REVIEW: Pick Me Up Theatre in Shakespeare In Love, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, until Saturday ****

Sanna Jeppsson in noblewoman Viola’s guise as young actor Thomas Kent. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

SHAKESPEARE In Love was a film about theatre, as much as it was about love. Now it is a play about theatre, with even more theatre in it, more Marlowe as well as Shakespeare, as much as it is still about love.

It makes perfect sense to transfer the period rom-com from screen to its natural bedfellow, the stage, and who better than Lee Hall to effect that transition.  

For the north-eastern mining and dancing drama Billy Elliot, he adapted his own screenplay; this time, he makes merry with Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s boisterous and romantic script for John Madden’s 1999 award-winner, ruffing it up to the neck in Shakespeare in-jokes, but not roughing up its sophisticated wit.

Robert Readman: Producer, set designer and builder, costume guru and thespian, playing hammy Elizabethan actor Ned Alleyn. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

Pick Me Up Theatre’s always quick-off-the-mark founder, Robert Readman, was typically speedy to pick up the rights to Shakespeare In Love for the York company’s tenth anniversary, whereupon a series of spot-on decisions were made.

First, appoint Bard buff and Pick Me Up ace card Mark Hird to direct the rollicking romp. Second, bring George Stagnell back to the York stage to play the title role. Third, talent-spot Swedish-born Sanna Jeppsson in York Settlement Community Players’ The 39 Steps (even when it fell at the first step, called off through cast illness after one night last November).

Four, utilise Readman’s skills, not only as producer and designer/builder, but also his dormant love of performing. When you need a thick slice of ham to play larger-than-life Elizabethan actor Ned Alleyn, “prince of the provinces”, who you gonna call? Why, Mr Readman, of course, tapping into his inner plummy Simon Callow.

Sanna Jeppsson’s Viola de Lesseps and George Stagnell’s Will Shakespeare mutually admire his newly quilled lines in Shakespeare In Love. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

Readman has conjured an end-on, raised stage built for the outdoors, but no less suited to the John Cooper Studio’s black box, with its echoes of Shakespeare’s Globe or the Rose; decorative flowers; curtains to cover amorous going-ons behind, and traps for hasty exits and entries.

Ensemble cast members sit beside the stage apron, watching the action when not involved. On a mezzanine level, musical director Natalie Walker and Royal College of Music student Tom Bennett are playing Paddy Cunneen’s gorgeous score.

Hird’s company looks the Elizabethan part too, Readman’s costume brief requiring hires from the Royal Shakespeare Company, no less, as well as York Theatre Royal and Leeds Playhouse, plus ear studs and earrings aplenty (for the men).

Ian Giles’s Henslowe and Andrew Roberts’s Ralph. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

Praise too for Emma Godivala and York College’s work on hair, fake moustaches and make-up, especially for Jeppsson when taking the guise of young actor Thomas Kent.

The make-up for the men is deliberately heavy, in keeping with Shakespeare’s day, but everything else is conducted with a delightfully light touch under Hird’s direction, where the next scene chases the previous one off the stage, such is the gleeful urgency to crack on with such a cracking plot replete with cross-dressing, swordplay and backside-biting puppetry (courtesy of Elanor Kitchen’s Spot the Dog).

The only slowness is in the pace of lines coming to Shakespeare’s quill, surrounded by the company of actors awaiting the next play of his still fledgling career, outshone by dashing, daring Kit Marlowe (Adam Price), amusingly providing his young friend (Stagnell’s Will) with all his best lines.

Adam Price’s devil-may-care Kit Marlowe has a word with George Stagnell’s Will, in desperate disguise for his safety at this juncture. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

Theatre bosses Henslowe (Ian Giles) and rival Richard Burbage (Tony Froud) are vying for Shakespeare’s services; theatre backer “The Money” Fennyman (Andrew Isherwood) keeps applying the financial squeeze, often with menaces; Tilney (Neil Foster), the supercilious Lord Chamberlain with the insufferable killjoy manner of Malvolio, is determined to shut down theatres, whatever excuse he can find.

Queen Elizabeth (Joy Warner) wants a dog to have its day in every play; Guy Wilson’s John Webster just wants a chance; Shakespeare needs a muse. Enter Jeppsson’s Viola de Lesseps, alas promised to the ghastly Lord Wessex (Jim Paterson) against her wishes. Viola is banned from the stage under the rules, but takes the dangerous step of performing as Thomas Kent, and what a performer he/she is.

Viola’s amusing West Country Nurse (Beryl Nairn) becomes the template for that very character in Romeo & Juliet, and as Shakespeare’s work in progress changes from comedy  to tragedy, Alleyn plays Mercutio, fabulously outraged at being killed off so early.

Sam Hird, left, and Tom Bennett, from the Royal College of Music, on song in Shakespeare In Love

Shakespeare In Love gives us a developing play within a play, and while it helps to have some knowledge of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Burbage et al, it echoes Blackadder in having such fun with a period setting and re-writing history, here imagining how Romeo & Juliet and in turn Twelfth Night may have emerged.

What’s more, Stagnell and Jeppsson are a delight in the swelling love story, as well as in delivering Shakespeare’s lines when called on to do so.

Terrific performances abound around them, especially from Price, Isherwood, Paterson and Wilson, a young talent with a gift for physical comedy in the Marty Feldman and Tony Robinson tradition, while Warner’s cameos as Queen Elizabeth are a joy too.

To cap it all, Sam Hird and Tom Bennett’s performance of an Elizabethan ballad is beautiful, typical of  a swashbuckling performance that is a palpable hit in every way. If you love theatre, this play is why you do. If you don’t, go anyway and be converted. Tonight until Friday’s shows have sold out but tickets are still available for 2.30pm and 7.30pm on Saturday at

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Shakespeare In Love’s celebration of the world of theatre moves from screen to stage in Pick Me Up Theatre’s hands

Pen pals: George Stagnell’s Will Shakespeare and Sanna Jeppsson’s Viola de Lesseps in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Shakespeare In Love. All pictures: Matthew Kitchen Photography

YORK company Pick Me Up Theatre mark their tenth anniversary with a rollicking celebration of the joys of theatre, Shakespeare In Love.

Adapted for the stage by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall from Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s screenplay for the Oscar-winning 1999 film, the Elizabethan love story will be performed under the direction of Bard buff Mark Hird at Theatre@ 41, Monkgate, from tomorrow (1/4/2022) to April 9.

First staged by Sonia Friedman Productions in the West End with Cheek By Jowl’s Declan Donnellan in the director’s chair in 2014, Hall’s play was snapped up for its York premiere by Pick Me Up’s ever-alert founder, artistic director, designer and producer, Robert Readman (who will be making a rare appearance as actor Ned Alleyn).

“When Robert got the rights, I read it, and straightaway I thought, ‘my god, it’s brilliant’, with Stoppard and Norman as the starting point for the fantastic script, and Lee Hall then transforming it into a great piece of theatre,” says director Mark Hird.

“Anyone who thinks this Shakespeare In Love will be just the film on stage, it’s absolutely not. It’s so theatrical, and that makes it such a joy to put on. That’s what so special about it: it’s a love letter to theatre as well as being a great love story.

Where there’s a quill, there’s a way: George Stagnell’s Will Shakespeare at work

“Anyone who comes to the play who loves theatre will leave with a great big smile on their face at all the theatrical allusions. Lee Hall has put even more theatre aficionado jokes in there.”

Shakespeare In Love delights in the love story of struggling young playwright Will Shakespeare (played by George Stagnell) and feisty, free-spirited young noblewoman Viola de Lesseps (Sanna Jeppsson), his greatest admirer, who helps him to overcome writer’s block and becomes his muse.

She will stop at nothing, even breaking the law and dressing as a boy actor to appear in his next play, whereupon, in this turbulent world of mistaken identity, ruthless scheming and backstage theatrics, Will’s love for Viola quickly blossoms, inspiring him to write his breakthrough romantic drama, Romeo and Juliet.

“Basically, you have Will Shakespeare right back in the early days of his career, having done Titus Andronicus, Two Gentlemen Of Verona and Henry VI, but he’s not yet had a big hit,” says Mark.

“All Marlowe’s plays are being bigger hits at the time, and in fact there’s a lot more of Kit Marlowe in the play than there was in the film,” says George.

“The play what I wrote”: George Stagnell’s Will shows his latest work to Sanna Jeppsson ‘s Viola

“But the love story is still at the heart of the play, and it’s as beautiful on stage as it was in the film, but there’s now a lot more changes of energy, moving back and forth from the chaotic rehearsals, and all the fun that goes with that, interspersed with the love story,” says Mark.

Sanna first saw the film on Swedish TV with Swedish subtitles before moving to Britain and has watched it again since landing her role as the ground-breaking Viola. “She’s a very brave woman, doing something that was forbidden at the time; something she wouldn’t be allowed to do, being in a space she wouldn’t have had access to as herself, having to take the guise of a boy actor, Thomas Kent,” she says.

“Being on stage, feeling so alive for the first time, I can connect with that. I remember going on a backstage tour of Mamma Mia!, and then getting to go out on to this amazing stage and looking at all those seats, and wanting to be on there performing.

“That’s what I bring with me when Viola comes on as Thomas Kent, knowing she shouldn’t be there, and normally could only imagine the audience looking at her.”

“I always like to go on stage before a show, when the auditorium is empty,” says George. “When it’s quiet and no-one’s there, you take the space in and imagine how it will erupt with life. It’s like the calm before the storm.”

Mark adds: “There’s something about an empty theatre: you can feel the presence of the ghosts of all those who have been there before.”

 Sanna rejoins: “A theatre is a space where anything can happen, that moment of magic and then it’s gone.”

George Stagnell’s Will and Sanna Jeppsson’s Viola in disguise as young actor Thomas Kent

George has focused on playing young Will Shakespeare, not the feted Bard. “Pretty much since day one, I’ve had to come in not thinking ‘this is William Shakespeare’,” he says. “I don’t want to have that mentality of thinking about who he became, but to see him as this young man trying to find his way through a very complicated time in history, in the early days of his writing, when there was a lot of history that we don’t know and a lot of conjecture.”

Mark concurs: “That’s what’s so gorgeous about this piece. We all think we know about Shakespeare, but here we are watching a three-dimensional character called Will.”

Sanna had studied Shakespeare “a little bit at school, but not in its original language”, when growing up in Molkom, but when she lived out her long-held dream of moving to London in 2013, she attended the International College of Musical Theatre, rather than focusing on classical theatre.

“Almost every other person in London is an actor, which makes it hard there, and so I moved to York in 2019, where I now work as a civil servant for the Ministry of Justice, sitting on in trials sometimes.”

From courtroom dramas, Sanna’s attention now switches to courtship dramas on stage.

Pick Me Up Theatre in Shakespeare In Love, Theatre@41 Monkgate, York, April 1 to 9, 7.30pm, except April 3 and 4; 2.30pm, April 2, 3 and 9 . Box office:

Copyright of The Press, York

REVIEW: The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ The Musical, Pick Me Up Theatre, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York ****

Toni Feetenby as Pauline Mole and Jack Hambleton as Adrian Mole in Pick Me Up Theatre’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾. All pictures: Matthew Kitchen Photography

LEICESTER council estate housewife Sue Townsend’s spotty teenage diarist has gone through many lives since the early 1980s.

Original stage monologue, when the central, older, character was called Nigel. Novel. More novels. Television series. Musical, with a script by Townsend and music and lyrics by Ken Howard and Alan Blakley. Play and junior play. Musical, with book and lyrics by Jake Brunger and music and lyrics by Pippa Cleary.

Robert Readman’s York company, Pick Me Up Theatre, are presenting the British amateur premiere of the Brunger & Cleary version on an open-plan traverse stage that evokes both 1980s’ Leicester school rooms and house interiors.

The traverse design, with the audience to either side and on the mezzanine level above, cranks up the sense of combat and swimming against the tide, in this case the story of an awkward 13¾-year-old intellectual’s battles.

Pick Me Up Theatre’s cast members: back row, Toni Feetenby, left, Alan Park, Ian Giles, Andrew Isherwood and Emily Halstead. Middle row: Adam Sowter, left, Flynn Coultous, Jack Hambleton, Florence Poskitt, Freddie Adams, Guy Wilson and Alexandra Mather. Front row: Sandy Nicholson, left, Flynn Baistow, Benedict Wood and Dotty Davies

This is Adrian (Jack Hambleton) against the world, whether having to contend with playground bully Barry Kent (Guy Wilson); endless spots; disciplinarian, narrow-minded headmaster Mr Scruton (Adam Sowter), or Nigel (Flynn Coultous), his rival for school crush Pandora (Emily Halstead).

Or Bert Baxter (Ian Giles), the 89-year-old curmudgeon that Adrian has to deal with on his Good Samaritans visits; or teacher Miss Elf (Florence Poskitt), never marking his work as highly as he thinks he deserves, or his struggles in the family home, where mother Pauline (Toni Feetenby) is being distracted by smarmy, hands-on neighbour Mr Lucas (Andrew Isherwood), and his father, George (Alan Park) is at a low ebb. At least Grandma (Sandy Nicholson) is there to comfort him (and squeeze his spots).

Polymath Readman is as much a set designer as director and choreographer, and his playful set with doors to either side allows for the speedy addition and removal of chairs, and for heads to jut through drape-covered window spaces to join in ensemble numbers, reminiscent of sudden interjections in The Muppets.

Florence Poskitt’s teacher Miss Elf and Jack Hambleton’s Adrian Mole

Amid the constraints imposed by performing in pandemic times, Readman decided to keep his cast size trim, by having adults play children as well as the adults, aside from the four teenage protagonists, performed by the already name-checked Team Townsend on press night, alternating through the run with Team Sue (Flynn Baistow’s Adrian, Benedict Wood’s Nigel, Dotty Davies’s Pandora and Freddie Adams’s Barry).

This was an inspired decision, with extra fun to be had in seeing faces so familiar on the York stage revert to teenage tropes (much like in the casting for John Godber’s classroom comedy, Teechers), especially in the ensemble numbers.

Readman’s decision also enhances your appreciation of the young performers, Hambleton’s beleaguered Adrian narrating with a hangdog expression; Halstead’s posh but socially aware Pandora being every inch the head girl in waiting; Coultous’s Nigel staying both perky and pesky throughout, and Wilson’s Barry casting his black-clothed shadow with a panto villain’s glee.

Brunger and Cleary’s songbook is savvy and witty in its lyrics, if more workmanlike in its tunes, but keyboard player Tim Selman’s band (with Jonathan Sage on woodwind, Rosie Morris on bass and Clark Howard on drums) gives it plenty of oomph. So much so, the sound balance on Wednesday sometimes made it hard to hear Hambleton clearly when narrating to music.

Andrew Isherwood’s hands-on Mr Lucas and Toni Feetenby’s change-seeking Pauline Mole

Readman has picked a tremendous cast all round, both for his young leading lights, and everywhere you look among the experienced ranks; be it the face-pulling comic turns of Poskitt and Sowter; the sliminess of Isherwood; the squashed-face grumpiness of Giles; or the return to the fore of the recently lesser-spotted, top-notch Feetenby and Park as the troubled parents,

Nicholson’s Grandma warms you like a cup of tea. Oh, and look out for opera singer Alexandra Mather as you will never have seen her before, vamping it up as naughty neighbour Doreen Slater.

Technically not a Christmas show, nevertheless the diary’s timespan from early-Eighties’ New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Eve means it sits well in the winter season. Diary note to yourself: book a ticket NOW.

Pick Me Up Theatre present Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, The Musical, John Cooper Studio, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, until December 18, 7.30pm, except December 11 and 12; 2.30pm matinees, December 11, 12 and 18. Box office:

Flynn Baistow’s Adrian Mole, from Team Sue, and Sandy Nicholson’s Grandma

Secret is out as Pick Me Up Theatre return with amateur premiere of Adrian Mole

Pick Me Up Theatre’s cast members: back row, Toni Feetenby, left, Alan Park, Ian Giles, Andrew Isherwood and Emily Halstead. Middle row: Adam Sowter, left, Flynn Coultous, Jack Hambleton, Florence Poskitt, Freddie Adams, Guy Wilson and Alexandra Mather. Front row: Sandy Nicholson, left, Flynn Baistow, Benedict Wood and Dotty Davies. All pictures: Matthew Kitchen Photography

DIARY entry, April 6th 2021. Robert Readman announces Pick Me Up Theatre’s Christmas show for 2021 will be the Broadway hit SpongeBob The Musical.

Diary entry, December 5 2021. No, it won’t be. Robert is directing Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ The Musical instead, booked into Theatre@41, Monkgate, York from December 8 to 18,

SpongeBob The Musical may yet re-emerge down the line in winter 2023, but Robert made the call to pick up Pick Me Up’s theatre-making for the first time since March 2020’s Covid-curtailed run of Tom’s Midnight Garden with the musical version of the trials and tribulations of Sue Townsend’s teenage diarist.

“It’s my kind of show,” says Robert. “I love British musicals; I loved the TV series and I loved Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books.

“Pick Me Up will be doing a season of works by British writers in spring 2022, with George Stagnell starring in both Billy in March and Shakespeare In Love in April, and when we got the chance to do Adrian Mole, I knew we had to do that as this winter’s show – though I didn’t actually know it would be the British amateur premiere until the writer [Pippa Cleary] told me.

Toni Feetenby’s Pauline Mole and Jack Hambleton’s Adrian Mole from Pick Me Up Theatre’s Team Townsend

“But it’s perfect timing for us to do the show now because the story runs from New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve.”

Robert and musical director Tim Selman are working with a cast of experienced York hands such as Sandy Nicholson, Andrew Isherwood, Adam Sowter, Florence Poskitt, Alan Park and Alexandra Mather and two sets of teen talents, rather sweetly designated as Team Sue and Team Townsend.

“They’re all aged either 13, early-14 or late-14, but they’re different in height, so what I did was to match each team to Adrian’s height. Team Sue – Flynn Baistow’s Adrian, Benedict Wood’s Nigel, Dotty Davies’ Pandora and Freddie Adams’ Barry – all turned out to be from Lancashire, apart from Benedict,” says Robert.

“Team Townsend – the taller Jack Hambleton’s Adrian, Flynn Coultous’s Nigel, Emily Halstead’s Pandora and Guy Wilson’s Barry – happen to be all from Yorkshire.

“Although Sue Townsend was a Leicester writer, and set her stories there, we’ll be using northern accents, which suits the characters just as well.”

Team Townsend’s Flynn Coultous as Nigel and Emily Halstead as Pandora in The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾

In the cast too is veteran actor and drama teacher Ian Giles, who played his part in Sue Townsend’s rise as a writer. “In the summer of 1977, I was appointed artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester, and one of my innovations was to create a writers’ group for local people,” he recalls.

“The then unknown Leicester housewife Sue Townsend was among those who came along. She was in her thirties, from a council estate, had worked as a factory worker and shop assistant, and was very shy. She only attended because her partner, Colin [Broadway], told her to give it a go, though she used to love reading the likes of Dostoevsky.”

Ian put Sue forward for a Thames Television Writer’s Bursary and her manuscript for Womberang duly won the Thames Television Playwright Award, setting her on the path to writing plays for the Royal Court and the Adrian Mole series of books.

Coming full circle, Ian, now 72, will play grumpy old Bert Baxter in the Mole musical. “He’s an 89-year-old curmudgeon, so that should be easy for me!” he says, delighted to be reconnecting with his Townsend past.

“I’m surprised the Adrian Mole books aren’t on the school curriculum, because the issues raised are still so pertinent. The first book is 40 years old now, and the books were like the Harry Potter books of their time. Only the Bible and Shakespeare outsold them!”

Toni Feetenby’s Pauline Mole and Flynn Baistow’s Adrian Mole from Team Sue

Re-joining the discussion, Robert says: “We love Adrian Mole because it’s a boy expressing how awful life is when you’re going through puberty. The young cast find it very funny, but it’s interesting to see how differently they interpret their characters, especially the two Adrians.

“What works best is the fun Sue had in having all the characters being seen through Adrian’s lens.”

“And with a working-class ethic to it,” says Ian. “Sue was writing from council-estate  experience, growing up not far from where playwright Joe Orton grew up. There’s a lot of Sue in the character of the mother, Pauline.

“It’s all pertinent to the 1980s when it was written, but it also resonates with all teenage experiences that people go through.”

Robert adds: “Because of the ‘80s’ retro culture that’s going on now, young people are wise to that, which makes it a good time to do this show.

Time to brush up: Ian Giles’s curmudgeonly Bert Baxter makes his point to Jack Hambleton’s Adrian Mole

“But what’s nice about the music is that Jake and Pippa have not pastiched the Eighties’ pop style. They’ve made their own style of music, so you will enjoy the story being in a musical structure, with some lovely balladry, and a lot of sadness and heartbreak in there, and the parents and classmates being given good songs as well as the leads.”

The John Cooper Studio will be set up as a traverse stage with the audience in raked seating to either side and on the mezzanine level above. “The set design will feature two houses, one to either side, with everything going on in between,” says Robert.

“The reason I’ve done that is because all the scenes are quite short and it moves at a pace, so you can’t have lots of scenery to move around, slowing it down.”

Now make a date in your diary to see Adrian Mole, Pandora and co at Theatre@41.

Pick Me Up Theatre present Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, The Musical, John Cooper Studio, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, December 8 to 18, 7.30pm, except December 11 and 12; 2.30pm matinees, December 11, 12 and 18. Box office:

Pick Me Up Theatre to stage American hit show SpongeBob The Musical in December UPDATED 8/4/2021

SpongeBob The Musical: Broadway hit to be staged in York by Pick Me Up Theatre in December

YORK company Pick Me Up Theatre are to stage SpongeBob The Musical in the 2021 Christmas season at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York.

Director Robert Readman and musical director Sam Johnson will present the musical originally called SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, from December 7 to 18.

“Pick Me Up are thrilled to have secured the rights to bring this intrepid, heroic sponge and his friends to York audiences when live theatre once more returns to the York stage,” says Robert.

“I was happily scrolling through the Concord Theatricals website late last year and there it was! I didn’t even know it had been released for performance. It took months to get permission from the rights holders though!

“Now, we’re looking forward to auditioning this summer for this joyful musical: a perfect choice to brighten everyone’s Christmas.”

Readman and Johnson will hold auditions at Theatre @41 Monkgate in July and August – exact dates to be confirmed – for performers aged 15 to 23 with one proviso. “If you are an actor-musician, you can be any age and we’d love you to audition for the Bikini Bottom Band,” says Sam.

Anyone interested is asked to email for an audition form to provide contact details including a photo, age and performance history.

“We’re also looking for costume makers, hair designers and prop builders to magically create the world of SpongeBob SquarePants,” says Robert, who saw the Broadway show live-streamed on Nickelodeon.

Based on the animated Nickelodeon series created by Stephen Hillenburg, the American musical has a book by Kyle Jarrow, with original songs by Yolanda Adams; Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, of Aerosmith; Sara Bareilles; Jonathan Coulton; Alexander Ebert, of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros; The Flaming Lips; Lady A; Cyndi Lauper; John Legend; Panic!  At the Disco; Plain White T’s, and They Might Be Giants and T.I.

Songs by David Bowie, Tom Kenny and Andy Paley feature too, along with additional lyrics by Jonathan Coultonand additional music by Tom Kitt.

“The show is whacky and very colourful, with plenty of scope for lots of varied performers, but mainly it has a terrific score written especially by some of the foremost pop composers from the last two decades,” says Robert.

Fans of the 21-year-old cartoon will delight in the mostly humanoid re-creations of favourite characters, such as Squidward; Patrick; Eugene Krabs; his daughter Pearl, who is inexplicably a whale; Larry the Lobster; Sandy Cheeks, the squirrel in a diving suit, and Sheldon J. Plankton, who functions as the villain, Gary.

What distinguishes the musical from Nickelodeon TV series? “A live-action re-imagining takes the cartoon into new territory, so it’s not slavishly copying the original but transforming it into a unique stage show for all the family,” says Robert.

“Plenty of crabbie laughs, lots of squid dancing, delicious pineapple ballads: what more could you ask than to be at the bottom of the sea for Christmas?!”

In 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic put paid to no fewer than four Pick Me Up Theatre shows, the first three at the John Cooper Studio, Theatre @41 Monkgate: Stephen Sondheim 90: A Birthday Concert on March 22; The Pirates Of Penzance, the company’s first foray into the topsy-turvy world, April 17 to 25, and Alan Combes and Steve Cassidy’s musical drama Black Potatoes, September 18 to 26.

The fourth, the American musical 42nd Street, should have run at the Grand Opera House from November 6 to 14.

In the absence of being able to stage shows, Robert has nevertheless kept himself busy. “I have so loved the break, allowing me to catch up on decorating, extending the garden, eBaying props and costumes,” he says.

“I know it’s been hard for so many people, but I just thought it was a really great chance to take stock of life – theatre is only a small part of mine – and just remain as positive as possible. I still haven’t got around to tidying the insides of the sheds though…maybe next week??”

Those sheds, should you be wondering, are the former chicken shed warehouse at Bubwith that houses all manner of theatrical costumes, props and much more besides.

Maybe the tidying can wait; the return to working on shows beckons, and come December, SpongeBob The Musical will be making its York debut.

“Why should people see this musical? Because everyone wants to live in Bikini Bottom and this is your chance!” says Robert.

“Or, as Patchy the Pirate says: ‘This is one under-the-sea spectacular that you don’t want to miss’.”

When the clock strikes 13, Pick Me Up Theatre enter Tom’s magical garden

Tom Tom club: the two Toms in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, Jimmy Dalgleish, left, and Jack Hambleton, with Olivia Caley’s Hatty. All pictures: Matthew Kitchen

SPRING is on its way, gardens are perking up, good timing for Pick Me Up Theatre to stage Tom’s Midnight Garden from tomorrow at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York.

Who better to direct David Wood’s adaptation of Philippa Pearce’s beloved book than the York company’s artistic director Robert Readman, a garden and gardening enthusiast, as a visit to his Bubwith abode would affirm.

In Pearce’s 1950s’ story, Tom is sent away sent to stay with his Aunt Gwen and Uncle Alan in their upstairs flat in a big Victorian house after his brother Peter catches the measles and is now quarantined.

Lonely and bored, Tom has little to do until one night he hears the hallway grandfather clock strike 13. Creeping downstairs to investigate, he throws open the back door to…no longer a small yard but a large and beautiful garden instead.

Something strange is happening: every time the clock strikes 13, Tom is transported back in time to the secret garden. There he befriends an unhappy Victorian orphan, Hatty, and a series of adventures ensues, but what is behind the magical midnight garden?

“It’s such a magical story, all to do with time,” says Robert. “I love how it jumps between a young boy’s dull life in the 1950s, and his adventures with Hatty in the 1880s.”

“The lighting and sound will be vital to the transformation between the two times; the characters dress according to the era they’re from, and there’ll also be a lot of mime in the show, so it’ll be a mixture of the real and the unreal, with the cast doing roles from the two eras.”

Ed Atkin as Peter, left, Jimmy Dalgleish as Tom, Olivia Caley as Hatty, Jack Hambleton as Tom and Beryl Nairn as Aunt Grace in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Tom’s Midnight Garden

To convey the two contrasting worlds with his black-box design, director-designer Readman has constructed two platforms, one at either end, one for Peter’s bedroom, one for Tom’s, with a doorway to each one and the hallway clock at Tom’s end.

“It’s nothing like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, which was written in Victorian times, whereas Tom’s Midnight Garden is a tale of children stuck in the drabness of the 1950s creating an exciting world by travelling back to Victorian days, and that’s what we’re conveying in both the design and the performances.”

Reading the book as a child and now re-reading it in preparation for the Pick Me Up production, Robert says: “What struck me is that it’s all to do with children’s imaginations. It’s a piece about how children can conjure up adventures with make-believe.

“It’s a beautiful book that can be read by adults just as much as by children; it treats children as being intelligent in their own right, and I love how it takes you on a journey where there’s both sweetness and sadness, so everything is doubled.” 

Company regular Jack Hambleton and Pick Me Up newcomer Jimmy Dalgleish will share the role of Tom; Olivia Caley will play Hatty, and Ed Atkin, Peter.

“At the beginning, it’s quite hard to like Tom because he complains quite a lot and seems ungrateful, but then you can see that he was just feeling lonely and was missing his brother,” says Jack.

“His friendship with Hatty shows how caring and thoughtful he is, and he also shows his curiosity and intelligence when approaching the puzzle of how his time travel is possible.”

“All Hatty wants to do is have adventures and not grow up,” says Olivia Caley, pictured with Jimmy Dalgleish, left, and Jack Hambleton, who will share the role of Tom

Jimmy, similar in stature to Jack but differing in his interpretation of the role according to Readman, says: “Stuck inside at his aunt and uncle’s house, Tom is lonely and ‘longs for someone to play with’.

“Tom is very playful and somewhat cheeky! He’s intelligent, adventurous and loyal to his new friend Hatty. He’s very inquisitive and a logical thinker as he tries to work out that he’s somehow able to go back in time!”

Summing up Victorian Hatty’s character, Olivia says: “She’s a curious and playful young girl with a great imagination, despite her sad upbringing. All Hatty wants to do is have adventures and not grow up!”

Ed plays not only Peter, but Hubert and “Voice” too. “But I spend most of my time as Peter, who’s got measles, so he has to spend all his time in bed. The letters written by Tom are his only entertainment, which means he’s fascinated by the stories that are sent to him.”

Given that time travel is so central to Tom’s Midnight Garden, if they each could go back in time to one era to live in, what would it be and why? “Probably Ancient Egypt as I’m fascinated by how they lived and how much they achieved,” says Jack. “I would love to know how they really built the pyramids and how much influence the gods had on their lives.”

“The Tudor era because I would love to live among the people of the court of Henry VIII and experience the grandeur the scandal and politics of his life,” reckons Jimmy.

“I actually experienced what it was like to be a young girl in the Regency era in a short film called Mr Malcolm’s List,” reveals Olivia. “So, I’d probably want to travel back to that era. The dresses were beautiful, and I loved getting to wear them! Not so much the corsets!”

Pick Me Up Theatre’s poster for this month’s production of Tom’s Midnight Garden

Ed picks the 1960s. “This was such an exciting time in the development of the music industry,” he reasons. “I just think it would have been so fascinating to learn about music at a time when it was constantly changing and being upgraded.”

While on the subject of music, Ed has written a beautiful score for violin, cello and piano for musical director Tim Selman’s forces. “It definitely draws on the theme of ‘time no longer’,” he says.

“I took inspiration from the likes of Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten, who wrote music that was modern at the time but also harked back to the Victorian Romantic styles.

“Additionally, I tried to incorporate the idea of childhood and playfulness into what I wrote, so lots of the music is fun and slightly quirky. However, it’s all shrouded in a sense of mystery.”

Not only director Readman has a love of gardens, so do his cast principals. “Some gardens are very magical,” says Jack. “I particularly like gardens with hidden corners and an air of mystery, such as Castle Howard and Beningbrough Hall.”

Jimmy concurs: “A garden is a place where anything can happen,” he says. “A garden inspires imagination and can subsequently transport you to a whole new world of your own creation away from the stresses and strains of ordinary life, and that in itself is magical!”

Olivia enthuses: “I absolutely think gardens are magical! There’s so much scope for the imagination. When I was little, I was always playing in my garden, so I can really relate to Hatty on that.”

Gardens can be magical, especially for a child, suggests Ed. “There’s a moment in the play where Tom and Hatty go through a ‘secret passage’. This feeling of exploring a new world is one I remember well from playing in such a garden when I was younger,” he says.

Let the clock strike 13. A garden awaits.

Pick Me Up Theatre in Tom’s Midnight Garden, John Cooper Studio, Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, tomorrow (March 13) until March 21. Box office: 01904 623568; at or in person from York Gin, 12, Pavement, and the York Theatre Royal box office.

Copyright of The Press, York