Leeds Playhouse goes digital with A Christmas Carol after Tier 3 renewal rules out performances 3 days before opening

Chain reaction: Everal A. Walsh’s Jacob Marley will set Ebenezer Scrooge on his path to redemption in A Christmas Carol. Picture: Anthony Robling

BAH, Tier 3 Humbug. A Christmas Carol should have been opening at Leeds Playhouse tomorrow for a run until January 9, but then came the Government’s latest killjoy message for much of the north.

The Playhouse’s response is to go ahead anyway…but for five special online performances only, from December 21 to 23.

“Just as the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future try to instil in Scrooge some seasonal spirit, Leeds Playhouse remains committed to spreading much-needed festive cheer across the city and beyond this year, with ‘as live’ digital screenings of its sensational family show A Christmas Carol,” says the Playhouse statement.

“As Leeds remains in Tier 3, the Playhouse is sadly unable to welcome people into its Quarry Theatre to enjoy the production in person, but we remain determined that audiences will be able to experience the spirit, fun, music and magic of A Christmas Carol in the run-up to the big day.” 

Leeds Playhouse has worked with Pilot Theatre, resident company at York Theatre Royal, to film the production and share it for free with care homes, schools and hospitals in Leeds.

“It’s brilliant to be working in a new partnership with Leeds Playhouse on Playhouse At Home,” says Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson. “We know how disappointing it is for everyone this Christmas in Leeds not to be able to attend theatre performances, but if you access the show via your television, or the largest screen you have at home, it’s amazing how close our team are able to make you feel to the actors and the magic of this enduring Christmas story.” 

Dan Parr in Leeds Playhouse’s production of A Christmas Carol. Picture: Anthony Robling

Now, tickets are being made available to the wider public for online performances at 7pm on December 21, then 2pm and 7pm on December 22 and 23. Prices start at £10, but be warned, numbers are limited, so early booking is advised to avoid disappointment.

Charles Dickens’s winter evergreen can be enjoyed in the comfort and safety of homes – whether in Tier 3 across West Yorkshire or Tier 2 in York and North Yorkshire – in Huddersfield-born Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation, premiered at Hull Truck Theatre in December 2017, when directed by Amy Leach.

Now associate director at Leeds Playhouse, Leach is directing this season’s production too, wherein the spirits of theatre past, present and future emerge from ghost lights centre stage to share with miser Ebenezer Scrooge the true meaning of this festive time of year.

On Christmas Eve in Victorian Leeds, the cold-hearted Scrooge has not spread an ounce of festive cheer. As the cold night draws in, first Jacob Marley, then the ghostly spirits, take Scrooge on his frightening but enlightening magical journey, hoping to show him the error of his ways.

“Our vivid retelling of one of the best-loved stories in English literature was inspired by the evocative beauty and intrinsic hope of the ghost lights that continued to burn bright while theatres across the land were forced to go dark when the pandemic hit,” says Leach.

“Our aim now with Playhouse At Home is to share that same light and hope with people in their own homes, giving them the best seats in the house for a story infused with goodwill, festive spirit and optimism. What a way to kick off Christmas week!”

Playwright Deborah McAndrew

As part of the Playhouse’s on-going commitment to supporting the Leeds community, the Quarry Hill theatre is gifting a free screening to closed wards of Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, so patients can enjoy the on-stage magic even while they are in hospital over the festive period.

The offer is being extended to the Playhouse’s Burberry Inspire partner schools, residents in three care homes and to two day-service settings for adults with a learning disability.

Ticket holders who booked for cancelled shows will be sent the digital version for free. In addition, the Playhouse will bring A Christmas Carol to 1,000 NHS key workers and their families as part of the #LeedsSaysThanks scheme.

Playhouse artistic director James Brining says: “It feels more important than ever that we should honour our ongoing commitment to the wider Playhouse community in Leeds, the city region and beyond, giving our more vulnerable neighbours the chance to experience the life-enhancing joy of live theatre at Christmas in the comfort and safety of familiar surroundings.” 

Reflecting on “undoubtedly an incredibly challenging year”, Brining says: “With challenge comes innovation. We launched Playhouse Connect during lockdown to stay creatively engaged with more than 4,000 people across Leeds.

Jack Lord’s Ebenezer Scrooge, centre, has his measly meal interrupted by the nightcap-bothering Lladel Bryant in Leeds Playhouse’s A Christmas Carol. Picture: Anthony Robling

“This resulted in a collated series of dynamic online projects that we were able to successfully share with a much wider digital audience. We have also previously partnered with the National Theatre and Curve on lockdown screenings of Barber Shop Chronicles and  My Beautiful Laundrette.

“Playhouse At Home is the next logical step, giving us a vital outlet for the incredible work we are continuing to produce, and audiences an essential opportunity to experience inspiring and energising theatre at home.”

Jack Lord will play Ebenezer Scrooge; Stephen Collins and Nadia Nadarajah, Bob and Mrs Cratchit; Dan Parr, Young Scrooge and Fred; Tessa Parr, Christmas Past; Lladel Bryant, Dick Wilkins and Topper, and Everal A. Walsh, Marley and Fezziwig.

Lisa Howard, last seen in York in Park Bench Theatre’s late-summer premiere of Matt Aston’s lockdown play Every Time A Bell Rings in Rowntree Park, will take the roles of Christmas Present and Mrs Fezziwig.

Leach, who directed Oliver Twist at Leeds Playhouse in February, is joined in the creative team by designer Hayley Grindle; lighting designer Chris Davey; Leeds composer and music director John Biddle; Otley sound designer Ed Clarke; Leeds BSL consultant Adam Bassett; choreographer Lucy Cullingford; puppet designer Rachael Canning and puppet director Elisa De Grey.

The socially distanced Leeds Playhouse company in A Christmas Carol. Picture: Anthony Robling

Tickets (£10/£12/£150 can be booked at leedsplayhouse.org.uk or 0113 213 7700 with access for 48 hours from the ticket time. All performances include integrated British Sign Language (BSL), captioning and features creative audio description, courtesy of Hear The Picture.

Opera North and Leeds Playhouse unite for October season of Connecting Voices

Testament: Leeds rapper, writer and beatboxer commissioned for new piece for Connecting Voices. Picture: Anthony Robling

OPERA North and Leeds Playhouse are collaborating on a celebration of the power and expressiveness of the human voice that will bring audiences back into the Quarry Hill theatre next month for the first time since the March lockdown.

They will co-produce Connecting Voices: six new and existing 40-minute pieces of live performance staged safely and Covid-securely in four areas of the Playhouse, played over three weekends in October, fusing classic and contemporary theatre on themes of isolation and connection, resilience and reflection 

Leeds rapper, writer and world record-holding beatboxer Testament has been commissioned to explore the power of the solo voice within a communal space and the relationship between performer and audience, while freelance artists Matthew Eberhardt and Khadijah Ibrahiim will be devising new work together with musicians, poets, actors and young people 

Running from October 2 to 17, Connecting Voices will mark the reopening of Leeds Playhouse six months after lockdown began by “partnering with the wider arts industry to find new and innovative ways of reintroducing audiences to live theatre, in a safe and secure environment, contributing to the life and vibrancy of the Leeds city region”.

Orpheus In The Record Store, written by Testament and directedby Aletta Collins, will fuse spoken word and beatboxing with players from the Orchestra of Opera North in a collaboration in the Quarry Theatre that gives the Greek myth of Orpheus a contemporary Yorkshire twist.

“I’m so excited to be back at Leeds Playhouse with Opera North, especially after this turbulent period,” says Testament. “To be commissioned to create a new piece of work is a massive honour.

“The Playhouse was one of the first organisations to take a chance on me as a theatre maker and it feels like home; their help and support has been invaluable to my growth as an artist.  And only last year I got to work with Opera North as an artist on their Resonance programme, which opened my eyes to new possibilities as a composer.”

Looking forward to live performances returning to Leeds Playhouse, Testament says: “There is much to say and share right now, and I passionately believe theatre has an almost spiritual role in making the direction we wish to go in as a society tangible.

“I can’t wait to be back in front of an actual audience – being together enjoying worlds that we make together in those moments of live connection.”

Khadijah Ibrahiim: Writing and directing Reflections: Dead And Wake for Connecting Voices

What can next month’s audiences expect? “Right now, I’m in the lab creating, pushing buttons, and I’ve got something planned as a beatboxer that has never been like this way before,” says Testament. “I am also super-excited about connecting with Opera North musicians:  we are planning to take the crowd on an epic journey with music, spoken word and live theatre.”

Playing alongside Orpheus In The Record Store will be topical re-awakenings of two pieces from 1958 that present characters isolated from others and struggling to connect again through technology.

The first is Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s monologue Krapp’s Last Tape, to be performed by Niall Buggy in the Bramall Rock Void, directed by Dominic Hill.  This will be counterpointed by Francis Poulenc’sshort opera La Voix Humaine, performed by Opera North soprano Gillene Butterfield in the Barber Studio, directed by Leeds Playhouse’s Sameena Hussain.

In the Courtyard Theatre, each of the three weekends will see a different and newly devised piece of work from Leeds spoken-word artist Khadijah Ibrahiim and two pieces by freelance director Matthew Eberhardt, whose credits include Opera North’s Street Scene.

They will work  with singers, actors, young people and musicians, including classically-trained singer Keertan Kaur Rehal, Amy J Payne and stalwart Playhouse actor Robert Pickavance, to create contemporary responses to the themes of remembrance, collaboration and the act of storytelling.

James Brining, artistic director at Leeds Playhouse, says: “Re-opening the Playhouse after six months of enforced closure and being separated from each other has made us value even more than before the act of live performance and what that means. 

“Our beautifully refurbished building provides us with many opportunities to safely welcome audiences and artists back into the Playhouse.  Connecting Voices is a carefully curated programme exploring isolation and connection, resilience and reflection, as well as the relationship between performer and audience member in a shared space.”

Brining is delighted to be working once again with Leeds company Opera North. “We’re pooling our resources to help the city of Leeds to get back on its feet and bring joyous and powerful communal shared experiences back to the lives of its citizens,” he says. 

“As we head into our 50th year at this challenging time, it’s vital that we reconnect with audiences and communities and collaborate with bold and diverse voices from across the region. We can’t wait to welcome back artists and participants into the building safely to create and experience live theatre once again.”

“We can’t wait to welcome back artists and participants into the building safely to create and experience live theatre once again,” says Leeds Playhouse artistic director James Brining

Richard Mantle, Opera North’s general director, says: “Connecting Voices is a compelling exploration of the power of the human voice and the profound desire to establish meaningful ties out of experiences of isolation and loss.

“We are delighted that we are able to begin the process of welcoming audiences safely back to live performance through this collection of work in partnership with Leeds Playhouse.

“Connecting Voices brings together voices spoken and sung from across the city and wider region, and we are especially thrilled to be collaborating with such a diverse and talented group of freelance artists, singers, musicians, poets and directors who all share artistic ties to both Opera North and to Leeds Playhouse.

“Now, more than ever, it is apparent how strongly intertwined the artistic and cultural community in our region is, and how important collaboration will be in ensuring a vibrant future for the arts and audiences across the city.”

Please note, in line with Government guidelines, audiences will be of limited capacity with social distancing and temperature checking will be conducted too. Tickets will go on sale to Leeds Playhouse’s Supporters’ Club, Playhouse Pass holders and Opera North Patrons from Monday, September 14 and on general sale from 12 noon on Tuesday at leedsplayhouse.org.uk and on 0113 213 7700.

Connecting Voices: the full programme

Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett, directed by Dominic Hill

A 69-year-old man listens to the voice of his 39-year-old self. Looking back on his loves, failures and losses, Krapp rewinds through his life with humour and heartache. A classic Beckett play, both punchy and personal.

Performances: October 2, 9 and 16, 8pm; October 3, 10 and 17, 3.30pm and 8pm,
Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse.

Humour and heartache: Niall Buggy in Krapp’s Last Tape. Picture: Robert Workman

La Voix Humaine, by Francis Poulenc, directed by Sameena Hussain

A devastating short opera exploring the pain and fear of rejection in the rawest fashion. Through the lone voice of the woman, Poulenc expresses the full range of human emotion with a score of caressing warmth and intimacy. This powerful one-woman performance will be sung in English.

Performances: October 2, 9 and 16, 6pm, and October 3, 10 and 17, 1.30pm and 6pm, Barber Studio, Leeds Playhouse.

Orpheus In The Record Store, by Testament, directed by Aletta Collins

Orpheus is alone, playing tunes in his record shop. When an old friend arrives, music and stories collide as the ancient and contemporary merge. Testament takes inspiration from the classical Greek myth in a show that fuses spoken word and beatboxing with classical music from the Orchestra of Opera North.

Performances: October 2, 9 and 16, 9pm, and October 3, 10 and 17, 4.30pm and 9pm, Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse.

Reflections: Dead And Wake, written and directed by Khadijah Ibrahiim

Experience a Jamaican “Nine Night” with literary activist and theatre maker Khadijah Ibrahiim. This thought-provoking performance explores Caribbean rituals around death through poetry, music and ghost [duppy] stories, featuring turntablist DJ NikNak and Paulette Morris. The event also includes performers from the Sunday Practise with their creative response to living through the last six months.

Performances: October 16, 7pm and October 17, 2.30pm and 7pm, Courtyard Theatre, Leeds Playhouse.

Reflections on La Voix Humaine, directed by Matthew Eberhardt

Take your seat on the stage of the Courtyard Theatre, look out into the auditorium and witness actors and musicians explore themes of isolation and connection, of resilience and reflection, through words both spoken and sung. This is a contemporary reflection on Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine and can be enjoyed either alongside the original piece or independently.

Performances: October 2 at 7pm and October 3 at 2.30pm and 7pm, Courtyard Theatre, Leeds Playhouse.

Reflections on Krapp’s Last Tape, directed by Matthew Eberhardt

Relish the power and expression of the solo voice from the stage of the Courtyard Theatre in this celebration of the return of live performance. An actor and a musician collaborate, filling the auditorium with words and music that reflect upon the themes of Samuel Beckett’s monologue Krapp’s Last Tape.

Performances: October 9 at 7pm and October 10 at 3.30pm and 7pm, Courtyard Theatre, Leeds Playhouse.

The running time for each Connecting Voices performance is 40 minutes.

REVIEW: Night of The Living Dead – Remix and Dr Korczak’s Example at Leeds Playhouse

Night Of The Living Dead – Remix: theatre and film in synchronicity

REVIEW: Night Of The Living Dead – Remix, Leeds Playhouse/Imitating The Dog, Courtyard Theatre, Leeds Playhouse, until February 15; Dr Korczak’s Example, Leeds Playhouse, Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse, until February 15. Box office: 0113 213 7700 or at leedsplayhouse.org.uk

FIRSTLY, apologies for the tardy reviewing, but there is still time aplenty to see these two contrasting yet equally impactful productions at the restructured Leeds Playhouse.

The human condition, what we do to each other, lies at the heart of both pieces, and at a time when the divisive aspects and little island mentality of Brexit are coming home to roost after cutting the umbilical cord with Europe on January 31, they are even more resonant.

American film-maker George A Romero, from The Bronx, New York,  would have turned 80 on Tuesday, making Leeds Playhouse and cutting-edge Leeds company Imitating The Dog’s co-production very timely.

Romero’s trademark was gruesome horror movies, satirical in tone yet serious in their message, delivered as it was through depicting variations on a zombie apocalypse. Night Of The Living Dead, from 1968, set the template and here comes a Remix that is at once theatrical and filmic.

In a city where football coach Marcelo Bielsa preaches the value of repetition, yet still with unpredictable results, the Playhouse/Imitating The Dog company sets itself the challenge of mirroring Romero’s film, frame by frame. The two are shown side by side on screen, synchronised in motion with actors saying the lines.

Your gaze goes from screen to screen but also you watch the actors in the act of re-making the film, switching between performing and working the cameras, and defying the odds in pulling off the feat when seemingly always up against the clock with the need for improvisation, confronted  by limited resources. Round of applause, please, to Laura Atherton, Morgan Bailey, Luke Bigg, Will Holstead, Morven Macbeth, Matt Prendergast and Adela Rajnovic.

You find yourself appreciating a “dance” show as much as a theatre and film one, because the movement across, on, off, and around the stage has the ebb and flow of choreography. Another round of applause, then, to co-directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks; projection and video designer Simon Wainwright; lighting designer Andrew Crofts; composer James Hamilton and on-stage model creator and operator Matthew Tully. Laura Hopkins’s set and costume designs are a show in themselves too.

Night Of The Living Dead – Remix is not a mere tribute act of breath-taking invention and bravura humour. Instead, it seeks to give 1960s’ American social and political context to Romero’s message by bleeding in film and sound of John F Kennedy, Senator brother Robert and Dr Martin Luther King’s famous speeches and the cast’s re-enactment of coverage of their assassinations. The words echo down the years, haunting and disturbing, all the more so when matched with a zombie apocalypse.

Robert Pickavance as Dr Korczak and Gemma Barnett as Stepanie in Dr Korczak’s Example

The Playhouse’s new third performance space, the Bramall Rock Void studio, made its autumn debut with Charley Miles’s all-female Yorkshire Ripper drama There Are No Beginnings, giving voice to a blossoming North Yorkshire writer.

Now it turns the spotlight on the Holocaust in a Playhouse production timed to mark Holocaust Memorial Day(January 27) in a city with both Jewish and Polish communities. Playhouse artistic director James Brining had commissioned David Greig to write Dr Korczak’s Example when working in young people’s theatre in Scotland 20 years ago for performances in school halls, and on moving to Leeds he read it with the Playhouse youth theatre “a year or so ago”.

That prompted Brining to direct this winter’s production, turning the spotlight anew on the Polish Jewish doctor, children’s author, storyteller, broadcaster and educator Janusz Korczak, who brought liberal and progressive ideals to running a ghetto orphanage for 200 children in Warsaw.

His principles live on, becoming the basis for the United Nations Convention on the Rights Of Children that still prevails. That is the history and the present of a story that Greig turns into a play set in 1942 that is at once grim and yet hopeful because of the example of the title that Dr Korczak set.

Brining’s production is supported by the Linbury Prize for Stage Design, a prize for emerging designers that sees set and costume designer Rose Revitt turn the new studio back to rubble, with piles of bricks, dusty furniture and desks.

Greig’s play is a three hander, wherein Playhouse regular Rob Pickavance brings gravitas, warmth and sensitivity to Dr Korczak, while Danny Sykes and Gemma Barnett announce talents to watch.

Sykes plays Adzio, brittle, brutalised and psychologically damaged at the hands of adults, his 16 years of childhood stolen from him, as he becomes the latest child to be taken in by Korczak. Barnett’s Stepanie is a beacon, benefiting from Korczak’s care already and drawn to trying to help the deeply bruised Adzio.

David Shrubsole’s sound deigns and compositions complement the tone, Rachel Wise’s movement direction is as important as Brining’s direction, and the actors’ use of models (the size of Action Man, without being glib) to play out several scenes has a powerful impact too.

Having a recording of Leeds children reading Dr Korczak’s principles for children’s rights to freedom, respect and love at the play’s close is a fitting finale, one that echoes into the Leeds night air.

Charles Hutchinson    

Leeds Playhouse marks Holocaust Memorial Day with David Greig’s ghetto play Dr Korczak’s Example

Robert Pickavance as Dr Janusz Korcza in rehearsals for Dr Korczak’s Example. All pictures: Zoe Martin

LEEDS Playhouse regular Robert Pickavance, Gemma Barnett and newcomer Danny Sykes will star in Dr Korczak’s Example, the first 2020 production in the new Bramall Rock Void.

Artistic director James Brining directs David Greig’s powerful and moving play in a Leeds premiere timed to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27.

Set in the shadows of the Warsaw Jewish ghetto in 1942, Dr Korczak’s Example examines life in an orphanage where escapism is key to survival, and where the children’s shared sense of community is the only barrier against the wave of hatred approaching their haven of solidarity.

Director James Brining at work in the Leeds Playhouse rehearsal rooms

Greig’s play highlights the work of Polish educator and children’s author Dr Janusz Korczak, who championed the voices of young people and whose influence led to the creation of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989.

Director James Brining says: “Dr Janusz Korczak was an incredible individual whose beliefs and teachings helped to redefine how we think about the way we bring up our own children and the part we have to play within society to achieve that.

“I commissioned the play and first directed it in 2001. It’s such a powerful, moving and timely story and I’m so looking forward to returning to it in the new Bramall Rock Void and particularly to working with Hebden Bridge designer Rose Revitt, winner of the Linbury Prize for theatre design.”

Gemma Barnett rehearsing her role as Stephanie in Dr Korczak’s Example

The Bramall Rock Void forms part of the £15.8 million redevelopment of Leeds Playhouse, completed last autumn. “What we have already discovered about our new theatre is that its raw intimacy can create a powerful environment for powerful stories and Rose’s vision for Dr Korczak’s Example does just that,” says James. ”I’m  honoured to be directing this [play] again with such a brilliant company.”

Brining commissioned Greig to write the play 20 years ago when he was running TAG, a children’s theatre company in Glasgow, Scotland. Now looking forward to introducing it to a new audience in his home city of Leeds, he says:“I’ve done quite a few things more than once, but I never intended to go back to this piece again.

“I was really happy with the original production. Then, a year or so ago, I came across a statistic that showed quite a high number of people – maybe 18 to 20 per cent – thought the Nazi holocaust was exaggerated, with a slightly smaller number saying it was completely fabricated. I was really struck and shocked by that because when I grew up it was a very present thing.”

Leeds actor Robert Pickavance during rehearsals for Dr Korczak’s Example

Brining continues: “On a very personal level, revisiting the play has made me ask if I’m the same person I was 20 years ago. Having children has changed the way I see the play and, perhaps, explains why I was so moved when I read it again. I’m not saying that having children gives you more of a profound understanding, but it does give you a different perspective. And I’m just older, so I can now align myself quite strongly with Korczak.

“I think that’s the measure of a really great piece of theatre: it speaks to you differently according to who you are and where you are. Having children, being older, the world being a slightly different place, even having more distance from 1942, all of these things affect the way you engage with it. But as I’ve watched rehearsals, I’ve been really moved. The power of the play is still very potent.”

The role of Dr Janusz Korczak will be played by Leeds actor Robert Pickavance, who starred as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and Sava in David Greig’s Europe as part of the Leeds Playhouse Ensemble during its Pop-Up Season.

Newcomer Danny Sykes rehearsing his role as Adzio

He will be joined by Gemma Barnett, fresh from starring as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Shakespeare In The Squares, as well as Rory in A Hundred Words For Snow at Trafalgar Studios and Lola in Lola at The Vaults, both in London.

Danny Sykes will make his first professional stage appearance after graduating with a BA in Acting from Arts Ed in 2019.

This Playhouse production is supported by the Linbury Prize for Stage Design, funded by the Linbury Trust. This biennial prize, the most important of its kind in Britain, brings together the best early career designers with professional theatre, dance and opera companies.

Joining Brining and Revitt in the creative team are lighting designer Jane Lalljee, sound designer and composer David Shrubsole, movement designerRachel Wise.

Dr Korczak’s Example runs at Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse, January 25 to February 15. Box office: 0113 213 7700 or at leedsplayhouse.org.uk.