REVIEW: Pick Me Up Theatre in Shakespeare In Love, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, until Saturday ****

Sanna Jeppsson in noblewoman Viola’s guise as young actor Thomas Kent. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

SHAKESPEARE In Love was a film about theatre, as much as it was about love. Now it is a play about theatre, with even more theatre in it, more Marlowe as well as Shakespeare, as much as it is still about love.

It makes perfect sense to transfer the period rom-com from screen to its natural bedfellow, the stage, and who better than Lee Hall to effect that transition.  

For the north-eastern mining and dancing drama Billy Elliot, he adapted his own screenplay; this time, he makes merry with Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s boisterous and romantic script for John Madden’s 1999 award-winner, ruffing it up to the neck in Shakespeare in-jokes, but not roughing up its sophisticated wit.

Robert Readman: Producer, set designer and builder, costume guru and thespian, playing hammy Elizabethan actor Ned Alleyn. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

Pick Me Up Theatre’s always quick-off-the-mark founder, Robert Readman, was typically speedy to pick up the rights to Shakespeare In Love for the York company’s tenth anniversary, whereupon a series of spot-on decisions were made.

First, appoint Bard buff and Pick Me Up ace card Mark Hird to direct the rollicking romp. Second, bring George Stagnell back to the York stage to play the title role. Third, talent-spot Swedish-born Sanna Jeppsson in York Settlement Community Players’ The 39 Steps (even when it fell at the first step, called off through cast illness after one night last November).

Four, utilise Readman’s skills, not only as producer and designer/builder, but also his dormant love of performing. When you need a thick slice of ham to play larger-than-life Elizabethan actor Ned Alleyn, “prince of the provinces”, who you gonna call? Why, Mr Readman, of course, tapping into his inner plummy Simon Callow.

Sanna Jeppsson’s Viola de Lesseps and George Stagnell’s Will Shakespeare mutually admire his newly quilled lines in Shakespeare In Love. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

Readman has conjured an end-on, raised stage built for the outdoors, but no less suited to the John Cooper Studio’s black box, with its echoes of Shakespeare’s Globe or the Rose; decorative flowers; curtains to cover amorous going-ons behind, and traps for hasty exits and entries.

Ensemble cast members sit beside the stage apron, watching the action when not involved. On a mezzanine level, musical director Natalie Walker and Royal College of Music student Tom Bennett are playing Paddy Cunneen’s gorgeous score.

Hird’s company looks the Elizabethan part too, Readman’s costume brief requiring hires from the Royal Shakespeare Company, no less, as well as York Theatre Royal and Leeds Playhouse, plus ear studs and earrings aplenty (for the men).

Ian Giles’s Henslowe and Andrew Roberts’s Ralph. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

Praise too for Emma Godivala and York College’s work on hair, fake moustaches and make-up, especially for Jeppsson when taking the guise of young actor Thomas Kent.

The make-up for the men is deliberately heavy, in keeping with Shakespeare’s day, but everything else is conducted with a delightfully light touch under Hird’s direction, where the next scene chases the previous one off the stage, such is the gleeful urgency to crack on with such a cracking plot replete with cross-dressing, swordplay and backside-biting puppetry (courtesy of Elanor Kitchen’s Spot the Dog).

The only slowness is in the pace of lines coming to Shakespeare’s quill, surrounded by the company of actors awaiting the next play of his still fledgling career, outshone by dashing, daring Kit Marlowe (Adam Price), amusingly providing his young friend (Stagnell’s Will) with all his best lines.

Adam Price’s devil-may-care Kit Marlowe has a word with George Stagnell’s Will, in desperate disguise for his safety at this juncture. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

Theatre bosses Henslowe (Ian Giles) and rival Richard Burbage (Tony Froud) are vying for Shakespeare’s services; theatre backer “The Money” Fennyman (Andrew Isherwood) keeps applying the financial squeeze, often with menaces; Tilney (Neil Foster), the supercilious Lord Chamberlain with the insufferable killjoy manner of Malvolio, is determined to shut down theatres, whatever excuse he can find.

Queen Elizabeth (Joy Warner) wants a dog to have its day in every play; Guy Wilson’s John Webster just wants a chance; Shakespeare needs a muse. Enter Jeppsson’s Viola de Lesseps, alas promised to the ghastly Lord Wessex (Jim Paterson) against her wishes. Viola is banned from the stage under the rules, but takes the dangerous step of performing as Thomas Kent, and what a performer he/she is.

Viola’s amusing West Country Nurse (Beryl Nairn) becomes the template for that very character in Romeo & Juliet, and as Shakespeare’s work in progress changes from comedy  to tragedy, Alleyn plays Mercutio, fabulously outraged at being killed off so early.

Sam Hird, left, and Tom Bennett, from the Royal College of Music, on song in Shakespeare In Love

Shakespeare In Love gives us a developing play within a play, and while it helps to have some knowledge of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Burbage et al, it echoes Blackadder in having such fun with a period setting and re-writing history, here imagining how Romeo & Juliet and in turn Twelfth Night may have emerged.

What’s more, Stagnell and Jeppsson are a delight in the swelling love story, as well as in delivering Shakespeare’s lines when called on to do so.

Terrific performances abound around them, especially from Price, Isherwood, Paterson and Wilson, a young talent with a gift for physical comedy in the Marty Feldman and Tony Robinson tradition, while Warner’s cameos as Queen Elizabeth are a joy too.

To cap it all, Sam Hird and Tom Bennett’s performance of an Elizabethan ballad is beautiful, typical of  a swashbuckling performance that is a palpable hit in every way. If you love theatre, this play is why you do. If you don’t, go anyway and be converted. Tonight until Friday’s shows have sold out but tickets are still available for 2.30pm and 7.30pm on Saturday at tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Shakespeare In Love’s celebration of the world of theatre moves from screen to stage in Pick Me Up Theatre’s hands

Pen pals: George Stagnell’s Will Shakespeare and Sanna Jeppsson’s Viola de Lesseps in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Shakespeare In Love. All pictures: Matthew Kitchen Photography

YORK company Pick Me Up Theatre mark their tenth anniversary with a rollicking celebration of the joys of theatre, Shakespeare In Love.

Adapted for the stage by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall from Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s screenplay for the Oscar-winning 1999 film, the Elizabethan love story will be performed under the direction of Bard buff Mark Hird at Theatre@ 41, Monkgate, from tomorrow (1/4/2022) to April 9.

First staged by Sonia Friedman Productions in the West End with Cheek By Jowl’s Declan Donnellan in the director’s chair in 2014, Hall’s play was snapped up for its York premiere by Pick Me Up’s ever-alert founder, artistic director, designer and producer, Robert Readman (who will be making a rare appearance as actor Ned Alleyn).

“When Robert got the rights, I read it, and straightaway I thought, ‘my god, it’s brilliant’, with Stoppard and Norman as the starting point for the fantastic script, and Lee Hall then transforming it into a great piece of theatre,” says director Mark Hird.

“Anyone who thinks this Shakespeare In Love will be just the film on stage, it’s absolutely not. It’s so theatrical, and that makes it such a joy to put on. That’s what so special about it: it’s a love letter to theatre as well as being a great love story.

Where there’s a quill, there’s a way: George Stagnell’s Will Shakespeare at work

“Anyone who comes to the play who loves theatre will leave with a great big smile on their face at all the theatrical allusions. Lee Hall has put even more theatre aficionado jokes in there.”

Shakespeare In Love delights in the love story of struggling young playwright Will Shakespeare (played by George Stagnell) and feisty, free-spirited young noblewoman Viola de Lesseps (Sanna Jeppsson), his greatest admirer, who helps him to overcome writer’s block and becomes his muse.

She will stop at nothing, even breaking the law and dressing as a boy actor to appear in his next play, whereupon, in this turbulent world of mistaken identity, ruthless scheming and backstage theatrics, Will’s love for Viola quickly blossoms, inspiring him to write his breakthrough romantic drama, Romeo and Juliet.

“Basically, you have Will Shakespeare right back in the early days of his career, having done Titus Andronicus, Two Gentlemen Of Verona and Henry VI, but he’s not yet had a big hit,” says Mark.

“All Marlowe’s plays are being bigger hits at the time, and in fact there’s a lot more of Kit Marlowe in the play than there was in the film,” says George.

“The play what I wrote”: George Stagnell’s Will shows his latest work to Sanna Jeppsson ‘s Viola

“But the love story is still at the heart of the play, and it’s as beautiful on stage as it was in the film, but there’s now a lot more changes of energy, moving back and forth from the chaotic rehearsals, and all the fun that goes with that, interspersed with the love story,” says Mark.

Sanna first saw the film on Swedish TV with Swedish subtitles before moving to Britain and has watched it again since landing her role as the ground-breaking Viola. “She’s a very brave woman, doing something that was forbidden at the time; something she wouldn’t be allowed to do, being in a space she wouldn’t have had access to as herself, having to take the guise of a boy actor, Thomas Kent,” she says.

“Being on stage, feeling so alive for the first time, I can connect with that. I remember going on a backstage tour of Mamma Mia!, and then getting to go out on to this amazing stage and looking at all those seats, and wanting to be on there performing.

“That’s what I bring with me when Viola comes on as Thomas Kent, knowing she shouldn’t be there, and normally could only imagine the audience looking at her.”

“I always like to go on stage before a show, when the auditorium is empty,” says George. “When it’s quiet and no-one’s there, you take the space in and imagine how it will erupt with life. It’s like the calm before the storm.”

Mark adds: “There’s something about an empty theatre: you can feel the presence of the ghosts of all those who have been there before.”

 Sanna rejoins: “A theatre is a space where anything can happen, that moment of magic and then it’s gone.”

George Stagnell’s Will and Sanna Jeppsson’s Viola in disguise as young actor Thomas Kent

George has focused on playing young Will Shakespeare, not the feted Bard. “Pretty much since day one, I’ve had to come in not thinking ‘this is William Shakespeare’,” he says. “I don’t want to have that mentality of thinking about who he became, but to see him as this young man trying to find his way through a very complicated time in history, in the early days of his writing, when there was a lot of history that we don’t know and a lot of conjecture.”

Mark concurs: “That’s what’s so gorgeous about this piece. We all think we know about Shakespeare, but here we are watching a three-dimensional character called Will.”

Sanna had studied Shakespeare “a little bit at school, but not in its original language”, when growing up in Molkom, but when she lived out her long-held dream of moving to London in 2013, she attended the International College of Musical Theatre, rather than focusing on classical theatre.

“Almost every other person in London is an actor, which makes it hard there, and so I moved to York in 2019, where I now work as a civil servant for the Ministry of Justice, sitting on in trials sometimes.”

From courtroom dramas, Sanna’s attention now switches to courtship dramas on stage.

Pick Me Up Theatre in Shakespeare In Love, Theatre@41 Monkgate, York, April 1 to 9, 7.30pm, except April 3 and 4; 2.30pm, April 2, 3 and 9 . Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

More Things To Do in York to celebrate losing an hour’s lie-in tonight. Clock in to List No. 75, courtesy of The Press, York

Quick step: Jake Quickenden as dancing cowboy Willard in Footloose The Musical at York Theatre Royal

FROM Holding Out For A Hero to Search For The Hero, Charles Hutchinson is on a quest to find heroic deeds and much else to entertain you.

Musical of the week: Footloose at York Theatre Royal, Tuesday to Saturday

DANCING On Ice champ Jake Quickenden rides into York as cowboy Willard and musicals stalwart Darren Day plays Reverend Moore in Racky Plews’s touring production of Footloose The Musical.

Reprising the 1984 film’s storyline, teenage city boy Ren is forced to move to the rural American backwater of Bomont, where dancing and rock music are banned. Taking matters into his own hands, soon he has all hell breaking loose around him and the whole town on its feet. 

The set design, by the way, is by Sara Perks, who designed York Theatre Royal’s open-air show Around The World In 80 Days last summer and Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre productions in York. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Reunited: EastEnders soap stars Adam Woodyatt and Laurie Brett in the chilling thriller Looking Good Dead

Thriller of the week: Looking Good Dead, Grand Opera House, York, Tuesday to Saturday

AFTER playing bickering husband and wife Ian and Jane Beale in EastEnders for years and years, Adam Woodyatt and Laurie Brett are re-uniting, this time on stage in Shaun McKenna’s stage adaptation of Peter James’s thriller Looking Good Dead.

No good deed goes unpunished in this story of Woodyatt’s Tom Bryce inadvertently witnessing a vicious murder, only hours after finding a discarded USB memory stick.

Reporting the crime to the police has disastrous consequences, placing him and his family in grave danger. When Detective Superintendent Roy Grace becomes involved, he has his own demons to face while he tries to crack the case in time to save the Bryces’ lives. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York.

Writer, journalist and historian Simon Jenkins: Appearing at York Literature Festival

Festival event of the week: York Literature Festival presents Europe’s 100 Best Cathedrals with Simon Jenkins, St Peter’s School, Clifton, York, tonight, 7pm

FOR Europe’s 100 Best Cathedrals, former editor of the Evening Standard and The Times Simon Jenkins has travelled the continent, from Chartres to York, Cologne to Florence, Toledo to Moscow, to illuminate old favourites and highlight new discoveries.

Tonight he discusses the book’s exploration of Europe’s history, the central role of cathedrals in the European imagination and the stories behind these wonders. Box office: yorkliteraturefestival.co.uk.

That Old Devil Moon, by Richard Kitchen, from Navigators Art’s Moving Pictures exhibition at City Screen Picturehouse

Exhibition of the week: Navigators Art in Moving Pictures, City Screen Picturehouse café and first-floor gallery, until April 15

FROM December’s ashes of the Piccadilly Pop Up Collective studios and gallery in the old York tax office, Navigators Art have re-emerged for a spring exhibition at City Screen.

For their first post-lockdown project, founder Navigators Steve Beadle and Richard Kitchen have invited fellow artist and teacher Timothy Morrison to join them for Moving Pictures: From Fan Art To Fine Art.

“The title is deliberately ambiguous, and we’ve responded to it accordingly,” says Richard. “There are works that relate to cinema and other media but also many of which interpret ‘Moving’ in other ways.”

BC Camplight: Examining madness and loss at The Crescent, York

Rearranged York gig of the week: BC Camplight, supported by Wesley Gonzales, The Crescent, York, Thursday, 7.30pm

MOVED from March 10, BC Camplight’s gig in York highlights the final chapter of his “Manchester trilogy”, Shortly After Takeoff.

“This is an examination of madness and loss,” says BC, full name Brian Christinzio. “I hope it starts a long overdue conversation.”

Fired by his ongoing battle with mental illness, Shortly After Takeoff follows 2018’s Deportation Blues and 2015’s How To Die In The North in responding to BC’s move from his native Philadelphian to Manchester. Cue singer-songwriter classicism, gnarly synth-pop and Fifties’ rock’n’roll. Box office: thecrescentyork.com.

Sanna Jeppsson’s Viola de Lesseps and George Stagnell’s Will Shakespeare in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Shakespeare In Love. Picture: Matthew Kitchen Photography

York premiere of the week: Pick Me Up Theatre in Shakespeare In Love, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, April 1 to 9

LEE Hall’s 2014 stage adaptation of Shakespeare In Love, the Oscar-winning film written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, celebrates the joys of theatre in Pick Me Up’s first show of 2022.

Directed by Mark Hird, it recounts the love story of struggling young playwright Will Shakespeare (George Stagnell) and feisty, free-thinking noblewoman Viola de Lesseps (Sanna Jeppsson), who helps him overcome writer’s block and becomes his muse.

Against a bustling background of mistaken identity, ruthless scheming and backstage theatrics, Will’s love for Viola blossoms, inspiring him to write Romeo And Juliet. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Heather Small: Proud moment at York Barbican

Voice of the week: Heather Small, York Barbican, April 2, 7.30pm

BILLED as “The voice of M People”, soul singer Heather Small will be combining songs from her Nineties’ Manchester band with selections from her two solo albums.

As part of M People, she chalked up hits and awards with Moving On Up, One Night In Heaven and Search For The Hero and the albums Elegant Slumming, Bizarre Fruit and Fresco. The title track of her Proud album has since become a staple at multiple ceremonies.

At 57, she will never be one to rest on her laurels: “If you got the feeling I do when I sing, you’d understand,” she reasons. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Steven Jobson (Jekyll/Hyde) gets to grips with Matthew Ainsworth (Simon Stride) in rehearsals as York Musical Theatre Company director Matthew Clare looks on

Book early for: York Musical Theatre Company in Jekyll & Hyde The Musical, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, May 25 to 28

FLOOR rehearsals are well under way for York Musical Theatre Company’s spring production under the direction of Matthew Clare, who is delighted by how the cast is responding and supporting each other.

The epic struggle between good and evil in Jekyll & Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of myth and mystery on London’s fog-bound streets, comes to stage life in Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse’s pop-rock musical, where love, betrayal and murder lurk at every chilling twist and turn.

YMTC are running an early bird discount ticket offer with the promo code of JEKYLL22HYDE when booking at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk by April 10.

Secret is out as Pick Me Up Theatre return with amateur premiere of Adrian Mole

Pick Me Up Theatre’s cast members: back row, Toni Feetenby, left, Alan Park, Ian Giles, Andrew Isherwood and Emily Halstead. Middle row: Adam Sowter, left, Flynn Coultous, Jack Hambleton, Florence Poskitt, Freddie Adams, Guy Wilson and Alexandra Mather. Front row: Sandy Nicholson, left, Flynn Baistow, Benedict Wood and Dotty Davies. All pictures: Matthew Kitchen Photography

DIARY entry, April 6th 2021. Robert Readman announces Pick Me Up Theatre’s Christmas show for 2021 will be the Broadway hit SpongeBob The Musical.

Diary entry, December 5 2021. No, it won’t be. Robert is directing Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ The Musical instead, booked into Theatre@41, Monkgate, York from December 8 to 18,

SpongeBob The Musical may yet re-emerge down the line in winter 2023, but Robert made the call to pick up Pick Me Up’s theatre-making for the first time since March 2020’s Covid-curtailed run of Tom’s Midnight Garden with the musical version of the trials and tribulations of Sue Townsend’s teenage diarist.

“It’s my kind of show,” says Robert. “I love British musicals; I loved the TV series and I loved Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books.

“Pick Me Up will be doing a season of works by British writers in spring 2022, with George Stagnell starring in both Billy in March and Shakespeare In Love in April, and when we got the chance to do Adrian Mole, I knew we had to do that as this winter’s show – though I didn’t actually know it would be the British amateur premiere until the writer [Pippa Cleary] told me.

Toni Feetenby’s Pauline Mole and Jack Hambleton’s Adrian Mole from Pick Me Up Theatre’s Team Townsend

“But it’s perfect timing for us to do the show now because the story runs from New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve.”

Robert and musical director Tim Selman are working with a cast of experienced York hands such as Sandy Nicholson, Andrew Isherwood, Adam Sowter, Florence Poskitt, Alan Park and Alexandra Mather and two sets of teen talents, rather sweetly designated as Team Sue and Team Townsend.

“They’re all aged either 13, early-14 or late-14, but they’re different in height, so what I did was to match each team to Adrian’s height. Team Sue – Flynn Baistow’s Adrian, Benedict Wood’s Nigel, Dotty Davies’ Pandora and Freddie Adams’ Barry – all turned out to be from Lancashire, apart from Benedict,” says Robert.

“Team Townsend – the taller Jack Hambleton’s Adrian, Flynn Coultous’s Nigel, Emily Halstead’s Pandora and Guy Wilson’s Barry – happen to be all from Yorkshire.

“Although Sue Townsend was a Leicester writer, and set her stories there, we’ll be using northern accents, which suits the characters just as well.”

Team Townsend’s Flynn Coultous as Nigel and Emily Halstead as Pandora in The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾

In the cast too is veteran actor and drama teacher Ian Giles, who played his part in Sue Townsend’s rise as a writer. “In the summer of 1977, I was appointed artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester, and one of my innovations was to create a writers’ group for local people,” he recalls.

“The then unknown Leicester housewife Sue Townsend was among those who came along. She was in her thirties, from a council estate, had worked as a factory worker and shop assistant, and was very shy. She only attended because her partner, Colin [Broadway], told her to give it a go, though she used to love reading the likes of Dostoevsky.”

Ian put Sue forward for a Thames Television Writer’s Bursary and her manuscript for Womberang duly won the Thames Television Playwright Award, setting her on the path to writing plays for the Royal Court and the Adrian Mole series of books.

Coming full circle, Ian, now 72, will play grumpy old Bert Baxter in the Mole musical. “He’s an 89-year-old curmudgeon, so that should be easy for me!” he says, delighted to be reconnecting with his Townsend past.

“I’m surprised the Adrian Mole books aren’t on the school curriculum, because the issues raised are still so pertinent. The first book is 40 years old now, and the books were like the Harry Potter books of their time. Only the Bible and Shakespeare outsold them!”

Toni Feetenby’s Pauline Mole and Flynn Baistow’s Adrian Mole from Team Sue

Re-joining the discussion, Robert says: “We love Adrian Mole because it’s a boy expressing how awful life is when you’re going through puberty. The young cast find it very funny, but it’s interesting to see how differently they interpret their characters, especially the two Adrians.

“What works best is the fun Sue had in having all the characters being seen through Adrian’s lens.”

“And with a working-class ethic to it,” says Ian. “Sue was writing from council-estate  experience, growing up not far from where playwright Joe Orton grew up. There’s a lot of Sue in the character of the mother, Pauline.

“It’s all pertinent to the 1980s when it was written, but it also resonates with all teenage experiences that people go through.”

Robert adds: “Because of the ‘80s’ retro culture that’s going on now, young people are wise to that, which makes it a good time to do this show.

Time to brush up: Ian Giles’s curmudgeonly Bert Baxter makes his point to Jack Hambleton’s Adrian Mole

“But what’s nice about the music is that Jake and Pippa have not pastiched the Eighties’ pop style. They’ve made their own style of music, so you will enjoy the story being in a musical structure, with some lovely balladry, and a lot of sadness and heartbreak in there, and the parents and classmates being given good songs as well as the leads.”

The John Cooper Studio will be set up as a traverse stage with the audience in raked seating to either side and on the mezzanine level above. “The set design will feature two houses, one to either side, with everything going on in between,” says Robert.

“The reason I’ve done that is because all the scenes are quite short and it moves at a pace, so you can’t have lots of scenery to move around, slowing it down.”

Now make a date in your diary to see Adrian Mole, Pandora and co at Theatre@41.

Pick Me Up Theatre present Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, The Musical, John Cooper Studio, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, December 8 to 18, 7.30pm, except December 11 and 12; 2.30pm matinees, December 11, 12 and 18. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

How actor Ian Giles played his part in the rise of Adrian Mole writer Sue Townsend

Ian Giles’s Bert Baxter and Jack Hambleton’s Adrian Mole in Pick Me Up Theatre’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, The Musical. Picture: Matthew Kitchen Photography

YORK actor and drama teacher Ian Giles played his part in the rise of writer Sue Townsend in his days in Leicester.

Now, 72-year-old Ian is to play grumpy old Bert Baxter in Townsend’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ in Pick Me Up Theatre’s musical production at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from December 8 to 18.

“In the summer of 1977, I was appointed artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester, and one of my innovations was to create a writers’ group for local people,” he recalls.

“The then- unknown Leicester housewife Sue Townsend was among those who came along. She was in her thirties, from a council estate, had worked as a factory worker and shop assistant, and was very shy. She only attended because her partner, Colin [Broadway], told her to give it a go, though she used to love reading the likes of Dostoevsky.”

What happened next, Ian? “The chairman of the group managed to get hold of a manuscript off her for Womberang, and on the strength of that first play, I put Sue up for a Thames Television Writer’s Bursary, and she got it,” he says.

“Michael Billington [the esteemed Guardian theatre critic], who was on the panel, told me it was the funniest thing he had read in years.”

Womberang won the Thames Television Playwright Award, and Townsend was on her way, writing Bazaar And Rummage (1982) and The Great Celestial Cow (1984) for the Royal Court Theatre, Chelsea.

Townsend first penned what became The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ as a one-man show: a workshop production starring Nigel Barnett as Nigel, rather than Adrian, Mole, recounting the diary he had written when he was aged 13 and three quarters.

“We think we then changed it to Adrian, because Nigel Mole sounded too like Nigel Molesworth [the subject of Geoffrey Willans’s series of books about life in English prep school St Custard’s], but the BBC say they changed it!” says Ian.

Either way, Adrian became the name when Sue was invited to convert the play into a novel. “She was a dramatist first and was very happy to write the novel as it meant she could use only one voice, Adrian’s, to tell his story,” says Ian.

“Published by Methuen in 1982, it went stratospheric,” says Ian. So much so, The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ and its 1984 sequel, The Growing Pains Of Adrian Mole, made Townsend the best-selling British author of the 1980s. A further six books in the series took sales worldwide past the 20 million mark.

Inevitably, the books were adapted for the radio, television and theatre. “Sue worked on the first musical version, which was a play with songs, and then came the first West End theatre version,” says Ian.

Robert Readman’s York company, Pick Me Up Theatre, will be presenting the latest musical adaptation by Jake Brunger (book and lyrics) and Pippa Cleary (music and lyrics), premiered at the Leicester Curve in March 2015.

“They’d formed a partnership while studying music and contacted Sue about doing a musical, but sadly she died [on April 10 2014) before the premiere,” says Ian.

Now the story comes full circle for him as he takes to the stage as Sue’s character, the 89-year-old curmudgeon Bert Baxter. “Sue became resident writer at the Phoenix, and I moved on, and now the theatre is called the Sue Townsend Theatre in the place where I worked for four years, when  she took her first step into writing plays.”

Pick Me Up Theatre present Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, The Musical, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, December 8 to 18, 7.30pm, except December 11 and 12; 2.30pm matinees, December 11, 12 and 18. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Actor, musician and now sonneteer, Aran MacRae joins York Shakespeare Project for Sonnets At The Bar in ‘secret garden’

“Secret mission”: York actor Aran MacRae looks forward to making his York Shakespeare Project debut as a sonneteer in Sonnets At The Bar in the “secret garden” of the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre

ARAN MacRae joins Lindsay Waller Wilkinson, Luke Tearney and Josh Roe in the four new sonneteers corralled for York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar 2021 from this evening.

Not that Aran is “new” to the acting scene. Far from it, the York actor, singer, songwriter and self-taught guitarist and percussion player returned to his home city in March 2019 after building momentum in his career in London, Europe and beyond.

After training in musical theatre for three years at the Guildford School of Acting, post-graduation in 2017 he had originated the role of 14-year-old Tink in the West End premiere of the Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf musical Bat Out Of Hell at the London Coliseum, following up with the Canadian run at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto.

“If you shave off your beard, you’ve got the part,” he was told at the last audition: a wonderful start to life on the professional boards.

“We did the show for 13 months and it gave me such an insight to musical theatre and to rock’n’roll too, going to Toronto and falling in love with a beautiful woman who’d just joined the cast there,” he says.

Aran then appeared in the immersive promenade production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent at the world’s oldest working paper mill, Frogmore Paper Mill in Apsley, Hertfordshire, in July 2018 and sang in Midas’s Twelve Tenors tour across Europe and South Korea in 2018 and early 2019.

His profile on Mandy states he is now “busking in my hometown of York, playing acoustic covers and putting together lyrics and music for solo material”.

Sonnets At The Bar brings him back to theatre work in the city where, in York College days, he had starred in York Stage Musicals’ The Flint Street Nativity and Mayhem, NUEMusic Theatre’s Bare, Bat Boy The Musical and Rent and Pick Me Up Theatre’s Evita, Che Guevara beard et al. If memory serves, he was the singer in The Frizz too, in even younger days.

“I’d been living in Potters Bar in London, plying my trade as an actor, when I decided to come back to York in Spring 2019,” says Aran. “I was aware of York Shakespeare  Project and got in touch straightaway to join their mailing list because I knew that Macbeth and The Tempest were coming up and I was really up for directing The Tempest.  

“Then ‘the Cloud’, as I shall call it, came along and slowed things down; Macbeth was put back, but then I saw they were doing Sonnets At The Bar and I jumped on to it.

Aran MacRae originating the role of Tick in Bat Out Of Hell at the London Coliseum in 2017

“I’m a fan of Shakespeare’s sonnets: not that  they need a lot of investigating, but they explore the concept of love in a manner full of thought and consideration, and what is very special about them is the answer that’s given to any Shakespeare question: they are timeless and you can find modern-day parallels in them.”

Directed by Emilie Knight and produced by fellow company regular Maurice Crichton, Sonnets At The Bar 2021 will be staged in the “secret garden” of the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre, in Blossom Street, from tonight to August 7.

Emilie, who played a Covid nurse in last year’s Sit-down Sonnets at Holy Trinity churchyard in Goodramgate, has come up with the conceit of the Bar Convent being in use for all sorts of community centre-type activities, some of them outdoors in the garden on account of Covid, with the sonneteers either hosting classes or groups or attending them, all under the watchful eye of the caretaker, Mr Barrowclough.

In YSP’s now time-honoured fashion, each character has a sonnet to set up, the pairing of character and sonnet opening up unknown sonnets in an accessible way or giving well-known ones a new angle.

Aran will be performing Sonnet 25, Let Those Who Are In Favour With Their Stars, in the role of Paul, clerk to the parish council in this age of new awareness of parish-council machinations after the explosive Jackie Weaver and Handworth shenanigans on Zoom went global.

“He’s a little bit righteous, I think,” he says. “He’s not got a point to prove but when he witnesses injustice, he takes it on his shoulders to deal with it, leaving him between a rock and a hard place.

“He has to have a lot of integrity and non-bias and that’s an incredibly lofty responsibility, when you’re dealing with care for the community and injustice, though what he’s witnessed is more to do with internal parish [council] matters, rather than the community.”

Analysing Sonnet 25, Aran says: “My sonnet is about idol worship, and I can certainly find modern-day resonances within it. I’m sure Shakespeare wasn’t thinking of me 420 years ago (!), but I’m thinking of him 420 years later, taking me to an emotional place. It’s like time travel.”

Aran has relished rehearsals under Emilie’s guidance. “It’s been really free spirited, and that freedom has been wonderful, especially in ‘the Cloud’,” he says. “Not only does everyone jump in and sound ideas off each other, but Emilie basically gave each of us a small piece of text to set up each sonnet and said, ‘if you’d like to ad-lib the lead-in to the sonnet, go for it, or if you’d like to add to it, do that’.

Che days: Aran MacRae’s Che Guevara with Robyn Grant’s Eva Peron in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Evita at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, in April 2013

“That was quite testing for me because I then had to look at the structure of what the character was going to say, working out how the parish clerk would communicate in a way that was more astute and level-headed than I would be in that situation!”

Initially, Aran had envisaged “just performing the sonnet and walking off with my chest out”. “But doing it this way, building up a character, allows me to test my writing skills too…because if I’m going to be in a film, I’m going to have to write it myself!” he says.

Where does Aran see his future? “Doing Bat Out Of Hell gave me an insight into where I want to direct my abilities. I loved being in a musical, with all that high energy and lots of post-teens diving around saying ‘this is it’, ‘it’s punk!’, but sometimes I wanted to be thinking more about the task in hand, when it was on stage.

“I want to pursue my career by continuing to work in musical theatre but also look to break into theatre, even though it’s such a closed circle.

“Coming back to the city where I’d lived from the age of three to 21, suddenly there was that ‘Cloud’ and a lot of solitary confinement, so I’ve been reading the classics after I’ve not had the time to read for years, in order to consider it as a career when it’s your heart that calls you to this profession.”

One classical role Aran will not be giving us is his Lady Macbeth in York Shakespeare Project’s promenade production of Macbeth in October, staged at Theatre@41 Monkgate by director Leo Doulton in a “corrupted world of moving forests, daggers from the dark and cyberpunk dystopia, falling from civilisation into a civil war between darkness and light”.

Lady Macbeth, Aran?. “I put my two-penneth in at the auditions to play her as I thought, ‘what better chance to play one of the great string-puller roles, like in The Hunger Games in a past of such apocalyptic brutality, with suave sophistication,” he says. “I gave it a good shot…”

The role has gone to Nell Frampton instead, but Aran can still apply to direct The Tempest, with no production dates set in place yet for York Shakespeare Project’s final play.

York Shakespeare Project presents Sonnets At The Bar 2021, Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre, Blossom Street, York, today (30/7/2021) until August 7; no show on August 2. Performances: 6pm and 7.30pm nightly, plus 4.15pm on both Saturdays. Tickets: 01904 623568, at yorkthreatreroyal.co.uk or in person from the YTR box office.

More Things To Do in York, beyond and at home as Step 2 on the roadmap nears. List No. 30, courtesy of The Press, York

York actor-writer Anna Soden in rehearsal for Strawberry Lion’s streamed performance of E Nesbit’s Five Children And It

ROLL on Monday and Step 2 of the Government’s roadmap to recovery, when outdoor hospitality can resume and zoos, theme parks, drive-in cinemas and libraries can re-open.

Charles Hutchinson casts an eye over what’s on and what’s next.

Strawberry Lion’s show poster for Five Children And It

Children’s stream of the week: Strawberry Lion in Five Children And It, via Explore York libraries

YORK company Strawberry Lion’s streamed production of E Nesbit’s novel Five Children And It can be viewed for free on @YorkExplore’s YouTube channel daily until April 14 at 5pm.

Suitable for children aged five and over, the show is written and performed by York actor, musician, writer, theatre-maker and company founder Anna Soden, who has set Nesbit’s 1902 story with the grumpy magical creature on Scarborough beach.

Sailing Hopefully, by Jack Hellewell, from Jack’s Travels at Kentmere House Gallery, York, from next Monday

Exhibition launch of the week ahead: Jack Hellewell: Jack’s Travels, Kentmere House Gallery, Scarcroft Hill, York, from April 12

CURATOR Ann Kentmere is toasting Roadmap Step 2 Day by reopening Kentmere House Gallery on April 12 with Jack Travels, the first in a lockdown-delayed series of exhibitions to celebrate the centenary of the late Bradford artist Jack Hellewell.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Ann and David Petherick’s gallery in their York home, and Hellewell’s show will be open every day from April 12 to 17, 11am to 5pm, with extended opening to 9pm next Thursday, before Ann resumes her regular opening hours on the first weekend of each month and Thursdays from 6pm to 9pm. Or you can just ring the bell on the off-chance.

York Dungeon: Heading out into York’s haunted streets for a walking tour

Walking tour launch of the month ahead: The York Dungeon, from April 16

THE York Dungeon will spring its “frighteningly fun but family-friendly” walking tour on this socially distanced haunted city from next Friday.

Taking The York Dungeon above ground on Fridays to Sundays, guests will be led on a tour of hair-raising historic locations by two of the Clifford Street visitor attraction’s most/least loved characters, who will tell horrible tales of York’s murkiest, darkest history,  wrapped up in suspense and surprises. Start times will be throughout each day; tickets must be pre-booked at thedungeons.com/york/.

Ela Bochenek, documentations assistant for Scarborough Museums Trust, with Bathers In Sunlight by Zdzislaw Ruszkowski , on show at Scarborough Art Gallery in Scarborough: Our Seaside Town, from next month

A day by the sea but inside a gallery: Scarborough: Our Seaside Town, Scarborough Art Gallery, May 18 to September 12

SCARBOROUGH Art Gallery’s summertime exhibition will look at life in a seaside town, as seen through the eyes of local people. 

Curator Esther Lockwood interviewed team members from Scarborough Museums Trust, asking for their personal views and recollections of life by the sea year-round before selecting items from the trust’s extensive collections.

These will include an early 20th century ice cream cart that once operated on Scarborough’s South Bay beach; the East Coast resort’s Pancake Bell, rung to signal the start of the unique tradition of skipping on the seafront on Shrove Tuesday, and other seaside ephemera, paintings, vintage photographs and postcards.

Kinky Sex, Grayson Perry’s first plate, now among the “lost pots” brought together for his Pre-Therapy Years exhibition at CoCA, York

Missing Grayson’s Art Club on Channel 4 already? Head to Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years, York Art Gallery, May 28 to September 5

GRAYSON Perry’s lockdown-delayed “lost pots” exhibition at York Art Gallery’s Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA) will open at last next month.

This touring show is the first celebration of Perry’s earliest forays into the art world, re-assembling the explosive and creative works the Chelmsford-born artist, author and television presenter made between 1982 and 1994.

“It’s as near as I will ever get to meeting myself as a young man, an angrier, priapic me with huge energy but a much smaller wardrobe,” says Perry.

SpongeBob The Musical: Pick Me Up Theatre have acquired the rights for a winter production in York

Audition opportunity: Pick Me Up Theatre, SpongeBob The Musical, Theatre @41 Monkgate, York

YORK company Pick Me Up Theatre are to stage SpongeBob The Musical from December 7 to 18 at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York.

Director Robert Readman and musical director Sam Johnson will hold auditions there in July and August for performers aged 15 to 23 and actor-musicians for the Bikini Bottom Band.

Anyone interested is asked to email pickmeuptheatre@gmail.com for an audition form.

Del Amitri: First album in 19 years and first York Barbican gig after the same hiatus

Gig announcement of the week in York: Del Amitri, York Barbican, September 18

DEL Amitri will follow up the May 28 release of their seventh studio album, Fatal Mistakes, with a September 18 gig at York Barbican.

Justin Currie’s Glaswegian band last played the Barbican in May 2002, the year they released their last album, Can You Do Me Good?.

Greatest hits and new material will combine in a set supported by The Bryson Family. Tickets will go on sale tomorrow (9/4/2021) at 9am at yorkbarbican.co.uk.

John Spiers, left, and Jon Boden: Pocklington Arts Centre gig in October for the former Bellowhead cornerstones

Gig announcement of the week outside York: Spiers & Boden, Pocklington Arts Centre (PAC), October 20, 8pm

AFTER years of speculation, much-loved English folk duo Spiers & Boden are back together and not only working on new material, but also bringing a live performance to Pock in the autumn. 

John Spiers, 46, and Jon Boden, 44, were the driving forces in big folk band Bellowhead, who played a glorious headline set at PAC’s Platform Festival at The Old Station, Pocklington, in July 2015. Tickets cost £20 at pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.

Pick Me Up Theatre to stage American hit show SpongeBob The Musical in December UPDATED 8/4/2021

SpongeBob The Musical: Broadway hit to be staged in York by Pick Me Up Theatre in December

YORK company Pick Me Up Theatre are to stage SpongeBob The Musical in the 2021 Christmas season at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York.

Director Robert Readman and musical director Sam Johnson will present the musical originally called SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, from December 7 to 18.

“Pick Me Up are thrilled to have secured the rights to bring this intrepid, heroic sponge and his friends to York audiences when live theatre once more returns to the York stage,” says Robert.

“I was happily scrolling through the Concord Theatricals website late last year and there it was! I didn’t even know it had been released for performance. It took months to get permission from the rights holders though!

“Now, we’re looking forward to auditioning this summer for this joyful musical: a perfect choice to brighten everyone’s Christmas.”

Readman and Johnson will hold auditions at Theatre @41 Monkgate in July and August – exact dates to be confirmed – for performers aged 15 to 23 with one proviso. “If you are an actor-musician, you can be any age and we’d love you to audition for the Bikini Bottom Band,” says Sam.

Anyone interested is asked to email pickmeuptheatre@gmail.com for an audition form to provide contact details including a photo, age and performance history.

“We’re also looking for costume makers, hair designers and prop builders to magically create the world of SpongeBob SquarePants,” says Robert, who saw the Broadway show live-streamed on Nickelodeon.

Based on the animated Nickelodeon series created by Stephen Hillenburg, the American musical has a book by Kyle Jarrow, with original songs by Yolanda Adams; Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, of Aerosmith; Sara Bareilles; Jonathan Coulton; Alexander Ebert, of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros; The Flaming Lips; Lady A; Cyndi Lauper; John Legend; Panic!  At the Disco; Plain White T’s, and They Might Be Giants and T.I.

Songs by David Bowie, Tom Kenny and Andy Paley feature too, along with additional lyrics by Jonathan Coultonand additional music by Tom Kitt.

“The show is whacky and very colourful, with plenty of scope for lots of varied performers, but mainly it has a terrific score written especially by some of the foremost pop composers from the last two decades,” says Robert.

Fans of the 21-year-old cartoon will delight in the mostly humanoid re-creations of favourite characters, such as Squidward; Patrick; Eugene Krabs; his daughter Pearl, who is inexplicably a whale; Larry the Lobster; Sandy Cheeks, the squirrel in a diving suit, and Sheldon J. Plankton, who functions as the villain, Gary.

What distinguishes the musical from Nickelodeon TV series? “A live-action re-imagining takes the cartoon into new territory, so it’s not slavishly copying the original but transforming it into a unique stage show for all the family,” says Robert.

“Plenty of crabbie laughs, lots of squid dancing, delicious pineapple ballads: what more could you ask than to be at the bottom of the sea for Christmas?!”

In 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic put paid to no fewer than four Pick Me Up Theatre shows, the first three at the John Cooper Studio, Theatre @41 Monkgate: Stephen Sondheim 90: A Birthday Concert on March 22; The Pirates Of Penzance, the company’s first foray into the topsy-turvy world, April 17 to 25, and Alan Combes and Steve Cassidy’s musical drama Black Potatoes, September 18 to 26.

The fourth, the American musical 42nd Street, should have run at the Grand Opera House from November 6 to 14.

In the absence of being able to stage shows, Robert has nevertheless kept himself busy. “I have so loved the break, allowing me to catch up on decorating, extending the garden, eBaying props and costumes,” he says.

“I know it’s been hard for so many people, but I just thought it was a really great chance to take stock of life – theatre is only a small part of mine – and just remain as positive as possible. I still haven’t got around to tidying the insides of the sheds though…maybe next week??”

Those sheds, should you be wondering, are the former chicken shed warehouse at Bubwith that houses all manner of theatrical costumes, props and much more besides.

Maybe the tidying can wait; the return to working on shows beckons, and come December, SpongeBob The Musical will be making its York debut.

“Why should people see this musical? Because everyone wants to live in Bikini Bottom and this is your chance!” says Robert.

“Or, as Patchy the Pirate says: ‘This is one under-the-sea spectacular that you don’t want to miss’.”

Be a brick! Step up to the plate by signing fundraising support for Theatre @41

Emily Taylor, left, and Danielle Mullan demonstrate the bricks at the John Cooper Studio Theatre at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York. They will be performing there from December 11 to January 3 in York Stage’s pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk

THEATRE @41 Monkgate is selling personalised bricks to create a new display at York’s black-box studio theatre.

Sales of the inscribed slates will help to make up some of the revenue shortfall created by the Coronavirus pandemic. Theatre @41’s new chairman, Alan Park, hopes theatre participants and supporters alike will show their fundraising backing by digging deep.

“Anyone who has been to Theatre @41 knows what a special place it is,” he says. “We have obviously lost revenue while having to close and we need to make sure we can keep going. Every donation we receive helps us continue to provide an accessible and affordable theatre space to the York community.

“These bricks are a great way for anyone who uses our space, or has been to a show they love, to help us achieve this. They will be able to see their words and messages every time they visit and know they have played a part in the heritage of Theatre @41.”

To buy a brick for £40 or two for £70, visit: 41monkgate.co.uk/bricks. Alternatively, email: info@41monkgate.co.uk.

On message: Guy Wilson shows off a fundraising brick for Theatre @41 Monkgate. Guy has attended shows there regularly, takes LAMDA exams and performs for resident companies York Stage and Pick Me Up Theatre


Sam Johnson makes big Broadway video to raise funds for Theatre @41’s roof re-build

Banding and bonding: The Sam Johnson Big Band and and a galaxy of York musical theatre stars recording Broadway Baby to raise funds for Theatre @41’s roof renovation

TWENTY-ONE singers, 22 musicians and even four cats have come together – remotely, you can never herd cats – to make a fundraising video for Theatre @41 Monkgate’s roof renovation.

Under the musical direction and arranging skills of pianist Sam Johnson, they have recorded a big-band version of Broadway Baby, marking the 90th birthday year of composer Stephen Sondheim.

The video combines the Sam Johnson Big Band with cast members from the York musical theatre scene and you can see them in full swing on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6RcpRBJPwA

Donations through JustGiving can be made at https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/broadwaybabymonkgate

York band leader, tutor, composer, performer, producer and now video maker Sam says: “I put the video together, getting in touch with all the singers, after having put together four or five other videos with the Big Band. I thought it would be a good video to wrap them all up and to include such a large number of people together for the cause!

“I also noted that everyone in the video has benefited in some way from the Monkgate venue, whether it be through a performance or rehearsal.”

“It’s a good, brassy Broadway big-band number to mix the two ensembles together in the smoothest way possible,” says band leader Sam Johnson of Sondheim’s Broadway Baby

Explaining his choice of musical-theatre song, with its apposite Covid-era lyric of “Waiting for that one big chance to be in a show”, Sam says: “I went for Sondheim’s Broadway Baby song-wise as it’s from one of the shows I’ve enjoyed most working on at Monkgate when Pick Me Up Theatre staged Follies’ last year.

“It’s a good, brassy Broadway big-band number to mix the two ensembles together in the smoothest way possible!”

Welcoming the fundraising boost of Broadway Baby, Theatre @41 board secretary Jo Hird – whose “dressing up is better than my vocals” on the video – says: “With Theatre @41 closed, we’re trying to crack on with as much decorating and renovating as we can, so as not to disrupt shows when we’re allowed to reopen.

“One of the shows we had to postpone was Pick Me Up Theatre’s Sondheim 90: A Birthday Concert to celebrate the New York composer’s 90th birthday. How brilliant of Sam Johnson to put Broadway Baby together. It took a lot of coordinating. 

Sam Johnson in rehearsal with his big band in pre-Covid days

“We’re really grateful to Sam for bringing this fundraiser to life because we need every penny we can get to repair our roof and keep our Monkgate building open.”

The cast taking part in the recording were: Susannah Baines; Emily Chattle; Emma-Louise Dickinson; Anna Hale; Iain Harvey; Sam Hird; Jo Hird; Darren Lumby; Sandy Nicholson; Adam Price; Emily Ramsden; Tracey Rea; Andrew Roberts; Rosy Rowley; Lauren Sheriston; Maggie Smales; Joanne Theaker; Dave Todd; Juliet Waters; Natalie Walker and Jennie Wogan.

Joining pianist, musical director and arranger Sam Johnson in the band were Katie Wood and Katie Maloney on alto sax; Richard Oakman and Stephen Donoghue on tenor sax; Nick Jones on baritone sax and a multitude of trumpet players, Connor McLean, Sam Rees, Charles Tomlinson, James Lolley, Daniel Dickson and Leo James Conroy.

So too did trombonists Anna Marshall, Lauren Ingham and Fliss Simpson; violinists Claire Jowett and Emily Jones, viola player Jess Douglas; cellist Lucy McLuckie; guitarist Tom Holmes; upright bassist Georgia Johnson and Andy Hayes on the drum kit.

Look out too for cameo appearances by a quartet of cats, Strummer, Misty, Paris and Bob.