Next Door But One plan ahead for 2023 and beyond after gaining National Portfolio Organisation funding status for first time

Next Door But One founder and artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle. Picture: Esme Mai

NEXT Door But One may be new to Art Council England’s National Portfolio, but this York community interest company (CIC) has been a familiar, welcoming face to many in the community for ten years.

When Arts Council England announced its £446 million investment in 990 organisations each year from 2023 to 2026, to “bring art, culture and creativity to more people in more place across the country”, six York organisations were given funding, alongside such big hitters as the Royal Opera House and Royal Shakespeare Company.

Maintaining their previous NPO status are York Theatre Royal, York Museums Trust, the National Centre for Early Music and Pilot Theatre, while Next Door But One (NDB1) and Explore York/York Explore Library and Archive both join for the first time.

“It might sound bizarre, but it’s OK if people haven’t heard of us yet,” says NDB1 founder and artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle. “We’ve been busy in residential settings, youth centres, pub courtyards and even the odd portable cabin or two – making sure that we get theatre to people who want it, in a way that is accessible, relevant and meaningful to them.

“People have always come first, and profile second. But now becoming an NPO allows us to shout louder about our work and reach out to even more people.”

Set up by Matt in 2013, the applied theatre company cum community arts collective began by using improvisation to tell the stories of women’s groups, Muslim families and people new to York.

“Soon our storytelling was being used to make research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and enabling City of York’s training programmes to be more engaging and accessible,” he says.

Ceridwen Smith in Next Door But One’s production of The Firework Maker’s Daughter. Picture: James Drury

“Our original productions were then showcased at York Disability Pride, the Great Yorkshire Fringe and York’s Dead Good Festival. From 2016, we’d honed our model of co-production and created partnerships with Camphill Village Trust, The Snappy Trust, York Carers Centre and Converge, to name a few.

“In the last year, we engaged more than 600 participants and 2,000 audience members. Something that, as a part-time team of five, we’re incredibly proud of.”

At the height of the Covid pandemic, NDB1’s activity went up by 61 per cent. “This was due to our community partners turning to us and saying ‘Can you help keep our communities connected and creative?’,” says creative producer El Stannage.

“So, we made digital performances for neurodivergent young people, online Forum Theatre to support the wellbeing of adults with learning disabilities and ran three online theatre courses for adults accessing mental health services, LGBTQ+ teenagers and unpaid carers.

“The need for our work has not decreased, even once lockdown restrictions were lifted, and that’s why we applied to be an NPO; to sustain our increased programme and to reassure our community groups that we’re still going to be there for them.”

This work’s impact on the York community has been acknowledged with formal recognition and awards from the Lord Mayor of York, the Archbishop of York and as a finalist in the Visit York Tourism Awards for “Innovation and Resilience”.

Anne Stamp, service manager at The Snappy Trust, is delighted that NDB1 are to become an NPO, helping to continue their long-standing collaboration. “Next Door But One is a much-needed service in York: a great resource for many and a service that helps to provide children and young people with a wider range of experiences, enabling them to learn, grow and have fun,” she says.

NDB1 are finalising their plans for 2023 but are working already on revivals of performances that toured to their fellow NPO, York Explore, including The Firework-Maker’s Daughter and Operation Hummingbird, as well as expanding their professional development offer for local performing arts professionals that originally produced Yorkshire Trios at The Gillygate pub in April 2021; the first live, in-person performances that year in York once lockdown restrictions were lifted.

“All NPOs must go into a negotiation phase with Arts Council England until early 2023, but for now what Next Door But One are saying is, ‘We are here and we can’t wait to continue working with communities across York or meet new people for the first time, and create together,” says Matt.

Artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle answers CharlesHutchPress’s questions on what lies ahead for Next Door But One, York’s community arts collective

Next Door But One artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle making a point in rehearsal as actress Emma Liversidge-Smith looks on

From Harrogate Theatre to Pocklington Arts Centre and English National Opera, venues and companies have suffered blows in Arts Council England’s National Portfolio awards for 2023-2026. What were the factors that meant Next Door But One NDB1) was selected as one of the new recipients in a climate where ACE talked of “levelling up” in its allocations?

“While we’re delighted to receive the NPO support, we are equally devastated for our peers across the industry who did not receive the support they had hoped for.

“We see us receiving the funding as validation for our community-driven approach, which makes our work inclusive and relevant to those we serve, while also taking on the responsibility to support our peers and create partnerships with those who aren’t part of the portfolio, so we can all continue to deliver our equally valuable work.”

York has come out of the NPO awards with tails up: York Theatre Royal, York Museums Trust, the National Centre for Early Music and Pilot Theatre retaining NPO status; Next Door But One and York Explore Library and Archive joining for the first time. What does that say about the health and diversity of arts provision in York?

“I think we’ve known for a long time just how much the city is steeped in arts a culture, and as you suggest, this goes towards celebrating that – and what a diversity of offerings York will have over the coming three years.

“From central building-based theatres, to touring companies, music, museums, libraries and a nimble participatory company like us, there really is going to be something for everyone, and we’re proud to be contributing to that collective.”

What are the benefits to NDB1 of acquiring NPO status?

“The main benefit for us is sustainability. Over the years, we’ve been able to do what we do by working hard on securing project grant funding, but this can become time consuming and resource heavy.

James Lewis Knight, left, as Jimmy and Matt Stradling as James in Next Door But One’s Operation Hummingbird. Picture: James Drury

“Knowing that we have our core funds secured for three years means we can really invest in current delivery while also having more headspace to think strategically about how we continue even further into the future.

“On the day we got the funding announcement [November 4], I phoned or emailed every partner we work with to tell them ‘We will still be here for you’ and that’s what it really means to us to become an NPO.”

Being a participatory arts and community-focused performance organisation gives you a different profile to other arts organisations in the city. All that with a part-time team of five. Discuss…

“It does, and I think that’s the real joy of the portfolio, particularly in York. We’re part of this great network of arts and culture creators, all approaching it from different angles, which should mean that everyone in York can access the things they want in a way that works for them.

“There can be a mistake when there are lots of organisations doing similar things into viewing it as ‘competition’, when it’s not. It’s complementary and collaborative. In fact, we’ve already had many discussions and meetings with fellow NPOs to see how we can support one another; how our work can go to their venue or how our participatory approach can strengthen a certain one of their projects.

“As for the part-time team, it’s great to have stability in our roles, which means we can grow both in terms of impact and by working with more York freelancers on upcoming projects.

“Even though it’s a full-time passion, we see our ‘part-timeness’ as a real strength; among our team we have those that in other areas of their working week are arts and mental health programme managers, music specialists, campaigners and directors of other theatre companies. All that additional skill and insight is really welcomed into NDB1.”

Is this the key: “Making sure that we get theatre to people who want it, in a way that is accessible, relevant and meaningful to them. People have always come first, and profile second”? 

“Yes, we pride ourselves on meeting people where they are, in terms of geography but also in terms of experience and aspiration. So, whether that is taking performances to community libraries or residential gardens, or workshops to children’s centres and support groups, we go to where we’re needed, connect and create together.

First orders: Next Door But One’s Yorkshire Trios reopened outdoor theatre in The Gillygate pub garden after lockdown restrictions were lifted. Picture: James Drury

“This can often mean we don’t inhabit large, prolific buildings or that our work has huge visibility, but as long as we remain meaningful to those we do engage, then that’s what counts to us. And being an NPO will enable us to sustain this work while also reaching out to new communities and asking them what they want from us.”

Within the York community, you involve people who would not otherwise participate in the arts. Discuss…

“Well, rather than saying ‘We have this thing and you need to get involved’, we approach it the other way around by saying ‘We know about theatre, you tell us how you want that to work for you’.

“For example, our programme of Forum Theatre came about through communities of people with learning disabilities, their support staff and family wanting safe yet productive ways of exploring independent living.

“So, we worked with members of The Snappy Trust and Camphill Village Trust to gather the tricky situations that they wanted to explore, trialled the format with them, evaluated together and now this has become an embedded process and programme of engagement.

“This has been the same with us using storytelling and performance skills to increase the self-confidence of unpaid carers wanting to apply for volunteering and employed work, or offering online creative writing sessions to keep LGBTQ+ young people connected and openly exploring topics important to them.

“Our approach is for the community to identify what they want, and then our responsibility is to shape the theatre with them to meet that goal.”

Lastly, Matt, put some flesh on the bones of what you have planned for next year…

“So, as every NPO now must do, we’re in a negotiation phase until the end of January 2023 to confirm the first year of plans with ACE, but in short, both programmes of Forum Theatre for people with disabilities will continue and increase, as will our training course in Playback Theatre for adults with mental ill health.

“We’ll also be remounting our 2021 production of Operation Hummingbird with York Explore, creating new audiences with our adaptation of The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, building on our relationships with schools and universities with a new tour of She Was Walking Home and supporting a cohort of local performing arts professionals with a series of mentoring and skills-based workshops.”

She Was Walking Home: the back story

“We cannot let statistics dehumanise what’s actually happening or forget the real voices behind each lived experience,” says Kate Veysey, associate director of Next Door But One

PROMPTED by the kidnap and murder of York-born Sarah Everard in March 2021, Next Door But One mounted a city-centre audio walk last year, in response to “the reaction from women in our community and the unfortunate subsequent attacks and murders”.

Subsequently, it was expanded by Rachel Price into a live adaptation this spring, performed by a cast of four women at York Explore on May 5, Theatre@41, Monkgate, on May 20, The Gillygate pub, May 26, and University of York, June 14.

“She Was Walking Home aims to put the focus on the voices of local women, but not the responsibility or accountability for their safety,” says NDB1 associate director Kate Veysey.

Last year, for the first time, The Office for National Statistics (ONS) released data on how safe people feel in different public settings. One in two women felt unsafe walking alone after dark in a quiet street near their home, or in a busy public place, and two out of three women aged 16 to 34 experienced one form of harassment in the previous 12 months.

Cast member Anna Johnston in the rehearsal room for She Was Walking Home

“Behind every one of these statistics is a true story of harassment, abuse, rape or even murder – a life changed forever,” says Kate. “We cannot let statistics dehumanise what’s actually happening or forget the real voices behind each lived experience.”

She Was Walking Home takes the form of a series of monologues created from the testimonies of women living, working and studying in York. “We created this production in response to the heart-breaking murder of Sarah Everard and the understandable shock and uncertainty it caused in our local community,” says Kate.

“We wanted to amplify the voices of local women, while also prompting conversations around where responsibility and accountability lies for their safety. Since the original audio walk, listened to by almost 800 people, there have been further attacks and murders of women, including Sabina Nessa and Ashling Murphy, and still the rhetoric seems to be skewed towards rape alarms, trackers, self-defence classes and dress codes being the solution. We needed to continue and challenge this conversation.” 

The 2022 tour to libraries, pubs, theatres and universities in May and June aimed to “bring this very real issue home with the experiences encountered on the very streets that make up York. “The invitation was to come and watch, listen, but also to think ‘What is it that I can do in making the women in our community safer?’,” says Kate.

Cast member Emma Liversisdge-Smith with Next Door But One artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle alongside her

Alongside the touring performance, Next Door But One have created a digital pack for schools and community groups, including a recording of the performance and a workbook containing prompts for debate and conversations that will lead to change.

“As a company, we want the theatre we make to be as useful as it can be; a tool that supports people in the ways they need,” says creative producer El Stannage.

“The tour reached different communities through the venues we visited, but equally the digital pack can be used to evoke conversations now, for change that will be seen into the future; empowering girls to report experiences of abuse and harassment and raising awareness of how boys and young men can be better allies in keeping women safe, for example.” 

Watch this space for details of the upcoming performances in 2023.

Next Door But One’s tour poster for She Was Walking Home

REVIEW: Charles Hutchinson’s verdict on Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses ****

Thwarted love: James Arden’s Callum and Effie Ansah’s Sephy in Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses. Picture: Robert Day

Pilot Theatre in Noughts & Crosses, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

PILOT Theatre likes to pioneer new work…and then the next new work. Rarely does the York company retrace its steps. Only Marcus Romer’s revisit of his definitive take on Lord Of The Flies springs to mind.

Now, artistic director Esther Richardson jumps at the chance to re-examine Pilot’s award-winning Noughts & Crosses in the light of George Floyd’s murder, the rise of Black Lives Matter and in turn incidents of racial hatred since the premiere co-production with York Theatre Royal, Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre, Derby Theatre and Colchester’s Mercury Theatre in 2019.

Since then too, the BBC has made two series of its South African-set, militaristic adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s ground-breaking novel for young adults, losing momentum and impact on its return.

Like father, like son: Daniel Copeland’s Ryan and Nathaniel McCloskey’s Jude, Liberation Militia freedom fighters united. Picture: Robert Day

Your reviewer will not be alone in much preferring Sabrina Mahfouz’s stage adaptation, one that has a circular structure, puts the teens to the fore as narrators and openly invites comparisons with Shakespeare’s star-cross’d young lovers in Romeo & Juliet.

From that ancient grudge, Blackman and in turn Mahfouz break to new mutiny in Noughts & Crosses in contemporary Britain, but one where Noughts are the white underlings; no orange juice; milk only on Fridays; no mobile phones; second-rate secondary education. Crosses are the black ruling class; apartheid divisions turned on their head.

In this metropolitan tinderbox – to all intents and purposes London – their worlds are segregated, capital punishment prevails, but love will out for the Romeo and Juliet of the piece, Nought Callum (James Arden), 15, and Cross Sephy (Effie Ansah), 14. 

Home but often away: Home Secretary Kamal Hadley (Chris Jack) with his daughter Minerva (Steph Asamoah) and wife Jasmine (Amie Buhari). Picture: Robert Day

His mother, Meggie (Emma Keele), is the housekeeper to Sephy’s high-society parents, the government’s hard-line Home Secretary, Kamal Hadley (Chris Jack, reprising his role from 2019) and weary wife Jasmine. 

Thrown together by circumstance, they have been friends throughout childhood, meeting secretly on her family’s private beach. However, when Callum is picked to be among the first three Nought teens to attend Sephy’s Crosses-only school, their relationship will come under duress in new surroundings.

Unhappiness is all around. Sephy’s mum Jasmine (Amie Buhari) seeks solace in the bottle, rejected by her play-away, always busy husband. Her sister Minerva (Steph Asamoah) is bored, bored, bored.

Family at war: Callum (James Arden), brother Jude (Nathaniel McCloskey) and mother Meggie (Emma Keele) listening to father Ryan (Daniel Copeland), making his dissident point. Picture: Robert Day

Callum’s dad Ryan (Daniel Copeland, even better in this heart-breaking role than he was in 2019) bonds with older brother Jude (Nathaniel McCloskey) by taking up the freedom-fighting cause of the Liberation Militia. Callum’s sister, battered in an assault, sinks inside her hoodie, never going out.

In a Britain where The Queen’s passing has brought a sense of unity, however briefly, the greater reality remains one of division, one where the jam sandwich keeps landing jam side down; if a wrong decision can be made, it will be.

Blackman and Mahfouz present a damning report on a damned, destructive world, one that will crush Callum and Sephy’s love, just as it squeezed the life out of Romeo and his Juliet.

Noughts & Crosses “serves up a a new heroine figure in Sephy’s bright, bold black teenage girl”, played by Effie Ansah. Picture: Robert Day

A new life signifies new hope, says Sephy, and of course she and Callum hoped for a better place to be, but where could they go? “Terrorist” bombs go off; bullying is rife; love cannot soar above hate.    

Noughts & Crosses does serve up a new heroine figure in Sephy’s bright, bold black teenage girl, played so vividly in her first lead role by Ansah. But while we have an Ansah, we do not have a new answer to what would improve relations, just the same questions asked in a different way.

That in no way diminishes the impact of Esther Richardson’s electrifying shock of a production; instead it heightens the sense of frustration. Arden’s first lead announces a talent to watch; Buhari and McCloskey excel too.

Simon Kenny’s set design for Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses. Picture: Robert Day

Simon Kenny’s set and costume designs, with his clever use of tables, lit-up boxes and walls that open up like cupboards, are complemented by Corey Campbell’s movement direction and Ben Cowens’ outstanding lighting design.

Xana and Arun Ghosh’s music and soundscapes and Ian William Galloway’s video designs have a suitably unnerving impact, adding to the feeling of a Big Brother bully at work.

Pilot Theatre’s tour of Noughts & Crosses will run from September 27 to November 26 2022, then January 18 to April 1 2023. In Yorkshire: Laurence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, November 1 to 5; box office, 01484 430528 or

Technical prowess: Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses combines emotional power with design brio. Picture: Robert Day

Pilot Theatre’s revival of Noughts & Crosses at York Theatre Royal has topicality top-up amid rise of Black Lives Matter

Effie Ansah and James Arden, left, in rehearsal for Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses. Picture: Robert Day

YORK company Pilot Theatre’s revival of Noughts & Crosses is even more topical than its award-winning 2019 premiere.

Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s young adult novel of first love in a dangerous fictional dystopia, rife with racism, will be on tour from this autumn to spring 2023, opening on home turf at York Theatre Royal from September 16 to 24.

“Yeah, things have changed,” says Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson, whose original production played the Theatre Royal in April 2019. “That makes it really interesting to put it on again now.

“What’s changed is that, obviously the pandemic was a huge moment, but what also happened in 2020, the murder of George Floyd, had a massive impact across the world.

“There we were, teetering out of the first lockdown, with this huge anger about the state of the world; people taking to the streets to have a proper conversation for the first time about racial injustice, which had been swept under the carpet before that.

“Even though it was deeply painful, there are always possibilities of change at these times, and so people who hadn’t had the opportunity to take part in the discussion, or hadn’t been aware of the issue, were suddenly alive to it because of Black Lives Matter.”

In Blackman’s Romeo & Juliet story for our times, Sephy is a Cross and Callum is a Nought. Between Noughts and Crosses come racial and social divides as a segregated society teeters on a volatile knife edge.

When violence breaks out, Sephy and Callum draw closer, but this is a romance that will lead them into terrible danger. Told from the perspectives of two teenagers, Noughts & Crosses explores the powerful themes of love, revolution and what it means to grow up in a divided world where black rules over white. 

Pilot’s premiere – launched before the BBC television adaptation – was seen by more than 30,000 people on tour, 40 per cent of them being aged under 20, en route winning the award for excellence in touring at the 2019 UK Theatre Awards.

The 2022-23 revival is expected to draw big numbers again, not least among the young target audience. “The whole topic of racial equality has really been taken up by university institutions and teachers talking about it, especially about decolonising the curriculum,” says Esther.

“So, suddenly there was a wider focus on what Pilot had been focusing on before the pandemic, but this is a conversation that everyone should have been participating in, just as we were by staging Crongton Knights, Noughts & Crosses, and before my time at Pilot, Roy Williams’s Antigone.”

George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has been the tipping point for racial equality to be taken more seriously, not least in the classroom. “Continuing Proficient Development sessions for teachers now sell out to help them address prejudice, racism and every other form of discrimination that young people may encounter at school,” says Esther.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson

“But the downside is that we’re in a time where so-called ‘culture wars’ are prevalent, where it’s prescribed that you must be on one side or the other, and that doesn’t help, stirring up strong feelings and even hatred.

“I’ve just been looking at the statistics for hate crimes in 2020-2021 and regrettably they’ve increased. The Home Office points to the reaction to Black Lives Matter as the most likely reason, leading to a rise in right-wing intolerance.

“That’s why Noughts & Crosses is so important because it’s an educative piece of theatre, a powerful story, a love story too, where young people get caught up forbidden love, and very often people have left the show seeing things through a different lens.

“We have a lot of evidence of how it’s not only been taken on in schools, but also by audiences in general who say how it has helped to change their awareness. That will be our mission again in bringing the play back.”

The Noughts & Crosses cast – bigger by two than last time – will be fronted by Effie Ansah and James Arden in their first leading roles as Sephy and Callum.

“I saw the open call, which was great, because opportunities like this don’t often come around,” says Effie. “So, I submitted a self-tape and contacted my agent to let her know.

“Prior to this, I’d actually submitted a time the first time Pilot did it, but I didn’t hear anything so perhaps I’d missed the deadline.”

This time, she was picked, to her delight. “I feel like I’ve wanted for the longest time to get my head around a black, confrontational female lead, and Sephy is all those things,” says Effie. “She’s young, complex, naïve, going on this incredible journey where she discovers her flaws and the flaws of her society.”

James, who is not represented by an agent at present, was tipped off about the auditions by his housemate. “The only experience I had of Noughts & Crosses was auditioning for the TV series, and I have to say Callum is a completely different beast in the play; much more exciting,” he says.

“Sephy and Callum get to tell the story more themselves, and telling it through soliloquies is an amazing opportunity. The play is epic, Shakespearean.”

Tickets for the York run are on sale on 01904 623568 or at Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses will then tour from September 27 to November 26 and January 17 to April 1 2023.

Copyright of The Press, York

More Things To Do in York and beyond when life is swings & roundabouts, not all doom & gloom. List No 98, from The Press

All Swings And Roundabouts, by Adele Karmazyn, from her Pleasure Gardens exhibition at Village Gallery, York

POLITICAL division and soul power, sturdy stilettos and string sextets, doomed comedy and surreal gardens spark Charles Hutchinson’s interest for the week ahead.

Exhibition of the week: Adele Karmazyn, Pleasure Gardens, Village Gallery, Colliergate, York, until October 25

YORK Open Studios regular Adele Karmazyn is exhibiting new works in Pleasure Gardens, demonstrating her love of Victorian antiquities and oddities, weathered surfaces and nature.

Using her digital camera, scanner and Photoshop, Adele creates playful, surprising, surrealist digital photomontages, printing the images on to archival paper before hand-finishing with paint, pastel and gold leaf.

Drawing on idioms, metaphors and musical lyrics for narrative inspiration, she chooses her characters, then brings them back to full colour, intertwining them with creatures big and small, coupled with delicate foliage.

Nostalgia of the week: Giants Of Soul, York Barbican, Saturday (10/9/2022), 7.30pm

HOSTED by Smooth Radio’s Angie Greaves, the three-hour revue Giants Of Soul assembles performers from the late-1970s to the modern day, who have notched 18 British top ten smashes and 47 top 40 entries between them.

Step forward The Lighthouse Family’s Tunde Baiyewu; Grammy winner Deniece Williams; Rose Royce’s Gwen Dickey, on her farewell tour; Alexander O’Neal; Jaki Graham; Janet Kay and American Candace Woodson, who will be accompanied by an all-star ten-piece band of British and American musicians. Box office:

Chris de Burgh: Playing songs and telling stories at York Barbican

Rescheduled show of the week: An Evening With Chris de Burgh, His Songs, Stories & Hits, York Barbican, Thursday, 7.30pm

BRITISH-IRISH singer-songwriter Chris de Burgh heads to York for a night of songs, stories and hits, showcasing his latest album, 2021’s The Legend Of Robin Hood, on guitar and piano.

Born Christopher John Davison in Venado Tuerto, Argentina, de Burgh will be delivering “an exciting evening full of your favourite songs”, accompanied by a large lighting production. Here come The Lady In Red, Don’t Pay The Ferryman and A Spaceman Came Travelling. Box office:

Howell of anguish: Comedian Daniel Howell peers through the gloom in search of hope in We’re All Doomed

Doom’s day booking of the week: Daniel Howell, We’re All Doomed, York Barbican, Friday, 7.30pm

WOKINGHAM comedian, YouTuber, presenter and author Daniel Howell’s new solo show, We’re All Doomed, finds him as stressed and depressingly dressed as ever but nevertheless resisting temptation to give into apocalyptic gloom.

Armed with sarcasm, satire and a desire to skewer everything deemed wrong with society, Howell vows to find hope for humanity or at least to “laugh like it’s the end of the world (because it probably is)”. Prepare for savage self-deprecation, soul-searching and over-sharing of his deepest fears and desires. Box office:

Tim Lowe: Programming York Chamber Music Festival at the NCEM

Festival of the week: York Chamber Music Festival 2022, National Centre for Early Music, York, September 16 to 18

ARTISTIC director and cellist Tim Lowe turns his festival focus on the string sextet repertoire in the company of Tristan Gurney and Jonathan Stone, violins, Sarah-Jane Bradley and Scott Dickenson, violas, and Marie Bitlloch, cello, plus Scottish pianist Alasdair Beatson.

“We’ll play four of the very greatest sextets: Boccherini, the first string sextet, as far as we know; Brahms’s heart-warming/glowing Sextet in B flat; Richard Strauss’s sextet embedded at the beginning of his last opera, Capriccio, and Tchaikovsky’s joyous recollection of his favourite place in his Souvenir de Florence.” Full programme and ticket details at

Angels in Kinky Boots: York Stage’s musical is a shoe-in for joyous songs and staggering stilettos at the Grand Opera House, York

Musical of the week: York Stage in Kinky Boots, Grand Opera House, York, September 16 to 24

FACTORY owner Charlie is struggling to save his family business. Lola is a fabulous entertainer with a wildly exciting idea. Both live in the shadows of their fathers in seemingly different, yet surprisingly similar ways.

Learning to embrace their differences, they create sturdy stilettos unlike any the world has ever seen.

Up step York Stage director Nik Briggs and choreographer A J Powell to oversee a joyous show with 16 songs by Cyndi Lauper and a book by Tony-winning Harvey Fierstein. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or

Effie Ansah (Sephy) and James Arden (Callum), left, in rehearsal for Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses at York Theatre Royal and on tour. Picture: Robert Day

Political drama of the week: Pilot Theatre in Noughts & Crosses, York Theatre Royal, September 16 to 24

YORK company Pilot Theatre revive their award-winning production of Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s young adult novel of first love in a volatile fictional dystopia, first toured in 2019.

Sephy is a Cross and Callum is a Nought in a segregated society of racial and social divides. As violence breaks out, the teenagers draw closer, but their forbidden romance will lead them into terrible danger in this exploration of love, revolution and what it means to grow up in a divided world. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Phil Ellis: Headlining The Comedy Network’s first triple bill at Selby Town Hall

Comedy launch of the week: The Comedy Network at Selby Town Hall, September 18, 7.30pm

PITCHING up at Selby Town Hall for the first time this autumn, The Comedy Network is launching a series of showcases of national circuit acts, each night featuring a master of ceremonies, support act and headliner.

First up will be Edinburgh Comedy Award panel prize winner Phil Ellis; Mancunian actor and comedian Katie Mulgrew, daughter of Irish humorist Jimmy Cricket, and compere Travis Jay, a writer for Spitting Image. Box office:  01757 708449 or or on the door from 7pm.

York National Book Fair in the Knavesmire Suite

Looking for a book? York National Book Fair, Knavesmire Suite, York Racecourse, today, 10am to 5pm

“BRITAIN’S largest antiquarian book fair” is booked in for its second day in the Knavesmire Suite with all manner of book sellers, book binders and restorers, books, maps and prints to discover.

In its 48th year, this Provincial Booksellers’ Fairs Association event brings together an array of rare and antiquarian booksellers offering material for sale to collectors, scholars, dealers, readers and the curious. Items are priced from only a few pounds up to many thousands. Complimentary tickets can be booked at; alternatively, pay £2 on the door.

Pilot Theatre confirm casting for revival of volatile love story Noughts & Crosses

The Noughts & Crosses cast for Pilot Theatre’s 2022-2023 tour

YORK company Pilot Theatre’s casting is complete for the revival of their award-winning production of Noughts & Crosses.

First staged in 2019, Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s young adult novel of first love in a dangerous fictional dystopia will be on tour from autumn to spring 2023 under the direction once more of artistic director Esther Richardson.

Noughts & Crosses will open on home turf at York Theatre Royal from September 16 to 24, having first played there in April 2019.

In Blackman’s Romeo & Juliet story for our times, Sephy is a Cross and Callum is a Nought. Between Noughts and Crosses come racial and social divides as a segregated society teeters on a volatile knife edge.

When violence breaks out, Sephy and Callum draw closer, but this is a romance that will lead them into terrible danger.

Told from the perspectives of two teenagers, Noughts & Crosses explores the powerful themes of love, revolution and what it means to grow up in a divided world. 

In 2019, the premiere formed the inaugural co-production between Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal, Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Colchester, who had formed a new partnership in 2018 to develop, produce and present theatre for younger audiences. 

Pilot’s premiere – launched before the BBC television adaptation – was seen by more than 30,000 people on tour, 40 per cent of them being aged under 20, en route winning the award for excellence in touring at the 2019 UK Theatre Awards.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson

The Noughts & Crosses cast will be fronted by Effie Ansah (The Maladies, Almeida Theatre) and James Arden in their first leading roles as Sephy and Callum.

Emma Keele (East Is East, Birmingham Rep and National Theatre and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, UK tour) will play Meggie; Nathanial McClosky (Macbeth, Box Clever Theatre), Jude; Amie Buhari (Flowers, Channel 4), Jasmine.

Steph Asamoah (Billy Eliot, Curve Theatre) will be Minerva; Chris Jack (Brighton Rock, Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal and Our Town, Royal Exchange Manchester), Kamal; Daniel Copeland (Invincible, Orange Tree Theatre and The Jungle Book, Leeds Playhouse), Ryan, and newcomer Tom Coleman, Nought Man, Andrew Dorn and understudy to Callum and Jude. 

Daniel Norford (Small Island and The Welkin, National Theatre and The Lion King, UK tour) will join the cast next spring in the role of Kamal. All actors will play ensemble roles too.

After the York Theatre Royal home run, Noughts & Crosses will tour: Richmond Theatre, London (September 27 to October 1; Exeter Northcott (October 4 to 8); Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (October 11 to 15); Northern Stage, Newcastle (October 18 to 22); Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield (November 1 to 5); New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich (November 8 to 12); The Alexandra, Birmingham (November 9 to 15) and Liverpool Playhouse (November 22 to 26).

The tour will resume in 2023 at: The Lowry, Salford (January 17 to 21); Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (January 24 to 28); Rose Theatre, Kingston (January 31 to February 11); Theatre Royal, Brighton (February 21 to 25); Oldham Coliseum (March 14 to 18); Poole Lighthouse (March 21 to 25) and Curve Theatre, Leicester (March 28 to April 1).

Esther is joined in the production team by designer Simon Kenny; 2022 lighting designer Ben Cowens; original lighting designer Joshua Drualus Pharo and composer Arun Ghosh.

Tickets for the York run are on sale on 01904 623568 or at

Class act: Heather Agyepong as Sephy and Billy Harris as Callum in Pilot Theatre’s 2019 premiere of Noughts And Crosses at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Robert Day

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: 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 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

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

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: