure this show is going to be just what we all need to get us in the Christmas spirit after a difficult year!”
Please note, Hull Truck “asks for your patience and kindness at this time as the box-office team work to contact all customers who have booked for The Railway Children”.