Rumours spread and rebellion rises as York Theatre Royal’s new season makes a stand

The Tragedy Of Guy Fawkes playwright David Reed outside the Guy Fawkes Inn in York. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

“THE theatre has always been a place where rebellion thrives,” says chief executive Tom Bird as York Theatre Royal sets its Rumours And Rebels season in commotion.

Two legendary York figures, Guy Fawkes and the Coppergate Woman, will come to life as the spotlight is turned on those who resist, rebel and stand up to injustice, corruption and persecution this summer and autumn.

“We wanted to talk about opposition and intrigue and how ‘sticking it to the man’ manifests itself, which is often in the form of rumours first,” says Tom. “We knew we were going to be doing this strand of work with rebellion shot through it, but we also wanted a nod to the fact that rebellion can start in a more subtle phase with rumour.

“We already had rebellion in the diary with Guy Fawkes, Julius Caesar and Red Ellen, which all start with ‘talk’, and I was thinking about how you’re naturally quite wary of making heroes of people who are seen as terrorists, so I didn’t want the season to be too on the nose in celebrating rebellion without also saying it’s a complicated business.

“Look at Guy Fawkes; we think of him as a York hero but actually he wanted to blow up hundreds of people.”

Long in the planning for its York Theatre Royal world premiere, York-born writer David Reed’s “explosive new comedy about York’s most infamous rebel”, The Tragedy Of Guy Fawkes, will run from October 28 to November 12, directed by Gemma Fairlie as Monty Python meets Blackadder.

“We’ve had the script since before I came here in December 2017,” says Tom. “David [one third of the The Penny Dreadfuls comedy trio] is a local writer; the script is brilliant and funny, and the pre-sale of tickets is fantastic.”

Co-director Juliet Forster, left, and playwright Maureen Lennon with JORVIK Viking Centre’s model of The Coppergate Lady

Further explaining the Rumours And Rebels season title, Tom says: “The other reason for ‘Rumours’ is the impact of social media, where it feels like we’re surrounded by an unsolicited swirl of rumour that could lead to action, even to direct rebellion, like you saw with Trump’s supporters marching on Capitol Hill.

“Uncurated rumours bother us a lot, and that’s why we’re curating the summer and autumn programme under this title to highlight the importance of curation when news has stopped being that and so many people no longer trust experts.  Theatre is a place for resistance and for celebrating it since Athenian times.”

Standing alongside Reed’s Guy Fawkes tragi-comedy in the season ahead will be Maureen Lennon’s community play The Coppergate Woman, wherein a Valkyrie woman with the answers rises again to move among the people of York, a goddess resisting the havoc wrought by pandemic, from July 30 to August 6.

These in-house productions will be preceded by Northern Stage, Nottingham Playhouse and Royal Lyceum Theatre’s touring production of Red Ellen, Carol Bird’s epic story of inspiration Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, who was forever on the right side of history, forever on the wrong side of life, from May 24 to 28.

“We’re super-excited about Red Ellen, which had been planned by Lorne Campbell before he left Northern Stage to move to the National Theatre of Wales. After The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff, this is another unsung political hero to be celebrated by Northern Stage.”

Flicking through the brochure, in Shakespeare’s Globe’s Julius Caesar, on June 10 and 11, the protagonists fear power running unchallenged as Diane Page directs this brutal tale of ambition, incursion and revolution; in Conor McPherson’s Girl From The North Country, from September 5 to 10, the chimes of freedom flash through a story rooted in Bob Dylan’s songs;  in Pilot Theatre’s revival of Noughts & Crosses, from September 16 to 24, the love between Selby and Callum runs counter to the politics of their segregated world.

In Frantic Assembly’s reimagined 21st century Othello, from October 18 to 22, Othello faces a barrage of racial persecution in Shakespeare’s tragedy of paranoia, sex and murder; the year ends with the Theatre Royal’s third pantomime collaboration with Evolution Productions, where Peter Pan joyously stands up to the tyranny of time, from December 2 to January 2.

York Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird

Delighted to welcome Shakespeare’s Globe, Tom says: “I left the Globe to move here, and as the Roman Quarter project gets underway in Rougier Street, we were interested in doing a Roman-themed work.

“We’d known for a while this would be a rebellion season, and the Globe knew we were keen to link up with them, so they gave us a couple of options. National companies are getting really good at that, and it’s great to have the Globe back for the first time since they did Henry VI.”

Tom says the season fell into place partly through the stars aligning. “If Frantic Assembly’s Othello is on tour, you take it,” he says. “It fitted perfectly with our own choices of Guy Fawkes and [York company] Pilot Theatre reviving Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses.

“The first tour did really well, there’s since been the TV series, and it’s a story really loved by young audiences as a Romeo & Juliet for the 21st century. It’s a no-brainer to bring it back.”

Bringing a “big show” to York Theatre Royal is not easy, says Tom, given the seating capacity of 750, but that does not deter him from seeking to do so. Take the double Olivier Award-winning West End and Broadway hit Girl From The North Country, written and directed by The Weir playwright Conor McPherson.

He reimagines the songs of Bob Dylan in a universal story of family and love set in the heartland of America in 1934, when a group of wayward souls cross paths in a time-weathered guesthouse in ‘nowheresville’ [Duluth, Minnesota]. As they search for the future and hide from the past, they find themselves facing unspoken truths about the present.

“God we had to fight to get it but I’m seriously glad we did,” says Tom. “It premiered at The Old Vic and it’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Bob Dylan had been badgered for years about doing a jukebox musical, and he said, ‘only if it’s a bit weird’. Luckily, he was involved in Conor getting to do it.

Girl From The North Country: “Doing a Conor McPherson on a Bob Dylan jukebox musical”

“It’s a marriage made in heaven! He does a Conor McPherson on a Bob Dylan jukebox musical: it’s an incredible, haunting story with a cast of odd characters you’d find travelling on a Greyhound bus, when you gather all this eccentricity in America and you can’t escape them, set to Dylan’s songs.

“Everyone knows Bob Dylan songs are sung better when Dylan doesn’t sing them, and for this show, they take a genuine cross section of songs from across his career, not only the Sixties.”

Among further highlights, York Stage will make their Theatre Royal debut in a 40th anniversary production of Howard Ashman and and Alan Menken’s musical Little Shop Of Horrors, from July 14 to 13, and Original Theatre will present Susie Blake as Miss Marple in Rachel Wagstaff’s new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, from October 4 to 8.

“I’d been a bit worried whether a murder mystery is still what people want as we’ve seen that move from drawing-room plays to musicals in audience tastes, but The Mirror Crack’d has gone like a train at the box office,” says Tom.

Summing up the philosophy behind Rumours And Rebels, he concludes : “It’s not easy to have a themed season when we put on such diverse work here, but when we see ways to do seasons with connected themes we will do it, like the Theatre Royal did with seasons focusing on Yorkshire and women before I came here.

“By having a theme, hopefully it will encourage people to see more plays in the season having enjoyed one.

“Overall, for me, what we’re eliminating from York Theatre Royal is the middle-of-the-road. When we bring in touring shows, we might as well go ‘big’, bringing in new audiences; when we produce plays, we’re going to do new work like The Tragedy Of Guy Fawkes and The Coppergate Woman, not Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which might be my favourite play but wouldn’t get an audience.”

For the full programme and tickets details for Rumours And Rebels at York Theatre Royal, go to: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Box office: 01904 623568.

Copyright Of The Press, York

Susie Blake as Miss Marple in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d

REVIEW: Pilot Theatre’s detention centre tale The Bone Sparrow, York Theatre Royal

Yaamin Chowdhury’s Subhi, the boy dreamer in refugee captivity in Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow

The Bone Sparrow, Pilot Theatre & York Theatre Royal, at York Theatre Royal *** Performances: 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2pm, 7.30pm, Saturday, then on tour. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Age guidance: 11 plus

ZANA Fraillon’s 2016 Australian detention centre novel, The Bone Sparrow, is rooted in the power of the imagination in brutal circumstances.

S. Shakthidharan, an Australian playwright born in Sri Lanka with Tamil ancestry, retains the importance of imagination in his stage adaptation for York company Pilot Theatre’s world premiere.

Pilot’s pioneering social, cultural and political theatre is targeted at teenage audiences – Leeds Trinity Academy pupils in smartest blazers were seated in the two rows in front of your reviewer, who passed two more excited school groups en route to Thursday afternoon’s matinee – and Shakthidharan and director Esther Richardson have made two bold decisions.

One is to entrust young audiences with taking in all the minutiae of a highly theatrical, if episodic production that runs to Shakespearean lengths, as the clock ticked towards 10.20 from a 7.30pm start on press night.

Australian writer S Shakthidharan

The other is to place so much faith in imagination, in tandem with our need for stories as a mechanism for survival in the face of adversity, in a piece full of symbolism, from the bone sparrow of the title to a talkative, comical, “riduckulous” duck that looks like Shakespeare (should that be a Duck Bill Platypus?).

All is seen through a 12-year-old child’s eyes, albeit with the writer’s secondary voice ever present too. That means not everything is easy to comprehend, which in turns makes Richardson’s production more challenging for younger audience members, although those Leeds schoolchildren were fully attentive throughout.

Could the storytelling have been clearer? Could the running time have been shorter? Yes to both questions, and potentially, a snappier running time would have demanded a more concise, less florid form of storytelling.

Yet, to counter that instinctive reaction, there is a freedom to the storytelling that matches the birds seen in flight so often in Daniel Denton’s beautiful video designs and illustrations. Not everything, however, lifts off from the page amid the text-heavy burden of subplots.

The 12-year-old boy is Subhi (Yaamin Chowdhury), who was born in an Australian refugee camp and remains a limbo kid there with his mother (Kiran L Dadlani) and his firebrand sister Queenie (Siobhan Athwal), their persecuted Rohingya Muslim family having fled the violence of Myanmar without the father.

Elmi Rashid Elmi’s Eli, left, Yaamin Chowdhury’s Subhi and Siobhan Athwal’s Queenie in a heated scene in The Bone Sparrow

The play begins in Subhi’s world of his imagination, as he is shown forever making drawings in his little book, as depicted in Denton’s backdrops.

Suddenly the fences close all around him in Miriam Nabarro’s design, and the daily dirge of a future constantly on hold is mirrored in the menu of endless porridge meals and confinement to sleeping on steel beds in tents.

One guard, Harvey (Devesh Kishore) strives to be considerate, even helpful; another, the over-assertive Beaver (Mackenzie Scott), calls the refugees by their numbers only and is a racist thug and a bully, clashing with Elmi Rashid Elmi’s freedom-craving Eli.

Into the story – leading to comparisons with The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – comes the outsider, Jimmie (Mary Roubos), an illiterate but inquisitive girl from up the hill who wants Subhi to read the stories collated in her late mother’s notebook.

As with Subhi’s bursts of imagination – where he conjures the seas he has never seen – these stories are told with the camp barriers removed and the mythical characters of newly-weds Oto and Anka represented by oversized puppet heads, miming the horrors of facing another menacing regime.

The girl from the outside: Mary Roubos’s Jimmie

There is humour and mystery, escape and discovery, drama and danger in this account of a burgeoning friendship, captured so well by Chowdhury and Roubos, as it is interwoven with the grim realities of camp life.

Is Jimmie real or pulled from Subhi’s dreamscapes? The way that Roubos plays her at first makes you wonder, another plus to her engaging performance opposite Chowdhury’s Subhi, a resilient boy bursting with restless thoughts, undaunted by authority and stymied circumstances.

For comic relief, look no further than puppeteer Jummy Faruq and his Duck, as opinionated as Ray Alan’s indiscreet Lord Charles.

Yet like Arun Ghosh’s score, that comic relief takes a back seat. Such is the overpowering shadow of this week’s plight of fleeing Ukrainians seeking sanctuary in Poland and beyond, and the intolerant message given by Brexit and now the Nationality and Borders bill over here, when there is such need for a common humanity, heightened by pandemic times.

Alas the bitter reality is that it will take more than a captive boy’s imagination or a novel to trigger change, but everything must start with highlighting what’s wrong and positing how we could make a better world.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Yaamin Chowdhury’s Subhi and fellow Pilot Theatre cast members, against the backdrop of Daniel Denton’s video design, in Pilot Theatre’s co-production with York Theatre Royal, Derby Playhouse, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Colchester

How Australian writer Shakthi and York’s Pilot Theatre came together to tell Subhi’s tale from inside a detention centre

Yaamin Chowdhury as Rohingya refugee Subhi in Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

YORK company Pilot Theatre’s world premiere of The Bone Sparrow is international, not only in its subject matter of asylum seekers but in its journey from page to stage.

Artistic director Esther Richardson and her cast have ‘met’ playwright S. Shakthidharan only on Zoom, although he does plan to travel from Australia to Britain later during the tour of a co-production mounted with York Theatre Royal, Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Colchester.

Shakthi, as he is known for short and on the corner of his Zoom screen for this interview, is a writer, storyteller, composer and film and theatre director-producer, from western Sydney, with Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry.

“The commission came from Esther. She contacted me out of the blue,” says Shakthi. “She’d heard about the play I wrote and premiered in Australia in 2019 [Counting And Cracking], and I think she’d read the script.”

This was no ordinary debut play. Staged by Belvoir and Co-Curious at the 2019 Sydney and Adelaide Festivals, his script won the Victorian Premier’s Literature Prize and the New South Wales Premier’s Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting; the three-hour epic production won seven Helpmann and three Sydney Theatre Awards.

“Esther had been interested in adapting Zana Fraillon’s book for some time and so she approached me,” recalls Shakti. “When I read it, I immediately connected with it because I’d worked with a lot of asylum seekers in Australia and was familiar with the different types of stories that were being told.”

In the story by children and young adults’ novelist Fraillon, Subhi is a 12-year-old Rohingya refugee boy, born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled the violence of her distant homeland. Life behind the fences is all he has ever known, but as he grows, his imagination grows too, until it is bursting at the limits of his world. 

One night, Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl, appears from the other side of the wires, bringing a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family’s mysterious and moving history, but will Subhi and Jimmie both find a way to freedom as their tales unfold?

Mary Roubos as Jimmie in The Bone Sparrow at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Robert Day

“Subhi, the protagonist, lives in the world of his imagination and doesn’t realise what’s going on around him,” says Shakthi. “Instead, he’s lost in his own charming world, and it’s fascinating that he can have such an enchanting world in such a brutal situation.”

By now, Shakthi had been joined on the Zoom screen by his own young son, awoken from his sleep – it was 8.45pm in Sydney – by the sound of voices.

“So often we are beaten down by the world,” says Shakthi. “We reshape ourselves to fit into it. Subhi’s story is different. In The Bone Sparrow this imaginative young boy discovers within himself a strength that will change the world around him.

“It’s a classic coming-of-age story and yet so much more. The Bone Sparrow is by turns a wondrous tale of epic, mythical adventure; a realistic appraisal of what it means to grow up without freedom; and a vision of renewed solidarity across our supposed divisions.”

Jimmie’s story is as significant to Shakthi as Subhi’s tale. “Immigration, asylum and race is such an important issue in Australia, where it has swung elections for 20 years now and changed government policy,” he says.

“What the children’s relationship does is bring out a common humanity within people, unlike so much of the dialogue, both by those who are well meaning and those with no compassion. Subhi and Jimmie’s friendship obliterates all that: they are two kids who develop a love for each other and have a lot of fun together as well.”

Shakthi continues: “It’s a political play but it’s not a didactic one. I love works that present the complexity of humanity, so the central relationship is so important here.

“What wasn’t in the book so much is that it’s a Rohingya Muslim family. In Zana’s story it’s portrayed with a lighter touch, but I’ve been very keen to have the Rohingya community involved in the project.”

Mackenzie Scott, as Beaver, left, and  Elmi Rashid Elmi,  as Eli, in the detention centre in The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

To that end, Esther has liaised with the British Rohingya community, based in Bradford and especially with Sirazul Islam, who began the project as a consultant and is now the assistant director. Like Subhi, Sirazul was born into a refugee camp, and he speaks in public about his experiences of being Rohingya.

In addition, the production team has spoken to other Rohingya people and young sanctuary-seekers, who have been consulted on the script. “The play has a stronger sense of that culture now,” says Shakthi.

Reflecting on his own childhood, he says: “I was born in Sri Lanka in 1982; when the riots happened in 1983, it deepened into civil war, and that’s when my family moved to Chandhai in India, hoping to come back to Sri Lanka.

“That’s the thing about war; it can take a while before anyone calls it a war. We moved first to India, then Singapore, then Australia by the time I was three. We never did go back to Sri Lanka. I’m an Australian, with a lot of family in England as the Tamil diaspora spread everywhere.”

Fraillon’s story of Subhi has many resonances for Shakthi. “I understand what it means not to be in your homeland because of your race, and I understand what it means for a relatively small country to descend into violence,” he says.

“Subhi’s tale is one of growing up distanced from his culture, but he reaches a crisis point in his young life where he finds strength in that culture.

“In my case, my parents pushed me into assimilation in Australia, and so I didn’t really connect with my [Tamil] culture until my late-20s.”

Assimilating meant doing things like supporting Steve Waugh’s Australian cricket team, recalls Shakthi. “I would follow what my white Australian mates were doing, whether it was music or sport,” he says.

The Pilot Theatre company on stage at York Theatre Royal in The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

“But then you find your own culture is far more sophisticated than you realised, and through all that pain of leaving your own country, now I really appreciate both my Sri Lankan culture and my Australian culture, so that’s a bonus that other people don’t have: being able to look at the world in different ways. That stops you from being pompous.”

Addressing the thorny subject of immigration, detention centres and sanctuary seekers, Shakthi says: “You can talk about this stuff endlessly politically, but the thing I always come back to is thinking: ‘is it fair to make one group a scapegoat for everyone else?’.

“The Australian government thinks that putting one group of people in detention will be a deterrent to others, but what does it say about that one group? We have to find other ways.

“It’s very easy to make people have knee-jerk reactions on this issue – all that talk of ‘taking our jobs and protecting our borders’ – but the success of the UK, USA, Canada and Australia is co-dependent on welcoming people. You can’t have one without the other. Generally, when people come, they work their butts off, doing jobs others aren’t willing to do.

“That’s why Jimmie’s relationship with Subhi is so vital in the story. She doesn’t apply labels to him. She just sees him as a boy and a friend.”

Living in suburban western Sydney, Shakthi is in a community where many migrants have settled. “In its time, it’s had the most diverse population in the world,” he says. “Going for a cup of coffee in the morning, you pass every culture.”

Plenty of cups of coffee later, The Bone Sparrow is up and running at York Theatre Royal. “I’ve had a great deal of fun collaborating with Pilot to develop a grand theatricality for this work and deepen its relationship with the Rohingya community,” says Shakthi. “I hope audiences are as delighted and moved by this story as we were in the process of adapting it.”

Pilot Theatre’s premiere of The Bone Sparrow runs at York Theatre Royal until Saturday, then on tour from March 8 to April 2. York box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

S. Shakthidharan: Writer, storyteller, composer, director and producer for stage and screen

S. Shakthidharan in profile:

Shakthi is a western Australian writer, producer, composer and director for screen and stage of Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry. His 2019 debut play, the three-hour epic Counting And Cracking, had a profound effect on the Sri Lankan community in Sydney.

He has a new commission in development with Sydney Festival; a number of plays with Belvoir; a feature film with Felix Media and two new television projects.

He is the artistic director of Kurinji and lead artistic consultant at Co-Curious, a sister company to CuriousWorks, where he was the founder and artistic director from 2003 to 2018.

Seeing asylum through a child’s eyes in Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow premiere

Yaamin Chowdhury in rehearsal for his role as refugee Subhi in Pilot Theatre’s world premiere of The Bone Sparrow

AFTER racism in Noughts & Crosses and gang culture in Crongton Knights, York company Pilot Theatre now address immigration and asylum seekers in The Bone Sparrow.

The world premiere opens tomorrow (25/2/2022) at York Theatre Royal, Pilot’s partners in the third in a series of co-productions with Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Coventry.

Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson directs Australian playwright S. Shakthidharan’s adaptation of children’s author Zana Fraillon’s story of a Rohingya refugee boy who has spent his entire life living in a detention centre in Australia.

Directing a cast of eight, who have been rehearsing in a bubble in the De Grey Rooms and taking lateral flow tests every second day, Esther says: “It’s the biggest project we’ve done since the start of the pandemic, with a team of 12 on the road – the cast and four stage managers – for the tour.

“This show was already on the slate to do in 2022, and we just thought ‘let’s do it’ as we really believe in the importance of the project because how we treat migrants is so topical.

“Immigration and racism are very important subjects, as we ask searching questions about who we are as a country if we’re not going to support those who are fleeing their homes to seek a better life – whereas before Brexit we were seen as a nation that did accept asylum seekers.”

In The Bone Sparrow, refugee Subhi is born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled her violent homeland. Behind the fences, his imagination grows as he grows, until bursting at the limits of his world. 

One night, Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl, appears from the other side of the wires, bringing with her a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family’s mysterious and moving history. Will Subhi and Jimmie find a way to freedom as their tales unfold?

“The play is set in Australia, where the system for asylum seekers is horrendous, and it’s the one that [Home Secretary] Priti Patel is talking of implementing here,” says Esther.

“The play seeks to raise awareness about detention centres and how people are treated, but it’s also a story of the power of imagination for a boy who is born in a detention centre but has this relentlessly optimistic way of seeing the world through that imagination.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson

“That’s an important metaphor for everyone, but especially young people, as we come out of the pandemic and those lockdowns.”

The role of Subhi will be played by Yaamin Chowdhury, who says: “I always used to say that kids ‘play pretend’, but I didn’t ‘play pretend’; I ‘play believe’. That’s how Subhi resonates with me.

“Then, doing plays that are political, especially this boy, carrying the story, being the hero of the story, I feel like I’m the custodian of people who are disenfranchised, which is important, no matter what geographical world a story is set in.”

Subhi is 12, Yaamin, 23. “Tapping into my inner child, and a child’s curiosity, is the best way to play this character, and I have to be true to every moment, every stimuli, I can be.

“That can be hard sometimes, when remembering that I can look at the world differently, whereas Subhi can only do so by looking at the outside world through the fence’s diamond shapes.

“A lot of people are hermetically sealed from Subhi’s world, and it’s the harsh reality that seeing is believing only when confronted by his story, but that’s the journey we have to take educate people about the sensitive issues of what’s going on in these detention centres for anyone seeking asylum.”

Esther rejoins: “Subhi has never been able to see the sea, for example, so he has to imagine what the sea looks like as he only has people’s stories to draw on. He’s driving his older sister mad by always asking her what she remembers of living in Burma.”

Just as Subhi uses his imagination, so must the audience. “Theatre is about us doing that,” says Esther. “It’s the human act of profound connection with a story that enables us to empathise or project on to a character to understand someone in a way that only theatre can do.”

Yaamin picks up that point. “Experiencing a play, someone’s story, can change someone, and it’s good to have that feeling that if we have changed someone, we’ve done something right,” he says.

From tomorrow, let the power of theatre meet the power of the imagination at York Theatre Royal.

Pilot Theatre presents The Bone Sparrow at York Theatre Royal, tomorrow (25/2/2022) until March 5, then on tour until April 2. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

Copyright of The Press, York

What’s going in 2022’s arts diary to amuse, agitate, excite and exasperate Two Big Egos In A Small Car’s Chalmers & Hutch?

Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow: Premiering at York Theatre Royal next month

PODCASTING culture vultures Graham Chalmers & Charles Hutchinson pick their way through what lies ahead in their 2022 arts diary, from formulaic films to pioneering theatre in Episode 72 of Two Big Egos In A Small Car.

Plus tributes to Joan Didion and Dean Stockwell RIP, when you head to: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1187561/9850438

Bird’s eye view on the Spring! season ahead at York Theatre Royal after panto success

The Bone Sparrow: Pilot Theatre’s world premiere at York Theatre Royal

AFTER the Summer Of Love, the Haunted Season and the pantomime revolution, York Theatre Royal has a Spring! in its step for 2022’s diary of new beginnings.

“Our strategy is not middle of the road with our programming,” says chief executive Tom Bird. “We are either being ambitious commercially or ambitious artistically.

“When we make new work, we want it to resonate with the times; we want it to be relevant to York audiences and we want it to be experimental. We used to do a lot of plays that were ‘in the middle’, but where we are now, even though we do them rather well, we can’t do Chekhov and Ibsen, because no-one came.

“But we’re going to do loads of new work over the year ahead and we have to balance it with commercial work, because we want to have a full theatre that is a community-engaged theatre.”

In a nutshell that means accommodating Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow, York Light Opera Company’s Evita, Northern Broadsides and New Vic Theatre’s As You Like It, Dancing On Ice winner Jake Quickenden and Darren Day in the 1980s’ musical Footloose and Mischief and Penn & Teller’s Magic Goes Wrong in one season.

“As a creative theatre, we’re co-producing – and hosting rehearsals for – York company Pilot Theatre’s tour of The Bone Sparrow; we’ll be doing a community play, yet to be named, probably indoors in the summer,” says Tom.

“We’ll also be doing something at Easter and something about Guy Fawkes in November, so there’s plenty of new work in the pipeline. We’ll also continue to make ‘micro-community’ shows, like the Love Bites nights that reopened the theatre [after Lockdown 3] in May.” Watch this space as more details emerge.

Directed by artistic director Esther Richardson, Pilot Theatre’s world premiere of award-winning Australian playwright S. Shakthidaran’s adaptation of Zana Fraillon’s novel The Bone Sparrow will open at York Theatre Royal from February 25 to March 5 before touring to fellow co-producing houses Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Mercury Theatre, Colchester and Derby Playhouse.

Fraillon’s story of a Rohingya refugee boy who has spent his entire life living in a detention centre in Australia forms the third liaison between Pilot and the four theatres, who formed a new partnership to develop theatre for younger audiences. 

“The way this consortium has worked is that, over a four-year period, each theatre takes its turn to make a show with Pilot. Derby Playhouse made Noughts & Crosses, Coventry made Crongton Knights,” says Tom.

“This time, we’re producing The Bone Sparrow in York. It’s a brilliant time to be doing this play, as it’s set in a refugee camp, when sections of the media and certain politicians try to demonise refugees. This play pushes back against that really powerfully.

“It’s also super-exciting that Arun Ghosh is doing the music and sound. Arun is an incredible Indian musician who I worked with on a show called Lions And Tigers, by Tanika Gupta, at Shakespeare’s Globe.”

Just as York Theatre Royal and pantomime partners Evolution Productions were determined to draw a wider, younger audience to Cinderella – and did so with 65 per cent visiting the Theatre Royal for the first time – so Tom is passionate about attracting young audiences to other shows too.

“It’s great to do work for this [teenage] age group with Pilot. We were worried because Crongton Knights was a tough sell, as it did feel its experiences specifically spoke to South London, but this latest show has really taken off,” he says.

“It seems to be a story that everyone is relating to, even thought it’s set in Australia, but then Australia is a good place to set such a story because the way Australia handles refugees and asylum seekers is a bleak vision of how it could be in our country.” 

Politics lies at the heart of another centrepiece of the season: Nottingham Playhouse, Northern Stage (Newcastle) and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh’s co-production of Red Ellen, on tour in York from May 24 to 28.

Caroline Bird’s new play tells the inspiring and epic story of Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson “who was forever on the right side of history, forever on the wrong side of life”.

Caught between revolutionary and parliamentary politics, Ellen’s fight for a better world took in encounters with Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway; battling to save Jewish refugees in Nazi Germany; campaigning for Britain to aid the struggle against Franco’s Fascists in Spain; leading 200 petitioning workers on the Jarrow Crusade from Newcastle to London and serving in Churchill’s Cabinet – and she had affairs with Communist spies and government ministers alike.

“Caroline Bird, no relation, is an amazing new playwright, and this play is an absolute corker. It’s great to do that new work here, just as we were delighted to stage The Young’uns’ show The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff in the autumn,” says Tom.

“A new play by a female playwright, on a large theatrical scale, doesn’t happen that often and definitely not often enough.

“I just wanted to give it a stage in Yorkshire because it was already going to be performed in Scotland, the North East and the Midlands: places it should be seen in, but otherwise it wouldn’t be coming to Yorkshire.”

On March 17 and 18, Oladipo Agboluaje’s Here’s What She Said To Me follows three generations of proud African women, connecting with each other across two continents, across time and space.

First staged at Sheffield Crucible Theatre, the play was conceived and directed by Mojisola Elufowoju, who cut her theatrical teeth while studying at York St John University. “Moji did a lot of work at the Theatre Royal and has now put together this incredible company [Utopia Theatre] to tell the story of what happened to these Ugandan women,” says Tom.

“We have to keep going with tackling diversity in theatre; we’ve changed from being aware of the need to be diverse to reflect our community to a position of having to take a lead on this, going beyond reflecting diversity in our community to be always representing the contemporary world on our stage, because York is changing faster than we realise.”

In Michele Lee’s Rice, on April 13 and 14, two women form a powerful if unlikely bond:  Nisha is  a headstrong hotshot Indian executive working for Australia’s largest producer of rice and Yvette, an older Chinese migrant, is the cleaner with entrepreneurial ambitions of her own.

“Actors Touring Company are continuing our strand of Chinese and Asian theatre, which is becoming important to us because the largest community in York, aside from the white community, is Chinese,” says Tom.

“We’re trying to develop more work to reflect the city’s demographic, like when we did a production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie set in Hong Kong. Over seven percent of the audience was Chinese/Asian, compared with one per cent normally.

“Matthew Zia is a brilliant directing talent and we’re really excited to be bringing this European premiere to York.”

York Light Opera Company follow up Oliver! and Grease with Andrew Loyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita, the rags-to-riches story of Eva Person’s rise to First Lady of Argentina, from February 9 to 19.

“The last thing that would ever go from here would be shows like this, because work by York companies is so important to us,” says Tom. “It now fits in with Arts Council England’s new direction of travel, where it wants to encourage the chance for people to fulfil their creativity on our stage.”

Halifax company Northern Broadsides return to the Theatre Royal with their 30th anniversary production, Shakespeare’s sylvan comedy As You Like It, performed by a northern cast of 12 in the first visit to York under Laurence Sansom’s direction.

All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players as gender roles dissolve and assumptions are turned on their head in this celebration of the transformative power of love and the natural world.

“Laurie is a great appointment as artistic director, and As You Like It is really on the nose as a choice of play with all the focus on climate change right now,” says Tom.

Many more shows tumble out of the brochure: The HandleBards pedalling into York with their all-female, bicycle-powered, irreverent Macbeth on January 25 and 26; Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens’ tribute to Eric & Ern on February 1 and 2, and Treasure Island, La Navet Bete’s follow-up to Dracula: The Bloody Truth, on March 10 to 12.

Among further returnees are York’s drag diva deluxe, Velma Celli, with Me And My Divas, a celebration of Mariah, Celine, Whitney, Aretha, Cher and Britney, on March 19; English Touring Opera on April 8 and 9 with Puccini’s La Boheme and Rimsky Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel and Show Stopper, The Improvised Musical, on April 23.

For full Spring! season details and tickets, go to: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Box office: 01904 623568.

Copyright of The Press, York

Forster and Forster’s The Machine Stops starts again, now online from York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre UPDATED 1/4/2021

Caroline Gruber (Vashti), Maria Gray (Machine 2) and Gareth Aled (Machine 1) in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

AS Covid-19 took its relentless grip, Juliet Forster kept finding her thoughts returning to E M Forster’s The Machine Stops, the stage adaptation she first directed for York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre in 2016.

“What was in my head was how we would be struck by it even more under Covid,” she says.

“Over this last year, I have thought about this piece many times as the world around us seemed to grow more and more like the incredible world that E M Forster imagined.

“And it’s even more striking today than it was at the time: things like human contact and human touch becoming something that’s almost taboo, things that didn’t seem relevant back in 2016 but are really, really striking and even more relevant now.”

This spring, The Machine Stops is starting up all over again, available to watch on a Theatre Royal webcast until April 5. Reactions so far have affirmed Juliet’s own feelings. “People are saying how eerily relevant it is,” she says.

“No windows; no natural day and night; no physical communication”: the life that Kuno (Karl Queensborough) wants to escape in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

E M Forster’s 1909 short story is set in a futuristic, dystopian world where humans have retreated far underground and individuals live in isolation in “cells”, with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. 

“That’s what has felt very strange, particularly the lack of human contact: the things that we laughed at in 2016, but now we’re all having to try to avoid each other,” says Juliet.

Adapted by Neil Duffield, The Machine Stops premiered in the York Theatre Royal Studio in  May and June 2016 at the outset of a three-venue run and was revived there in February 2017 before embarking on a national tour of nine venues. 

Juliet’s stage premiere won the Stage Production of the Year in the 2016 Hutch Awards. “In the year when Phillip Breen directed the York Minster Mystery Plays on the grandest scale and York Theatre Royal re-opened with Bryony Lavery’s new adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, it wasn’t the expected big hitters that left the deepest impression,” Hutchinson said in The Press, York.

“Instead, an obscure EM Forster sci-fi work, The Machine Stops, became a play for our times in the hands of the Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and Pilot Theatre in the Theatre Royal Studio.

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster

“Amid the stench of Brexit and Trump intolerance, here was a cautionary story of science friction and human heart told superbly artistically by a cast of four, writer Neil Duffield and electronic composers John Foxx and Benge with humanity’s worst and best attributes thrust against each other.”

Esther Richardson, Pilot Theatre’s artistic director, shares Juliet’s thoughts on The Machine Stops’ rising resonance: “When we produced The Machine Stops in 2016, it already seemed an eerily prescient piece of work. A story-world in which humans have become isolated from one another and living underground, communicating only through screens, offered an engaging space for reflection on perhaps the pitfalls of how our relationship with technology had been evolving,” she says.

“To be able to explore this in a live theatre space with an audience gathered together in person and with their technology switched off made it all the more dynamic a tale.

“It’s fantastic that, having spent the last year in different forms of isolation and on screens, we have the opportunity to share this great production, which will now sing with new meaning, meeting a new audience in a new context.”

The Machine Stops features a soundtrack composed by John Foxx, electronic music pioneer and founder of Ultravox, and analogue synth specialist Benge. The production was directed by Forster and designed by Rhys Jarman, with lighting design by Tom Smith and movement direction by Philippa Vafadari.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson. Picture: Robert Day

It stars Caroline Gruber as Vashti, Karl Queensborough as Kuno, Maria Gray as Machine/Attendant and Gareth Aled as Machine/Passenger.

Analysing the reasons why The Machine Stops transferred so convincingly to the stage, Juliet suggested in 2017: “When you use human beings to the height of their potential, theatre is at its most interesting; when you realise the incredible ability of human body; but at the same time, you can’t shoehorn that into a play. Here, though, to represent the Machine through movement, it absolutely suited it.

“It also helped that we had the finest soundtrack for a play in living memory, composed by John Foxx and Benge.”

That soundtrack went on to form much of the music on the John Foxx And The Maths album, The Machine, released in 2017 on the Metamatic Records label with artwork by Jonathan Barnbrook, the designer for David Bowie’s last two studio albums, 2013’s The Next Day and 2016’s Blackstar.

Caroline Gruber as Vashti in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

The filmed recording was edited by digital wiz Ben Pugh for its release online, with kind permission granted by the E M Forster estate. “We had taken a three-camera capture of the show in 2016 in the Theatre Royal Studio, when we were thinking of doing a streaming, but we didn’t have permission at the time, but now we do,” says Juliet.

“I asked Ben to do the editing because he’s fantastic at pulling digital theatre shows together, and it works really well on screen.”

The Machine Stops is available to view for free at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PW5yk2G5pE, although York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre are asking for donations from viewers, with all contributions being split equally between them.

What was Charles Hutchinson’s verdict in May 2016?

Gareth Aled as Machine 1 in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

The Machine Stops, York Theatre Royal/Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal Studio

IN between those two pillars of early 20th century English literature, A Room With A View in 1908 and Howards End in 1910, E M Forster wrote a science-fiction short story, apparently in response to the outpourings of H G Wells.

It was pretty much ignored until being included in an anthology in the 1930s, but now it should take its rightful place alongside the prescient works of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

York Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster has cherished wishes to present it since 1999, and at last everything has fallen into place in a brilliant re-opening show in The Studio.

Forster and Forster makes for a perfect combination, assisted by her choice of writer, the experienced Neil Duffield; electronic musicians John Foxx and Benge in their first theatre commission, and designer Rhys Jarman, whose metallic climbing frame stage and hexagonal floor tiles could not be more fitting.

Centre stage is Vashti (Caroline Gruber), soft-boned, struggling to walk and wrapped in grey swaddling wraps, as she embraces her new, post-apocalyptic, virtual life run by The Machine, in the wake of humans being forced underground to self-contained cells where everything is brought to you: food, ambient music; lectures; overlapping messages.

John Foxx: Soundtrack hits the right note

No windows; no natural day and night; no physical communication; all you need is at the touch of the screen beside you as technology rules in this dystopian regime. It is the age of the internet, conference calls and Skype, the age of isolation (and the teenage life), foretold so alarmingly accurately by Forster.

In the best decision by Juliet Forster and the writer, they have decided to represent the omnipresent Machine in human form, cogent cogs that slither and slide and twist and turn acrobatically, responding to Vashti’s every request, with an urgent physicality that has you worrying for the health and safety of Maria Gray and Gareth Aled.

Not that The Machine is merely compliant. Just as Winston Smith rebels in Orwell’s 1984, Vashti’s son Kuno (Karl Queensborough), on the other side of the underground world, craves breaking out into the old world above the artificial one, to breathe real air, see the sky, feel the sun on his face, but The Machine will do its utmost to prevent him.

Queensborough’s physical performance, as the desperate Kuno puts himself at risk, is even more remarkable than the gymnastic Machine double act, as he hurls himself around the frames.

Forster’s production has bags of tension, drama, intrigue, and plenty of humour too, especially when Gray and Aled transform into a plane attendant and passenger. Throughout, the Foxx and Benge soundtrack hits the right note, futuristic and mysterious, yet noble too when Kuno makes his move.

Nothing stops The Machine Stops: it is 90 minutes straight through, a story of science friction told superbly artistically with humanity’s worst and best attributes thrust against each other.

Review: Copyright of The Press, York

Romeo and Juliet Forster as York Theatre Royal creative director makes Shakespeare show with Justin Fletcher for CBeebies

From Mr Tumble to…Peter the Clown in Romeo And Juliet: Justin Fletcher does Shakespeare for CBeebies. Picture: CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet

JULIET Forster has cut it as a director of Romeo And Juliet many times. Now she has sliced Shakespeare’s “two the two hours’ traffic of our stage” to 45 minutes, maybe 50, for CBeebies’ show tomorrow morning.

“I did joke about that at rehearsals because my previous production, at Blenheim Palace, ran to three hours and 15 minutes,” says Juliet, York Theatre Royal’s creative director.

She had been lined up for the children’s television production as long ago as December 2019. “Anna Perowne, who has produced the performance, had newly taken over BBC Shakespeare, having worked previously for the Royal Shakespeare Company,” says Juliet.

“It was partly that thing of a new producer looking at it in a new way, wanting to work with a director who would allow more input from the actors.

Evie Pickerill as Juliet in CBeebies’ Romeo And Juliet, Picture: CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet

“She’d found the Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre production of Romeo And Juliet I’d just done at Blenheim that summer, and when we met, we got on immediately. Then, put that together with the fact I’ve done a lot of children’s theatre and plenty of Shakespeare.”

The list runs deep for Romeo And Juliet alone. “In 2005, I did a Family Day at the RSC with children and parents taking part in a Shakespeare workshop,” says Juliet. “I’ve done an interactive version of Romeo And Juliet with some very young children and a youth theatre version at York Theatre Royal.

“I’ve adapted it for five to seven year olds in a way for them to tell the story; I adapted it for a Pilot Theatre production and I’ve directed it with a teenage cast in a play-in-a-week school project I ran with my old company years and years ago in the Midlands.”

Who better, then, to direct yet another variation on Shakespeare’s tragic story of young love and feuding families than Juliet? “We were supposed to record it last May, but the pandemic delayed it until we could kick off working on it again in December,” she says.

Zach Wyatt as Romeo in CBeebies’ Romeo And Juliet. Picture: CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet

CBeebies’ Romeo And Juliet combines Shakespeare’s characters with the additional roles of William Shakespeare himself and a librarian. “What the producer wanted was a good cohort of recognised CBeebies faces and actors, so I watched the other two CBeebies’ Shakespeare shows, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, to see how they were done,” says Juliet.

“We talked about ‘why do a complicated play for such little ones?’, but then we talked about the positive messages in there: the families putting an end to their feud and the importance of not giving in to bad things too easily, instead looking to live in peace and to put a stop to the fighting.

“That made it a show very much for the CBeebies audience, in this case for two to seven year olds…though lots of older children watch it too; they just don’t admit it!”

Juliet worked with Nathan Cockerill on the script, calling on her past experiences of adapting the text. “I looked back at what I’d left in and taken out for the five to seven-year-olds’ script I wrote and fleshed it out from there, also looking at my Pilot Theatre script to see how I’d edited it down for that show,” she says.

Juliet Forster: York Theatre Royal creative director and director of CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet

“Nathan was someone who’d worked with CBeebies before, and we worked on a script knowing that Shakespeare and a companion or companions always feature in a CBeebies Shakespeare show. This time Shakespeare is much more involved.”

Juliet has directed a cast of 15, featuring such CBeebies names as Andy Day, Chris Jarvis, Jennie Dale, Gemma Hunt, Rebecca Keatley and Justin Fletcher, of Mr Tumble fame, as Peter the Clown. Zach Wyatt, from Shakespeare’s Globe, will play Romeo; Evie Pickerill, Juliet.

“We rehearsed it and filmed it at Leeds Playhouse, all done and dusted two weeks ago, with just one day of filming with three runs of the show, making it like a piece of live theatre, though we couldn’t have an audience, of course,” says Juliet.

Joining Forster in the production team were designer Rhys Jarman, renewing their creative partnership from A View From The Bridge and The Machine Stops at York Theatre Royal, choreographer Hayley Del Harrison, lighting designer Will Evans and costume designer Mary Lamb.

The Librarian and William Shakespeare in CBeebies’ Romeo And Juliet. Picture: CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet

“We then rehearsed from March 9, five days, then four days of tech and rehearsals, then filming,” says Juliet. “It was absolutely joyful because we were always keeping the young television audience in mind, how to carry them through such a tricky story.

“To have those experienced CBeebies performers and Shakespeare actors was invaluable. They set the tone. That was part of what was interesting for me as I’ve never made anything specifically for the telly before, but at the same time thinking about making something for a live audience, though that wasn’t the case!

“What we had to do was to get the best ‘blocking’ [the cast’s positions on stage], trying to make it as right as possible for the camera, but still making it very theatrical as Shakespeare is theatre.”

CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet will be shown on CBeebies tomorrow (2/4/2021) at 9.30am and soon after on BBC iPlayer.

Copyright of The Press, York

Jennie Dale as the Nurse in CBeebies’ Romeo And Juliet. Picture: CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet

More Things To Do in York and beyond in the months ahead and at home now. List No. 29, courtesy of The Press, York

Becky Gee, curator of Fine Art at York Art Gallery, with Michael Lyons’ 1993 sculpture Amphitrite in the Artists Garden in May 2019. Picture: Charlotte Graham

ONLINE entertainment is still ruling the Stay Home world, but more promoters are announcing shows for the summer as the recovery roadmap begins to twitch our cultural satnav. Charles Hutchinson reaches for his diary.

Last chance to see: Michael Lyons’ Ancient And Modern sculptures, York Art Gallery Artists Garden and Edible Wood

THE free display of large-scale works by late Cawood sculptor Michael Lyons behind York Art Gallery will close on April 11.

On show in his biggest ever exhibition on York soil are nine sculptures created between 1982 and 2000, inspired by nature, myth and ancient cultures, with the central space dominated by Amphitrite, a large painted steel structure evoking the sea that he fashioned in 1993.

Opened in late-May 2019, Ancient And Modern originally was booked to run until May 2020, but has remained in place through these pandemic times.

Caroline Gruber as Vashti in E M Forster’s The Machine Stops, now starting up again in a York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre webcast. Picture: Ben Bentley

Recommended resonant webcast of the week and beyond: The Machine Stops online

YORK Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre’s 2016 co-production of The Machine Stops can be watched at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/show/the-machine-stops-webcast/ until April 5.

Adapted for the stage by Neil Duffield, E M Forster’s 1909 short story is set in a futuristic, dystopian world where humans have retreated far underground and individuals live in isolation in “cells”, with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. 

Director Juliet Forster says: “It’s even more striking today than it was at the time we staged it: things like human contact and human touch becoming something that’s almost taboo, things that didn’t seem relevant back in 2016 but are really, really striking and even more relevant now.”

Ensemble Augelletti: Recording for the Awaken online weekend at the National Centre for Early Music, York

Springtime celebration of music online: Awaken, National Centre for Early Music, York, Saturday and Sunday

THE NCEM’s Awaken weekend will present York countertenor Iestyn Davies and Fretwork, the all-male vocal group The Gesualdo Six, I Fagiolini and the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, Ensemble Augelletti and The Consone Quartet.

The six-pack of online festivities will celebrate the sublime sounds of spring, recorded in a range of historic venues to mark “the unique association between the City of York and the exquisite beauty of the music of the past”.

Among the architectural gems will be Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, St Olave’s Church, Marygate, the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall and the NCEM. Full details can be found at ncem.co.uk/awaken.

Becky Lennon and Jules Risingham: Ready to host Thunk-It Theatre’s online youth theatre sessions

Online youth theatre opportunity: Thunk-It Theatre sessions with Pocklington Arts Centre

POCKLINGTON Arts Centre’s youth theatre partnership with York company Thunk-It Theatre is to continue for a second series of online drama classes.

Becky Lennon and Jules Risingham’s all-levels drama sessions for children aged six to 11 will be held on Zoom every Sunday during term-time from April 25 to May 30.

The 10am to 11am sessions for Years 2 to 6 children will include fun games, exercises and storytelling, aiming to encourage confidence building, life and social skills, creativity and positivity. Participants will work collaboratively to create a short performance that will explore storytelling. To book, go to pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.

Abba Mania: Booked for Sounds In The Grounds at York Racecourse

Live music returns to Knavesmire: Sounds In The Grounds at Clocktower Enclosure, York Racecourse, June 25 to 27

NORTH Yorkshire impresario James Cundall’s Sounds In The Grounds is adding a new location to its picnic-concert portfolio for summer 2021.

Complying with Covid-19 guidelines, the Clocktower Enclosure of York Racecourse will play host to the Beyond The Barricade celebration of musicals on June 25, Abba Mania on June 26 and A Country Night In Nashville on June 27.

The capacity will be capped at 1,400 for the fully staged productions with LED screens on either side of the stage. Tickets are on sale at: soundsinthegrounds.seetickets.com.

Paul Winn: Co-organiser of the 2nd York Blues Festival in July

Here comes a dose of the blues: York Blues Festival, July 24, 12.30pm to 11pm

THE 2nd York Blues Festival will be held on Saturday, July 24 at The Crescent Community Venue, York, organised by Paul Winn and Ben Darwin.

No strangers to the British Blues scene, they present Blues From The Ouse on Jorvik Radio and are members of York band DC Blues.

Winn and Darwin have booked a bill of Robbie Reay; The Swamp Hoppers; Dori & The Outlaws; John Carroll; Dr Bob & The Bluesmakers; DC Blues and Nick Steed Five. Tickets are on sale at yorkbluesfestival.co.uk, thecrescentyork.com and earwormrecords.co.uk.

Racing cert: Shed Seven will ride out at Doncaster Racecourse next May after moving post-racing gig…again

Sheds on the move…again: Shed Seven, Live After Racing, Doncaster Racecourse, May 14 2022

YORK heroes Shed Seven’s twice-postponed post-racing gig at Doncaster Racecourse will come under starter’s orders on May 14 202.

First diarised for August 15 2020, then May 15 this spring, each show was declared a non-runner under the Government’s pandemic lockdown restrictions.

Let Donny Races wax lyrical: “So don’t have your friends asking ‘where have you been tonight?’ We have ‘high hopes’ that ‘the heroes’ Shed Seven will deliver an outstanding night of music. ‘It’s not easy’ but you’d be stuck to find a ‘better days’ entertainment in Doncaster next summer.” To book raceday tickets, go to: doncaster-racecourse.co.uk/whats-on/

Graham Gouldman, second from left, will be returning to York Barbican with 10cc

Gig announcement of the week: 10cc, York Barbican, March 26 2022

10cc will play York Barbican next spring in the only Yorkshire show of their 13-date Ultimate Greatest Hits Tour.

“It’s difficult to express just how much we have missed playing live and how much we want to be back playing concerts for you,” says Graham Gouldman, the one group founder still in the touring line-up. “We look forward to seeing you all again in 2022.”

Tickets are on sale at yorkbarbican.co.uk and ticketline.co.uk.

The Machine Stops starts again, now online from York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre

Caroline Gruber (Vashti), Maria Gray (Machine 2) and Gareth Aled (Machine 1) in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

YORK Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre’s co-production of The Machine Stops will be available to watch online from tomorrow (23/3/2021) to April 5.

E M Forster’s 1909 short story is set in a futuristic, dystopian world where humans have retreated far underground and individuals live in isolation in “cells”, with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. 

Adapted by Neil Duffield, The Machine Stops premiered in the York Theatre Royal Studio in  May and June 2016 at the outset of a three-venue run and was revived there in February 2017 before embarking on a national tour of nine venues. 

Forster’s stage premiere won the Stage Production of the Year in the 2016 Hutch Awards. “In the year when Phillip Breen directed the York Minster Mystery Plays on the grandest scale and York Theatre Royal re-opened with Bryony Lavery’s new adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, it wasn’t the expected big hitters that left the deepest impression,” Hutchinson said in The Press, York.

“Instead, an obscure EM Forster sci-fi work, The Machine Stops, became a play for our times in the hands of the Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and Pilot Theatre in the Theatre Royal Studio.

Karl Queensborough as Kuno in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

“Amid the stench of Brexit and Trump intolerance, here was a cautionary story of science friction and human heart told superbly artistically by a cast of four, writer Neil Duffield and electronic composers John Foxx and Benge with humanity’s worst and best attributes thrust against each other.”

Move forward to 2021, to the reflective words of director Juliet Forster, York Theatre Royal’s creative director, who says: “Over this last year, I have thought about this piece many times as the world around us seemed to grow more and more like the incredible world that E M Forster imagined.

“And it’s even more striking today than it was at the time: things like human contact and human touch becoming something that’s almost taboo, things that didn’t seem relevant back in 2016 but are really, really striking and even more relevant now.”

Esther Richardson, Pilot Theatre’s artistic director, says: “When we produced The Machine Stops in 2016, it already seemed an eerily prescient piece of work. A story-world in which humans have become isolated from one another and living underground, communicating only through screens, offered an engaging space for reflection on perhaps the pitfalls of how our relationship with technology had been evolving.

“To be able to explore this in a live theatre space with an audience gathered together in person and with their technology switched off made it all the more dynamic a tale.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson. Picture: Robert Day

“It’s fantastic that, having spent the last year in different forms of isolation and on screens, we have the opportunity to share this great production, which will now sing with new meaning, meeting a new audience in a new context.”

The Machine Stops features a soundtrack composed by John Foxx, electronic music pioneer and founder of Ultravox, and analogue synth specialist Benge. The production was directed by Forster and designed by Rhys Jarman, with lighting design by Tom Smith and movement direction by Philippa Vafadari.

It stars Caroline Gruber as Vashti, Karl Queensborough as Kuno, Maria Gray as Machine/Attendant and Gareth Aled as Machine/Passenger.

The filmed recording was edited by Ben Pugh and will be released online with kind permission granted by the E M Forster estate.  

Analysing the reasons why The Machine Stops transferred so convincingly to the stage, Juliet suggested in 2017: “When you use human beings to the height of their potential, theatre is at its most interesting; when you realise the incredible ability of human body; but at the same time, you can’t shoehorn that into a play. Here, though, to represent the Machine through movement, it absolutely suited it.

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster

“It also helped that we had the finest soundtrack for a play in living memory, composed by John Foxx and Benge.”

That soundtrack went on to form much of the music on the John Foxx And The Maths album, The Machine, released in 2017 on the Metamatic Records label with artwork by Jonathan Barnbrook, the designer for David Bowie’s last two studio albums, 2013’s The Next Day and 2016’s Blackstar.

The Machine Stops will be available to view for free at pilot-theatre.com/webcast, kick-started by the online premiere at 7pm tomorrow. York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre welcome donations from viewers, with all contributions being split equally.

What was Charles Hutchinson’s verdict in May 2016?

The Machine Stops, York Theatre Royal/Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal Studio

Caroline Gruber as Vashti in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

IN between those two pillars of early 20th century English literature, A Room With A View in 1908 and Howards End in 1910, E M Forster wrote a science-fiction short story, apparently in response to the outpourings of H G Wells.

It was pretty much ignored until being included in an anthology in the 1930s, but now it should take its rightful place alongside the prescient works of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

York Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster has cherished wishes to present it since 1999, and at last everything has fallen into place in a brilliant re-opening show in The Studio.

Forster and Forster makes for a perfect combination, assisted by her choice of writer, the experienced Neil Duffield; electronic musicians John Foxx and Benge in their first theatre commission, and designer Rhys Jarman, whose metallic climbing frame stage and hexagonal floor tiles could not be more fitting.

Centre stage is Vashti (Caroline Gruber), soft-boned, struggling to walk and wrapped in grey swaddling wraps, as she embraces her new, post-apocalyptic, virtual life run by The Machine, in the wake of humans being forced underground to self-contained cells where everything is brought to you: food, ambient music; lectures; overlapping messages.

Gareth Aled as Machine 1 in The Machine Stops

No windows; no natural day and night; no physical communication; all you need is at the touch of the screen beside you as technology rules in this dystopian regime. It is the age of the internet, conference calls and Skype, the age of isolation (and the teenage life), foretold so alarmingly accurately by Forster.

In the best decision by Juliet Forster and the writer, they have decided to represent the omnipresent Machine in human form, cogent cogs that slither and slide and twist and turn acrobatically, responding to Vashti’s every request, with an urgent physicality that has you worrying for the health and safety of Maria Gray and Gareth Aled.

Not that The Machine is merely compliant. Just as Winston Smith rebels in Orwell’s 1984, Vashti’s son Kuno (Karl Queensborough), on the other side of the underground world, craves breaking out into the old world above the artificial one, to breathe real air, see the sky, feel the sun on his face, but The Machine will do its utmost to prevent him.

Queensborough’s physical performance, as the desperate Kuno puts himself at risk, is even more remarkable than the gymnastic Machine double act, as he hurls himself around the frames.

Forster’s production has bags of tension, drama, intrigue, and plenty of humour too, especially when Gray and Aled transform into a plane attendant and passenger. Throughout, the Foxx and Benge soundtrack hits the right note, futuristic and mysterious, yet noble too when Kuno makes his move.

Nothing stops The Machine Stops: it is 90 minutes straight through, a story of science friction told superbly artistically with humanity’s worst and best attributes thrust against each other.

Review copyright of The Press, York