Pick Me Up Theatre to stage revived Young Frankenstein, now on the move to Joseph Rowntree Theatre after November call-off

Pick Me Up Theatre principals in Young Frankenstein: back row, from left, James Willstrop’s Dr Frederick Frankenstein, Helen Spencer’s Frau Blucher and Jennie Wogan-Wells’s Elizabeth Benning; front row, Jack Hooper’s Igor and Sanna Jeppsson’s Inga. All pictures: Jennifer Jones

YORK company Pick Me Up Theatre will stage the northern premiere of Mel Brooks’s musical Young Frankenstein  in the New Year after the late postponement of last autumn’s run at the Grand Opera House.

Andrew Isherwood has picked up the directorial reins for this stage conversion of Brooks’s comedy horror movie, produced in York by artistic director and designer Robert Readman.

Rehearsals re-started in early December for the January 31 to February 3 run at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, with the original principal cast still in place and Helen Spencer assisting with production management.

“This show is by the creators of the record-breaking Broadway sensation The Producers,” says Robert. “The comedy genius Mel Brooks has adapted his legendary comedy film from 1974 into a brilliant stage show of Young Frankenstein. I saw the West End production and loved it.

Following the science: James Willstrop’s Dr Frederick Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein

“Every bit as relevant to audience members who will remember the original as it will be to newcomers, the musical has all the of panache of the screen sensation with a little extra theatrical flair added. Young Frankenstein is scientifically proven, monstrously good entertainment.”

In Brooks’s spoof, the grandson of infamous scientist Victor Frankenstein, Dr Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronk-en-steen”, he insists), has inherited his family’s castle estate in Transylvania.

Aided and hindered by hunchbacked sidekick Igor (pronounced “Eye-gore”), leggy lab assistant Inga (pronounced normally), devilishly sexy Frau Blucher (“Neigh”!) and needy fiancée Elizabeth (“Surprise”!), Frederick finds himself filling the mad scientist shoes of his ancestor.

After initial reluctance, his mission will be to strive to fulfil his grandfather’s legacy by bringing a corpse back to life. “It’s alive!”, he exclaims as his experiment yields a creature to rival his grandfather’s monster. Eventually, and inevitably, this new monster escapes.

Working in tandem with Thomas Meehan, Brooks gleefully reanimates his horror-movie send-up of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, with even more jokes, set-pieces and barnstorming parody songs that stick a pitchfork into good taste. Among those songs will be Puttin’ On The Ritz, Please Don’t Touch Me, He Vas My Boyfriend, The Transylvania Mania and There Is Nothing Like A Brain!, among many more Transylvanian smash hits.

Helen Spencer’s Frau Blucher and Jack Hooper’s Igor

Leading Pick Me Up’s cast will be former world squash champion James Willstrop, continuing his transfer from court to stage player as Dr Frankenstein after his Captain Von Trapp in Pick Me Up’s The Sound Of Music at Theatre@41, Monkgate, last Christmas.

Starring opposite him again will be Swedish-born Sanna Jeppsson (Maria in The Sound Of Music), here cast as Inga, while Jack Hooper, Mr Poppy in York Stage’s Nativity! The Musical in November 2022, will be Dr Frankenstein’s puppy dog of an assistant, Igor, “the classic Hammer Horror sidekick with a hump that keeps moving around”.

Helen Spencer (Mother Abbess in The Sound Of Music and Dolly Levi in Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company’s Hello, Dolly!) will play Frau Blucher, “the very stern housekeeper with surprising hidden depths”; Jennie Wogan-Wells, the Narrator in York Musical Theatre Company’s Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat last May, will be ingenue Elizabeth Benning, Frankenstein’s fiancée from America. “Think Legally Blonde,” says Helen. “Very conscious of her image; very high maintenance, throwing a spanner in the works when she turns up.”

Craig Kirby (Tom Oakley in Pick Me Up’s Goodnight Mr Tom) will be in Monster mode and further roles will go to Tom Riddolls as Sgt Kemp, Sam Steel as Bertram Bartam and Andrew Isherwood, fresh from directing Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None for Pick Me Up last September, can be spotted as The Hermit as well as directing.

Rivals for Dr Frankenstein’s affections: Jennie Wogan-Wells’s Elizabeth Benning, left, and Sanna Jeppsson’s Inga

A supporting ensemble will play Transylvanians, students and more besides. Choreography is by Ilana Weets and the orchestra will be led by musical maestro Sam Johnson.

Readman had to call off Pick Me Up’s Halloween double bill of Emma Reeves and Lucy Potter’s The Worst Witch and Young Frankenstein at the Grand Opera House due to unforeseen circumstances. It has not been possible to re-mount Rosy Rowley’s production of The Worst Witch, featuring a young cast, but Young Frankenstein will take over the JoRo slot allocated originally to Pick Me Up’s now jettisoned production of Chicago, whose principal casting was in place, but whose rehearsals were yet to start.

Helen Spencer is relishing the resumption of rehearsals for Young Frankenstein. “Ilana had already put us through a huge amount of tap-dancing work:  a very delayed return to tap in my case, having not done it since school, and she’s been very patient,” she says. “We’re having such fun again.

“Young Frankenstein is very silly with some brilliant numbers and really vibrant comedy, and we’re very lucky to have such amazing actors. Robert says it’s the best principal cast he could have wished for, such a safe pair of hands and so skilled that it would have been such a shame not to have done it. Thankfully we’re going ahead in January.”

Pick Me Up Theatre in Young Frankenstein, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, January 31 to February 3 2024, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk

NEWSFLASHES…Curtains…The Hollywood Sisters…Joseph Rowntree Theatre Musical Theatre Awards…Musicals In The Multiverse…

Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company cast members for Curtains poke their heads out from beneath the JoRo curtain, which will fom part of the musical mystery whodunit’s set in February, along with the auditorium at large

JOSEPH Rowntree Theatre Company’s next show will be Curtains, the 2007 Broadway musical mystery comedy with a book by Rupert Holmes, lyrics by Fred Ebb, music by John Kander and additional lyrics by Kander and Holmes.

What’s the plot? Boston’s Colonial Theatre is host to the opening night performance of a new musical in 1959. When the leading lady – a fading Hollywood star and diva, who has no right to be one – dies mysteriously on stage, the entire cast and crew are suspects.

Enter a local detective – and musical theatre fan to boot – who tries to save the show, solve the case, and maybe even find love before the show reopens, all without being killed.

Delightful characters, a witty and charming script and glorious tunes await you from February 7 to 10 at 7.30pm nightly plus a 2.30pm Saturday matinee. In the cast will be Steven Jobson, Jennifer Jones, Jennie Wogan-Wells, Rosy Rowley, Jonathan Wells, Paul Blenkiron, Ben Huntley, Jennifer Payne, Anthony Gardner, Chris Gibson and Jamie Benson, among others.

Proceeds from ticket sales on 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk will go to the JoRo.

The Hollywood Sisters: from left, Helen Spencer, Henrietta Linnemann, Rachel Higgs and Cat Foster

AFTER raising £1,000 for York Mind at their sold-out December 1 concert at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York close-harmony quartet The Hollywood Sisters – Helen Spencer, Cat Foster, Rachel Higgs and Henrietta Linnemann – will return there for another charity Christmas show with special guests next December. Watch this space for further details.

THE inaugural Joseph Rowntree Theatre Musical Theatre Awards will be launched formally in January. Watch this space.

Set up by the JoRo, the awards will run annually. “We’ve put out requests to all the companies that do full-book musicals in York, not specifically at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre,” says York actress, singer and director Helen Spencer, who is helping to run the awards with co-founder Nick Sephton. “At least seven companies have said they want to be involved.

“The way it works, each company nominates a judge; the judges will get together at the end of the year to decide who the winners are, with such categories as Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Choreographer, and then the awards ceremony will be held at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, Oscars style, in January.”

Explaining the concept behind the awards, Helen says: “The idea is to celebrate the amazing musical theatre scene we have in York and the amazing community we have that puts on these shows. This is a chance to celebrate all that creativity in our city.”

Scarlett Rowley in the first edition of Musicals In The Multverse at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre in June 2023

TO quote CharlesHutchPress, from the June 30 review,Musicals In The Multiverse turns out to be out of this world. A sequel will surely follow.”

Happy to report that this Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company revue will return to the JoRo in June 2024, dates yet to be confirmed.

Directed by Helen Spencer, the show’s modus operandi is “playful, radical too, and has the potential to be rolled out again,” as CharlesHutchPress wrote of June’s inaugural two-night run.

“Imagine alternative worlds – a multiverse – where musical favourites take on a new life with a change of gender, era, key or musical style, arranged with glee, joy and flourish after flourish by musical director Matthew Peter Clare for his smart band”. More details of the sequel will follow.

Halloween shock as Pick Me Up Theatre cancels The Worst Witch and Young Frankenstein at Grand Opera House

Taking a tumble: Pick Me Up Theatre’s poster for the now postponed The Worst Witch

PRODUCER Robert Readman has called off Pick Me Up Theatre’s Halloween double bill of The Worst Witch and Young Frankenstein at the Grand Opera House, York, due to unforeseen circumstances.

Hopes are high, however, that he will rearrange the two production runs for early 2024 at a venue yet to be confirmed, but most likely to be the Joseph Rowntree Theatre. Watch this space.

Directed by Rosy Rowley, Emma Reeves and Luke Potter’s The Worst Witch was booked to run from October 27 to 29 with a young cast, followed by Readman’s northern premiere of Mel Brooks’s musical Young Frankenstein from October 31 to November 4.

October 26 and October 30 shows had been jettisoned already, since the initial posters (see above and below) were published.

For ticket refund details, head to help.atgtickets.com or contact 03330 096690.

Pick Me Up Theatre’s poster artwork for Young Frankenstein

James Willstrop to serve up Frederick Frankenstein in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Hallowe’en show Young Frankenstein

Squashbuckling: World champ James Willstrop swaps from court to stage to perform for Pick Me Up Theatre

PICK Me Up Theatre artistic director Robert Readman will direct the northern premiere of Mel Brooks’s stage conversion of Young Frankenstein at the Grand Opera House, York, over Hallowe’en.

The York company’s rehearsals are progressing well for the all-singing, all-dancing horror-movie spoof musical that will run from October 31 to November 4.

“From the creators of the record-breaking Broadway sensation The Producers comes this monster new musical comedy,” says Robert. “The comedy genius, Mel Brooks, has adapted his legendarily funny 1974 film into a brilliant stage creation of Young Frankenstein. I saw the West End production and loved it.”

Grandson of the infamous Victor Frankenstein, Dr Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronk-en-steen”) inherits his family’s castle estate in Transylvania.

Sanna Jeppsson: Playing lab assistant Inga in Young Frankenstein

Aided yet hindered by hunchbacked sidekick Igor (pronounced “Eye-gore”), leggy lab assistant Inga (pronounced normally), devilishly sexy Frau Blucher (Neigh!) and needy fianceeElizabeth, Frederick finds himself filling the mad scientist shoes of his ancestors, striving to fulfil his grandfather’s legacy by bringing a corpse back to life.

“It’s alive!” he exclaims as his experiment yields a creature to rival his grandfather’s monster. Eventually, and inevitably, this new monster escapes. “Hilarity abounds,” promises Robert, in Young Frankenstein’s combination of madcap success and monstrous consequences.

Working in tandem with Thomas Meehan, Brooks gleefully reanimates his horror-movie send-up of Mary Shelley’s novel with even more jokes, set-pieces and barnstorming parody songs that stick a pitchfork into good taste. Among those songs will be Puttin’ On The Ritz, Please Don’t Touch Me, He Vas My Boyfriend, The Transylvanian Mania, There Is Nothing Like A Brain! and many more Transylvanian smash hits.

Leading Readman’s cast will be erstwhile world squash champion James Willstrop, continuing his transfer from court to stage after playing Captain Von Trapp in Pick Me Up’s The Sound Of Music last Christmas.

Helen Spencer: From Hello, Dolly! to hello, Frau Blucher

Starring opposite him again will be Swedish-born Sanna Jeppsson (Maria in The Sound Of Music), here cast as Inga. Jack Hooper, Mr Poppy in last year’s Nativity!, will be Igor; Helen Spencer, seen latterly as the Mother Abbess and Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, will play Frau Blucher; Jennie Wogan-Wells, the Narrator in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, will be Elizabeth Benning.

Craig Kirby, Mr Tom in Goodnight Mr Tom, will be in Monster mode and further roles will go to Tom Riddolls as Sgt Kemp, Sam Steel as Bertram Bartam and Andrew Isherwood, fresh from directing Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, as The Hermit.  A supporting ensemble will play Transylvanians, students and more besides.   

“Every bit as relevant to audience members who will remember the original as it will be to newcomers, Young Frankenstein has all the of panache of the screen sensation with a little extra theatrical flair added,” says Robert. “Young Frankenstein is scientifically proven, monstrously good entertainment.”

Pick Me Up Theatre in Young Frankenstein, Grand Opera House, York, October 31 to November 4, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Thursday and Saturday matinees. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.

REVIEW: Pick Me Up Theatre in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, until Sat ****

And then there were ten: standing, Mark Simmonds, left, Martyn Hunter, Mike Hickman, Andrew Roberts, Ian Giles, Rory Mulvihill and Andrew Isherwood; seated, Jeanette Hunter, left, Florence Poskitt and Jessica Murray, in Pick Me Up Theatre’s And Then There Were None

NOT to be mistaken for Lucy Bailey’s “21st century reinvention” of Agatha Christie’s best-selling crime novel, bound for the Grand Opera House in November, this is the first of three Pick Me Up productions, made in York, one per month, this autumn.

For the record, Pick Me Up producer Robert Readman secured the rights for staging And Then There Were None before the Fiery Angel, ROYO and Royal & Derngate co-production emerged over the horizon.

He had put in place an autumn season to show off all the talents at Pick Me Up’s disposal: experienced hands for the “straight play”, Christie’s posh house party thriller; blossoming youths in The Worst Witch in late-October, and musical comedy exponents in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein the following week.

Readman is a Christie aficionado – he could pick her as his specialist subject for Mastermind – but decided to spread the directorial workload for the season ahead, having already cast And Then There Were None before the handing the reins to cast member Andrew Isherwood to steer a film noir-style nail biter.

Law and order: Rory Mulvihill’s judge, Sir Lawrence Wargrave, left, and Andrew Isherwood’s Detective William Henry Blore

Readman will direct Young Frankenstein, preceded by Rosy Rowley overseeing The Worst Witch, but his creativity is at play in And Then There Were None too in his design for a Christie murder mystery set in 1939 with Europe on the brink of war.

Christie had talked of a bleak house that should feel like it had long been empty, furnished but stark and unwelcoming. Readman, with his collector’s eye for acquiring props, furniture, costumes and more besides at his Chicken Sheds warehouse in Bubwith, delivers the period look to the T. 

Furniture from a friend’s house move, tick. A redundant fireplace from another friend’s refurb, tick. The glass-framed doors from York Theatre Royal’s production of Private Lives, tick. The ten little soldier boy models, from Readman’s research, tick. An Ercol chair from the Readman family stock, tick.

He assembles them on an end-on/side on set that dominates the Theatre@41 black box, deliberately so to give Isherwood’s production an oppressive, claustrophobic air. There will be no escape from Soldier Island, off the Devon Coast, for the eight house guests, butler and his housekeeper wife, assembled there at the intriguing invitation of a certain Mr and Mrs U N Owen (whose identity and whereabouts shall indeed remain unknown).

Passing judgement: Jessica Murray’s Emily Brent vents her spleen at Florence Poskitt’s Vera Claythorne in And Then There Were None

One by one, they are introduced to the audience, first the husband-and-wife staff Rogers and Mrs Rogers, played by husband-and-wife Martyn and Jeanette Hunter, Martyn delightfully understated, Jeanette gone, spoiler alert, all too soon.

Not before Rogers follows instructions to play a sternly delivered recording that declares all of them to have a wicked past and a secret destined to seal their fate, each being marked for murder.

As the weather turns thunderous, cutting the island rock off from the mainland, let the bloodbath begin, the toy soldiers disappearing one by one with each murder, in accordance with the lines of a sinister nursery rhyme on display above the mantelpiece.

Andrew Roberts has a cameo, West Country accent and all as Fred Narracott, delivering the guests to the island, before re-emerging as spiffing, fast-living, flippant Anthony Marston. Florence Poskitt’s outwardly level-headed but on-edge Vera Claythorne is welcoming guests on the Owens’ behalf; Mike Hickman’s devil-may-care Captain Philip Lombard likes to be seen keeping spirits up and his spirit intake up even higher.

What the butler saw or did he? Martyn Hunter’s Rogers and Jeanette Hunter’s Mrs Rogers in And Then There Were None

Andrew Isherwood soon sheds the dodgy accent of his cover as a wealthy South African, Davis, to be revealed as retired Detective William Henry Blore.

Ian Giles’s old boy, General MacKenzie, appears to be losing his marbles; Jessica Murray’s disapproving religious zealot Emily Brent knits feverishly, and Mark Simmonds’ Dr Armstrong is as earnest as brown bread.

Rory Mulvihill’s Sir Lawrence Wargrave is wont to dominate, a judge by profession, with a  permanent black-cap countenance and a voice that commands the stage and those around him alike.

Isherwood’s direction skilfully steers a path through dark humour, heightened tensions and chilling revelations, capturing Christie’s scathing dismissal of so many restrictive institutions, and his cast applies both light and increasing shade. 

Ian Giles’s General MacKenzie holds forth in And Then There Were None as Florence Poskitt’s Vera Claythone looks on quizzically

Hickman’s mysterious Lombard is particularly good at keeping up a front; Poskitt may be associated with wide-eyed, squishy faced comedy but here delves into disturbing inner turmoil, a revelation that affirms she should not be pigeonholed.

Mulvihill, latterly flourishing in diverse roles beyond his musical theatre leading-man prowess, is in terrific form once more, his grave Wargrave judging everyone to damnation.  

Will Nicholson and Adam Coggin’s lighting blends in just right with each scene’s tone and Readman’s scenery in Isherwood’s engrossing production that benefits from one other Readman decision: replacing the play’s happier ending with the novel’s original darker denouement, with permission from the Christie estate. Right again, Robert.

Performances: 7.30pm nightly, plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Pick Me Up Theatre’s poster artwork for And Then There Were None

How And Then There Were None became And Then There Were Two in York this autumn in Agatha Christie mystery

And then there was one: Pick Me Up Theatre’s poster for their first bite of the And Then There Were None cherry in York

NO productions of Agatha Christie’s house party thriller And Then There Were None in York for ages, but suddenly, like buses…and then there were two.

Andrew Isherwood’s film noir-style nail-biter for York company Pick Me Up Theatre opens at Theatre@41, Monkgate, on Friday, to be followed by Lucy Bailey’s 21st reinvention on tour at the Grand Opera House from November 21 to 25.

In Christie’s murder mystery, Europe is teetering on the brink of war when eight strangers receive an intriguing invitation to a posh house party on Soldier Island, an isolated rock near the Devon coast.

These house guests are to be met by the butler and his housekeeper wife…And Then There Were Ten, but not for long.

Andrew Isherwood: Looking judgemental in Pick Me Up Theate’s social media post announcing his role as retired Inspector William Blore in And Then There Were None

All have a wicked past they are unwilling to reveal and a secret destined to seal their fate. For each has been marked for murder. As the weather turns, the bloodbath begins and one by one they are brutally murdered in accordance with the lines of a sinister nursery rhyme.

More on Bailey’s touring show for Fiery Angel, ROYO and the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, in November, but first the focus falls on Andrew Isherwood picking up the directorial reins for Pick Me Up for the first time, as well as playing one of the suspects already cast by producer Robert Readman, who had acquired the rights for Christie’s play ahead of the touring production incidentally.

“It’s a fantastic play,” says Andrew. “Having acted for more than ten years now, I’ve been wanting to spread my wings a little, and when this play came up, I jumped at the chance to give it a shot with a fairly sizeable cast for a piece that’s very dialogue heavy.

“Bringing together some of the best actors we have in York, it was too good an opportunity to miss. For the audience, can I find a tone and a pace to the show that keeps people engaged and involved from beginning to end?”

Jess Murray’s Emily Brent, Rory Mulvihill’s Sir Lawrence Wargrave, Martyn Hunter’s butler Rogers, Mark Simmonds’s Dr Edward Armstrong and Flo Poskitt’s Vera Claythorne, seated, rehearsing at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, for And Then There Were None

To do so, combining directing and acting has been challenging. “That’s for sure,” says Andrew. “To switch between performance and honing the performances of the cast, working on the fine details. I’ve focused a lot on developing as a director while maintaining committed to my role. It’s a fine balance.”

He will play retired Inspector William Henry Blore, who should know his way around a crime scene and be a dependable chap in a crisis, but when the killing starts, is this former copper the bookies’ best bet for whodunit?

“I really enjoy the duality and complexity of Blore’s character,” says Andrew. “Having the opportunity to play a character who presents himself as one thing and reveals himself to be another. To play a character within a character as it were. It’s something I’ve not done before, which is always attractive.”

Christie’s abiding popularity, on stage, screen and page, is no mystery to Andrew. “She’s a British icon; her name has instant brand recognition as it were,” he says. “Even if you’ve never even read or seen an Agatha Christie, you know she’s synonymous with intrigue, mystery and drama. I think the success of Poirot, in particular, has permeated our culture in such a way that associates itself with class and quality.”

Why are the British so fascinated by murder, mystery and death, Andrew? “It’s irresistible. The search for answers. The need to know. The intrigue, The darkness of man’s soul. The exploration of the darker side that’s quite seductive. It’s important to have some mystery to life,” he says.

Joining Isherwood’s Blore in Pick Me Up’s cast will be Flo Poskitt’s Vera Claythorne; Mike Hickman’s Philip Lombard; Rory Mulvihill’s Sir Lawrence Wargrave; husband and wife Martyn and Jeannette Hunter’s butler Rogers and housekeeper wife Mrs Rogers; Andrew Roberts’s Anthony Marston; Ian Giles’s General John MacKenzie; Mark Simmonds’s Dr Edward Armstrong and Jess Murray’s Emily Brent.

Such familiar faces from the York stage scene recalls the old days of repertory theatre, enjoying seeing regulars in new roles. “I’ve certainly been very lucky and blessed to have such a fantastic cast. A lot of known and returning faces gives the sense that this is a company of experienced hands,” says Andrew.

“Directing this production has been such a wonderful experience because I know the roles will be brought so brilliantly to life. It’s certainly a good feeling to know that each scene is in the hands of compelling and experienced actors, and I’ve really enjoyed working with each of them, developing, finding new folds and creases to their characters.”

From one to ten: Pick Me Up Theatre cast members Flo Poskitt, top left, Rory Mulvihill, Mike Hickman, Andrew Isherwood, Martyn Hunter, Jeanette Hunter, Ian Giles, Mark Simmonds, Andrew Roberts and Jess Murray

Producer Readman’s set design will play its part in the thrills and spills. “Robert has designed a fabulous set using levels and lighting to create mood and atmosphere. The design is created to reflect the shape of the island itself, and the lighting will be very evocative and in the style of film noir to fully immerse our audience in this world,” says Andrew. 

In this autumn of And There Were None at the double, he is “glad we’re getting in there first”. “It certainly becomes a part of professional pride that if you come to see our version, we’ll be every bit as good as you would expect from the Opera House show. I’ve felt for a long time that the line between what you would consider an ‘amateur’ show versus a ‘professional’ show is a fine one,” says Andrew.

“Definitely in the shows I’ve been involved with. From Robert Readman’s set to the costumes and the quality of the performances, it’s every bit as good as you would see in London. So come join us on the island!”

Pick Me Up Theatre in Agatha Christie’s And Then There None, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, September 22 to 30. Performances: 7.30pm, September 22, 23, 26 to 30; 2.30pm, September 23, 24 and 30. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

And then there were two

The artwork for Lucy Bailey’s production of And Then There Were None, on tour at the Grand Opera House, York, in November

IN Lucy Bailey’s “bold and exciting” 21st reinvention of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, ten strangers are lured to a solitary mansion off the coast of Devon. When a terrible storm cuts them off from the mainland, and with their hosts mysteriously absent, the true reason for their presence on the island becomes horribly clear, as secrets from their past come back to haunt each and every one of them.

Confirmed in the cast for the York-bound Fiery Angel, ROYO and Royal & Derngate, Northampton touring production are Bob Barrett as Dr Edward Armstrong; Joseph
Beattie as Philip Lombard; Oliver Clayton as Anthony Marston; Jeffery Kissoon as General John MacKenzie and Andrew Lancel as retired Inspector William Blore.

So too are Nicola May-Taylor as Jane Pinchbeck; Katy Stephens as Emily Brent; Lucy Tregear as Georgina Rogers; Sophie Walter as Vera Claythorne; Matt Weyland as Narracott/Understudy and David Yelland as Judge Wargrave. Louise McNulty will be on understudy duty.

And then there were twelve: Lucy Bailey’s cast for And Then There Were None 

Lucy Bailey has previous form for Christie productions, having directed Witness For The Prosecution, now in its sixth year, as well as Frederick Knott’s Dial M For Murder, Baby Doll, Titus Andronicus and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

She is joined in the production team by UK Theatre Award-winning set and costume designer Mike Britton, lighting designer Chris Davey, sound designer and composer Elizabeth Purnell, fight director Renny Krupinski and movement director by Ayse Tashkiran.

Fiery Angel, ROYO and Royal & Derngate, Northampton, present And Then There Were None at Grand Opera House, York, November 21 to 25, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Wednesday and Saturday matinees. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.

Did you know?

AND Then There Were None is not only Agatha Christie’s most read work, but also the best-selling crime novel of all time, selling more than 100 million copies worldwide since its first publication in 1939.

And now there are ten as Pick Me Up Theatre announces September cast for Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. UPDATED 18/9/2023

Pick Me Up Theatre’s poster for September’s production of And Then There Were None at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York

1939. Europe teeters on the brink of war. Eight strangers receive an intriguing invitation to a posh house party on Soldier Island, an isolated rock near the Devon coast.

These house guests are to be met by the butler and his housekeeper wife…And Then There Were Ten, but not for long.

So begins Agartha Christie’s groundbreaking whodunit And Then There Were None, to be staged by York company Pick Me Up Theatre under Andrew Isherwood’s direction at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from September 22 to 30.

Grave expression: Rory Mulvihill, cast as Sir Lawrence Wargrave, the retired judge, in And Then There Were None

What the guests have in common is a wicked past that they are unwilling to reveal and a secret destined to seal their fate. For each has been marked for murder. As the weather turns, the bloodbath begins and one by one they are brutally murdered in accordance with the lines of a sinister nursery rhyme.

“Cut off from the mainland, they are each accused of a terrible crime. When one of the party dies suddenly, they realise they may be harbouring a murderer among their number,” says producer Robert Readman. “The tension escalates as the survivors realise the killer is not only among them but also is preparing to strike again… and again.”

See Emily play up: Jess Murray, cast as “ruthlessly religious” knittijng fiend Emily Brent in And Then There Were None

Director Isherwood will be among Pick Me Up’s “fabulous cast of the county’s finest”, playing William Blore alongside Flo Poskitt’s Vera Claythorne; Mike Hickman’s Philip Lombard; Rory Mulvihill’s Sir Lawrence Wargrave; husband and wife Martyn and Jeannette Hunter’s butler Rogers and housekeeper wife Mrs Rogers; Andrew Roberts’s Anthony Marston; Ian Giles’s General John MacKenzie; Mark Simmonds’s Dr Edward Armstrong and Jess Murray’s Emily Brent.

Pick Me Up’s Facebook page is introducing Christie’s “motley characters” one by one in an on-going series. First up: meet Rory Mulvihill’s judge, Sir Lawrence Wargrave. “The Judge…you wouldn’t want to cross him,” forewarns Readman’s profile notes.

What the butler’s wife saw: Jeannette Hunter, picked to play housekeeper Mrs Rogers in Pick Me Up Theatre’s And Then There Were None

“Recently retired, he is intelligent, cold and commanding. During his years on the bench, he had a reputation as a ‘hanging judge’ – a judge who persuaded juries to bring back guilty verdicts and sentenced many convicted criminals to death. He should be right at home then.”

Next meet Jeanette Hunter’s Mrs Rogers. “She is the housekeeper in a big posh mansion where eight perfect strangers have been invited to spend the weekend by an unknown host. She is rather timid, has a dominating husband and she tells us she’s ‘always left to do the dirty work’,” says Readman.

Mysterious, confident, cunning: Mike Hickman’s Philip Lombard

“And there’s plenty of it in And Then There Were None but take nothing at face value in this twisty tale of murder and revenge! Jeanette’s character might not be all she seems.”

Step forward dodgy character number three: Jess Murray’s Emily Brent. “She is a ruthlessly religious woman who reads her Bible every day,” says Readman. “She might devour the good book – but her actions are anything but Christian. And she knits – like those ghouls from the guillotine!”

Does Martyn Hunter’s butler Thomas Rogers look shifty? Find out from September 22 to 25

Next up: Mike Hickman’s Philip Lombard. “A mysterious, confident and cunning man, we think he was maybe a mercenary soldier in Africa? Anyway, it looks like Mike Hickman isn’t about to take any prisoners in this role…Could he be the guilty one?” ponders Robert.

Who’s next? “Here comes Thomas Rogers…A respectable and reliable butler. Or is he? Don’t you think he looks a bit shifty? And Martin Hunter plays the part perfectly. Come and find out if he dunnit in Agatha Christie’s corking murder mystery,” says Robert.

Ian Giles’s General John Gordon McKenzie: “Upstanding”…or does that not stand up to appraisal?

How about Ian Giles’s General John Gordon Mackenzie? “He’s an upstanding military man – or is he?” asks Robert. “One of eight seemingly random guests invited to a mysterious house party in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, how could anyone think our Ian Giles could be the one wot dunnit?”

Who is Andrew Roberts playing? “This handsome devil (see below) is Anthony Marston: a rich, swanky guy who likes fast cars and fast living,” says Robert. “He seems to have no conscience but is he a murderer?”

If looks could kill…but is Andrew Roberts’s Anthony Marston the murderer in And Then There Were None

Back in York after an Edinburgh Fringe run in York musical comedy duo Fladam’s children’s show Green Fingers, Flo Poskitt takes the role of former governess Vera Claythorne, who comes to Soldier Island as secretary to fellow guest Mrs Owen.

“Flo’s Vera is clever and capable, but she is also super-nervy and suffers from attacks of hysteria, so don’t cross her off the murderer suspect list just yet,” says Robert.

“Clever and capable, but super-nervy too”: Flo Poskitt’s Vera Claythorne in And Then There Were None

“Don’t trust him – even though he’s a doctor,” he forewarns of any encounter with Mark Simmonds’s Dr Edward Armstrong. “The other seven guests certainly don’t. In fact Armstrong is high up the suspect list because – well, he knows media stuff, doesn’t he?! He could easily bump someone off (if he wasn’t always yearning after a large glass of scotch).

“So, is Mark Simmonds our man in And Then There Were None? If you’ve read Agatha Crhsistie’s book or seen the films, no spoilers please!”

High up on the suspect list: Mark Simmonds’s Dr Edward Armstrong

And now there are ten

INTRODCING retired Inspector William Henry Blore, director Andrew Isherwood ‘s on-stage contribution to And Then There Were None.

“He should know his way around a crime scene and be a dependable chap in a crisis – like the one ten strangers find themselves facing at a weird house party in Christie’s nail-biter,” says Robert. “But really…when the killing starts – is the former policeman your best hope?”

On closer inspection: Andrew Isherwood looks judgemental in his guise as retired Inspector William Henry Blore

Ten Little Soldiers: the back story of a sinister nursery rhyme

THIS epigraph appears at the start of Agatha Christie’s 1939 murder mystery novel, And Then There Were None, foretelling the ten deaths (spoiler alert!) that will occur on Soldier Island.

Ten Little Soldier Boys went out to Dine, one choked his little self and then there were nine.

Nine  Little Soldier Boys stayed up very late; One overslept himself and then there were eight.

Eight  Little Soldier Boys travelling in Devon; One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.

Seven Little Soldier Boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.

Six  Little Soldier Boys playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

Five Little Soldier Boys going through a door; One stubbed his toe and then there were four.

Four Little Soldier Boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

Three Little Soldier Boys walking in the zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

Two Little Soldier Boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was One.

One  Little Soldier Boy left all alone; He went and hanged himself and then there were none. 

Did you know?

THE island and Art Deco hotel of the same name that inspired Agatha Christie to write both And Then There Were None and the Hercule Poirot mystery Evil Under The Sun are for sale at £15 million: namely Burgh Island, off the south Devon coast. The sale includes Christie’s beach house, where she wrote, on the cliff edge.

Pick Me Up Theatre in And Then There Were None, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, September 22 to 30. Performances: 7.30pm, September 22, 23, 26 to 30; 2.30pm, September 23, 24 and 30. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk. Recommended age: eight plus.

REVIEW: Pick Me Up Theatre in Oh! What A Lovely War, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York ***

Ian Giles, front, leading Adam Price and Joy Warner in Adieu La Vie in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Oh! What A Lovely War at Theatre@41, Monkgate

PICK Me Up Theatre are staging Oh! What A Lovely War to mark the 60th anniversary of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop premiere at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

Why else Robert Readman and co-director Johnny Holbek are reviving this old stager is not so clear on encountering the veteran work of Sixties’ agit-prop; rather like the surfeit of voices that are sometimes a struggle to comprehend in the absence of head microphones.

Body mics do the hard-working company no favours, especially Ian Giles’s all-important master of ceremonies, whose deadpan punchlines fall flat when dying in the muffled air. In contrast, the regular toots on his whistle could not have been shriller.

Ironically, when your reviewer – seated up on the mezzanine level – couldn’t decipher what the drill sergeant was shouting, it turns out it was supposed to be gibberish, but the joke was lost after the uncertainty caused by the earlier encounters with the lack of clarity.

Alison Taylor, front left, and Beryl Nairn performing En Avant!

Oh! What A Lovely War, constructed as a searing satirical chronicle of the First World War, as told through songs and documents in the form of a seaside Pierrot entertainment, was a landmark in British theatre history, prompting the intrigue surrounding Pick Me Up’s revival.

Likewise, Richard Attenborough’s 1969 film account of the working-class Smith lads, Jack, Freddie, Harry and George, seeing initial hope swallowed up by the mud and stench of the trenches, resonated amid the Sixties’ vibe of Make Love, Not War.

From Blackadder Goes Forth to Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse and Private Peaceful, Sam Mendes’s 1917 to this year’s BAFTA-winning All Quiet On The Western Front, the Great War continues to provoke eloquent, elegiac reflection across the arts and literature.  

Oh! What A Lovely War is closest in spirit to Blackadder in the trenches, in its sense of futility, chiming with Winston Churchill’s maxim in favour of dialogue over destruction. “Jaw Jaw is better than War War,” he forewarned, and in turn Oh! What A Lovely War has plenty of jaw jaw about war war, while making a song and dance of it with familiar music-hall songs from the Great War period and hymns fitted out with new lyrics to give them a satirical snap.

Florence Poskitt, left, Maggie Smales and Marlena Kelli in the Kamerad! Kamerad! vignette in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Oh! What A Lovely War

Against the John Cooper Studio’s back wall, ever more damning statistics of the body count are typed out across the screen, the factual counter to the officers’ cavalier attitude to so many wasteful deaths of the working-class cannon fodder.

They have the show’s most shuddering impact, ensuring that a sense of righteous anger prevails, as does a haunting sorrow, further enhanced by the presence of a junior ensemble.

However, the strident tones of surrealism, in part set by the Pierrot costumes with their out-of-period elasticated waists, always feels one step removed from connecting. Likewise, you can see the ever-willing cast having to push too hard to make the satire amusing in a show that starts to drag on, like the war itself.

Readman and Holbek’s period-piece production seeks to break down theatre’s fourth wall, often through Giles’s conspiratorial asides, sometimes through music-hall repartee, but the best scenes are self-contained, most notably for the Christmas Day exchange of gifts in No Man’s Land and the grotesque grouse moor shooting-party bluster among those making money out of the war (in a haunting forerunner of Covic contracts).

James Willstrop and Sanna Jeppsson, front, with the Pick Me Up Theatre ensemble performing Row Row Row

Inspired by Charles Chiltern’s radio series that combined First World war statistics with songs, Littlewood’s piece was constructed through improvisation and credited to the company of performers. In the spirit of that gestation, Pick Me Up’s multi role-playing troupe of troops is credited by a list of cast names and not by character, and it is very much an ensemble piece, teamwork to the fore, although James Willstrop, Florence Poskett, Alison Taylor and in particular Craig Kirby stand out.

Accompanied by Natalie Walker’s piano-led band, the songs transition from hope to despair, from perky to poignant, from Belgium Put The Kibosh On The Kaiser to I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier.

Reviving Oh! What A Lovely War does not evoke nostalgia and nor should it. Instead, it feels and looks out of its time, like Richard Lester’s 1967 film How I Won The War. Some vignettes still work, elsewhere the satire has tired or lost coherence over 60 years.

What hasn’t changed? War, huh, yeah, what is good for? Absolutely nothing. Except anti-war songs.  

Pick Me Up Theatre in Oh! What A Lovely War, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, tonight (6/4/2023) and tomorrow, 7.30pm; Saturday, 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Pick Me Up Theatre’s poster artwork for Oh! What A Lovely War

What her grandad did in the Great War, now singer Marlena Kellie is re-creating in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Oh! What A Lovely War

Marlena Kellie, left, going through her Oh! What A Lovely War solo with Pick Me Up Theatre musical director Natalie Walker

ART is imitating life for singer Marlena Kellie, who has joined Pick Me Up Theatre’s 60th anniversary production of Oh! What A Lovely War.

From March 31 to April 8, at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, she will play her part in re-creating the shows her grandfather would have performed in during the First World War, singing the lead on Now You’ve Got Yer Khaki On.

Devised and presented by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in 1963 before being turned into a film by Richard Attenborough in 1969, Oh! What A Lovely War is a satirical chronicle of the Great War, told through songs and documents in the form of a seaside Pierrot entertainment.

This photograph of a First World War entertainment troupe shows Marlena Kellie’s grandfather, Richard Palmer, centre, with his first wife, Marion Williams, next to him in the nurse’s uniform

While rehearsing, Leeds jazz singer and actress Marlena realised the costumes and songs from Robert Readman’s production were reminiscent of her own family’s acting career.

“My grandfather, his first wife and my grandmother were all in entertainment troupes during the First World War,” she says. “I found some wonderful old photos of them all – and they are the real-life versions of what we’re doing on stage.”

Marlena’s Romany grandfather, Richard Palmer, had an act he would perform at travelling fairs and later in the music hall, and he was part of Fred Karno’s circus too.

This troupe of Pierrots – dressed exactly as the original cast of Oh! What A Lovely War would have been – features Marlena’s grandfather, Richard Palmer, and her grandmother, Greta Palmer

Marlena’s parents, Eddie Palmer and Shirley Kellie, travelled the country with their own club act, settling down when Marlena was three years old.

Carrying on the Romany tradition, Marlena can sometimes be found telling fortunes but concentrates on club singing and acting. She was one of the trifle-bearing women seen charging joyfully along in last winter’s Argos Christmas advert!

“I used to be embarrassed by my ‘otherness’ in school, but now I embrace it,” she says. “I live with two fabulous drag queens and a lovely little dog called Whoopie.

Marlena Kellie’s parents, Eddie Palmer and Shirley Kellie, who toured their cabaret act for many years

“I can’t quite believe how life has led me to Oh! What A Lovely War but it feels like it was meant to be.  My parents are sadly no longer with me, but I very much feel I am carrying on the family tradition.”

Meanwhile, York actor Ian Giles, who will play the Master of Ceremonies in Pick Me Up’s production, has found an image of his paternal grandfather, Sergeant William Giles, from Christmas Day 1915.

It shows his grandfather with men of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry at Fleurbaix, near Béthune, northern France. “He is the sergeant standing upright pretty well at the
centre of the photograph,” says Ian.

“I can’t quite believe how life has led me to Oh! What A Lovely War but it feels like it was meant to be,” says singer and actress Marlena Kellie

” It was found in my nan’s purse when she died in the mid-1970s. She had carried it with her everywhere. Gramp survived the war and lived well into his eighties.”

In a moving scene in the play, British and German soldiers sing carols and have a drink together over the barbed wire of No Man’s Land.

Ian, by the way, directed Oh! What A Lovely War in September 1972 in Newcastle at what is now the home of Northern Stage. “The late Freddie Jones, who was rehearsing Peer Gynt at the time, used to sneak in every night to watch my ending, which he found profoundly moving,” he recalls.

Pick Me Up Theatre in Oh! What A Lovely War, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, March 31 to April 8, 7.30pm, except April 2 and 3; 2.30pm, April 1, 2 and 8. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

York actor Ian Giles’s paternal grandfather, Sergeant William Giles, with men of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry on Christmas Day 1915 at Fleurbaix, near Béthune

Did you know?

MARLENA Kellie played Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar in her debut for York Musical Theatre Company at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, in November 2019.

Here’s Jonny Holbek, adding directing and sketch comedy to his theatrical portfolio

Jonny Holbek: Actor, director, sketch comedy performer

YORK actor Jonny Holbek is stepping out of the ranks to co-direct Pick Me Up Theatre’s 60th anniversary production of Oh! What A Lovely War.

Last seen on stage as the emotionally damaged Tobias Ragg in York Light Opera Company’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street at York Theatre Royal in February and early March, he is working alongside artistic director Robert Readman at Theatre@41, Monkgate.

“I’ve not done much directing before,” he says. “I directed a concert/show for York Light, A Night With The Light, at Friargate Theatre in June last year and also did some assistant directing for Nik Briggs for York Stage Musicals’ The Flint Street Nativity in 2019.

“This time it’s in between assistant directing and directing. It’s co-directing, which is the toughest form of directing in terms of presenting a coherent production.”

How has the partnership worked out with Robert? “I missed some of the early rehearsals because of doing Sweeney Todd, with Robert doing a lot of the early blocking. Then we worked on scenes in separate rooms, and for the last two weeks it’s been entirely me, while Robert has been busy building the set.”

The collaboration emerged through Jonny expressing an interest in co-directing. “Robert suggested working on Oh! What A Lovely War, a piece that I didn’t know, but I know very well now,” he says.

“I’m really glad I said yes. What a great show it is. I’m so pleased to get to know its full cycle, its humour and its darkness.”

Devised and premiered by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London in 1963 before being turned into a film by Richard Attenborough in 1969, this satirical chronicle of the Great War is told through music-hall songs, hymns with rewritten verses and vignettes in the form of a seaside Pierrot entertainment, accompanied by statistics of the growing body count on the war front.

Jonny Holbek, fourth from right, leading the singing in God, That’s Good! in York Light Opera Company’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street at York Theatre Royal

“The first thing to say is that so many people died absolutely needlessly, and this show gives us the chance to explore that situation and find the absurd comedy in it, or in this case the careful juxtaposition of comedy and the horror of war,” says Jonny.

“One minute, the audience will be laughing at something; the next, they will be bulldozed by a harrowing image, a shocking fact – and when you make them feel an emotion, they feel it even more.

“The songs have a powerful impact too. A lot of the audience will know most of them, certainly the music-hall ones that provide the sense of pride and excitement the soldiers would have been feeling at first. That gives the show its energy, and then the other side of warfare comes through: the wistful songs that become gut-wrenchingly haunting.”

Contrasting directing with acting, Jonny says: “Firstly, they’re obviously very different disciplines, although they do overlap. In terms of performance, in both roles, you look for the comedy, the drama, and the nuances in the piece.

“Directing, I find it more rewarding helping others to find and highlight the various levels of light and dark to keep the audience interested; whether a scene needs to be reined in or played bolder.

“You also have that tricky balancing act of trying to encourage the best performances, without causing stress or knocking morale.”

Jonny’s daytimes find him working for the Rural Payments Agency, part of DEFRA. By night, he is a regular on the York stage, adding another string to his bow with The Dead Ducks, the sketch comedy troupe he has joined, made up mostly of University of York post-grads, such as Tommy Harris and Eloise Ward.

“We do little shows every few weeks,” he says. “The last one was in a big lecture room at the university, and we’ve also played The Den at Micklegate Social. This summer we’ll be playing the Edinburgh Fringe at one of ‘theSpace’ venues. No show title yet.”

Summing up his love of performing (and directing too), Jonny says: “It’s the camaraderie you build, putting together something in such a tight time frame. I haven’t found anything like it outside the arts. That buzz.”

REVIEW: The Sound Of Music, Pick Me Up Theatre, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York ****

Sanna Jeppsson’s Maria Rainer with the von Trapp children in Pick Me Up Theatre’s The Sound Of Music. All pictures: Helen Spencer

Pick Me Up Theatre in The Sound Of Music, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, until December 30. Performances: 7.30pm, December 19, 21, 23, 27, 28 and 29; 2.30pm, December 20, 22, 27, 29 and 30. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk

THIS is Theatre@41’s Christmas show, as signified by the seven fairy-lit fir trees on director-designer Robert Readman’s end-on stage.

Those trees evoke both the hills, alive with the sound of music, and the home, one for each von Trapp child.

However, although it may Christmastide, just as with 1938’s rising tide of Nazism in Austria, the hills and the cities in 2022 are all too alive with intolerance, extremism and anything but music.

James Willstropp: A commanding presence as Captain von Trapp

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical was last staged in York by Nik Briggs’s York Stage Musicals in April 2019 at the Grand Opera House on a grander scale. Readman has gone for a more intimate performance, the audience around the perimeter settling into deeply comfy chairs more normally to be found in smart houses, but being confronted by unsettling Nazi insignia, from uniforms to Swastika flags and armbands and a hale of heils. 

This heightens the beauty of the mountain setting, the purity and devotion of the nuns, the love among the children, the goodness of Maria and the resolute political convictions of Austrian naval captain Georg von Trapp, when countered by the strangling grip of Nazism.

It also enhances the pleasure of watching the performers, when so close up, all the better for facial expressions in a musical where song and dance numbers are never more than gather-round family sized in Jessica Sias Wilson’s choreography.

Led by Helen Spencer’s Mother Abbess, the choral singing of the Nonnberg Abbey nuns has a haunting stillness, and even the beloved How Do We Solve A Problem Like Maria? is more driven by the singing than movement. Sister Act, it aint!

Alexandra Mather’s haughty-but-ice Elsa Schraeder

Spencer’s Climb Ev’ry Mountain, once taken to the chart peak by Shirley Bassey, is sung with heart and matriarchal concern, in keeping with the character, rather than as a showstopper, but is all the more moving for that interpretation.

The two leads could not have been better cast. Since making her York debut  in The 39 Steps in November 2021, Swedish-born Sanna Jeppsson has rapidly ascended the York theatrical circuit, showing diversity, equally adept in comedy and drama, and now revealing her talent for musicals too.

A radiant stage presence, she shines as Maria Rainer, the unsure trainee nun who finds her true calling with the von Trapp children, as the young nanny with nonconformist ideas, bursting with love and kindness, independent, strong-willed thinking, a zeal for nurturing, and a delight in bringing joy, yet we are always aware too that she is learning, as much as they are learning from her.

Her Maria is full of good humour too, her singing uplifting in The Sound Of Music, light, bright and playful in the set-pieces with the von Trapp children, My Favourite Things and Do-Re-Mi.

Sanna Jeppsson’s Maria: “Bursting with love, kindness and independent, strong-willed thinking”

James Willstrop has been making the headlines this year…for his sporting prowess, swishing all before him on the squash doubles court as world champion and Commonwealth games gold medallist, but he has another string to his bow as an actor on the stages of Harrogate and West Yorkshire.

Now he makes his York debut as widowed Captain von Trapp. Tall, commanding, carrying off a suit with an air about him, he begins with righteous austere authority, issuing orders to staff and children alike on his whistle, but warming under Maria’s influence, while never wavering from his bold stance against Nazism.

He has a lovely tenor too, best expressed in Edelweiss, and is handy with strings too, this time the guitar, not the squash racket. Word has it, he is keen to do more with Pick Me Up next year.

Elsa Schraeder might be seen as the female short-straw role, but Alexandra Mather brings more than Viennese airs and graces to the sometime sourpuss, the children’s putative “new mother”. There is ice but shards of haughty humour too, and her operatic voice has crystalline clarity.

Sam Steel’s naïve delivery boy Rolf Gruber

Andrew Isherwood’s “political cockroach” Max Detweiler is dextrous rather than sinister, dapper, flamboyant, peppering his performance with a comic edge more usually to be found in the Emcee in Cabaret.

Daisy Winbolt-Robertson impresses as wilful Liesl von Trapp (a role shared with Emily Halstead), as does Sam Steel as Rolf Gruber, the naïve delivery boy who takes up the Nazi cause (in a role share with Jack Hambleton).

Readman has assembled three sets of von Trapp children (Teams Linz, Graz and Vienna). Saturday night was Team Linz’s turn, and how they excelled, working so delightfully with Jeppsson’s Maria, yet blossoming individually too, especially Poppy Kay’s Brigitta.

Sanna Jeppsson’s Maria dancing with James Willstrop’s Captain von Trapp

Natalie Walker’s five-piece band may be out of sight, behind a screen, but they play their part to the full, those so-familiar songs flying high on flute, trumpet, clarinet, keys and percussion.

Readman and Carolyne Jensen’s costumes are top drawer, from Von Trapp and Detweiler’s suits to Schraeder’s dresses. Look out too for the children’s clothes made out of curtains.

Readman surrounds the audience with tied-back drapes and floral decorations, a typically theatrical flourish to his design, to go with those glittering trees and steps. The lighting signifies each change of tone too.

Plenty of matinees as well as evening performances affords ample opportunity to visit Theatre@41 over the festive season for the best of Readman’s three productions in quick succession (after Matilda The Musical Jr and Nativity! The Musical).

Andrew Isherwood’s Max Detweiler and Alexandra Mather’s Elsa Schraeder

How do you solve a problem like casting Maria? Call on Sanna Jeppsson for Pick Me Up Theatre’s The Sound Of Music

Sanna Jeppsson’s Maria Rainer in a scene with the von Trapp children in Pick Me Up Theatre’s The Sound Of Music. Picture: Robert Readman

SANNA Jeppsson is following in the hill-loving footsteps of Julie Andrews, Petula Clark, Marie Osmond and Connie Fisher in playing Maria Rainer, the trainee nun turned free-spirited nanny in The Sound Of Music from tonight in York.

The Swedish-born stage and film actress already has given stand-out turns as a mysterious, German-accented femme fatale in Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps in her York debut in November 2021; boundary-breaking Viola de Lesseps in Shakespeare In Love in April and scene-stealing Cassandra, the hippy home help, in Christopher Durang’s American comedy Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike in November.

All three were staged at Theatre@41, Monkgate, as will be Pick Me Up Theatre’s production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s final collaboration, under the direction of Robert Readman, hot on the heels of his delivery of Nativity! The Musical at the Grand Opera House last month and Matilda The Musical Jr at Monkgate in late-September.

From tonight to December 30, Sanna will play Maria opposite 2022 Commonwealth Games squash doubles gold medallist and Harrogate actor James Willstrop’s Captain von Trapp.

Sanna Jeppsson: Making her mark on the York stage since November 2021

Here CharlesHutchPress is alive with a flurry of questions for Sanna.

When did you first see The Sound Of Music, the film or on stage?

“I first saw the film when I was a child, maybe around seven years old, and I remember enjoying it. I thought it was fun and I loved all the songs, still do. I’ve never actually seen it on stage, so this is a whole new experience for me.”

Is the film as popular in your Swedish homeland as it is over here?

“I would say, yes. It’s a classic and iconic, it used to be on TV every Christmas, and I would dare to suggest most Swedes have probably seen it.

“And I’ve heard of sing-a-long showings – though they may not be quite as well attended as a sing-a-long Mamma Mia!”

What do you most like about the stage version as opposed to the film?

“I think the same as with all stage versions of films: the magic of live theatre!”

Are you a Julie Andrews fan? 

“Yes! I’ll admit I’m not her biggest fan, but I’ve always found her enchanting to watch and listen to.”

How much do you have to block Julie out of your mind to find your own Maria?

“Since being cast, I’ve resisted the urge to re-watch the film, so I haven’t seen it in years. Instead, I’ve aimed to find the character only though the text in the script. And let myself go on Maria’s journey of finding her purpose, which I think is one many people can relate to in some way.”

Sanna Jeppsson’s Viola de Lesseps in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Shakespeare In Love atTheatre@41, Monkgate, York, in April 2022

What are the cornerstones of Maria’s character? 

“She’s a genuinely good person. Honest, loving, and obviously adores music and singing. She wants to do good for all people around her. She’s got a playful side that’s hard for her to control sometimes; she’s clever and witty too.

“I think her religion keeps her grounded and gives her confidence that as long as she’s honest and tries to do good, she can’t go wrong. I think that’s where she finds the courage to speak her mind and confront the Captain when she needs to.” 

What is your favourite song to sing in the show? 

“Wow! That’s a hard question. I love all of them. I have to say, though, that the songs with the children, Do-Re-Mi and The Lonely Goatherd, are super-fun to do. I basically just get to play and have fun with the kids!”

How have you found working with James Willstrop, squash ace and man of the musicals and theatre in Yorkshire?

“It’s been great! What I’ve most appreciated about James is how calm he seems at all times! Maybe it’s his many years in professional sport, but he doesn’t appear affected by nerves. He’s relaxed and easy to work with, and that helps a lot.”  

Sanna Jeppsson’s Cassandra, centre, in York Settlement Community Players’ Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike in November 2022. Picture: John Saunders

How does this role compare with your past Pick Me Up and York Settlement Community Players performances? Performing with children is a big part of this one…

“It’s my first musical with Pick Me Up, and also my first lead role in a musical. Also the first time working with children in the cast! Lots of firsts, I’ve just realised!

“As with previous Pick Me Up productions, it’s a strong cast and great production team, the children adding a playful energy to it, which has been interesting and fun to work with!

As there are three children’s teams, each team brings something different to the show, which makes the performance feel fresh and new for every run.”

What’s coming next for you on stage? 

“Nothing decided yet, but I have a few auditions coming up in the New Year, so hopefully I won’t have to stay away from the stage too long!”

Pick Me Up Theatre in The Sound Of Music, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, December 16 to 30. Performances: 7.30pm, December 16, 17, 19, 21, 23, 27, 28 and 29; 2.30pm, 17, 18, 20, 22, 27, 29 and 30. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Sanna Jeppsson’s femme fatale with Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay in York Settlement Community Players’ The 39 Steps in November 2021. Picture: John Saunders

Did you know?

GRACE Kelly, Doris Day, Audrey Hepburn and Anne Bancroft were all considered for the role of Maria Rainer in Robert Wise’s 1965 film of The Sound Of Music.

Did you know too? 

SHIRLEY Bassey had a UK number one with Climb Every Mountain in 1961 as a double A-side with Reach For The Stars.

My Favourite Things has been recorded by Barbra Streisand (1967), Dionne Warwick (2004), Mary J Blige and Kelly Clarkson (both 2013).