REVIEW: Black Treacle Theatre in York premiere of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York ***

Lara Stafford: Dying a death on stage…or not in White Rabbit, Red Rabbit on Wednesday

NO director. No rehearsal. No advance sight of the script. Only a brief list of instructions sent to the actor in a pdf by the producer 48 hours before the performance. Novel indeed.

“An actor’s nightmare,” suggested Black Treacle Theatre producer Jim Paterson, “but an audience’s dream.”That said, Maurice Crichton, Lara Stafford, Maggie Smales, Alan Park and today’s two performers, Sonia Di Lorenzo (matinee) and Sanna Jeppsson (evening), were intrigued to take on the one-off challenge of a 70-minute script, each for one solo performance, passing on the baton without a word to the next in line.

CharlesHutchPress had been expecting to see Maggie Smales on Thursday, but when he chanced upon Lara Stafford in Micklegate on Wednesday, after his plans to attend the Aesthetica Short Film Festival launch or Teenage Fanclub at Leeds Brudenell Social Club came to nought, the reviewer resolved to review her that night instead.

Both were in the dark about what would unfold. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit was written in 2011 by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, when he was forbidden to leave his native Iran, but the play was designed to travel the world in his place; words without end.

Enter Lara, to be handed an envelope by Jim Paterson. Let the journey into the unknown begin, and quickly it emerges that this will not be a solo performance, but an immersive one with plenty of audience involvement.

Both on stage and off, in the case of your reviewer, who ticked the box for having a notebook to hand, at the writer’s request, to take notes…and subsequently send him an email as evidence of the night’s performance.

Without giving too much away, the tone of the piece turns from jocular to darker, bleaker, graver, a gradual switch handled well by Stafford, whose performance elides from playful to no messing about, this is serious.

More experimental performance art than play, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit does not call on Stafford to develop a role, a character, but to be a mistress of ceremonies, a malleable conduit through which the script will pass in a series of tests.

Not only her comic skills come into play, but her prowess at orchestrating an audience, as she would do in her physics teaching career too.

Above all, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit testifies to the power of the unexpected in theatre, when actor and audience are equally surprised and on edge, each reliant on the other for what will happen next.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, Theatre@41, Monkgate, today at 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: https://tickets.41monkgate.co.uk. Tickets are £10 full price and any ticket buyers for one performance can see another one for £5 (plus booking fee). Running time is approximately 70 minutes.

No rehearsal, no director, no sight of the script in advance. Six actors, one per show, take on White Rabbit, Red Rabbit in York

Maurice Crichton: In the dark tonight, just as much as the audience for the hush-hush White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

AN actor’s nightmare will be an audience’s dream, promises producer Jim Paterson, when White Rabbit, Red Rabbit makes its York debut from tonight (7/11/2023) to Saturday at Theatre@41, Monkgate.

This groundbreaking play requires the actor to perform the script having never seen it before setting foot on stage.

Originally written in 2011 by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, who at the time was forbidden to leave his native Iran, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is a play designed to travel the world in his place. Whereupon the audience will join each different performer on a journey into the unknown.

Soleimanpour’s 70-minuite play has been performed all over the world by actors such as John Hurt, Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane, Martin Short, Sinead Cusack and Dominic West, all taking to the stage with no prior sighting of the script.

Now White Rabbit, Red Rabbit receives its York premiere at the hands of six actors, each performing the script for one performance only. “They will never have seen the script until I hand them an envelope to open as they enter the stage,” says Jim. “They are told almost nothing in preparation. There is no rehearsal or director.” 

Sanna Jeppsson: Saturday night performance

Given that the play relies on no-one knowing the plot, details cannot be shared in advance, and so audience and actor alike will be in the same position of not knowing what will happen, duly creating an “exciting and truly unpredictable show”.

“One of the best things about going to the theatre is that it’s a live experience where each performance is different and unpredictable,” says Jim. “Times that by 100 and you’ve got this play. Both the actor and the audience don’t know what’s going to happen from moment to moment, which I think will create a really exhilarating atmosphere.

“Each of our six actors is only performing the play once with no preparation – so each performance will be entirely unique for that audience. That’s why we’ve put on a ticket offer, so that you can come back to watch another actor perform it for half-price, and see what will be an entirely different take on the play.”

Jim adds: “A lot of us have had that dream where we’re suddenly in a theatre and are expected to go on stage in a play when we don’t know the lines or what we’re supposed to be doing. So, I’m massively grateful to these performers for agreeing to take the leap and make that scary dream a reality!”

First to step into the unknown tonight will be Maurice Crichton, stalwart of York Settlement Community Players and much else besides on the York theatre scene. “I think it’s going to be about the audience experiencing an actor being surprised by what they’re in, and – to an extent – vicariously experiencing those feelings themselves,” he says. “It excites me to see if I can relax enough to do the play justice!”

Alan Park: Friday man

Fresh from Settlement Players’ Government Inspector, Sonia Di Lorenzo will perform the Saturday matinee. “I’m looking forward to finding out what it’s about,” she says. “It sounds really intriguing from what I know of it – which is just the title! I’m excited to see how it unfolds and what it entails and where it’s all going to lead.”

Sanna Jeppsson will take on the Saturday night challenge. “It’s exciting and scary because I don’t know how I’m going to react in the moment: what my body’s going to feel like, what my pulse is going to be doing, what my breath is going to be doing – I just don’t know! But I’m very interested to find out,” she says.

Presented by York company Black Treacle Theatre, in association with Aurora Nova, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit will be performed by Maurice Crichton tonight; Lara Stafford tomorrow; Maggie Smales, Thursday; Theatgre@41 chair Alan Park, Friday; Sonia Di Lorenzo, Saturday matinee, and Sanna Jeppsson, Saturday night.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, November 7 to 11, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: https://tickets.41monkgate.co.uk. Tickets are £10 full price and any ticket buyers for one performance can see another one for £5 (plus booking fee).

Did you know?

BLACK Treacle Theatre produced Nick Payne’s Constellations in March 2022 and Gary Owen’s Iphigenia In Splott in March 2023, both at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York.

REVIEW: York Settlement Community Players in Government Inspector, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York ****

Mike Hickman as the insufferable Mayor in Settlement Players’ Government Inspector. All pictures: Sarah Ford

GOVERNMENT Inspector is to be confused with The Government Inspector. As was A Government Inspector, Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Russian malarkey for Northern Broadsides in 2012.

David Harrower’s take on Gogol’s 1836 political satire dates from a year earlier and was the choice of Alan Park, dynamic actor and even more dynamic Theatre@41 chair, when picked to direct Settlement Players’ autumn production in his first time back in the director’s seat in 15 years.

McAndrew shifted the council shenanigans from small-town 19th century Russia to the small-town Pennines. Harrower keeps the Russian locale but moves Gogol’s cautionary tale of bribes, backhanders, brown envelopes and bent practices to the crumbling Soviet days of the 1980s, although its digs at corporate cronyism and rotten eggs could be directed at any complacent, corrupt, smug local authority, any time, any place, anywhere.

Sonia Di Lorenzo’s Bobchinsky, left, Katie Leckey’s Dobchinsky, Paul Osborne’s School Superintendent and Mark Simmonds’s Head of Hospitals all suck up to Andrew Roberts’s Khlestakov in Government Inspector

Park’s design team of Richard Hampton and Stephen Palmer favour the greys and dour blocks of Russian Brutalism in a minimalist set of one chair and desk.

Faded Soviet Union graffiti is splattered on the walls of the traverse stage, drapes and beading put the red into Russia, while costume duo Judith Ireland and Grace Trapps have fun with Eighties’ shell-suits and track suits, braces, bright shirts, ghastly ties and clashing bold-checked jackets. All topped off by shoulder pads for the high fashions of the Mayor’s wife, Anna, (Alison Taylor) and daughter Maria (Pearl Mollison, returning to the boards after several years backstage stage-managing productions).

Park’s show may be of Shakesperean length – even the cast was conceding the first half was too long on the first night, as the clock ticked towards three hours – but it nevertheless moves at a fair old lick, led by Mike Hickman’s frenetic Mayor.

Competitive mother and daughter: Alison Taylor’s Anna, the Mayor’s wife, in a power-dressing clash with Pearl Mollison’s Maria

The running time could have been shortened by not inserting a town band to perform deadpan dollops of Eighties’ hits, but that would have taken away from one of the primary joys of Park’s perky production, led by musical director Jim Paterson’s Buster Keaton-faced interjections and sometimes silent bewilderment.

Patterson has his moment in the sunshine too when called on to read the lines of a serf, book in hand, humorously growing into the role the more confident he becomes, in the tradition of a chorus line conversion to a principal.

His keep-it-simple keyboards and quickfire hop on to guitar are joined by Adam Sowter’s deliberately cheesy Eighties’ flourishes on keys, Matt Pattison’s guitar and Florence Poskitt’s accordion. Pattison and Poskitt’s interval rendition of Islands In The Stream is a particular delight, stripped of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s big-haired country romanticism.

A note of concern: Adam Sowter’s Police Superintendent, left, and Mark Simmonds’s Head of Hospitals discover the latest revelation from Matt Pattison’s Postmaster’s habit of opening mail

Patterson, Pattison and Poskitt are part of a cast that puts the emphasis on the ensemble, on comedy teamwork, but with room for individual flair and double-act tomfoolery to shine too.

Hickman is on a hot streak after his mysterious, cunning Captain Philip Lombard’s in Pick Me Up Theatre’s And Then There Were None last month, and here his corrupt character goes from over-confident to nervous wreck, as unloved as Malvolio.

November’s Movember campaign to cultivate moustaches to raise awareness of men’s health issues may still be around the corner, but Park’s coterie of men have done so already, from Hickman and Patterson to Mark Simmonds’s Head of Hospitals, Sowter’s biscuit-dipping, tea-drinking Police Superintendent and Paul Osborne’s School Superintendent, who receives a standing ovation after a piece of flustered comic invention involving choking on a cigar in the form of a kazoo.

Shopkeepers at the treble: Alexandra Mather, left, Adam Sowter and Florence Poskitt

Matt Pattison’s full-of-wonder/snooping Postmaster and Paul French’s lackey Osip were already fully bearded as their programme mugshots reveal.

In Shakespeare master-and-servant tradition, French’s Osip is doing the bidding for Andrew Roberts’s Khlestakov, the “government inspector” of Gogol’s play, or so all the town assumes when sent into a panic by news of his imminent arrival. 

Roberts, with his moustache from a matinee-idol cigarette card and Terry-Thomas air, is a dapper chancer, with comic timing and humorous physicality that revels in his ascension to the lead role.

Judging the moment: Maggie Smales’s Judge in Government Inspector

Spot-on casting all round by Park, from Taylor’s vainglorious Anna and Mollison’s preening Maria, to Maggie Smales’s corruptible Judge, Poskitt’s quick switches from gormless Shopkeeper to Mishka and Alexandra Mather’s trio of wide-eyed cameos.

Forever arguing with each other’s account of what’s happening, landowners Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky receive the clowning treatment from Irish-accented University of York theatre MA student Katie Leckey in her Settlement debut and Sonia Di Lorenzo in her Settlement return after a seven-year hiatus. These shell-suit shockers are one of many reasons to inspect Government Inspector, sent from Russia with gloves off.

Performances are at 7.30pm tonight (27/10/2023); 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Aghast again: Musical director Jim Patterson in Government Inspector

From Russia with gloves off as Settlement Players run riot in Government Inspector

Director Alan Park, back row, right, and his ensemble cast for Government Inspector at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York. Picture: John Saunders

THEATRE@41 chair and actor Alan Park is in the director’s seat for the first time in 15 years, steering the York Settlement Community Players through the Russian political quagmire of Government Inspector.

David Harrower’s adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s satirical exposé of hypocrisy and corruption in high places will run from tomorrow at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, where Park’s ensemble cast of eccentrics will undertake a fun, chaotic journey through 1980s’ Soviet Russia in a plot rooted in a simple case of mistaken identity.

“Communism is collapsing, it’s every man, woman and dog for themselves. What could possibly go wrong?” asks Alan, as the bureaucrats of a small Russian town are sent into a panic by news of the government inspector’s imminent arrival.

Harrower’s version premiered at the Warwick Arts Centre in May 2011 and transferred to the Young Vic, London, later that year. Now it provides “the perfect platform” for Settlement Players’ 14-strong ensemble.

”Directing this production came out of me having performed Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing with Settlement at the Theatre Royal Studio in February,” says Alan.

“I enjoyed the acting company, the production team and the whole creative process so much that when the call-out came for a director this autumn, I was keen to do a play with lots of actors.

“There are some incredibly talented actors in York, and I wanted to do something that would bring the best out of them as an ensemble, playing loads of parts, and I needed a play that would facilitate that.”

Gogol’s Government Inspector was suggested to him, and once he came across Harrower’s adaptation, it was the perfect fit. “David’s version is fun, it’s fast-moving; the dialogue zips along, and it really lends itself to these 14 actors, who have created the community of this Russian town, where they are all out for their own interests only…and then discover the government inspector is coming to town,” says Alan.

He last directed a play in his professional acting days in London, where he ran workshops and oversaw youth productions. “I’ve been looking to do something for a while, but there has never been the window of opportunity, as I have a full-time job as well as running Theatre@41 and performing in plays.” He is a father too. “My kids look at me and wonder who I am!” he says.

He has revelled in directing Harrower’s script. “I looked at a few adaptations as I wanted to find a good translation, and this one stood out. Julian Barratt, from The Mighty Boosh, was in the Young Vic production, and this was the script that I couldn’t put down. It told the plot really well and suited what I wanted to do.”

Going flat out: York Settlement Community Players’ cast members in rehearsal for this week’s riotous production of Government Inspector. Director Alan Park looks on, left. Picture: John Saunders

Settlement Players’ staging of Government Inspector comes against the backdrop of Putin’s stultifying dictatorship and warmongering. “We can’t get away from it being a Russian play! It’s a great satire on Russia, and there’s never been a better time to poke fun at what Russia still appears to stand for.

“Harrower has set it in the late-1980s, when everything was crumbling in Russia, and if we’re making any comment on Russia, it is that the whole thing is ridiculous. There’s no way anyone would think that the Russian way is the best way forward.”

Rather than attempting Russian accents, Alan has encouraged his cast members to use their own accents. “I was inspired to do that by the Chernobyl TV series,” he says.

In choosing that cast, Alan was keen to avoid holding auditions with three faces staring out from behind a desk. “Instead we had workshops, playing games, and went from there,” he says.

“There will be familiar actors, but not necessarily in familiar roles, like Andrew Roberts, who’s not done big roles before, playing Khlestakov [the inspector’s role]. Mike Hickman, who was in The Real Thing, is a fabulously instinctive performer, who just gets it straightway, and he’s perfect for the Mayor, who’s losing his grip on everything and gradually losing control.

“He’s also a massive fan of Tony Hancock, who appeared in The Government Inspector in 1958, and so he’s delighted to be doing this play.”

Adam Sowter and Florence Poskett, from the York musical comedy duo Fladam, have amusing cameo roles as the Police Superintendent and Mishka respectively, while University of York drama student Katie Leckey will bring her physical comedy skills to Dobchinsky and Pearl Mollison steps out from the wings to play the Mayor’s daughter after several years of stage managing shows.

Musical director Jim Paterson will lead a live band, made up of cast members, such as Matt Pattison on guitar, Sowter on keyboards and Poskitt on accordion, through a liberal dose of Eighties’ rock ballads.

Judith Ireland’s costume designs, all Eighties’ tracksuits, suits and shoulder pads, will complement a Brutalist set of grey blocks and faded Russian graffiti.

“My main aim is that the production should be actor led, and I’m always keen for a set to let the actors do what they want,” says Alan. “That’s why there’ll just be the blocks, and slogans on every wall, with Russian propaganda to represent the decaying town.”

York Settlement Community Players in Government Inspector, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, tomorrow (24/10/2023) to Saturday, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

REVIEW: Black Treacle Theatre in Iphigenia In Splott, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York ****

Livy Potter’s Effie in Iphigenia In Splott. Picture: John Saunders

GREEK myth is smacked in the chops by modern reality in Gary Owen’s scabrous, “horribly relevant” one-woman drama Iphigenia In Splott.

Should you be wondering, Splott is in Cardiff, its unusual name meaning ‘parcel of land’. In your reviewer’s university days studying EngLit there (1980 to 1983), it was the runt of that city’s litter. Today, on a Google search for Splott, you will find the question: “Is Splott rough?”.

Google answers: “As of 2023, the crime rate in Splott is 52 per cent higher than Wales and 50 per cent higher than the England, Wales & Northern Ireland overall figure”.

And they don’t come harder than Effie, whose life “spirals through a mess of drink, drugs and drama every night, and a hangover worse than death the next day, until one incident gives her the chance to be something more”.

Firebrand performance: Livy Potter’s Effie

Owen’s splenetic 75-minute monologue is performed by Livy Potter, actress, chair of York Settlement Community Players and University of York staff member. She is not from Cardiff but director Jim Paterson is, and she has been able to perfect that distinctive accent in rehearsal sessions, an accent that has none of the undulations of the Welsh valleys.

This is a stark, dark play, played out on a single blue chair, with no props and only a mesh of twisted metal and broken palettes as a backdrop. Drama cannot come more intimate or intense than a solo show, and Potter keeps meeting you in the eye, telling you her bruised, devastating tale with shards of jagged humour and shattering blows to the heart.

Think of Ibsen’s women; think of  Steven Berkoff’s dramas with their echoes of Greek tragedy; think of Christopher York’s play Build A Rocket.

Fantastic firebrand performance; superb, coruscating writing; excellent, raw direction. Visit Splott now.

Performances: Tonight (3/3/2023), 7.30pm; tomorrow, 2.30pm, 7.30pm. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Crash and burn: Effie’s journey through Cardiff at night

Iphigenia In Splott hits the spot as Livy Potter plays a young woman spiralling into an abyss of drugs, drink and drama

“As soon as I read the play, I knew I had to accept the challenge,” says Livy Potter of playing Effie in Gary Owen’s Iphigenia In Splott

GREEK myth meets modern reality in Gary Owen’s “horribly relevant” one-woman drama Iphigenia In Splott at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from Wednesday to Saturday.

Under the direction of Jim Paterson, York company Black Treacle Theatre presents Livy Potter in a 75-minute monologue about Effie, whose life spirals through a mess of drink, drugs and drama every night, and a hangover worse than death the next day, until one incident gives her the chance to be something more.

Set in contemporary Cardiff, Owen’s play is rooted in the ancient tale of Iphigenia being sacrificed by her father to placate the gods. Effie, in turn, is the kind of woman to avoid eye contact with in the street when she is drunk at 11.30am in the morning.

“Iphigenia In Splott is a play about our country right now,” says director Jim Paterson

Named by the Guardian in its list of the 50 best plays of the 21st century, on account of being a “shattering modern classic that distils all our troubles”, Iphigenia In Splott is both a portrait of a woman whose life is turned upside down by the events of one night and a broader picture of the brutal impact of austerity on communities across Britain.

Director Paterson says “Iphigenia In Splott is a play about our country right now. It was originally written in 2015, but remains horribly relevant when we consider the state of our public services, the cost-of-living crisis and what this means for those already struggling to get by – who are too often forgotten or ignored by those in power.

“What makes it such a brilliantly rich play is the unforgettable character of Effie, and the poetry and lyricism in the language that Gary Owen has written for her. This gives it an emotional heft and weight that I think will be incredibly cathartic for an audience.”

Livy Potter and Jim Paterson in the rehearsal room

Livy Potter, the sole actor on stage throughout, says: “It’s such a privilege to be given the chance to play Effie. As soon as I read the play, I knew I had to accept the challenge; it’s poetic, emotional, witty and riveting.

“I can’t wait to share this story with York audiences. It’s been great to work with Jim again, having been directed by him in York Settlement Community Players’ production of Christopher Durang’s comedy  Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike last November. To be back performing at Theatre@41 is fantastic too.”

Paterson is joined in the production team by lighting designer Ivy Magee and set designer Richard Hampton with technical support from Sam Elmer.

Black Treacle Theatre in Iphigenia In Splott, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Wednesday to Saturday, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

“I can’t wait to share this story with York audiences,” says Livy Potter

Settlement Players to stage American comedy Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike in Nov. Audition dates announced

(Part of) York Settlement Community Players’ poster for Christopher Durang’s play Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike

YORK Settlement Community Players’ autumn production will be Christopher Durang’s  Broadway hit comedy Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike.

Directed by Jim Paterson, this amateur premiere will run at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from November 3 to 5.

Rehearsals will run from Sunday, September 4 an average of three times a week: two on weekday evenings and one daytime session at the weekend, building momentum to the production week starting on October 31.

Premiered in 2012, Durang’s play revolves around the relationships of three middle-aged single siblings, two of whom live together, and takes place during a visit by the third, who supports them.

“Playing with classic Chekhovian situations but taking them in humorous new directions that anyone can enjoy, the play tells the story of Vanya and Sonia, who live a quiet life in the Pennsylvania farmhouse where they grew up,” says Settlement stalwart Helen Wilson.

“But their peace is shattered when their movie-star sister, Masha, returns unannounced with her twentysomething toyboy Spike. A weekend of rivalry, regret and raucousness begins.

“This is a in a brilliantly funny play, with six very different roles that are a treat for comic actors who enjoy scratching past the surface to find the sadness underneath.”

Here are the characters up for grabs at auditions at Southlands Methodist Church, Bishopthorpe Road, later this month:

Vanya (male, 50s):  resigned to his life, more or less, at least by comparison with Sonia;
Sonia (female, early 50s): Vanya’s adopted sister, who lives with him. Discontented, upset, regretful;
Masha (female, 50s): Their sister. Glamorous and successful globetrotting actress;
Spike (male, 20s): Aspiring actor, sexy, self-absorbed. Masha’s new companion. Actor playing this role will need to be physically fit and comfortable in underwear on stage;
Nina (female, early 20s): Lovely, sincere, would-be actress. Starstruck and energetic;
Cassandra (female, any age): Cleaning lady and soothsayer. Odd, very odd.

Those auditions will be held on Thursday, July 14, 7.30pm to 9.30pm; Sunday, July 17, 1pm to 4pm, and Tuesday, July 19, 7pm to 9.30pm.

“You do not need to prepare a monologue,” advises Helen. “We’ll ask you to perform an extract from the play with a partner, which will be supplied in advance. The play is set in Pennsylvania, and you will need to be able to perform – or have the ability to learn – a decent American accent. We will provide you with a half-hour audition time slot.”

To register your interest, please email yorksettlementcommunityplayers@gmail.com with details of your name, the part you are interested in, a brief overview of your previous acting experience, and any commitments that would make you unavailable during rehearsal and performance times. Please specify too if you are unable to make any of the audition dates.

You must join the Settlement Players to be part of the cast.

Black Treacle Theatre to stage York premiere of Nick Payne’s relationship drama Constellations at Theatre@41

Shining a light on their relationship: Andrew Isherwood’s Roland and Jess Murray’s Marianne in Nick Payne’s Constellations

MULTIPLE universes fill the stage when Nick Payne’s hit play Constellations comes to Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from Thursday to Saturday.

York company Black Treacle Theatre’s cast of Andrew Isherwood and Jess Murray tell the story of Roland and Marianne’s relationship.

Each scene, such as the first meeting, the first date and breaking up, unfolds in several different ways, showing how nothing is necessarily ‘meant to be’, not least a crisis that could mean the end of their time together.

Jess Murray and Andrew Isherwood in rehearsals for Constellations

In the spirit of films such as Groundhog Day and Sliding Doors, Payne’s 70-minute play mixes comedy and pathos as it asks big questions about what our ‘other lives’ might look like, in a universe that may be ultimately random.

Named as one of the 50 best plays of the 21st century by the Evening Standard, Constellations was revived in the West End, London, last year to great acclaim.

Director Jim Paterson says: “Constellations tells a very simple story – classic boy-meets-girl in a lot of ways – but the way it’s written gives this a totally fresh spin. You really care about these characters and their relationship, from the warm and funny moments to the potential for heartbreak and loss.

Black Treacle Theatre’s poster for Constellations at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York

“After the last two years, it feels very timely to stage this play, as many of us are grappling with questions about purpose and direction, and what other paths life might have taken, if not for the pandemic. Our time is finite and, as this play shows, there are so many possibilities open to us.”

Paterson is joined in the production team by designer Zoe Paterson and lighting designer Neil Millar.

Constellations runs at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from March 3 to 5, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Andrew Isherwood as Roland in Constellations

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