REVIEW: York Stage in Calendar Girls, The Musical, Grand Opera House, York ****

Rosy Rowley’s Cora, centre, preparing to face her camera moment with Jo Theaker’s Annie and Julieann Smith’s Chris in York Stage’s Calendar Girls The Musical. All picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

Calendar Girls, The Musical, York Stage, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday. Performances: 7.30pm, tonight to Thursday and Saturday; 4pm and 8pm, Friday; 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York

HAVE you been struggling to buy sunflowers in York since Friday?

The reason is simple: these sunworshippers have taken up residence at the Grand Opera House, spreading all over a teenage party dress and a gloriously OTT sofa in director-producer Nik Briggs’ scenic and costume design too.

Even in the dark of the orchestra pit, a sunflower can be spotted radiating nocturnal sunshine from musical director Jessica Douglas’s stand.

Touching moment: Jo Theaker’s Annie and Mick Liversidge’s John with their sunflower seeds

Calendar Girls The Musical began life as The Girls when premiered by sons of the Wirral Gary Barlow and Tim Firth at Leeds Grand Theatre in December 2015. Now the Yorkshire sunflower power has been restored for the York premiere by Briggs’s company.

If you missed the Leeds debut, jump at the chance to remedy that error! If you loved the film or the stage play, Barlow and Firth’s musical is even better, the format suiting what is already an opera-scaled human drama of ordinary women at the centre of an extraordinary story.

What’s more, as Briggs says: “Having Yorkshire actors playing these roles in a theatre in York creates a real gravitas to the story. It could work anywhere, but it’s just a bit more special done here as it’s a proper Yorkshire tale.”

You surely know that story, the tragicomic one where gentle gent, National Park wall builder and sunflower grower John Clarke (Mick Liversidge) – spoiler alert – dies from leukaemia .

Julieann Smith’s Chris singing Sunflower in Calendar Girls The Musical

Whereupon his wife, Annie (Jo Theaker), teams up with Knapely Women’s Institute rebel Chris (Julieann Smith) to defy the new but old-school WI chair Marie (Maggie Smales) by posing with fellow members for a fund-raising nude calendar in John’s memory – and in his spirit of being inventive and not following the well-beaten track.

Firth and Barlow open with two big hitters, firstly the scene-setting ensemble anthem Yorkshire, then the character-establishing introduction to The Girls, the diverse members of the WI, in Mrs Conventional.

So, we meet not only Theaker’s grieving but resilient Annie and Smith’s agitated/aggrieved Celia, but also Rosy Rowley’s Cora, the vicar’s no-nonsense daughter; Tracey Rea’s reupholstered, flashy Celia, the former airhostess; Sandy Nicholson’s perma-knitting Jessie, the wise-owl ex-teacher, and Juliet Waters’ reserved dark horse Ruth.

One of the joys of ballad-king Barlow and witty-worded lyricist Firth’s musical structure is how every one of the Girls has a knock-out, character-revealing, storytelling solo number, each drawing cheers and bursts of clapping, especially Rowley’s rousing, big-band blast of Who Wants A Silent Night?, Smith’s assertive Flowers, Rea’s exuberantly humorous So I’ve Had A Little Work Done and Waters’ vodka-guzzling My Russian Friend And I.

Uplifting: Tracey Rea’s Celia revels in So I’ve Had A Little Work Done

Theaker, so consistently excellent in York Stage lead roles, plucks the heartstrings in the stand-out ballad Scarborough and later hits the emotional heights again in Kilimanjaro. Her chemistry with Liversidge is utterly lovely, touching too, making Clarkey’s loss all the harder to take. Likewise, Theaker and the feisty Smith capture the strains and stresses of friendship under the utmost duress.

Calendar Girls is not just about the Girls, but the men too, from Chris’s level-headed husband Rod (Andy Stone) to humorous cameos for the ever-reliable Craig Kirby (Denis) and Graham Smith (Colin), and Finn East’s how-about-we-do-it-this-way photographer, Lawrence, sensitively venturing into new territory as much as his subjects.  

Not only does Firth’s script strike the right balance of northern humour, pathos, sadness and bloody-minded defiance, but also he places the stripping-off photoshoot as the climax (mirroring The Full Monty) and brings three teenage children to the fore, both as outlets for awkward, growing-pains humour and to expose their parents in a different light.

Danny Western is lovably cheeky as deluded, cocky workshy Tommo; Izzie Norwood affirms why Mountview Academy of Theatre awaits her in September with an assured, eye-catching York Stage debut as Jenny, the WI chair’s daughter, expelled from her posh school, with her wild, rebellious outsider streak still untamed.

Izzie Norwood’s Jenny leads Sam Roberts’s Danny astray

No wonder Sam Roberts’s clean-cut, gilded path to being head boy takes a wayward turn as too-cool-for-school Jenny initiates his discovery of alcohol. Roberts’s understated performance contrasts joyfully with Western’s ebullience as the young lads eggs each other on.

Briggs’s lucid, fast-moving direction places equal stress on the potency of the dialogue and the emotional heft of the songs, while his stage design combines dry-stone walls and Dales greenery with open-plan interiors for WI meetings, homes and the hospital, thereby evoking the vast expanse of Yorkshire yet suited to intimate conversation too.

Jessica Douglas’s keyboard-led musical forces do Barlow’s compositions proud, with Robert Fisher’s guitar, Georgia Johnson’s double bass, Graeme Osborn’s trumpet and Anna Marshall’s trombone all given room to flourish.

A quick mention for Louie Theaker, who stepped in for the temporarily indisposed Danny Western for Friday’s first performance, rehearsing his part from 5pm to 6pm as he called on his experience of learning TV script re-writes pronto for his regular role as Jake in CBBC’s children’s drama series James Johnson.

Audiences have not been as big as expected, but what folly it would be to miss York Stage in sunflower full bloom in a Yorkshire story of tears and cheers, grief and loss, spirit and renewal, humour and humanity, ace songs and cracking performances.

Sunflower show: The finale to York Stage’s Calendar Girls The Musical

How Rory and Rosy recorded their remote roles for the York Radio Mystery Plays

Rory Mulvihill experiments with recording the role of Satan in the shower of his Naburn home, by torchlight, with the script stuck to the wall

THE first instalment of the York Radio Mystery Plays will be aired on BBC Radio York’s Sunday Breakfast Show this weekend.

Aptly starting at the beginning with Adam And Eve, this audio collaboration between York Theatre Royal and the BBC station comprises four 15-minute plays, continuing with The Flood Part 1 on June 14, The Flood Part 2 on June 21 and Moses And Pharaoh on June 28.

Under the direction of Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster, who has adapted the mediaeval texts with writer husband Kelvin Goodspeed, a cast of 19 community and professional actors has recorded the episodes, each working remotely.

In keeping with Covid-19 social-distancing rules, the production required the cast members to record their lines on a smart phone from home, having done collective rehearsals for each play over the Zoom conference call app.

Among the cast are Rory Mulvihill and Rosy Rowley, Rory reprising his role as Satan from the York Millennium Mystery Plays in York Minster in 2000, this time in Adam And Eve; Rosy returning to Mrs Noah in The Flood, a no-nonsense role she first played in the 2012 York Mystery Plays in the Museum Gardens. 

“It’s a first for me, doing a radio play,” says Rory, a leading light of the York Light Opera Company for 35 years and a Mystery Plays stalwart too, not least playing Jesus Christ in 1996.

Hades in red: Rory Mulvihill as Satan in the York Millennium Mystery Plays in York Minster in 2000. Copyright: York Mystery Plays/Kippa Matthews

“But I did do a radio recording after the Blood + Chocolate community play in 2013: World War One At Home, done for the BBC, with each local radio station doing its own series.

“But my radio claim to fame – and this should be the title of my autobiography! – is ‘I Was Andy Kershaw’s Weatherman’!

“He once had the graveyard slot of Radio Aire on a Sunday night, with just him and me in the studio, so I had to copy down the weather forecast and read it out on the hour.”

Rehearsing on Zoom has been a novel experience. “I find it a bit strange, video conferencing. I first had a couple of sessions with York Light, and it’s enjoyable but I felt like I was watching Celebrity Squares or Blankety Blank, except that I was on it!”

Juliet tried to “normalise the rehearsals as much as possible”, despite the reliance on technology. “I thought it could be a sterile experience if we were just reading it, but once I was confident with the lines, I decided, ‘let’s look up, get a rapport going’, but the first time I tried doing that with Taj Atwal, I looked up…at Taj’s epiglottis on the screen! She was in the middle of the biggest yawn!” recalls Rory.

“That’s the effect I have on people! If there’s a moral to this story, it is to take Zoom on the chin and accept the way it works.”

Juliet Forster:Associate director of York Theatre Royal and director of the York Radio Mystery Plays

Rory was late to join his first Zoom rehearsal. “They could all hear me but I couldn’t hear them, and by the time I started, they’d decided it should be 14th century Yorkshire vernacular, rather than RP [Received Pronunciation], but I didn’t know that.

“I’m a Leeds lad born and bred, but not I’m not like a Sean Bean Yorkshireman! Anyway, when I played Jesus in 1996 I did very much a Yorkshire accent, whereas for Satan in 2000, I was ‘well spoken’ to contrast with Ray Stevenson’s Jesus.

“In the end, Juliet decided she wanted to try different versions, one ‘better spoken’, one with  a Yorkshire accent, and she then settled on the Yorkshire Satan.”

There was another adjustment needed. “The Mystery Plays are declamatory because they were meant to be shouted off the top of a wagon in the streets, so everyone could hear them, especially this ‘pantomime villain’ Satan, who’s not understated in any way,” says Rory.

“That was one of the things that needed to change for the radio, so after my first effort, Juliet said, ‘maybe tone it down a little’!”

Rory experimented with doing his first recordings in his shower at his Naburn home, thinking it would be an ideal insulated sound booth. “Living in the country, the bird song is beautiful and loud, and I suppose it’s a garden of Eden, and I thought the shower would be quiet,” he says.

Zoom for manoeuvre: A remote rehearsal for The Flood in the York Radio Mystery Plays, with Rosy Rowley (Mrs Noah), second from left , middle row, and director Juliet Forster, top row, second from right

“I stuck my script on the wall and had to use torchlight because I couldn’t have the extractor fan on, but when Juliet heard the recordings, she said it was a tinny noise, bouncing off the wall, so she rejected them!

“I had to do them sitting at my desk in the end, with Julia saying it didn’t matter if there was a bit of birdsong in the background!”

Rory can foresee the Theatre Royal and BBC Radio York rolling out further episodes. “I can really see the potential in this: a situation almost like the York Shakespeare Project, where you do all the canon,” he says.

“But Juliet has to be consistent. We can’t have anyone else playing Satan. I’d be most upset!!”

As with Rory, Rosy faced challenges in choosing the right time and location for the recordings for her role in The Flood Part 1 and 2.

“Living in a busy street and having teenagers in my house, I ended up rehearsing in the garden shed and having to record at two in the morning in my bedroom in the attic as it’s quiet up there,” she says.

Rosy Rowley: Saying “Yes” to playing Mrs Noah for a second time

Collective rehearsals by Zoom were “pretty normal, apart from not being in the same room, as we worked on breaking down the script, but it was just after lockdown started and lots of us had just been furloughed, so that felt a little strange,” says Rosy.

Recording solo and remotely was “lonely, having to record on your own with no voice to respond to”. “So, you had to imagine how someone would have said a line, or try to remember how they had said it in rehearsal, and Juliet would ask you to record lines in different ways for her to choose from, so it was a fragmented process.” says Rosy.

Recording a song remotely with Madeleine Hudson, musical director of the York Theatre Royal Choir, presented another unusual experience. “Maddy tried to get us to sing together for the recording but we had to deal with time legs because of working on separate equipment!” Rosy reveals.”Not easy when you needed to have two phones, one for listening to the backing track, and another for recording your vocals.”

She is delighted to be taking part in the radio recordings. “I’m passionate about the York Mystery Plays, having done the 2012 production and been involved in the Waggon Plays,” she says. “So, I was going to miss them not being done on the streets this summer, but it’s great to have this chance to air them on the radio.”

Playing Mrs Noah is not the only role that Rosy has taken on in lockdown while on furlough. “I’ve become a Covid-19 testing volunteer at the Poppleton testing site,” she says. “I saw an advert and thought that would be a good thing to do, so me and my daughter Imogen [a third-year BSc Fashion Buying and Merchandising student at the University of Manchester] signed up to do part-time volunteering, two days on, two days off.

“We had half a day’s training, partly to learn about PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], to be sure we were fully prepared, as well as learning how to do swabs – and it is rather invasive putting swabs up someone’s nose.”

Rosy had expected to be working eight-hour shifts, but instead it had been “quite quiet”. May it please become quieter still.

Note that in addition to the June broadcasts on Jonathan Cowap’s Sunday show on BBC Radio York, the York Radio Mystery Plays can be heard on BBC Sounds at bbc.co.uk/sounds.

Mystery solved! In the lockdown year 2020, when the streets have no plays, York Mystery Plays take to the radio in June

Zoom in the room: A rehearsal for The Flood for the York Radio Mystery Plays by the remote wonders of 2020 lockdown technology, with director Juliet Forster, top row, second from right, and Rosy Rowley (Mrs Noah), middle row, second from left

YORK Theatre Royal and BBC Radio York are collaborating to bring the York Mystery Plays to life on the airwaves next month.

Four instalments will be presented as audio versions on the Sunday Breakfast Show with Jonathan Cowap on successive weekends from June 7, the Sunday before Corpus Christi Day on June 11: the day since mediaeval times when the plays were performed on wagons on the city streets from dawn until dusk.

Working remotely from home, a cast of 19 community and professional actors has recorded the 15-minute instalments, Adam And Eve, The Flood Part 1, The Flood Part 2 and Moses And Pharaoh, under the direction of Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster.

“The York Mystery Plays are part of the DNA of this city,” she says. “The longevity of these potent plays clearly demonstrates how vital the collective act of storytelling is, and how much we need to explore and reflect together on our experiences and understanding of the world.

“We’re determined to keep doing this in spite of the lockdown. So, these plays seem exactly the right choice to pick up, find a new way to create, communicate afresh and encourage one another.”

Juliet, incidentally, previously co-directed Anthony Minghella’s Two Planks And A Passion at the Theatre Royal in July 2011, a play set around a performance of the York Mystery Plays on Corpus Christi Day in midsummer 1392.

This time, she and husband Kelvin Goodspeed have adapted Mystery Play texts for the radio series, drawing on material dating back to the 1300s first resurrected after a long, long hiatus for the Festival of Britain in 1951.

Juliet Forster: York Theatre Royal artistic director and director of the 2020 York Radio Mystery Plays

The York Radio Mystery Plays now form part of York Theatre Royal’s Collective Acts, a programme of “creative community engagement” set up in response to the St Leonard’s Place building being closed under the Covid-19 strictures.

“When we went into lockdown, Tom [Bird, the Theatre Royal’s executive director] kept saying we ought to try to do something with the Mystery Plays, and I suggested that we should do radio plays,” recalls  Juliet.

“But I’d never done a radio broadcast, so I contacted Radio York and said ‘let’s do this together’.”

Under the partnership that ensued, the Theatre Royal has chosen the texts, sourced the scripts, recruited the actors and provided the music, while BBC Radio York sound engineer Martin Grant has mixed the recordings, splicing them together into finished crafted instalments. 

Ed Beesley has provided composition, sound design and foley artist effects. Madeleine Hudson, musical director of the York Theatre Royal Choir, has given the choir and cast songs to perform.

In choosing the plays, Juliet says: “The ones that make for the most fun are the ones around Noah’s flood, but they are also about a family in isolation for 40 days, maybe falling out with each other, so there are parallels with what’s happening now.

“Then there’s the positive ending, which would be good, and that sense of starting again, so it was the perfect choice.”

Voice of an Angel: Christie Barnes recording her role remotely from home for Adam And Eve, the opening instalment of the York Radio Mystery Plays

The Flood, Parts 1 and 2 were picked initially for a spring pilot show, but then the BBC decided to build a series around the Corpus Christi Day tradition in June, and so two more plays were added: Adam And Eve and Moses And Pharaoh.

“I’d already started working on Adam And Eve and thought about doing a Nativity play, but in our conversations with Radio York, they then talked about wanting to keep the series going, with the possibility of four Nativity plays at Christmas and four for Easter based around the Crucifixion,” says Juliet.

“So I thought, ‘I’ll stick with Old Testament stories’, and I’d done the Moses and Pharaoh story for The Missing Mysteries with the York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre in 2012.

“It’s a play about a desire for freedom to get out, which again relates to now: that need to breathe, to get to the other side, but there’s also that moment where they dare not go out, where they stay behind closed doors, so that really is like now. That feeling of living in fear.”

As for Adam And Eve, again the Genesis story is a resonant one. “They were living in this paradise but then lost it, facing hardship and their own mortality, which we’re all facing now,” says Juliet.

“That sense of not knowing paradise is what you have until it’s gone; also that role of being guardians but always wanting that little bit more, when instead we need to be more environmentally friendly.”

In keeping with Covid-19 social-distancing rules, the production required the actors to record their lines on a smart phone from home, having done collective rehearsals for each play over the Zoom conference call app.

Rory Mulvihill experiments with recording the role of Satan in the shower of his Naburn home, by torchlight, with the script stuck to the wall

Among the cast are Rory Mulvihill and Rosy Rowley, Rory reprising his role as Satan from the York Millennium Mystery Plays in York Minster in 2000, this time in Adam And Eve; Rosy returning to Mrs Noah in The Flood, a role she first played in the 2012 York Mystery Plays in the Museum Gardens. 

Rory experimented with recording in his shower as his sound booth in his Naburn home. “I Blu-Tacked my script on the wall and had to use torchlight because I couldn’t have the extractor fan on, but when Juliet heard the recordings, she said it was a tinny noise, so she rejected them!

“I had to do them at my desk in the end, with Julia saying it didn’t matter if there was birdsong!”

“Choosing the right time and location for the recordings was a challenge,” says Rosy. “Living in a busy street and having teenagers in my house, I ended up rehearsing in the garden shed and having to record at two in the morning in my bedroom in the attic.

“It was lonely having to record on your own with no voice to respond to, so you had to imagine how someone would have said a line.”

Hear the results from June 7. Note that in addition to the broadcasts on Jonathan Cowap’s Sunday show, the radio plays can be heard on BBC Sounds at bbc.co.uk/sounds.

Copyright of The Press, York