“SOMETIMES we touch, connect, brough together by the tide. Sometimes we grind each other into sand like millstones. Sometimes we just break apart.”
York writer Tim Murgatroyd, eight novels to his name, and now penning his debut play, likes a metaphor. First-time stage director Martin Handsley loves the sound of the sea, and so the crashing of waves will greet this week’s audiences and accompany scenes staged at a lonely, low-key cottage by the coast, where Phil Goodman (Mick Liversidge) has retired after working as a doctor in conflict zones such as Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
In a play about relationships between fathers and daughters, we first encounter Jana Ilich (Ukrainian-born mezzo-soprano and actress Polina Bielova) and her “businessman” father Ratko (Ian Giles).
The year is 2000, ten years after the Yugoslavian Civil War; Jana is a lawyer, determined to prepare war trial prosecutions. Her father, who has more than something of the night about him, is always away on business overseas. He demands she should stop compiling her evidence; she will not be told.
Subsequently Jana will appear very briefly in Goodman’s cottage, without being seen by him and without naturalistic explanation, a moment of intrigue that establishes her presence but puzzles at the same time, until the narrative black hole is filled in later.
Liversidge’s Goodman is looking in his mirror; he appears to have a blood pressure kit around his arm, but again with no elaboration from Murgatroyd’s script. Maybe a daily routine, maybe later explained by the revelation that he is a former doctor, but such a prop is a mere distraction if not used.
Suddenly, Phil’s long-absent daughter, Sophie (Raqhael Harte), arrives. They have not seen each for more than four years; she was brought up by her mother and stepfather (who she calls ‘daddy’ on the phone) since her parents’ split, which may explain her Scottish accent, as opposed to Phil’s north-eastern brogue.
Sophie is brusque, nervous, needs a bath, has chips on both shoulders, doesn’t want to talk, but will have to. She may drive a swish Alfa Romeo – too flash for dad Phil – but she is in big trouble. The year is 2008, as denoted by the large numerals on the calendar on the wall, the year when the banks crashed, and, spoiler alert, Sophie has hit the rocks over her hedge fund-dealing.
Phil may be as good a man as his surname would indicate, but not so in the eyes of his daughter, who still resents him from his absence in childhood days.
Here we have two head-strong daughters whose relationships with their fathers come from the Lear and Cordelia playbook. Stones in the sea that grind each other into sand, but can they learn to touch, to connect, to re-connect?
Would it surprise you to learn that Ratko’s dodgy business dealings (prostitution etc) have brought him into connection with Sophie? Enter Ratko and his heavies, two staying in the car, one out back, as he demands money owed by Sophie.
Cue a long, restless night of confrontation and negotiation, suspense and surprise, truths and lies, revelation and even redemption amid further appearances by Bielova’s spectral Jana. This is a reckoning of good deeds versus bad deeds, of the seeds of greed and the lure of corruption versus the human capacity for helping others rather than helping yourself to others’ goods. Compassion versus contempt too.
Catching Monday afternoon’s dress rehearsal revealed a cast adept at building tension and intense, difficult relationships, matched by Murgatroyd’s ear for dialogue and astute perception of human complexities and contradictions.
The staging, however, worked against these attributes. The regular sight of the stage team taking the cottage furniture on and off and pulling the black-box curtain across the stage for scenes in Yugoslavia or by the sea broke the rhythm, a clunky manoeuvre that would have been eased by keeping the furniture in place and placing a curtain in front.
Since the dress rehearsal, music has been introduced to accompany the scene changes, but any re-staging of Sea Stones would require a design re-think.
Music already plays its part at the opening to the second half, Bielova parading her mezzo-soprano chops with haunting beauty to herald further troubles afoot.
A play for today drawn from recent yesterdays, Sea Stones marks a promising start for the Murgatroyd and Handsley partnership for York company Lumar Productions. Murgatroyd is already writing a second play, and Handsley has been bitten by the theatre bug, with a feel for the geometry and chemistry of staging scenes. Be assured he will furnish his next production with more finesse and less fiddling with furniture.
Further performances: 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
AFTER eight novels, with his ninth on the way, Tim Murgatroyd has written his debut play, Sea Stones, an emotional, suspenseful night of the soul when four people are brought together in a lonely house by the sea.
Two fathers. Two daughters. Each confronted with the consequences of the past as a high tide is turning and tests to their relationships are escalating. Tests that might cost them not only their dearest hopes and loves, but their very lives. “The truth can set you free. Or drown you,” says York writer Tim.
Sea Stones will be premiered from tonight (14/11/2023) at Theatre@41, Monkgate, by Lumar Productions, the York company run by film and stage director Martin Handsley, with a cast of Mick Liversidge as Phil Goodman, Raqhael Harte as Sophie Goodman, Ian Giles as Ratko Ilich and Ukrainian-born York Opera mezzo-soprano Polina Bielova as Jana Ilich.
Introducing the storyline, Tim says: “The play opens in 2000 in a small town in the former Yugoslavia celebrating a new millennium. It is ten years since bloody civil war tore the Communist federation apart, unleashing horrific ethnic conflict.
“But some legacies are not easily forgotten, especially when the victims find no justice and the so-called victors are unpunished, even rewarded.”
Roll forward to 2008: “All around the world, greed-fuelled banking systems are collapsing, creating new victims among the ‘little people’ who trusted in their institutions and leaders. New winners and losers, all over the world.
“But some people never accept losing. It’s not just the corrupt bankers who seek to claw back what they can. The stage is set in an isolated cottage by the sea for further crimes against the best sides of human nature: love, reconciliation and compassion. Or perhaps, this time, for redemption.”
Martin was captivated immediately by Tim’s compelling story on two grounds. “Sea Stones delves into the intricate tensions and dynamics between fathers and their daughters, a theme that resonated deeply with me as I’m the proud father of three girls,” he says.
“This is also a story how history never quite dies. My personal experience as an aid worker during the Yugoslav Civil War [travelling from Leeds in 1992 to bring refugees from Bosnia to the UK] provided me with a profound understanding of the challenging circumstances the characters in the play find themselves in.
“Even in 2023, the world continues to grapple with the same issues that the play addresses. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine serves as a stark reminder that war and its aftermath still haunt us. That’s why we’re so excited to bring Sea Stones to life on stage, setting free the power of theatre to illuminate and provoke thought about the enduring challenges our world faces.”
Tim felt “more poacher than gamekeeper” when writing Sea Stones. “My career as a published writer has been exclusively as a novelist,” he says. “Eight in print to date, two of them translated into Chinese.
“I have written stories about Ancient China, a dystopian Yorkshire, even silent cinema musicians in York, but I had never written a play. So it came as a surprise when I found myself scribbling down stage directions, then dialogue, that would emerge as Sea Stones.
“It began with a man in a lonely cottage by a pebbly beach startled by the arrival of a car where no-one comes. Dark memories of the Yugoslav Civil War and anger at injustices in the world crept into his home with the sound of waves grinding the shingle.
“Then came a long-lost daughter corrupted by money and greed, dragging far worse in her wake, and the stage was set for conflict: love, morality, and bare survival. As the character Phil Goodman says: ‘Sometimes we touch, connect, brought together by the tide. Sometimes we grind each other into sand like millstones. Sometimes we just break apart’.”
First play for Tim, first stage directing challenge for Martin: “I’ve directed film before, which is completely different,” he says. “I never thought I’d enjoy theatre because it’s so ephemeral, whereas you put everything into getting the image right, you film it and it’s there forever.
“However, what I’ve learned with this production is that theatre’s ephemeral nature is what it’s about, being in the now, what’s going on live in front of you. I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’ve become a volunteer at Theatre@41, doing tech work, working behind the bar. I just love it.
“The fact that Sea Stones is a great play and we’ve got great actors helps as well! I’ve been with this play for over a year, and still the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I hear certain lines being said.”
Whether as a novelist, or now as a playwright, Tim says: “At the heart of all this writing is storytelling. If you think about how humans understand the world, it’s through stories, with bigger narratives in plays and novels.
“With novels, you can use descriptions, whereas plays rely on what’s being stated or implied by the characters in speech, so the real challenge was to make sure the play’s dialogue was naturalistic, but not too naturalistic because I wanted to have deeper philosophical and emotional layers to the characters’ experiences.”
Sea Stones has taken three years to evolve. “That’s when Tim first contacted me and sent me a copy of the original script,” recalls Martin. “I read it but just didn’t think I’d be the one to stage it. But then Covid came along, and afterwards I just wanted to do something different after the film.
“Tim contacted me again, we got some actors together, did some readthroughs and made sure that the heart of the story would remain, but we would need to lose some of the dialogue to make it more pacy.”
Further challenges were to secure a theatre for the production and to find the right cast. Tick and tick, albeit with changes in one role. “We’ve ended up with the highly experienced Ian Giles as our fourth iteration of Ratko Ilich,” says Martin. “He’s bringing a level of confidence to the role that we were struggling with before, and lots of humour too, and we have an ensemble that gets on really well.”
Ian has made such an impact that Tim is writing a role expressly for him in his next play. Meanwhile, Tim and Martin have found a way to integrate Polina Bielova’s operatic singing in Sea Stones. “I can guarantee people will have tears in their eyes,” says Tim.
Actress and yoga teacher Raqhael Harte brings 15 years of acting and performance studies, coupled with a few years of York productions, to her role as troubled daughter Sophie. “She’s a Scottish actress and when she auditioned, I just loved her accent and knew it work really well in the play,” says Martin. “Her character is jarring, and her voice can be quite jarring too, so she’s the whole package.”
Summing up his play, Tim says: “Essentially it’s about two parallel father-daughter relationships, with each one casting light on the other, and from that they learn lessons, some hard, some redemptive, but all of them life-changing.
“In many ways, the play is designed to work on two levels: the parent/child relationships and the wider content of the world, referring to the Yugolsav war and to the 2008 banking crisis, with questions about corruption and human behaviour in a difficult, flawed world.
“That makes it incredibly relevant to today, where there’s corruption that’s pretty much not even hidden now, and all the violence and war that we see on our TV screens every night. We ask, ‘are we powerless? What can a good parent do?’.”
Important to Tim too was the need to make the characters believable. “Looking at human nature, these characters can be contradictory in their beliefs and behaviour because people are contradictory, and you have to get that complexity across – which can be challenging for everyone involved, not only the writer.
“What I’m hoping the audience will take from the play is not only an emotional journey but also a lot of tension because the potential for violence is always lurking in what I’ve written, so in that sense it’s not just about their relationships but also about survival.”
As indicated by the title, the sea is a significant character in the play too. “A lot of the meaning of the play comes from the dialogue, but plenty will come from metaphors too, where you’re trying to connect the audience with places and feelings they have experienced. The sea is perhaps the best example of that,” says Tim. “It represents movement and change, and characters being swept along by the tide of history.”
From the moment of arrival in the John Cooper Studio, audiences will be surrounded by the rhythmic roll of crashing waves with the high tide on its way. “I love the sound of the sea, and we use it as background in pretty much all the scenes set at the cottage,” says Martin.
Tim adds: “It’s almost like a musical soundtrack in this play. There’s a theory that we evolved from aquatic apes and that’s why we have this immediate bond with the sea.”
Sea Stones is “as uncomfortable as possible” for the audience, or “intimate”, as Tim prefers to describe the viewing experience. “By creating four contrasting characters, I can show the different facets of humanity, so we see good in the play, sometimes incredibly heroic good deeds, but also the bad in people, the potential for corruption, which creates dramatic tension,” Tim concludes.
Lumar Productions present Sea Stones,Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, tonight (14/11/2023) to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk. Running time: 100 minutes plus interval.
Back story: Lumar Productions
SMALL independent film, video and theatre production company dedicated to creating innovative content and storytelling, delivered with energy and passion. Its latest film feature, Wiccan, is scheduled for release in 2024.
The company is run by Martin Handsley, an IT professional, who reinvented himself after a life-altering event as an actor, writer, producer and director.
Writer’s profile: Tim Murgatroyd
READ English at Hertford College, Oxford University, and now lives with his family in York. Internationally acclaimed author of several novels of historical fiction, a dystopian series, whose latest novel, October 2022’s The Electric, is set in the glamorous world of silent cinema in York in 1919.
Former weekly columnist for The Press, York.
Sea Stones is his first play. His next novel, Dust Of The Earth, will be published next year.
For a preview of Sea Stones, visit: https://youtu.be/pviM6iKB0dw
HARD on the heels of Opera North’s Falstaff, up pops York Opera with the first of Verdi’s three Shakespearean operas, Macbeth.
You do not undertake Macbeth without one absolutely key singer: not the title role, but that of his wife, Lady Macbeth. York Opera has that singer, in spades.
Sharon Nicholson-Skeggs has been sorely missed over the past few years but returns here in triumph, injecting her own special brand of inspiration and lifting the evening out of the ordinary. She alone is worth the price of admission, whatever reservations there may be elsewhere in John Soper’s production.
Beside the two Macbeths, there is another ‘character’ – according to Verdi’s own prescription –that is essential to this piece: the witches. He wanted them to be “coarse and gossipy” on the one hand and “sublime and prophetic” on the other.
The ladies of the chorus amply satisfy both requirements, indeed if they have a fault, it is their penchant for gossiping ‘off the ball’ when their attention should be elsewhere. But they blend well and their choruses are a vital pivot in the action.
Soper’s permanent set involves three huge pillars separated by wide stairways, with a low moveable platform in front. The colourings are dark, relieved only by the occasional hanging. Eric Lund’s gloomy lighting completes the bleak picture of Macbeth’s castle.
But a trick is missed with the three apparitions, who need spotlighting, with no illumination elsewhere; dry ice alone, and there is plenty in this show, does not make them ghostly enough.
The challenge facing every conductor of opera is to find a balance between accompaniment and direction, either going with the flow or commanding it. Derek Chivers opts almost exclusively for the more passive approach and as a result his tempos tend towards the sluggish, so that Verdi’s intensity slackens off alarmingly.
There were several occasions on this opening night when singers, either chorus or soloists, got slightly ahead of the beat, but were held back, usually to their disadvantage. Similarly, the orchestra too often lacked its usual spark though it was generally tidy.
In truth, Nicholson-Skeggs got off to an uneven start, with some wayward intonation in Act 1. Come her Act 2 monologue, however, she was firing on all cylinders. Thereafter she never looked back.
Splendidly attired in black and gold at the banquet (costumes by Maggie Soper), she delivered a resolute brindisi, alongside brilliant woodwinds, and the evening took on a new momentum. Her swoops skyward were spine-tingling, her resonance throughout her range thrilling. She is an outstanding talent.
Ian Thomson-Smith’s Macbeth was the proverbial curate’s egg, good in parts. He seemed to have an aversion to facing his audience, except in his final aria, as if he was not quite inhabiting the role. His character’s vacillations have somehow to look more convincing than this. But there was plenty of evidence that he is still a useful baritone.
Lesser roles were well taken. Adrian Cook’s Banquo (also an eerie ghost), Hamish Brown’s Macduff and Leon Waksberg’s Malcolm all made distinctive contributions. So too did Polina Bielova’s anxious Lady-in-waiting, a promising talent.
The choreography was not credited, but reached its peak in Act 3, where the witches were at their most disciplined. Elsewhere there was less cohesion. In general, less is more with choreography, especially where arms are being waved.
This first night showed the seeds of something much better, but was not quite the finished article.
Further performances: tomorrow (20/10/2023), 7pm, and Saturday, 4pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, York Opera, at York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
THREE members of York Opera make important debuts in the company’s latest foray into Gilbert & Sullivan. They contributed significantly to the triumphant success of opening night.
Annabel van Griethuysen’s ingenious production mines a good deal more humour than is usually found in HMS Pinafore. Jack Storey-Hunter gives an extremely assured performance in the role of Ralph Rackstraw. Tim Selman steps up to the rostrum to conduct his first opera with the company.
But there is so much strength in depth in this company that you can virtually guarantee a really satisfying evening, whatever they do. So it is here. Good G & S relies on a sturdy chorus. The ladies – the First Lord of the Admiralty’s ‘sisters and his cousins and his aunts’ – seem to have welcomed some new blood and sing with immense conviction and presence. They are clearly enjoying themselves.
The men are equally lusty, slightly older hands maybe, but none the worse for wear and all the more credible as hard-bitten tars. An innovation here is a semi-chorus of eight, four ladies, four men, who deliver three sea shanties, including an especially offbeat version of What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor?.
The other two shanties are not quite so effective and, for the sake of continuity, one in each of the two acts would be enough. But the idea is excellent. It was typical of a production that goes out of its way not to rely on the traditional ‘business’ that so often dogs Savoy operas. Who has ever seen a sailor chased by a mouse here? Or Rackstraw having soothing cream applied to his wrists after being released from irons? There were countless such instances, most of them witty.
There are many old friends among the principals, none more so than John Soper as Sir Porter. Believe it or not, he has been with this company for more than 50 years, yet his baritone is as firm as ever. He struts his stuff superbly but is not above laughing at himself. When I Was A Lad was hilarious. He catches the eye whenever he appears.
Ian Thomson-Smith is another old hand with the company and his Captain Corcoran – albeit wearing commander’s stripes – does not disappoint. I Am The Captain Of The Pinafore goes with tremendous verve and he is a cheery soul throughout, even when he has to play straight man to Porter.
Jack Storey-Hunter’s Rackstraw announces himself in a firm, confident tenor, declaring his love for Josephine. He is not above re-joining his mates but maintains an admirable manner even when seemingly spurned by his intended. This was a most promising start.
First-night nerves can kick in unexpectedly and Rebecca Smith at first made a restrained Buttercup, but she sustained a perfect West Country brogue – emulated to a degree by the chorus men – and relaxed as the evening progressed.
Alexandra Mather’s Josephine followed a similar course. As the top of her soprano opened out in Act 2, so too did her personality. Both will progress over the five shows.
There are more than useful contributions from Anthony Gardner’s piratical Dick Deadeye and Polina Bielova’s effervescent Hebe, who ends up as Sir Joseph’s bride. Hers is a voice that we shall undoubtedly hear again. Fine cameos from Alex Holland’s bo’sun and Mark Simmonds’ carpenter round out the principals.
Joseph Soper’s permanent set, with poop deck above and behind the quarterdeck, emblazoned with VR insignia, more than serves the purpose. It is backed up in similarly authentic style by Maggie Soper’s costume team.
Amy Carter’s carefully conceived choreography does not always earn the discipline it deserves. Doubtless it will improve with time, but better to cut the numbers and keep it tight than throw everyone into the ring for every dance.
Last, but certainly not least, is Tim Selman’s sizeable orchestra, which includes several established figures including leader Claire Jowett. They have rhythmic zest to burn. Occasionally Selman follows his soloists rather than lead them and tempos sag slightly. Otherwise, he keeps a firm hand on the tiller.
As the nights draw in and temperatures dip, I can think of no better way to warm your spirits than this rousing show. You dare not miss it.
YORK Opera will set sail at York Theatre Royal with Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta HMS Pinafore or The Lass That Loved A Sailor from November 16, steered by a new production team of Annabel van Griethuysen and Tim Selman.
Stage director Annabel and conductor Tim will be at the helm of a production at the Theatre Royal for the first time.
HMS Pinafore was G&S’s first big success, both in Great Britain and the United States, establishing their still undiminished position at the pinnacle of light opera in this country.
Although they had had significant success with Trial By Jury and The Sorcerer, the world of light opera in the 1850s and 1860s was dominated by the works of Jacques Offenbach, full of catchy tunes and brilliantly orchestrated.
Breaking into this field of theatre and dominating it across the English-speaking world must be due greatly to the witty and topical libretti by W.S. Gilbert. In conjunction with Sullivan’s sparkling and tuneful musical settings, HMS Pinafore established the rock on which all the subsequent G&S repertoire would be founded.
The story follows Ralph, a lovesick sailor, and Josephine, the Captain’s daughter, who are madly in love but kept apart by social hierarchy. The musical numbers, loved by young and old alike, include We Sail The Ocean Blue, Never Mind The Why And Wherefore and When I Was A Lad.
As usual with York Opera’s G & S productions, a healthy mix of youth and experience combines in the cast. New to the company are Jack Storey-Hunter in the leading tenor role of Ralph Rackstraw and Polina Bielova as Cousin Hebe.
Well-known cast members in the line-up include Alexandra Mather in the leading soprano role of Josephine; John Soper as Sir Joseph Porter; Ian Thomson-Smith as Captain Corcoran; Rebecca Smith as Little Buttercup and Anthony Gardner as Dick Deadeye.
York Opera in Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, York Theatre Royal, November 16 to 19, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk