REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on A Little Night Music, Opera North/Leeds Playhouse

Old flames reunited at Opera North: Stephanie Corley as Desirée and Quirijn de Lang as Fredrik in A Little Night Music at Leeds Playhouse

A Little Night Music, Opera North and Leeds Playhouse, Leeds Playhouse, until July 17. Box office: 0113 213 7700 or at leedsplayhouse.org.uk

THE collaboration between Opera North and Leeds Playhouse has finally resumed 13 months after originally intended. It has been a long wait but has picked up very fruitfully.

A bitter-sweet musical by the grand old man of bitter-sweet, Stephen Sondheim, is the perfect vehicle, reflecting on the fall-out from amatory accidents in European operetta just as we all contemplate a newly changed cultural scenario.

James Brining’s new production, updated to mid-20th century and hand in glove with Madeleine Boyd’s flexible set, is everywhere imaginative and often heart-warming, reaping the very best from a widely talented cast.

On the Playhouse’s apron stage – no proscenium arch (except briefly an improvised one for a Baroque throwback in The Glamorous Life – there is virtually no scenery. All is movable furniture: two clothes-rails, a grandfather clock, a doll’s house, a toiletry dresser, a double bed, a half-submerged piano. The only fixed point comes in Act 2, where the centrepiece is a fountain surmounted by a cherub, which is probably Eros.

James Holmes’s theatre orchestra – using the original and incomparable Jonathan Tunick orchestration – is placed at the back, stage right and blacked out for Act 2. Lighting designer Chris Davey’s discreet spots gently guide us to the next focal point, so that we are duped into feeling the action is continuous, the scene-changes happening magically.

Although much of the music moves in triple time, reflecting the triangular relationships of the story, its character evolves with the scenes. Holmes is masterful at these changing colours and accents, while remaining in close touch with his singers.

The Scandinavian twilight of Act 2, with alto flute, cor anglais, celesta and harp, is positively fragrant. He can equally easily find a lament in a waltz, as in Henrik’s Later, or pomposity in a polonaise, in the Count’s In Praise Of Women. His orchestra is the unsung hero of the evening.

There are some pretty splendid singers too. Heading the list has to be Josephine Barstow’s Madame Arnfeldt, the grande dame of the tale who has seen it all before, as she sardonically reminds us from her wheelchair in Liaisons. She exudes effortless authority through her commanding mezzo and diction that is a paragon of clarity.

As her actress daughter Desirée, Stephanie Corley brings a lovely soprano to her vacillating emotions; in Send In The Clowns, against a backdrop of slow choreography, her pacing and rubato is wondrous.

Opposite her – and incidentally rekindling their double act from Kiss Me, Kate with Opera North – is Quirijn de Lang as her erstwhile lover Fredrik, the lawyer caught in a mid-life crisis, whose firm baritone fires You Must Meet My Wife. His fall into the fountain is straight out of P G Wodehouse. Together their ambivalent emotions are cleverly cloaked.

Christopher Nairne brings an incisive baritone to his poker-faced Count, while Helen Évora’s Countess has charm to burn, notably in Every Day A Little Death. A word too for the Petra of Amy J. Payne, who brings both pizzazz and pathos to The Miller’s Son, a marvellous piece. Corinne Cowling’s Anne, Fredrik’s virginal second wife, and Laurence Kilsby’s high-strung Henrik merge neatly into elopement, while Agatha Meehan makes an engaging young daughter to Desirée (her alternate is Lucy Sherman).

The Quintet, five chorus members from Opera North acting like a Greek chorus, seem to me to sum up the whole show: they blend superbly, proving that good teamwork will always win the day. Congratulations to all, especially James Brining for pulling it all together.                                                                                                        

Review by Martin Dreyer   

Romeo and Juliet Forster as York Theatre Royal creative director makes Shakespeare show with Justin Fletcher for CBeebies

From Mr Tumble to…Peter the Clown in Romeo And Juliet: Justin Fletcher does Shakespeare for CBeebies. Picture: CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet

JULIET Forster has cut it as a director of Romeo And Juliet many times. Now she has sliced Shakespeare’s “two the two hours’ traffic of our stage” to 45 minutes, maybe 50, for CBeebies’ show tomorrow morning.

“I did joke about that at rehearsals because my previous production, at Blenheim Palace, ran to three hours and 15 minutes,” says Juliet, York Theatre Royal’s creative director.

She had been lined up for the children’s television production as long ago as December 2019. “Anna Perowne, who has produced the performance, had newly taken over BBC Shakespeare, having worked previously for the Royal Shakespeare Company,” says Juliet.

“It was partly that thing of a new producer looking at it in a new way, wanting to work with a director who would allow more input from the actors.

Evie Pickerill as Juliet in CBeebies’ Romeo And Juliet, Picture: CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet

“She’d found the Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre production of Romeo And Juliet I’d just done at Blenheim that summer, and when we met, we got on immediately. Then, put that together with the fact I’ve done a lot of children’s theatre and plenty of Shakespeare.”

The list runs deep for Romeo And Juliet alone. “In 2005, I did a Family Day at the RSC with children and parents taking part in a Shakespeare workshop,” says Juliet. “I’ve done an interactive version of Romeo And Juliet with some very young children and a youth theatre version at York Theatre Royal.

“I’ve adapted it for five to seven year olds in a way for them to tell the story; I adapted it for a Pilot Theatre production and I’ve directed it with a teenage cast in a play-in-a-week school project I ran with my old company years and years ago in the Midlands.”

Who better, then, to direct yet another variation on Shakespeare’s tragic story of young love and feuding families than Juliet? “We were supposed to record it last May, but the pandemic delayed it until we could kick off working on it again in December,” she says.

Zach Wyatt as Romeo in CBeebies’ Romeo And Juliet. Picture: CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet

CBeebies’ Romeo And Juliet combines Shakespeare’s characters with the additional roles of William Shakespeare himself and a librarian. “What the producer wanted was a good cohort of recognised CBeebies faces and actors, so I watched the other two CBeebies’ Shakespeare shows, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, to see how they were done,” says Juliet.

“We talked about ‘why do a complicated play for such little ones?’, but then we talked about the positive messages in there: the families putting an end to their feud and the importance of not giving in to bad things too easily, instead looking to live in peace and to put a stop to the fighting.

“That made it a show very much for the CBeebies audience, in this case for two to seven year olds…though lots of older children watch it too; they just don’t admit it!”

Juliet worked with Nathan Cockerill on the script, calling on her past experiences of adapting the text. “I looked back at what I’d left in and taken out for the five to seven-year-olds’ script I wrote and fleshed it out from there, also looking at my Pilot Theatre script to see how I’d edited it down for that show,” she says.

Juliet Forster: York Theatre Royal creative director and director of CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet

“Nathan was someone who’d worked with CBeebies before, and we worked on a script knowing that Shakespeare and a companion or companions always feature in a CBeebies Shakespeare show. This time Shakespeare is much more involved.”

Juliet has directed a cast of 15, featuring such CBeebies names as Andy Day, Chris Jarvis, Jennie Dale, Gemma Hunt, Rebecca Keatley and Justin Fletcher, of Mr Tumble fame, as Peter the Clown. Zach Wyatt, from Shakespeare’s Globe, will play Romeo; Evie Pickerill, Juliet.

“We rehearsed it and filmed it at Leeds Playhouse, all done and dusted two weeks ago, with just one day of filming with three runs of the show, making it like a piece of live theatre, though we couldn’t have an audience, of course,” says Juliet.

Joining Forster in the production team were designer Rhys Jarman, renewing their creative partnership from A View From The Bridge and The Machine Stops at York Theatre Royal, choreographer Hayley Del Harrison, lighting designer Will Evans and costume designer Mary Lamb.

The Librarian and William Shakespeare in CBeebies’ Romeo And Juliet. Picture: CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet

“We then rehearsed from March 9, five days, then four days of tech and rehearsals, then filming,” says Juliet. “It was absolutely joyful because we were always keeping the young television audience in mind, how to carry them through such a tricky story.

“To have those experienced CBeebies performers and Shakespeare actors was invaluable. They set the tone. That was part of what was interesting for me as I’ve never made anything specifically for the telly before, but at the same time thinking about making something for a live audience, though that wasn’t the case!

“What we had to do was to get the best ‘blocking’ [the cast’s positions on stage], trying to make it as right as possible for the camera, but still making it very theatrical as Shakespeare is theatre.”

CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet will be shown on CBeebies tomorrow (2/4/2021) at 9.30am and soon after on BBC iPlayer.

Copyright of The Press, York

Jennie Dale as the Nurse in CBeebies’ Romeo And Juliet. Picture: CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playwright Deborah McAndrew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW: The Seven Deadly Sins, Opera North at Leeds Playhouse, livestream, November 21 to 23

Dancer Shelley Eva Haden’s Anna II and mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta’s Anna I in Gary Clarke’s Opera North production of The Seven Deadly Sins. Picture: Tristram Kenton

TWO weeks before this Gary Clarke production of Weill’s ballet chanté was due to go into rehearsal, the second Lockdown was announced, making the planned live performance – in a double bill with Acis And Galatea– an impossibility.

So, Acis was quickly dropped and a new physically distanced livestream became the order of the day. Without the normal lead-times, this was a tall order. Clarke rapidly conceived Anna (Anna I, the singer and Anna II, the dancer) and her family as German immigrants fleeing Hitler and thus displaced from the start.

George Johnson-Leigh’s set, imagined as an abandoned film studio, assigned a separate dais or “box” for each sin, with the family displaced into the no-man’s land between the boxes every time the two Annas changed city.

A large Hollywood sign at the back of the set thus pointed the contrast between that promised land, still booming in the 1930s, and the privations of the Depression – and, of course, current stringencies.

The contrast between the two Annas was not quite as strong as it might have been, partly because their roles were filled by two equally fetching performers. Canadian mezzo Wallis Giunta’s Anna I, supposedly the thinker and practical half of her personality, seemed to be enjoying, almost revelling, in the travelogue.

“Wallis Giunta is an actress of many hues and, when her tone is as focused as this, irresistible”. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Whereas a deeper pain was etched into the features of dancer Shelley Eva Haden’s Anna II, as she learnt to moderate her wilfulness to suit the paying customers on their tour.

But the paradox at the heart of this morality tale, about what you need to do to accumulate wealth, could not have been clearer: “Conquer your weaker self to conquer the world”, in Michael Feingold’s translation, sung under a shower of dollar bills. Only the temptations themselves might have been writ larger, although that would be hard to envisage in present conditions.

Giunta was on top form, forthright, even bossy, when need be but able to mine a deep nostalgia in the epilogue. She is an actress of many hues and, when her tone is as focused as this, irresistible.

Haden was no less versatile and utterly tireless. To Clarke’s choreography, she ranged the whole spectrum of dance, from the extravagance of Busby Berkeley (in a splendid, giant-sized feather headdress) in Anger, to Pavlova’s tutu-clad Dying Swan immediately afterwards in Gluttony.

She reached a manic peak parodying punk anarchist dancer Valeska Gert. Her brief spoken interjections were pleasingly clear.

Nicholas Butterfield as Brother and Dean Robinson as Mother in Opera North’s The Seven Deadly Sins. Picture: Tristram Kenton

The family quartet – tenors Nicholas Butterfield and Stuart Laing, baritone Dean Robinson and bass Campbell Russell – carried off their solo work as well as they blended, notably in the Sloth motet and the prayerful strictures of Lust. The ending was suitably ambivalent.

James Holmes, editor of the critical edition of Weill’s orchestral works and former Head of Music at this company, could not have been a better choice as conductor. The differentiation in styles was masterly and the playing, by 15 instruments in a reduced version by H K Gruber and Christian Muthspiel, had a succulent clarity.

It was just a pity that the low camera angles precluded much sight of the orchestra, although it was on stage. This is a minor reservation in the face of such an admirable achievement against near-impossible odds.

Finally, my special thanks to two patient members of the press office, Elizabeth Simmonds and Rowland Thomas, for bailing me out of a technological nightmare. Bring back live performance …                                                                                   

Review by Martin Dreyer

https://ondemand.operanorth.co.uk/productions/the-seven-deadly-sins-2020/.

REVIEW: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Brass in Leeds…but brassed off in York

Conductor Simon Wright

REVIEW: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Brass (and other thoughts), Leeds Town Hall, October 24

TWELVE heroes from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – ten brass players and two percussionists – travelled to Leeds on Saturday to play before an audience of around five dozen.

Simon Wright conducted them in a stimulating mixed bag of music from the last 130 years, plus an early interjection from Giovanni Gabrieli.

Harmless though this may sound, the event was hugely significant. Locally based groups, notably from Opera North, have been appearing at the Town Hall since late August. But this was the first time that a professional ensemble from further afield had appeared there since lockdown.

Later this week, there will be two lunchtime events and three evening lieder recitals, all given by musicians of international standing. And that’s just on the classical side. So, it can be done, all within the regulations: distanced seating, masks worn by the audience, no interval or refreshments. But these are small privations compared to the thrill of live music returning. Leeds Playhouse has been equally adventurous.

In other cities, the silence continues to be deafening. Take York, for example, normally a bastion of classical performance. The Minster, the Barbican, University of York’s Central Hall, all are large venues well suited to music and easily adaptable to the new conditions.

Smaller but equally adaptable is the National Centre for Early Music and the university’s Lyons Concert Hall. All remain resolutely shut. Why? Hasn’t government (our) money been made available to keep such venues open?

Back to the brass. They opened with an ingenious arrangement of Elgar’s Cockaigne (In London Town) by one of their own, trombonist Matthew Knight. Given its complexity, it was a surprising choice as opener and took a while to settle.

But the main theme emerged triumphant on the trombones just in time for the accelerando towards the close. With the Town Hall so empty, and therefore even more resonant than usual, Gabrieli’s Canzon on the seventh tone had a regal clarity, comparable surely to St Mark’s Venice itself, as the two quartets bounced off another; it might have made a better curtain-raiser.

Imogen Holst’s Leiston Suite (1967) delivered five neatly concentrated miniatures, including a sparkling fanfare, a balletic jig and several flashes of her father’s spare harmony, all tastefully interwoven.

Eric Crees’ skilful arrangements of three Spanish dances by Granados were enchantingly idiomatic, rays of mediterranean sunshine. The colours in Duke Ellington’s bluesy Chelsea Bridge were more muted.

Hartlepool-born Jim Parker’s name may not be on everyone’s lips, but most of us have heard his music through his soundtracks for Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War, Moll Flanders and any number of films. Why he has four BAFTAS to his name became clear in A Londoner In New York (1987), five attractive cameos of the city’s buzz, including steam engines at Grand Central, a romantic walk in Central Park, and the can-can chorus line at Radio City.

London came to Leeds here and we may all be grateful for the glimpse of normality.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Signal Fires Festival lights torch for Pilot and Arcade’s female stories from the coast

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson. Picture: Robert Day

TELLING stories around a fire is an early form of theatre, one that is to be celebrated in the nationwide Signal Fires Festival this autumn.

Among those taking part are York company Pilot Theatre and new Scarborough community producing company Arcade, who are collaborating on Northern Girls, an hour-long, socially distanced, fire-lit outdoor performance on October 27 and 28 in the YMCA Theatre Car Park, St Thomas Street, Scarborough YO11 1DY.

At 7pm each night, Pilot and Arcade will set free the stories of girls and women who live along the North East coastline and were encouraged to write and present tales that matter to them most in 2020.

Next week’s performances will feature short commissioned pieces from Asma Elbadawi, Zoe Cooper, Maureen Lennon and Charley Miles, complemented by work created with York spoken-word artist and tutor Hannah Davies and a group of young women from Scarborough, .

A signal fire is defined as “a fire or light set up in a prominent position as a warning, signal, or celebration”, now re-purposed amid the Coronavirus crisis for the arts to “signal the vibrancy of touring theatre and the threat our industry continues to face”.

“This whole Covid situation has made it important to create theatre support networks across the country, with the issues faced by smaller companies, mid-scale companies and larger companies,” says Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson.

“If there has been any upside, it is that the theatre network across the country is far stronger now.”

The idea for the Signal Fires Festival came from English Touring Theatre and Headlong Theatre, building on the original desire to highlight the work of companies who do not have their own theatre base. “We were also thinking about ‘what can we do for freelancers in theatre’ and, most important of all, ‘how can we send out a fire signal that we want to bring back theatre stronger than ever?’,” says Esther.

Hannah Davies: York writer, spoken-word performer, tutor and actress

Pilot’s link-up with Arcade is rooted in Rach Drew and Sophie Drury-Bradey running the Scarborough company. “We knew Rach from her work at York Mediale and I’ve known Sophie for a long time from when she was at the Albany, when she asked me to develop some work with new writers, 15 years ago,” says Esther.

“It was then a coincidence that Sophie had come to Scarborough, but when this project came about, to amplify northern women as leaders as well as writers, it was just a natural progression to say, ‘What do you think, guys, about doing this project together?’.”

The theme of Northern Girls resonated with Esther not only because “Pilot has always been about helping those who are disadvantaged in the community”, but also because of her childhood on the North East coast.

“I lived in Redcar from the age of three to 11, so I’d always had this tug to do something on the coast. I’m someone who left there and has had a career in theatre but I keep in touch with people who live there,” she says.

“I’m aware of the lack of investment in those places, and the direct effect that has on young people and women in particular. So, this project was about creating an opportunity to unlock what people can do when they set their hearts and minds to it.”

Esther was keen to achieve a geographical spread of four female writers, all still in the process of establishing themselves. “Maureen Lennon is from Hull and I was aware of her work for Middle Child Theatre that is full of insight into working-class lives,” she says.

“Asma Elbadawi is a spoken-word artist and professional basketball player Bradford, and she’s someone we’ve been excited about for a while but we hadn’t found a project for her.

“Northern Girls was perfect for her to bring her perspective of growing up as a hijab-wearing girl in West Yorkshire.”

High Kilburn playwright Charley Miles

Zoe Cooper is an award-winning playwright from Newcastle. “Again, I’d been aware of her for a while, but if you think about women playwrights from the North, there’s Middle Child’s work in Hull, Charley Miles at Leeds Playhouse, but in the North East, there seems to be a dearth of female writers, so we’re delighted to be featuring Zoe’s work,” says Esther.

Charley Miles, from the Hambleton village of High Kilburn, first came to attention with her lyrical moorland village drama Blackthorn at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2016, and her all-female Yorkshire Ripper play, There Are No Beginnings, was the first to be staged when the Leeds Playhouse re-opened last October.

“We wanted writers from different places because we want to continue this process, to explore how we might take this writing project to other communities to develop new works,” says Esther.

She is pleased too by the impact of York writer Hannah Davies on the four women she has been working with in Scarborough: Amy-Kay Pell, Shannon Barker, Ariel Hebditch and Claire Edwards.

“Hannah is not just a wonderful writer but also she’s wonderful at working with young writers,” says Esther. “She has a really special gift for inspiring new writers, nurturing them and getting them to nurture themselves, in this case Amy, Shannon, Ariel and Claire.”

Asma Elbadawi will present her own work, while Laura Boughen, Laura Elsworthy, Siu-See Hung and Holly Surtees-Smith will perform the others, working with directors Esther Richardson, Gitika Buttoo, Oliver O’Shea and Maria Crocker.

All the short pieces address the barriers that women face, with each story being “in some sense an act of liberation”.  “With everyone writing to the same theme, straight from the heart, some plays are more political, but they all make you think about things you might not have thought about otherwise,” says Esther.

The “fire” setting will be fire pits in the car park. “At first we wanted to do it by the sea, but there are loads of problems doing a show with a fire on the beach, not least the tides!” says Esther.

Pilot Theatre and Arcade present Northern Girls for the Signal Fires Festival, at YMCA Theatre Car Park, St Thomas Street, Scarborough YO11 1DY, on October 27 and 28, 7pm to 8pm.

The recommended age is 14 plus. Please bring headphones. Each £10 ticket is sold for a clearly marked bubble that can seat one or two people. Audience members must wear a mask on arrival and throughout the performance.

For tickets, go to: eventbrite.co.uk/e/northern-girls-signal-fires-festival-tickets-124268972843

Sophie Drury-Bradey and Rach Drew of Arcade, the new Scarborough community producing company

REVIEW: Connecting Voices, Opera North and Leeds Playhouse, 17/10/2020

Beautifully differentiated vowels: Gillene Butterfield as Elle in La Voix Humaine at Leeds Playhouse. Picture: Anthony Robling

Connecting Voices, Opera North and Leeds Playhouse, at Leeds Playhouse, October 17

COLLABORATIONS between Opera North and Leeds Playhouse in recent years have been proving increasingly fruitful.

This latest, a four-show programme in different locations throughout the Playhouse, was just what the doctor ordered: its umbrella title Connecting Voices homed in on the social interactions we have all been craving.

It was designed to “examine the power and expression of the solo voice” and ranged the gamut from pure opera to straight theatre.

Poulenc’s monodrama La Voix Humaine, in the Barber Studio, led the way. In Sameena Husain’s production, Gillene Butterfield poured her heart and voice into Elle’s desperate efforts to repair her faltering romance, using telephones from three different eras.

Plus ça change! She might as well have been on Zoom, so vivid were her emotions, made more so by superb diction and – a rarity among sopranos in my experience – beautifully differentiated vowels.

Annette Saunders’ piano was ideally attuned, blasting out jagged darts whenever Elle listened, calm when she spoke. The two of them combined to notable effect in the nostalgic waltz that follows Elle’s highest outburst.

Riveting voice: Niall Buggy in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Picture: Anthony Robling

Opera North was involved in two of the remaining items. Under its Resonance programme for Black and Asian musicians, Reflections: Dead And Wake explored the Caribbean funerary tradition of Nine-Nights from a specifically Jamaican perspective.

Alongside ethnic choruses, sounding perhaps more African than Caribbean, Paulette Morris caressed her solo songs lovingly. The recurring soundscape of Jamaican voices by the director Khadijah Ibrahiim was not especially intelligible, but certainly added atmosphere.

Among similar non-native sounds was the powerful contribution of the rapper Testament (aka Andy Brooks), in the title role of Orpheus In The Record Shop, injecting much sardonic humour while doubling as composer and writer.

Aletta Collins’ production gradually introduced eight members of the Opera North orchestra and the excellent wordless mezzo of Helen Évora, to bring an optimistic conclusion as bankruptcy loomed. Definitely a tale for our times.

The other riveting voice was that of Niall Buggy, raging and cackling against the dying of the light and his own misspent years in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, directed by Dominic Hill. Like the Poulenc, it was written in 1958.

These days, theatre staff are front-line workers too. The small army of stewards here, totally tuned in and extremely helpful, deserve a final word of thanks.                                                   

Review by Martin Dreyer

Imitating The Dog and Leeds Playhouse combine horror movies and carnivals in thriller Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show

Imitating The Dog and Leeds Playhouse in the dress rehearsal for Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show

IN the wake of their stage recreation of George A. Romero’s classic zombie movie Night Of The Living Dead ™- Remix, Leeds company Imitating The Dog and Leeds Playhouse are joining forces again from tonight to stage the première of the raucous and deliciously dark new tale Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show. 

This show will play as part of Leeds Playhouse’s reopening season of work, designed to safely reintroduce audiences to the live theatre experience,  showcasing the vibrancy and resilience of the artists and venues creating work within the Leeds City Region.

Directed and written by Imitating The Dog’s co-artistic directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks,  Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show will open outside Leeds Playhouse on Playhouse Square tonight and tomorrow and will then tour until October 24.

Imitating The Dog bring their theatrical and technical acumen to this unique outdoor live theatre experience. Their innovative story-telling skills will create this dark tale of mischief and immorality, drawing on classic horror movies and the traditions of carnival and medicine shows.

Set in a mythical North and made for these strange times of lockdown, Dr Blood and his motley crew tell a tale of the price paid for pursuing ambition, hypocrisy, and greed.

Imitating The Dog co-director Andrew Quick says: “It’s a strange time to be making a new show but we are really looking forward to meeting the new challenges of creating work in the present conditions.

“We felt it was important to keep going and create a piece that was not only magical and entertaining but will abide by social distancing guidance and be COVID 19 safe. It will be a challenge to make but it is a hugely entertaining production that is scary in parts but also full of fun, with some deep and dark themes running through it.

“We’ll be using screen and camera technologies for which we are known and I just can’t wait to share with audiences and venues like Leeds Playhouse that have supported us over the past decade and for us all to come together and experience all the joys of live theatre outdoors.”

Leeds Playhouse artistic director James Brining says: “We are working together with all our theatre partners to make sure that everyone who is coming back to watching live theatre does so in a safe environment.

“It is fantastic to see artists and theatre companies who throughout this time have grabbed the opportunity to create new work and explore different ways to entertain an audience. We are thrilled to be working once again with Imitating The Dog, who are constantly looking at new ways to create theatre and, in this case, will showcase the beautiful new space on Playhouse Square.”

The production’s creative team will feature design by Laura Hopkins (Black Watch and Peter Pan, National Theatre of Scotland; The Divide, Edinburgh International Festival and The Old Vic, and projection and video design by Simon Wainwright (Night Of The Living Dead ™- Remix, Imitating The Dog and Leeds Playhouse and The Kid Stays In The PictureRoyal Court).

Lighting is by Andrew Crofts (Night Of The Living Dead ™- Remix, Imitating The Dog and Leeds Playhouse and Trash Cuisine, Belarus Free Theatre and The Young Vic); original music has been composed by James Hamilton and models made by Matthew Tully.

After Leeds Playhouse, further Yorkshire performances follow at The Courtyard, Piece Hall, Halifax, on October 9 and 10. Plans are afoot to release a filmed version for streaming: watch this space for more details

In line with current Government guidelines, audiences will have a limited capacity with social distancing in place. To check ticket availability for Leeds Playhouse, go to leedsplayhouse.org.uk.

All ticket proceeds from the tour will go to support the tour venues during the lockdown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting Voices: the full programme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on La Voix Humaine, directed by Matthew Eberhardt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dracula strikes again as seductive Northern Ballet hit is shown on BBC Four on Sunday

Javier Torres as Dracula and Antoinette Brooks-Daw as Lucy in Northern Ballet’s 2019 production of David Nixon’s Dracula. Picture: Emma Kauldhar

NORTHERN Ballet’s Dracula will be shown on BBC Four on Sunday night in the television debut of artistic director David Nixon’s celebrated 2019 production.

After the 10pm screening, this adaptation of Bram Stoker’s gothic story will be available on BBC iPlayer throughout June as part of the Leeds company’s Pay As You Feel Digital in its 50th anniversary year.

When theatres had to close suddenly under Covid-19 restrictions, Northern Ballet was obliged to cancel the spring tour of the 2020 premiere of Kenneth Tindall’s Geisha after only one performance at Leeds Grand Theatre on March 14. 

In response, the company pledged to “keep bringing world-class ballet to our audiences” through a Pay As You Feel Digital Season. 

One performance and goodnight: Ayama Miyata as Aiko and Minju Kang as Okichi in Northern Ballet’s Geisha in March. Picture: Guy Farrow

To date, the season has been watched by more than 200,000 people, attracting donations of  £20,000.

Northern Ballet’s latest statement reads: “The company is set to face a loss of over £1 million in box-office income due to Covid-19, which may impact its ability to continue to pay its workforce, many of whom are freelancers, as well as its ability to present new ballets.

“While theatres remain dark, the company aims to continue making its performances available online and on TV, encouraging audiences to donate when they watch, if they are able.”

Those who wish to support Northern Ballet can donate at northernballet.com/pay-as-you-feel.

Dracula was recorded at Leeds Playhouse on Hallowe’en 2019 and streamed live to more than 10,000 viewers in cinemas across Europe. Choreographed by Nixon, it stars Northern Ballet premier dancer Javier Torres in the title role.

Jonadette Carpio in EGO, one of Northern Ballet’s Pay As You Feel Digital Season shows. Picture: Emily Nuttall

Northern Ballet’s Pay As You Feel Digital Season also includes Amaury Lebrun’s For An Instant; Kenneth Tindall’s original dance film EGO; Mariana Rodrigues’s Little Red Riding Hood; highlights from Northern Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Gala and extended scenes from Northern Ballet repertoire, including Tindall’s Geisha.

Premièred in 2019, Lebrun’s For An Instant was part of Northern Ballet’s Three Short Ballets programme and had only seven performances in Leeds and Doncaster. The full ballet, created, by the French contemporary dance maker with Northern Ballet’s versatile performers, can be viewed online until June 7.

Highlights from Northern Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Gala,performed at Leeds Grand Theatre in January, include scenes from Tindall’s Casanovawith music by Kerry Muzzey,and Nixon’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

More will be released from this one-night-only spectacular, when Northern Ballet was joined by dancers from The Royal Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Leeds company Phoenix Dance Theatre and Scottish Ballet.


To learn more about Northern Ballet’s Pay As You Feel Digital Season, visit northernballet.com/pay-as-you-feel.