Jennie’s dream role in Kathryn’s Dreamcoat show for York Musical Theatre Company

Jennie Wogan-Wells: Teacher and Narrator, in rehearsal for York Musical Theatre Company’s Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

KATHRYN Addison directs York Musical Theatre Company in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s ever popular, ever colourful 1968 debut musical at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, from tonight.

From the book of Genesis to the musical’s genesis as a cantata written for a London school choir, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has grown into an iconic musical theatre staple with its story of the biblical journey of Joseph, son of Jacob and one of 12 brothers, and his coat of many colours.

Here husband and wife Jonathan Wells and Jennie Wogan-Wells lead the cast as Joseph and the Narrator respectively.

“I directed it in 2015 with my Year 3 and 4 pupils at Knavesmire Primary School, where there are 120 children in those classes – and they knew all the words,” recalls Jennie of her past involvement at the helm of Joseph.

“Now I’m playing the Narrator – a very important role! – who knits the whole show together. It’s a bit of a dream role for me as my parents had the LP and I remember spinning round and round to Potiphar with my brother in the front room because it gets faster and faster.

“Now I get to play the Narrator, indulging in my childhood dream to be in the show.” What’s more, the choir from Jennie’s school will be singing at the Thursday evening and Saturday matinee performances. (Wigginton Primary School will provide Years 4 to 6 pupils to perform tonight, Friday and Saturday night.)

“They’re obsessed with it! We practise every lunchtime, and yes, they’ve learnt all the colours in the dreamcoat! It’s nice because parents and teachers remember it from their own childhood, and now, for the children, it will be the first time they’ve been on a stage away from the school.”

Director-choreographer Kathryn Addison was born in the year that Joseph made its debut (1968). “It started as a 15 to 20-minute school musical, so look how it’s grown since then,” she says.

Passion project for Kathryn Addison: Directing York Musical Theatre Company’s production of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

It changes again in her hands: rather than 12 brothers, it becomes a story of a family: brothers and two sisters (although credited as brothers). “It’s not an issue. We still acknowledge the brothers who have ‘not turned up’ – and we’ve been really lucky in the casting. We’ve neither had to drag people in and nor would we have wanted to,” she says.

“I was in York Shakespeare Project’s all-female Henry V, and it isn’t about gender. It takes gender out of it. It’s not about male/female but who’s right for a role and what can they bring to it?”

Kathryn is “staying true to the spirit of Joseph”. “That’s really important,” she says. “I think Lloyd Webber is a bit ‘Marmite’, but like every writer or composer, there are things you like, things you don’t.

“I feel this musical has an innocence that allows people to really enjoy it as a company show, and it’s felt like a company in rehearsal. It feels tight and there’s a collective will. There’s been no egos in the rehearsal room and nor will there be any on stage.”

The cast of 23 will be complemented by 21 children from Knavesmire Primary and 17 from Wigginton Primary at this week’s performances. “It’s just fun for all of us,” says Jennie.

“If you’re enjoying it on stage, then the audience are going to enjoy it too. Rehearsals have been great fun and I’ve really looked forward to them.”

Nothing delights more than Pharaoh’s Song Of The King: the Elvis one, performed this week by newly married Anthony Gardner. “There’s no point trying to make it anything else than it is: some Elvis impersonator going down to sing on the Scarborough sea front!” says Kathryn. “So you recognise that and crack on with it! Let’s bring out that style as director/choreographer.”

Jennie says: “Kathryn has a clear vision, with room for nice little mood changes and quirks, and it’s great to have that freedom within it. It’s got great balance.”

It all adds up to a show that appeals to children and adults alike. “Everyone enjoys themselves, and it’s rare in being a show that brings people to the theatre that don’t normally go. It’s always nice to do that, for people to realise that theatre is open for them.”

A contemplative moment for Jonathan Wells’s Joseph in the reherarsal room

Jennie is enjoying performing alongside husband Jonathan’s Joseph. “It’s been lovely to do the show together, though we’ve done that before, but we’ve never been principals together before,” she says.

“The Narrator is the framework of the show. It’s that whole thing of me telling the story to the children, so it’s a busman’s holiday really.

“During the rehearsal weeks, I can switch off more than him. He’s always humming the tunes, singing in the car, but it’s very much our life at the moment. We’re going to be bereft when it finishes, but it’s been really lovely as I’ve been able to rehearse at home with him.”

Kathryn has her own fond memory of bygone Joseph performances. “I did the show with my dad, playing Jacob, more than 30 years ago. That really tugs at my heartstrings, but also I’m at the stage when being on stage is quite hard work, and I’ve done a lot of directing and choreographing, though this show is much harder to direct than I’d first given it credit for because it’s sung through,” she says.

“But I love the show. It’s a passion project, and to be able to work with a group of people on a community project, where it’s all about the whole company working together, has been a really positive process for me.

“From the start, I’ve seen this story as being based in Yorkshire; these farmers in the 1920s/1930s, with a bit of a Peaky Blinders vibe to it. They were a nasty bunch to their brother! So we travel from the Yorkshire farms to Scarbados and that sea front, our Las Vegas!

“When I think of Joseph and Scarborough, I think of Mark Herman’s film of Little Voice, with the lights on the sea front at night. And a casino; that’s where I see Pharaoh.”

As for the Technicolor Dreamcoat of the title: thank you to Ripon Amateur Operatic Society for providing wardrobe services.

York Musical Theatre Company in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, 7.30pm tonight until Saturday plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee (sold out). Ticket update: limited availability for tonight and tomorrow; last few for Friday and Saturday. Box office: 01904 501935 or

Re-educating Rita as Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson resume Willy Russell’s smart comedy in more intense version

Stephen Tompkinson’s Frank and Jessica Johnson’s Rita in Educating Rita at York Theatre Royal from Tuesday next week. Pictures: Matt Humphrey

STEPHEN Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson have an association with Educating Rita as long as Rita’s degree course.

“We started doing this play about three years ago, and it’s since had various outings trying to complete the 40th anniversary production,” says Stephen, as they head to York Theatre Royal on Tuesday. “It’s closer to the 42nd anniversary now!”

Tompkinson, star of DCI Banks, Wild At Heart, Drop The Dead Donkey and Ballykissangel, plays grizzled university tutor Frank, opposite Johnson’s lippy hairdresser Rita in Willy Russell’s comedy two-hander, in a Theatre by the Lake production now being toured by producer David Pugh under the direction of Newcastle Live Theatre director emeritus Max Roberts.

“I saw Jess in Goth Weekend at the Live Theatre and was blown away by her,” says Stockton-on-Tees actor Tompkinson.

Jessica already had played Rita in a 2017 production of Educating Rita at the Gala Theatre, Durham. “But I didn’t get a long run at it and when I said I’d love to do it for longer, I suggested Stephen would make a really good Frank,” she recalls.

“I’ve been on an incredible journey with Rita,” says Jessica Johnson

The partnership was duly formed and the stop-start progress began as Covid spread its claw. “It stopped at the Grand Theatre at Blackpool, but we were lucky that the next place we could do was outdoors at the Minack Theatre on the Cornish cliffs [at Porthcurno, Penzance] last summer,” says Stephen.

“It was the most incredible place for the set of a teacher’s office in a northern university, against the amazing backdrop of double rainbows and dolphins in the sea.

“They’re a very hardy audience down there! We performed through two storms and the tech crew couldn’t see us at all at one point!”

Jessica adds to the memories: “It was so cold, I was wearing every piece of costume I had for one scene!”

When Educating Rita resumed, it stopped again after only a week at Kingston as lockdown returned. Still, Jessica was no stranger to a short burst of performances after the Gala Theatre production in 2017. “We did a week of shows there after two weeks of rehearsals,” she says. “It was a north-eastern version that we did, and the up-to-date one…

Being Frank: Stephen Tompkinson at the university tutor’s desk in Educating Rita

… “But it remains a universal story, wherever you set it,” says Stephen. “Everyone understands it, and Will Russell is a hero for working-class women. Despite the play being set in the world of academia, he makes it very accessible.”

Jessica rejoins: “I’ve been on an incredible journey with Rita. I first read it when I was 13/14 and I’ve used Better Song To Sing from the play for auditions. Rita’s been with me for a long time and she grows as she stays with me.”

Tompkinson and Johnson have clocked up almost 250 performances together, now touring a more condensed version with no interval for Covid-safety reasons. “It makes the play more intense, focusing even more on the relationship in the shorter text,” says Stephen.

“Both Jess and I and Max Roberts, our director, put forward suggestions for cuts, and we’ve cut out 20 minutes as well as the interval.”

Has the play changed in its impact over more than 40 years on stage? “Audiences are very woke to social issues that were quite new in 1979,” says Stephen. “Willy Russell said to us that ‘it’s the audience that’s changed in the 40 years, not the play’s themes’. Making the play shorter has just made it more intense.”

“Rita really wanted to get out of her working-class drudgery, to escape to something more beautiful, and Russell captures that beautifully,” says Jessica Johnson

Stephen and Jessica admit to being a “little star struck” when working with Russell, the writer of such hits as Shirley Valentine, Blood Brothers and Our Day Out.

“He’s a lot cleverer than people give him credit for. When you go into the text of Educating Rita, look at the book choices he makes, the literary references. They are so apt,” says Stephen. “There’s the link between the story and that classic tragedian thing of ignoring your own faults, with Frank not seeing his.

“But it’s not just Russell who’s undervalued. Plaudits rarely go to comedic writers and yet most actors will tell you it’s much harder to make people laugh.”

Jessica takes the point further: “Rita really wanted to get out of her working-class drudgery, to escape to something more beautiful, and Russell captures that beautifully with his writing and the character he created in Rita.”

Drinking it all in: Stephen Tompkinson’s Frank in Educating Rita

Stephen rejoins: “They say, always write about what you know, and Willy is both these characters in Educating Rita: they are two halves of Willy Russell, and that’s why audiences root for the relationship, rather than taking sides, in that they are both horrible at times, but they both go on beautiful journeys.”

Just as Jessica and Stephen sing Willy Russell’s praises, so he has paid them the ultimate compliment. “Willy came up after the first night and said, ‘Thank you for giving me my play back,” reveals Tompkinson.

What better recommendation could there be for seeing next week’s run in York.

Educating Rita runs in York Theatre Royal’s Summer Of Love season, August 31 to September 4. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

The tour poster for Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson in Willy Russell’s two-hander

What’s coming up for Jessica Johnson after she makes her York Theatre Royal debut?

“I’ve got a part in the new series of Vera,” she says, as the ITV crime drama returns from August 29. Look out for Episode 3.

What’s in the pipeline for Stephen Tompkinson after the Educating Rita tour ends in Newcastle on September 19?

“I’ll be playing a character called Warnock in Sherwood, the new James Graham six-part drama for BBC1. It’s a modern piece, dealing with the aftermath of the 1984 Miners’ Strike in Nottinghamshire [where Graham was born].

Tompkinson haunted the big screen in 1996 as a skint miner on strike turned hapless, suicidal clown in York writer-director Mark Herman’s film Brassed Off.

“It’s something that’s very close to my heart,” he says, as he mines the subject matter for a second time.

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