REVIEW: A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction, York Theatre Royal. Sustainable tour concept ****; production ***; play **

Cycling and recycling: Sustainable theatre at York Theatre Royal in A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction, starring Stephanie Hutchinson, centre. All pictures: James Drury

THE opening of this “bold experiment in eco theatre-making” coincided with the publication of the State Of Nature 2023 report into the UK’s biodiversity.

The headline news? One sixth of our species is under threat of extinction. Meanwhile, in the latest state of the nation report, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is turning the blue tide against green change: more oil fields, no 2030 deadline ojettisoning diesl and petrol cars. So much for leading the way at Cop26.

To top it all, a 16-year-old boy has been arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage in connection with the felling of the 300-year-old Sycamore Gap tree – the landmark one from Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves – at Hadrian’s Wall.

What a week to be staging the closing chapter of the groundbreaking zero-travel tour of American playwright Miranda Rose Hall’s “darkly humorous, life-affirming one-woman show” that confronts the world’s urgent ecological disaster.

It is billed as a “fiercely feminist off-grid production that is part ritual, part battle cry, in a moving exploration of what it means to be human in an era of man-made extinction”.

That tells only half the story because the concept behind the tour, mounted by Headlong and partners York Theatre Royal and the London Barbican, turns out to be more impactful than Hall’s 80-minute diatribe.

Since opening at the Barbican, the play has travelled with an original creative template by director Katie Mitchell and black-and-white design palette by Moi Tran, but neither materials, nor people have been sent to Coventry, Plymouth, Newcastle, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Prescot.

Stephanie Hutchinson: Playing a dramaturg forced into performing on stage in the absence of her company’s actors, then putting all her research into a plea for saving animals and humans from extinction

Instead, each venue has provided its own director and performer, in York’s case, Theatre Royal resident artist Mingyu Lin and Leeds actress Stephanie Hutchinson.

Stephanie delivers a monologue, but she is not alone on the boards. A sound engineer and lighting technician sit to either side and eight cyclists fill the stage, the whir of their steady, rhythmical, kinetic pedal power being turned into electricity for the sound and lighting by a mechanism to delight any scientists in the audience.

Recycling is as important as the cycling: only existing theatre stock – props and the microphone – can be used, along with clothing from charity shops; the bicycles being lent by Recycle York.

A typical main-house production uses 60,000 watts per performance for lighting, 10,000 for sound. A Play For The Living’s cyclists generated the necessary amount here; far, far less wattage in total.

All this is uplifting, and food for thought, a potential blueprint for eco-theatre touring, in the vein of Coldplay making their Music Of The Spheres world tour “as sustainable and low carbon as possible”.

All power to the sustainable concept, but Hall’s play is under-powered by comparison: bleak and apocalyptic, as to be expected in this age of the Sixth Extinction, but the “dark humour” is strained, with unnecessary swearing, and the doomsday scenario runs contrary to the claim of being life-affirming.

Apparently, the best we can seek is a “good death”, in a messianic finale that would not have been out of place delivered from a church pulpit, topped off by the York Theatre Royal Choir’s hymnal finale, delivered in funereal black, re-emphasising that message. Brecht & Weill would have loved it.

Saddling up to spark electricty: the cyclists from the cycling city of York doing their bit for “eco-theatre making”

Stephanie had talked in advance of being determined not to be preachy, but Hall’s tone ended up being exactly that. Rather than delivering a TED talk, “in a story like this, we need to care,” said Ming in her interview.

True, but we need to do more than care, amid so much dead talk. We need to act. Faced by footage of animal after animal facing extinction, it had the depressing, deadening air of futility. Not the intention surely, but where was the battle cry, the rallying call, rather than that hallelujah chorus of an incoming “good death”?

Lists can have an emotional impact – listen to Steve Earle’s mining disaster memorial It’s About Blood for proof – but the emotional elements of A Play For The Living are botched. The explanation of why Stephanie’s character, Zero Emissions Theatre Company dramaturg Naomi, is forced into being on stage for one night in an impromptu performance, after her fellow company founders are called away to a tragic emergency, is too around-the-houses.

We are here to care about extinction all around us, not a human accident. Likewise, we are not here to judge Naomi’s acting skills – or Stephanie being an actor playing someone who is not a natural actor, although she does just fine in that elaborately structured transition.

Later, Naomi talks of her dog disappearing, but again it is not the same as a creature’s extinction, so why include it here?

You will often hear that a play should not be expected to come up with answers, but what is the purpose of this one?  To encourage more responsible behaviour through its sustainable touring model, definitely, but where was the positivity that mankind can and will work together to save the planet and its endangered inhabitants, from the Little Brown Bat to the Kingfisher? Its absence spoke volumes. Maybe we really are all doomed as Private Frazer forecast in Dad’s Army.

The end.

Performances: 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow (30/9/2023). Box office: 01904 623568 or

When cycling meets recycling in York Theatre Royal sustainable show A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction

Pedal power: Cyclists at York Theatre Royal with the mechanism that turns their kinetic energy into electricity for the lighting and sound in A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction. Picture: James Drury

A PLAY For The Living In A Time Of Extinction is a darkly humorous, life-affirming one-woman show, written by American playwright Miranda Rose Hall and powered at each performance by cyclists.

Undertaking a “life-changing journey to confront the urgent ecological disaster unfolding around us”, this fiercely feminist off-grid production is part ritual, part battle cry in a moving exploration of what it means to be human in an era of man-made extinction.

Billed as a “bold experiment in eco theatre-making” on a groundbreaking zero-travel tour, Hall’s witty, ambitious 80-minute play has toured across the country under Headlong’s banner while the people and materials involved have not. 

After London, Coventry, Plymouth, Newcastle, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Prescot, the last stop is York Theatre Royal, where resident artist Mingyu Lin follows up co-directing the 100-strong company in the Theatre Royal’s summer community production of Sovereign by directing a cast of only one, Leeds actress Stephanie Hutchinson, in the role of Naomi from tonight to Saturday.

Stephanie will not be alone, however. Not only will she be accompanied by the York Theatre Royal Choir, last heard in Sovereign at King’s Manor, but also by eight cyclists, pedalling on specially adapted bikes that will power the lighting and sound.

“What’s been done is to find a way to be both sustainable and tour,” says Ming. “The concept of the play never changes but the talent working on it changes at each venue. Cyclists are recruited at each venue to power the show. The only thing that’s moved physically is the technology which transforms kinetic energy into electricity – and that all comes in one big box.”

In keeping with York’s status as a cycling city, more than 50 people have applied to be volunteer cyclists, including community cast members from Sovereign, members of York Theatre Royal’s Access All Areas Youth Theatre strand and participants celebrating International Day of Older People. Consequently, a different set of cyclists will saddle up at each of the five performances, with a maximum of eight putting in a shift each show, by comparison with a maximum of four elsewhere.

Coinciding with the start of rehearsals, York Theatre Royal has begun an environmental campaign encouraging staff and community members to pledge to do better for the environment in a manner that they choose.

“We are definitely at a turning point,” says Stephanie Hutchinson, who plays Naomi in A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction at York Theatre Royal. Picture: James Drury

This includes an opportunity for all to share their pledges with the chance to be featured in the digital programme for A Play For The Living. Pledges can be made on social media with the hashtag #IPledgeWithYTR or through a display in the York Theatre Royal foyer. 

Sharing learning from Europe and Katie Mitchell, director of a version of the play in Switzerland, Headlong’s innovative touring model is the first of its kind in Great Britain. The Barbican, in London, played host to the beginning of this journey, since when a blueprint of the show has been brought to life by a different team of theatre makers in each venue as part of an international experiment in reimagining theatre in a climate crisis.  

“There’s been a little bit of serendipity for me to be directing the York leg,” says former University of York Eng. Lit student Ming. “When I was working on programming for Headlong, when I was still living in London, during the pandemic we were looking at plays to put on after Covid, and I came across A Play For The Living because it was on the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize shortlist, an international playwriting prize with UK funding,” she recalls.

“On the short list were five plays and we really wanted a play by a female writer with a strong theme. All at Headlong decided they liked this one, and we had a meeting on Zoom with the writer, Miranda Rose Hall, who was very, very passionate about the risk of extinction and climate change, and you can really feel that in the play.

“We got an email from Katie Mitchell, who’d directed a smaller-scale production with two cyclists, and we decided we wanted the ethos of the production to reflect the ethos and energy of the play by having more cyclists.”

Ming knew she would be moving to York Theatre Royal as resident artist by the time the tour was put in place. “One of the reasons I wanted to leave London is that I really want plays to come out of London, and  I thought you could have local directors and actors for each tour venue, but also not spend loads of money on the set, with only the mechanism for converting pedal power into electricity and a LED neon flex lighting system going from venue to venue,” she says.

“Working from an original design and black-and-grey colour palette by Moi Tran, each theatre must provide the staging, the microphones, the bicycles and the cyclists, and the theatre is not allowed to use anything new. Everything has to be from the Theatre Royal’s existing stock or charity shops for costumes. The Recycle York shop is lending us the bikes.”

Reflecting on the tour’s zero-travel policy, Ming says: “It really makes you aware of the cost of touring theatre in terms of sustainability and the use of electricity in your artistic vision, but I think those challenges turn into opportunities. Too much freedom can make you lazy.”

Leeds actress Stephanie Hutchinson

Stephanie Hutchinson will be performing in a one-woman show for the first time. “The amount you have to learn is crazy,” she says. “I had to find a sense of what the play is about, and there’s a video by the writer, explaining the show and why she wanted to write it, that’s been really useful.

“I would say that rehearsals have been interesting and challenging but very positive and working with Ming has been nothing but positive. It’s a different experience because I’ve never done a monologue before, especially as it’s one this long and it’s just me speaking on stage.”

Stephanie’s character Naomi is “part of a theatre company that has made a play especially for you, those living through extinction, but the actors have not shown up yet. In the meantime, Naomi has a plan.”

“I keep thinking throughout, ‘I really want to get the audience thinking and talking about extinction’,” says Stephanie. “Naomi is asked if she’s read The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, a book by Elizabeth Kolbert [the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, university visiting fellow and environmental journalist for the New Yorker], because we’re going through the Sixth Extinction right now” …

…“We’re losing creatures at a quicker rate now than in the days of the dinosaurs,” points out Ming.

Hall’s play posits that “the difference between death and extinction is this: death is to cease to exist. Extinction is to extinguish. I think of death as individual. Extinction is collective”.

“We are definitely at a turning point,” says Stephanie. “Naomi is thinking, ‘we need to do something on this, a play, but she’s a dramaturg, not an actor, but when the actors who’d normally be doing it have an emergency, she has to go on stage. So it’s set up as a sort of improvised ‘gotta make a show’.”

Ming says: “It’s interesting for an actor to be playing someone who’s not an actor and wouldn’t normally be on stage, so that’s been fun.”

“It shouldn’t be preachy, and Naomi isn’t going to be preachy, but maybe provoke conversations,” says Stephanie. Picture: James Drury

Stephanie says: “I like how it’s educational, with Naomi learning as well as the audience, taking it in as if she’s learning it for the first time as she tells you all these facts.”

As Ming puts it, the playwright has created a story and character with emotional stakes at play, “not a TED talk”. “It stays engaging because there are parts that are so personal, so it to-and-fros  between Naomi’s story and the wider story,” says Stephanie.

“In a story like this, you need to care,” says Ming. “The stakes must be there from almost the top of a play, and that’s something that really works with this play, where you get to care about it and you invest in the conceit of the dramaturg telling it.”

Stephanie adds: “I find it easier to express that in the moments when Naomi is feeling vulnerable, and you can definitely play with the emotion there.”

Last question: why should we see A Play For The Living in this time of extinction? “I don’t think a  pedal-powered production on this scale has been done before, and a tour of this type has never been done,” says Ming.

“It’s definitely life affirming because, yes, ‘extinction’ is in the title, but so is ‘living’ and the sustenance of life is worth fighting for.”

For Stephanie, “it’s something new, something I’ve never come across before. It shouldn’t be preachy, and Naomi isn’t going to be preachy, but maybe provoke conversations,” she says. “She won’t have the answers, but we’re all going through this, and we must all go through it together.”

A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction  runs on pedal power at York Theatre Royal from tonight (27/9/2023) until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or 

Copyright of The Press, York

Cyclists needed to power Stephanie Hutchinson’s performance in climate crisis play at York Theatre Royal in September

Stephanie Hutchinson: Leeds actress will play Naomi in A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction at York Theatre Royal

CYCLISTS are needed to power radical new theatre show A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction at York Theatre Royal next month.

Miranda Rose Hall’s darkly humorous, life-affirming play uses energy generated by on-stage cyclists, who will ride specially adapted bicycles to power all the electricity required for lighting and sound.

Consequently, the Theatre Royal is seeking volunteers to saddle up to be part of this innovative production, co-produced with Headlong and the Barbican, London. Eight cyclists are needed for each 80-minute performance, outnumbering the solo performer by eight to one.

Anyone keen to be involved can find out more at The deadline for signing up is Monday, September 11.

Running in York from September 27 to 30, Miranda Rose Hall’s play heads out on a life-changing journey to confront the urgent ecological disaster unfolding around us. Part ritual, part battle cry, this “fiercely feminist off-grid” one-woman show offers a moving evaluation of what it means to be human in an era of man-made extinction.

Sharing learning from Europe and Katie Mitchell too, Headlong’s innovative touring model explores the idea of a play touring, but the people involved not doing so, in the first project of its kind in the UK.

The Barbican hosted the beginning of this journey and now each city on the tour will follow a blueprint for the show, brought to life by a different team of theatre makers at each venue as part of a ground-breaking international experiment in reimagining theatre in a climate crisis.

The York leg’s director, Mingyu Lin, resident artist at York Theatre Royal, says: “York is the final stop for this ground-breaking concept of sustainable touring and I’m so excited to be directing our own version of this ambitiously eco-conscious and witty show, which will be made (and powered!) by York talent.”

The role of Naomi will be played in York by Stephanie Hutchinson, from Leeds, who studied performing arts at Salford University. She previously appeared on the Theatre Royal stage in Green Hammerton company Badapple Theatre’s haunted dance hall comedy, Elephant Rock, in May 2022.

Her further theatre credits include Shake The City (Jermyn Street Theatre), Wind In The Willows Library Theatre, Manchester), Mugabeland (Come As You Arts North West) and The Haunted Man (Kindred Theatre) and she has had television roles in Emmerdale, Without Sin and Coronation Street too.

A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction, York Theatre Royal, September 27 to 30, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Haunted happenings: Stephanie Hutchinson in Badapple Theatre Company’s Elephant Rock at York Theatre Royal in May last year

In Focus: A Play For The Living In A Time of Extinction director Mingyu Lin

DIRECTOR Mingyu Lin could be excused for feeling a little lonely as she prepares to bring an innovative show to the stage of York Theatre Royal. She has moved from rehearsing a community company of 100 for Sovereign to A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction with a cast of only one.

While cast numbers may be small, the idea and thoughts behind the project are big, not least the idea of generating power for the production using bicycles on a zero-travel tour. Or as the pre-show publicity puts it: “a bold experiment in eco theatre-making” that sees the play tour across the country while the people and materials do not.

York is the final stop, where Theatre Royal resident artist Ming, a regular director of Channel 4 soap opera Hollyoaks, has been involved with the project from the start. She was working as a creative associate at Headlong when “the play passed my desk”, and she recalls that she and the rest of the team loved it.

A Zoom meeting was set up with the writer Miranda Rose Hall, who lives in America, and Katie Mitchell, director of a version of the play in Switzerland, to discuss how a play about sustainability could itself be sustainable. Pedal power, involving a team of cyclists generating electricity during the performance , was a big part of the answer.

“I’m passionate about touring theatre and Headlong tours outside London, so we knew we had to tour the play,” says Ming. “And if you have a play that looks at climate change, I’m against a play made in London going around the north telling us how to live our lives.

“What the tour does is use local talent and it doesn’t have all the things that are damaging where you spend lots of energy and resources when you move people from place to place, which you don’t actually need to do because where you’re moving to has got those things already.

“What’s been done is find a way to be both sustainable and tour. The concept of the play never changes but the talent working on it changes at each venue. Cyclists are recruited at each venue to power the show. The only thing that’s moved physically is the technology that transforms kinetic energy into electricity – and that all comes in one big box.”

When Headlong was planning the tour, Ming knew she was joining York Theatre Royal as a resident artist, so she snapped up the chance to direct the production. “I knew I really wanted the people of York to see it,” she says.

“I knew York would love it in a theatre that’s absolutely unique and gorgeous. The play and
the concept fits really well within the theatre and York itself is a cycling city.”

Ming needed to find an actor within commutable distance of York to play Naomi, the character in the one-woman play. That turned out to be Leeds-based Stephanie Hutchinson.

“With one-person shows it’s difficult to maintain the energy and the engagement. You are really banking on performance charisma. We had to look for a very strong performer and there are a lot of them in the area,” says Ming. “I hope that even if we don’t work with them now, we will work with them very shortly because those we saw were of a high calibre.”

Theatre was “always the dream” for Ming. “Growing up in Singapore, I was interested in stories and storytelling. I loved reading and in the world of literature everything is new writing,” she says. “I worked as a stage manager there during the holidays. When I started doing A-level drama, I realised theatre is a great way of telling stories.”

MIngyu LIn, front right, with fellow Sovereign directors Juliet Forster and John R Wilkinson, front left, writer Mike Kenny and central character Henry VIII at King’s Manor, York

She studied English Literature at the University of York, then trained as a director at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. She now directs for stage and screen, as well as being a founder member of the BESEA (British East and Southeast Asian) advocacy group BEATS (Better Ethnic Access To Services).

Ming also is a [play] reader for Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and the Brentwood Prize. “As a stage director, what I’m really passionate about is advocacy. I want to affect society change
with the work we do,” she says.

“I’m part of an advocacy group that campaigns for more South East Asian representation on stage, backstage, on screen and behind the camera. The genres I’m interested in
primarily are new writing and adaptation,” says Ming.

“One reason I was drawn to A Play For The Living was because it deals with an urgent issue,
something important, and features a wonderful way to get communities involved with the cycling. There’s also a volunteer choir involved.”

York Theatre Royal’s summertime large-scale production of Sovereign, staged outdoors at King’s Manor with a 100-strong community company led by two professional actors, was “great” for Ming because “I’m very, very, very up for working with the community. That’s very important. You can make change doing that,” she says.

Directing Sovereign – with co-directors Juliette Forster and John R Wilkinson – was definitely a challenge but, putting it in perspective, Ming refers to the scale of directing for television with a crew of 50 and cast of 20.

Not the most stressful artistically perhaps, but certainly in terms of the logistics and keeping on schedule. “There was a lot of joy in the uniqueness of a community production like Sovereign. It was a challenge because most of the performers had never been in that situation before,” she says.

“With rehearsals, they were learning new things and you were going on a journey with them, and that’s quite fun. There was a huge treasure trove of learning for me, especially working with Juliet [Forster, the Theatre Royal’s creative director], who has done so many large-scale community productions. That was really helpful, working with other directors.

“One thing I loved about coming here was that I knew there were other directors in the artistic planning team and you get to work together.”

She is now part of that community, as she and her husband, who comes from York, have
moved to the city.

Ming directing Hollyoaks coincided with the arrival of the first South East Asian family in a television soap: a continuing TV drama that reaches a younger audience than most theatre shows. “So you’re not preaching to the same audience as in the theatre. You’re widening your reach. The show also covers a lot of important storylines, which is what drew me to it,” she says.

REVIEW: York Theatre Royal in Sovereign, King’s Manor, Exhibition Square, York, until July 30 ****

Sleuth and sidekick: Fergus Rattigan’s Matthew Shardlake with Sam Thorpe-Spinks’s Jack Barak in Mike Kenny’s adaptation of C J Sansom’s Sovereign in the King’s Manor courtyard. Picture: Charlotte Graham

FIRST the bad news. Not the July weather forecast, but the Sold Out notices denoting you are too late to book for the rest of the fortnight run of this summer’s York Theatre Royal community play.

Such has been the demand to see Mike Kenny’s adaptation of C J Sansom’s Tudor-set thriller in the very place where the biggest chunk of this best-selling sleuth story is set: King’s Manor, so re-named from the Abbot’s House to mark Henry VIII’s visit to the city with his latest queen du jour, Catherine Howard.

Staged in partnership with the University of York on its city campus, Sovereign plays out in the courtyard, the one with the tree at its epicentre and steps that add both height and dramatic statement to co-directors Juliet Forster, John R Wilkinson and Mingyu Lin’s grand production.

Aside from the front row, each capacity house of 240 is protected by a canopy from the rain, leaving the cast of 100 to battle with the elements, as they did last night and rather more so amid Saturday’s heavy downpours.

Kenny, a veteran of York outdoor productions from 2012’s The York Mysteries in the Museum Gardens and Blood + Chocolate on the city streets, even has Sovereign’s Greek chorus – or Women of York Chorus, to be precise – defy the rain with a knowing Yorkshire shrug. They will comment on a woman’s lot in Henry’s world with feminist ire too, resonating with the #MeToo era.

In our age of “levelling up”, but not levelling truthfully with the people, Kenny makes much of the north-south divide in Sovereign, right from the opening scene where Mark Gowland’s gouty, vainglorious Henry makes claim to godlike status, to the chagrin of Rosy Rowley’s no-nonsense God on a York Mystery Plays wagon on the other side of the stage.

As the play unfolds, towards its close after two hours and 45 minutes, Kenny makes a series of bullet pronouncements on the division between Protestant South and Papist North. Not only did Henry take land from Yorkshire landowners and dissolve the monasteries of God’s Own Country, but he put a stop to the Mysteries, seeing them as Catholic propaganda. History will tell you the wagons rolled on for a while longer, but then fell silent until the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Henry is a hated figure in York in Sansom’s story, as he seeks to impose the Royal Progress of 1541. The “Southerans” are unwelcome, not only “Fat Harry”, but also disabled lawyer Matthew Shardlake (Fergus Rattigan) and his Jack-the-lad Jewish sidekick, Jack Barak (University of York history and politics alumnus Sam Thorpe-Spinks).

Shardlake is mocked as a bottled spider by Henry, a crouchback by others; Joe Hooper’s Fulke Radwinter takes against Barak and Shardlake, taunting Barak about the events of March 16 1190, the Massacre of the Jews at Clifford’s Tower.

At Clifford’s Tower in Sovereign the body of Robert Aske, convicted of high treason by Henry, is still hanging five years after his execution in 1537. Plenty more bodies will pile up by the play’s end, more in the tradition of Jacobean tragedies.

Thorpe-Spinks has called Barak “Dr Watson to Shardlake’s Holmes”, but he rather more reminds you of Dennis Waterman’s Terry McCann in Minder with his feisty willingness to challenge all comers and eye for the ladies. Or one lady in particular, Livy Potter’s resourceful Tamasin Reedbourne, as Potter continues her run of winning performances in recent months.

Rattigan makes for a wily and worldly Shardlake, but lawyers have a bad name in this world – another dig delivered with comic timing in Kenny’s canny script – and so he becomes a more complex character as Sansom’s stinging story progresses. Not a conventional hero, not morally straight-backed, but remorseless as a Poirot. By comparison, Thorpe-Spinks’ lovable Barak is a little under-used, but then he is preoccupied with Potter’s Tamasin.

Shardlake and Barak have been sent north to keep an eye on political prisoner Edward Broderick (Nick Naidu-Bock, haunted and haunting), but the murder of a York glazier finds the plot thickening like a bechamel sauce.

So much is bubbling away in Sansom’s story: Matthew Page’s Giles Wrenne earnestly seeking to challenge Henry’s right to the throne; the Conspiracy at work; Scarlett Rowley’s insouciant Queen Catherine playing away from home with Josh Davies’s former beau Thomas Culpeper (or Culpepper in this version); Maurice Crichton’s curmudgeonly Yorkshireman Maleverer in peak scene-stealing form.

Not only does this community play have a chorus but an even larger York Ensemble for crowd scenes and dance numbers steered by movement director Hayley Del Harrison, and a King’s Ensemble for more north-south shenanigans.

The directing triumvirate achieves a balance between scenes on a physical grand scale and ones of more intimacy of a psychological nature. As for spectacle, look out for dramatic entrances by horses and a bear, courtesy of Animated Objects’ animal heads, and a cock-fighting scene too.

Dawn Allsopp’s set design works in happy union with King’s Manor, Hazel Fall’s costume designs are a Tudor delight and Craig Kilmartin’s lighting design plays to daylight’s progress into night. Out of view, to the side, apart from musical director Madeleine Hudson’s outstretched arms, is the choir, but their contribution is vital, commenting in song on what is ensuing through Dominic Sales’s wonderful compositions.

Yes, Sovereign could be shorter, and in a future staging it probably would be, but Mike Kenny has worked his Midas touch once more. York Theatre Royal is ahead of the game too: a television series of Sansom’s stories is on its way.

York giving Fat Harry the proverbial two fingers will live long in the memory.

Box office for returns only: 01904 623568 or

Once he studied history and politics in York. Now Sam Thorpe-Spinks stars in Henry VIII mystery thriller Sovereign at King’s Manor

Sam Thorpe-Spinks looks forward to performing Sovereign – “a crime drama in situ” – at King’s Manor. Picture: Alex Holland

SAM Thorpe-Spinks first made his mark on the York stage scene in student productions while reading History and Politics at the University of York.

He later trained at Guildhall School of Music and Drama and now returns to the city as one of two professional actors leading a 100-strong community cast and choir in York playwright Mike Kenny’s adaptation of C J Sansom’s Tudor-set thriller, Sovereign.

PlayingJewish sidekick Jack Barak to Irish actor Fergus Rattigan’s disabled lawyer Matthew Shardlake in the York Theatre Royal co-production with the University of York, Sam’s role just happens to combine history and politics, as well as murder and mystery, in a story to be staged outdoors at King’s Manor, one of the key locations in Sansom’s novel, from Saturday (15/7/2023) to July 30.

“That’s why doing this play is interesting, having studied History and Politics at university here from 2011 to 2014. I remember being at Clifford’s Tower one night from three till five in the morning and not realising its historical significance at the time,” he recalls.

“My Jewishness is something I’ve only rediscovered in the past five years. My mother’s side of the family escaped the pogrom in the early 20th century, went to Belfast and set up a synagogue there.

“When I was at drama school, I was aware of antisemitism in the theatre world. Before that, my grandmother, Gillian Freeman, wrote the novel The Leather Boys [1961] and the screenplay [for Sidney J Furie’s 1964 film], writing the book based on her Jewish history.

“I got in touch with my Jewishness culturally, rather than through faith, and last year I set up Emanate with my friend Dan Wolff [his fellow actor-producer] to champion new Jewish writing. Last August, we sold out a two-night run of six short scenes by Jewish writers at the Kiln Theatre (formerly the Tricycle Theatre), and we’ll be going to the Soho Theatre (London) in August for two weeks with three new plays by Alexis Zegerman, Ryan Craig and Amy Rosenthal, exploring birth, marriage and death.

Sam Thorpe-Spinks playing a soldier in Quicksand at York Theatre Royal’s TakeOver festival in his University of York days

”So, my Jewish curiosity has filtered its way into my work. Once I finish Sovereign on the Sunday (30/7/20230), I’ll start rehearsals on the Monday for Alexis’s play, The Arc, the one that looks at marriage.”

Since June 14, his focus has been on rehearsals for Sovereign, linking up with Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster and co-directors John R Wilkinson and Mingyu Lin’s community cast, whose rehearsal schedule for this summer’s world premiere had begun in March.

“Jack Barak is the Dr Watson role, the assistant, and there’s been a lot of fun acting alongside Fergus’s detective. Barak is certainly more the lovable rogue character of the detective duo. He’s not a strong man but he’s lot more equipped to sniff out trouble and deal with it – and he has a charming propensity to find women for himself,” says the six-foot tall, blue/green-eyed, black-haired Sam.

“He has a little love interest in the play that leads him into trouble, but the book series concludes with him marrying and having children, so he does learn about love!”

Kenny’s adaptation focuses on Sansom’s story of lawyer Shardlake and Barak being sent from London to York to await the arrival of Henry VIII at King’s Manor, only to be plunged into a mystery that could threaten the future of the crown when a York glazier is murdered.

“It’s such a privilege to be performing at King’s Manor,” says Sam. “Normally you have to use your imagination, but I don’t have to use any for this! York is steeped in Tudor times, and to be appearing in a play performed where the story happened is quite rare.

“The Minster is a constant reminder of the city’s history, so you can never escape the play, and that’s a good thing.”

Lead actors Fergus Rattigan, left, and Sam Thorpe-Spinks at King’s Manor, York, where Mike Kenny’s adaptation of C J Sansom’s best seller will be staged from Saturday. Picture: Alex Holland

As for Henry VIII, already given a hard time in SIX The Musical at the Grand Opera House in late June, “they hate Henry in York, or certainly they do in this play,” says Sam. “He’s a southerner trying to exert his southern ways on the north, and both Shardlake and Barak are from the south too, so they’re treated with suspicion as well.”

Sovereign is Sam’s third play since leaving drama school, in the wake of Emanate and Peter Gill’s Something In The Air (Jermyn Street Theatre, London). “It’s the first one I’ve done on this scale, with so many cast members,” he says.

“The way Mike Kenny has adapted such a vast novel, bringing the characters into a palatable play that you can follow easily, he’s done an amazing job, keeping it really lean to the bone, and it feels like a play that was born to be performed by a community cast.

“You should see it because it’s a rich and colourful portrait of York in the 16th century, with murders, blood, treason and romance, and a cast of 100-plus performing in the actual location where the story took place. A crime drama in situ!”

No need for a sales pitch: Sovereign has sold out already.

York Theatre Royal and University of York present Sovereign outdoors at King’s Manor, Exhibition Square, York, from July 15 to 30. Tickets update: Sold out. Box office, for returns only,  01904 623568 or at

Copyright of The Press, York

Sam Thorpe-Spinks

What’s in a name? Sam Thorpe-Spinks

Sam: Hebrew origin, meaning “told by God” and “God hears”.

Thorpe: Derived from Old Norse or Old English, denoting a hamlet or village. Many place names in England have the suffix “thorp” or “thorpe”. Those of Old Norse origin abound in Yorkshire, Northumberland, County Durham, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.

Spinks: ‘Spink’ (noun) denotes a finch or the sound of a particular bird cry. ‘Spink’ (verb) denotes a finch calling or chirping or making a characteristic sound.

Fergus Rattigan plays the ‘Tudor Poirot’ in Henry VIII thriller Sovereign at King’s Manor

Lead actor Fergus Rattigan with a copy of C J Sansom’s novel Sovereign. Pictures: Simon Boyle

AS the poster pronounces, expect intrigue, conspiracy and a thrilling night out when York Theatre Royal’s 120-strong community cast stages Sovereign on location at King’s Manor, Exhibition Square, York.

Leading the company in this open-air world premiere of York playwright Mike Kenny’s adaptation of C J Sansom’s Tudor-set thriller will be Irish actor and stage combat fighter Fergus Rattigan.

From July 15 to 30, Fergus plays disabled lawyer Matthew Shardlake, working in tandem with assistant Jack Barak (fellow professional Sam Thorpe-Spinks, late of the University of York). This “detective” duo is in York awaiting the arrival of Henry VIII, only to be plunged into a murder mystery that could threaten the future of the crown.

“I’m a Plantagenet/Tudor nut, right through to this period, and I’ve worked at Shakespeare’s Globe on occasion,” says Fergus. “When I came to York in the summer of 2021, when the Covid restrictions were softened and we were allowed to travel, I did a Viking tour, visited the Minster and walked the City Walls, reciting bits of Richard III. My partner is a historian, by the way.”

The role of Shardlake is made for Fergus. “I read the script and thought, ‘well, yes, I know this world, I know these characters, I know what’s happening, and even the way the character is described as a ‘hedgehog’ and ‘brothel spider’: one of those insults that echoes Shakespeare’s hunchbacked Richard III – and I’ve played Richard III on Zoom for the company Shake-Scene Shakespeare.

Actors Fergus Rattigan, left, and Sam Thorpe-Spinks with Sovereign adaptor Mike Kenny

“I’ve also directed bits of Richard III for the Dublin Shakespeare Festival in the Tudor crypt at Christ Church Cathedral, when we did scenes all around the city.”

Fergus’s agent informed him of the York Theatre Royal production. “The minute I learned about it, I was, ‘yes, yes, I’m very interested’!” he recalls. “I was auditioned by Juliet Forster and co-director John R Wilkinson on Zoom and then I came for an interview with all three co-directors [Mingyu Lin is the third] to see if I would be comfortable working with a community cast and whether I’d be comfortable with my disability being portrayed on stage.”

The answer was an emphatic “yes”. He cherished both the “juicy role” role and the performing opportunity. “Not only do I love and study the Tudor period but Shardlake has my mindset. He’s a bit of an outsider, which is something I can relate to both as a disabled person in a world not designed for disabled people but as a foreigner from another country. I’m very used to that outsider nature.

“I see myself very much reflected in him. When he’s in front of the King, there’s a moment of embarrassment. I’ve felt that. I’ve been in public where everyone is staring at me for just being myself. As a short man I’ve had people laugh at me for no reason, things like that. Or have judged me when I turned up for a job and I’m half the size they thought I was going to be.

“Shardlake’s situation is surprisingly relatable. He keeps a lot of it to himself, which is quite true to life with a lot of disabilities. The amount people are going through internally is always worse than what’s happening externally.”

Fergus Rattigan, centre, in the rehearsal room for Sovereign

Fergus’s condition is dwarfism, or dwarf syndrome, to quote the medical term. He notes how pantomime productions are increasingly not using dwarf actors, some preferring puppets, for Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.

“I’ve worked with a group of seven actors for some time in Snow White. We were at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh last Christmas and I’ll be working with the same company next Christmas. But you see some theatres not doing that now – and it’s not the dwarf actors being asked about it. It’s people being offended on our behalf – and now on the poster it’ll still say ‘The Seven Dwarfs’ but in the script it’ll say ‘The Magnificent Seven’.

“I’d say the term ‘dwarf’ is fine. Everyone knows what you mean. There’s no confusion. There’s nothing derogatory about it. People think they are generic characters but it’s just more clear than it is for other characters that it’s our characteristic.”

Fergus had not read C J Sansom’s novels before Shardlake came his way. “But I don’t know how I hadn’t because I’ve read historical novels and fictional stories of the period, especially by Philippa Gregory, who happens to live in Yorkshire,” he says.

Before auditions began, he read Sansom’s source novel, first quickly, then more thoroughly to add Post-It notes. “You can tell he has researched the period thoroughly, and likewise Mike Kenny’s script refers loyally to the book,” says Fergus.

Fergus Rattigan at King’s Manor, where he will play the disabled lawyer Matthew Shardlake

What stirred his interest in such novels and works of fiction? “It’s a weird thing. I got into Shakespeare very early on, but in Ireland we don’t have the focus on history the way you do over here, particularly not studying the War of the Roses,” says Fergus.

“So, I didn’t know what people were referring to when I came over here. I thought, ‘I must read about it’, and then I started to read historical novels and fictional works .”

Now he is at the centre of one such story, Sovereign. “It’s fiction and conspiracy on top of history, where Shardlake gets to step in as the Poirot of his period. He just tends to be in the right place – or the wrong place! – at the right or wrong time, depending on how you look at this little ‘hedgehog’ man,” says Fergus.

“There’s pressure to get the performance right, but you can also make it your own. You’re not trying to find your unique slant on Hamlet but to find the character, seeing how big or small to make his character, how proud he is as a proper lawyer or ashamed of his disabilities.

“For me, acting is about reacting to those around me and responding to that – and this time it’s a cast of 120.”

York Theatre Royal presents Sovereign outdoors at King’s Manor, York, July 15 to 30. Tickets update: SOLD OUT. Box office for returns only:  01904 623568 or

Copyright of The Press, York

York Theatre Royal to stage CJ Sansom’s Tudor thriller Sovereign as community play on grand scale at King’s Manor in July

On the king’s manor: The Sovereign figure of Henry VIII (Mark Gowland) stands over York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster, playwright Mike Kenny and, front, Juliet’s co-directors John R Wilkinson and Mingyu Lin at the launch of the Theatre Royal’s community production of Sovereign. Picture: Ant Robling

IN the climax to York Theatre Royal’s Sovereign Season, a community cast will stage a majestic outdoor summer production in the grounds of King’s Manor in Exhibition Square.

Adapted for the stage by prolific York playwright Mike Kenny, the world premiere of CJ Sansom’s York-based Tudor thriller will run from July 15 to 30 under the direction of Juliet Forster, John R Wilkinson and Mingyu Lin.

York Theatre Royal is seeking to assemble a cast of 100 adults and young performers aged nine and over from this month’s auditions for a production “on a grand scale”.

The use of King’s Manor could not be more apt, given Sansom’s setting of the story in Tudor York in 1541, when the Council of the North would meet there.

History records that St Mary’s Abbey, in Museum Gardens immediately behind King’s Manor, was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1539, destroying most of the monastery. King’s Manor – or Abbot’s House as it was known – survived, however, and continued to be the Council of the North’s headquarters.

In anticipation of an “ostentatious” Royal visit by Henry VIII and Queen Catherine Howard in 1541, the city of York repaired and improved the building. The royal party duly occupied the manor house for 12 days, their visit leading to the building becoming known as King’s Manor.

In Sansom’s York of 1541, the play follows lawyer Matthew Shardlake and his assistant Jack Barak who await the arrival of Henry VIII on his northern progress.

Tasked with a secret mission, Shardlake is protecting a dangerous prisoner who is to be returned to London for interrogation. When the murder of a York glazier plunges Shardlake into a deep mystery that threatens the Tudor dynasty itself, he must work against time to avert a terrifying chain of events.

Told through the voices of the people of York, the Theatre Royal production promises to release all the intrigue, conspiracy and thrills of Sansom’s novel. Alongside the community ensemble, two professional actors will star in the production too. Rehearsals begin on April 15, taking in two weekday evenings and Saturday daytimes in the lead-up to the tech weeks from July 3 and 10.

Already the Sovereign Season has taken in the world premiere of David Reed’s Guy Fawkes, with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s political thriller Julius Caesar still to come from June 13 to 17, directed by Atri Banerjee.

“A lot of the plays in the season deal with different forms of leadership and resistance; what’s good leadership; what’s good sovereignty,” says Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster.

“The jewel in the crown is CJ Sansom’s historical thriller Sovereign, the third book in the Shardlake trilogy, where Henry VIII came up here to sort out the northern rebels, beat us into line and show his power in his northern progress.”

York playwright Mike Kenny: Adapating CJ Sansom’s Sovereign for the York Theatre Royal community production

Welcoming the chance to adapt Sovereign, Mike Kenny says: “It will push the form of community theatre in all sorts of ways. I got invited to a conference in Montpellier [France] about large-scale community theatre, and though I’d never thought of it as being a very British thing, I was asked to talk about the York experience of staging community plays.

“I was aware, as I was talking through the experience, that every time we’ve done such a play, we were pushing the envelope because, in York, we don’t take the pre-digested version, we take the local story and push it.

“In this instance, I don’t think anyone has done that with a whodunit like this one, where Shardlake, the central character is disabled and gets a lot of stick because of that.”

Mike continues. “The book is set in 1541, well before Shakespeare’s play Richard III was written [1592-93], which reflected attitudes towards disability. It’s an interesting development in community theatre to have a disabled actor in the lead role.”

Co-director John R Wilkinson points out: “Shardlake’s sidekick is Jewish, another prejudice of that time.”

Mike rejoins: “That’s particularly potent in York, where the play is set, more than 300 years after the Massacre at St Clifford’s Tower, where the Jewish pogrom happened in 1190. A couple of the scenes are set there, so it’s pushed the boat again.”

Juliet says: “It’s the first time we’ve done an adaptation as a community play. Normally we take history and creative a fictional history, like we did for Blood + Chocolate, In Fog And Falling Snow, Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes and The Coppergate Woman.

“This time, there’s already an historical fictional narrative and we’re then bringing out the really strong York connections.”

Mike notes how: “One of the things that hit me hard was how Henry VIII was directly responsible for the end of the medieval Mystery Plays, which had been a Catholic tradition in York. They came to an end in Henry’s time, finally being stopped 20 years after his visit.”

Just as the revived York Mystery Plays have set the benchmark for community productions in the city, so York Theatre Royal continues to relish picking up the baton and taking that theatrical form in new directions.

York Theatre Royal presents CJ Sansom’s Sovereign at King’s Manor, Exhibition Square, York, from July 15 to 30. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Copyright of The Press, York

Follow in Henry VIII’s footsteps at King’s Manor by taking part in Tudor thriller Sovereign, next summer’s York Theatre Royal outdoor community production

On the king’s manor: The Sovereign figure of Henry VIII (Mark Gowland) stands over York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster, playwright Mike Kenny and, front, Juliet’s co-directors John R Wilkinson and Mingyu Lin at the launch for York Theatre Royal’s 2023 community production. Picture: Anthony Robling

HERE comes the call-out for community cast members to take part in York Theatre Royal’s majestic outdoor summer production, Sovereign, in 2023.

The world premiere of C.J. Sansom’s York-based Tudor thriller, adapted for the stage by York playwright Mike Kenny, will run in the grounds of King’s Manor, Exhibition Square, York, from July 15 to 30 next summer.

Applications are open to be involved in the cast and choir in Juliet Forster, John R Wilkinson and Mingyu Lin’s community theatre production on a grand scale, with York Theatre Royal seeking around 100 adults and young performers aged nine and over.

Set in Tudor York in 1541, the play follows lawyer Matthew Shardlake and his assistant Jack Barak who await the arrival of Henry VIII on his northern progress.

Tasked with a secret mission, Shardlake is protecting a dangerous prisoner who is to be returned to London for interrogation. When the murder of a York glazier plunges Shardlake into a deep mystery that threatens the Tudor dynasty itself, he must work against time to avert a terrifying chain of events.

Told through the voices of the people of York, the Theatre Royal production will release all the intrigue, conspiracy and thrills of Sansom’s novel. Alongside the community ensemble, two professional actors will star in the production too.

Co-director Juliet Forster, the Theatre Royal’s creative director, says: “We’re so excited to stage Mike Kenny’s brilliant adaptation of C.J. Sansom’s Sovereign next summer. To do so against the spectacular backdrop of the grounds of King’s Manor, where Henry VIII actually visited, makes it even more special.

“This is a York story and we’re thrilled to invite the people of York to be a part of this community production and help us to bring it to life on the stage.”

Co-director John R Wilkinson says: “York has a wonderful history of epic, large-scale community productions and we’re thrilled that Sovereign will be the focus for next summer.

“There are lots of opportunities to get involved. We would like to see even more people, who haven’t taken part in a community show before, join us for this special production.”

Fellow co-director Mingyu Lin adds: “This is a fantastic and rewarding opportunity to be involved in such a large-scale community production and we’re really keen to hear from people from all backgrounds and experience levels who are interested in taking part.

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster: Co-directing Sovereign

“Even if you’ve never acted before but have a passion for the stage, we’d love to hear from you. York has such a wonderful tradition of community theatre and I can’t wait to be a part of it.”

Cast and choir members are invited to express their interest via these links before Monday, December 19 December, ahead of January’s auditions.

Acting – Adults:  

Acting – Young people:


In addition, an online and in-person drop-in session for people who identify as d/Deaf and Disabled and are interested in finding out more about participating will be held on Tuesday, December 6 from 2pm to 3pm.

This session will be led by co-director John R Wilkinson and community connector Lydia Crosland in the York Theatre Royal Studio or on Zoom at: Meeting ID: 815 9925 6774.

Rehearsals will start on April 15 2023, taking in two weekday evenings and Saturday daytimes (times to be confirmed.)

All cast and choir members must be available for all tech rehearsals and the production run. Tech weeks:  Weeks starting July 3 and July 10 2023. Opening night: July 15.

Show schedule: Saturday, July 15, 7pm; Tuesday, July 18, 7pm; Wednesday, July 19, 7pm; Thursday, July 20, 7pm; Friday, July 21, 7pm; Saturday, July 22, 2pm and 7pm; Sunday, July 23, 2pm.

Tuesday, July 25, 7pm; Wednesday, July 26, 7pm; Thursday, July 27, 7pm; Friday, July 28, 7pm; Saturday, July 29, 2pm and 7pm; Sunday, July 30, 2pm.

Opportunities for further volunteers to help out backstage, in areas such as stage management, wardrobe, lighting, props, marketing, photography, fundraising and front-of-house, will be announced in 2023.

Sovereign was the Big City Read in 2009. Find out more about C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series here. 

Tickets for Sovereign are selling fast already on 01904 623568, in person from the Theatre Royal box office or at

York playwright Mike Kenny: Adapting C.J. Sansom’s Sovereign for next summer’s York Theatre Royal community play at King’s Manor