REVIEW: Charles Hutchinson’s verdict on Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It ***

Joe Morrow’s drag queen Touchstone in Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It

Northern Broadsides in As You Like It, York Theatre Royal, 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow, and on tour. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

COVID had kept Northern Broadsides away from York since 2019, rudely curtailing Quality Street’s travels before the Theatre Royal run in 2020.

York’s wait to see a Laurie Sansom production following his appointment as artistic director in 2019 finally ended on Wednesday, with the sight of Sansom himself on stage.

Always a nervous moment: a director standing on the boards. Would he be delivering last-minute bad news? Thankfully not, instead expressing his delight at Broadsides being back in York, before announcing a couple of Covid-enforced substitutions after last week’s positive tests scuppered the Stephen Joseph Theatre run.

Jo Patmore would be stepping up from Amiens and William duties to stand in for Isobel Coward as devoted cousin Celia. Robin Simpson, his Ugly Sisters double act with Paul Hawkyard still fresh in the mind from the Theatre Royal’s Cinderella pantomime, would play the melancholic Jacques, a still grave but more bookish figure with safety-net book in hand after filling in at short notice for Adam Kashmiry.

Ironically, Simpson almost missed out on his week under the lights, Sansom revealing that he had damaged his knee ahead of the first night and would take to the stage with a pronounced limp and a stick. Limp, yes, stick, no, as it turned out; the book being his more important crutch.

As You Like It was dismissed as a mere crowd-pleaser by George Bernard Shaw, a gibe that suggests it is an inferior work, made for laughs rather than weightier impact. In truth, aside from Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy, it has always been nothing more than an As You Only Quite Like It play, one that demands graft as much as craft from its cast.

What Laurie Sansom has done, however, is to make it a play for today, newly resonating with our pandemic-shadowed times in its celebration of (our return to) the joys of live performance; the right to work out who you are and who you want to be, and the heightened appreciation of the transformative power of the natural world. In a nutshell, what better time to go wild in the country in a tale of mistaken identities and changing attitudes.

From Sansom’s impromptu stage announcement onwards, his production is marked by informality, with a flexibility to the delivery of Shakespeare’s text to rival the gender fluidity.

Although the play’s initial tone is determined by the rigidity of Duke Frederick’s macho court, the mood is set by Joe Morrow’s drag-queen Touchstone, given freedom to roam, to improvise, as he would in his other lives as cabaret turn Joe Morose and Café de Paris master of ceremonies.

EM Williams’s Rosalind climbs a hatstand in Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It

Sansom modernises the wrestling clash, bringing it into the WWF age with American- accented entries, Bailey Brook’s Charles becoming Chainsaw Charles and Shaban Dar’s Orlando adding ‘Dynamite’ to his moniker.

Morrow’s Broadsides debut is an utter joy, born for the centre stage, quick on the quips and asides, his voice a delicious tease throughout, playing the wise fool.

Elsewhere, this production revolves around an EM and an E.M.: namely non-binary actor EM Williams’s Rosalind, banished from the court, and duly taking the guise of a boy once in the Forest of Arden, and E.M. Parry, a designer who specialises in work that “centres Queer bodies and narratives”.

Parry delivers fabulous costumes, with a flourish reminiscent of Lez Brotherston, while the forest takes the form of hatstands, both a fashion statement and a bravura way to represent the wooded natural world and our roles as mere players going through the costume changes of life.

Williams’s Rosalind is teased in Morrow’s banter for being so serious, and indeed Williams’s performance is intense, earnest, yet lithely energetic and liberated too, before turning into Puck for the epilogue.

Reuben Johnson’s Oliver, Dar’s Orlando, Ali Gadema’s Duke Frederick and Patmore’s Celia keep the story moving; Simpson’s Jacques steps in with his glum commentary, breaking down the fourth wall once to acknowledge coming in too soon for his next line.

Morrow makes light of being the conductor for so much of the comedy, albeit aided by Brook’s Silvius and Gemma Dobson’s Phoebe. An out-of-the-blue cameo by three cast members as misbehaving sheep draws the biggest laughter, nudging towards pantomime in a scene orchestrated by Morrow seemingly on the hoof.

Tellingly, it is not the only moment where Morrow’s own wit is funnier to modern ears than Shakespeare’s script, although he is equally adept at spinning the Bard’s words like plates.

Robert Bentall’s music is industrial and harsh for the court, beautifully pastoral for the forest, adding to the contrast. Ultimately, Sansom’s As You Like It is more successful as a visual delight and as a piece of political theatre in tune with cultural and social issues in its diverse casting and sensibilities than as a comedy, Morrow aside. That makes it a better play for today. Job done.

Further Yorkshire performances will follow at Leeds Playhouse, May 17 to 21; The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, June 9 to 18; CAST, Doncaster, June 21 to 25, and Harrogate Theatre, June 28 to July 2. Box office: Leeds, 0113 213 7700 or leedsplayhouse.org.uk; Halifax, 01422 849 227 or theviaducttheatre.co.uk; Doncaster, 01302 303959 or castindoncaster.com; Harrogate, 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk.

Reuben Johnson revels in natural world on and off stage as he returns to York Theatre Royal in Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It

Feel the breeze: Reuben Johnson going wild in the country in Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It

REUBEN Johnson will take to the York Theatre Royal stage tonight for the first time since the Travelling Pantomime camped there for a couple of shows on its city-wide tour in December 2020.

This time he will be part of a “diverse cast of 12 fabulous northern actors” in Halifax company Northern Broadsides’ 30th anniversary production, a bold, bracing take on Shakespeare’s most musical comedy, As You Like It.

In a court where executive powers are running rampant and machismo strength is championed over basic human decency, Johnson’s character, Oliver, is older brother to the brave, chivalrous, tender, modest, smart, handsome Orlando. What’s not to like?!

“He starts off by scheming against his brother. Oliver has inherited his father’s fortune, but he’s planning to kill his brother. Classic sibling rivalry,” says Reuben. “But as the chaos of the play unravels, Oliver has a reckoning and a bit of a ‘come to Jesus’ moment.”

Along with high-spirited Rosalind, her devoted cousin Celia and drag queen Touchstone, Johnson’s Oliver will head to the Forest of Arden, where they will encounter outlaws, the changing seasons and life unconfined by rigid codes.

Cue a sylvian world where gender roles dissolve and assumptions are turned on their heads in director Laurie Sansom’s celebration of the crazy power of love to change the world and the sheer joy of live performance.

“It’s interesting to see how the court characters respond to the country. It’s quite humbling,” says Reuben. “I live in the city, but I’m an avid hiker and rambler, when your ego disappears, so I’ll try to find places to go when I’m on tour.

“It all started because of acting, when I was working in Scotland and had a bit of free time to explore while I was in Edinburgh. I’ve done the Edinburgh Fringe loads of times, but it was when I was doing a play outside the festival chaos that I had a better chance to visit places. Living in Salford, the Peak District is nearby, which is great for me.”

Reuben is making his Northern Broadsides debut. “But, funnily enough, my brother Linford was in their production of Much Ado About Nothing, playing Claudio – but I’m not planning to kill him!

Reuben Johnson in the villain’s role in York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime in 2020

“I have done tours before, doing Macbeth for the National Theatre, when I played the Doctor but had a good run as Banquo – two and a half weeks as the understudy – but that was a totally different tour, playing bigger theatres.

“I’ve worked a lot around the country but not previously at a lot of the venues on this tour, so that’s been enjoyable too.”

Reuben is working with director Laurie Sansom for the first time and with many of the company for the first time too, although one familiar face will be joining him on the Theatre Royal stage: his Travelling Pantomime co-star Robin Simpson, stepping into the role of melancholic Jacques for one week only.

“It’s always good to play with new people in a cast,” he says.  “It’s great to have relationships with certain theatres who will employ me regularly, and it’s also good for actors to have relationships with theatre companies, but it’s also good to get in new faces to freshen things up.

“What was needed for this show was to bring a young energy to it, and that’s what Laurie has done. In fact I’m one of the oldest in it, which is a first for me.”

The casting is marked by diversity. “A play like this is screaming out for it, with the gender swapping in the plot. Diversity is important in theatre and key to this play,” says Reuben. “I love seeing people from different experiences and different backgrounds on stage.

“We’re trying to tell a story as the very best we can and that’s done better with a more diverse cast. If you have 12 similar people on stage, you will only see things from one way, whereas there are so many different thoughts within this company.

“As an actor, I want to serve my character, but also as a brown, working-class man, it’s interesting to bring that perspective to it.”

Northern Broadsides’ gender-fluid As You Like It plays York Theatre Royal from tonight (23/3/2022) until Saturday at 7.30pm nightly plus 2pm, Thursday, and 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Further Yorkshire performances will follow at Leeds Playhouse, May 17 to 21; The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, June 9 to 18; CAST, Doncaster, June 21 to 25, and Harrogate Theatre, June 28 to July 2. Box office: Leeds, 0113 213 7700; Halifax, 01422 849 227; Doncaster, 01302 303959; Harrogate, 01423 502116.

All the world’s a stage for Robin Simpson in Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It, but for one week only at York Theatre Royal

As You Like It: All the world’s a stage for Robin Simpson’s melancholic Jacques in Northern Broadsides’ touring production for one week only at York Theatre Royal

YORK Theatre Royal pantomime favourite Robin Simpson is “very pleased and slightly scared” to be stepping into the shoes of Jacques for this week and this week only in Northern Broadsides’ comedy As You Like It.

Last seen on the York stage as Manky in an Ugly Sister double act with Paul Hawkyard’s Mardy in Cinderella – more of which in a moment – storyteller, panto dame and actor Robin will be taking over from Adam Kashmiry, performer, experimental mover, drag artist, storyteller and queer activist.

“Come and watch me muck it up!” says Robin on his Twitter feed. “All the world’s stage etc…”

After a week when a Covic outbreak among the cast scuppered all the Broadsides performances at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, all the world will be Robin’s stage from tomorrow at York Theatre Royal.

In the Halifax company’s “diverse cast of 12 fabulous northern actors”, Simpson will be playing the melancholic, cynical Jacques, who is bestowed two of Shakespeare’s most celebrated soliloquies, including the aforementioned “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”.

Jacques’s sentiment leads to director Laurie Sansom’s exploration of the endless possibilities of a world where “gender roles dissolve and assumptions are turned on their head in this celebration of the crazy power of love to change the world and the sheer joy of live performance”.

That sheer joy of live performance emanated from Simpson and Hawkyard’s riotous sisterly double act in Cinderella, co-produced by York Theatre Royal and partners in pantomime Evolution Productions, leading to their nomination for Best Ugly Sisters in the UK Pantomime Association’s Pantomime Awards 2022.

As you bike it: Robin Simpson’s Manky and Paul Hawkyard’s Mardy in York Theatre Royal’s Cinderella, now nominated for Best Ugly Sisters in the UK Pantomime Association’s Pantomime Awards 2022

Directed by Juliet Forster and scripted by P:aul Hendy, Cinderella also has been nominated for Best Pantomime (500 to 900 seats).

Further nominations of CharlesHutchPress note go to York actor, magician and comedian Josh Benson for Best Comic for Joshin’ Josh in Imagine Theatre’s Jack And The Beanstalk at Halifax Victoria Theatre and to Joyce Branagh for Best Director for Harrogate Theatre’s Cinderella, after taking on the in-house production in the wake of regular director and co-writer Phil Lowe passing away unexpectedly last October.

During the 2021/2022 season, 46 judges saw 207 pantomimes across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, travelling from Aberdeen to Aylesbury, Belfast to Bognor and Cardiff to Canterbury.

The awards ceremony will take place on Tuesday, April 19 at the Trafalgar Theatre in London’s West End,  hosted by veteran panto dame Christopher Biggins.

Meanwhile, Northern Broadsides’ gender-fluid As You Like It plays York Theatre Royal from tomorrow (23/3/2022) until Saturday at 7.30pm nightly plus 2pm, Thursday, and 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Further Yorkshire performances will follow at Leeds Playhouse, May 17 to 21; The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, June 9 to 18; CAST, Doncaster, June 21 to 25, and Harrogate Theatre, June 28 to July 2. Box office: Leeds, 0113 213 7700; Halifax, 01422 849 227; Doncaster, 01302 303959; Harrogate, 01423 502116.

Northern Broadsides imagine more playful, fluid, connected future in As You Like It

Joe Morrow as drag queen Touchstone in Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It. Picture: Andrew Billington

FINGERS crossed that Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It can go ahead at York Theatre Royal from next Wednesday after the Covid curse struck Laurie Sansom’s cast this week.

Tuesday’s performance at the Stephen Joseph Theatre was cancelled, but one cover was in place for Wednesday, only for further positive tests to rule out all the Scarborough run.

Let’s hope for positive news but negative readings come next Wednesday when, all being well, and all 12 being well, artistic director Sansom’s multi-cultural, gender-diverse cast can resume performing Shakespeare’s flamboyant and joyous “play for our times”.

As You Like It is the Halifax company’s first full-scale production since the beginning of the pandemic. “I took over here three years ago, and we’d just got JM Barrie’s Quality Street out the door when Covid stopped the tour after only a month.  We lost four months of shows [including York Theatre Royal] but made the decision to pay the company for the full run as we had the money to do so,” says Laurie.

“Funding from the Culture Recovery Fund enabled us to survive, to set ourselves up on the digital platform – we’ll be filming As You Like It with the help of Pilot Theatre while we’re in York – and to future-proof ourselves, leading to us starting work on As You Like It.”

The Covid hiatus brought Northern Broadsides the chance for a re-think too. “It allowed us to step back and look to diversify our talent pool, and now we have such a diverse company on stage, in terms of gender identity, ethnicity and neuro-divergence,” says Laurie.

Taking to York Theatre Royal’s main stage in designer EM Parry’s high-fashion costumes will be “12 fabulous northern actors”, including non-binary and disabled performers, .

The Northern Broadsides company amid myriad hat stands in As You Like It. Picture: Andrew Billington

“The pandemic has thrown up a lot of challenges, but it’s certainly refreshed me and allowed the company to bring fresh eyes to Shakespeare, which Broadsides has always done, but now with a slightly different slant, where we’re also trying to expand our audience, appealing to younger people while still playing to our established audience, as we look to break down the perceived barriers about class and who goes to theatre.”

Billed as a world premiere, Sansom’s bold staging of As You Like It “challenges us to imagine a new future”, one that captures the joy of live performance and the crazy power of love to change the world while addressing Shakespeare’s timeless themes of gender, identity, power and romance.

When high-spirited Rosalind and devoted cousin Celia are no longer welcome in the ruthless Duke’s stylish but stifling court, where competitive machismo is championed over basic human decency, they escape from his toxic entertainment empire into the forest in disguise, accompanied by drag queen Touchstone.

As the seasons change and old hierarchies crumble in this magical place, normal roles dissolve and assumptions are turned on their head in an elaborate game where gender, class and sexual desire are fluid.

“The Forest of Arden is a place where ‘if’ runs rampant,” says Laurie. “People adopt new names, new clothes and new lovers in this free-form forest with no rules.

“They experience new feelings and dive into them willy-nilly; they play many parts and make many entrances and exits. It’s as if everyone has stepped through the wardrobe into another world but not without taking a lot of fabulous clothes with them. 

“Our new production takes us deep into the joyful possibilities of ‘if’, and asks if all the world’s a stage, can all the men and women be whoever they want to be?”

Exit the court, enter the forest in Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It. Picture: Andrew Billington

Laurie’s desire was to make “something ambitious in terms of design, costume and casting, but with the clarity of the verse-speaking still there”. “That way we can be bold in how we present the play,” he reasons. “The baseline is that we work first to ensure that we understand everything in the text, taking out anything that’s obscure to modern audiences, because Shakespeare is so crystal clear when played with intention and clarity.”

The choice of As You Like It for Northern Broadsides’ return to live theatre reflected the impact of Covid lockdowns, turgid days and weeks of rules, prescribed lives and being allowed out of the house for only an hour’s exercise.

“This has been a time when people have had the chance to think about who they want to be, their identity, and have come to appreciate nature much more,” says Laurie.

“Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, this feels the most restorative, opening up the possibility of making a new world based on open-hearted acceptance of each other and living in harmony with the natural world. This feels like a play for our time, challenging us to imagine a new future that is more playful, accepting and connected.”

Key to this bravura new world production too is the set and costume design of EM Parry, who says: “In our version of Arden, when the characters escape to the forest, they go through the wardrobe, Narnia-like, into a giant dressing-up box of queer possibility, a place where time, gender, sexuality, love, class, and all the hierarchies and binaries of identity and power can be questioned and turned upside down.

“Expect a world where a blizzard blows out of a hatbox, dresses change colour with the seasons, coat stands turn into trees and flowers grow up between the floorboards. Expect a world where a god turns up to a wedding, and who you are and who you fall in love with today can change as winter changes to spring, or a coat turns inside out.” 

Over to you, Lateral Flow Tests. Watch this space for an update on next week’s run.

Northern Broadsides in As You Like It, York Theatre Royal, March 23 to 26, 7.30pm; 2pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.