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 sjt.uk.com

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 live.org.uk.

Ayckbourn’s play of the summer The Girl Next Door is now the SJT’s film of the week

Naomi Petersen and Bill Champion in The Girl Next Door at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

THE Stephen Joseph Theatre film of Alan Ayckbourn’s latest stage premiere, The Girl Next Door, is available on the Scarborough theatre’s website from 6pm this evening.

Directed by Ayckbourn, his 85th play can be seen in The Round until Saturday and now via sjt.uk.com, in a filmed recording in front of a live audience, until midnight on Sunday (4/7/2021).

In The Girl Next Door, veteran actor Rob Hathaway is stuck at home during the summer of 2020 with only his sensible older sister for company. Rob has little to do but relive his glory days when, as the star of the nation’s favourite TV period drama, National Fire Service, he ruled the roost as George ‘Tiger’ Jennings: wartime hero and living legend among firefighters.

One day, Rob spots a stranger hanging out the washing in the adjoining garden, but his neighbours have not been around for months. Who is the mysterious girl next door? And why is she wearing 1940s’ clothing?

Ayckbourn says: “I was born in 1939, so my earliest memories are of a sort of lockdown: of crowding into Anderson shelters or subway stations; of sleeping in deckchairs or on my mother’s lap. Things have come full circle for me.

“The Girl Next Door is an affirmation of love across the generations – I hope it’s positive and hopeful for those today crawling out of their metaphorical Anderson shelters blinking into the light.”

Writer-director Alan Ayckbourn in his Scarborough garden. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

The filmed production features a cast of Bill Champion, Linford Johnson, Alexandra Mathie and Naomi Petersen.

The SJT’s artistic director, Paul Robinson, says: “We were delighted that part of the funding we received from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund last year was to go towards filming our productions.

“It means that audiences who can’t get to the theatre to see the show, for whatever reason, still have chance to see a high-quality version in the comfort of their own home, and Alan couldn’t have got us off to a better start than with this hit play.”

Written and directed by Ayckbourn, assisted by the SJT’s associate director Chelsey Gillard, The Girl Next Door is designed by Kevin Jenkins with lighting design by Jason Taylor.

Tickets for the film cost £12 each, with a group ticket available at £15 and a version with bonus features, including interviews with Ayckbourn and Jenkins, priced at £20, on 01723 370541 or at sjt.uk.com. To check ticket availability for the last week of the stage production, visit the website.

Stephen Joseph Theatre boosted by big grant from Garfield Weston Foundation

Stephen Joseph Theatre chief executives Paul Robinson and Caroline Routh. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

THE Stephen Joseph Theatre has been awarded £237,752 by the Garfield Weston Foundation to support its work over the coming year.

The Scarborough theatre will put part of the grant from the foundation’s Weston Culture Fund towards its summer and autumn season.

That programme is likely to feature a new play by the SJT’s director emeritus, Alan Ayckbourn; a show in the slot filled previously by The 39 Steps and Stepping Out, and the autumn commission of The Offing, adapted from Benjamin Myers’ novel, set in nearby Robin Hood’s Bay.

The grant also will contribute towards equipment and training to allow film recordings of the SJT’s live shows, plus a programme of community-focused “pop-up” screenings of the films, aimed at engaging those who might not usually access live theatre.

The SJT’s joint chief executives, Caroline Routh and artistic director Paul Robinson, say: “We are absolutely delighted that the SJT and Scarborough have benefited from the great generosity of the Garfield Weston Foundation, which has done such remarkable work over the past 60 years.

Stephen Joseph Theatre: “Benefiting from the great generosity of the Garfield Weston Foundation”. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“We are, of course, conscious of how fortunate we are at a time when so many of our colleagues are struggling in this age of great uncertainty. This grant will allow us to create more much-needed opportunities within the sector, as well as contributing to the wider economy of Scarborough.”

The SJT grant is part of a £30 million programme of grants to arts organisations across Britain announced today by Garfield Weston Foundation’s Weston Culture Fund.

In deciding to support the SJT, the foundation took into account “a wide range of factors, including local cultural provision, the interconnectivity of the sector, the potential accessibility of donors, and accessibility and outreach”.

Foundation director Philippa Charles says: “Our cultural sector is at the heart of our local communities, providing not only entertainment but also education and inspiration for many.

“Our trustees were impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit shown across the arts in response to Covid-19 and it was a privilege to hear what organisations had been doing to not only survive but also to reinvent the way they reach audiences.

Alan Ayckbourn: New play expected in the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 2021 programme. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“What really stood out was the level of collaboration and support they had for each other and the determination to keep going, despite the increasingly difficult situation.” 

Philippa adds: “We all want and need our cultural sector to thrive and, if anything, our time away from the arts has shown just how important they are to us, bringing much-needed pleasure and enrichment to our lives.

“Arts organisations are desperate to re-open and get back to what they do best, and we hope that this new funding will help many of them do exactly that.”

Established in 1958, the Garfield Weston Foundation is a family-founded grant-making charity that supports causes across the UK and gave more than £88m last year. In all, the foundation has donated more than £1bn to charities over the past 62 years.

The foundation’s funding comes from an endowment of shares in the family business that includes Twinings, Primark, Kingsmill and Fortnum & Mason. From small community organisations to large national institutions, the foundation supports charities and activities that make a positive impact in the communities where they work. Around 2,000 charities across the UK benefit each year from the foundation’s grants.

The Snow Queen’s deep freeze stretches to the end of January for SJT film streaming

Polly Lister as the “silly Sorceress” in Nick Lane’s The Snow Queen, the SJT production available for streaming throughout January. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

LOCKDOWN 3 is enforcing a Stay Home policy that consigns theatres to hibernation through the winter chill and maybe beyond.

Until whenever, the arts must be a remote prospect for entertainment, and where better to start than the film version of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s five-star Christmas show, The Snow Queen.

A sell-out success in the Covid-secure, socially distanced Round auditorium last month, Nick Lane’s one-woman show for Polly Lister lost only its last day (December 31) to Scarborough’s move to Tier 3 status.

If you missed the live performances or want to re-live Lane’s magical, mischievous, moving show, The Snow Queen is available to rent until midnight on January 31. Tickets cost £12 at sjt.uk.com/SJTathome and allow online access for a week.

Lane, audacious inventor of winter wonderlands at the SJT since 2016, had been writing a five-hander version in the manner of past hits Pinocchio, A (Scarborough) Christmas Carol and Alice In Wonderland.

“Nick, could you change it to a one-hander,” asked SJT artistic director Paul Robinson, his regular partner in “sublime not-pantomime” shows for the child in all of us. Yes, he said.

Paul Robinson: Stephen Joseph Theatre artistic director, who directed Polly Lister in Nick Lane’s The Snow Queen. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“Polly, could you do it as a solo show,” Robinson asked Polly Lister, so memorably “hyper, needy, overbearing, but funny and vulnerable” as Mari Hoff in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice and “sporty and no-nonsense” as lesbian Di in Di And Viv And Rose in the SJT’s 2017 summer season.

“Yes,” said Polly, who now would be playing multitudinous characters – a Goth raven poet and a grumpy Brummie reindeer among them – rather than merely the icy blast of the Snow Queen.

On board once more too were SJT artistic associate Simon Slater, Scarborough-born composer, lyricist and sound designer; video and lighting wizard Paul Steer; movement and puppetry director Gemma Fairlie and Helen Coyston, the designer for A (Scarborough) Christmas Carol, who decided everything should go with a swing in The Snow Queen.

Nick recalls the Covid-enforced change of tack from a cast of five to a solo show. “I got the call from Paul, when I’d done two drafts of the five-hander, full bells and whistles,” he says.

“He’d already cut it to a cast of four. ‘No problem at all’, I said, but then he said, ‘I’ve had a re-think, we’re going to make it a one-woman show’.

“And while he was explaining his reasoning, having first thought he was joking, I thought, ‘I’ve done two or three one-man shows before; this can work’. But having now done a two-hander Snow Queen at Hull Truck and started on the five-hander for the SJT and now written this solo show version, I don’t want to do another Snow Queen for ten years!”

“You know the story of The Snow Queen. It’s bonkers,” says playwright Nick Lane

Nick revelled in his new task. “You know the story of The Snow Queen: it’s bonkers!” he says. “In order to make it a one-woman show, give it a strong narrative and make it locally relevant, I followed a plot that wasn’t in the play originally, as you don’t just adapt a five-hander into a one-hander, as that would be really lazy.

“It’s ended up being my furthest removed play from the source material. That’s not to say it doesn’t follow Hans Christian Andersen’s story beats, but one of the things about The Snow Queen story is that she’s not in it apart from the beginning and the end, and there’s no explanation about why she did what she did and why she isn’t in the story more, so I’ve found a way to do that.

“At Hull Truck, the two-hander show was all about following the narrative beat and being silly, whereas this version does follow the narrative path but it does meander too.”

A child’s imagination was the key to Nick’s structure. “What a child enjoys is storytelling, which is the first avenue that opens up in a child, but it has to be more imaginative to fill the stage when it’s only one performer,” he says. “It has to be high energy and it must keep pushing the narrative to make the show work.”

Nick recalled meeting up with Polly Lister in 2017 after a Theatre Mill performance of his play Frankenstein Revelations at the York Medical Society premises in Stonegate. “She was with Richard Keightley, who was playing Victor Frankenstein, and we all went to the pub down the street, when she told me she was working on a one-woman play, more serious than mine, about having been a wife.”

Polly says: “Yes, I have form with solo shows. I wrote that one in 2017 for The Dukes theatre in Lancaster. It was called I Was A Wife and was autobiographical – I was a wife but then got ‘sacked’ from that role. By the time I wrote it, I was getting divorced: I got told the locks had been changed.

Viktoria Kay and Zach Lee in Nick Lane’s Frankenstein Revelations, presented at York Medical Society by Theatre Mill in February and March 2017. Picture: Tom Jackson

“It was set in a dressing room and it interrogated my idea of roles, being cast in different roles, with the different characters I’d played taking on the roles in the play.”

Polly, from Didsbury, Manchester, was familiar with Nick’s work. “I’ve been a fan from seeing two of his Christmas shows at Scarborough and that three-hander version of Frankenstein with all his lightness of touch, but a darkness too,” she says.

“So, I’ve wanted to work with him for ages and I was thrilled to be given the chance with The Snow Queen. I love every word of his script!”

A script that takes in not only the Snow Queen and Kai and Gerda from the Hans Christian Andersen story, but the aforementioned Brummie reindeer, the poetic raven and the Snow Queen’s sister, a “silly Sorceress” with Steampunk glasses, in a transformative journey to “the Other Scarborough” that can end only in glory or grief.

“I was allowed to be involved in the show’s creation, workshopping the play with Nick, looking to bring the characters alive, seeing which ones landed and which ones would need to grow,” says Polly.

“Nick never goes for the obvious, and I love the way he creates moods. You will feel sympathy for a character, but he doesn’t spoon-feed you, so nothing is overdone and there’s real pathos.”

In the bleak midwinter: Polly Lister as the Snow Queen in the SJT’s The Snow Queen. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Once Paul Robinson had made his “brave, cavalier but sensible” decision to go with a solo show, Polly knew she would relish performing in The Round. “I’m familiar with that stage design from the New Vic and the Theatre by the Lake at Keswick, and it’s my favourite way to perform,” she says.

“It feels much more intimate; you are all going on the journey together, and as a performer every angle is on show. You have to live it, breathe it and embody it.

“The ethos goes that once you’ve performed in the round, you’ll never want to perform again in an end-on theatre. The ‘Round’ sets you free.”

One revelation came as a surprise. “Every bit of why I love what I do is because I love being part of a team, so I really don’t like being the centre of attention this much!” says Polly, whose stage career runs to 24 years.

“Having it all rest on me, I’ve not enjoyed previously. On your own on stage, it’s harder work, whereas I love that thrill of uncertainty of sharing a stage, where I know I’m one of those people who knows I can help someone fix it when something goes wrong, bridging the broken dam.

“I feel much freer when I can be the saviour for someone else, but, for The Snow Queen, I just have to save myself.”

You would never sense any such loneliness of the socially distanced actor in Polly’s performance, maybe because she moves so fast between so many characters.

Explosive impact: Polly Lister’s Brummie reindeer in The Snow Queen. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Polly had a couple of major roles lined up for 2020, in Theresa Hawkins’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s The Company Of Wolves at the New Vic Theatre and Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors at the Bolton Octagon. “Hopefully, they’ve just been postponed,” she says.

“Once we got over the ‘fear’, I went into a bubble with my parents and started painting, doing a lot of shelves and making wine racks in my flat in Didsbury. I did some little videos of what I’d been doing, and it was really nice to do some work on my flat, with it becoming a nest for the first time.”

2020 still elicited artistic output from Polly, such as an audiobook of The Snow Queen for Hello Out There Productions and playing Beatrice in a Zoom production of Much Ado About Nothing.

“We are the kings and queens of creation, and it’s just in our nature to be creative, whatever the circumstances” says Polly.

Those pandemic circumstances led to the SJT’s one-woman version of The Snow Queen, and you have until January 31 to enjoy actor Lister, director Robinson and writer Lane’s outstanding creativity in the home quiet of Lockdown 3.

Lister act: Polly Lister’s “silly Sorceress”, armed with her Flying Monkey Powder…and the magic dust of Nick Lane’s script for The Snow Queen. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Nick Lane’s The Snow Queen is in full swing as Polly Lister hits the multi-tasking heights

Ice on fire: Polly Lister’s extraordinary one-woman tour de force peaks with her Snow Queen in Nick Lane’s The Snow Queen at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. Pictures: Tony Bartholomew

REVIEW: The Snow Queen, The Round, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, receiving anything but frosty receptions until December 31. Box office: sjt.uk.com *****

HELL would have had to freeze over before the ever-resilient Stephen Joseph Theatre gave up on presenting a Christmas show in Covid-quashed 2020.

Nick Lane, audacious inventor of winter wonderlands at the SJT since 2016, had been writing a five-hander version in the manner of past hits Pinocchio, A (Scarborough) Christmas Carol and Alice In Wonderland.

“Nick, could you change it to a one-hander,” asked SJT artistic director Paul Robinson, his regular partner in “sublime not-pantomime” shows for the child in all of us.

“Polly, could you do it as a solo show,” Robinson asked Polly Lister, so memorably “hyper, needy, overbearing, but funny and vulnerable” as Mari Hoff in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice and “sporty and no-nonsense” as lesbian Di in Di And Viv And Rose in the SJT’s 2017 summer season.

Yes, said Polly, who now would be playing multitudinous characters – a Goth raven  poet and a grumpy Brummie deer among them – rather than merely the icy blast of the Snow Queen.

On board once more too are SJT artistic associate Simon Slater, Scarborough-born composer, lyricist and sound designer; video and lighting wizard Paul Steer; movement and puppetry director Gemma Fairlie and Helen Coyston, the designer for A (Scarborough) Christmas Carol, who decides everything should go with a swing in The Snow Queen.

Oh, and with a garden shed, bin, fencing, log, boxes, bench, and wonky wooden wheelbarrow; a video screen; a suspended branch and more besides in a circular design that retains the feel of the Round, albeit with the socially distanced, Covid-secure audience in three banks of seating, rather than the usual four.

For a familiar yet re-booted Hans Christian Andersen story that will “end in grief or glory”, our narrator – in striped leggings, gown and Steampunk glasses, coupled with a genial, garden-enthusiast, bonkers boffin manner – is the “silly Sorceress”, whose “problem sister” happens to be the titular ice block to Christmas joy.

Seamlessly, the ever-fantastical Lane introduces best friends Gerda and Kai, initially in puppet form on the swing, but of course polymath Polly adds them to her ever-expanding list of roles, adjusting body shape and expression, as well as voice, at every turn.

Lister act: Another role for Polly, this as the somewhat nutty narrator with the Flying Monkey Powder. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Best friends Gerda and Kai do what children do, sharing jokes, games and stories, especially tales of the mysterious Lady in the Sky with her faraway Palace Of Ice, but is she fantasy or reality? When Kai disappears from his Gran’s house in Scarborough, his eye and heart pierced by an icicle, Gerda knows the Snow Queen is no fake-news fable as she vows to rescue him.

A journey to a “world of weirdness and wonderment, known as the Other Scarborough” ensues as Lane lets his imagination off the leash again. We expect poo, wind and booby references from Nick, long attuned to what makes “children of Scarborough” laugh, and yes, he cannot resist once more, and nor should he.

This time, he conjures a raven who writes poo-ems in a typical cheeky Lane invention, and daftness takes the form of a huge travelling trunk that springs open to reveal a French DJ called Jean Claude, who happens to be a puppet hedgehog with prickly ego and attitude, downing tools until a certain popular foodstuff is delivered from the Golden Arches.

Then add the doleful reindeer, a bunch of talking flowers and unwise words from wisewomen, all topped off by Lister’s terrific haughty-and-ice Snow Queen and a glorious video send-up of influencer bloggers with hashtags by the dozen.

Storyteller, puppeteer, singer, woman of so many voices, humorous but scary, daft but caring, playful yet serious, what a performance director Robinson elicits from Lister, who makes a one-woman show the perfect way to experience The Snow Queen in these restricted times.

Slater’s witty, potent and dramatic songs, his way with both a tune and a lyric, are a delight too in a show sure to banish the Christmas 2020 blues with a sense of the ridiculous and the need to escape, to laugh, to be transported to another world: the other Scarborough for Scarborough and beyond to enjoy while we must endure the Covid Grinch.

SJT rules on Covid guidance for attendance:

1.You can’t visit with anyone who you don’t live with, or who isn’t part of your support bubble.
2. SJT, Scarborough, is in a Tier 2 area, so if you live in a Tier 3 area, don’t come.

3. Face coverings are mandatory throughout the building (unless exempt – this includes under 11s), except when eating or drinking. 

Remaining performances:

December 21 to 23, 1pm, 7pm; December 24, 1pm; December 24, 1pm; December 26, 6pm; December 27, 1pm; December 29, December 30, 1pm, 7pm; December 31, 1pm.

Age guidance: Five and upwards

Running time: One hour 45 minutes, including interval

Cast: Polly Lister or her alternate, Jacoba Williams, whose remaining performances will be on December 26, 6pm, and Decembger 27, 1pm.

TICKETS UPDATE 22/12/2020, 8am

All performances were sold out but now some returns have become available. Go to sjt.uk.com/booking?id=1015 for more details.

NEWSFLASH 24/12/2020

A BRAND new film of the SJT’s Christmas show, The Snow Queen, is available to rent from now until midnight on January 31. Tickets cost £12 and allow online access for a week at sjt.uk.com/SJTathome.

Alan Ayckbourn finds his voice for audio online version of ghost play Haunting Julia

Alan Ayckbourn in his garden at his Scarborough home in May 2020. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

GHOST stories are as much a part of Christmas as pantomime dames.

What a delight, then, that Alan Ayckbourn is revisiting his 1994 play Haunting Julia in a brand-new audio recording that will feature the voice of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s director emeritus.

Or, rather, the three voices of Ayckbourn, 81, who will be playing all three parts in the online version, available exclusively on the SJT website, sjt.uk.com, from December 1 to January 5.

Directed by Ayckbourn, the “comic but scary” Haunting Julia was recorded at his Scarborough home studio, where he and his wife, Heather Stoney, had made his first ever audio play, his 84th premiere Anno Domino, in the first lockdown.

Released by the SJT in May, Ayckbourn’s tale of marital breakdown and toxic politics drew a worldwide audience. “We enjoyed the experience,” says Alan. “I think it went pretty well and the response was good, very positive.

“Although we did jump in at the deep end a bit, as we hadn’t acted on stage for years, Heather even more so than me.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre poster for the 1994 premiere of Haunting Julia, described by Alan Ayckbourn as “a second Woman In Black”

“The only time I would act is when doing a new play and I would act it out at the first reading.”

After the Coronavirus pandemic put paid to this summer’s Ayckbourn’s stage premiere of Truth Will Out, he turned his attention to Anno Domino instead. “That kept my hand in, when the lockdown was announced and we thought, ‘what the hell are we going to do?’,” he recalls.

“My new play was kicked into touch, along with everything else, but then I got the taste for the audio play and we ended up rather enjoying it – though Heather has had enough after one play! So, I thought I’d do my only all-male play.”

Ayckbourn, who played characters ranging in age from teenage to septuagenarian in Anno Domino, will now take the parts of Julia’s father, Joe, her former boyfriend, Andy, and psychic Ken in Haunting Julia, wherein “other voices” – previously off stage – are provided by Naomi Petersen.

Haunting Julia is set 12 years after the suicide of musical prodigy Julia Lukin. Her father Joe, still struggling with her death, meets with her boyfriend and a psychic to seek out the truth, but some questions are better left unanswered.

“Over the years, I have always enjoyed creating off-stage characters almost as much as on-stage ones. They serve to provide, at their simplest, a depth and perspective to an overall stage picture,” says Alan. 

“I consider Julia Lukin to be among the most complex and intriguing of my characters never physically to appear. Although a male three-hander, the play definitely belongs to her.”

The Stephen Joseph Theatre artwork for the 2020 audio version of Haunting Julia, performed and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Haunting Julia was premiered at the SJT in its former home at Westwood in 1994 and its ghostly presence has haunted many theatres since then, not least in two revivals at the SJT.

“I started it as a response to the phenomenal success of The Woman In Black, the most successful play we ever did, thinking ‘oh, there’s gold in them thar hills’.”

Seven years would pass between the SJT premiere of Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novella and Ayckbourn’s birth of Haunting Julia, his first ghost play, as he strove to settle on a distinctive, winning format.

“You have to build up the audience’s confidence in the story first, and then scare them, which is not that different from a farce, where you’re trying to make them laugh by surprising them,” he says.

“The first thing I discarded was the supernatural. Instead, I wanted to explore these three men, with the girl, Julia, being a very strong off-stage character, having an enormous influence on them.

“I became interested in writing a séance, where the three men see her from different angles, creating her as a hologram where the audience will know her better than the three men.

“It was an exploration that took me on another journey, rather than pursuing the P D James thriller style, but it still has a spooky element to it, though the aim was not to make people jump from horror shocks.”

Alan Ayckbourn with his cast for the 1994 premiere of Haunting Julia. Picture: Copyright of Scarborough News

Dealing with pressure became the driving force of the play. “I wanted to set up a story where the parents had a gifted child and the obvious gift you could give them was a musical talent,” says Alan.

“Children rarely write a novel at three or four, but they do create elemental music, so I wrote about an ordinary couple who gave birth, quite by chance, to a musical prodigy, and then show their bewilderment, yet pride, thinking ‘it’s not our music, we listen to pop music’, whereas she becomes a serious Radio 3 composer.

“Then, because of the mounting pressure that ends her life, it was fascinating for me to explore what that meant to the people left behind. Suicide is tragic and awful, but what about those people left, who ask ‘what did we do wrong?’. The questions they ask themselves are just as awful as the suicide itself.”

Analysing how being gifted, be it musical, sporting or whatever, can be isolating, even to the point of someone contemplating suicide, Alan says: “It’s always interesting reading about people you admire, and you read the section where they say they ‘got so depressed, they felt they were going nowhere’.

“You think, ‘why did they lose confidence in their special gift?’. On the other hand, is it something they don’t quite understand or treat in the way they should? I don’t think I solved that question.”

As with Anno Domino, Alan faced the prospect of recording differing, distinguishable voices for the audio play. “Joe is much older than the other two, and they are all well-defined,” he says. “Joe is a bluff, successful northern businessman; Andy was a contemporary of Julia, being her boyfriend, and his accent is more southern RP [Received Pronunciation].

“Ken, I had to find another voice for, and he comes into my stock range of little men that started with Sidney Hopcroft [a small-time tradesman] in Absurd Person Singular in 1972, so I’ve given Ken my own native Cockney.”

The Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 1999 revival of Haunting Julia

The age range “wasn’t that challenging,” reveals Alan. “I would do Joe in the morning, when my voice was rougher, and Joe and Ken in the afternoon.”

Important to the recording too is Ayckbourn’s prowess with soundscapes, or “sound effects as they used to be called”. “When I do a new play, I always do the soundscapes,” says Alan, who honed his skills when working for five years at the BBC Sound Studios in Leeds.

“For years, back in the Sixties, I was dubbing stuff on reel-to-reel recordings, tapes, then mini-discs. Now it’s all computers and it’s become increasingly sophisticated, where I can mix in all sorts of effects.

“When doing a production at the SJT, the main scenic elements, apart from the set, are sound and lighting, so the soundscapes can be even more crucial to an audio play – though Haunting Julia doesn’t call for huge soundscapes, except at the end.” You will have to listen to find out what that ending involves.

Rather than recording a new work, Alan settled on exhuming Haunting Julia for the SJT’s winter season. “I could see a time-frame, once I’d finished Anno Domino, that if we started another recording, we wouldn’t be finished much before autumn, which would be good for the Christmas programme, and Paul [artistic director Paul Robinson] jumped at it,” he says.

“With the second lockdown now happening, thankfully we got it in the can in good time. It’s opportune timing for a ghost story; I don’t think I could have launched it on Midsummer’s Day, but now, with the light drawing in for winter, if you’re going to tell a story around a fire, then a ghost story is ideal.”

Alan Ayckbourn and his wife, actress Heather Stoney, in their garden in the spring when they recorded his debut audio play, Anno Domino. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

At 81, prolific writer-director Alan is at an age where the greatest care must be taken in the face of Covid-19; likewise, Heather has turned 80.

“I’m still optimistic for the future of theatre, but not so optimistic for myself. We’re in the vulnerable bracket,” he says. “Days of jumping into rehearsals with a lot of actors breathing all over each other is not a good idea, so I’m not going to be doing that.

“The other thing is, how long will I keep going? The only dispiriting feeling is thinking, ‘Are my new plays going to get done?’. There are four or five now. Normally, a play is written and then it’s performed and that’s wonderful encouragement, but for me, until a play is done, has run the gamut of rehearsals, performances, audience response and post-mortem, I’m marking time, but the plays keep coming.”

Tickets for Haunting Julia can be booked any time up to and including January 5 2021, either via https://www.sjt.uk.com/event/1078/haunting_julia or from the box office, initially by phone only from 10am to noon, Monday to Friday, on 01723 370541 until December 2. Opening times for booking in person will be announced as soon as possible.

Once a £12 ticket has been bought, the buyer can access the audio show as often as they want between December 1 and January 5, and as many people as are in their household or social bubble can listen in. Go to the website for more details.

Naomi Petersen: Voices from beyond in Haunting Julia

John Godber keeps it in the family for Sunny Side Up’s journey to the Yorkshire coast

Family bubble for Sunny Side Up!: John Godber with his wife Jane Thornton and daughters Martha and Elizabeth

“BUMPING” into Britain’s second most performed living playwright as paths crossed while stretching a lockdown leg at Pocklington Canal Head in early July, one question had to be asked.

“Must be plenty of material for a play about Covid-19, John?”. “No comedy there,” replied John Godber.

Nevertheless, the waiting for Godber’s new play is over. Presented by the John Godber Company and Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, the humorous and moving Sunny Side Up! will open in The Round at the SJT tonight (October 28).

Depicting a struggling Yorkshire coast B&B and the people who run it, the world premiere of the former Hull Truck artistic director’s holiday drama will be a family affair, starring the Godber lockdown bubble of writer-director John, wife Jane Thornton and daughter Martha. Elder daughter Elizabeth – who has just enrolled for a PhD at Hull University, studying the poetry of Emily Dickinson, by the way – is participating too as the company stage manager.

“What a strange time it’s been,” says John. “Shortly after I saw you at Pocklington Canal Head, I got a phone-call from Paul Robinson [the SJT artistic director] saying, ‘We want to open in October; I know you’re in a social bubble with Jane, Liz and Martha; would you like to do a new play together this autumn?

“It was like winning the Oscar, to have the opportunity to do your trade again – we’ve not received any Arts Council funding – and just to be clear, we could only do it in these circumstances as a family bubble.”

Reflecting on life in lockdown and beyond in Covid-19 2020, John says: “If we are following the science, which science is it? Watching all the news coverage on TV ends up making you feel ill,” says John.

Stephen Joseph Theatre artistic director Paul Robinson: Invited John Godber to write a play for the autumn season. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“We live in a significant property with a lot of space but we’re still going mad, climbing up the walls. What’s it like for those living in a cramped apartment with no garden in lockdown? It must be like [Jean-Paul] Sartre. Do politicians understand that?”

John, the son of an Upton miner, has “always voted Labour for lots of reasons”. “We know Covid has been a challenge, but the Government can find all this money for Test and Trace and to pay nine million people’s wages in furlough, yet what an own goal to refuse to support free meals for schoolchildren in the holidays,” he says.

Sunny Side Up! is not a political comment on Covid times, but more so on how we have reacted to lockdown. “When Paul asked me to write a play, we’d been doing lots of family walks, going to the coast, walking on bridal paths, by canals,” says John.

“I thought there might be something in thinking about what our seaside towns might look like to people going there for the first time or going back after a long time.

“You have to take Scarborough and Filey out of the equation, but I wondered what the function of our seaside towns and villages is. I think they remind us of where we’ve come from, in terms of families enjoying simpler times.”

Fraisthorpe Beach, four miles south of Bridlington, has been one such coastal haven for John. “Have you been there? Mile after mile after mile of unbroken sand, which is just amazing,” he says.

“We’ve started to look at places locally through Covid eyes. I’m certainly looking at simplicity in our lives now. In the early part of lockdown, going on walks from the house, you’d look at a field for the first time that we must have walked past for 30 years and you suddenly think how beautiful it is.

The poster for John Godber’s new play Sunny Side Up!

“Or through walking along the Pocklington Canal, you start looking at the Industrial Revolution and the growth of Pocklington at that time.”

Summing up his philosophy brought on by Covid restrictions, John says: “It’s not about regression; it’s about simplicity.”

This set him on the path of writing Sunny Side Up!, wherein struggling Yorkshire coast B&B proprietors Barney, Tina and daughter Cath share their stories of awkward clients, snooty relatives and eggs over easy in a “seaside rollercoaster that digs into what our ‘staycations’ are all about”.

“This is not a play about Covid, though it has references. It’s more about social mobility,” says John.

“Sunny Side is a fictitious East Coast Yorkshire resort that is so small, you wouldn’t find it on the map, where B&B owner Barney is very much a Brexiteer, a little Englander.

“Graham, a retired university pro-vice chancellor who’s done very nicely through education is invited there by his sister, Tina, and coming up 70 he’s going back to where he came from – a very ordinary background – but he’s never gone back since…until now.

“He sees it’s a place where they have turned the oxygen off. No jobs; no trains; two buses to get there; the nearest dual carriageway 15 miles away.

“But these are fantastic places, almost mythical, where the colouring and the sweep are incredible, so it’s a play about this guy coming to terms with ‘why haven’t I been back here, because it’s amazing?’. He realises his separation from his small-town roots doesn’t match with his reading of the world.”

On a bicycle made for two views: John Godber and Jane Thornton’s clashing cyclists in The Scary Bikers, Godber’s 2019 play about Brexit, bikes and bereavement.. Picture: Anthony Robling

A fast-moving one-act play, 64 minutes straight through, Sunny Side Up! is a “funny, fish-out-of-water story, but it has pathos and there’s magic realism too”, says John. “It’s not rubbing anyone’s nose in it, but those who get it will know what it’s about.

“You can go anywhere in the country and see places that are suffering, places that have been left behind, places that need water…but many of us wouldn’t spot a real person if we passed them in the street, like Graham wouldn’t.

“But here he’s confronted by people he thinks he’s been addressing [in his academic work], only to find he’s not been able to change that world. Just as the Westminster bubble dilutes the politicians from the reality.

“But having said that, this play is also a very humane, very touching, very funny story of a relationship between a brother and a sister.”

Against the backdrop of Covid-19 and renewed talk of a widening North-South divide, John says: “I think we are becoming divisive. There’s a line in the play that says, ‘we have to start again’. We’ve reached that point where we do have to re-start. I’m 64 now and you would have thought this would have been sorted out when we were younger men. Has it ossified, with social mobility no longer being a thing, but why?”

Rehearsed at home, Sunny Side Up! is the second John Godber work in lockdown. “The first one was in May, when I decided to write a 15-part radio drama for BBC Radio Humberside called Essentials, about a family needing to talk to each other,” says John.

“We recorded it in Liz’s walk-in wardrobe, with Martha’s boyfriend, Henry, doing the technical stuff, and we were all in each eight-minute episode.

“It was like The Archers, set around the family breakfast, with the father being a delivery driver for Tesco, delivering essentials.”

“It had a lot of politics in the early version, with them all saying ‘I think you’ll have a legal problem with that,” says John Godber of the writing process for Sunny Side Up!

When the invitation came to write a play for the SJT, John initially saw it as a chance to “draw anything on the canvas” in the prevailing Covid circumstances. “It had a lot of politics in the early version, with them all saying ‘I think you’ll have a legal problem with that’, and I decided, ‘I don’t think people want to sit there in a mask with me ranting about Boris Johnson.”

Under social-distancing measures, the audience capacity is heavily reduced: a new experience for Godber. “It’s fascinating because I’ve had a career of trying to fill theatres, but now you don’t have to ‘fill’ theatres,” says John, whose seven SJT performances have sold out.

“So it’s a bit like the early stuff: Happy Jack, September In The Rain, which I was going back to with The Scary Bikers last year. It’s that meta thing: taking in politics, self-analysis, class, all neatly told with four chairs and a suitcase.”

Those four chairs and a suitcase will next travel to Hull, after Hull Truck artistic director Mark Babych asked Godber to bring Sunny Side Up! to his former stomping ground. “It’s like Back To The Future; all the props in a suitcase and all our stuff in the back of my car,” says John.

As for working in a family bubble: “Martha’s all over me like a rash about the play! She and Liz don’t let me get away with anything. I can take it from Jane, but now it’s from my  kids too!”

John Godber Company in Sunny Side Up!, in The Round, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, October 28 to 31: 7.30pm, Wednesday; 1.30pm, 7.30pm, Thursday and Friday; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Saturday. All sold out. Hull Truck Theatre, November 17 to 22: 7.30pm, Tuesday; 2pm and 7.30pm, Wednesday; 7.30pm, Thursday and Friday; 2pm, 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01482 323638 or at hulltruck.co.uk/whats-on/drama/sunny-side-up/

Creative talents invited to join Scarborough network run by SJT and Arcade from Nov 11

“We’re hoping to engage with anyone in the borough who is creative in their everyday lives,” says Arcade’s Rach Drew, who will host the Scarborough Creatives sessions. Picture: Stewart Baxter

SCARBOROUGH Creatives, a networking group for creative people in the Scarborough borough, will launch next month.

Leading the forum will be led by the Stephen Joseph Theatre and its new associate company, community producers Arcade, in collaboration with COAST, Scarborough’s Local Cultural, Education and Community Partnership.

The group will provide a network for creative talents to talk, share information and collaborate, meeting monthly, initially by Zoom.

Open to all art forms, artistic practices, abilities and levels of experience, professional or otherwise, it will be hosted by Rach Drew, from Arcade, and co-led by Ceri Smith, although it is envisaged this role eventually will be passed onto a freelance artist.

Rach says: “We’re hoping to engage with anyone in the borough who is creative in their everyday lives. That could be a professional actor or artist looking for people to develop projects with, or someone who knits and is unsure how to sell their work.

“We’ll be aiming to promote and support people along their creative journey and help create opportunities to develop funding bids together,” says Stephen Joseph Theatre artistic director Paul Robinson. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“We’ll be providing creative and practical help and, eventually, we aim to introduce a programme of inspiring speakers, based on what members need.”

Paul Robinson, the SJT’s artistic director, says: “We recognise there aren’t currently as many opportunities for professional development, training, funding or paid work in our area as there are in cities and other regions of the country.

“We’ll be aiming to promote and support people along their creative journey and help create opportunities to develop funding bids together.”

The first meeting of Scarborough Creatives will take place via Zoom on Wednesday, November 11 at 6pm. To join the session, book your ticket at: eventbrite.com/o/rach-drew-arcade-31519674997

For more information on the network, go to Arcade’s website, at hello-arcade.com/scarboroughcreatives or the Facebook group.

Scarborough Creatives is an inclusive and anti-racist group, open to people from all backgrounds. “The aim is that sessions will be as accessible as possible,” says Rach. “Please let us know if you have any access requirements when you express interest.”

Murder and masks as Simon Slater returns home for thriller Bloodshot at the SJT

Down on his luck: Simon Slater as Derek Eveleigh in Douglas Post’s thriller Bloodshot. Picture: Mark Brenner

SIMON Slater, Scarborough-born actor, musical director and composer, is revisiting familiar ground on his return to his hometown.

From Wednesday to Saturday at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, he will perform Douglas Post’s Bloodshot, a one-man, four-role thriller he premiered nine years ago.

“This autumn, I’ve been doing it four weeks at the Watermill, Newbury, playing to a socially distanced 80-capacity audience, then I finish with five performances in The Round at the SJT,” says Simon.

“Doing a one-man show, you’re so alone. One stage manager and a lighting guy at each venue, as technically, it’s quite a big show with slides, music and videos.”

Alone, yes, but Simon fills the stage with four contrasting characters in Post’s gripping yarn of vaudeville, murder, magic and jazz, wherein the central character is Derek Eveleigh, a down-on-his-luck, yet skilled photographer in 1957 London.

A mysterious envelope arrives from a stranger asking Eveleigh to take secret pictures of an elegant young woman as she walks in Holland Park. The reward is handsome, but the irresistible assignment takes a sudden, shocking turn.

“I think to myself, ‘why am I doing this? No-one to talk to for two hours except me!” says Simon, who has performed Bloodshot 300 times

Entangled and compelled to understand, Derek is led into a seedy Soho nightlife populated by dubious characters: an Irish comedian, a New York saxophone player and a Russian magician.

“An Irishman, an American and a Russian…it sounds like the start of a joke, doesn’t it?!” says Simon, who calls on his diverse skills to play them all under Patrick Sandford’s direction.

What have they to do with the bloody event Eveleigh has witnessed and how are these men connected to the woman in Holland Park? In attempting to learn the truth, Eveleigh will find his whole life being turned upside down.

Simon has been involved with the globe-trotting Bloodshot from the very start. “Douglas Post is an American writer, who wrote a thriller called Earth And Sky that I did at the Nuffield Theatre, and we became mates. I was holidaying in Chicago, where my brother has a house, and we met up in a late-night bar, where I said, ‘Go on, Douglas, write me a play.”

Post duly did so, incorporating Simon’s mastery of magic, composition and ear for accents. “I’ve always done magic since I was a kid, when there was a magic shop on the Scarborough front called Dinsdale’s [Famous Joke & Trick Shop],” he says.

“He knew I was a musician too, so I get to show off all my meagre talents! There I am, on stage, talking to myself in a schizophrenic way in various accents. I offend everybody equally by stereotyping three nations with my accents…but offending in a nice way!”

On a knife edge: Simon Slater in the one-man thriller Bloodshot

As for the music, “I sent Douglas a CD of George Formby songs for inspiration for the Irish comedian’s ukulele song. God knows what a Chicago writer would have made of that!” recalls Simon, who has been teaching saxophone on Zoom during lockdown and beyond, by the way.

He has performed Bloodshot around 300 times, in London, Canada, Vienna and Chicago. “But never Scarborough…until now,” he says. “I last did it in Chicago four years, and the dialogue did come back quickly when I started rehearsing for the Watermill run.

“But if you think too hard, you have no idea where you are and sometimes you can’t remember a  particular word. Like the other night, when I couldn’t remember ‘boat’. My late father [celebrated one-legged Prospect Of Whitby yachtsman Arthur Slater] would be turning in his grave!

“I talk side to side, back and forth, like schizophrenia, but if you get the timing wrong, it’s most extraordinary. I remember when I forgot my line as Derek and the Russian magician prompted me and felt very smug at doing that. It’s a complete internal conversation that’s going on.”

Simon describes the experience of performing Bloodshot as “absolutely knackering”. “I think to myself, ‘why am I doing this? No-one to talk to for two hours except me!” he says.

“It’s the only one-man thriller I’ve ever heard of, and whether my body can hold up, we’ll see, as I damaged my shoulder playing squash with my son. My rotator cuff. It’s b****y painful. My squash days are over, which is a relief…especially for my son!”

Simon Slater and Jemma Redgrave: Rehearsed reading of Simon Woods’ Hansard at the SJT tonight (October 19)

Simon, who played Sam Carmichael in Mamma Mia! in the West End for five years and appeared regularly as Inspector Kite in The Bill, will be doing one other performance while back in Scarborough: a rehearsed reading of Simon Woods’ brutally funny political satire Hansard tonight (October 19).

SJT artistic associate Simon will be teaming up with theatrical dynasty luminary Jemma Redgrave for the sold-out 7.30pm show, directed by SJT artistic director Paul Robinson, in The Round.

Premiered at the National Theatre, London, in August 2019, Hansard’s witty and devastating play takes place on a summer’s morning in 1988, when Tory politician Robin Hesketh has returned home to the idyllic Cotswold house he shares with his wife of 30 years, Diana, but all is not as blissful as it first seems.

Diana has a stinking hangover, a fox is destroying the garden, and secrets are being dug up all over the place. As the day draws on, what starts as gentle ribbing and the familiar rhythms of marital sparring quickly turns to blood-sport.

“It’s set at the time of Section 28 [banning the promotion of homosexuality in schools, enacted by Margaret Thatcher’s Government on May 24 1988] and as a play it’s a bit like Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? with a political edge to it,” says Simon.

“It was Paul who found the play – which I haven’t seen – and we’ve been rehearsing it on Zoom with my friend Jemma to perform as a reading with chairs and lecterns. Paul is yet to decide whether to stage the play next year, so let’s see what happens.”

The eyes have it; the ice has it: Polly Lister in the SJT’s poster for The Snow Queen, featuring music by artistic associate Simon Slater

Looking forward to spending this week at the SJT, Simon says: “It’s going to be quite busy! It’s almost like a career.”

Ever in demand as a musical director and composer, whether as MD for Amadeus at the National Theatre or writing more than 300 original scores for theatre, film, TV, radio and theatre, Simon has one further engagement at the SJT in the winter ahead.

Having provided the score for Nick Lane’s past four Christmas shows in the Round, he will do so again for The Snow Queen, now revised by Lane as a solo show for Polly Lister from December 4 to 30.

“The songs will all be recorded on click track and I can be in a bubble for rehearsals,” says Simon. “I’m also writing the music for Winchester Theatre Royal’s panto for four socially distanced actors, Four Dames, written by James Barry with lots of routines about dames, obviously!”

In Newbury, Simon has been adapting to performing in Covid times, the audiences masked up and distanced from each other. “You know that theatre expression, ‘you can’t hear a smile’. Well, now you can’t see one either,” he says.

“Audiences have been quite self-conscious in this new way of watching live theatre: it’s like playing to 65 Lone Rangers.”

Nevertheless, let’s celebrate that the Stephen Joseph Theatre is presenting theatre once more…and that tickets are selling well for Simon’s five performances as he prepares to play to a home crowd.

Simon Slater in Douglas Post’s Bloodshot, in The Round, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 7.30pm; Saturday, 2.30pm and 7.30pm.

The Snow Queen will run from December 4 to 30. Box office: sjt.uk.com/whatson or call 01723 370541 (Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11am to 4pm, for both phone calls and in-person bookings).

Stephen Joseph Theatre to run the rule over six new plays in autumn season of readings

Sarah Gordon: Her Brontë story The Underdog will open the play-reading season at the SJT

FROM the Brontë sisters to Morris dancing, happiness to self-help, Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre will present a themed season of play readings this autumn.

The six 7.15pm readings by professional actors will take place in front of a socially distanced audience, who can join in a discussion with the writer, director and actors at the end, potentially contributing to each play’s development.

Artistic director Paul Robinson says: “These readings give our audiences a sneak preview of some shows that may go on to have a full production at the SJT. One of our biggest successes in recent years, Christopher York’s Build A Rocket, started out this way.”

Cosmic Collective Theatre company members Joe Feeney and Anna Soden, here pictured performing Heaven’s Gate, will be among the readers for The Underdog

The first reading, Sarah Gordon’s The Underdog on October 7, will be performed by York actors Joe Feeney and Anna Soden, from Cosmic Collective Theatre, Houmi Miura and Monica Sagar. Casts for the other play readings will be announced soon.

Peeling back the legend of the Brontë sisters, The Underdog tells the story of the sibling power dynamics that shaped their uneven rise to fame from The Parsonage at Haworth, West Riding.

“Individual ambition and differing levels of success collide increasingly with the desire for group empowerment – which, let’s face it, is awkward. Especially when you’re the underdog, a.k.a Anne Brontë,” says Sarah, whose play The Edit played the SJT in Spring 2019.

Full of Joy: Adam Hughes contemplates what it means to be happy in his new play

On October 13, in Adam Hughes’s Joy, Joy is a never without a smile and always looks on the bright side of life, but when her son, Ryan, returns home following a messy break-up, she finds herself questioning what it really means to be happy.

In Tapped, Katie Redford’s comedy drama on November 3, three Co-op colleagues attend a failing self-help group in Stapleford, Nottingham. 

Every Tuesday evening, Gavi holds motivational meetings in his garage, hoping to inspire his community, but when only bickering mother and daughter Denise and Jen turn up, clearly he has his work cut out.

Katie Radford: What happens when a self-help group leader needs help himself in Tapped?

Both wounded by tragedy, an Iraqi-Welsh Muslim woman and an ex-soldier, who live in multicultural Canton in Cardiff, find unexpected solace in each other’s company in Rebecca Jade Hammond’s Canton on November 10.

Hammond explores those rare fleeting relationships between two strangers of different backgrounds, living side by side in the same community, and how their interactions can be a catalyst for change.

Rebecca Jade Hammond: Fleeting relationships as a catalyst for change in Canton

In Worldly, on November 17, Jess knows she will survive Armageddon in Rachel Horner’s one-woman show about religion, family and unlearning everything you once knew.

She has done the training and read all the books and already she is planning what to name her pet panda on Paradise Earth. However, Jess realises that with organised religion comes unorganised chaos and not everyone is as faithful as they think they are. 

Rachel Horner: Contemplating Armageddon, religion, family and unlearning everything you once knew in her play Worldly

Yorkshire actor Chris Chilton’s touching comedy With Bells On! concludes the season on November 24 with its story of salesman Morris, friendships and a passion for Morris dancing.

By day, Morris sells rubber valves but come nighttime, he is the Lord of the Dance, leading an unlikely group of friends on the road to the Morris Ring Regional Dance-Off.

The six readings will take place in the Round, except for Canton, booked instead into the McCarthy auditorium.

Chris Chilton: Morris leads a merry dance in With Bells On!

Tickets for individual play readings cost £5 each at sjt.uk.com/whatson or by calling the box office on 01723 370541,  open Thursdays to Saturdays, 11am to 4pm, for phone calls and in-person bookings.

The SJT has introduced comprehensive measures for the safety and comfort of its audiences and has been awarded the VisitEngland We’re Good To Go industry standard mark, signifying its adherence to Government and public health guidance. For more details, go to: https://www.sjt.uk.com/were_back

Serena Manteghi in Build A Rocket, Christopher York’s debut play that was first aired in a reading at the SJT. Picture: Sam Taylor