Why acrobat Dora is so happy to be at full stretch in Around The World In 80 Days

Dora Rubinstein, right, as Nellie Bly with Eddie Mann, top, Ali Azhar and Ulrika Krishnamurti in York Theatre Royal’s circus-themed Around The World In 80 Days. Picture: Charlotte Graham

AFTER traversing the city on a trailer for 16 days, the York Theatre Royal circus pitches up back home in St Leonard’s Place from Wednesday for the final run of Around The World In 80 Days.

Among the travelling players for creative director Juliet Forster’ stage adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel is actor, singer, acrobatic and yoga teacher Dora Rubinstein, a North Easterner, originally from Newcastle, who has settled in York.

She has history with Forster, having voiced Mary Magdalene in the York Mystery Plays audio plays for the Theatre Royal and BBC Radio York during lockdown, under Forster’s direction, and then taken on the guise of pioneering Anne Lister, alias Gentleman Jack, for musical theatre composer Gus Gowland’s The Streets Of York at the Theatre Royal’s re-opening show, Love Bites, overseen by Forster in May.

“It was so different doing that short piece for Love Bites,” says Dora. “I was approached by Gus, as we had lots of mutual friends who work in musical theatre, and Suranne Jones, who plays Anne Lister in the Gentleman Jack TV series, is not too far away from me in terms of my looks.

“It was lovely to be back in the theatre, as though most of my recent work has been circus based, I still love singing.”

Although Dora had worked with Juliet on the Radio Mystery Plays, Covid restrictions had limited the rehearsals and recordings to being conducted remotely. “That’s why I wasn’t sure if she knew about my circus skills, so I sent her an email, but it turned out she was aware, though I don’t know how, but I’m just happy she did,” she says.

Dora, who runs workshops in acrobalance, handstands, flexibility, contortion and aerial skills in York and Leeds, is now playing The Acrobat and American journalist, industrialist, inventor and charity worker Nellie Bly, who, like the fictional Phileas Fogg in Verne’s story, made a race-against-time trip around the world. 

“I grew up seeing plays at York Theatre Royal,” says Dora Rubinstein. “So it’s always felt like home”

“At the auditions, I had to do an American accent for Nellie Bly; I used a Geordie accent for The Acrobat – my choice – and I also have to play two ship captains, one from Hull, the other, a salty old sea dog,” she says.

All those acrobatic and contortionist skills naturally come in handy for The Acrobat in Around The World In 80 Days, but how come the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts graduate has developed those skills?

“My mum is a visual artist, who makes community pieces, and she was fascinated by how close the circus community was. As part of her research, she went to a trapeze class in Newcastle, and she said she felt like she’d come home,” says Dora, taking the country route in her explanation.

“She was so at home with it, whereas most people, when they first try it, find it incredibly hard. When I came back home from Arts Ed [her musical theatre diploma course in London], she knew how much I’d enjoyed the physical side of it and so she introduced me to circus culture, where I felt I really fitted into that world, the acrobatic world, rather than dance.

“Then, when I later left Mountview, I kept it up even more, doing aerial classes, and it’s since fed into my other work, with more to play with from the devising perspective.”

Dora teaches a “really wide range of people”, whether leading workshops for children and young families or teaching York burlesque performer Freida Nipples flexibility tricks to integrate into her routines.

Emilio Iannucci’s Phileas Fogg, left, with Dora Rubinstein, Eddie Mann, Ali Azhar and Ulrika Krishnamurti‘s scoffing Reform Club members in a scene from Around The World In 80 Days. Picture: Charlotte Graham

Even during rehearsals, she has continued to hold workshops at weekends, such as the acro-yoga sessions she leads at The Stables, in Nunmill Street, just off Bishopthorpe Road.

“My mum [Jane Park] is coming down to teach with me; we’re the first mother-and-daughter acro-yoga instructors,” she says.

Dora moved to York two years ago after living in London for a decade. “I felt that was long enough down there,” she says. “A lot of my work was in the north, and though you are fed this idea that you have to be based in London to make a career as a performer, I met this amazing actress, Helen Longworth, when I did two pantomimes at Lancaster.

“She was also doing TV parts and radio in The Archers, had a young child and was living in a village outside Morecambe, and I just thought, ‘why should I spend £1,300 a month on a flat in London?’.”

Why settle on York? “My boyfriend loves taking photographs, so we wanted a city that was beautiful to walk around, with good rail connections, and York really was the only one! We’ve now bought a house, so it looks like we’re staying!

“My grandfather lived in Portland Street, and I grew up seeing plays at York Theatre Royal, when I came here every two or three months. He loved the theatre too, so it’s always felt like home.”

This week will find Dora performing on that Theatre Royal stage, bringing Nellie Bly’s story to the fore as Phileas Fogg’s race against the clock to complete a full circuit of the Earth is interwoven with investigative journalist Nellie’s own record-breaking journey.

Not one to be boxed in: Dora Rubinstein in the lead-up to playing The Acrobat, a role that writer-director Juliet Forster first contemplated calling “The Contortionist” but doubted she could find one. Ironically, Dora is as equally adept at contortionism as acrobatics!

“I hadn’t heard of Nellie until I got the audition, though it’s incredible all the amazing things she did leading up to her going around the world,” she says.

“I remember being taught about Queen Elizabeth 1, Queen Victoria and Grace Darling [the English lighthouse keeper’s daughter, who risked her life to rescue the stranded survivors of the wrecked steamship Forfarshire in 1838], but not about Nellie Bly’s achievements.

“When she submitted an anonymous response to a newspaper article that said women should be in the kitchen, it was so well written that the editor put out a call to discover who it was.

“She became an investigative journalist, going undercover into a mental institution, putting her life on the line to make a difference for others. She had such chutzpah.”

As for Dora’s other principal role as The Acrobat, “Funnily enough, Juliet almost called her ‘The Contortionist’, but she didn’t think she would find one, but there I was all along, doing partner-acrobatic work and some contortion work in Japan, and performing contortion acts at the Durham Juggling Festival and Play Festival in North Wales!” she says .

Looking ahead, after undertaking research work with her mother at Dance City, Newcastle, and working with mentor and dramaturg Sarah Puncheon, Dora is creating her first acrobatics-based piece, Hold Your Own, built around family relationships. “Hopefully we’ll start doing it next year and tour it later in 2022,” she says.

Around The World In 80 Days races around York Theatre Royal from August 25 to 28; performances at 2pm and 7pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Suitable for age seven upwards.

‘Still haven’t the Foggiest idea what family show to see this summer? This is the one’

Playing his hand: Emilio Iannucci’s Phileas Fogg with the scoffing gentlemen of the Reform Club (as played with bristling moustaches by Dora Rubinstein, Eddie Mann, Ali Azhar and Ulrika Krishnamurti) in York Theatre Royal’s Around The World In 80 days. All pictures: Charlotte Graham

REVIEW: York Theatre Royal in Around The World In 80 Days, Copmanthorpe Primary School Playing Fields, York

NO foreign holiday this summer? Let York Theatre Royal take you there, off the back of a trailer at a school playing field, transformed into a circus.

Wednesday, 7pm, Copmanthorpe Primary School: the yellow and red striped flags are fluttering in the night air in a circular formation to denote Vernes Circus is in town. Bobbing balloons and the persistently perky sound of a fairground organ add to the atmosphere.

Rather than inside a pop-up big top, we are in the open air, wrapped up for the English weather (last Friday evening’s show at Carr Junior School had to be called off after a thunderstorm warning). Safety first too, everyone is still mindful of social distancing, maintaining gaps between fold-up chairs. 

Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster has form for such theatrical enterprises, rolling out last winter’s Travelling Pantomime to 16 city wards. A case of taking theatre to the people, rather than expecting them to take themselves to the Theatre Royal, although this summer’s production will end with four days of indoor shows there after going around  four York schools in 16 days.

Dora Rubinstein’s resolute, irrepressible Nellie Bly, right, with Eddie Mann, Ali Azhar and Ulrika Krishnamurti’s circus performers in Around The World In 80 Days

She also repeats the panto template of a cast of five with multiple talents, while this time adding the writer’s credit to her directorial duties, just as she did when adapting Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet for CBeebies earlier this year.

We think we know French novelist Jules Verne’s story of a somewhat prickly English Victorian gentleman, Phileas Fogg, going around the globe in a hot air balloon. Stop right there. No sooner has Ali Azhar’s Clown started to blow up a balloon than he is told no such form of transportation was used by Fogg in the book; only in the myriad screen adaptations.

Financial constraints would prevent any balloon rides here, cautions Emilio Iannucci’s snappy Ringmaster.

Clown? Ringmaster? Surely, they were not in Verne’s story either? Indeed not, but Forster frames her adaptation around circus performers telling the tale, all her company taking on two main roles and more besides.

To complement the upstanding, moustachioed Iannucci’s Ringmaster/Fogg and French-Moroccan Azhar’s Clown/servant Passepartout, here come Ulrika Krishnamurti’s Trick Rider/Indian princess Aouda, New Zealander Eddie Mann’s Knife Thrower/spiv Detective Fox and Dora Rubinstein’s Acrobat/Nellie Bly.

The circus comes to town, or more specifically to four York school playing fields, as York Theatre Royal stages Around The World In 80 Days around York in 16 days, plus four days indoors at the Theatre Royal with Ali Azhar and Ulrika Krishnamurti as part of Juliet Forster’s cast of five

Mann will work his way through London, Liverpool, Scottish and American Deep South accents; the ultra-flexible Rubinstein, through Geordie, refined American, English South West and, a particular favourite, Hull, for a blunt sea captain.

Up against the clock, everything moves at pace, whether scene or character changes, storyline or the revolving signage that denotes arrival at the next destination. 

Hold that thought. Not quite everything moves so quickly. Fogg is always in too much of a rush to bother with describing where he is, but Nellie Bly is a groundbreaking American journalist whose travelogues are a joy to behold whenever Rubinstein’s resolute character settles for a restorative breather in a brilliant directorial decision by Forster .

Unlike Verne’s Fogg and his wager with his Reform Club cronies, Bly is not mere fiction. She really did traverse the world in a flight that knocked days off Fogg’s total, and yet her history-making story is not well known.  Forster puts that right, interweaving the tales in a way that both compliments and complements each other.

Forster’s production brings to mind the elasticity and stage electricity, the physical and mental fun and games, the deftness and daftness, of Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps and Mischief’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery. Like those two West End hits, the more the show the progresses, the better it is, the more impressive the cast becomes, using props in unexpected ways, whether straw bales or bicycle wheels, or circus equipment that turns into a cell for Fogg.

Holed up: Emilio Iannucci’s Phileas Fogg in one of his myriad challenging scrapes in Around The World In 80 Days

One heavy-drinking scene with Mann’s Fix and Azhar’s Passepartout trying to balance but constantly on the move on a seesaw will live long in the memory.

Not only Forster and her livewire, fun, funny international company are on top form here: so too are Sara Perks’s evocative circus set and dapper costume designs; Asha Jennings-Grant’s dashing movement direction, circus acrobatics and smart choreography, and Ed Gray’s music and especially his 360-degree sound design that adds spectacularly to the rip-roaring drama.

Still haven’t the Foggiest idea of what family show to see this summer? This is the one. Roll up! Roll up!

Tickets can be booked on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Suitable for age seven upwards.

Around The World In 80 Days performances still to come:

Copmanthorpe Primary School, tonight, 7pm.

Archbishop Holgate’s School, August 14, 7pm; August 15, 2pm and 6pm; Aug 16, 3pm and 7pm.

Joseph Rowntree School, August 18, 7pm; August 19, 3pm and 7pm; August 20, 7pm; August 21, 2pm and 6pm.

York Theatre Royal, August 25 to 28, 2pm and 7pm. Signed performance: August 26, 2pm.

Roll up! Roll up! Emilio Iannucci’s Ringmaster offers his welcome to Vernes Circus in York Theatre Royal’s Around The World In 80 Days. On stage too are circus performers Ali Azhar, Dora Rubinstein, Eddie Mann and Ulrika Krishnamurti