EVERYONE has a favourite Quality Street – purple, green…orange, not so keen – but there is only one Quality Street play to bite into.
Nevertheless, Northern Broadsides artistic director Laurie Sansom gives it a new wrapper, “stirring in a good helping of Yorkshire wit” from the retired workers of Halifax’s Mackintosh factory, makers of Quality Street.
And so a work from Toffee Town heads to Chocolate City this week, much later than first planned. Sansom’s Broadsides debut had to be put back in the sweetie cupboard after only four weeks when Covid put a red line through theatre shows in March 2020.
This spring he picks up the mantle with plenty of new flavours in the cast, only two of the originals still making the selection for the revived co-production with Newcastle-under-Lyme’s New Vic Theatre.
Here is the history bit. Quality Street is a “delicious Regency rom-com” from the 1901 pen of J M Barrie, pre-dating the better known Peter Pan but a huge hit on Broadway in its own right.
Come 1936, Mackintosh’s management hit on the idea of assembling beautifully wrapped toffees, chocolates and sweets in a tin encased in a picture of Quality Street’s principal characters, Phoebe Throssel and Captain Valentine Brown.
Cue Sansom’s idea to weave verbatim recollections from the Quality Street factory floor into Barrie’s play, the red-hatted workers serving as a Greek chorus cum collective narrator, passing comment on the play’s unfolding dramas, recalling their working days and their own romances, and reflecting on how courting has changed.
The to-and-fro format takes a while to settle, not least because the ‘Mack’ workforce open the play with their fourth wall-breaking gossip and nostalgia. They are never more than convivial commentators by comparison with the fateful scene-setting of the Witches in the thunder and lightning prologue to Macbeth and their subsequent encounters with the murderous Macbeth .
Something sweet and nutty this way comes as Barrie introduces his Regency romp with Paula Lane (once Kylie Platt in a different cobbled street, of the Coronation soap variety) in the role of Phoebe Throssel, a woman scandalised by having allowed Captain Valentine Brown (Aron Julius) to kiss her on the cheek. Ten years ago.
Ten years when he has been away fighting Napoleon, while Phoebe and sister Susan (Louisa-May Parker) have had to make a living, running a school for unruly children. They look exhausted, enervated, contemplating the prospect of having to add algebra to the curriculum without any enthusiasm. Understandable caution, you might say, in spite of PM Rishi Sunak’s enthusiasm for adding more Maths to the curriculum.
At this juncture, aside from Gilly Tompkins’ blunt-speaking maid Patty, more humour has been mined from the factory workers’ chatter than Barrie’s story, as supporting cast members switch between tea-break comment and rom-com roles. But once Julius’s Captain reacts so negatively to the older-looking Phoebe, still only 30, the play finds its sweet spot.
For a lavish ball, Phoebe transforms herself into lively, vivacious, flirty, flighty Miss Livvy, her “niece”, an alter-ego that will soon require her to be in two places at once in one of comedy’s favourite devices, from Shakespeare comedies of mistaken identity to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, chaotic Mischief capers to myriad pantomimes.
Not before Jessica Worrall’s witty design has served up the gorgeous spectacle of all the ladies in Quality Street wrapper dresses, Miss Livvy in the most popular purple, of course.
Not only Captain Brown is smitten, so too are Jamie Smelt’s Recruiting Sergeant and Alex Moran’s Ensign Blades as the comedy picks up pace and impact. Cross-dressing Jelani D’Aguilar’s Fanny Willoughby adds to the fun, and Parker’s Susan, forced to play a straight bat to keep Phoebe/Livvy one step ahead, personifies resourceful understatement.
At first you may wonder – as your reviewer did when watching a performance at Leeds Playhouse – why Quality Street made Barrie a fortune, but as should always be the case, the second half is better than the first, In particular in the all-important frank discussions between Phoebe and Captain Brown, where Barrie’s writing, suddenly more serious, goes to the heart of a woman’s woes, mistreatment and frustrations.
From the brief appearances of puppets to Ben Wright’s choreography for the ball, the design’s colour palette and the cast’s colourful northern vowels to Sansom’s beautifully judged direction, Quality Street ends up being a tin of purple and green ones.
Lane’s performance, especially when she has to have a filling of Phoebe within a chocolate coating of Miss Livvy, is top Quality too.
Northern Broadsides and New Vic Theatre present Quality Street at York Theatre Royal, until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Also: Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, May 25 to 27; Hull Truck Theatre, May 31 to June 3; Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, June 6 to 10; Victoria Theatre, Halifax, July 4 to 7. Box office: Sheffield, 0114 249 6000or sheffieldtheatres.co.uk; Hull, 01482 323638 or hulltruck.co.uk; Scarborough, 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com; Halifax,01422 351158 or victoriatheatre.co.uk.
LOOKING to make a list of every brilliant thing you could do? Here are Charles Hutchinson’s suggestions for the week ahead.
Play of the week: Northern Broadsides in Quality Street, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm, plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees
NORTHERN Broadsides, from Halifax, the home of Quality Street chocs, heads to the chocolate city of York with this delicious J M Barrie farce, whose lead characters featured on the first tin to take the Regency rom-com’s title in 1936.
Artistic director Laurie Sansom stirs a good helping of Yorkshire wit from retired workers at the Halifax factory into Barrie’s story of determined heroine Phoebe Throssel, who runs a school for unruly children, and Captain Valentine, who needs teaching a lesson in love. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Film event of the week: Little Richard: I Am Everything, City Screen Picturehouse, York, Tuesday, 8pm
DIRECTOR Lisa Cortés’s documentary tells the story of “the black queer origins of rock’n’roll, exploding the whitewashed canon of American pop music to reveal the innovator – the originator – Richard Penniman”.
Delving into Little Richard’s complicated inner world, with its switchbacks and contradictions and service to both God and music, Cortés conducts interviews with family, musicians and scholars to reveals how he created an art form for ultimate self-expression, and yet what he gave to the world he was never able to give to himself. Box office: picturehouses.com.
List of the week: Shared Space presents Every Brilliant Thing, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Wednesday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee
THEATRE@41 chair Alan Park swaps off-stage duties for on when appearing in Every Brilliant Thing, an hour-long show built around a list that spans a lifetime spent trying to prove life is beautiful, written by Duncan Macmillan with input from Jonny Donahoe.
Based on both true and untrue stories, this play about depression and the lengths we go to for those we love is staged by new York theatre company Shared Space, directed by Maggie Smales. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
Country gig of the week: Morgan Wade, Crossing State Lines (And Oceans!) Acoustic Tour, York Barbican, Thursday, 8pm
MORGAN Wade, the 28-year-old country singer from Floyd, Virginia, plays York on the back of her “once-in-a-decade debut”, 2021’s Reckless, first released through Thirty Tigers and later picked up by Sony Music Nashville.
Wade wrote or co-wrote a song cycle that addressed the reality facing teens and 20-somethings, embracing raw desire, the reality of getting high and getting sober and the realm of crawling through the wreckage, with tough vulnerability and hurt in her voice. Kat Hasty supports. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk (limited availability).
Adventure of the week: Baron Productions in Treasure Island, St Mary’s Church, Bishophill Junior, York, Thursday to Saturday, 7.30pm
YORK company Baron Productions stages Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 coming-of-age adventure story of buccaneers and buried gold, wherein 12-year-old Jim Hawkins finds a treasure map that belonged to the pirate Captain Flint. On board the Hispaniola, he and his friends Squire Trelawney and Doctor Livesey duly set off to a faraway island.
Daniel Wilmot’s thoroughly dashing cast includes Lee Gemmell’s Long John Silver, Paul Toy’s Doctor Livesey, Ellie Guffick’s Dick Johnson, Jamie Stapleton’s Cap’n Billy Bones, Molly Barton-Howe’s Morgan and Jack McAdam’s Dirk. Box office: ticketsource.co.uk/baron-productions.
Studio show of the week: Octopus Dream in I Love You, Mum – I Promise I Won’t Die, York Theatre Royal Studio, Friday, 7.45pm, and Saturday, 4pm and 7.45pm
MARK Wheeller’s fast-moving, emotionally charged play tells the true story of the tragic death of Dan, a cool, creative and talented South London schoolboy, who took a lethal dose of Ecstasy at an illegal rave.
At 16, he had plans, plenty of them, but losing his life was not one of them. Directed by Elliot Montgomery, Cobie Scott-Ward, Amy Zoldan, Alex Colley and Sean Radford use Dan’s own words to describe the choices he made and the impact on his family and friends in a journey from tragedy to redemption. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Classical concert of the week: York Guildhall Orchestra, Bernstein, Korngold & Rachmaninoff, York Barbican, May 20, 7.30pm
VIOLINIST Nicholas Wright heads back to York from his Vancouver home to play Hollywood film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D with the York Guildhall Orchestra.
Conducted by Simon Wright, the orchestra’s final concert of the 2022-2023 season also features Bernstein’s Overture to Candide and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No 2, written nine years after his first. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
Long-awaited return of the week: Sarabeth Tucek, Selby Town Hall, May 20, 8pm
AMERICAN singer-songwriter Sarabeth Tucek has re-emerged from a decade in hibernation – or more precisely “concentrating on other creative endeavours” – with a May 19 double album, Joan Of All, and a new moniker, SBT, her long-time nickname.
On her first British itinerary since 2011, she will be joined by her band for 18 dates. Support slots go to Kiran Leonard and dbh. Box office: 01757 708449 or selbytownhall.co.uk.
In Focus: Ben Fogle: Wild, York Barbican, May 19, 7pm and Harrogate Royal Hall, May 21, 7.30pm
BROADCASTER and adventurer Ben Fogle’s latest walk on the wild side is a 22-date tour full of hair-raising and uplifting stories from a life of amazing encounters.
Taking in Yorkshire trips to York and Harrogate next week, the Animal Park, Lost Worlds and New Lives In The Wild presenter will be sharing stories of hope, possibility and positivity and offering tips on “finding your ocean of possibility”.
Lessons learned from a career that has taken the 49-year-old Londoner to some of the most extreme locations in the world, whether filming for documentaries or tackling some of mankind’s greatest physical challenges.
A former Reservist in the Royal Navy, Ben embarked on the BBC’s ground-breaking Castaway series in 2000, when 36 adventurous souls ditched the rat race for a year-long social experiment, marooned on the remote Scottish island of Taransay in the Outer Hebrides.
“I think it’s all luck, but you make a bit of that yourself,” he says, reflecting on the past 23 years. “I have always loved travel, nature, the outdoors – that’s why I did Castaway. But it was a much more intense experience than anything I could have had under normal circumstances.
“I get asked about Castaway a lot and will be talking about it on the tour, as it’s a big part of me and relative to so much of what I do and have done.”
“Y2K” was “a definitive time”, Ben says. “It was pre-mobile phones, social media didn’t exist, so many things were very, very different. Now things have changed so profoundly, it would be difficult to go back to that innocence and simplicity.
“A [television] channel might try it again one day but no one has replicated it so far. Partly due to the fact nothing like it existed at that time, and people went for very pure and innocent reasons. The landscape has changed, people go on TV now for fame and fortune and that naturally changes the dynamic.
“Heading off to spend a year on an island with a load of strangers gave me a real grounding and a foundation of what it takes to make a simple, off-grid life.”
Those foundations allowed Ben to build his career and stood him in perfect stead for his many varied TV projects. Perhaps none more so than the 12 years of global travel for New Lives In The Wild, wherein he meets people living extreme, off-grid lives in a world now dominated by ease of communication and all too often dictated by being on-grid.
“Castaway definitely gave me the qualifications to be able to do a series like New Lives – to spend time with people living their whole life the way I did for 12 months,” he says. “I have a better understanding of the trials and tribulations, the highs and lows, the benefits and sacrifices they make.
“The more people I have spent time with over 12 years of making that show, the more I understand what goes into making a sustainable, off-grid life like that. A lot of these people are quite reserved, not anti-social necessarily, but they perhaps don’t enjoy being round other people. But as I have experienced it, they can open up with me – there’s almost a mutual respect between us.”
Ben’s experience of meeting those who live in some of the world’s most diverse environments forms the basis of his Wild tour as he takes audiences on a journey to relive inspiring and uplifting tales he has encountered on his travels to the wilderness of northern Sweden, the jungles of Honduras, the hostility of Chernobyl and the mountains of Nepal.
Having previously filmed in Chernobyl, when he met those who returned to live there as it continues to recover from the 1986 nuclear disaster, Ben made a private visit in September after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Early in the conflict, Russian armed forces seized the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – and soldiers were later reported to have radiation poisoning following their operations in the highly contaminated area.
More than a year after the invasion, he does not foresee the conflict ending soon. “I fear this is in for the long run, decades and decades of unrest in that part of the world,” he says. “I can’t see a quick resolution unfortunately.
“It’s another thing the tour will look at: the effects that war and disaster can have on places, not just the landscape but the people too. It seems harsh to say, but war is part of what happens in a world where seven billion people live. It’s another way that man destroys the environment around us, but can also provide examples of how a place can bounce back.”
Ben’s love of the great outdoors reaches back to his own childhood, where his time was divided between rural Dorset and central London, complemented by extended school holiday trips to the Canadian wilderness to visit his paternal grandparents.
Could he ever step fully out of modern life and would he take his family, wife Marina and children Ludo and Iona, along for the adventure?
“I’m incredibly lucky that I get to straddle two worlds, being in the urban world with all it offers, then going off to the wilderness – and that gives me perspective, which is so important in life,” he says.
“There’s definitely something about that kind of life that appeals to me, but not right now. Ludo and Iona are 14 and 12 this year and are very much involved in urban living.
“They are very well travelled. They have spent time in the jungle, in remote islands, wood cabins, the Norwegian wilderness. But then they go to school and are very much engaged with ‘normal’ society, and love researching on computers, having pizza or going to the cinema.”
Ben’s family lives outside London now. “That helps,” he says. “We ride horses, go wild swimming, long dog walks. But it’s balance; I want them to be street savvy as well as being able in bush craft skills. I want my children to be able to wire a plug and start a fire, to make a bed and to put up a tent. They’re all skills for life and don’t need to be exclusive.
“It’s one of the biggest lessons I think I’ve learnt from meeting hundreds of people all over the world – that too many people follow a prescription for life and don’t think about how you can change that.
“Yes, on one hand I live a prescriptive life with two children, a couple of dogs, paying taxes, being very much part of society. But on the other hand, I have a pretty alternative life, spending the majority of the year away from home because of what I do for a living.
“People ask why I’m not living in a cabin in the woods, but there are sacrifices to make for that life – and I love those great cultural events, arts, cinema, books, so what I have realised is that the search for a perfect balance is what is more important.
“My life is not something everyone could have, not everyone could do it. But I hope that after joining me on the Wild tour, people will consider what kind of things they can do in their own life, the small changes to make to find that balance.”
Ben Fogle: the back story
FORMER Royal Navy Reservist Ben appeared on the BBC series Castaway in 2000, marooned on an island in the Outer Hebrides for a year.
He has since presented Animal Park, Countryfile, Wild In Africa, Wild On The West Coast, Crufts, One Man And His Dog, Country Tracks Extreme Dreams, A Year Of Adventures, Storm City, Harbour Lives, Countrywise, Trawlermen’s Lives and New Lives In The Wild.
Hehas made documentaries on Prince William in Africa, disease in Ethiopia, Captain Scott in Antarctica and crocodiles in Botswana.
He has travelled extensively in South and Central America and has toured the world for various broadcasting assignments to more than 200 places including Tristan Da Cunha, Pitcairn, St Helena, East Timor, Nepal, Namibia, Kenya, the Arctic Circle, Zambia, Papua New Guinea, Uganda, Libya, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Tahiti, Maldives, Tanzania and Morocco.
He has worked as a special correspondent for NBC News and has published more than 15 books, including The Teatime Islands, Offshore, The Crossing, Race To The Pole, The Accidental Adventurer, The Accidental Naturalist, Labrador, Land Rover and English.
He has run the Marathon Des Sables, swum from Alcatraz to San Francisco, and is a keen sailor, marathon runner, boxer and cyclist.
Ben married Marina in 2006 after meeting her in the park while walking their dogs, Inca and Maggi. They have two children, Ludo and Iona.
For Wild tickets: York, yorkbarbican.co.uk; Harrogate, 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk.
REVIEW: Hull Truck Theatre/Theatre By The Lake, Hull Truck Theatre, until May 20 ***
AROUND The World In 80 Days is a race against time, a race that involves cramming in so much that ironically Laura Eason’s play runs the risk of feeling like it is taking too long.
Such a challenge faces both American writer Eason and director Hal Chambers, although designer Louie Whitemore definitely has the right idea in utilising a revolving stage to build the sensation of constant movement.
Whitemore’s basic set is bare: a set of the imagination on which anything can happen, anything can arrive: an elephant, a sledge, a train, a trading vessel, even a circus to start the second half.
Naomi Oppenheim’s puppetry, Jess Williams’s movement direction and Claire Llewellyn’s fight direction all add to the visual spectacle in a production rooted in physical theatre and dextrous feats as much as symbols of English Victoriana and colonialism.
French novelist Jules Verne’s story finds eccentric Victorian English gent Phileas Fogg (Stefan Adegbola) placing a wager with his stuffy Reform Club cronies that he can traverse the globe in 80 days. His entire fortune is at risk.
Adegbola’s immaculate, precise, tea-drinking, unflappable but not-always scrupulous Fogg takes on his challenge with the help, sometimes hindrance, of French valet Passepartout ( a clowning, Chaplinesque little tramp of a comic turn from Miriam O’Brien).
On his trail and on his tail is Dyfrig Morris’s Inspector Fix, who has convinced himself Fogg is a thief and will go to the ends of the world to prove it. He plays the buffooning fall guy in comic tradition.
As Fogg races from Italy to India, skips ship in Hong Kong and heads into dustbowl America, into the story are woven Tricia Adele-Turner’s Captain Speedy, Purvi Parmar’s Captain Blossom, Nicholas Prasad’s Mr Naidu and Niall Ransome’s scene-stealing, all-American Colonel Stamp Proctor when Chambers’ production hits its stride in the more inventive, more thrilling second half.
The danger rises and suddenly romance is in the air. Saba Shiraz’s Mrs Aouda, joining the protective Fogg from India onwards, has the measure of the Englishman, challenging him in a discussion on Britain’s colonial acquisitions, not least because Adegbola’s Fogg carries himself with an air of arrogant assumption of superiority.
Amid the chaotic humour, the playful music, the crazy commotions reminiscent of a Mischief caper, and the celebration of Britain’s age of invention, that more serious note gives Eason’s script a topical resonance.
QUALITY Street, Laurie Sansom’s “sweet and slightly nutty confection” of a debut production as Northern Broadsides’ artistic director, had to be put back on the shelf after only four weeks in 2020. Covid and all that. “Heartbreaking,” he said.
Definitely not past its sell-by debut, the Halifax company’s co-production with Newcastle-under-Lyme’s New Vic Theatre is being revived this spring with only two of the original cast members, playing York Theatre Royal from next Tuesday.
Among the seven newcomers is Gilly Tompkins, a face familiar to Northern Broadsides and Yorkshire audiences at large, who is delighted to renew acquaintances with Sansom after the “very strange experience of ‘audition by Zoom’, not knowing how many people were watching”!
“I was in Ayckbourn’s farce Absurd Person Singular – the one set in three kitchens – in Laurie’s first production at the Watford Palace Theatre: his first job after leaving Cambridge University,” she recalls. “That was in September 1997. He’s 51 now, I’m 59, and he’s always a delight to work with.
“He’s very playful in the rehearsal room, really up for a laugh, like starting a rehearsal with a game. He’s so intelligent, always enthusiastic and loves the job of directing.”
Quality Street is billed as a “delicious Regency rom-com” from the writer of Peter Pan (first staged in 1904 and transformed into the novel Peter And Wendy in 1911).
Premiered at the Knickerbocker Theater on Broadway, New York, on November 11 1901, it made J M Barrie a millionaire, says Gilly. “To think he hadn’t even written Peter Pan at that point, it’s just an amazing success story, and it was so popular that that’s how the Quality Street boxes and tins of chocolates came about in 1936,” she notes.
“Because the play was so successful, the Mackintosh confectioners in Halifax thought, what if we put all the favourite chocolates, toffees and sweets in colourful wrappings in a tin with a scene from the play on the tin?”
That scene featured central characters Phoebe Throssel and Captain Valentine Brown from Barrie’s drama. Phoebe (played by Paula Lane, latterly Kylie Platt in a different street, Coronation Street) and her sisterSarah run a school for unruly children on Quality Street. Ten years after a tearful goodbye, her old flame returns from fighting Napoleon, but the look of disappointment on Captain Brown’s face when he greets an older, less glamorous Phoebe spurs the determined heroine to action.
She duly becomes the wild and sparkling Miss Livvy, a younger alter-ego who soon beguiles the clueless Captain.
Gilly plays Patty, the maid to the Throssel sisters. “She’s so rude, so belligerent, though she loves Phoebe really” she says. “But she’s no respecter of status. She’s even ruder than they are!”
Sansom’s version “stirs in a good helping of Yorkshire wit from the retired workers of Halifax’s Quality Street factory”. Among them is Barbara, Gilly’s second character. “She was one of the women Laurie interviewed about their factory life and their thoughts on love, along with women from the Knit and Natter groups in Calderdale, and I’m going to meet her when we play Halifax,” she says, looking forward to their encounter during the July 4 to 7 run at the Victoria Theatre. “Barbara is such a sweet lady. I can’t wait.
“They’re like Shakespeare’s ‘Rude Mechanicals’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, commenting on what they’re watching and sharing their memories of the factory, which feature as verbatim monologues in the show.
“The second half opens with me as Barbara, giving out sweets and doing her monologue, and I’m allowed to improvise while the actors stay in character around me doing a Regency dance.
“One night in Stoke [Newcastle-under-Lyme, to be precise], the music wouldn’t start, so I kept improvising because, if you give out sweets, people will talk! All the actors left the stage, and I ended up doing ten minutes on my own with people calling out, ‘hey, Barbara, can I have a sweet?’!”
Ironically, Gilly had been “a bit scared in rehearsals about doing a monologue and handing out sweets, but I’ve loved it and so have the audiences,” she says.
“We keep coming on to pass comment and the audience soon gets used to it. At one point, you’ll see two of the former factory workers peel off their factory costumes to become characters in the play.”
Gilly describes her participation in Quality Street” as “blink and you miss it”. “But I took it on because we’ve been in lockdown and I thought, ‘I might never work again, let’s do it’,” she says.
“It’s been my ‘social tour’, a chance to see friends around Yorkshire, and to work with Laurie and Northern Broadsides again. It’s been so brave of Laurie to take up Barrie Rutter’s mantle as artistic director and to completely reinvent Broadsides.”
One final question, Gilly. Which is your favourite Quality Street chocolate? “It’s the one that when I give out sweets, 90 times out of 100, people say they want: the purple one, because you’ve got that beautiful colour for the wrapping, the chocolate, and then that nut in the middle,” she says.
“But it must be the most people I’ve ever worked with that like the orange and strawberry ones. Not for me! Quality Street is like Marmite that way!”
Northern Broadsides and New Vic Theatre present Quality Street at York Theatre Royal, May 16 to 20, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Also: Leeds Playhouse, all this week, until Saturday; Hull Truck Theatre, May 31 to June 3; Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, June 6 to 10. Box office: Leeds, 0113 213 7700 or leedsplayhouse.org.uk; Hull, 01482 323638 or hulltruck.co.uk; Scarborough, 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com.
Northern Broadsides in As You Like It, York Theatre Royal, 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow, andon tour. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
COVID had kept Northern Broadsides away from York since 2019, rudely curtailing Quality Street’s travels before the Theatre Royal run in 2020.
York’s wait to see a Laurie Sansom production following his appointment as artistic director in 2019 finally ended on Wednesday, with the sight of Sansom himself on stage.
Always a nervous moment: a director standing on the boards. Would he be delivering last-minute bad news? Thankfully not, instead expressing his delight at Broadsides being back in York, before announcing a couple of Covid-enforced substitutions after last week’s positive tests scuppered the Stephen Joseph Theatre run.
Jo Patmore would be stepping up from Amiens and William duties to stand in for Isobel Coward as devoted cousin Celia. Robin Simpson, his Ugly Sisters double act with Paul Hawkyard still fresh in the mind from the Theatre Royal’s Cinderella pantomime, would play the melancholic Jacques, a still grave but more bookish figure with safety-net book in hand after filling in at short notice for Adam Kashmiry.
Ironically, Simpson almost missed out on his week under the lights, Sansom revealing that he had damaged his knee ahead of the first night and would take to the stage with a pronounced limp and a stick. Limp, yes, stick, no, as it turned out; the book being his more important crutch.
As You Like It was dismissed as a mere crowd-pleaser by George Bernard Shaw, a gibe that suggests it is an inferior work, made for laughs rather than weightier impact. In truth, aside from Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy, it has always been nothing more than an As You Only Quite Like It play, one that demands graft as much as craft from its cast.
What Laurie Sansom has done, however, is to make it a play for today, newly resonating with our pandemic-shadowed times in its celebration of (our return to) the joys of live performance; the right to work out who you are and who you want to be, and the heightened appreciation of the transformative power of the natural world. In a nutshell, what better time to go wild in the country in a tale of mistaken identities and changing attitudes.
From Sansom’s impromptu stage announcement onwards, his production is marked by informality, with a flexibility to the delivery of Shakespeare’s text to rival the gender fluidity.
Although the play’s initial tone is determined by the rigidity of Duke Frederick’s macho court, the mood is set by Joe Morrow’s drag-queen Touchstone, given freedom to roam, to improvise, as he would in his other lives as cabaret turn Joe Morose and Café de Paris master of ceremonies.
Sansom modernises the wrestling clash, bringing it into the WWF age with American- accented entries, Bailey Brook’s Charles becoming Chainsaw Charles and Shaban Dar’s Orlando adding ‘Dynamite’ to his moniker.
Morrow’s Broadsides debut is an utter joy, born for the centre stage, quick on the quips and asides, his voice a delicious tease throughout, playing the wise fool.
Elsewhere, this production revolves around an EM and an E.M.: namely non-binary actor EM Williams’s Rosalind, banished from the court, and duly taking the guise of a boy once in the Forest of Arden, and E.M. Parry, a designer who specialises in work that “centres Queer bodies and narratives”.
Parry delivers fabulous costumes, with a flourish reminiscent of Lez Brotherston, while the forest takes the form of hatstands, both a fashion statement and a bravura way to represent the wooded natural world and our roles as mere players going through the costume changes of life.
Williams’s Rosalind is teased in Morrow’s banter for being so serious, and indeed Williams’s performance is intense, earnest, yet lithely energetic and liberated too, before turning into Puck for the epilogue.
Reuben Johnson’s Oliver, Dar’s Orlando, Ali Gadema’s Duke Frederick and Patmore’s Celia keep the story moving; Simpson’s Jacques steps in with his glum commentary, breaking down the fourth wall once to acknowledge coming in too soon for his next line.
Morrow makes light of being the conductor for so much of the comedy, albeit aided by Brook’s Silvius and Gemma Dobson’s Phoebe. An out-of-the-blue cameo by three cast members as misbehaving sheep draws the biggest laughter, nudging towards pantomime in a scene orchestrated by Morrow seemingly on the hoof.
Tellingly, it is not the only moment where Morrow’s own wit is funnier to modern ears than Shakespeare’s script, although he is equally adept at spinning the Bard’s words like plates.
Robert Bentall’s music is industrial and harsh for the court, beautifully pastoral for the forest, adding to the contrast. Ultimately, Sansom’s As You Like It is more successful as a visual delight and as a piece of political theatre in tune with cultural and social issues in its diverse casting and sensibilities than as a comedy, Morrow aside. That makes it a better play for today. Job done.
Further Yorkshire performances will follow at Leeds Playhouse, May 17 to 21; The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, June 9 to 18; CAST, Doncaster, June 21 to 25, and Harrogate Theatre, June 28 to July 2. Box office: Leeds, 0113 213 7700 or leedsplayhouse.org.uk; Halifax, 01422 849 227 or theviaducttheatre.co.uk; Doncaster, 01302 303959 or castindoncaster.com; Harrogate, 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk.
REUBEN Johnson will take to the York Theatre Royal stage tonight for the first time since the Travelling Pantomime camped there for a couple of shows on its city-wide tour in December 2020.
This time he will be part of a “diverse cast of 12 fabulous northern actors” in Halifax company Northern Broadsides’ 30th anniversary production, a bold, bracing take on Shakespeare’s most musical comedy, As You Like It.
In a court where executive powers are running rampant and machismo strength is championed over basic human decency, Johnson’s character, Oliver, is older brother to the brave, chivalrous, tender, modest, smart, handsome Orlando. What’s not to like?!
“He starts off by scheming against his brother. Oliver has inherited his father’s fortune, but he’s planning to kill his brother. Classic sibling rivalry,” says Reuben. “But as the chaos of the play unravels, Oliver has a reckoning and a bit of a ‘come to Jesus’ moment.”
Along with high-spirited Rosalind, her devoted cousin Celia and drag queen Touchstone, Johnson’s Oliver will head to the Forest of Arden, where they will encounter outlaws, the changing seasons and life unconfined by rigid codes.
Cue a sylvian world where gender roles dissolve and assumptions are turned on their heads in director Laurie Sansom’s celebration of the crazy power of love to change the world and the sheer joy of live performance.
“It’s interesting to see how the court characters respond to the country. It’s quite humbling,” says Reuben. “I live in the city, but I’m an avid hiker and rambler, when your ego disappears, so I’ll try to find places to go when I’m on tour.
“It all started because of acting, when I was working in Scotland and had a bit of free time to explore while I was in Edinburgh. I’ve done the Edinburgh Fringe loads of times, but it was when I was doing a play outside the festival chaos that I had a better chance to visit places. Living in Salford, the Peak District is nearby, which is great for me.”
Reuben is making his Northern Broadsides debut. “But, funnily enough, my brother Linford was in their production of Much Ado About Nothing, playing Claudio – but I’m not planning to kill him!
“I have done tours before, doing Macbeth for the National Theatre, when I played the Doctor but had a good run as Banquo – two and a half weeks as the understudy – but that was a totally different tour, playing bigger theatres.
“I’ve worked a lot around the country but not previously at a lot of the venues on this tour, so that’s been enjoyable too.”
Reuben is working with director Laurie Sansom for the first time and with many of the company for the first time too, although one familiar face will be joining him on the Theatre Royal stage: his Travelling Pantomime co-star Robin Simpson, stepping into the role of melancholic Jacques for one week only.
“It’s always good to play with new people in a cast,” he says. “It’s great to have relationships with certain theatres who will employ me regularly, and it’s also good for actors to have relationships with theatre companies, but it’s also good to get in new faces to freshen things up.
“What was needed for this show was to bring a young energy to it, and that’s what Laurie has done. In fact I’m one of the oldest in it, which is a first for me.”
The casting is marked by diversity. “A play like this is screaming out for it, with the gender swapping in the plot. Diversity is important in theatre and key to this play,” says Reuben. “I love seeing people from different experiences and different backgrounds on stage.
“We’re trying to tell a story as the very best we can and that’s done better with a more diverse cast. If you have 12 similar people on stage, you will only see things from one way, whereas there are so many different thoughts within this company.
“As an actor, I want to serve my character, but also as a brown, working-class man, it’s interesting to bring that perspective to it.”
Northern Broadsides’ gender-fluid As You Like It plays York Theatre Royal from tonight (23/3/2022) until Saturday at 7.30pm nightly plus 2pm, Thursday, and 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Further Yorkshire performances will follow at Leeds Playhouse, May 17 to 21; The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, June 9 to 18; CAST, Doncaster, June 21 to 25, and Harrogate Theatre, June 28 to July 2. Box office: Leeds, 0113 213 7700; Halifax, 01422 849 227; Doncaster, 01302 303959; Harrogate, 01423 502116.
YORK Theatre Royal pantomime favourite Robin Simpson is “very pleased and slightly scared” to be stepping into the shoes of Jacques for this week and this week only in Northern Broadsides’ comedy As You Like It.
Last seen on the York stage as Manky in an Ugly Sister double act with Paul Hawkyard’s Mardy in Cinderella – more of which in a moment – storyteller, panto dame and actor Robin will be taking over from Adam Kashmiry, performer, experimental mover, drag artist, storyteller and queer activist.
“Come and watch me muck it up!” says Robin on his Twitter feed. “All the world’s stage etc…”
After a week when a Covic outbreak among the cast scuppered all the Broadsides performances at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, all the world will be Robin’s stage from tomorrow at York Theatre Royal.
In the Halifax company’s “diverse cast of 12 fabulous northern actors”, Simpson will be playing the melancholic, cynical Jacques, who is bestowed two of Shakespeare’s most celebrated soliloquies, including the aforementioned “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”.
Jacques’s sentiment leads to director Laurie Sansom’s exploration of the endless possibilities of a world where “gender roles dissolve and assumptions are turned on their head in this celebration of the crazy power of love to change the world and the sheer joy of live performance”.
That sheer joy of live performance emanated from Simpson and Hawkyard’s riotous sisterly double act in Cinderella, co-produced by York Theatre Royal and partners in pantomime Evolution Productions, leading to their nomination for Best Ugly Sisters in the UK Pantomime Association’s Pantomime Awards 2022.
Directed by Juliet Forster and scripted by P:aul Hendy, Cinderella also has been nominated for Best Pantomime (500 to 900 seats).
Further nominations of CharlesHutchPress note go to York actor, magician and comedian Josh Benson for Best Comic for Joshin’ Josh in Imagine Theatre’s Jack And The Beanstalk at Halifax Victoria Theatre and to Joyce Branagh for Best Director for Harrogate Theatre’s Cinderella, after taking on the in-house production in the wake of regular director and co-writer Phil Lowe passing away unexpectedly last October.
During the 2021/2022 season, 46 judges saw 207 pantomimes across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, travelling from Aberdeen to Aylesbury, Belfast to Bognor and Cardiff to Canterbury.
The awards ceremony will take place on Tuesday, April 19 at the Trafalgar Theatre in London’s West End, hosted by veteran panto dame Christopher Biggins.
Meanwhile, Northern Broadsides’ gender-fluid As You Like It plays York Theatre Royal from tomorrow (23/3/2022) until Saturday at 7.30pm nightly plus 2pm, Thursday, and 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Further Yorkshire performances will follow at Leeds Playhouse, May 17 to 21; The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, June 9 to 18; CAST, Doncaster, June 21 to 25, and Harrogate Theatre, June 28 to July 2. Box office: Leeds, 0113 213 7700; Halifax, 01422 849 227; Doncaster, 01302 303959; Harrogate, 01423 502116.
FINGERS crossed that Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It can go ahead at York Theatre Royal from next Wednesday after the Covid curse struck Laurie Sansom’s cast this week.
Tuesday’s performance at the Stephen Joseph Theatre was cancelled, but one cover was in place for Wednesday, only for further positive tests to rule out all the Scarborough run.
Let’s hope for positive news but negative readings come next Wednesday when, all being well, and all 12 being well, artistic director Sansom’s multi-cultural, gender-diverse cast can resume performing Shakespeare’s flamboyant and joyous “play for our times”.
As You Like It is the Halifax company’s first full-scale production since the beginning of the pandemic. “I took over here three years ago, and we’d just got JM Barrie’s Quality Street out the door when Covid stopped the tour after only a month. We lost four months of shows [including York Theatre Royal] but made the decision to pay the company for the full run as we had the money to do so,” says Laurie.
“Funding from the Culture Recovery Fund enabled us to survive, to set ourselves up on the digital platform – we’ll be filming As You Like It with the help of Pilot Theatre while we’re in York – and to future-proof ourselves, leading to us starting work on As You Like It.”
The Covid hiatus brought Northern Broadsides the chance for a re-think too. “It allowed us to step back and look to diversify our talent pool, and now we have such a diverse company on stage, in terms of gender identity, ethnicity and neuro-divergence,” says Laurie.
Taking to York Theatre Royal’s main stage in designer EM Parry’s high-fashion costumes will be “12 fabulous northern actors”, including non-binary and disabled performers, .
“The pandemic has thrown up a lot of challenges, but it’s certainly refreshed me and allowed the company to bring fresh eyes to Shakespeare, which Broadsides has always done, but now with a slightly different slant, where we’re also trying to expand our audience, appealing to younger people while still playing to our established audience, as we look to break down the perceived barriers about class and who goes to theatre.”
Billed as a world premiere, Sansom’s bold staging of As You Like It “challenges us to imagine a new future”, one that captures the joy of live performance and the crazy power of love to change the world while addressing Shakespeare’s timeless themes of gender, identity, power and romance.
When high-spirited Rosalind and devoted cousin Celia are no longer welcome in the ruthless Duke’s stylish but stifling court, where competitive machismo is championed over basic human decency, they escape from his toxic entertainment empire into the forest in disguise, accompanied by drag queen Touchstone.
As the seasons change and old hierarchies crumble in this magical place, normal roles dissolve and assumptions are turned on their head in an elaborate game where gender, class and sexual desire are fluid.
“The Forest of Arden is a place where ‘if’ runs rampant,” says Laurie. “People adopt new names, new clothes and new lovers in this free-form forest with no rules.
“They experience new feelings and dive into them willy-nilly; they play many parts and make many entrances and exits. It’s as if everyone has stepped through the wardrobe into another world but not without taking a lot of fabulous clothes with them.
“Our new production takes us deep into the joyful possibilities of ‘if’, and asks if all the world’s a stage, can all the men and women be whoever they want to be?”
Laurie’s desire was to make “something ambitious in terms of design, costume and casting, but with the clarity of the verse-speaking still there”. “That way we can be bold in how we present the play,” he reasons. “The baseline is that we work first to ensure that we understand everything in the text, taking out anything that’s obscure to modern audiences, because Shakespeare is so crystal clear when played with intention and clarity.”
The choice of As You Like It for Northern Broadsides’ return to live theatre reflected the impact of Covid lockdowns, turgid days and weeks of rules, prescribed lives and being allowed out of the house for only an hour’s exercise.
“This has been a time when people have had the chance to think about who they want to be, their identity, and have come to appreciate nature much more,” says Laurie.
“Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, this feels the most restorative, opening up the possibility of making a new world based on open-hearted acceptance of each other and living in harmony with the natural world. This feels like a play for our time, challenging us to imagine a new future that is more playful, accepting and connected.”
Key to this bravura new world production too is the set and costume design of EM Parry, who says: “In our version of Arden, when the characters escape to the forest, they go through the wardrobe, Narnia-like, into a giant dressing-up box of queer possibility, a place where time, gender, sexuality, love, class, and all the hierarchies and binaries of identity and power can be questioned and turned upside down.
“Expect a world where a blizzard blows out of a hatbox, dresses change colour with the seasons, coat stands turn into trees and flowers grow up between the floorboards. Expect a world where a god turns up to a wedding, and who you are and who you fall in love with today can change as winter changes to spring, or a coat turns inside out.”
Over to you, Lateral Flow Tests. Watch this space for an update on next week’s run.
Northern Broadsides in As You Like It, York Theatre Royal, March 23 to 26, 7.30pm; 2pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
LET’S do The Time Warp again? It’s just a jump to the left, and then a step to right, to enjoy plenty more of Charles Hutchinson’s recommendations.
Fancy dress invitation of the week: Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show, Grand Opera House, York, Monday to Saturday
KRISTIAN Lavercombe celebrates his 2,000th performance as Riff Raff as Richard O’Brien’s 1973 musical extravaganza enjoys yet another York run.
Alongside Lavercombe in Christopher Luscombe’s touring production will be 2016 Strictly Come Dancing winner Ore Oduba as preppy college nerd Brad Majors, Haley Flaherty as squeaky-clean fiancée Janet Weiss and Stephen Webb as castle-dwelling Transylvanian transsexual doctor Frank-N-Furter.
Cue fabulously camp fun and even camper costumes, shlock-horror comedy and science-fiction send-ups, audiences in fancy dress and sassy songs such as Sweet Transvestite, Science Fiction/Double Feature and The Time-Warp singalong. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York.
Exhibition launch of the week: Imogen Hawgood and Horace Panter, Hyperrealism in America and Japan, at According To McGee, Tower Street, York, from 11am today until March 25
NEW According To McGee signing Imogen Hawgood, from County Durham, introduces her collection of realist paintings in a duo show with Pop artist and Ska legend Horace Panter, The Specials’ bassist.
Panter’s Edward Hopper-inspired depictions of Midwest motels, inner-lit Japanese kiosks and sun-warmed Coca-Cola crates complement Hawgood’s exploration of Americana icons and the idea of “the road” as a transitional landscape.
Rock horror show: Steve Steinman’s Vampires Rock – Ghost Train, Grand Opera House, York, tonight (12/3/2022), 7.30pm
NOTTINGHAM singer and producer Steve Steinman returns to York with his tongue-in-cheek show stacked high with rock anthems, guitar gods and vampy vampettes.
Steinman’s Baron von Rockula and his vampires take refuge in an old fairground’s ghost train as he seeks a new virginial wife after the death of his beloved Pandora. Ordering faithful sidekick Bosley to find him one, enter Roxy Honeybox.
Now in its 20th year, Vampires Rock sets a cast of singers, dancers and musicians loose on Queen, AC/DC, Bonnie Tyler, Meat Loaf, Bon Jovi, Journey and Guns N’ Roses chestnuts. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York.
York gig of the week: Glenn Tilbrook, The Crescent, York, Sunday, 7.30pm
THIS is a standing show…and an outstanding one too as endearing and enduring Deptford singer, songwriter, guitarist and troubadour Glenn Tilbrook makes his debut appearance at The Crescent.
More than 45 years after he first answered an ad placed by Chris Difford looking for like-minded sorts to form the band that became the evergreen Squeeze, an ending is nowhere in sight, even if he called his fourth solo album Happy Ending in 2014. Expect silver-tongued Squeeze and solo numbers, peppered with audience requests, tomorrow night.
Squeeze up, by the way, because this Gig Cartel-promoted gig has sold out. Fingers crossed for any returns (www.thecrescentyork.com), but otherwise you’re really up the junction for a ticket.
Literary event of the week: Alexander McCall Smith, York Theatre Royal, Monday, 7.30pm
YORK Literature Festival plays host to Alexander McCall Smith as he discusses the new instalment in his long-running Scotland Street series, the warm-hearted, humorous and wise Love In The Time Of Bertie.
Fiona Lindsay pops the questions, intertwined with footage shot on location in Edinburgh, wherein McCall Smith invites guests into his study, where he writes surrounded by paintings and books, and visits key landmarks from the books.
The festival follows from March 18 to 27 with full details at yorkliteraturefestival.co.uk. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Postponement of the week: Joe Jackson, Sing, You Sinners! Tour, York Barbican, moving from March 17 to July 29
BLAME Covid for this delay to only the second ever York concert of singer, songwriter and consummate arranger Joe Jackson’s 44-year career.
“After months of uncertainty, it finally became clear that continuing Covid restrictions (particularly on venue capacity) in certain countries, would make our Spring European Tour un-viable as planned,” says Jackson’s official statement. “We can’t tour at a loss, and the situation did not look like changing soon enough.”
Tickets remain valid for the new July 29 date when Jackson promises hits, songs not aired in years and new material. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
Storytelling show of the week: Sam Freeman, Every Little Hope You Ever Dreamed (But Didn’t Want To Mention), Cold Bath Brewery Co Clubhouse, Harrogate, Monday, 7.30pm; York Theatre Royal Studio, Friday, 7.45pm
FORMER York Theatre Royal marketing officer and 2009 TakeOver Festival co-director Sam Freeman heads back to his old stamping ground with his solo rom-com for the lonely hearted and the loved-up, armed with a projector, a notebook, wonky spectacles and nods to Richard Curtis’s Notting Hill.
Freeman, marketeer, occasional writer, director and stand-up comedian, combines storytelling and whimsical northern comedy in his multi-layered story of a chance encounter between two soulmates, how they fall in love, then part but may meet again. Box office: Harrogate, harrogatetheatre.co.uk; York, 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Shaking up Shakespeare: Northern Broadsides in As You Like It, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, Tuesday to Saturday; York Theatre Royal, March 23 to 26
MARKING Northern Broadsides’ 30th anniversary, artistic director Laurie Sansom’s diverse cast of 12 northern actors captures the “sheer joy of live performance and the crazy power of love to change the world” in his bold, refreshing take on Shakespeare’s most musical comedy.
Exiled from the court, high-spirited Rosalind, devoted cousin Celia and drag queen Touchstone encounter outlaws, changing seasons and life unconfined by rigid codes in the forest.
Gender roles dissolve and assumptions are turned on their head in a natural world of endless possibilities. Box office: Scarborough, 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com; York, 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Touring show of the week: Utopia Theatre in Here’s What She Said To Me, York Theatre Royal Studio, Thursday and Friday, 7.45pm
MEET Agbeke, Omotola and Aramide, three generations of proud African women connecting with each other across two continents, time and space, in Oladipo Agboluaje’s distaff drama, conceived and directed by York St John University graduate Mojisola Elufowoju.
Together the women share their struggles, their joys, tragedies and broken dreams, in order to find healing in the present. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
AFTER the Summer Of Love, the Haunted Season and the pantomime revolution, York Theatre Royal has a Spring! in its step for 2022’s diary of new beginnings.
“Our strategy is not middle of the road with our programming,” says chief executive Tom Bird. “We are either being ambitious commercially or ambitious artistically.
“When we make new work, we want it to resonate with the times; we want it to be relevant to York audiences and we want it to be experimental. We used to do a lot of plays that were ‘in the middle’, but where we are now, even though we do them rather well, we can’t do Chekhov and Ibsen, because no-one came.
“But we’re going to do loads of new work over the year ahead and we have to balance it with commercial work, because we want to have a full theatre that is a community-engaged theatre.”
In a nutshell that means accommodating Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow, York Light Opera Company’s Evita, Northern Broadsides and New Vic Theatre’s As You Like It, Dancing On Ice winner Jake Quickenden and Darren Day in the 1980s’ musical Footloose and Mischief and Penn & Teller’s Magic Goes Wrong in one season.
“As a creative theatre, we’re co-producing – and hosting rehearsals for – York company Pilot Theatre’s tour of The Bone Sparrow; we’ll be doing a community play, yet to be named, probably indoors in the summer,” says Tom.
“We’ll also be doing something at Easter and something about Guy Fawkes in November, so there’s plenty of new work in the pipeline. We’ll also continue to make ‘micro-community’ shows, like the Love Bites nights that reopened the theatre [after Lockdown 3] in May.” Watch this space as more details emerge.
Directed by artistic director Esther Richardson, Pilot Theatre’s world premiere of award-winning Australian playwright S. Shakthidaran’s adaptation of Zana Fraillon’s novel The Bone Sparrow will open at York Theatre Royal from February 25 to March 5 before touring to fellow co-producing houses Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Mercury Theatre, Colchester and Derby Playhouse.
Fraillon’s story of a Rohingya refugee boy who has spent his entire life living in a detention centre in Australia forms the third liaison between Pilot and the four theatres, who formed a new partnership to develop theatre for younger audiences.
“The way this consortium has worked is that, over a four-year period, each theatre takes its turn to make a show with Pilot. Derby Playhouse made Noughts & Crosses, Coventry made Crongton Knights,” says Tom.
“This time, we’re producing The Bone Sparrow in York. It’s a brilliant time to be doing this play, as it’s set in a refugee camp, when sections of the media and certain politicians try to demonise refugees. This play pushes back against that really powerfully.
“It’s also super-exciting that Arun Ghosh is doing the music and sound. Arun is an incredible Indian musician who I worked with on a show called Lions And Tigers, by Tanika Gupta, at Shakespeare’s Globe.”
Just as York Theatre Royal and pantomime partners Evolution Productions were determined to draw a wider, younger audience to Cinderella – and did so with 65 per cent visiting the Theatre Royal for the first time – so Tom is passionate about attracting young audiences to other shows too.
“It’s great to do work for this [teenage] age group with Pilot. We were worried because Crongton Knights was a tough sell, as it did feel its experiences specifically spoke to South London, but this latest show has really taken off,” he says.
“It seems to be a story that everyone is relating to, even thought it’s set in Australia, but then Australia is a good place to set such a story because the way Australia handles refugees and asylum seekers is a bleak vision of how it could be in our country.”
Politics lies at the heart of another centrepiece of the season: Nottingham Playhouse, Northern Stage (Newcastle) and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh’s co-production of Red Ellen, on tour in York from May 24 to 28.
Caroline Bird’s new play tells the inspiring and epic story of Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson “who was forever on the right side of history, forever on the wrong side of life”.
Caught between revolutionary and parliamentary politics, Ellen’s fight for a better world took in encounters with Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway; battling to save Jewish refugees in Nazi Germany; campaigning for Britain to aid the struggle against Franco’s Fascists in Spain; leading 200 petitioning workers on the Jarrow Crusade from Newcastle to London and serving in Churchill’s Cabinet – and she had affairs with Communist spies and government ministers alike.
“Caroline Bird, no relation, is an amazing new playwright, and this play is an absolute corker. It’s great to do that new work here, just as we were delighted to stage The Young’uns’ show The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff in the autumn,” says Tom.
“A new play by a female playwright, on a large theatrical scale, doesn’t happen that often and definitely not often enough.
“I just wanted to give it a stage in Yorkshire because it was already going to be performed in Scotland, the North East and the Midlands: places it should be seen in, but otherwise it wouldn’t be coming to Yorkshire.”
On March 17 and 18, Oladipo Agboluaje’s Here’s What She Said To Me follows three generations of proud African women, connecting with each other across two continents, across time and space.
First staged at Sheffield Crucible Theatre, the play was conceived and directed by Mojisola Elufowoju, who cut her theatrical teeth while studying at York St John University. “Moji did a lot of work at the Theatre Royal and has now put together this incredible company [Utopia Theatre] to tell the story of what happened to these Ugandan women,” says Tom.
“We have to keep going with tackling diversity in theatre; we’ve changed from being aware of the need to be diverse to reflect our community to a position of having to take a lead on this, going beyond reflecting diversity in our community to be always representing the contemporary world on our stage, because York is changing faster than we realise.”
In Michele Lee’s Rice, on April 13 and 14, two women form a powerful if unlikely bond: Nisha is a headstrong hotshot Indian executive working for Australia’s largest producer of rice and Yvette, an older Chinese migrant, is the cleaner with entrepreneurial ambitions of her own.
“Actors Touring Company are continuing our strand of Chinese and Asian theatre, which is becoming important to us because the largest community in York, aside from the white community, is Chinese,” says Tom.
“We’re trying to develop more work to reflect the city’s demographic, like when we did a production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie set in Hong Kong. Over seven percent of the audience was Chinese/Asian, compared with one per cent normally.
“Matthew Zia is a brilliant directing talent and we’re really excited to be bringing this European premiere to York.”
York Light Opera Company follow up Oliver! and Grease with Andrew Loyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita, the rags-to-riches story of Eva Person’s rise to First Lady of Argentina, from February 9 to 19.
“The last thing that would ever go from here would be shows like this, because work by York companies is so important to us,” says Tom. “It now fits in with Arts Council England’s new direction of travel, where it wants to encourage the chance for people to fulfil their creativity on our stage.”
Halifax company Northern Broadsides return to the Theatre Royal with their 30th anniversary production, Shakespeare’s sylvan comedy As You Like It, performed by a northern cast of 12 in the first visit to York under Laurence Sansom’s direction.
All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players as gender roles dissolve and assumptions are turned on their head in this celebration of the transformative power of love and the natural world.
“Laurie is a great appointment as artistic director, and As You Like It is really on the nose as a choice of play with all the focus on climate change right now,” says Tom.
Many more shows tumble out of the brochure: The HandleBards pedalling into York with their all-female, bicycle-powered, irreverent Macbeth on January 25 and 26; Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens’ tribute to Eric & Ern on February 1 and 2, and Treasure Island, La Navet Bete’s follow-up to Dracula: The Bloody Truth, on March 10 to 12.
Among further returnees are York’s drag diva deluxe, Velma Celli, with Me And My Divas, a celebration of Mariah, Celine, Whitney, Aretha, Cher and Britney, on March 19; English Touring Opera on April 8 and 9 with Puccini’s La Boheme and Rimsky Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel and Show Stopper, The Improvised Musical, on April 23.
For full Spring! season details and tickets, go to: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Box office: 01904 623568.
BARRIE Rutter OBE is to return to the stage for the first time since his successful treatment for throat cancer.
The Hull-born titan of northern theatre, now 73, will perform his one-man show, An Evening With Barrie Rutter, on November 7 at The Holbeck, Jenkinson Lawn, Holbeck, home to the Slung Low theatre company in Leeds.
The Saturday night of tall tales and anecdotes, poetry and prose will be a fundraiser for the installation of a new lift at the south Leeds community base, the oldest social club in the country.
Actor-manager and artistic director Rutter founded the pioneering touring company Northern Broadsides, based at Dean Clough in Halifax, from where they delivered stories in full-blooded, unapologetic northern dialect in non-traditional spaces across Britain.
A formidable, inspiring frontman, never afraid to be outspoken, Rutter stood down as Broadsides’ artistic director in 2018 after 25 years at the helm but, as this one-off fundraising performance will demonstrate, the irrepressible Yorkshireman has lost none of his fervour to have a good time with audiences.
The son of a Hull fishmonger, Rutter was given a part in the school play by an English teacher who thought he had “the gob for it”. He discovered he loved the stage, whereupon his career went from taking early steps with the National Youth Theatre to performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company and onwards to making such an impact with the clog-wearing Broadsides. In 2015, he was awarded the OBE for services to drama.
Rutter – he always signed off his director’s notes in Broadsides’ programmes solely with his surname – says: “I am absolutely thrilled at the invitation from Alan Lane and his team at Slung Low to perform at The Holbeck. What goes on in there is truly inspirational and I’m delighted support this wonderful venue when I perform there on November 7.”
All proceeds will go towards the Slung Low’s fundraising campaign for a lift to make The Holbeck accessible to everyone who wishes to attend events and private functions. Generous supporters have gifted £60,000 already towards the £150,000 target.
Alan Lane, Slung Low’s artistic director, says:“Barrie Rutter is one of the reasons why there are so many amazing theatre companies in the greater north nowadays – he was a genuine trail blazer. It’s such an honour to have Barrie perform at the club and delighted to share with our audience the opportunity to see a world-class, one-of-a-kind performer here at The Holbeck.”