York Shakespeare Project to perform Shakespeare’s Songs in buildings ancient and modern from September 22 to 24

Shakespeare’s Songs producer and composer Nick Jones with, front pew, Meg Ollerhead and Lowen Frampton, and, second pew, Emma Scott, left, and Tracey Rea. Picture: John Saunders

ST Mary Bishophill Junior, probably the oldest working church in York, will swap hymns for Shakespeare’s Songs on September 22 and 23.

Taking over the ancient building – dating in parts to before the Norman conquest – York Shakespeare Project (YSP) will perform acoustic songs and instrumental music written specially for productions of As You Like It (2008), Troilus And Cressida (2011), Twelfth Night (2014) and The Tempest (2022), complemented by new songs from The Winter’s Tale and Love’s Labours Lost.

St Mary’s churchwarden, Graeme Thomas, says: “We’re always delighted to welcome visitors to our historic church. We’ve had theatre here before, and it will be an atmospheric setting for Shakespeare’s Songs.”

The venerable church has a Roman arch and Anglo-Saxon stonework and would have been centuries old already in Shakespeare’s own time. In contrast, the music by Nick Jones, Fergus McGlynn and York International Shakespeare Festival director Philip Parr is more contemporary, with Jones’s cast singing and playing instruments from guitars, ukelele and mandolin to cello, oboe, recorders and cajon.

Among those performers will be Maurice Crichton, who played Sir William Maleverer in York Theatre Royal’s community play, Sovereign, and fisherman Hector in YSP’s Sonnets At The Bar this summer; Emma Scott, the lead actress from YSP’s Macbeth and Rape Of Lucrece, and musical theatre regular Tracey Rea. Cast members from YSP’s Twelfth Night and The Tempest will feature too, alongside familiar faces from York Mystery Plays productions.

Introducing his new compositions for the show, producer Nick Jones says: “From The Winter’s Tale we have two new settings of songs for Maurice Crichton’s Autolycus, the pedlar with a taste for cheating and petty theft, in which he sings about his roving life: When Daffodils Begin To Peer and Jog On.

“From Love’s Labours Lost, Emma Scott and Sally Maybridge will sing the final song, When Daisies Pied. The play ends with an anticipated marriage halted by a death. The suitors are told to wait a year and prove their seriousness. The year passes in the course of the song, as winter follows spring. I think it’s Shakespeare’s most lovely song.”

Nick, who has devised Shakespeare’s Songs, says: “The York Shakespeare Project was set up in 2001 with the aim of performing all the Bard’s plays in York and completed that initial mission last year with Philip Parr’s production of The Tempest that toured North Yorkshire before a final performance at York Theatre Royal.

Producer Nick Jones: At the helm of a light-hearted revue of Shakespeare’s Songs. Picture: John Saunders

“Original music by local composers has often been a highlight of YSP’s productions and we thought it deserved to be heard again, in a light-hearted revue.

“Staging a musical celebration of our 22-year history, we’re marking that achievement with Shakespeare’s Songs, revisiting the original music from several of those plays and introducing some new songs with a cast of YSP regulars. It should be fun – and we’re exploring a couple of new venues to us, separated by about 1,000 years of architectural history.”

After the St Mary’s performances (7.30pm, September 22; 3pm and 7.30pm, September 23), Shakespeare’s Songs will switch to the thoroughly modern Super Sustainable Centre, Derwenthorpe, Osbaldwick, on September 24 at 7.30pm.

YSP heads into the autumn on the back of Sonnets At The Bar taking over the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre’s secret garden from August 11 to 19. “We were blessed with dry weather and delighted with the response, drawing a record 600+ audience,” says chair Tony Froud.

The next production will be the first of YSP’s expanded mission to embrace works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries in the project’s second cycle, namely Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from October 17 to 21 at 7.30pm nightly plus a 2.30pm Saturday matinee.

Edward II is king at last. Determined to shower his loved ones with gifts, he summons his exiled lover, Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall. King, court and country are intoxicated by their passions, whereupon the Queen takes her own lover and the nation is torn apart in a merciless divorce.

Their child watches from the shadows, desperate to mend his broken family and nation, or bring them to heel, in Marlowe’s poetic play about power and love: who has it, who seeks it and who suffers for it.

Box office: Shakespeare’s Songs, yorkshakespeareproject.org/shakespeares-songs or, if available, on the door; Edward II, tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Maurice Crichton in his role as fisherman Hector in York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar in the Bar Convent ‘s secret garden last month. Picture: John Saunders

Shakespeare’s Songs: the cast in full

Maurice Crichton, York stage regular, fresh from a summer playing Sir William Maleverer in York Theatre Royal’s Sovereign and Hector the fisherman in YSP’s Sonnets At The Bar.

Emma Scott, from YSP’s Macbeth and The Rape Of Lucrece.

Tracey Rea, musical theatre stalwart ( such as York Stage’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, April 2023).

Meg Ollerhead, from YSP’s The Tempest and York Mystery Plays.

Lowen Frampton, from York company Baron Productions and YSP’s The Tempest .

Michael Maybridge, from YSP’s The Tempest and York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust’s A Nativity For York and The Baptism Play from the Mysteries.

Sally Maybridge, from YSP’s The Tempest and York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust’s A Nativity For York and The Baptism Play from the Mysteries.

Tim Olive-Besly, from YSP’s The Tempest.

Nick Jones. “Apparently I’ve been in more YSP plays than anyone else, most recently The Tempest,” he says.

REVIEW: Charles Hutchinson’s verdict on York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, A Nativity for York, Spurriergate Centre, York

Anastasia Crook’s Mary with infant Jesus wrapped in swaddling bands in A Nativity for York. All pictures: John Saunders

COVID cancelled last winter’s edition of A Nativity for York and did its worst to scupper this year’s return after a two-year absence.

Nine out of 16 cast members had tested positive during rehearsals, one actor’s all-important negative reading on the day of the dress rehearsal ensuring clearance for take-off.

Divine intervention, you might say, and the arrival of this new-born production under the guiding light of Alan Heaven’s direction is indeed something of a miraculous conception. The very subject of A Nativity, of course.

The shepherds: James Tyler, left, Effie Warboys and Mark Comer

Note the title: A Nativity for York. Heaven’s production is the essence of community theatre, rooted in York’s unrivalled mediaeval Cycle of Mystery Plays. From the streets, those plays move indoors, onto the stone slabs of the ever-convivial Spurriergate Centre, where mulled wine and mince pies spice up the arrival scene.

Writer, director and designer Heaven has constructed a backdrop as if from a builders’ guild – ladders, a plank, dust sheets, work bench – affording a mezzanine level for the Angel Gabriel, and providing the edifice for drapes of changing colours: blue to signify Anastasia Crook’s Mary; red for Nick Jones’s ruthless Herod; black for the hellish scene of Herod’s slaughter of the babes.

Even a clothes line pops up to emphasise the Mystery Plays’ meeting point between the utilitarian and the work of the Lord.

Nick Jones’s Herod and Wilma Edwards’s Chamberlain at a helluva party

Storytelling theatre lies at the heart of Heaven’s Nativity, a familiar story but here told with fresh imagination, shards of humour, especially for Michael Maybridge’s disbelieving, weary Joseph and the shepherds, peppered with bursts of traditional song and communal dance, to the accompaniment of arrangements by The Bertie Set, played by Diane Heaven (keyboards) and Petra Wade (recorders).

Alice Melton’s all-in-flowing-white Angel Gabriel has a shimmering radiance and even a hint of Shakespeare’s Puck when she rouses Joseph from his slumbers with a nudge in the back.

Crook’s Mary – the role every (competitive) girl wanted to play in the school Nativity Play – is played with virtue, calm purpose and awe-struck duty by Crook, with Sally Maybridge’s Anna often by her side.

The Massacre of the Innocents under Herod’s orders

Mark Comer’s Symeon is central to the lovely opening scene under an umbrella as the company spins around him in a whirl of ribbons. Harold Mozley, Daniiel Zavalniuk and Rachel Curnow’s earnest Kings contrast with the country-bumpkin airs of James Tyler and Effie Warboys, sheep under her arm, as they lead the audience in a participatory folk song that needed more clarity on Wednesday to make out what exactly chorus line was when urged to join in.

Jones’s Herod, dapper in his waistcoat and coat but devil-red in his butchery, has a sparring relationship with his truculent son (Tristan Heaven), in the tradition of theatrical fraternal frictions. Their scenes heighten the drama with a Shakespearean edge.

In keeping with Heaven’s renderings of the Last Judgement in wagon plays on the streets of York, the visual peak is the Massacre of the Innocents under Herod’s orders, a scene of terror and horror as the mothers’ screams pierce the night chill. Where earlier the ribbons signified joyful news, now they represent the guts of slaughtered children.

Anastasia Crook’s Mary, seated, in a joyous scene in York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust’s A Nativity for York

As Alan Heaven puts it: “Our production is built on juxtapositions of light and dark, joy and despair, community and isolation as we witness the depths of human suffering alongside the hope brough by the birth of Jesus.”

Words that echo through the streets of today, Christmas lights shining out against a backdrop of financial struggles, strikes, freezing temperatures and an ever greater need for hope and re-birth.

Tickets are on sale at £10, students and under 18s £6, on 01904 623568, at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or in person from the Theatre Royal box office.