York Light to stage off-Broadway comedy Nunsense: The Mega-Musical with expanded cast and new characters

And then there were nuns: York Light Opera Company’s flyer for Nunsense: The Mega-Musical

THE Little Sisters of Hoboken will be bigger than ever in Nunsense: The Mega-Musical, York Light Opera Company’s summer show at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York.

Running from June 26 to July 6, the divine delights of Dan Goggin’s musical are being directed by Neil Wood with musical direction by Martin Lay.

“Get ready for a heavenly dose of laughter as we present a side-splitting extravaganza brimming with witty humour, toe-tapping tunes and heavenly hilarity,” says Neil.

In the wake of the unfortunate passing of four beloved sisters – now “chilling out in the freezer” after a “culinary catastrophe” involving soup – the remaining Little Sisters of Hoboken find themselves in a sticky situation. To raise funds for a proper burial – and perhaps a new cook! – the nuns take centre stage for a riotous revue like no other.

For the uninitiated, Dan Goggin’s 1985 off-Broadway musical promises a night of unforgettable entertainment, featuring:

● An all-singing, all tap-dancing cast of the Little Sisters of Hoboken, each with their own delightful personality.

● A script packed with jokes and side-splitting situations.

● Show-stopping song-and-dance numbers.

● A heart-warming message of community, perseverance and finding humour even, in the face of adversity.

Building on the success of last June’s “riotous, rude and relevant” I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, York Light will stage a “mega-sized version” of Goggin’s show with an expanded cast, new characters and even more musical mayhem.

“It’s an absolute pleasure to return to York Light Opera Company to direct their summer show for the second year running,” says Neil. “Nunsense: The Mega-Musical is an exciting, hysterical and entertaining show and I’ve been lucky enough to cast 12 exceptionally talented actresses who encapsulate their various characters to perfection. It’s a wonderful show, which I’m sure audiences will adore.”

One cast hitch has required a novel solution, Neil reveals: “As with producing any show, you come across little hiccups, and our Father Virgil [Matt Tapp] being sent to the Highlands a month before opening night is possibly the most extreme hiccup I’ve had to deal with as a director.

“So, what’s the solution?  Do you find one actor who can cover all ten shows at late notice? No! Instead, we’ve found ten actors who can do one night each with limited rehearsal! Keep your eyes on social media to find out who.”

Inspiration came from comedy national treasures Eric and Ernie. “I got the idea having seen the guest actors in The Play What I Wrote, which is a show based on the life of Morecambe and Wise, and it’s worked exceptionally well!” says Neil.

“We had such a good response from the gentlemen of York Light Opera Company and within days had managed to cast all ten performances. However, that’s just one little treat for the audience…

“…Throw in tap dancing, tightrope walking and ventriloquism and you know you are in for a night you will never forget.”

York Light Opera Company in Nunsense: The Mega-Musical; Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, June 26 to July 6, 7.30pm (except June 30, July 1 and July 6); 3pm, June 29 and 30, July 6.  Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Who’s who in the cast?

Reverend Mother Mary Regina: Joy Warner; Sister Mary Hubert: Clare Meadley (except July 5 and 6), Alison Davies , July 5 and 6; Sister Robert Anne: Emily Rockliff; Sister Mary Amnesia:  Annabel van Griethuysen; Sister Mary Leo: Emma Craggs-Swainston; Sister Julia, Child of God: Pascha Turnbull; Sister Mary Brendan:  Sarah Foster; Sister Mary Luke: Chloë Chapman; Sister Mary Wilhelm: Madeleine Hicks; Father Virgil: as explained above; Brother Timothy: Ben Wood; Sister Mary John: Alison Davies (except July 5 and 6); Sister Mary Matthew: Amy Greene; Sister Mary Mark: Sophie Cunningham.

REVIEW: York Light Opera Company in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, York Theatre Royal, making waves until Saturday ****

Pascha Turnbull’s Ursula, James Dickinson’s Flotsam and Adam Gill’s Jetsam in York Light Opera Company’s Disney’s The Little Mermaid. All pictures: Matthew Kitchen Photography

THREE matinees this week are testament to the family appeal of Disney’s aquatic adventure The Little Mermaid, a show ideal for half-term week.

Across the city from February 16 to 18 at York Barbican, a Tylosaurus, the largest predatory marine reptile to ever grace our oceans and now the largest marine puppet ever made, will be making a big splash in a purpose-built tank in Jurassic Live. “If you sit near the front, you will get wet,” comes the safety alert.

No such warning is necessary at the Theatre Royal, but in the absence of water, everything else is thrown at director/choreographer Martyn Knight’s hi-tech production: an LED screen by AV Matrix; flying by Blue Chilli Flying; images and animations by Broadway Media Distribution and additional scenic elements by Scenic Projects, Lowestoft, and Curtain Call Productions, Crewe.

Bon appetit: Zander Fick’s Chef Louis

The tentacle costume for 6ft tall Pascha Turnbull’s evil sea witch, the giant squid Ursula, has been made specially by Caroline Guy, to go with a spectacular array of sea-world costumes by Spotlight Costume Hire and additional costumes created by York Light.

Wardrobe coordinator Carly Price has overseen a sewing team of ten, complemented by 21 dressers at the theatre; ten people in Ellie Ryder’s wig, hair and make-up team; ten more in the stage crew, all serving a cast of 43. Set building took 14 people; Paul Laidlaw conducts an excellent nine-strong orchestra, three of them on keyboards.

Those numbers tell you this is a big, expensive show to mount, taking on the challenge of staging a musical produced originally by Disney Theatrical Productions, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale and John Musker and Ron Clements’s animated 1989 film for Disney.

Monica Frost’s Ariel in mermaid mode in Disney’s The Little Mermaid

Built on a book by Doug Wright, music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman & Glenn Slater, this is every inch a Disney show, in style, content and philosophy, but Knight’s cast still brings a York Light air to it too.

This is helped by the experienced presence of not only Turnbull’s terrific villain, Ursula, but also Neil Wood’s mandarin Grimsby, Martin Lay’s bird-brained Scuttle and in particular Rory Mulvihill’s stern King Triton, ruler of the underworld.

Turnbull’s Ursula and her henchmen with the flashing footwear, James Dickinson’s Flotsam and Adam Gill’s Jetsam, savour the dark side with more than a hint of pantomime villainy, and Turnbull’s rendition of Poor Unfortunate Souls is a formidable finale to Act One.

Neil Wood’s Grimsby and James Horsman’s Prince Eric

Jonny Holbek’s Caribbean crustacean, Sebastian the crab, carries the heaviest comedy load, and although painting a face red to deliver a calypso caricature in Under The Sea might not be on a par with a white actor blacking up as Othello in 2024, the Jamaican jive could sit awkwardly for those who cringed at Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

Nevertheless, Holbek is such a personable presence on stage – witness his Dewey Finn lead turn in School Of Rock last November – that his Sebastian goes down well, breaking down theatre’s fourth wall in the style of a panto daft lad.

Under The Sea, by the way, is as big and bright and fun as the big ensemble number should be, while Monica Frost’s Ariel, the mermaid who makes a deal with Ursula to take on human form (at the cost of her voice), relishes her spotlight in Part Of Your World in a resolute lead performance.

Rory Mulvihill’s King Triton

Lay’s Scuttle and the Seagulls could not be more positive in Positoovity, danced to tap choreography by Rachel Whitehead, and if you want an actor to maximise a cameo with comic flair and French drama, step forward Zander Fick’s Chef Louis  in Les Poissons in the palace kitchen.

Roller-skating is all the rage under the sea for Triton’s daughters (Frost’s Ariel, Annabel Van Griethuysen’s Aquata, Helen Miller’s Andrina, Madeleine Hicks’s Arista, Chloe Chapman’s Atina, Sophie Cunningham’s Adella and Sarah Craggs’s Allana), who swish hither and thither and sing siren-style.

James Horsman’s Prince Eric, the royal who would prefer to be a sailor, is played as straight as a ruler, fitting the Disney tropes of dark hair, slim frame and mono-focus on his one – find his bride – task in hand.

Jonny Holbek’s Sebastian the crab and Ryan Addyman’s Flounder performing Under The Sea

Ryan Addyman, who had everyone talking about his Jamie New in York Stage’s  Everybody’s Talking About Jamie Teen Edition last June, was promptly head-hunted to play Flounder, and he anything but flounders as Ariel’s fabulous fish sidekick here. One to watch, definitely.

Dial M for Mermaid if you enjoy Disney with a York Light touch, colours galore, fairytale fantasy, Turnbull terrors and Mulvihill regal authority

Performances:  7.30pm nightly, plus 2.30pm, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Martin Lay’s Scuttle, front, and the Gulls dancing Positoovity in York Light’s tap number in Disney’s The Little Mermaid

REVIEW: York Light Opera Company in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York ****

The magnificent seven in York Light’s I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change: Sanna Jeppson, left, Mark Simmonds, Monica Frost, Emily Hardy, James Horsman, Emma Dickinson and Richard Bayton. All pictures: Matthew Kitchen Photography

LOVELY show to finish off York Light’s 70th anniversary. Something a little different. All about love. That adds up to three reasons espoused by director Neil Wood to see the American musical comedy with the tripartite title.

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change has its place in musical history as the second longest-running off-Broadway musical revue, premiered by the American Stage Company in 1996.  

Now it swaps New York for York while retaining its American accents for 20 vignettes of universal resonance, each delving into a different aspect of love and relationships, their joys and their challenges.

Those vignettes, humorous, honest, heartfelt, heartwarming and heartbreaking, are full of life, lust and love’s labours lost and found, charting the path from dating to marriage, parenthood to ageing.

Richard Bayton at the wheel, with passengers Emily Hardy, Monica Frost and Mark Simmonds in the On The Highway Of Love vignette

Writer and lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer Jimmy Roberts bring momentum, mischief, romance, frankness, sauce, familiarity, delight, jaw-dropping awkwardness, pathos and passion, surprise and shock, to savvy, soulful, sweet, sour, salacious scenes ranging in length from five to eight minutes, diverse in style, tone and content.

Updated in 2018 to reflect changing times and fads, some take the form of dialogue or a monologue; some are songs; others combine the two. Like a taster menu, there is always another juicy morsel coming along to savour in each 55-minute half.

On an end-on stage with tables and chairs on one side, a sofa bed on the other, those vignettes are in the hands of a cast of seven – spreading the roles wider than the original production’s quartet of actors – and each of York Light’s magnificent seven takes on at least six parts, some as many as eight.

Neil Wood, directing York Light for the first time, put his company through Laban technique rehearsals to settle on characterisation and movement, giving each scene due weight with an emphasis on exposing the vulnerability in so many of the lovers’ tales.

He is rewarded with performances that are truthful and comedic, moving and candid, playing to both individual and collective strengths in a whirl of costume and character changes relished by Richard Bayton, Emma Dickinson, Mark Simmonds and especially the chameleon Sanna Jeppsson and James Horsman. 

Mark Simmonds in Whatever Happened To Baby’s Parents?

Look out for Jeppsson’s arthritic hands when playing an old woman discussing love in a funeral parlour opposite Horsman in arguably the most affecting vignette, Funerals Are For Dating.

Emily Hardy and Monica Frost graduate from the York Light ranks to principal roles for the first time, Frost being particularly impressive, whether in the country pastiche Always A Bridesmaid or her confessional online dating monologue, The Very First Dating Video of Rose Ritz.  

Not since Lloyd Webber and Rice’s Joseph And The Technicolor Dreamcoat in their fledgling days has a musical pulled off so many pastiches, from country weepie to Luther Vandross soul, Ratpack smoothie to boastful rap, power balladry to Lloyd Webber and Rice themselves, demanding much of keyboardist Martin Lay’s resourceful band (with Rosie Morris on bass, Katie Maloney on reeds and Jez Smith on drums).

Billed as “riotous, rude and relevant”, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change is indeed those three Rs, but it is also real, relatable and richly rewarding. We’ve all been there, done that, now watch love’s highs and woes from the safety of a ringside  seat. You will laugh, you will cringe, you may well cry too.

Performances: Tonight (Thursday) and Friday, 7.30pm; Saturday, 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Emily Hardy’s bride, James Horsman’s groom and Sanna Jeppsson’s priest in Wedding Vows

York Light look at love in myriad forms in American musical comedy I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change UPDATED

York Light Opera Company’s Emma Dickinson, left, Richard Bayton, Monica Frost and Mark Simmonds in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. Picture: Matthew Kitchen Photography

RIOTOUS, rude and oh-so relevant, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change promises shocks and surprises plus character and costume changes galore in York Light Opera Company’s hands from tonight.

Writer Joe DiPietro and composer Jimmy Roberts’ off-Broadway musical comedy is directed by Neil Wood at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, in its 2018 updated revamp in a witty look at how we love, date and handle relationships.

Guiding love’s path through a series of comedic and poignant vignettes will be Richard Bayton, Emma Dickinson, James Horsman, Sanna Jeppsson, Mark Simmonds and Monica Frost and Emily Hardy in their first principal roles for York Light, as love lives are reflected in art, up close and personal.

“It holds the record as the second longest-running revue staged off-Broadway,” says Neil. “Originally it was done with a cast of four, but we decided to double it to eight to be able to swap things around, and when one cast member dropped out, we stuck to seven.

“We did the first read-through and sing-through in April, so it’s a quick turnaround for a show, but we’ve still had the time to explore a lot of multi-role playing. Some of the cast are playing as many as eight characters, so we did some Laban technique workshops, looking at how characters are created, getting inside them and how the actors move.”

Richard Bayton and Emily Hardy, front, with Monica Frost and Mark Simmonds rehearsing On The Highway To Love

His first step as the director was to find the world depicted in the show’s 20 vignettes. “Then you must find the key thing within each scene; those moments that are poignant; those moments that are the turning point for a character.

“To do that, we had a really rigid rehearsal timescale with only two scenes per night, to really explore each scene, one running to eight minutes, the others to five or six minutes. It’s not a sung-through musical; some scenes are purely dialogue; some scenes are just a song; others are a mix of dialogue and song.

“Those songs vary in style from a Luther Vandross-style soul number to a country music song and a Rat Pack-style number.”

In her York Light debut after performing for Pick Me Up Theatre and York Stage, Swedish-born Sanna Jeppsson will be playing eight roles. “They vary from young and bold to old and experienced; shy and timid to a downtrodden housewife; a happy single woman to a sporty type – a tennis player, though the only thing I do for that is carry a tennis racket!” she says.

“It’s a fantastic array of characters in a show that has such a variety of scenes that can be real or twist reality in others, where you can go more crazy with a character.”

James Horsman and Sanna Jeppsson rehearsing the scene where two old people in a funeral parlour discuss love’s labours lost and found

Neil chips in: “That’s when you have to decide whether a scene is naturalistic or you can break the fourth wall and be very Brechtian, grabbing the audience by the hand or talking directly to them.

“I’ve been really impressed with what the cast has done in making 3D characters. Once you’ve created a scene, you can develop those characters and they have to be true. As well as their physicality, you need to find their vulnerability.

“That’s a key thing we’ve worked on: the intimacy of the scenes where you’re almost a voyeur into people’s most vulnerable moments.”

Last seen on stage leading York Light’s cast in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, Neil is enjoying pulling the strings from the director’s chair. “When we get into Theatre@41, half the fun will be the quick changes, with some full costume changes in only 30 seconds to the accompaniment of scene-change music,” he says.

“The show is split into two 55-minute halves with a 20-minute interval, and the joy for the audience is that everyone will see relationships on stage that they recognise or have been in themselves.

Sanna Jeppsson, left, Emily Hardy, Monica Frost, Richard Bayton, Mark Simmonds and James Horsman in York Light Opera Company’s rehearsal room

“It’s laugh-out-loud funny, a show where you will come out beaming from ear to ear – and you don’t have to think too hard either!”

For Sanna, the rehearsal process has contrasted with her past productions in York. “That’s because this show is so episodic, so it’s almost felt like a different play at each rehearsal, which has been fun as an actor,” she says. “Now it’ll be fascinating to see what kind of reaction we’ll get from the audience, as we bring all those scenes together.

“I’ve been there most nights, where we’ve rehearsed two scenes a night, and it hasn’t felt frantic at all, just enjoying developing new scenes at each rehearsal.”

Neil adds: “We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to do it episodically, with the majority of the rehearsals being done chronologically, which has helped the cast.”

He savours the accumulative impact of the 20 vignettes. “It’s not just 20 one-act plays, but real people, real amotions, real life, and it’s our job to make each scene as realistic as possible; to find the truth of these people,” he says.

“What I love about Joe DiPietro’s writing is that you definitely get every character’s viewpoint in each scene. He’s very clever at doing that.

Emma Harrison, left, Sanna Jeppsson, Emily Hardy and Monica Frost in a music rehearsal for I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change

“In the updated version, there’s been a gender swap in the Two Franks scene, and if there’s one scene that’s a caricature, it’s that scene, but then the reality comes through.”

Neil believes he has come up trumps in finding a cast able to play multiple roles. Sanna, in turn, is thrilled to be taking on that challenge. “I’ve had my eyes on this show for many years, waiting for this opportunity after first hearing about it when I was training in London in 2013/2014,” she says.

“I thought, ‘I’d love to do a show with all these characters parts’, and now the chance has come. It’s everything I imagined it would be – and more. It’s been a joy to work on because the script is really good, the songs are really good…and the director is really good, obviously!”

Sanna will be playing characters ranging in age from 25 to 75, and as she added each new one in rehearsal, she found she could not decide on a favourite. She does, however, then highlight her scene with James Horsman, where they play two old people discussing love in a funeral parlour.

“It’s such a beautifully written scene that says so much with such carefully chosen words,” she says.

Sanna Jeppsson and Richard Bayton in a reflective moment during York Light’s rehearsals

Neil picks out Monica’s closing second-half monologue. “It’s set around online dating and that thing of what we want people to see, rather than who we are, and yet then she realises her true story is far more fascinating,” he says.

Twenty vignettes with so many characters call for a diversity of American accents. “I don’t think it would work if you were to transfer it to Yorkshire or France, but you can place it anywhere in America. Some of the scenes are very American,” says Neil.

“The rhythms of the language scream American,” says Sanna. “Though I did read that it has been translated into a number of languages and it’s been done with Australian accents, but not with British ones.”

“The country song, Always A Bridesmaid, needs to be sung in a Tammy Wynette style,” reemphasises Neil.  

As opening night arrives, he concludes: “This is a lovely show to finish off York Light’s 70th anniversary, something a little different, all about love.”

York Light Opera Company in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, tonight (27/6/2023) until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

REVIEW: York Light Opera Company in Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, York Theatre Royal, until March 4 ****

Razor sharp: Neil Wood’s Sweeney Todd conducting his sharp practice as Julie Anne Smith’s Mrs Lovett hovers in York Light’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. All pictures: Matthew Kitchen

LIGHT and dark combine for the tale of Sweeney Todd, York Light’s heavyweight production to mark both the company’s 70th anniversary and last November’s passing of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim at 91.

In 2016, Robert Readman favoured going dangerously up close at 41, Monkgate. In 2023, director-choreographer Martyn Knight returns Sondheim’s knife-edge musical thriller to a gothic grand scale, large ensemble et al, while adjusting the setting from venal Victorian to gory Georgian at York Theatre Royal.

Costume designers Suzanne Ayers and Jean Wilkinson and wardrobe co-ordinator Carly Price pull out all the stops, aided by Ellie Ryder’s wigs, hair and make-up, and sewing, wardrobe and make-up teams in big numbers. Fantastic work all round.

Full of foreboding: Clare Meadley’s harrowing Beggar Woman

Under conductor Paul Laidlaw, keyboardist Simon Kelly’s organ swells to unnerving, edge-of-the-seat effect, forewarning of the terrible deeds to come in an opening that establishes how important the 30-strong ensemble will be throughout this murder-is-meat musical, whether as feral harbingers, boozy pie eaters or mental asylum incumbents.

The grave mien and embittered baritone of Neil Wood’s ponytailed Sweeney Todd further concentrates the mind on the serious business ahead as he flees Australia to return to East London after 15 years of wrongful exile at Botany Bay, vowing vengeance on the corrupt Judge Turpin (Craig Kirby, reprising his Pick Me Up role with even more insufferable judicial arrogance).

The self-flagellating Judge is the abusive ward to Sweeney’s daughter Johanna (Madeleine Hicks), keeping her like a caged bird: a revelation that brings even more of a cutting edge to Sweeney’s resumption of his demon barbershop business above the worst pie gaff in London town.

Clinging on to love amid the wreckage: Maximus Mawle’s Anthony Hope and Madeleine Hicks’s Johanna

Mrs Lovett (Julie Anne Smith) needs an upgrade from the grit and gristle in her pies; Sweeney is up for a slice of the action, when she turns out to be as manipulative as Lady Macbeth.

Mrs Lovett may be devoid of humanity, but now that there is 100 per cent humanity in her pies, they turn out to be bloody good, celebrated heartily in God, That’s Good, the ensemble high point of a consistently impactful performance as London’s exposed underbelly.

Behind dark eyes and a bustling air, add Smith’s humour, love-a-duck London accent and top-notch singing, and hers is a best-in-show performance, relishing Sondheim’s devilish wit and snappy turn of phrase.

Pie high: Jonny Holbek’s Tobias Ragg, furthest forward to the right, leads the euphoric singing in God, That’s Good!

As the bodies pile up, deposited down the shoot from Sweeney’s barber’s chair with a rumble in the tumble each time he shortens life rather than hair, gradually a macabre darkness of humour permeates the audience response, all the more so for Wood’s Sweeney not changing his countenance . And yet vulnerability courses through his inner turmoil.

Praise too for Maximus Mawle’s Anthony Hope and Hicks’s Johanna in the young love roles, as up against it as Romeo and Juliet, plus a treat of a camply comic turn from Richard Bayton as henchman Beadle Bamford and Clare Meadley’s damaged bird of a harrowing prophetess, the homeless Beggar Woman. Martin Lay has great fun with his faux Italian accent as preposterous, twinkling rival barber Adolfo Pirelli.

Any York production is always better for the presence of Jonny Holbek, and his Tobias Ragg, assistant first to Pirelli then kitchen aid to Mrs Lovett, is a scene stealer here: humour and tragedy, light and darkness, hope and desperation, naivety and madness, all at play in his performance.

Gritty encounter: Julie Anne Smith’s Mrs Lovett entreats Neil Wood’s Sweeney Todd to try the worst pie in London town

Paul Laidlaw’s wind and brass players, together with Kelly’s keyboards and Francesca Rochester and Laurie Gunson’s percussion, bring out all the drama and rich musicality in Sondheim’s score, sometimes luscious, other times juddering and jagged.   

Martin Knight’s choreography matches that musical diversity, adding to the deliciously dark delights of this juicy psychological drama. Make sure to grab a bite of this very tasty pie.

Performances: 7.30pm,  tonight (27/02/2023) until Saturday plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee.  Box  office: 01904 623 568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

By Charles Hutchinson

York Light mark 70th year with cutting-edge Sweeney Todd in Georgian setting

Neil Wood’s Sweeney Todd and Julie-Anne Smith’s Mrs Lovett with their hot-selling new pie in York Light Opera Company’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. Picture:Matthew Kitchen

LIGHT meets dark when York Light Opera Company return to York Theatre Royal from Wednesday in “one of the darkest musicals ever written”, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street.

Steered by the familiar hands on the tiller of director Martyn Knight and musical director Paul Laidlaw, the show is set in the Georgian era, rather than the usual Victorian London murk.

In York Light’s 70th anniversary production, Neil Wood takes the title role of the misanthropic barber who returns home to the Big Smoke after 15 years in exile, seeking vengeance on the corrupt judge (Craig Kirby) who ruined his life.

The road to revenge leads to him to open new tonsorial premises above the failing pie shop run by Mrs Lovett (Julie-Anne Smith). Cue a very tasty meaty new ingredient to boost sales in this now cutthroat business.

“Yes, it’s dark and gruesome, but it’s so funny too,” says Neil. “One moment the audience are bent double with laughter; the next they’re in tears. A lot of it comes down to the patter style that’s reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan.”

Richard Bayton, by day in charge of ticket sales for Sweeney Todd as York Theatre Royal’s box office manager, will be playing Beadle Bamford. “Two months into rehearsals, I’m thinking, ‘who is this man? There has to be more to him than how than how he ends up’, so I’ve built up the character, when he’s often seen as comic relief but I’ve looked to make him darker,” he says.

A cut above: Neil Wood’s Sweeney Todd in the doorway of his Fleet Street upstairs premises. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

“I’ve really enjoyed it because it’s always fun to play a bit of a baddie, though the real baddie is definitely Judge Turpin.”

Julie-Anne Smith’s Mrs Lovett occupies the dark side too with her surprisingly delicious but morally dodgy pie contents. “Everyone is damaged in this piece, all except Anthony Hope [played by Maximus Mawle],” she says. “Even Johanna [Madeleine Hicks] is extremely damaged – and living with the Judge, she would be! Everyone else represents the underbelly of London.”

Neil rejoins: “Whether you’re playing Shakespeare’s Richard III or Sweeney Todd, you have to find something you understand in the character. It’s not until he meets the damaged Mrs Lovett, who has her own agenda, that he changes course after being wrongly exiled for a crime he didn’t commit.

“Through fate, he has found his way back home to London to find his wife dead and discover what the judge has done, with his daughter now in the judge’s hands. In that moment, Mrs Lovett manipulates him, and it’s like a puppet being played with, on a knife edge.”

 Julie-Anne says: “You have to push that notion that they’re only human; you have to make that connection with the character you’re playing. At the end of the day, she’s human, she’s damaged. She just wants a cottage by the sea and will do anything to get it.

“That’s why she’s interesting to play because people can never believe the horrific deeds that humans can do, but particularly if it’s a woman perpetrating such horrific crimes, but her humour endears her to the audience – and they’re laughing with her rather than at her. That’s why I like playing the anti-hero, because they’re more complex.”

“People can never believe the horrific deeds that humans can do, but particularly if it’s a woman perpetrating such horrific crimes,” Julie-Anne Smith, York Light’s Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

From the maniacal Sweeney Todd to Titus Andronicus, such characters “have always been more interesting, with the best lines”, notes Neil. “We’re just really lucky to have the chance to be doing such roles,” he says.

“It’s also the right time to be staging Sweeney Todd, especially with Stephen Sondheim passing away last year. There’s lots of interest in him again, with Sweeney Todd running on Broadway and the Sondheim concert, Old Friends, with Bernadette Peters in the company, that’ll be on in London at the Prince Edward Theatre for 16 weeks.”

Richard is savouring the meatiness of Sondheim’s lyrics in a show where 80 per cent of Sweeney Todd is set to music, either sung or underscoring dialogue. “They’re so rich in meaning,” he says. “I’ve been able to find new interpretations and new meanings in every rehearsal because you  can read so much into them.”

Neil adds: “It’s such a complete show; the orchestrations are wonderful, and Martyn Knight and Paul Laidlaw have been a joy to work with as they really appreciate what a challenge Sondheim is. That’s why we started in early October on the music, and then Martin came up for a first block of rehearsals from November and has back since January after a Christmas break. You can’t start working on the detail until the words are embedded in you.”

Julie-Anne is thrilled to be putting flesh on Sondheim bones in Sweeney Todd. “I was in a professional group, Lucky 4 You, that performed Sondheim songs all around Yorkshire, and I’d always wanted to do the big duet from Sweeney within the context of the show. Now I can do that with Neil.”

York Light Opera Company in Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, York Theatre Royal, Wednesday (22/2/2023) to March 4, 7.30pm, except February 26; 2.30pm, February 25 and March 4. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on York Light’s Evita at York Theatre Royal

Emma-Louise Dickinson’s Eva Perón and Jonny Holbek’s Che in York Light’s Evita. All pictures: Tom Arber

York Light in Evita, York Theatre Royal, until February 19, including Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

IT’S no fun being out of action for two years. So there was relief and pleasure on all the faces of York Light – the musical theatre company formerly known as York Light Opera Company – when they returned to their rightful home base in a rousing Martyn Knight production of Evita.

The company is sensibly alternating two groups of principals over its 12 performances. On this second night (10/2/2022) it was Team Blue’s turn.

Eva Perón, familiarly known as Evita, and even Santa Evita to diehard fans, still excites
controversy today, even in Argentina. She was both an ambitious social climber who slept her way to the top but also a benefactress, a figurehead who spent lavishly on herself, a unifying icon for some and a uniquely self-seeking politico for others.

Neil Wood as Juan Perón : “His baritone serves him well over a wide range”

None of which makes it easy for the actress playing her. How likeable should she be?
Emma-Louise Dickinson’s response is bravely sassy, which comes close to being a warts-and-all exposé. It is the right approach. Nobody wants a prissy heroine. Tim Rice’s lyrics don’t allow her to be.

Much of her singing is stridently assertive, which doesn’t always make for the prettiest of sounds. For those we have to wait till Act 2 and in particular the scenes surrounding her illness and death.

Like all true operatic heroines, Evita takes a long time to die but Dickinson uses it to show us that she has a pleasing soprano. She is the main reason why Act 2 generates such pathos. Buenos Aires and You Must Love Me are poles apart but her versatility is more than equal to both.

Jonny Holbek’s Che: “Brings a folk-singing style to the role”

Juan Perón may have been twice Eva’s age when he married her, but their personalities were well-matched. He strong-armed his way to power and was just as ruthless. His police state is echoed here with several shows of repressive policing. But Neil Wood plays him with sensitivity as well as strength and his passion for his young wife is never in doubt. His baritone serves him well over a wide range.

Jonny Holbek brings a folk-singing style to the role of Che, the narrator and social conscience of the unfolding events, which makes him an engaging man of the people, even if he sometimes strays from the notes that are actually in the score. He is mainly dressed in camouflage pants which verge on the paramilitary. He leads And The Money Kept Rolling In superbly.

Two other roles deserve special mention. Richard Weatherill’s big number as Magaldi, Eva’s
home-town boyfriend, comes early but he is more than ready. So too is Hannah Witcomb as Peron’s glamorous bit on the side, neatly crystallised in Another Suitcase In Another Hall.

Melanie Groom and Tom Menarry: “Dancing a succulent tango”

A word, too, for the top brass in the musical chairs of The Art Of The Possible: good fun. There is also a succulent tango danced by Melanie Groom and Tom Menarry. Considering the importance of tango in Argentinian music, we could stand to see a lot more of them.

The chorus shows a marvellous mix of voices and ages, with plenty of young blood among several company veterans. All its numbers are danced, which means that a huge amount of choreography – also by Martyn Knight – has had to be memorised, an incredible feat considering they barely put a foot wrong.

Chorus delivery is occasionally on the shouty side but the opening Requiem is beautifully sustained and there is some lovely quiet singing in Act 2. The ladies look especially appealing in vintage hats and dresses.

Hannah Witcomb as “Juan Perón s glamorous bit on the side”

Mike Thompson conducts an 11-piece orchestra with plenty of pizzazz. Its feel for Latin
American rhythms is consistently excellent. The balance is not always quite right. The bass is too boomy in Act 1, which means that several delicate phrases from keyboard or guitar do not get the prominence they deserve. In general the amplification could be turned down a notch to good effect.

The show is well served by its permanent set (from Lowestoft, but otherwise uncredited), which casts a presidential aura. It is absolutely heart-warming to have York Light back in action and in such amazing shape. The company’s enthusiasm is infectious. You daren’t miss it.

For the record, the Yellow Team principals are Alexa Chaplin as Eva, John Hall as Perón and Dale Vaughan as Che. All are seasoned performers.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Alexa Chaplin, centre, as Team Yellow’s Eva Perón with the ensemble in in York Light’s Evita


Why York Light Opera Company have two Evas, two Ches and two Juan Perons in Evita

Neil Wood (Juan Peron), Emma-Louise Dickinson (Eva Peron) and Jonny Holbek (Che): principal trio from one of York Light’s casts for Evita

YORK Light Opera Company is using double casting for the main roles in Martyn Knight’s production of Evita in response to the pandemic’s abiding impact.

“We are on our 18th cast list, with casting and rehearsals affected by Covid, long Covid and physical injuries,” says Martyn. “We’ve kept the principal casts separate, which has required us to double the number of rehearsals.”

Running at York Theatre Royal from February 9 to 19, Evita tells the story of Eva Peron’s rags-to-riches life as she goes from poor provincial child to First Lady of Argentina on her “Rainbow Tour”. A champion of working-class descamisados (otherwise known as “the shirtless”), she uses popularity and politics to serve her people and herself.

For Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical of people, power and politics, Alexa Chaplin and Emma-Louise Dickinson will share the lead role of Eva Peron; Dale Vaughan and Jonny Holbek will play Che; John Hall and Neil Wood, Juan Peron; Dave Copley-Martin and Richard Weatherill, Agustin Maglidi, and Fiona Phillips and Hannah Witcomb, Peron’s Mistress.

John Hall (Juan Peron), Alexa Chaplin (Eva Peron) and Dale Vaughan (Che): the other principal trio for York Light’s Evita at York Theatre Royal

“It’s a fully sung show and double casting provides each team with sufficient rest,” says Martyn. “The main character parts are huge and it would be a colossal ‘ask’ of any understudy to learn and have to perform those roles without significant rehearsal.

“Double casting provides the best possible cover, which is needed more than ever when putting on the production during a pandemic.”

Knight is joined in the production team by musical director Mike Thompson for a Tony Award-winning musical that features the pop chart hits Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, Oh! What A Circus and  Another Suitcase In Another Hall.

Tickets for the 7.30pm evening performances (no show on February 13) and 2.30pm matinees on February 12 and 19 are on sale on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Jonny Holbek as Che in rehearsal for York Light Opera Company’s Evita