Foxglove Theatre’s young blades head for dark side to shake up York’s stage scene

Too much paper work: Sam Jackson as teacher Nick in Foxglove Theatre’s The Brink

NEWLY formed York company Foxglove Theatre aim to “fill the blind spot” of York’s theatre scene by producing thought-provoking, dark and contemporary work.

First up – after an initial February staging circa St Valentine’s Day at University of York DramaSoc – will be their debut at Theatre@41, Monkgate, from June 30 to July 2 with Welsh writer Brad Birch’s The Brink: a comedy replete with blood, murder and death, sexual imagery and ephebophilia (sexual attraction to post-pubescent adolescents and older teenagers, aged 15 to 19).

Formed by producers Ione Vaughan, 21, and Ivy Magee, 20, and director Nathan Butler, 21, Foxglove’s vision is to create and promote thrilling theatre that encourages audiences to engage with live performance as naturally and readily as with their favourite television and streaming platforms.

“Amazing effects and chilling performances are not bound solely to our screens but can be enjoyed to the fullest live on stage as well,” reasons production manager and lighting designer Ivy.

Sam Jackson’s Nick, a school teacher on the brink, is confronted by Abel Kent’s Mr Boyd, the troublesome head teacher who plays with his already fragile sense of reality

“Our company believes in preserving theatre in an age of multi-media, not by binding ourselves to tradition but through adapting the stage alongside the screen.”

Cue The Brink, suitably provocative, dark and contemporary, with unsettling time shifts to boot, premiered at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, in June 2016.

History teacher Nick is a normal person, working a normal job, who lives a normal life, but he is stuck in an everlasting cycle of stasis at 27. Caught up in a downward spiral fuelled by dreams and whispers of a bomb buried under the school, he begins to lose control in a play with survival at its heart.

“The Brink is a psychological thriller and dark comedy that’s impossible to summarise in just one word,” says Ivy. “But if I had to: explosive!” 

Sam Jackson’s Nick recounts his recurring nightmare

Why stage The Brink, Nathan? “Thrilling, turbulent, unconventional, it encapsulates everything we want to bring to the York theatre scene,” he says. “It’s an unwavering dive into dark and prominent subject matter, alien to the established York stage.

“So, if you’re a Black Mirror, Love, Death And Robots or simply a psychological thriller fan, this is certainly the play for you. By utilising technology and special effects as additional storytellers, we invite you to celebrate the unique capabilities of contemporary theatre.”

You might expect the burgeoning talents of Foxglove Theatre to want to head to this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe, but Nathan says: “In my mind, I’d rather do it here – York has a good theatre scene – rather than taking the 50,000 steps needed to go to the Edinburgh Fringe. Let’s take one step: let’s play York – and our Crowd Funding goals have been reached and exceeded already.”

Nathan admires the work of Brad Birch, an award-winning playwright and screenwriter with plays such as Missing People, Black Mountain, Gardening For The Unfulfilled and Alienated, as well as The Brink, to his name.

“I saw The Brink when it premiered at the Orange Tree, when I was part of National Theatre Connections, and I fell in love with it. Then I acted in it in 2018 for the In Yer Face Company, when we took it to Leatherhead Festival, and it was my favourite thing I did with them.

Sam Jackson’s Nick confides in Harshavardhini Pareek’s Jo, his fellow teacher

“There’s just something about it: it starts off so accessible, you feel you could be watching a TV show or a film – but on stage – where you’re in that comfortable space, feeling like you could be having popcorn!

“But then there are these little hints that something isn’t right and you start feeling differently about what’s going on as Nick’s mental health deteriorates. You’re thrust into this visceral world where you see someone’s descent in front of you.”

Nathan is using a cast of four featuring Sam Jackson, 21, as Nick; Zoe Freeman, 21, as girlfriend Chloe/Jessica; Harshavardhini Pareek, 20, as teacher Jo, and Abel Kent, 22, as head teacher Mr Boyd/Martin.

“There’s so much competition for Sam; everyone wants him for DramaSoc shows,” says Nathan, “We thought, ‘we’re not going to get him’, but thankfully he said yes. The reason he’s so amazing is that my vision for Nick is that ‘this could go anywhere’, and from the very beginning Sam’s portrayal was amazing.”

Grim reaping: Sam Jackson’s teacher Nick imposes a different form of school cuts in The Brink

Birch’s play will be performed on an end-on set designed by Lily Ball, 21, with costume designs by Emily Youngson, 21, sound design by Kai Tangaki, 22, and stage management by Charlotte Powell, 21.

The running time will be two hours without an interval. No interval, Nathan? “It’s a play that gets faster and faster as it goes on. It’s very accessible, as I say, and by the end you’ll be clinging to your seat, I promise.”

Given the amateur status of the company, no-one is being paid, but the Crowd Funding campaign has covered the production costs. “Our long-term goal is that if this goes well, it will only be the start for Foxglove Theatre – and I just love York!” says Nathan.

Foxglove Theatre in The Brink, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, June 30 to July 2, 7.30pm. Tickets: £8, general admission; students, £6; Crowd Funding donators, £5. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

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‘I wanted to be able to write about women of different ages and backgrounds,’ says Michele Lee. Cue Rice at York Theatre Royal

From antipathy to friendship: Angela Yeoh, as Yvette, left, and Anya Jaya-Murphy, as Nisha, in Michele Lee’s Rice

RICE, Michele Lee’s humorous observation on gender, globalisation, family and friendship, plays York Theatre Royal tonight and tomorrow.

Winner of the Australian Writers’ Guild Award for Best Original Stage Play, Lee’s story focuses on the powerful – if unlikely – bond between an ambitious young businesswoman and her office cleaner as they navigate the complexities of their lives and the world at large.

Nisha (Anya Jaya-Murphy), a headstrong hotshot executive at Golden Fields, Australia’s largest producer of rice, is determined to become the first female Indian chief executive officer in Australia.

She is close to sealing a contract with the Indian government in a secret deal worth billions that would see her company take over India’s national rice distribution system.

Working late nights in the office, she encounters Yvette (Angela Yeoh), an older Chinese migrant, who cleans up her mess. Yvette has her own entrepreneurial ambitions, but her daughter faces court after participating in a protest against the unethical practices of a national supermarket chain.

“I’ve always wanted to centre a story around two strong female actors of colour and that was my starting point,” says Michele. “In this play their characters traverse a range of identities and jump between and transform across many different roles.

“I feel exhilarated that this drama is being staged on opposite sides of the world and hope its universal themes around gender, ambition and friendship will resonate with audiences in the UK.”

The British production is being mounted by Actors Touring Company and Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, in association with Plymouth Theatre Royal, under the direction of ATC artistic director Matthew Xia.

“Maybe maybe I’m kind of hopeful because ultimately the play ends in a mostly hopeful way,” says playwright Michele Lee

“It feels fantastic after this pandemic-enforced hiatus to finally be back touring shows again,” he says of a tour that already has visited Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre on March 4 and 5 in its first North Yorkshire showcase.

“I’m looking forward to introducing this dynamic and expansive drama, which stays true to ATC’s mission in bringing fresh dialogue and perspectives from different cultures and intersections to audiences up and down the country.”

Hmong-Australian writer Michele Lee tells stories through theatre, live art, audio and on screen, exploring otherness, Asian identity and found families, usually through “contemporary narratives that privilege the experiences of women and people of colour”.

“The play began with me thinking about these roles of power that don’t tend to be diverse,” she says. “When I was beginning to write plays, it was against a backdrop of people of colour being limited in what they could be cast for because, in the plays that were being written, they were never more than the side role.

“Whereas I wanted to be able to write about women of different ages and different backgrounds, and with Rice, it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to consider what could connect people in different ways.”

Michele did “heaps of research”. “I went to India; I met a farming advocacy group; an Australian crop baron, who had a variety of crops, not just rice, and he was interesting because he was educated in agricultural science,” she says.

“His parents were farmers but had studied the business side and this was indicative of how things had changed from when people who farmed lived in villages pre-industrial revolution.

“The play is an exposition of some of the real-world issues, focusing on two women who are spiky and that really resonated with me.”

Addressing universal themes around gender, ambition and friendship: Anya Jaya-Murphy’s businesswoman Nisha, left, and Angela Yeoh’s cleaner Yvette in Rice

Michele is a writer of Southeast Asian descent. “My background is Hmong, a diaspora of stateless people, with that diaspora being due to war,” she says. “My dad came out to Canberra as a student on an Australian government scholarship, and my mum was allowed to join him on a humanitarian visa. After the Hmong were exposed as ‘anti-Communist for supporting the Americans’ in the Vietnam war, she had fled to a refugee camp.”

Born into 1980s’ Australia, Michele grew up in Canberra as one of only 4,000 Hmong people in Australia. “I’m an Australian citizen, and I’ve written stuff that’s autobiographical, but with Rice I’m writing about people who are ‘absented’ in Australia,” she says.

“They are two women from different Asian backgrounds with differences in how they appear and the cultures they come from, but they overlap more than they don’t, and though it starts off with their antipathy, maybe I’m kind of hopeful because ultimately the play ends in a mostly hopeful way when they’d started off not being friendly.

“The cynic in me says that would never happen, but there’s a wider hope and aspiration to allow them to look for friendship.”

Michele enjoyed writing for the two-hander format. “There’s no relief because there’s no-one providing a third voice,” she says. “It heightens the intensity, and though there are moments of levity, it allows for frank discussions.”

She did not make it to the London run but travelled over to Britain from her Melbourne home last month when the regional dates were underway with a different cast and new touring set. “I got to Liverpool on the Friday, feeling very zonked, and saw it on the Saturday, feeling less zonked. I enjoyed it,” she says.

“It’s hard to separate my inner critic, always looking for something wrong about it, when I should be thinking, ‘what do I like about it?’, and there’s plenty!”

Actors Touring Company and Orange Tree Theatre present Michele Lee’s Rice, York Theatre Royal, tonight (13/4/2022) and tomorrow at 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.