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.

REVIEW: Macbeth, Leeds Playhouse, until March 19. Box office: 0113 213 7700 or leedsplayhouse.org.uk ****

Jessica Baglow’s Lady Macbeth and Tachia Newall’s newly crowned Macbeth in Amy Leach’s Macbeth at Leeds Playhouse . All pictures: Kirsten McTernan

ASSOCIATE director Amy Leach notches a hattrick of make-you-think-anew Shakespeare productions at Leeds Playhouse with her psychological thriller, Macbeth, after her modern Yorkshire industrial take on Romeo & Juliet in 2017 and Hamlet with Tessa Parr’s female Hamlet in 2019.

A huge drawbridge hangs heavy over Hayley Grindle’s stage. Searchlights scan the auditorium from metallic towers spread out like a forest. Fog spreads. Deafening noise bursts through the air. This could be the start of an arena rock concert, but then, look more closely. To one side is a puddle of water; the ground is muddy.

Then listen to the Witches’ opening words; re-shaped, re-ordered, with new rhythms, their sound as important as their meaning. What’s this? Macbeth (Tachia Newall) and Lady Macbeth (Jessica Baglow) are cradling a new-born baby, only for the bairn to die within a heartbeat.

In the Playhouse’s wish to “explore the damaging physical, spiritual and psychological effects of treachery on those who seek power at any cost”, Leach has grabbed the bull by the horns, putting child loss, lineage and legacy at the heart of the Macbeths’ behaviour, the acts of murder, the need to eliminate all threats to their ill-gotten power.

Miscarriage of justice: Jessica Baglow and Tachia Newall as childless couple Lady Macbeth and Macbeth

Leach then takes it even further, Baglow’s Lady Macbeth being pregnant when she says “unsex me here” and later suffering a miscarriage as blood seeps through her nightgown. Come the finale, Leach adds new text to give a foretaste of Banquo’s son, Fleance, becoming king as the Three Witches had prophesied.

Those Three Witches are typical of Leach and Leeds Playhouse artistic director James Brining’s “commitment to accessible and inclusive theatre-making”, as is the participation of the blind Benjamin Wilson as associate director and audio description consultant.

Among the witches, Karina Jones is visually impaired and Charlotte Arrowsmith is profoundly deaf, while Ashleigh Wilder identifies as “a queer, Black, neurodivergent non-binary person”. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s “weird sisters” are not weird, or alien, in the way they are often played, but are as wild as the landscape instead.

Arrowsmith also plays Lady MacDuff, partnered by the profoundly deaf Hull actor Adam Bassett as MacDuff. Tom Dawze’s Lennox vocally interprets the sign language, complementing the intensity of Bassett’s expressive face, hands and arms with the staccato rhythms of his speech.

Ashleigh Wilder, left, Karina Jones and Charlotte Arrowsmith’s wild Witches

Not only do lighting designer Chris Davey’s aforementioned searchlights induce a sense of paranoia, but there are relentlessly oppressive natural elements to the fore too, along with the sound and fury of machismo war. These are all big, muscular, mud-and-blood splattered men, except for Kammy Darweish’s surprisingly jovial King Duncan; their physicality being emphasised by Georgina Lamb’s movement direction. Likewise, Nicola T Chang’s sound design adds to the cacophony.

Macbeth’s vaulting ambition may in part be represented by the drawbridge, crowned when on top of it, but broken beneath it, but Leach’s production is deeply human amid the technology.

In the relationship of Newall’s reactionary Macbeth and Baglow’s more intuitive Lady Macbeth, the shifting sands become less about calculating mind games, controlled by her, more about brute physicality and brutal will, imposed by him, as intense love and mutual hopes are snuffed out in the face of ultimate destiny being beyond their control, whether shaped by supernatural witchcraft or the resurrection of natural order.

Newall’s Macbeth begins as the soldier’s soldier; his soliloquies remain the stuff of northern plain speaking, rather than poetic airs, amid the fevered actions of his bloody rise and fall.

Above all, Leach puts Lady Macbeth’s motives under the spotlight, and if purists feel she has gone too far in doing so, the reality is that Baglow’s performance is all the better, more rounded, for it.  Risk-taking change can be liberating, rather than be judged as taking liberties.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Crowning gory: Tachia Newall’s Macbeth

More Things To Do in York and beyond, when Jason’s gig is but one good reason to go out. List No. 71, courtesy of The Press

Michael McIntyre: Road-testing new gags at the Grand Opera House, York

FROM McIntyre to Macbeth, two Aussies to an English celebration, a Ugandan story to a pioneering Welsh icon, Charles Hutchinson spreads his net wide.  

Talking point gig of the week: Michael McIntyre: Work In Progress, Grand Opera House, York, Monday, 8pm

COMEDIAN Michael McIntyre will put new material to the test in a “York In Progress” show hastily arranged mid-month for February 28.

Tickets sold out within two hours of going on sale on February 15 for the 45-year-old Londoner’s latest dollops of observational comedy, wherein he turns everyday situations into outpourings of startled exasperation.

The jovial Big Show and The Wheel host previously played a three-night run of Work In Progress gigs at the Grand Opera House in July 2012. For returns only, 0844 871 7615.

Tachia Newall and Jessica Baglow in a masked rehearsal for their roles as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth at Leeds Playhouse

Play of the week outside York: Macbeth, Leeds Playhouse, tonight until March 19

DIRECTOR Amy Leach and designer Hayley Grindle have created a vibrant, raw and visceral vision of Shakespeare’s thrilling tragedy, Macbeth.

Tachia Newall plays the ambitious northern warrior, who does whatever it takes to gain power and, ultimately, the throne, propelled further into darkness by his wife, Jessica Baglow’s Lady Macbeth, whose hands bear witness to her own greed and corruption. Look out for York actress Ashleigh Wilder as one of the witches. Box office: 0113 213 7700 or at leedsplayhouse.org.uk.

She Drew The Gun: Songs decrying corruption, abuse and division at The Crescent, York

York indie gig of the week: She Drew The Gun, The Crescent, York, tonight, 7.30pm

PASSIONATE, principled, and refreshingly plain-spoken, proud socialist, feminist, bi-sexual mother of one Louisa Roach will not be cowed into silence.

As She Drew The Gun, the Wirral singer-songwriter uses punk-infused psych-pop as a vehicle for exposing injustice and for advocating a fairer and more tolerant society.

Written in lockdown and recorded at McCall Sound Studios in Sheffield, latest album Behave Myself decries corruption, abuse and the continued divisions between rich and poor that have only worsened in the pandemic. Annabel Allum supports. Box office: thecrescentyork.com.

Jason Donovan: So many reasons to celebrate his York Barbican concert

Third time lucky: Jason Donovan, Even More Good Reasons, York Barbican, Monday, 8pm

AFTER postponements in September 2020 and November 2021, Aussie heartthrob Jason Donovan’s 52-date tour to mark the 30th anniversary of his debut album, Ten Good Reasons, is finally happening. That anniversary actually passed as long ago as May 2019 on a faraway pre-pandemic planet!

“Having not done my own live shows for a while, I can’t wait to get out there again among my fans and deliver a new energetic show that is both personal, creative and reflective – something that is both nostalgic and just a good night out,” says the one-time Neighbours soap pin-up turned star of pop, stage musicals and theatre. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Writer-performer John Rwothomack in his one-man show Far Gone at York Theatre Royal Studio

Solo show of the week, John Rwothomack in Far Gone, York Theatre Royal Studio, Thursday and Friday, 7.45pm

WRITTEN and performed by John Rwothomack, Far Gone is set in northern Uganda, where Okumu’s village is attacked by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), changing Okumu and his brother’s lives forever.

The story of a young boy’s journey from childhood innocence to child soldier is seen through the eyes of those that love him and those that betray him, as presented by Ugandan-born, London-trained and Sheffield-based Rwothomack in his debut play as writer and performer, prompted by himself nearly being kidnapped by the LRA guerrilla rebel group.

He explores complex issues of war, religion and power, drawing on the contrast between his experiences as a child in Uganda and as a young black man in Britain, and how perceptions of “Africa” have affected his own narrative. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Tommy Emmanuel: Playing his best “Tommysongs” at the Grand Opera House, York

Guitar virtuoso of the week: Tommy Emmanuel, Grand Opera House, York, March 6, 8pm

LAST seen in Britain performing on the Transatlantic Sessions Tour, Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel returns for 13 dates in February and March with dobro master Jerry Douglas as his special guest.

Emmanuel, 66, who improvises big chunks of each concert, will be showcasing The Best Of Tommysongs, a double album of re-recordings of his best original songs from the past 30 years with new modern arrangements.

Angelina, Lewis & Clark, It’s Never Too Late, fan favourites Mombasa and Train To Dusseldorf and new compositions Fuel and Song For A Rainy Morning will be aired in York. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York.

Simon Wright: Conducting York Guildhall Orchestra’s St George’s Day debut at the JoRo

Bring out the flags: York Guildhall Orchestra, St George’s Day Concert, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, April 23,7.30pm

YORK Guildhall Orchestra and conductor Simon Wright make their Joseph Rowntree Theatre debut with a celebration of patron saint St George in an evening of light music with the spotlight on English composers.

Expect a variety of favourite pieces alongside some lesser-known gems, but not a dragon in sight in this joyful springtime programme. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Going Underground: Velvet pioneer John Cale to play York Barbican at 80

Gig announcement of the week: John Cale, York Barbican, July 19

VELVET Underground icon John Cale will play York as the only Yorkshire gig of his seven-date summer tour, his first British itinerary in a decade, with tickets going on sale on Wednesday at 10am.

The Welsh multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer, who turns 80 on March 9, will perform songs from a career that began in classical and avant-garde music before he formed The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed in New York in 1965.

Over six pioneering decades, Cale has released 16 solo studio albums, most recently M:Fans in 2016, while also collaborating with Brian Eno, Patti Smith, The Stooges, Squeeze, Happy Mondays, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Super Furry Animals and Manic Street Preachers. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Reece Dinsdale no longer shies away from talking about himself. Take a seat at the actor-director’s York Theatre Royal show

Reece Dinsdale: Actor, director, Twitter phenomenon and now raconteur

THURSDAY’S evening of conversation with Yorkshire actor/director Reece Dinsdale in the York Theatre Royal Studio is billed more simply as “Reece’s Pieces”.

Or, as he puts it, “just a bloke beginning to find his voice” in his anecdotes, revelations and stories, after his uncanny knack of finding voices on stage and screen since the age of 12, whether playing Shakespeare’s Richard III or fellow son of the West Riding Alan Bennett.

“It started in lockdown as a challenge to myself,” says Normanton-born Reece, 62. “As an actor I had never felt comfortable speaking publicly unless I was playing a role, so I thought I’d face a few demons by attempting to talk live online to my Twitter followers. 

“What I discovered was that when I got started…I couldn’t stop! Reaching the age of 60, I realised I might have a tale or two to tell.”

Indeed he does, having performed extensively in theatres across the country, as well as for the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company. He has starred in myriad TV dramas too, ranging from leading roles in the BAFTA Award-winning Threads and Jim Henson’s Storyteller, through Spooks, Minder, Silent Witness and Life On Mars, to Joe McIntyre in Coronation Street and the comedy series Home To Roost, playing opposite the late John Thaw when drawing 14 million viewers each week.

In 2020, he joined the cast of ITV’s Emmerdale, on the understanding his bad-lad character, Paul Ashdale, would be killed off in 2021, and he now directs episodes of the Yorkshire village soap.

Reece’s Pieces has brought about his return to the theatre spotlight but in a different format: as himself. “I’ve not been on stage in a play since (The Fall of) The Master Builder [at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in October 2017, playing predatory architect Alvard Solness in Zinnie Harris’s contemporary Yorkshire re-imagining of Henrik Ibsen’s play during his tenure as the Playhouse’s associate artist],” he says.

“I’ve been so busy doing other things, but I really miss theatre. What I can say is I’ll be doing something somewhere on stage in 2023. Whatever I do, acting on stage, acting on screen, directing, acting on stage is the last thing I’d want to stop doing.”

He might have returned to treading the boards sooner. “I was going to play Benedict [the ‘eternal bachelor’] in Much Ado About Nothing for Northern Broadsides. Conrad [director Conrad Nelson] had asked me if I’d do it, and my reaction was, ‘I’m far too old’, but he said, ‘No, you’re not’.

“But then we got to the first day’s rehearsal and I learned my father had three months to live, so I had to pull out. I can’t wait to get back to performing on stage again.”

Reece, who spent 24 years in London, but has since returned to Yorkshire and now lives in Harrogate, has made the stage his second home for 50 years. “I was press-ganged into being an actor at school when I was 12 and found it was the way to express myself without using my own emotions, and I’ve always been happy to be someone else on stage, rather than me,” says miner’s son Reece, who graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1980.

“But, as it happens, now I’m happy to talk as me, now I’m getting there, I’m happy to do Reece’s Pieces. It started with me taking to Twitter, and I’m now doing this for my dad, after he said ‘Don’t hide your light under a bushel. Go and show people what you’re about and what you can do’.

“I thought, ‘I’m 59, nearly 60, I’ve been around the block maybe 15 times; how do I go about doing this, being myself in a way that would be comfortable for me and for others?’. There’s this feature on Twitter called Periscope, where you go on there for ten minutes, asking people to ask you questions. Well, I did it and it ran to 45 minutes! After ten weeks it was up to an hour and three quarters with 30,000 people logging on.

Last stage role…until next year: Reece Dinsdale in (The Fall of) The Master Builder at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, in 2017

“This was in lockdown, so I didn’t confine it talking about myself but also to talking about mental health, hopefully helping people through lockdown, and so many people connected with it…and as you can tell now, from this conversation, once I get started, I don’t shut up. In answering one question, it would be 25 minutes later before we’d finally go on to the next one.”

Cue Leeds Playhouse artistic director and great friend James Brining contacting Reece to say: “We need to re-open; will you do a show? I’ll host it for you.” And so, leaving behind the front room, the stage format was born for Reece’s Pieces, one where Reece invites an actor friend, presenter or journalist to anchor the evening, with radio presenter and writer Bob Fisher doing so in York tomorrow (3/2/20220, just as he did at Harrogate Theatre last Thursday.

No longer the reluctant raconteur, it is now a case of “Let’s just go with what happens,” says Reece, with his list of 1,000 potential questions from meeting a thousand wonderful people known and unknown in his work, from Peter Ustinov to David Bowie, Jack Lemmon to Alan Bennett. “Then we open it up to the audience; we have a laugh and a joke, so it’s both funny and touching.

“Some people have been to the show three or four times, and I say, ‘Look, I’ve only had one life’, but they say, ‘No, we love it; we’ve got something different out of it each time’. It’s extraordinary!”

As someone who admits to having been shy off stage, going on stage as himself, rather than in character, has been a chance to “face a few demons”. “It’s been very good for me, and because I’m a director, I remember when I started ten years ago, I was frightened because you need to be a master communicator, and my ability to do that needed to be addressed,” he says.

“That’s been really useful for Reece’s Pieces, and with the roundabout way these shows have been come about, it’s been fascinating bringing all these things together.”

Should you be wondering how Reece came to direct Emmerdale, he had directed dramas already for Jimmy McGovern and Ian Bevan, winning a Royal Television Society Award for Eighteen from McGovern’s Moving On series, and it was Bevan who facilitated the opportunity for him to direct a couple of episodes initially.

“I’m a good pupil, I listen, and on the last day I was shooting, I got word that the executive producers wanted to see me, and they showed me to the comfortable sofa, rather the hard chair, which was a good sign!” Reece recalls.

“They said, ‘We’d like you to direct…but in a year, because we want you to be in the show first’. It was meant to be for seven months, playing this bad guy, who would die at the end of it, but it turned to be for a year as Covid caused such havoc.

“They offered me a block to direct, and I said, ‘How about two blocks?’, and as soon I finished filming in March 2021, I started directing, from April. I’ve done three blocks of shows now, and I’ll be hotfooting it from the studio for the York show.”

From this spring, he will be swapping Yorkshire for Lancashire, or more precisely Emmerdale for Weatherfield, as he takes one the new challenge of directing Coronation Street. “I’m not sure there’s anyone who’s previously been in and directed both soaps,” he says.

“The advice for life I was given was ‘always keep coming out of different corners, always keep them guessing’, and I think I’ve kept them guessing for 40 years. I’ve lost that young man’s burning ambition; now all I want to be is creative every day, and long may that continue.

“I’m happy – and I’m just as passionate as I was when I was 20, leaving drama school.” And now, he is only too happy to talk about it in Reece’s Pieces.

Reece’s Pieces: An Evening of Conversation with Actor/Director Reece Dinsdale, York Theatre Royal Studio, tomorrow (3/2/2022), 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623 568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

York theatres join National Lottery’s Love Your Local Theatre ticket offer campaign

Ore Oduba as Brad Majors in The Rocky Horror Show, one of the shows at the Grand Opera House, York (from March 14 to 19) for which National Lottery players can acquire two tickets for the price of one

YORK Theatre Royal and the Grand Opera House, York, are joining more than 100 theatres in UK Theatre’s Love Your Local Theatre campaign.

The National Lottery is providing up to £2 million to subsidise 150,000 tickets nationwide in the biggest-ever 2-for-1 ticket offer, open to National Lottery players who attend a show during March, whether musicals, plays, family shows, comedy or dance.

Tickets are available to buy from 10am today via loveyourlocaltheatre.com in a campaign run by theatre membership body UK Theatre, designed to encourage the public to support their local theatres as they begin to recover from the impact of Covid.

Supported by Girls Aloud singer, television presenter and stage star Kimberley Walsh, Love Your Local Theatre is a thank-you for the £30 million National Lottery players raise every week for good causes, including support for the performing arts and theatres during the pandemic.

Walsh says: “We are so privileged to have so many incredible theatres and entertainment venues across the UK. I have been lucky enough to perform in many of them. Without our local theatres, the face of UK entertainment would look very different and it’s amazing the National Lottery is providing £2 million to support them.

“The entertainment industry was particularly impacted by the pandemic, and that’s why the Love Your Local Theatre campaign is so important in supporting their recovery.

York Theatre Royal: Participating in the National Lottery-funded Love Your Local Theatre campaign

Stephanie Sirr, president of UK Theatre, says: “We are delighted to be working with the National Lottery on Love Your Local Theatre, the first time UK Theatre members across the country have united for a ticket promotion of this scale.

“We should be hugely proud in this country to have such an extensive, vibrant and diverse range of regional theatres, all of which play a vital role in the theatre landscape of the UK and beyond. After such a turbulent two years, we want to shout about the fact that theatres are open and ready to reward audiences for their patience and loyalty – please visit your local theatre and help them continue to make brilliant creative work!”

Nigel Railton, chief executive officer of National Lottery operator Camelot, adds: “The UK’s entertainment industry is world class, thanks to the huge variety of venues and projects across the four nations.

“National Lottery players raise £30 million a week to help fund good causes, many of which lie in the entertainment industry. The National Lottery is proud to have teamed up with UK Theatre to launch the Love Your Local Theatrecampaign, giving local theatres the support they need to get on the road to recovery following the pandemic, while saying thank you to National Lottery players who have helped support many theatres during the last two years.”

Among other Yorkshire theatres taking part are: Bradford Alhambra Theatre; Harrogate Theatre; Hull New Theatre; Hull Truck Theatre; Leeds City Varieties Music Hall; Leeds Grand Theatre; Leeds Playhouse; Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre, Leeds; Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, and Sheffield Theatres (Lyceum and Crucible).

The Love Your Local Theatre promotion is available to anyone who is a National Lottery player and possesses a National Lottery ticket. From today, players can purchase tickets at available performances taking place during March.

How Hayley Del Harrison brought the dance to CBeebies’ Christmas show and York Theatre Royal’s pantomime, Cinderella

Cinderella choreographer Hayley Del Harrison, front, with the York Theatre Royal pantomime ensemble: middle row, dance captain Ella Guest, left, Thomas Yeomans and Lauren Richardson; back row, Christian Mortimer, Amy Hammond and Luke Lucas

YORK freelance choreographer and movement director Hayley Del Harrison’s creativity can be seen at the double this festive season.

Not only has she choreographed York Theatre Royal and Evolution Productions’ effervescent pantomime Cinderella, up and running until January 2, but also CBeebies Presents: The Night Before Christmas.

Already this CBeebies Christmas show has made its cinema debut on November 28, and the TV launch on the Beeb will come rather sooner than the night before Christmas: Saturday, December 11 to be precise.

This is her second CBeebies project of the year, having worked with York Theatre Royal creative director (and Cinderella director) Juliet Forster on CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet, filmed at Leeds Playhouse.

More on the Theatre Royal pantomime later, but first, Hayley, 50, recalls working on the CBeebies Christmas show from late-September through to October 10 in Plymouth, working under pandemic constraints that meant the company had to be put up in a hotel in social bubbles.

“We had the whole of the Plymouth Theatre Royal building to ourselves and the TR2 rehearsal room too,” she says.

“No-one else was allowed into the space because we knew the risk was too great. We had only that short window to rehearse it, a short window to film it, and that’s why we were so strict.

“We did it all in two weeks; the first week in the rehearsal space, and then in the second week we moved into the theatre, we teched it, and did two shows to invited audiences of schoolchildren and one without one for the couple of days of filming.”

York choreographer and movement director Hayley Del Harrison

Hayley worked with director Chris Jarvis, a “CBeebies legend” with a theatre background, who had played Lord Montague in Forster’s CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet and has 25 years’ experience of directing, producing, writing and performing in pantomimes. This winter he is playing the dame, Betty Bonbon, in Beauty And The Beast at Poole’s Lighthouse, in Dorset.

Again the creative process was influenced by Covid strictures. “I got the songs [by Banks and Wag] and script in advance, and with everyone being so far away, we had the readthrough online, chats online with Chris Banks and a long Zoom meeting with Chris Jarvis about where my input would be, and I remember at one point jumping to my feet and saying, ‘I’m thinking of doing this’!” says Hayley.

“As the show is for young children, a lot of the choreography is designed so that they can copy it. It’s big on storytelling and simple to replicate because, once the show is on BBC iPlayer, they can watch it over and over again. These CBeebies shows are big on participation.”

Hayley worked with a CBeebies cast of 16. “I’d worked with eight of them before on Romeo And Juliet. It’s different from a theatre pantomime because it’s not like you have an ensemble,” she says.

“Everyone has their role, their unique selling point and their chance to shine, but they’re also brilliant at what they do whether as presenters or actors.  it’s been nice to get to know them over the two projects, getting an understanding of how they work and then wrapping the show around their characters to present Clement Clarke Moore’s beautiful poem.

“You’re working with characters who are much loved, so, for example, the character playing the villain has to be silly, rather than frightening, because it’s a show for two to six year olds. It means you have to be very careful; everything is more gentle but really funny.”

Looking back on her two CBeebies’ shows in 2021, Hayley says: “I feel I’ve built up a really good relationship and would love to do more of this work. Fingers crossed. 

“It already feels like being part of a family, similar to working at the Theatre Royal. When it feels right, it feels really collaborative and there’s a mutual understanding. I know how they work and they know how I work.”

CBeebies’ Andy Day (Dandini) with the ensemble in a song-and-dance routine from York Theatre Royal’s Cinderella, choreographed by Hayley Del Harrison

York-born Hayley’s focus then switched to Cinderella, working once more for York Theatre Royal after last year’s Travelling Pantomime (directed by Forster) and such previous productions as The Storm Whale and A View From The Bridge in 2019, For The Fallen in 2018 and In Fog And Falling Snow at the National Railway Museum in 2015.

She received Paul Hendy’s script in October, when most of the music was signed off by musical supervisor James Harrison by the end of that month. “For this kind of show, the more information I have up front, the better I do my job,” says Hayley.

“I can start getting my head around it, though I do like creating in the room too. I’m up for being flexible, but I like to have a clear vision, and that’s what’s great about working with Juliet.

“Yes, she likes being creative in the rehearsal room but her vision is always clear, and because it’s clear, it gives me freedom. I understand where she’s coming from, and she trusts me.”

For Cinderella, Hayley has worked with the seven principals, a six-strong ensemble and two aerial artists, Connor and Tiffany of Duo Fusion, who take part in some of the dancing too.

“We did the auditions for the ensemble just before I went off to Plymouth, and I’ve been delighted to find such versatile performers,” she says.

“They have to do three separate dance styles: lyrical pieces; fun, comedic, highly technical jazz and tap, and work with the text.

“ I wanted everyone to bring something different to the table to ensure there were different characters within the ensemble, and we’re really happy with them. It’s not, ‘here come the dancers’; they’re very much part of the story.”

Cinderella runs at York Theatre Royal until January 2 2022. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. CBeebies Presents: The Night Before Christmas premieres on December 11 and will then be available on BBC iPlayer.

CBeebies Presents: The Night Before Christmas, choreographed by Hayley Del Harrison. Picture copyright : BBC

Red Ladder Theatre Company stage My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored at Pocklington Arts Centre tonight

Red Ladder Theatre Company’s My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored

RED Ladder Theatre Company present emerging playwright Nana-Kofi Kufuor’s gripping drama My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored at Pocklington Arts Centre tonight (25/11/2021).

Supported by Leeds Playhouse and Oldham Coliseum Theatre, Dermot Dal’s thought-provoking production tells the story of 15-year-old Reece, who is roughly accosted by the police outside M&S. 

His young, Black teacher, Gillian, witnesses it all but she does not question or intervene in the disturbing scene that plays out. The events that unfold will change both their lives forever in a tussle for power and an urgent exploration of racial identity.

Tickets for Leeds company Red Ladder’s 7.30pm performance are on sale on 01759 301547 or at pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.

Playwright Nana-Kofi Kufuor. Picture: Emma Bailey

Phoenix Dance Theatre launch 40th anniversary tour at York Theatre Royal

Phoenix Dance Theatre’s 40 Years Of Phoenix

PHOENIX Dance Theatre launch their 40th anniversary celebrations at York Theatre Royal this week after completing their Bernstein Double Bill travels with Opera North.

The 40 Years Of Pheonix birthday programme, presented at 7.30pm tomorrow (23/11/2021) and Wednesday, brings together diverse work from the groundbreaking Leeds company’s past, selected by artistic director Dane Hurst.

“This year marks an extraordinary milestone, and in honour of 40 years since Phoenix’s founding, we’re excited to bring back these iconic pieces, each of which has a unique place in the company’s history,” he says.

“It’s been an honour and a joy to welcome these choreographers and creatives back into the studio – either or in person – and see the works come to life, which together demonstrate the breadth and range that the company’s repertoire has explored over the last four decades.

“On taking up this role earlier this year, I wanted to use the milestone of the anniversary to recognise the spirit and urgency out of which the company was created in 1981. I’m confident that this programme, alongside additional celebratory activities, will achieve just that.”

Combining celebration and reflection, 40 Years Of Phoenix comprises Lost Dog duo Ben Duke and Raquel Meseguer’s sensual and confrontational duet Pave Up Paradise; Henri Oguike’s unflinching and thrilling Signal; Shapiro and Smith’s satirical Family; Jane Dudley’s 1938 masterpiece Harmonica Breakdown and Darshan Singh Bhuller’s revamped Heart Of Chaos, inspired by the story of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion;.

“After I became artistic director in January, when the country was in lockdown, I began researching the Phoenix archive. I wasn’t in Leeds at the time – I was in London – and had no access to the VHS tapes of many of the older works,” says Dane.

“But it was exciting to look through photographs, read the write-ups, and to discover the works that were symbolic of the times under my seven predecessors. 

“I learned that a lot of the archive is at Leeds University, but the early years under David Hamilton, Phoenix’s founder and first artistic director, are not well documented, so many of those works are now lost.”

Nevertheless, Dane has responded to the challenge of capturing the essence of 40 years of Pheonix since its formation, initially as an all-black troupe, by three teenage friends from inner-city Leeds, Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James, encouraged to do so by their tutors, Charles Gardener and John Auty at Intake High School and Nadine Senior at Harehills Middle School.

“After 40 years, in which perhaps three to six new pieces have been created each year, there were still many works to choose from,” Dane says. “It’s been a challenge to distil the full breadth and depth and richness of the company’s achievement into just five pieces; I only wish we could perform multiple birthday programmes!

“But I feel that the final selection is of five essential works that display something of the scope and reach of what dance can achieve. The pieces challenge the dancers technically and they’re all very different musically.”

Lost Dog’s Pave Up Paradise revisits Adam and Eve after their fall from grace, tracking the pair as they squabble over who was to blame for their loss of paradise in a witty and irreverent examination of guilt, innocence and lust for forbidden fruit, accompanied by acoustic arrangements of Jeff Buckley and The Strokes.

“Adam and Eve is the story that keeps replaying generation after generation,” says Dane. “Pave Up Paradise is the universal story of a man meeting a woman, having an encounter, going too deep, and then realising the consequences of their actions. Both characters are equally strong.

“It’s a beautiful, funny, theatrical piece, with a musician live on stage and spoken text for the dancers. Created by male/female choreographic duo Ben Duke and Raquel Meseguer, they give both a male and a female perspective on one of the oldest stories in the world.” 

Half-Nigerian, half-Welsh choreographer Henri Oguike was raised in a “blighted former steel town in Wales,” as he puts it. His high-octane work, Signal, first stunned Phoenix audiences in 2004 with its frenzy of the battlefield yet sense of calm at the centre of the storm.

“It’s an exhibition of pure physicality, performed to Japanese Taiko drumming, with real live flames on stage and heavy percussive music,” says Dane. “There is a reason why the music has to be loud: you need to feel it in the chest.  

“The beating of the drum sends a vibration through the air and the dancers need to feel that vibration and embody a physicality that’s rooted in a primal instinct: of hearing the drumbeat/heartbeat in the womb. This is pure dance: a physical, abstract, virtuoso, powerhouse of a piece.” 

Ordinary passions, dramas and tensions that define the complexities of family life and human interaction are transformed into an acrobatic spectacle in Family, a satirical, fly-on-the-wall dance choreographed by husband-and-wife American duo Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith, premiered by Phoenix in 1982.

“It’s a deeply comic look at dysfunctional relationships, whether between husband and wife, mother and daughter, brother and sister, boyfriend and uncle, with music that’s quite circus-like, and it’s interesting for a dance company to do, because you’re like a family of dancers as you travel around, and it all depends on who’s in the company at the time,” says Dane.

Jane Dudley’s Harmonica Breakdown, choreographed in 1938 in response to the Depression in America and the forced migration of workers, features a lone female dancer creating a poetic representation of an individual’s struggle to gain self-respect and dignity in a cruel, volatile world.

“In just three and a half minutes, it encapsulates not only the role of a woman in society at that time, but also the experience of African-American people and the white working class in America in the 1920s and ’30s,” says Dane.

“Starting from a broken-winged position, the woman leans forward against a force that abruptly stops her. Defiantly, she keeps moving. It’s a piece that says so much about how particular groups of people were held back, economically and socially. 

“It’s been a very special experience for Yuma Sylla, our newest dancer, to be taught this masterpiece by  Dr S Ama Wray, associate professor of dance at the University of California, who studied with Jane Dudley.” 

When Dane asked former Phoenix artistic director Darshan Singh Bhuller if he could include Heart Of Chaos, a piece he had created in 1993 when a young choreographer, Darshan would only agree on one condition.

“He said, ‘I will only let you have this work if I can revisit it and place it in the context of the Jack Johnson story’,” recalls Dane. “He told me about the ‘Galveston Giant’, the African-American boxer who became heavyweight champion of the world in 1908. Jack Johnson was a larger-than-life, volatile figure, whose success brought him riches and fame, much to the dismay of white America at the time, who hated him.

“He owned cars, he owned nightclubs, he broke the taboo of black men consorting with white women and married three white women, one of whom was Etta Duryea, who took her life in 1912 because he was abusive.”

Against the modern-day Leeds backdrop of Azeem Rafiq highlighting “institutional racism” at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Dane says: “For me, Heart Of Chaos is the jewel in the crown of this 40th anniversary programme: a piece from the Phoenix archive that has been re- worked for our times.  

“Although it’s rooted in history, this is a story for the present day, when we’re still dealing with the issue of racism and inequality in sport and in wider society.”

Challenging segregated sport and white America in the era of Jim Crow and the Jazz Age, with music by Wynton Marsalis, Dane describes Darshan’s Heart of Chaos as being filmic in style. “That’s because he’s a filmmaker as well as a choreographer,” he says.

Phoenix Dance Theatre – or Phoenix Dance Company as the company was first called after Charles Gardener first suggested using ‘Phoenix’ – have been true to the meaning of that word. “I think there’s a magic that lies within this company, and it comes from how it was founded by three teenagers against the odds, with a love for dance and their community, telling their stories, and that humbleness, that humanity, still underpins the company.

“Phoenix has risen to the heights, then fallen, then risen again. I was a young member of the company in 2009, when everyone was sent packing for a mixture of artistic differences and personal and financial reasons at that time.

“What has happened to Phoenix is true to the myth; it reaches great heights, then burns out, and to keep going, it then has to reinvent itself as a new troupe, completing a cycle again and then starting anew again.”

Phoenix’s dancers have diversified over 40 years too. “The thing is, the world is changing and more and more countries are becoming diverse because of people’s ability to travel,” says Dane. “Phoenix represents that melting pot of culture and the company will grow and develop with everything that is strong about what makes Britain Britain now, multiculturally, and we must celebrate that as a company, reaching out to people from every background.

“Dance transcends all barriers of language, race, sexuality and religion. When the body moves in its symmetry, you can only feel the beauty of the body moving in space – and that is the one thing we all identify with: being able to move.”

Broadening out this point, Dane says: “Dance moves us emotionally; it challenges us intellectually; it transports us in fantasy. In dance, the human body reaches incredible heights of sheer physicality and precision of execution, in unison, to music.

“Without a word being uttered, dance can communicate across so many different barriers: barriers of language, barriers of culture, and also barriers of ingrained perceptions. Culturally, we are all shaped according to where we live and the structures of our society, so we see the world very differently from each other. But when the body moves to music and a particular story is told without recourse to language, it can reach and touch everybody.” 

Looking ahead, Dane says: “My hope is that the company will nurture its legacy over the next 40 years and continue to make amazing new work, because when we let the heart speak through the art, we can make a connection with everyone. If we can continue to do that, it will be a job well done.”

It will, however, be a job done without Dane, who will be leaving Phoenix to return to his native South Africa on December 4. “I don’t think we’ve been able to take stock yet of how much the pandemic has affected us. My family in South Africa is going through its own horrible times: I have lost three relatives to Covid.

“Since the pandemic, everything we do is being looked at again and re-evaluated. In my case, I left my family in 2003 to chase my dream of being an international artist, but now I need to go home to take care of my family.

“The company has put together a good vision for the future, with the tour running until next May and a programme in place until 2023. Even though I am leaving, it is with a heavy heart, and I will not lose my connection with the company. I’ll be only 12 hours away!”

What’s more, Dane will travel from South Africa for Phoenix’s celebration gala at Leeds Playhouse on February 12 next year, when nine companies will take part in the 40th anniversary event. “I’m coming over specially for that to cheer everyone one,” he says.

Phoenix Dance Theatre in 40 Years Of Phoenix, York Theatre Royal, November 23 and 24, 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Horror at the double: Dracula: The Untold Story and The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow

Rhian Duce as Mina Harker in Imitating The Dog’s Dracula: The Untold Story. Picture: Ed Waring

REVIEW: Dracula: The Untold Story, Imitating The Dog/Leeds Playhouse, Courtyard Theatre, Leeds Playhouse, until Saturday, then touring until November 13; The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow, Tilted Wig Productions, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday, then touring into 2022. Box office: Leeds, 0113 213 7700 or at leedsplayhouse.org.uk; York, 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

THE horror! The horror! O’ the contrasting horror of two new accounts of vintage horror stories, as re-envisioned respectively by perennially cutting-edge Leeds company Imitating The Dog and Philip Meeks, life-long fan of horror and the weird, prolific playwright and pantomime dame.

Last time out, forever in pursuit of marrying technology and theatre in inventive, ingenious harmony, Imitating The Dog set themselves the digital task of re-creating George A Romero’s cult 1968 Zombie movie Night Of The Living Dead – Remix, frame for frame, on stage and screen in synch with the original footage being shown simultaneously. Breathless, breath-taking, dead brilliant.

From one restless story of the undead to another: the Victorian gothic horror of Dracula, here presented as The Untold Story, the story as re-told from Mina Harker’s viewpoint on New Year’s Eve 1965 at a London police station, as she turns herself in, the last surviving witness of Count Dracula’s destruction 70 years earlier.

Not seen since 1901, she should be 90, but as she confesses to a murder spree over those intervening years, Riane Duce’s Mina looks young, in her 20s. No wonder, Adela Rajnović and Matt Prendergast’s midnight-shift police officers appear so sceptical, even more so when vigilante Mina reveals her supernaturally powered capacity for self-healing and clairvoyance have sustained her through terminating the likes of Mussolini and Hitler before they could wreak their havoc.

All this is delivered with both verbal and visual wit by directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks, the outstanding Duce and the multi-role playing Imitating The Dog veterans Rajnovic and Prendergast, with an economy of words to fit into the bubble spaces that graphic novels use.

Ah, the graphic novel: the pop-culture artform that fuels the latest hi-tech innovation of Imitating The Dog’s co-production with Leeds Playhouse. Just as Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s neo-noir thriller Sin City brought the graphic form to cinematic life, so Dracula: The Untold Story is now staged as a live graphic novel cum detective thriller.

Mixed-media theatre took a long time to settle, whether in the pioneering work of Imitating The Dog or York company Pilot Theatre, with words prone to playing second fiddle to the tricksy technology.

Now, however, the sight of actors working cameras on stage, or bending into unusual positions in front of blue screens to appear together, as if by magic, in the graphic novel in motion, no longer has any sense of distraction or gimmickry compromising the live performance.

This is live theatre-making gloriously embracing new possibilities in a constant flow between 2D and 3D, as the cast performs to both camera lens and audience, the visual experience further enhanced by the use of face-recognition technology for the characters being projected on screen.

Dracula: The Untold Story is thrillingly bravura, yet entirely coherent 21st century storytelling, at once pulp fiction in style yet deeply psychological too, still gothic but ultra-modern, humorous yet haunting. Sinking their ever-sharper teeth into Dracula, Imitating The Dog keep on breaking new ground.

Bill Ward and Wendi Peters in The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow

Philip Meeks’s The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow is a horror story too, but not of the kind intended. Washington Irving’s gothic story from 1820 runs to only 24 pages and should take the average reader 86 minutes to consume at 250 words per minute. Meeks’s play stretches to over two and a quarter hours, and when town teacher Ichabod Crane (Sam Jackson) mocks the legend for being boring, alas audience heads could be seen nodding in agreement.

At the interval, bewildered expressions were commonplace, as first-night attendees sought mutual guidance as to what was going on, a failing of storytelling amid Meeks’ proliferation of florid words and fanciful ideas.

Neither he nor director Jake Smith has settled on a tone or style, caught in a no man’s land between the earnest, the arch, the knowing, and the quagmire of strangely unfunny schlock-horror comedy ripped from the Hammer House playbook, with sporadic folk-dance stomping and religion-bashing to boot. Imagine a cross between Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, topped off with a gay love story.

The acting is uneven; Wendi Peters’ Widow Mariette Papenfuss, with her gobby parrot, surpasses all around her; fellow Coronation Street big-name Bill Ward hams up Baltus Van Tassel; Jackson’s Ichabod is like a man under water forever trying to reach for the surface; Lewis Cope’s buff blacksmith Brom Van Brunt keeps removing his shirt, as if he has escaped from Heathers The Musical; Tommy Sim’aan’s Joost De Groot and Rose Quentin’s Katrina Van Tassel need better material.

Amy Watts’s set design could be a Bruegel painting but feels lifeless by comparison, while you wish for more of Filipe J Carvalho’s illusions amid the overall delusion and want of suspense.

In the desire to be magical and monstrous, spunky and spooky, everything has the feel of running around like a headless horseman, although “running” is not the right word.

“Don’t pass by. Stay Forever,” comes the never-to-be-repeated invitation to Sleepy Hollow. But what is the Legend of Sleepy Hollow? You better ask Philip, although on second thoughts…

Imitating The Dog tell Dracula: The Untold Story, via Mina Harker in 1965 London

She did it her way: Mina Harker recounts her version of events in Imitating The Dog’s Dracula: The Untold Story

IMITATING The Dog directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks are staging their production of Dracula: The Untold Story as a live graphic novel.

Their new high-tech hybrid play is inspired by Bram Stoker’s classic gothic horror novel but, in an interesting twist, is told from the perspective of Mina Harker: “in many ways an archetypal late-Victorian woman in the book, but a modern heroine –  some might even say vigilante – on stage,” they suggest.

Running at Leeds Playhouse until October 9 at the outset of a tour to November 13, the co-production with the Playhouse combines cutting-edge digital technology with live performance.

Leeds company Imitating The Dog have made this theatre technique their own, not least in Night Of The Living Dead – Remix,  their 2020 co-production with Leeds Playhouse wherein they lovingly recreated George A Romero’s cult zombie film frame-by-frame live on stage. 

Graphic novels have always influenced Imitating The Dog’s work, where the pulp narratives of detective, sci-fi and horror fiction has provided rich source material for their big screen projections and live camera work.

For Dracula: The Untold Story, they also are utilising the latest face recognition technology to create live, large-scale graphic novel layouts that switch seamlessly between 2D and 3D as the pages turn and the three-strong cast explores – and updates – the classic yarn.  

No longer a 19th century gothic tale, Imitating The Dog’s brash, vivid and fast-moving play is set in Sixties’ London, with pared-back dialogue and bursts of action that will “grab audiences by the throat and not let go”. 

Head back to New Year’s Eve, 1965, London, England. Just before midnight, as revellers celebrate the beginning of another year, a young woman enters Marylebone Police Station and confesses to a brutal murder.  

She claims to be Mina Harker, the last living survivor of the intrepid group that witnessed Count Dracula’s destruction 70 years before. But Mina Harker has not been seen since 1901.  And if she was alive, she would be ninety years old.

As Mina confesses to events that are much more terrifying than in the original, she retells the events of Bram Stoker’s classic novel. She claims it is the true story. The untold story. And she must tell it now, before sunrise, before it’s too late, before…October 9, if you want to see it in Leeds. 

Tickets are on sale on 0113 213 7700 or at leedsplayhouse.org.