Fifty years on from first making his mark at York Theatre Royal, Richard Digby Day reflects on a life in the changing arts world

Richard Digby Day: Theatre director, professor and lecturer

RICHARD Digby Day, artistic director of York Theatre Royal from 1971 to 1976, will talk about his life and work in the theatre world at a fundraising event there tonight at 7pm.

Now 80, this esteemed stage director, international professor and lecturer in Britain and the United States is credited with discovering actors Hugh Grant and Ralph Fiennes in a career where he served as artistic director of Bournemouth Theatre Company, New Shakespeare Company at Regents Park Open Air Theatre, Welsh National Theatre Company, Nottingham Playhouse and Northcott Theatre, Exeter.

He is well-known for his work in classical theatre, notably the plays of William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. He is vice president of the Shaw Society and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and has staged more productions of Shaw’s work than any other living director.

Richard is noted for his productions of Stephen Sondheim musicals too, and his work has been seen in the West End and on tour extensively throughout the UK, Canada, Denmark and Ireland. 

He has worked with many of the theatre greats, not least bringing Dame Judi Dench to the Theatre Royal stage, and he is a contemporary of Sir Ian McKellen, the two having begun their professional careers working on many of the same productions with Digby Day serving as assistant director.

He came back to York three times to direct waggon plays from the York Mystery Plays with the York Settlement Community Players for the Merchant Adventurers’ Guild, presenting The Last Judgement  in 1998, 2002 and 2006. “The last one was the most modern, and I wouldn’t have done it twice more after the first time if it wasn’t so rewarding,” he says.

“There was a great stock of actors, like Ruth Ford, who was not just a wonderful actor but a wonderful person.”

Now Richard returns to the city for 50 Years On: Richard Digby Day In Conversation in the Theatre Royal Studio tonight when creative director Juliet Forster will host the event to raise funds to support ongoing work at the St Leonard’s Place theatre.

“I look back on my days as York Theatre Royal as a time of great excitement, a very good time,” says Richard. “What those days meant to my career and showed to other people was that I could run a theatre, because I was not just the artistic director but also director of the whole thing. I really had the final say in relation to whatever the board wanted.

“I was thinking about this, how the Sixties and Seventies were a wonderful time for the theatre in a way that has not been replicated since. I was in the right place at the right time, as I was at Exeter too. I’d just finished working for the Welsh National Theatre Company at the Casson Studio, in a very rough street in Cardiff: Ruby Street in Splott. I’d founded the company and started it but couldn’t cope with the Welsh politics, so I left.”

What happened next? “There was as an advertisement in The Stage saying York Theatre Royal was looking for a new artistic director, when Donald Bodley was leaving, having made that wonderful addition to the building [the foyer],” Richard recalls.

“I was interviewed in September 1971 and all the candidates were told to hang around…and then it was announced that I’d got the job, in front of all these disappointed-looking other people.”

Richard can reel off the productions that came thick and fast under his artistic direction: “We did The Circle, by Somerset Maugham, starring Jessie Matthews, who appeared twice in the first year. In York Minster was Murder In The Cathedral by T S Eliot, and because there was no studio at the Theatre Royal at that time, we did two plays at York Arts Centre [in Micklegate], Tiny Alice by Edward Albee and Old Times by Harold Pinter. There was an extraordinary range of performances going on,” he says.

“That’s the difference when you compare it with today’s theatre. That time was the flowering of theatre, whereas today money is short and very rarely do actors stay together for more than one play.”

More work comes to Richard’s mind. “We did some work at the University of York; two plays in the De Grey Rooms and a whole series of poetry readings at York Art Gallery,” he says.

He settled in quickly. “York Theatre Royal was well set up: long before I arrived there, it was a working regional theatre with its wardrobe and carpentry departments, and York always tended to have actors that stayed for more than one production,” he says.

“For the second season in Spring 1973, Phyllis Calvert [the English film actress], who’d been in the company before the Second World War, began a long association with me directing her in five plays. The first Shakespeare I did here was The Tempest, in association with the New Shakespeare Company at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre, in London, where I was artistic director for a long time.

“A city without the arts will never be a complete place,” says Richard Digby Day

“We had Michael Dennison playing Prospero, and the production began in York, went on a little tour,  then played Regents Park.”

Judi Dench would return to her home city with Michael Williams to appear in a new play, Content To Whisper, adapted by television writer Alan Melville from a French work. “I can tell you this now, because Judi and I often laugh about it: we knew on the first day of rehearsals that we shouldn’t be doing it, but we did the best we could with it and it packed the theatre! I don’t know if people liked it or not, but they were just content to see Judi back home,” says Richard.

“Looking back, I was able to do a lot of interesting productions and the seasons were a lot more classically based than they are now: Strindberg, Ibsen, Chekhov, but a lot of modern plays too, like the first out-of-London production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus. The National Theatre offered us the rights for it, so we said yes, and then followed it with Hamlet, starring the Scarborough-born Frank Barrie as Hamlet.

“That was the third time I’d directed Hamlet and the nearest one I felt to getting it right. Frank’s father died in the middle of the run and he had to keep going, with all that connection with Hamlet’s father dying.”

Just as Damian Cruden would do later during his 22-year tenure as artistic director, Richard enjoyed using the theatre space in different ways. “We had all the seats taken out and did a promenade production of The Two Noble Kinsmen [Shakespeare’s play co-written with John Fletcher]: the first time it had been done for many years, for York Festival in 1973,” he says.

“In my last season, we had seven plays by Samuel Beckett to celebrate his 70th birthday and we did them on the stage with the safety curtain down and the audience seated on the stage too, and we did this in a repertory season where we closed the main-house auditorium one night a week for the Beckett plays.”

Typical of Richard enjoying the challenge of “making theatre in places that aren’t necessarily theatres” was his production of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf in the Assembly Rooms, “I had the belief that wherever there was an audience, wherever there were actors, that could be a theatre,” he says.

As he heads back to York once more, where he once lived on Tadcaster Road in a “dear little cottage and courtyard” overlooking the racecourse, Richard says: “The city has provided many memories, 50 years of history, but it’s not the place I came to in 1971. I don’t say it in an entirely negative way but any city that has its manufacturing heart taken away can never be as interesting as it was.

“I used to get up at six in the morning and walk down to the shop to buy a paper, and you would see all these workers bicycling to work. You could smell that work. I find what’s happened to Britain so sad, though of course York has so many attractions that it’s made an industry out of tourism.

“There were always tourists but it was completely a working, industrial city, where under all that history was the industry that was supporting it.”

From 1980 to 1984, Richard was at the helm of Nottingham Playhouse. “That was not a happy time,” he says. “I would have to say that Mrs Thatcher interfered in the arts. In particular, William Rees Mogg wrote a ghastly report on the arts when he was made chairman of the Arts Council: a most unsuitable person for the post.

“It was not an easy period and eventually I thought, ‘I just don’t want to go on running a theatre’, so I left and I’ve never really run a theatre since then, but I’ve done lots of other things, like being the director of the National Theatre Institute, in Waterford, in Connecticut, for eight years.”

Richard directed plays aplenty at the Lyric in Belfast. “It was at the height of the troubles, which was a very interesting experience,” he says. “Where I was staying, one night the windows were shattered by an explosion nearby, but on the whole, you learned to get on with things and not be distracted by the divisions.”

Richard has directed star names in one-person shows, from Edward Fox to Eileen Atkins, Margaret Wolfit to Geraldine McEwan. “Most recently, Eileen Atkins put me in touch with Dame Joan Plowright for a show where I interviewed her:  it was a wonderful opportunity to get to know a wonderful person, doing the shows at the National Theatre and Chichester,” he says.

Reflecting on the contrast between now and 50 years ago, Richard says: “Theatre is not funded properly, with very few exceptions. The most worrying thing is the lack of performances of classic plays, and often when they’re done now, they’re very badly spoken, even at places where there’s no excuse, like the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“By comparison with Peter Hall’s days, what the National Theatre is doing now is not what it should be. So, I am concerned. I say this as an old man, but one who tries try not to have too many set ideas, but if you look at the list of what was playing in the West End 30 years ago and what’s on there now, I’m deeply concerned.”

His passion for theatre, his conviction in its importance, remains unbowed, however. “A city without the arts will never be a complete place,” he says.

50 Years On: Richard Digby Day In Conversation, York Theatre Royal Studio, tonight at 7pm. Tickets cost £20 plus an optional additional donation to York Theatre Royal. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Here’s Jonny! Weldon joins York Theatre Royal pantomime adventure after landing hush-hush House Of The Dragon role

Jonny Weldon: York Theatre Royal pantomime debut as Starkey in All New Adventures Of Peter Pan

“SOCIAL media sensation” Jonny Weldon is the latest addition to York Theatre Royal’s pantomime cast for All New Adventures Of Peter Pan.

Although he would if he could, he can’t say too much about his character other than his name – Starkey – because writer Paul Hendy is working on the script.

“I know Paul quite well and have worked with him before,” says Jonny. “I don’t doubt we’ll sit down soon and work out the character.”

He can reveal little about his imminent television role too. “It’s very frustrating. I’m not allowed to tweet about it,” explains the actor and sketch humorist, whose videos went viral on Twitter.

He does confirm he will be appearing in the highly anticipated Game Of Thrones spin-off House Of The Dragon, but the series is being kept a closely guarded secret in the run-up to the first episode premiering on August 22 on Sky.

Jonny has “a little part” in the series but that is all he is saying. Even his character is a mystery, although rumoured to be called Samwell.

This summer, he can be found playing one half of Cruella de Ville’s comic henchman double act Casper and Jasper in a musical version of 101 Dalmatians at Regents Park Open Air Theatre in London.

July’s record-temperature heatwave took its toll on performers acting outdoors under the sun. “It was far too hot!” says Jonny. “We were doing shows with heat spaces for ice packs and dressers throwing cold water over us to cool us down.”

Jonny Weldon: Actor, sketch humorist and pantomime star

Nevertheless, doing the show has been “interesting but fun”. “I’ve never worked before at Regents Park, which is just down the road from where I live. It’s nice to work near where you live. It’s a big family show and that kind of theatre is great to do,” he says.

Jonny, who has 16 years in the business to his name, owes his entry into performing to his parents. Not that he had a stereotypical pushy stage mother. “I was a terrible show-off and my mum decided to see if she could harness my need to show off,” he recalls. “She took me to a big national audition – and I got the part.”

At the age of 11, Jonny had landed the role of Michael Banks, one of the children under the care of a flying nanny in the stage musical version of Mary Poppins.

Another West End musical role followed: Gavroche, the boy who dies on the barricade in Les Miserables. Next stop was the National Theatre for Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner’s musical, Caroline, Or Change. Soon a place at the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School, in Marble Arch, was his.

His local paper wrote a story championing his acting success with the headline Well Done, Weldon! “I loved doing Mary Poppins. I found school boring and it meant I didn’t have to go into school,” Jonny says.

“At that point, I didn’t really have a real understanding of what I was doing. It was just play and fun. I got to die on the barricade [in Les Miserables] – what kid doesn’t like a gory death?

“At no point have I found what I’m doing strange or lost my enthusiasm for performing. I’ve always enjoyed it. There are ups and downs but I’ve never found myself wanting to do anything else.”

Jonny has done theatre aplenty but the past two years have seen him branch out into television with roles in Stephen Merchant’s BBC One series The Outlaws, Channel 4’s Stath Lets Flats and now House Of The Dragon.

Jonny Weldon in the latest poster for York Theatre Royal’s All New Adventures Of Peter Pan

Along the way, he has become, more by accident than design, a “social media sensation”, on account of a succession of viral videos on Twitter. “As with every actor, I was bored and fed up in the lockdowns and decided to create my own sketches about the uphill battle of the life of an actor,” says Jonny.

“I didn’t do much on social before but decided to put it on Twitter. 100,000 people watched and shared and laughed.

“This week I put one out about the Edinburgh Fringe. There are always things like that – an actor has an audition, an actor gets cut from a TV programme or an actor tries to socialise.

“I started to film ones on Zoom with celebrities coming in to play themselves. The likes of Russell Tovey, Tracy-Ann Oberman, the cast of Ted Lasso. It’s just been a very fun and unexpected thing.”

Jonny will carry on making videos but, given that he is busy with work, he will do it “as and when I want to”. Long term, he hopes to work on “something bigger than just social media”, explaining: “I want to try and create my own stuff and a vehicle for myself in television. I write relentlessly and am constantly trying to make bigger work for myself and having meetings about that.”

After 101 Dalmatians concludes, he will film a TV show, and once more he has to be hush-hush over what lies in store. “I’ll probably be in trouble if I say anything as I don’t think the show is going out until next year,” he reasons.

Come November, Jonny will start rehearsals for creative director Juliet Forster’s third York Theatre Royal pantomime, All New Adventures Of Peter Pan, joining the already confirmed Maddie Moate, from CBeebies, and three returnees Faye Campbell, Robin Simpson and Paul Hawkyard. The actor playing Peter Pan will be announced next.

Playing Starkey will be Jonny’s latest panto credit after such roles as Will Scarlett in Robin Hood, Jack in Jack And The Beanstalk and Muddles in Snow White twice. Add to that a week in Canterbury in the comic role after an asbestos-related problem forced his show at St Albans Arena to close mid-season. But that’s another story.

Jonny Weldon will star in All New Adventures Of Peter Pan at York Theatre Royal from December 2 to January 2 2023. Box office: 01904 623568 or at Follow Jonny on Twitter:  @jonnyyweldon