REVIEW: Off night at The Offing, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

James Gladdon’s Robert and Ingvild Lakou’s Romy in The Offing. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

The Offing, Stephen Joseph Theatre/Live Theatre, Newcastle, at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until October 30. Box office: 01723 370541 or at

BOOK club favourite The Offing, Hebden Bridge writer Benjamin Myers’s life-affirming account of a journey of discovery from Durham to the North Yorkshire coast, finally makes it to Scarborough after all.

A word of caution, however. Janice Okoh’s adaptation, with additional material by Stephen Joseph Theatre artistic director Paul Robinson, deviates from the book in its structure and tone.

In the words of The Crack’s Book of the Month recommendation, quoted on the paperback sleeve: “If The Offing was a play, it would be a classic two-hander, but any theatrical version would be missing Ben Myers’ bucolic prose, which he imbues with all the evocative rhythms of the passing seasons. This is what folk music would look like if it came in the written form.”

Well, Robinson’s premiere gives us the folk music in the compositions of hauntingly voiced singer Ana Silvera, recorded with Rob Harbron, Lau fiddler Aidan O’Rourke and Jasper Høiby. Lyrical, poetic, poignant, the score and sound design score highly.

The false note, alas, is struck by the disruptive decision to forego a two-hander’s ebb and flow in favour of a jarring three-hander and a ghost story to boot, rather than the gradual revelation of the sub-plot’s mystery.

It would be wrong to say the impact rivals the late Banquo’s arrival at Macbeth’s dinner table, but the subtlety and nuance of Myers’ book is dissipated, and the SJT autumn brochure’s billing of a “sensitive” adaptation might well raise eyebrows, particularly at the sight of a desperate hand suddenly reaching through the shed wall after the sound of scratching. This is not a Stephen King story and it is out of place.

For those not familiar with Myers’s best-seller, The Offing is a coming-of-age story, wherein miner’s son Robert Appleyard (James Gladdon) has left his County Durham pit community on a trek with an open mind and no termination date, working casual labour shifts en route to Scarborough.

Already, at 16, he has the wish to escape life down the pit; he has the wit, but not the tools. This is post-war, still-on-rations Britain: grey, anti-German and narrow (resonating with Brexit Britain).

We pick up his story just up the Yorkshire moorland coast at Robin Hood’s Bay. Narrator Robert is 90, tapping away at a typewriter, 74 years on from when he first chanced upon the bohemian Dulcie Piper (Cate Hamer).

Removing his jacket, and those 74 years, he encounters her out walking her German Shepherd dog, Butler (or ‘Butters’, for short, “although it’s not shorter”, he notes, in the kind of observation that will mark him out for his future career).

Ingvild Lakou’s Romy and Cate Hamer’s Dulcie in The Offing. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Initially, the focus is on their story, the one that leads to a lifelong friendship. Gladdon’s callow, diffident but keen lad needs awakening; Homer’s libertine Dulcie – haughty yet naughty, once well connected and rebellious, still opinionated, waspishly witty and impassioned but now disconnected, shut down, austere and alone – needs reawakening.

As she feeds his body on epicurean food and wine – “you have butter!” he says, eyes lighting up – and his mind with great art and the literature of Keats, John Clare and the sex texts of DH Lawrence, the culture-clash chasms of the book begin to bubble away. Albeit with surprising softness by comparison with David Wood’s adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s wartime friendship tale Goodnight Mister Tom, but an elephant has taken up residence in the corner too.

Or, rather, two elephants. The first is omnipresent: Helen Goddard’s clunky set sits squarely at odds both with The Round’s configuration and with nature, the outdoors, the flowers and fruits, God’s Own Country Yorkshire, that should be as nurturing as the food and the literature.

Goddard plays instead to the memory-play interpretation of Okoh and Robinson by  constructing a heavyweight house interior and the shed where Robert beds down, an interior that has been stripped down to bare wood and faded, dusty pictures, furniture and items. The warmth is stripped away too.

Not only mice are scratching away in the corner. So too is elephant number two:  what to do with the secondary story of Dulcie’s long-gone lover, German poet Romy. She could be a mysterious, haunting presence through her poetry, or even Silvera’s music, but this version of The Offing turns from a coming-of-age story to a coming-off-page story, instead  having Ingvild Lakou’s Romy as an almost equal third player.

You would expect that in a film adaptation, but one of theatre’s great gifts, shared with books, is the deployment of imagination, a gift to let fly that is rejected here, and so The Offing becomes more prosaic than poetic, and so too does Romy, who fails to match the magnificence or mystery of Dulcie’s descriptions.

Writer and director seem unsure what to do with her when she is present, and Romy becomes a dead weight, stultifying what made the book so cherished.

Through no fault of the playing of Hamer, Gladdon and Lakou – always accurate to the script – The Offing and its characters feel weakened by transfer from page to stage, the relationships less impactful, the humour and colours muted, the overplayed ghost story failing to replace tension with (unnecessary) suspense.

Sadly, this misreading only makes you want to read the book instead.

The Offing will head back north for a November 3 to 27 run at Live Theatre, Newcastle. Box office: 0191 232 1232 or at

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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