Wig, beard, green coat, Rory Mulvihill is ready to steal the show again as Fagin

Rory Mulvihill, donning beard, wig and iconic green coat, to play Fagin for a second time. Pictures: Anthony Robling

YORK Light Opera Company mark 60 consecutive years of performing at York Theatre Royal by presenting Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, 60 years after the musical’s West End debut.

Running from February 12 to 22 in a revival directed by Martyn Knight, with musical direction by John Atkin, the show is based on Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist and revels in such songs as Food, Glorious Food, Oom-Pah-Pah, Consider Yourself and You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two.

Leading the cast of 40 will be Rory Mulvihill, a veteran of the York theatre scene, who will be playing Fagin after a career with York Light that does not quite stretch back 60 years but does run to 35. “I started in 1985 with the summer show Songs From The Shows, which was a cabaret-style show, where I remember I was part of Three Wheels On My Wagon as a cowboy,” he says.

Reflecting on his subsequent myriad York Light roles, he says: “I’ve enjoyed all of them, but the one I’m most proud of is Barnum. It was a tremendous show. Every member of the cast had to learn a circus skill and perform it to full houses. I spent four months going to a circus school three days a week learning how to tight rope walk.”

Rory Mulvihill in the rehearsal room for York Light Opera Company’s production of Oliver!

Rory is playing Fagin for the second time, so he is well qualified to analyse the musical’s portrait of the trickster who runs a den of nimble young thieves in Victorian London’s murky underworld.

“The character is written very differently in the musical from the novel, in a way that makes you feel for him. You know fundamentally he’s a bad person but there’s always something that redeems him,” he says. 

“If I had to describe him in three words, I remember there was an advert for creme cakes about 40 years ago and the slogan was ‘naughty but nice’, so I’m going to go with that one. 

“I don’t do anything specific to get into character. Someone once said their character builds as they dress up as them and that certainly applies to Fagin as I’ll be having a beard, wig and the iconic long green coat. It certainly helps wearing the costumes to get into character.”  

Rory Mulvihille’s Fagin with his two Artful Dodgers, Jack Hambleton and Sam Piercy

Picking out the differences between the first and second times he has portrayed Fagin, Rory says: “The children involved give Oliver! its dynamic. It’s a different set of kids and crew of course.

“We only have one set of kids this time instead of two. Having done it once, I’m not starting again, I’m building on what I’ve done before. Hopefully I’ll not stumble over the lines and give a better performance.”

A key part of his role is leading the young cast around him. “Whenever you work with kids, it’s difficult to begin with because they’re scoping you out to see what they can/can’t get away with, but once you get over that, it’s a joy.

Jonny Holbek as Bill Sikes with Roy as Bullseye in York Light Opera Company’s Oliver!

“They’re now quite relaxed in the company of the adult cast and I’m getting to know them – maybe a bit too cheeky at times. Theatre is the best gift you can give a kid to carry through their life.”

That sentiment takes him back to Leeds-born Rory’s first steps in theatre. “Funnily enough Oliver! was the very first show I was ever in. I played the Artful Dodger in a school production at St Michael’s in Leeds in 1968. It was just by accident really. I was just asked to do the part by the director. That was my introduction to theatre and I’ve been doing it ever since. Now I’ve come full circle with Oliver!”

Rory, who has lived in York since the mid-1980s, worked as a lawyer for more than 30 years, at Spencer Ewin Mulvihill and latterly Richardson Mulvihill in Harrogate, before retraining as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, but he has always found time for a parallel stage career.

In doing so, he has been not only a leading man in multiple musicals but also has played both Jesus and Satan in the York Mystery Plays; York lawyer and railway protagonist George Leeman in In Fog And Falling Snow at the National Railway Museum, and lately Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army and the outrageous Captain Terri Dennis in Peter Nichols’s Privates On Parade for Pick Me Up Theatre.

Rory Mulvihill, centre, as the flamboyant Captain Terri Dennis in Privates On Parade

Last summer, he set up a new York company, Stephenson & Leema Productions, with fellow actor and tutor Ian Giles, making their June debut with Harold Pinter’s ticklishly difficult 1975 play No Man’s Land.

Now his focus is on Oliver!, performing alongside Alex Edmondson and Matthew Warry as Oliver; Jack Hambleton and Sam Piercy as the Artful Dodger; Emma-Louise Dickinson as Nancy and Jonny Holbeck as the villainous Bill Sikes.

Rory looks forward particularly to singing the climactic Reviewing The Situation. “It’s a tour de force,” he reasons. “You can’t really go wrong with it. It’s a fantastically written song with a beautiful tune, comedy and pathos.

“Please sir, I want some more…and more”: Matthew Warry and Alex Edmondson, sharing the role of Oliver in York Light Opera Company’s Oliver!

“Lionel Bart clearly thought ‘I’m just going to take the audience’s emotions and put them through the ringer’. So, at the end, they don’t know whether to laugh or cry. A wonderful piece of work.”

As the first night looms on the horizon, will Rory experience first-night nerves, even after all these years? “For me, rehearsals can be more worrisome than being on stage,” he says.

“Performing in front of your peers, certainly for the first time, can be very nerve racking, and it’s getting over that that prepares you for being on stage. By the time you get on stage, you have butterflies of course, but you know you can do it.”

York Light Opera Company present Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, York Theatre Royal, February 12 to 22, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm matinee on both Saturdays. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Hit Irish musical Once is on its way to the Grand Opera House in February

Daniel Healy, left, as Guy, Emma Lucia, as Girl, and Samuel Martin, as the Bank Manager, in Once The Musical, on tour at the Grand Opera House, York, next month. Pictures: Mark Senior

ONCE seen, never forgotten, but you won’t have seen Once like this before, except in…Ipswich or Hornchurch.

First a cult, micro-budget Irish film written and directed by John Carney in 2007, then a Broadway, West End and Dublin show, Once The Musical embarks on its first British tour in January, playing the Grand Opera House, in York, from February 3 to 8.

Telling the uplifting yet yearning story of the hopes and dreams of two lost souls, a Dublin street busker and a Czech musician, who unexpectedly fall in love, Once is being directed by Peter Rowe with musical supervision by his regular cohort Ben Goddard.

The cast will be led by Scotsman Daniel Healy as Guy and Emma Lucia, from Durham, as Girl, reprising their roles from 2018’s premiere at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, and Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch.

The company invited press and media to meet them three weeks into rehearsal at Toynbee Hall in London’s East End: a question-and-answer session introduced with rousing performances of Irish ceilidh songs and the show’s opening scene, leading to Healy and Lucia’s performance of the Oscar-winning signature song Falling Slowly, with all the actor-musicians playing their part around them, “leaning into the story” in the pub setting.

“This production is very different to the West End,” says Ben. “We very much started, as we would do with any story, any musical, by taking it off the page and then basically trying to get as many people as possible into the story we present on stage.”

Peter says: “What’s particular about this production is that everyone on stage is telling the story and that gives it a real charge. We have skilled actor-musicians trying to re-create the acoustic sound of Irish pub songs, and rather than trying to make it a bigger razzmatazz production, we want to draw people in.”

Emma Lucia as Girl in Once The Musical

This reflects the song-writing of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová that frames Irish playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh’s story of the Guy and the Girl’s relationship across five short Dublin days.

“Glen is a singer-songwriter who writes thoughtful songs from the heart, and so our production is an extension of that,” says Ben. “That’s the difference from other musicals: the music really does the job for you.”

Peter says: “You can feel that the band are impressed by this man, his voice and his music, and they become part of the flowering of his songs.”

He and Ben have worked regularly in the actor-musician world of theatrical performance. “That’s pretty much what we done with all the work we’ve done together, but putting the band together for this show has been very challenging, bringing together the right collection of people,” says Ben.

“Not just how they each play, but how they play together and work together, so that we have a combination of people to make the story work.”

Peter concurs: “Seeing an ensemble of 16 with all that skill, swapping instruments, will be a pleasure for the audience.” Ben rejoins: “I think we’ve found a combination where the levels of performance are pretty much at a peak, which is hard to find, with everyone showing their powers of musicianship and their acting chops.”

Peter’s research took him to Dublin for the “terrible task” – said with his tongue in his cheek – of visiting as many pubs as possible, combining the pleasures of an Irish pint with taking photographs of the pub interiors and the musicians playing there, and now bringing that atmosphere to the stage.

“It’s an unrequited love story, the most painful of all love stories, and that’s why Once really gets to people,” says director Peter Rowe of Guy’s plight in the Irish musical

At its heart, Once is a love story. “But it’s also an unrequited love story, the most painful of all love stories, and that’s why Once really gets to people,” says Peter.

“It’s the lives that you don’t live that you think about: if only you had turned left rather than right, and everyone recognises that story in the songs. And these are not musical theatre songs where people get to the point where they can’t say anything more without bursting into song.

“Here it’s a different convention. The songs in Once stand alone; they’re mostly solo songs or duets that are being sung in the street or Billy’s music store, so they have a naturalistic place in the story.”

Ben adds: “The story in Once came from an already written collection of songs, and with those songs being strong, a very strong story followed. At the start, the Guy seems quite repressed when he talks to the Girl, but then all the passion he felt in his failed relationship comes pouring out in his songs.”

Working in tandem with their regular choreographer, Fran Jaynes, Peter and Ben have made a point of changing the way musicians were used in past productions of Once The Musical. “When we saw it in London, they were on stage, to the left and to the right, watching what was going on, but, for me, they never really felt part of it,” says Ben. “But we’ve been involved in actor-musician work for a long time, and we’ve found it really potent to take their involvement further.”

Peter adds: “We could see the show’s potential as an actor-musician piece, and we just felt we could do more with it, making the most of the ensemble.”

In what way? “Using everybody on stage at all times, it’s like a European troupe of actors, where they all tell the story,” says Ben.

“But we also spent a long time trying to get the right chemistry in the whole cast, though the two leads, Daniel and Emma, had to come first.”

Once The Musical runs at Grand Opera House, York, from February 3 to 8 2020. Box office: 0844 871 3024, at atgtickets.com/York or in person from the Cumberland Street theatre.