THIS is the first York Theatre Royal community play in five years and, more significantly, the first since pandemic restrictions were lifted, although the cloud of Covic hangs all too heavy over Maureen Lennon’s storytelling drama.
There is a sense of relief that we can gather again, perform together, build plays from scratch with faces old and new, but The Coppergate Woman is not a drama suffused with joy until its finale’s promise of a post-apocalyptic green new world.
Such a vision is ushered in with composer and musical director Nicolas Lewis’s most upbeat song, hand claps and all, but given all that is going around us, from higher and higher temperatures to higher and higher living costs and fuel prices, it is sung on a wing and a prayer.
The harsh realities of these times have seen cast members pull out through not being able to afford the travel costs or having to commit to working extra shifts to make ends meet, and therefore no longer being available for the heavy rota of rehearsals.
That said, community spirit bursts out of the 90 performers and plentiful choir members, as they build on the legacy of Blood + Chocolate (on York’s streets in 2013), In Fog And Falling Snow (at the National Railway Museum in 2015) and Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes (by the Minster and at the Theatre Royal in 2017 ).
All three were rooted in York history, and so, to an extent, is The Coppergate Woman, albeit she is as much a woman of mystery as Viking history. Her bones were found in a shallow grave in an excavation by the River Foss and she has since lain encased in glass at Jorvik Viking Centre.
Research revealed she had moved to Jorvik (York) from either South-West Norway or northernmost Scotland, was robustly built, had a pronounced limp from a degenerative joint disorder, consumed a heap of herring in her lifetime and died at 46.
Hull playwright Maureen Lennon’s number one haunt as a child was Jorvik, where she was drawn to those bones and to the model of that woman in blue. Now she puts flesh on those bones, and after the choir, ensemble and assorted principals set the play in motion on Sara Perks’s open-plan, uncluttered set with a backdrop of David Callanan’s audio-visual designs, professional actor Kate Hampson’s Coppergate Woman emerges in her glass case in that familiar blue.
She duly smashes the case – as denoted by the sound of breaking glass and accompanying visuals – and sets about smashing the scientific facts as she re-awakes in modern-day York, charged with uncovering the answers as to why we are where we are.
She was 44, she corrects with a smile, probably a weaver, and now certainly a weaver of stories. Now let’s get down to business. She will be the conduit between past and present in Lennon’s world of myth and modern reality, but first she sets the scene, with a humorous observant eye, one that made your reviewer crave for rather more of this then-and-now contrasting York detail.
Coppergate Woman comments with amusement on Jorvik Viking Centre’s infamous stinking smell, but then sniffs 2022 York air for the first time. It smells of metal, she says, chemicals and cleaned surfaces: a triple-whammy discomfiting reminder of pollution, climate change and Covid.
Later, reference is made to King’s Square now being the place of buskers: another wry observation that plays well to the home crowd filling the Theatre Royal auditorium.
Past and present constantly interweave in Lennon’s dense construction as she asks: “In an ever-changing world, how do we hang on to who we are when the grounds are shifting beneath our feet? How do we look forward and rebuild, when the End Times feel ever more real?”
Coppergate Woman sheds the rudimentary clothing to be revealed as a Valkyrie, a shepherd of the dead and dying, a servant of Odin, whose duty is to guide lost souls to the halls of Valhalla. Why? Because Ragnarok is coming, “when the gods will perish, fire will triumph, and only then will the world will rise again, made anew”.
In other words, Hell on Earth is nothing new, as Lennon mirrors four stories of ghastly, grim, abominable Norse legend with torrid tales of toiling, struggling people in York today.
As old gods do battle with new, Lennon favours an epic scale for the past, the world of Odin (Paul Mayo Mason), Frigg (Jessica Murray), Baldr (Andy Williams), thunderous Thor (Andrew Isherwood), cunning Loki (Edward Hammond), wife Sigyn (Catherine Edge) and Fenrir, the wolf (portrayed by a swaying sextet of bodies, superbly choreographed by movement director Xolani Crabtree).
Modern York’s stories are more in keeping with soap opera or kitchen-sink drama: from Nicola Wild’s Sarah to Val Burgess’s Nana, Joanne Rule’s Fern to community play debutant Darren Barrott, constantly kicking out in frustration.
The voice of the future, the herald of hope, is young Liv (Hannah Simpson on Wednesday, sharing the role with Ilya Cuthell), driven by her predilection for painting in the rain (and if she didn’t start off with watercolours, they would be by the end).
Lennon does not shy away from the blood and guts of Norse legend, for example Loki being bound in chains made from the stretched entrails of his son. Those entrails are red, a virulent colour motif that runs throughout the play, used to powerful effect both by designer Perks and movement director Lewis.
Hampson, in her belated Theatre Royal debut in the city where she has lived for three decades, leads with a performance that glows: she can be gravely serious, frustrated, questing, comforting, resolute, but also delights in shards of humour and a narrator’s permission to step outside the action.
Isherwood’s Thor, hair extensions et al, has something of the Marvel comic-book about him; Barrott and Hammond stand out too, but this is a team show, from ensemble to choir, musicians to a multitude of costume makers and the hair and make-up crew.
Hazel Jupp’s costume designs are worthy of a carnival, and praise too for Craig Kilmartin’s lighting and Mike Redley’ sound (making light of having so many voices on stage).
Nicolas Lewis’s largely earnest compositions would benefit from more oomph and greater contrast, characteristics essential to community singing that demands rather more fun and coloratura. Too much had to weigh on that last number.
Directors Juliet Forster and John R Wilkinson pull the strings of such a large-scale enterprise with a passion for community theatre writ large, spectacle aplenty and more than a nod to in-vogue gig theatre. The joy here, however, rests more in that return after five years than in a troubling play for the End of Days that feels a bit of a drag when we need an uplift.
The Coppergate Woman, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight until Saturday; 2.30pm matinees, Saturday and Sunday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk