EVERYONE has a favourite Quality Street – purple, green…orange, not so keen – but there is only one Quality Street play to bite into.
Nevertheless, Northern Broadsides artistic director Laurie Sansom gives it a new wrapper, “stirring in a good helping of Yorkshire wit” from the retired workers of Halifax’s Mackintosh factory, makers of Quality Street.
And so a work from Toffee Town heads to Chocolate City this week, much later than first planned. Sansom’s Broadsides debut had to be put back in the sweetie cupboard after only four weeks when Covid put a red line through theatre shows in March 2020.
This spring he picks up the mantle with plenty of new flavours in the cast, only two of the originals still making the selection for the revived co-production with Newcastle-under-Lyme’s New Vic Theatre.
Here is the history bit. Quality Street is a “delicious Regency rom-com” from the 1901 pen of J M Barrie, pre-dating the better known Peter Pan but a huge hit on Broadway in its own right.
Come 1936, Mackintosh’s management hit on the idea of assembling beautifully wrapped toffees, chocolates and sweets in a tin encased in a picture of Quality Street’s principal characters, Phoebe Throssel and Captain Valentine Brown.
Cue Sansom’s idea to weave verbatim recollections from the Quality Street factory floor into Barrie’s play, the red-hatted workers serving as a Greek chorus cum collective narrator, passing comment on the play’s unfolding dramas, recalling their working days and their own romances, and reflecting on how courting has changed.
The to-and-fro format takes a while to settle, not least because the ‘Mack’ workforce open the play with their fourth wall-breaking gossip and nostalgia. They are never more than convivial commentators by comparison with the fateful scene-setting of the Witches in the thunder and lightning prologue to Macbeth and their subsequent encounters with the murderous Macbeth .
Something sweet and nutty this way comes as Barrie introduces his Regency romp with Paula Lane (once Kylie Platt in a different cobbled street, of the Coronation soap variety) in the role of Phoebe Throssel, a woman scandalised by having allowed Captain Valentine Brown (Aron Julius) to kiss her on the cheek. Ten years ago.
Ten years when he has been away fighting Napoleon, while Phoebe and sister Susan (Louisa-May Parker) have had to make a living, running a school for unruly children. They look exhausted, enervated, contemplating the prospect of having to add algebra to the curriculum without any enthusiasm. Understandable caution, you might say, in spite of PM Rishi Sunak’s enthusiasm for adding more Maths to the curriculum.
At this juncture, aside from Gilly Tompkins’ blunt-speaking maid Patty, more humour has been mined from the factory workers’ chatter than Barrie’s story, as supporting cast members switch between tea-break comment and rom-com roles. But once Julius’s Captain reacts so negatively to the older-looking Phoebe, still only 30, the play finds its sweet spot.
For a lavish ball, Phoebe transforms herself into lively, vivacious, flirty, flighty Miss Livvy, her “niece”, an alter-ego that will soon require her to be in two places at once in one of comedy’s favourite devices, from Shakespeare comedies of mistaken identity to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, chaotic Mischief capers to myriad pantomimes.
Not before Jessica Worrall’s witty design has served up the gorgeous spectacle of all the ladies in Quality Street wrapper dresses, Miss Livvy in the most popular purple, of course.
Not only Captain Brown is smitten, so too are Jamie Smelt’s Recruiting Sergeant and Alex Moran’s Ensign Blades as the comedy picks up pace and impact. Cross-dressing Jelani D’Aguilar’s Fanny Willoughby adds to the fun, and Parker’s Susan, forced to play a straight bat to keep Phoebe/Livvy one step ahead, personifies resourceful understatement.
At first you may wonder – as your reviewer did when watching a performance at Leeds Playhouse – why Quality Street made Barrie a fortune, but as should always be the case, the second half is better than the first, In particular in the all-important frank discussions between Phoebe and Captain Brown, where Barrie’s writing, suddenly more serious, goes to the heart of a woman’s woes, mistreatment and frustrations.
From the brief appearances of puppets to Ben Wright’s choreography for the ball, the design’s colour palette and the cast’s colourful northern vowels to Sansom’s beautifully judged direction, Quality Street ends up being a tin of purple and green ones.
Lane’s performance, especially when she has to have a filling of Phoebe within a chocolate coating of Miss Livvy, is top Quality too.
Northern Broadsides and New Vic Theatre present Quality Street at York Theatre Royal, until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Also: Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, May 25 to 27; Hull Truck Theatre, May 31 to June 3; Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, June 6 to 10; Victoria Theatre, Halifax, July 4 to 7. Box office: Sheffield, 0114 249 6000or sheffieldtheatres.co.uk; Hull, 01482 323638 or hulltruck.co.uk; Scarborough, 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com; Halifax,01422 351158 or victoriatheatre.co.uk.
LOOKING to make a list of every brilliant thing you could do? Here are Charles Hutchinson’s suggestions for the week ahead.
Play of the week: Northern Broadsides in Quality Street, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm, plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees
NORTHERN Broadsides, from Halifax, the home of Quality Street chocs, heads to the chocolate city of York with this delicious J M Barrie farce, whose lead characters featured on the first tin to take the Regency rom-com’s title in 1936.
Artistic director Laurie Sansom stirs a good helping of Yorkshire wit from retired workers at the Halifax factory into Barrie’s story of determined heroine Phoebe Throssel, who runs a school for unruly children, and Captain Valentine, who needs teaching a lesson in love. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Film event of the week: Little Richard: I Am Everything, City Screen Picturehouse, York, Tuesday, 8pm
DIRECTOR Lisa Cortés’s documentary tells the story of “the black queer origins of rock’n’roll, exploding the whitewashed canon of American pop music to reveal the innovator – the originator – Richard Penniman”.
Delving into Little Richard’s complicated inner world, with its switchbacks and contradictions and service to both God and music, Cortés conducts interviews with family, musicians and scholars to reveals how he created an art form for ultimate self-expression, and yet what he gave to the world he was never able to give to himself. Box office: picturehouses.com.
List of the week: Shared Space presents Every Brilliant Thing, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Wednesday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee
THEATRE@41 chair Alan Park swaps off-stage duties for on when appearing in Every Brilliant Thing, an hour-long show built around a list that spans a lifetime spent trying to prove life is beautiful, written by Duncan Macmillan with input from Jonny Donahoe.
Based on both true and untrue stories, this play about depression and the lengths we go to for those we love is staged by new York theatre company Shared Space, directed by Maggie Smales. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
Country gig of the week: Morgan Wade, Crossing State Lines (And Oceans!) Acoustic Tour, York Barbican, Thursday, 8pm
MORGAN Wade, the 28-year-old country singer from Floyd, Virginia, plays York on the back of her “once-in-a-decade debut”, 2021’s Reckless, first released through Thirty Tigers and later picked up by Sony Music Nashville.
Wade wrote or co-wrote a song cycle that addressed the reality facing teens and 20-somethings, embracing raw desire, the reality of getting high and getting sober and the realm of crawling through the wreckage, with tough vulnerability and hurt in her voice. Kat Hasty supports. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk (limited availability).
Adventure of the week: Baron Productions in Treasure Island, St Mary’s Church, Bishophill Junior, York, Thursday to Saturday, 7.30pm
YORK company Baron Productions stages Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 coming-of-age adventure story of buccaneers and buried gold, wherein 12-year-old Jim Hawkins finds a treasure map that belonged to the pirate Captain Flint. On board the Hispaniola, he and his friends Squire Trelawney and Doctor Livesey duly set off to a faraway island.
Daniel Wilmot’s thoroughly dashing cast includes Lee Gemmell’s Long John Silver, Paul Toy’s Doctor Livesey, Ellie Guffick’s Dick Johnson, Jamie Stapleton’s Cap’n Billy Bones, Molly Barton-Howe’s Morgan and Jack McAdam’s Dirk. Box office: ticketsource.co.uk/baron-productions.
Studio show of the week: Octopus Dream in I Love You, Mum – I Promise I Won’t Die, York Theatre Royal Studio, Friday, 7.45pm, and Saturday, 4pm and 7.45pm
MARK Wheeller’s fast-moving, emotionally charged play tells the true story of the tragic death of Dan, a cool, creative and talented South London schoolboy, who took a lethal dose of Ecstasy at an illegal rave.
At 16, he had plans, plenty of them, but losing his life was not one of them. Directed by Elliot Montgomery, Cobie Scott-Ward, Amy Zoldan, Alex Colley and Sean Radford use Dan’s own words to describe the choices he made and the impact on his family and friends in a journey from tragedy to redemption. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Classical concert of the week: York Guildhall Orchestra, Bernstein, Korngold & Rachmaninoff, York Barbican, May 20, 7.30pm
VIOLINIST Nicholas Wright heads back to York from his Vancouver home to play Hollywood film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D with the York Guildhall Orchestra.
Conducted by Simon Wright, the orchestra’s final concert of the 2022-2023 season also features Bernstein’s Overture to Candide and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No 2, written nine years after his first. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
Long-awaited return of the week: Sarabeth Tucek, Selby Town Hall, May 20, 8pm
AMERICAN singer-songwriter Sarabeth Tucek has re-emerged from a decade in hibernation – or more precisely “concentrating on other creative endeavours” – with a May 19 double album, Joan Of All, and a new moniker, SBT, her long-time nickname.
On her first British itinerary since 2011, she will be joined by her band for 18 dates. Support slots go to Kiran Leonard and dbh. Box office: 01757 708449 or selbytownhall.co.uk.
In Focus: Ben Fogle: Wild, York Barbican, May 19, 7pm and Harrogate Royal Hall, May 21, 7.30pm
BROADCASTER and adventurer Ben Fogle’s latest walk on the wild side is a 22-date tour full of hair-raising and uplifting stories from a life of amazing encounters.
Taking in Yorkshire trips to York and Harrogate next week, the Animal Park, Lost Worlds and New Lives In The Wild presenter will be sharing stories of hope, possibility and positivity and offering tips on “finding your ocean of possibility”.
Lessons learned from a career that has taken the 49-year-old Londoner to some of the most extreme locations in the world, whether filming for documentaries or tackling some of mankind’s greatest physical challenges.
A former Reservist in the Royal Navy, Ben embarked on the BBC’s ground-breaking Castaway series in 2000, when 36 adventurous souls ditched the rat race for a year-long social experiment, marooned on the remote Scottish island of Taransay in the Outer Hebrides.
“I think it’s all luck, but you make a bit of that yourself,” he says, reflecting on the past 23 years. “I have always loved travel, nature, the outdoors – that’s why I did Castaway. But it was a much more intense experience than anything I could have had under normal circumstances.
“I get asked about Castaway a lot and will be talking about it on the tour, as it’s a big part of me and relative to so much of what I do and have done.”
“Y2K” was “a definitive time”, Ben says. “It was pre-mobile phones, social media didn’t exist, so many things were very, very different. Now things have changed so profoundly, it would be difficult to go back to that innocence and simplicity.
“A [television] channel might try it again one day but no one has replicated it so far. Partly due to the fact nothing like it existed at that time, and people went for very pure and innocent reasons. The landscape has changed, people go on TV now for fame and fortune and that naturally changes the dynamic.
“Heading off to spend a year on an island with a load of strangers gave me a real grounding and a foundation of what it takes to make a simple, off-grid life.”
Those foundations allowed Ben to build his career and stood him in perfect stead for his many varied TV projects. Perhaps none more so than the 12 years of global travel for New Lives In The Wild, wherein he meets people living extreme, off-grid lives in a world now dominated by ease of communication and all too often dictated by being on-grid.
“Castaway definitely gave me the qualifications to be able to do a series like New Lives – to spend time with people living their whole life the way I did for 12 months,” he says. “I have a better understanding of the trials and tribulations, the highs and lows, the benefits and sacrifices they make.
“The more people I have spent time with over 12 years of making that show, the more I understand what goes into making a sustainable, off-grid life like that. A lot of these people are quite reserved, not anti-social necessarily, but they perhaps don’t enjoy being round other people. But as I have experienced it, they can open up with me – there’s almost a mutual respect between us.”
Ben’s experience of meeting those who live in some of the world’s most diverse environments forms the basis of his Wild tour as he takes audiences on a journey to relive inspiring and uplifting tales he has encountered on his travels to the wilderness of northern Sweden, the jungles of Honduras, the hostility of Chernobyl and the mountains of Nepal.
Having previously filmed in Chernobyl, when he met those who returned to live there as it continues to recover from the 1986 nuclear disaster, Ben made a private visit in September after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Early in the conflict, Russian armed forces seized the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – and soldiers were later reported to have radiation poisoning following their operations in the highly contaminated area.
More than a year after the invasion, he does not foresee the conflict ending soon. “I fear this is in for the long run, decades and decades of unrest in that part of the world,” he says. “I can’t see a quick resolution unfortunately.
“It’s another thing the tour will look at: the effects that war and disaster can have on places, not just the landscape but the people too. It seems harsh to say, but war is part of what happens in a world where seven billion people live. It’s another way that man destroys the environment around us, but can also provide examples of how a place can bounce back.”
Ben’s love of the great outdoors reaches back to his own childhood, where his time was divided between rural Dorset and central London, complemented by extended school holiday trips to the Canadian wilderness to visit his paternal grandparents.
Could he ever step fully out of modern life and would he take his family, wife Marina and children Ludo and Iona, along for the adventure?
“I’m incredibly lucky that I get to straddle two worlds, being in the urban world with all it offers, then going off to the wilderness – and that gives me perspective, which is so important in life,” he says.
“There’s definitely something about that kind of life that appeals to me, but not right now. Ludo and Iona are 14 and 12 this year and are very much involved in urban living.
“They are very well travelled. They have spent time in the jungle, in remote islands, wood cabins, the Norwegian wilderness. But then they go to school and are very much engaged with ‘normal’ society, and love researching on computers, having pizza or going to the cinema.”
Ben’s family lives outside London now. “That helps,” he says. “We ride horses, go wild swimming, long dog walks. But it’s balance; I want them to be street savvy as well as being able in bush craft skills. I want my children to be able to wire a plug and start a fire, to make a bed and to put up a tent. They’re all skills for life and don’t need to be exclusive.
“It’s one of the biggest lessons I think I’ve learnt from meeting hundreds of people all over the world – that too many people follow a prescription for life and don’t think about how you can change that.
“Yes, on one hand I live a prescriptive life with two children, a couple of dogs, paying taxes, being very much part of society. But on the other hand, I have a pretty alternative life, spending the majority of the year away from home because of what I do for a living.
“People ask why I’m not living in a cabin in the woods, but there are sacrifices to make for that life – and I love those great cultural events, arts, cinema, books, so what I have realised is that the search for a perfect balance is what is more important.
“My life is not something everyone could have, not everyone could do it. But I hope that after joining me on the Wild tour, people will consider what kind of things they can do in their own life, the small changes to make to find that balance.”
Ben Fogle: the back story
FORMER Royal Navy Reservist Ben appeared on the BBC series Castaway in 2000, marooned on an island in the Outer Hebrides for a year.
He has since presented Animal Park, Countryfile, Wild In Africa, Wild On The West Coast, Crufts, One Man And His Dog, Country Tracks Extreme Dreams, A Year Of Adventures, Storm City, Harbour Lives, Countrywise, Trawlermen’s Lives and New Lives In The Wild.
Hehas made documentaries on Prince William in Africa, disease in Ethiopia, Captain Scott in Antarctica and crocodiles in Botswana.
He has travelled extensively in South and Central America and has toured the world for various broadcasting assignments to more than 200 places including Tristan Da Cunha, Pitcairn, St Helena, East Timor, Nepal, Namibia, Kenya, the Arctic Circle, Zambia, Papua New Guinea, Uganda, Libya, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Tahiti, Maldives, Tanzania and Morocco.
He has worked as a special correspondent for NBC News and has published more than 15 books, including The Teatime Islands, Offshore, The Crossing, Race To The Pole, The Accidental Adventurer, The Accidental Naturalist, Labrador, Land Rover and English.
He has run the Marathon Des Sables, swum from Alcatraz to San Francisco, and is a keen sailor, marathon runner, boxer and cyclist.
Ben married Marina in 2006 after meeting her in the park while walking their dogs, Inca and Maggi. They have two children, Ludo and Iona.
For Wild tickets: York, yorkbarbican.co.uk; Harrogate, 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk.
REVIEW: Hull Truck Theatre/Theatre By The Lake, Hull Truck Theatre, until May 20 ***
AROUND The World In 80 Days is a race against time, a race that involves cramming in so much that ironically Laura Eason’s play runs the risk of feeling like it is taking too long.
Such a challenge faces both American writer Eason and director Hal Chambers, although designer Louie Whitemore definitely has the right idea in utilising a revolving stage to build the sensation of constant movement.
Whitemore’s basic set is bare: a set of the imagination on which anything can happen, anything can arrive: an elephant, a sledge, a train, a trading vessel, even a circus to start the second half.
Naomi Oppenheim’s puppetry, Jess Williams’s movement direction and Claire Llewellyn’s fight direction all add to the visual spectacle in a production rooted in physical theatre and dextrous feats as much as symbols of English Victoriana and colonialism.
French novelist Jules Verne’s story finds eccentric Victorian English gent Phileas Fogg (Stefan Adegbola) placing a wager with his stuffy Reform Club cronies that he can traverse the globe in 80 days. His entire fortune is at risk.
Adegbola’s immaculate, precise, tea-drinking, unflappable but not-always scrupulous Fogg takes on his challenge with the help, sometimes hindrance, of French valet Passepartout ( a clowning, Chaplinesque little tramp of a comic turn from Miriam O’Brien).
On his trail and on his tail is Dyfrig Morris’s Inspector Fix, who has convinced himself Fogg is a thief and will go to the ends of the world to prove it. He plays the buffooning fall guy in comic tradition.
As Fogg races from Italy to India, skips ship in Hong Kong and heads into dustbowl America, into the story are woven Tricia Adele-Turner’s Captain Speedy, Purvi Parmar’s Captain Blossom, Nicholas Prasad’s Mr Naidu and Niall Ransome’s scene-stealing, all-American Colonel Stamp Proctor when Chambers’ production hits its stride in the more inventive, more thrilling second half.
The danger rises and suddenly romance is in the air. Saba Shiraz’s Mrs Aouda, joining the protective Fogg from India onwards, has the measure of the Englishman, challenging him in a discussion on Britain’s colonial acquisitions, not least because Adegbola’s Fogg carries himself with an air of arrogant assumption of superiority.
Amid the chaotic humour, the playful music, the crazy commotions reminiscent of a Mischief caper, and the celebration of Britain’s age of invention, that more serious note gives Eason’s script a topical resonance.
QUALITY Street, Laurie Sansom’s “sweet and slightly nutty confection” of a debut production as Northern Broadsides’ artistic director, had to be put back on the shelf after only four weeks in 2020. Covid and all that. “Heartbreaking,” he said.
Definitely not past its sell-by debut, the Halifax company’s co-production with Newcastle-under-Lyme’s New Vic Theatre is being revived this spring with only two of the original cast members, playing York Theatre Royal from next Tuesday.
Among the seven newcomers is Gilly Tompkins, a face familiar to Northern Broadsides and Yorkshire audiences at large, who is delighted to renew acquaintances with Sansom after the “very strange experience of ‘audition by Zoom’, not knowing how many people were watching”!
“I was in Ayckbourn’s farce Absurd Person Singular – the one set in three kitchens – in Laurie’s first production at the Watford Palace Theatre: his first job after leaving Cambridge University,” she recalls. “That was in September 1997. He’s 51 now, I’m 59, and he’s always a delight to work with.
“He’s very playful in the rehearsal room, really up for a laugh, like starting a rehearsal with a game. He’s so intelligent, always enthusiastic and loves the job of directing.”
Quality Street is billed as a “delicious Regency rom-com” from the writer of Peter Pan (first staged in 1904 and transformed into the novel Peter And Wendy in 1911).
Premiered at the Knickerbocker Theater on Broadway, New York, on November 11 1901, it made J M Barrie a millionaire, says Gilly. “To think he hadn’t even written Peter Pan at that point, it’s just an amazing success story, and it was so popular that that’s how the Quality Street boxes and tins of chocolates came about in 1936,” she notes.
“Because the play was so successful, the Mackintosh confectioners in Halifax thought, what if we put all the favourite chocolates, toffees and sweets in colourful wrappings in a tin with a scene from the play on the tin?”
That scene featured central characters Phoebe Throssel and Captain Valentine Brown from Barrie’s drama. Phoebe (played by Paula Lane, latterly Kylie Platt in a different street, Coronation Street) and her sisterSarah run a school for unruly children on Quality Street. Ten years after a tearful goodbye, her old flame returns from fighting Napoleon, but the look of disappointment on Captain Brown’s face when he greets an older, less glamorous Phoebe spurs the determined heroine to action.
She duly becomes the wild and sparkling Miss Livvy, a younger alter-ego who soon beguiles the clueless Captain.
Gilly plays Patty, the maid to the Throssel sisters. “She’s so rude, so belligerent, though she loves Phoebe really” she says. “But she’s no respecter of status. She’s even ruder than they are!”
Sansom’s version “stirs in a good helping of Yorkshire wit from the retired workers of Halifax’s Quality Street factory”. Among them is Barbara, Gilly’s second character. “She was one of the women Laurie interviewed about their factory life and their thoughts on love, along with women from the Knit and Natter groups in Calderdale, and I’m going to meet her when we play Halifax,” she says, looking forward to their encounter during the July 4 to 7 run at the Victoria Theatre. “Barbara is such a sweet lady. I can’t wait.
“They’re like Shakespeare’s ‘Rude Mechanicals’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, commenting on what they’re watching and sharing their memories of the factory, which feature as verbatim monologues in the show.
“The second half opens with me as Barbara, giving out sweets and doing her monologue, and I’m allowed to improvise while the actors stay in character around me doing a Regency dance.
“One night in Stoke [Newcastle-under-Lyme, to be precise], the music wouldn’t start, so I kept improvising because, if you give out sweets, people will talk! All the actors left the stage, and I ended up doing ten minutes on my own with people calling out, ‘hey, Barbara, can I have a sweet?’!”
Ironically, Gilly had been “a bit scared in rehearsals about doing a monologue and handing out sweets, but I’ve loved it and so have the audiences,” she says.
“We keep coming on to pass comment and the audience soon gets used to it. At one point, you’ll see two of the former factory workers peel off their factory costumes to become characters in the play.”
Gilly describes her participation in Quality Street” as “blink and you miss it”. “But I took it on because we’ve been in lockdown and I thought, ‘I might never work again, let’s do it’,” she says.
“It’s been my ‘social tour’, a chance to see friends around Yorkshire, and to work with Laurie and Northern Broadsides again. It’s been so brave of Laurie to take up Barrie Rutter’s mantle as artistic director and to completely reinvent Broadsides.”
One final question, Gilly. Which is your favourite Quality Street chocolate? “It’s the one that when I give out sweets, 90 times out of 100, people say they want: the purple one, because you’ve got that beautiful colour for the wrapping, the chocolate, and then that nut in the middle,” she says.
“But it must be the most people I’ve ever worked with that like the orange and strawberry ones. Not for me! Quality Street is like Marmite that way!”
Northern Broadsides and New Vic Theatre present Quality Street at York Theatre Royal, May 16 to 20, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Also: Leeds Playhouse, all this week, until Saturday; Hull Truck Theatre, May 31 to June 3; Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, June 6 to 10. Box office: Leeds, 0113 213 7700 or leedsplayhouse.org.uk; Hull, 01482 323638 or hulltruck.co.uk; Scarborough, 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com.
FINGERS crossed that Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It can go ahead at York Theatre Royal from next Wednesday after the Covid curse struck Laurie Sansom’s cast this week.
Tuesday’s performance at the Stephen Joseph Theatre was cancelled, but one cover was in place for Wednesday, only for further positive tests to rule out all the Scarborough run.
Let’s hope for positive news but negative readings come next Wednesday when, all being well, and all 12 being well, artistic director Sansom’s multi-cultural, gender-diverse cast can resume performing Shakespeare’s flamboyant and joyous “play for our times”.
As You Like It is the Halifax company’s first full-scale production since the beginning of the pandemic. “I took over here three years ago, and we’d just got JM Barrie’s Quality Street out the door when Covid stopped the tour after only a month. We lost four months of shows [including York Theatre Royal] but made the decision to pay the company for the full run as we had the money to do so,” says Laurie.
“Funding from the Culture Recovery Fund enabled us to survive, to set ourselves up on the digital platform – we’ll be filming As You Like It with the help of Pilot Theatre while we’re in York – and to future-proof ourselves, leading to us starting work on As You Like It.”
The Covid hiatus brought Northern Broadsides the chance for a re-think too. “It allowed us to step back and look to diversify our talent pool, and now we have such a diverse company on stage, in terms of gender identity, ethnicity and neuro-divergence,” says Laurie.
Taking to York Theatre Royal’s main stage in designer EM Parry’s high-fashion costumes will be “12 fabulous northern actors”, including non-binary and disabled performers, .
“The pandemic has thrown up a lot of challenges, but it’s certainly refreshed me and allowed the company to bring fresh eyes to Shakespeare, which Broadsides has always done, but now with a slightly different slant, where we’re also trying to expand our audience, appealing to younger people while still playing to our established audience, as we look to break down the perceived barriers about class and who goes to theatre.”
Billed as a world premiere, Sansom’s bold staging of As You Like It “challenges us to imagine a new future”, one that captures the joy of live performance and the crazy power of love to change the world while addressing Shakespeare’s timeless themes of gender, identity, power and romance.
When high-spirited Rosalind and devoted cousin Celia are no longer welcome in the ruthless Duke’s stylish but stifling court, where competitive machismo is championed over basic human decency, they escape from his toxic entertainment empire into the forest in disguise, accompanied by drag queen Touchstone.
As the seasons change and old hierarchies crumble in this magical place, normal roles dissolve and assumptions are turned on their head in an elaborate game where gender, class and sexual desire are fluid.
“The Forest of Arden is a place where ‘if’ runs rampant,” says Laurie. “People adopt new names, new clothes and new lovers in this free-form forest with no rules.
“They experience new feelings and dive into them willy-nilly; they play many parts and make many entrances and exits. It’s as if everyone has stepped through the wardrobe into another world but not without taking a lot of fabulous clothes with them.
“Our new production takes us deep into the joyful possibilities of ‘if’, and asks if all the world’s a stage, can all the men and women be whoever they want to be?”
Laurie’s desire was to make “something ambitious in terms of design, costume and casting, but with the clarity of the verse-speaking still there”. “That way we can be bold in how we present the play,” he reasons. “The baseline is that we work first to ensure that we understand everything in the text, taking out anything that’s obscure to modern audiences, because Shakespeare is so crystal clear when played with intention and clarity.”
The choice of As You Like It for Northern Broadsides’ return to live theatre reflected the impact of Covid lockdowns, turgid days and weeks of rules, prescribed lives and being allowed out of the house for only an hour’s exercise.
“This has been a time when people have had the chance to think about who they want to be, their identity, and have come to appreciate nature much more,” says Laurie.
“Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, this feels the most restorative, opening up the possibility of making a new world based on open-hearted acceptance of each other and living in harmony with the natural world. This feels like a play for our time, challenging us to imagine a new future that is more playful, accepting and connected.”
Key to this bravura new world production too is the set and costume design of EM Parry, who says: “In our version of Arden, when the characters escape to the forest, they go through the wardrobe, Narnia-like, into a giant dressing-up box of queer possibility, a place where time, gender, sexuality, love, class, and all the hierarchies and binaries of identity and power can be questioned and turned upside down.
“Expect a world where a blizzard blows out of a hatbox, dresses change colour with the seasons, coat stands turn into trees and flowers grow up between the floorboards. Expect a world where a god turns up to a wedding, and who you are and who you fall in love with today can change as winter changes to spring, or a coat turns inside out.”
Over to you, Lateral Flow Tests. Watch this space for an update on next week’s run.
Northern Broadsides in As You Like It, York Theatre Royal, March 23 to 26, 7.30pm; 2pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.