REVIEW: Life after death in The Missing Peace, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York ****

Many Newby performing the opening monologue, Save The Last Dance, in The Missing P:eace. Picture: David Harrison

Rowntree Players in The Missing Peace, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, tonight, 7.30pm; tomorrow, 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

AMERICAN writer, scientist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, printer, publisher and political philosopher Benjamin Franklin famously said: “In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.”

Yet talking about death remains a taboo subject (and who wants to discuss tax?), but Tow Law-born York all-rounder, teacher, party-band frontman, keynote conference speaker, filmmaker, charity event organiser and storyteller Big Ian Donaghy did just that in his second book, The Missing Peace.

Busker Peter Hyndman in a lonesome moment in The Missing Peace. Picture: David Harrison

“It’s not about dying,” he clarifies. “It’s about living and celebrating life.” Actually, it is about death, coming to terms with death, life after death and, yes, talking about it. Death of partners, parents and pets alike. Siblings and soul mates. Stepping in as the replacement or being the loco in parentis.

Gemma McDonald, teacher and Rowntree Players pantomime favourite, read the book and immediately thought The Missing Peace could be turned from the written to the spoken word on stage in the form of One Play…15 Endings.

Working in tandem with Donaghy, she has adapted and directed the Players’ Talking Heads-style production, set at a busy York railway station, where Mark Addy, no less, is the station announcer in the pre-recorded narrator’s role.

Platform for discussion: Dealing with death in Rowntree Players’ production of The Missing Peace. Picture: David Harrison

Donaghy has the funny bones and timing of a stand-up, the golden quill of a novelist, an all-too-uncommon common touch and the eye for a story and contacts’ book of a journalist. Hence he can deliver lines, deliver Addy and, in turn, Addy delivers the goods. “He’s like a Peter Sallis, like being by a warm hearth,” said Donaghy after last night’s premiere.

Donaghy is decisive too. Watching the dress rehearsal, the frontman in him told him the cast would need head microphones as well as overhead ones. He and Gemma also instinctively felt that the presentation of a succession of monologues – theatre’s most intense, concentration-demanding form – would benefit from the insertion of an interval.

He was right on both fronts, and in his wish for The Missing Peace to be the starting pistol for conversation, not the finishing line, those conversations could start all the sooner, at half-time.

Mother and son in union: Jackie Holmes listens to Mark McDonald in The Missing Peace. Picture: David Harrison

Gemma McDonald has done a tremendous job too, both in picking the monologues and their varying tones and experiences and her choice of community cast, whether young (Beth Hutchinson, Katelyn Banks, Hannah Woods), ever reliable (Mark McDonald, Mandy Newby, Graham Smith, Maggie Smales, Gemma herself); or assured in centre-stage (Lynne Edwards, Liam Godfrey, Jackie Holmes).

A series of monologues might sound repetitive, but there is nothing mono about their performances; instead they are rich in nuance, all performed with clarity and sensitivity, using the exposure of direct address to the maximum impact. Individuality and teamwork knitted together superbly, and how moving this counselling form of theatre is.

This is not stand-and-deliver theatre; instead Gemma has a painter’s eye in framing each scene, with others present on stage in many, but never distractingly so. All the while, busking guitarist Peter Hyndman links the monologues, looking heavenwards as he sings.

Heaven’s above: Sara Howlett mid-monologue in The Missing Peace. Picture: David Harrison

Sara Howlett excitedly talking about heaven has person after person disengaging from her on the station forecourt; Alison Taylor’s secret “other woman” at her lover’s funeral stands at the back, separate from the motionless, side-on, silhouetted mourners, as she faces the audience in a soft spotlight in a brilliant piece of choreography.

In contrast, Joseph Marucci’s devastated father is all alone in his abiding grief, conversing with his stillborn daughter, “born asleep”.

“You may cry,” wrote Donaghy in his programme notes. We did, at that moment and others too. “You may laugh,” he surmised. We did, knowingly, as Gemma McDonald and Katelyn Banks’s mum and daughter dealt with the death of the family hamster, and when Beth Hutchinson’s daughter revealed to her late dad her switch of allegiance from Manchester United to Liverpool (“Jurgen Klopp is like Fergie with better teeth,” she reasoned).

Director Gemma McDonald in Do You Really Want To Hurt Me. Picture: David Harrison

“But YOU will think,” emphasised Donaghy in capital letters. And, yes, you will think, but more importantly you will talk. Everyone was talking afterwards, opening up about their own experiences.

Just as they will after tonight and tomorrow’s performances. Talk will then turn to what happens next to The Missing Peace, which surely has an afterlife. Watch this space.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Life and death, monologues and music in Big Ian’s The Missing Peace at the JoRo. Watch out for narrator Mark Addy too

The Missing Peace director Gemma McDonald and writer Ian Donaghy outside the Joseph Rowntree Theatre

NOBODY thought this morning when they turned the key in the door lock, “well, that’ll be the last time I’ll see you.”

So begins the book The Missing Peace: Creating A Life After Death, written by York musician, author, charity event organiser and motivational conference speaker Ian Donaghy, now adapted for the stage by Rowntree Players performer and York teacher Gemma McDonald and Big Ian himself.

Gemma could not help but imagine a book she loved so much transferring to the stage, and so she and Rowntree Players pantomime co-writer and director Howard Ella approached Ian with the idea.

“The Missing Peace lends itself beautifully to the stage and also allows an opportunity for actors of all ages to highlight their talents with heart-breaking and heart-warming monologues,” she says. “It’s a very different, original and powerful production.”

Billed as “One play…fifteen endings”, The Missing Peace will run at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, from January 27 to 29, after the first Covid lockdown ruled out its original run last April, since when half the cast has changed.

Graham Smith in rehearsal for The Missing Peace. Picture: Duncan Lomax

Thankfully, Mark Addy, York star of The Full Monty, Game Of Thrones and White House Farm, had recorded his part as the Station Announcer narrator, ahead of heading to New York last year to appear in the Broadway premiere of Martin McDonagh’s Hangman.

Taking part on stage will be Mandy Newby; Sarah Howlett; Mark McDonald; Gemma McDonald; Joseph Paul; Beth Hutchinson; Alison Taylor; Hannah Wood; Graham Smith; Liam Godfrey; Caitlin Banks; Maggie Smales and busker Pete Hyndman, who will weave all the monologues together.

Big Ian recalls the original reason for writing The Missing Peace. “So many friends were losing grandparents, parents, siblings, friends and even children and I realised people did not know how to help or support them,” he says.

“People would say things like, ‘Don’t call Paul…his Mum’s just died’. Surely that’s exactly why you should call or at least send a text to say you are there any time for him.

“Based on real-life stories, many of them from interviews conducted in York, the book was written to show how people can somehow survive losing the people they love the most and how they can support others – and don’t underestimate the impact of losing a family pet, either. Expect the unexpected. The shared experience of short stories of survival and monologues are there to spark the conversation and show that you are not alone.”

Mark Addy: Recorded narrator for The Missing Peace

Big Ian and Gemma cherry-picked 15 of the monologues. “We chose a mixture of length, style, with different messages for the audience to take away: some heart-breaking, some heart-warming and a couple, light-hearted,” he says.

“Gemma came up with a brilliant idea to set it in York railway station. From the start to the finish of the one-act play, it flows from one voice in a crowd to another. Mark’s narration and Pete performing original songs will glue the monologues together.”

Gemma says: “I read the book back in 2019 and found it encapsulating. I was engrossed in each story and went through a series of emotions while reading it. I realised I’d never thought about grieving in the way in which some of the monologues suggested and I felt that it really helped me to consider others’ perspectives and the different way people deal with death.”

The stories have “adapted easily” to the stage, she says. “I wanted to create the feeling that we are all in our own world and living our own lives and very rarely do we really look closely at others’ lives, especially in relation to life after death and the grieving process that we have all been through at some stage in our lives,” reflects Gemma.

Explaining the choice of monologues, Big Ian says: “We wanted to get a mix. It’s not a play about dying; it’s about living and celebrating life, so we chose the ones to best reflect that.

Mark McDonald and Gemma McDonald in the rehearsal room. Picture: Duncan Lomax

“The overarching theme is that we should be there for one another. We are all broken biscuits. We can either dwell on our cracks alone or make the best cheesecake in the world together.

“On stage, The Missing Peace is not so much a play as a patchwork of friendship and survival. Bring tissues but you will also laugh in places as humour can be found in the darkest of places.”

Donaghy’s writing, whether in The Missing Peace or his lockdown follow-up, A Pocketful Of Kindness, has drawn praise from Barnsley bard Ian McMillan; Emmerdale actor and regular tweeter Reece Dinsdale; York Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird, who loves the “northern heartbeat” in his his fellow North Easterner’s stories, and The League Of Gentlemen co-creator Mark Gatiis, who devoured the “wonderful and inspirational” book
in a night without going to bed.

“If you’ve lost someone and have felt alone – as many do – these ‘talking heads’ monologues look at loss from so many viewpoints to help you help you and others when grieving,” says Big Ian.

Mandy Newby, who will be performing one of the monologues in The Missing Peace. Picture: Duncan Lomax

“To have The Missing Peace go from page to stage is going to challenge people’s thinking and start conversations. On opening night, I will have a dream come true that I never realised I had. Writing has opened up some many new doors.”

Gemma adds: “I hope the audience will get an insight into the different ways people grieve and how to deal with certain situations. There are moments of sadness, laughter and reflection throughout, and the actors capture this beautifully.”

The pandemic toll has added even more resonance to The Missing Peace. “It was never the hope to make this play more and more relevant,” says Big Ian. “But during the pandemic, families have had loved ones vanish, not die. Gone without a goodbye. Gone without holding a hand. A story with the last pages ripped out, denied by a virus.”

What is the best piece of wisdom Big Ian has been given to deal with grief? “Be strong for no-one,” he says. “Do whatever you need to do at any point to get you through the hardest challenges life can throw at you. Remember that you are made of bits of the person you have lost.”

Beth Hutchinson rehearsing her monologue. Picture: Duncan Lomax

As rehearsals progress, he takes pride in Made In York running through the core of The Missing Peace. “It’s a big deal! It’s not the merry-go-round of same old plays. It’s not Fiddler On The  Roof or Annie. It isn’t a musical, though it features four original songs,” says Big Ian.

“Rarely will York be so well represented in a production: York actors; York production company; York set designers; York play written by a man who has made York his home about people who live in York.”

What might happen next to The Missing Peace? “I can’t say just yet but it is very exciting,” he promises. Watch this space.

Rowntree Players in The Missing Peace, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, January 27 to 29, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk. All profits will be split between St Leonard’s Hospice and Bereaved Children Support York.

Copyright of The Press, York

Review: Rowntree Players in Dick Whittington, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, until Saturday

“Let’s remember what it feels like to come together to sing, to dance, to perform, to laugh,” enthuses Rowntree Players’ pantomime director, Howard Ella

FIRST came the announcement: “In the interests of everyone’s safety, please ensure masks are worn at all times”.

“Ensure”. Good word, that one, stopping all the wishee-washeeness that has prevailed so far, when there is a new variant in town.

Major London theatres are making masks compulsory (for all but children); York theatres really should be singing from the same panto song-sheet too. Anything that helps to keeps theatres open is not an unreasonable request to make.

Hannah King’s Dick Whittington and the ensemble in Rowntree Players’ Dick Whittington

Rant over. If masks are one emblem of pantomime-in-pandemic times, it is comforting to have familiarity too. Look at the sign in Rowntree Theatre’s London street scene: Ivor Leak, Plumber. Ho, ho.

Or look at the cubs and brownies filling row after row at the JoRo, bouncing up and down on their seats on a Monday night. It was ever thus at this community show.

“Let’s make the most of it and remember what it feels like to come together to sing, to dance, to perform, to laugh,” says director Howard Ella in his programme notes. How right he is.

Belting performance: Ellie Watson’s Alice Fitzwarren

Perish the thought that any theatre should ever rehash an old pantomime script – no names, no pack drill – but Rowntree Players have every right to revisit Ella and regular co-writer Andy Welch’s Dick Whittington, last year’s cancelled panto. Now it is the equivalent of a Christmas pudding becoming all the richer for having had to be put back in the larder for a year.

Hannah King’s resourceful, sprightly Dick Whittington and the ensemble set the tone with the opening Here I Am, establishing the Yorkshireman abroad in London Town vibe, grappling with a strange place of rhyming slang and “Oy, oy, Saveloy”.

Ami Carter’s choreography is superb throughout, knitting principal actors, principal dancers and the young team together so assuredly, and she hits her stride early in Money, marking Martyn Hunter’s return to the Rowntree panto ranks as mayoral candidate and rodent villain King Rat as he leads this irresistible number from Cabaret with panache.

In the pit: Musical director Jessica Douglas, centre, and guitarist Georgia Johnson

The song-and-dance list will go on to draw heavily on musicals, some well-known, some rather less so (Love Is Your Legs, from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, for example), but all well chosen and delivered with musical-theatre oomph by musical director Jessica Douglas’s band.

Pantomimes need to combine the tried and tested with the fresh, and here Ella’s regular trouble-making comedy double act of Graham Smith’s saucy, head-strong, sometimes brusque dame, Dora Di Sorderlie, and Gemma McDonald’s daft, accident-prone, lovable, ginger-nutted Duncan Di Sorderlie, must play hapless security guards at Alderman Fitzwarren’s bank. 

Their verbal interplay is always a joy, their physical slapstick peaking as they are drenched in coins, but to be pernickety, on occasion they could pick up the pace a tad, especially in the long first half.

Rat-a-tat-tat: Martyn Hunter’s King Rat and Mary-Louise Surgenor’s Ratatouille in a musical number in Dick Whittington

One stretched-out discussion between Hunter’s King Rat and Mary-Louise Surgenor’s sidekick Ratatouille had the cubs and brownies fidgeting, but otherwise this is a second partnership of highly experienced principals that clicks, albeit Hunter could have had a more poisonous bite to his ratty demeanour.

Company stalwart Geoff Walker’s Alderman Fitzwarren is suitably avuncular and the show’s knockout vocal award goes to singing teacher Ellie Watson for a belting My Hero in the role of Alice Fitzwarren.

Bernie Calpin’s sassy Kit the Cat is an unusually chatty moggie and all the better for it, when so often Dick’s companion merely meows.

Gemma McDonald’s Duncan Di Sorderlie and Mary-Louise Surgenor’s Daisy duetting on Love Is Your Legs

Adding to the pleasure are the uncredited set designs, and even more so the costumes, especially for Smith’s dame (look out for the Chocolate Whip!).

Smith relishes one joke in particular. When McDonald’s Duncan talks of “not making a scene” after losing a job as a set builder, the dame waspishly adds: “Unlike someone”. Who could Graham possibly mean?!

Rowntree Players present Dick Whittington at Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, until December 11, 7.30pm plus 2pm, Saturday. Ticket availability: tonight and Friday, widest choice; Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday night, limited; Saturday matinee, last few. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk. 

Shocking pink: Graham Smith in saucy mode as Dame Dora Di Sorderlie

Review by Charles Hutchinson

More Things To Do in York and beyond as the grand old dame is ready to frock’n’roll. List No 59, courtesy of The Pess, York

The boys and gal are back in town: AJ Powell, left, Suzy Cooper, Berwick Kaler, David Leonard and Martin Barrass return to the pantomime stage in Dick Turpin Rides Again at their new home of the Grand Opera House, York. Picture by David Harrison

DAME Berwick rides again, Adrian Mole surfaces, carol concerts abound and contrasting comedy cracks on, all demanding a place in Charles Hutchinson’s diary

Comeback of the week: Berwick Kaler and co in Dick Turpin Rides Again, Grand Opera House, York, December 11 to January 9

DAME Berwick Kaler last took to the pantomime stage in his 40th anniversary show, The Grand Old Dame Of York, on February 2 2019, having announced his retirement. Subsequently, he decided it was the “worst decision he had ever made”, a feeling only compounded by writing and co-directing Sleeping Beauty.

In the tradition of Clive Sullivan and Denis Law, he then switched to the other side in the same city, leaving York Theatre Royal to sign up with the Grand Opera House, along with panto teammates Martin Barrass, David Leonard, Suzy Cooper and AJ Powell.

Delayed by a year, Dame Berwick now resumes panto business at 75, writing, directing and starring in Dick Turpin Rides Again. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York.

Hannah King’s Dick Whittington is ready to stride out from York to London in Rowntree Players’ pantomime, Dick Whittington, from today

Community pantomime of the week: Rowntree Players in Dick Whittington, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, today until December 11

ROWNTREE Players should have presented Dick Whittington last year, but director Howard Ella and co-writer Andy Welch have now dusted off their script written by satellite in lockdown, freshening it up for 2021.

Martyn Hunter returns to the Players’ panto ranks as King Rat, as does Bernie Calpin as Kit The Cat, joining Hannah King’s Dick Whittington, Graham Smith’s Dame Dora, Gemma McDonald’s Duncan, Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Ratatouille, Geoff Walker’s Alderman Fitzwarren and Ellie Watson’s Alice Fitzwarren. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Native Harrow’s Stephen Harms and Devin Tuel will be airing songs from their fourth album, Closeness, at the Fulford Arms

American gig of the week in York: Native Harrow, Fulford Arms, York, Tuesday, 8pm 

PENNSYLVANIAN folk/rock duo Native Harrow are on the final leg of their tour travels showcasing their beautiful fourth album, Closeness.

Now re-located to Brighton, guitarist-singer Devin Tuel and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Harms have a new single too, Do It Again, one of six songs recorded when they elected to return to the studio where they had made Closeness to continue living in that world, if only for a few more days. Box office: seetickets.com/event/native-harrow/the-fulford-arms/1471604.

The secret is out: Jack Hambleton will be one of two Adrian Moles in Pick Me Up Theatre’s musical premiere. Picture: Matthew Kitchen Photography

Musical premiere of the week in York: Pick Me Up Theatre in The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, The Musical, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Wednesday to December 18

PICK Me Up Theatre are returning to the Theatre@41 Monkgate stage for the first time since Covid’s first lockdown curtailed Tom’s Midnight Garden in March 2020.

In a change from the initially announced SpongeBob The Musical, director Robert Readman has jumped at the chance to present the British amateur premiere of Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary’s musical version of Sue Townsend’s 1982 story of teenage diarist Adrian Mole. Ignore the official poster, there will be a 2pm Sunday matinee. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.  

Ryan’s laughter: Canada’s dry-humoured comic, Katherine Ryan, discusses life as a Missus at York Barbican

Comedy gig of the week: Katherine Ryan, Missus, York Barbican, Thursday, 8pm

CANADIAN comedian, writer, presenter and actress Katherine Ryan, 38, previously denounced partnerships but has since married her first love, accidentally.

A lot has changed for everyone, and now the London-based creator and star of Netflix series The Duchess and host of All That Glitters will be offering new perspectives on life, love and what it means to be Missus. Box office: yorkbarbicancentre.co.uk.

Ewa Salecka: Directing Prima Vocal Ensemble at Selby Abbey

Reunion of the week: Prima Vocal Ensemble and York Railway Institute Brass Band, Christmas Classics for Voices and Brass, Selby Abbey, December 11, 7.30pm

YORK choir Prima Vocal Ensemble and York Railway Institute Brass Band are uniting for a Christmas concert at Selby Abbey for the first time since 2018.

The choir will sing classical pieces by Morten Lauridsen, Gabriel Faure and John Rutter, while the band’s festive music will include Shepherd’s Song and Eric Bell’s Kingdom Triumphant.

Choir and band will join together for a finale of Gordon Langford’s joyous Christmas Fantasy. Tickets: on 07921 568826, from Selby Abbey or at primachoralartists.com.

York singer Steve Cassidy: Performing at the York Community Carol Concert at York Barbican

Welcome back: York Community Carol Concert, York Barbican, December 12, 2pm

YORK’S Community Carol Concert returns after last year’s Covid-enforced cancellation, with all the participants who missed out in 2020 taking up the invitation to take part in 2021.

In the Sunday afternoon line-up will be the Shepherd Group Concert Brass Band, Dringhouses Primary School Choir, Clifton Green Primary School Choir, Stamford Bridge Community Choir and York singer Steve Cassidy, hosted by the Reverend Andrew Foster and BBC Radio York presenter Adam Tomlinson. Plenty of tickets are still available but online only at yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Holly head: Kate Rusby, who coined that term for a Christmas tradition enthusiast, will be in festive mood in both Harrogate and York. Picture: David Lindsay

Carol concert with a difference: Kate Rusby At Christmas, Harrogate Royal Hall, December 12, and York Barbican, December 20, 7.30pm

BARNSLEY folk singer Kate Rusby, her regular band and “the brass boys” have created a Christmas tradition of their own, celebrating South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire pub carols, punctuated by her own winter songs.

For more than 200 years, from late-November to New Year’s Day, these carols have been sung on Sunday lunchtimes in pubs, having been frowned on in Victorian times for being too happy. Not for the first time, the Victorians were wrong. Box office: Harrogate, 01423 502116 or at harrogatetheatre.co.uk; York, yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Nothing to smile about? Jimmy Carr takes a Terribly Funny turn for a third time in York

Looking ahead to a “terrible” 2022: Jimmy Carr, Terribly Funny, York Barbican, April 15, doors, 7pm

CYNICAL comedian Jimmy Carr will complete a hattrick of York performances of his Terribly Funny tour show next spring.

After playing sold-out gigs at York Barbican on November 4 and the Grand Opera House five nights later, he will return to the Barbican on April 15 with the promise of “all-new material for 2022”.

Carr will be discussing terrible things that might have affected you or people you know and love. “But they’re just jokes,” he says. “Political correctness at a comedy show is like having health and safety at a rodeo.” Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk

‘Excited isn’t the word!’ says director Howard Ella as Rowntree Players prepare to open Dick Whittington on panto return

Rowntree Players’ principal cast members: Gemma McDonald’s Duncan, left, Hannah King’s Dick Whittington, Ellie Watson’s Alice Fitzwarren, Graham Smith’s Dame Dora and Martyn Hunter’s King Rat

DICK Whittington had to turn round and rest up for a year when Rowntree Players’ 2020 show was cancelled by Covid.

Now, however, Dick and his cat  will be on the road from York to London from Saturday (4/12/2021), when the Players take to the Joseph Rowntree Theatre stage with director Howard Ella and co-writer Andy Welch’s pantomime.

Joining Hannah King’s Dick Whittington in the cast will be Graham Smith’s Dame Dora; Gemma McDonald’s Duncan; Martyn Hunter’s King Rat; Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Ratatouille; Geoff Walker’s Alderman Fitzwarren; Ellie Watson’s Alice Fitzwarren and Bernie Calpin’s Kit The Cat.

Howard and Andy first wrote the script remotely, via a satellite link, before the 2020 show was called off. “Socially distanced writing – that was a challenge,” says Howard. “I work away a lot so there had always been an element of remote collaboration, but this was full on.

“What was missing was the ability to read and act as we wrote without a satellite delay. That one-second delay kills humour stone dead, so there was a lot of writing on instinct. Then we had to shelve the script. Totally gutting.”

Roll on a year and out came the script again. “What was great was to lift it out a year later, read it with fresh eyes and still enjoy it,” says Howard. “What’s most strange is that it really demonstrated the stasis we have been in.  It still felt relevant, if only because so much of our world of Covid and politics did not change.

“Of course, once we start blocking with the cast, then the gags change and everyone throws in their bit.”

Comedy writing as a duo, in the tradition of Galton & Simpson and Le Frenais & Clement, works well for the Players’ pantos. “I’ve written on my own and with both Barry [former dame Barry Benson] and Andy on different panto years,” says Howard.

“It’s exciting as you can bounce off each other and try things out before anyone else ever sees the script. The trick in making that writing partnership work is honesty and trust. When you don’t find something funny, when it’s not quite good enough, you have to say so and in a clear way.

Hannah King’s Dick Whittington is ready to set off from York to London in Rowntree Players’ Dick Whittington

“If you’re on the other end of the criticism, that’s where the trust kicks in. You trust you partner’s judgement and screw up the page. Sometimes tough, but you have to see it as collaboration, not compromise.”

This year’s cast is down in size by a couple of principals. “But that was story driven,” reasons Howard. “We wrote the script in early 2020 assuming Covid would drift past, so, in reality, there’s no compromises there. The script has the cast it always needed.

“That said, our chorus numbers are slightly lower to facilitate sensible spacing in dressing rooms and to deal with the [pandemic-enforced] practicalities, like not being able to share costumes between teams.”

Adapting to Covid restrictions has created extra challenges both in rehearsal and at the JoRo theatre. “We’ve had mask wearing and sanitising and spacing where we can,” says Howard.

“Everyone has been on different testing regimes through work and school, and they have been ever changing. Also, there’s double jabs where possible (and some of us oldies are boosted too!)

“What’s great is that the Joseph Rowntree Theatre is aligned with all the guidelines and so we’ve worked together, more than ever, to make it as safe as possible for everyone, both backstage and in the audience.

“But in reality we’re in the lap of the gods. From here on in, we put on a great show and hope that we all stay healthy. Otherwise, I’ll be picking up a script and donning a frock!”

As the first night approaches, what’s the mood in the camp?  “Excited isn’t the word!  We have missed the community aspect so much – and you only realise the strength of bond between the Rowntree Players company when it hasn’t been there and we all get back together.

“Stepping into the theatre on Sunday for the get-in, seeing all those familiar, yet strangely masked, faces was a delight. We haven’t done this for two years but it’s all come flooding back.

Rowntree Players’ Gemma McDonald, Hannah King, Ellie Watson, Martyn Hunter and Graham Smith dress in pantomime character on a day out at Murton Park, the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, near York

“In the company, we have a lot of returning cast and chorus, which has really helped us to short-cut through both Covid and a slightly curtailed rehearsal period because we slotted in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web in September, having delayed that production three times.

“Martyn Hunter has returned to the panto fold after a few years away and he’s done so with gusto, as has Bernie Calpin as Kit the Cat.”

Balancing work commitments with rehearsals, Howard is delighted to be bringing Dick Whittington to the stage. “At its heart, Dick Whittington has traditional pantomime roots. That’s what I love. We try and make every pantomime relevant, recognise how the world is changing and represent it in our own way.  

“But underneath all good pantomimes is a tale of right and wrong with a love story in the background and the freedom to be silly in between.

“I’ve also always liked the reminder that nowhere’s streets are paved with gold and that generally you have to work hard and you get out what you put in,” he says, “channelling his inner Yorkshireman”.

Saturday’s opening show will be emotional for cast and audience alike, given the sense of community at the core of all the Players’ work. “Everything we do at Rowntree Players aims to be inclusive of anyone who wants to take part,” says Howard, who is presenting Dick Whittington in tandem with choreographer Ami Carter, musical director Jess Douglas and production manager Helen Woodall.

“There’s a real commitment, there’s a pride in being involved with such an old society returning to the theatre where they started.

“The joy for any audience comes from the cast and their joy in being part of a production. We get so much pleasure from our hobby, we laugh an enormous amount, and I think that enjoyment flows over the pit and into the auditorium in everything we do.”

Rowntree Players present Dick Whittington at Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, December 4 to 11. Performances: 7.30pm, except Sunday; 2pm matinees, Saturday, Sunday and next Saturday. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

REVIEW: York Settlement Community Players in The 39 Steps, running until…fate intervened ****

Chemistry: Sanna Buck’s femme fatale and Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay in Settlement Players’ The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

John Buchan, Alfred Hitchcock, Simon Corble, Nobby Dimon and Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps, York Settlement Community Players, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, no longer dashing about with pencil-slim moustache panache until Sunday afternoon, alas, after cast illness.

DRINK in hand, it was time to sit back in the John Cooper Studio’s cabaret-style seating, relax and let the suspenseful comic drama begin.

Glass empty, (product-placed York Gin) bottle likewise, Aran MacRae’s Lieutenant Richard Hannay is slumped in his dull, lonely, newly rented Portland Place flat. He’s a man in an emotional pickle, on the edge, on the ledge, “tired of the world and tired of life” as the problems pile up. Suicidal, even, and in need of love as it later turns out.

So far, so sombre. What the dashing but hopes-dashed Hannay needs is “something pointless and trivial” to shake him out of his torpor. “I know,” he says. “Go to the theatre.” Boom, there goes the first big laugh, an insider knowing joke told against theatre, delivered with perfect comic timing, and so Harri Marshall’s production immediately hits its stride.

Writer Patrick Barlow: Fast-moving, snappily-clever, needs-must version of The 39 Steps

This is Patrick Barlow’s fast-moving, snappily clever version of The 39 Steps, the one he scripted for the West Yorkshire Playhouse and later West End and international success from an original Yorkshire-founded concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon.

In a nutshell, Marshall’s cast is charged with hitching John Buchan’s story of murder, suspense and intrigue to the thrills, spills and daring deeds of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film in a deranged marriage of comedy, farce, misadventure, mystery and thriller.

In Barlow’s National Theatre of Brent days, he would have his mock two-man theatre troupe, Desmond and Raymond, re-enact the Light Brigade and the Zulu Wars in a send-up of short-handed theatre companies.

Past productions of The 39 Steps divided its 135 characters between a cast of four, one man for Hannay, a woman for three women, and two men or a man and a woman (as in Rowntree Players’ 2015 production at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre), nominally called Man 1 and Man 2, for the rest.

Aran MacRae’s “tired of the world and tired of life” Richard Hannay. Picture: John Saunders

Marshall marshals rather more forces, calling on six men in black, Daniel Boyle, Andrew Isherwood, Matthew Lomax, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison and Stephen Wright, to take on Barlow’s trademark needs-must, bargain-basement theatre style as The Clowns.

This demands that they must improvise props on the hoof amid the dearth of resources, wear multiple hats metaphorically and sometimes physically in leaping from role to role, and somehow ensure the smooth delivery of a performance, (hoping the audience won’t notice the absence of an errant stage manager, but Barlow/Marshall knowing they will).

From Lip Service to Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong, this is a slick, precise, unflappable  comic device that has borne the ripest fruit, and here Marshall’s misrule of six brings a new dimension to both the madcap comedy capers and to the underlying darkness.

Barlow’s play often draws comparison with the anarchic spirit and teamwork of Monty Python; now, after Marshall’s innovation, the absurdist League of Gentlemen come to mind too. Daniel Boyle’s voice and looning eyes remind you of late Python Terry Jones; Matthew Lomax’s female characterisations echo the Gents.  

Unforgettable: Daniel Boyle as Mr Memory in The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

All the while, there is a story to tell, driven by narrator Hannay, MacRae’s upright Hannay playing it absolutely rod-straight, whatever hurdle is thrown his way from Hitchcock’s thriller and other Hitchcock works besides, as he ends up as murder suspect number one when a mysterious German woman with a gun, Annabelle Schmidt (Sanna Buck), dies in his arms after insisting on leaving the London Palladium by his side, desperate to impart important information.

On his tail as he heads to Scotland by train are policemen, secret agents and assorted women, and Marshall’s forces pull off Barlow’s obstacle course with elan, whether faced by re-enacting Hitchcock’s chase on the Flying Scotsman, the escape from the Forth Bridge, the first ever theatrical bi-plane crash [reprised from 1959’s North By Northwest] or a death-defying finale. Every Hitch homage defiantly goes off without a hitch.

Particularly strong is the chemistry between MacRae and Buck, a Swedish-born stage and film actor performing in York for the first time. MacRae, a professional with West End credits, now back in his home city, wholly lives up to Marshall’s billing that he would “balance brilliant playfulness against being earnest when required”, while Buck is to the Thirties’ manner born in her trio of roles as mystery German woman Annabelle, an alluring English femme fatale and a shy but helpful Scottish farmer’s wife. What a debut!

Caught on the hop: Harri Marshall’s company breaks into a dance step in The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

Praise too for Helen Taylor’s wardrobe, especially for MaCrae and Buck, and Richard Hampton and Graham Sanderson’s set and lighting designs.

What rotten luck that, after the supremely assured first night, cast illness should rob the company and audiences alike of further performances of such verbal vim, satirical brio, dextrous stage craft, inventive surprise and even a sudden outbreak of dancing, as taught in rehearsal to the ever-game cast by York Lindy Hop.

No matter how frustrating the sudden curtailment must feel to Harri and her cast, Settlement Players’ first live show since March 2020 has been totally worthwhile, reminding us of MacRae’s considerable talent, first shown in youth theatre days, introducing York to Buck and bringing together a pool of performers it would be good to see working together again.

Director Harri Marshall: Heavy heart at having to call off the remaining performances

York Settlement Community Players’ statement on Friday:

“We are very sorry to announce that, due to cast illness and circumstances beyond our control, all remaining performances of The 39 Steps are cancelled (Fri 12, Sat 13 and Sun 14 November).

“All ticket holders for these affected performances will be contacted by email and receive a full refund. We ask that you please bear with us and theatre@41 while the necessary arrangements are made and thank you for your patience at this time.

“We would like to express our utmost thanks to the cast and crew for their commitment and creativity over the past months. It is with a heavy heart that we make this necessary decision but look forward to putting on more great theatre in York next year.”

REVIEW: : Rowntree Players in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web, ends tomorrow

Jake Botterell as Oliver Costello in Rowntree Players’ modern-day account of Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web

Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web, Rowntree Players, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm, 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk

AGATHA Christie wrote Spider’s Web at the request of its star turn, Margaret Lockwood, during West End rehearsals for Witness For The Prosecution.

Now, director Howard Ella has “re-written” Christie’s 1954 murder mystery for Rowntree Players’ return to the stage after the pandemic hiatus.

More accurately, he has updated Christie’s manor-house setting of Copplestone Court to 2021, with cultural references to Harry Syles, Daniel Radcliffe and the local Aldi, a Nike bag and trainers for dodgy Oliver Costello and a photographic portrait of lady of the house Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, rather than an austere oil painting.

At the same time, a butler in formal attire, a rather old-school child with hair clips, a protective guardian, an eccentric gardener and games of bridge evoke the earlier era, while Graham Smith’s Hugo Birch appears to be dressed for a shooting party.

There are worse crimes – often in a Christie story – than tampering with a text, and Ella’s decision is born as much out of necessity as in the spirit of fun that pervades Agatha’s second most-performed play.

Ella’s production ends up with a foot in both camps, rather than in no man’s land, as do his cast’s accents, but the dialogue stubbornly betrays its Fifties’ roots, like that tell-tale tramline of black in bleached blonde hair.

In the absence of programme notes and indeed a programme – another concession to Covid times, with only a cast list available – Ella explained his reasoning afterwards in response to a late-night CharlesHutchPress email question: “Was there a reason for the modern setting? Was it to do with costume non-availability after the Rowntree Players’ store fire?”

Martyn Hunter’s permanently concerned guardian, Sir Rowland Delahaye

“It was less about the store fire but more about Covid and costumes and control,” Ella responded. “Both from a costume and a propping point of view. Very dull but a necessary evil in these times.     

“It actually was a decision when we thought we could perform in early 2021. But it pushed and pushed.   

“I like the idea of playing it contemporary, although, of course, the challenge sits in balancing that against how faithful you should be to the original dialogue.”

So that clears that up. Now, to the play, wherein diplomat’s wife Clarissa (Gemma McDonald) is spinning tales of adventure and stepdaughter Pippa (Katelyn Banks) is permanently hungry and restless but tired.

Guardian Sir Rowland Delahaye (Martyn Hunter), fellow old sport Hugo Birch (Smith) and young buck Jeremy Warrender (Andrew Roberts) are passing the time, trying to identity different glasses of port in a taste test, waiting for dinner at the nearby golf club, although Warrender looks strangely interested in trying locate a drawer in the desk.

Craig Kirby’s sonorous, stone-faced butler, Elgin, is doing what impenetrable butlers used to do; Jeannette Hunter’s perky, if mysterious, Mildred Peake keeps traipsing in from the garden.

Clarissa’s husband, the something-hush-hush-at-the-Foreign-Office Henry (Rory Mulvihill), has to pop out to a meeting. In pops Jake Botterell’s malevolent Oliver Costello, up to no good with a vow to take Pippa away to her flaky mother.

Spinning stories like a spider’s web: Gemma McDonald’s Clarissa Hailsham-Brown

Suddenly, there’s murder on the drawing-room floor, but whodunit and how does far-fetched fantasist Clarissa cover it up? Desperate to dispose of the body before Henry arrives with a very important politician, she enlists the help/hindrance of her house guests .

Enter the detective, in this particular case Mark McDonald’s heavily-bearded, somewhat heavy-handed Inspector Lord, a wry, if blunter, instrument of interrogation than Christie’s Poirot, assisted by the frank Constable Jones (Sara Howlett, lovely Welsh accent et al).

Christie revels in a “conscious parody of the detective thriller”, leavening all the familiar tropes with knowing humour, while still tightening the suspense ever tauter, albeit over a long stretch of nearly three hours, replete with dropped clues and plot contrivances aplenty.

Add drug addiction, ham sandwiches, invisible ink, a very valuable rare stamp, a secret drawer, a hidden doorway and an unusual corner-turn for a second stage entrance, and Ella oversees a spirited production full of heightened drama, humorous confrontations and murky mystery.

Hunter, Mulvihill, Smith and Kirby are the ballast; Hunter is comedy gold; McDonald and Howlett form a resourceful double act; Roberts could have escaped from a Noel Coward comedy, and the menacing Botterell and precocious Banks bring freshness to the Players’ ranks.

In the lead role, Gemma McDonald’s Clarissa is full of fun and games, but has a few hiccups with her mountain of intricately-spun lines that hopefully will not repeat on her tonight and tomorrow.

Suffused with surprises, some new to Christie’s story, this modern-day yet retro Spider’s Web makes for an enjoyable evening’s entanglement.

Rowntree Players return from lockdown and fire with Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web

Rowntree Players in rehearsal for Agatha Christie’s A Spider’s Web, directed by Howard Ella

AGATHA Christie’s Spider’s Web opens at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre tonight in the first of three Rowntree Players’ productions in four months after the long pandemic hiatus.

Coming next, from December 4 to 11, will be Howard Ella and Andy Welch’s pantomime Dick Whittington, followed by the January 27 to 29 world premiere of The Missing Peace, adapted by director Gemma McDonald from York author, musician and public speaker Ian Donaghy’s book on bereavement and life after death.

Howard Ella, who has taken up a director of productions role for original Netflix series in the UK, is somehow finding time to direct Christie’s murder mystery.

What happens? Diplomat’s wife Clarissa Hailsham-Brown is adept at spinning tales of adventure, but when a murder takes place in her drawing room, she finds live drama much harder to cope with.

Desperate to dispose of the body before husband Henry arrives with an important politician, she enlists the help of her guests. 

“In a conscious parody of the detective thriller, Christie delivers a unique blend of suspense and humour,” says Howard. “There is tension and laughter in equal parts in an intricate plot of murder, police, hidden doorways and secret drawers.”

Explaining the choice of play for Rowntree Players’ return to the stage, Howard says: “For a few years we’ve talked about doing a murder mystery, having done Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and John Godber plays.

Jeanette Hunter in the role of Mildred Peake in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web

“For me, I need a comic bent to find my way through a play, and because Spider’s Web has an element of tongue in cheek about it, you could almost argue that Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong is based on Spider’s Web and not on The Mousetrap.

“It’s funny, it’s heightened drama; it does the mystery bit that it brings out with a smile, and it lets Rowntree Players find our feet again after two years, with a cast of 11 taking part, some of them new to the Players.

“It’s also a proper set-build for us, now we have a roof back on our store and all our kit has been replaced after the fire that tore through our sets and props at Moor Farm in Murton in January 2020.”

The fire destroyed half of Rowntree Players’ stock. “Smoke and water damage made most of the rest of it useless, and then because of the Covid lockdowns, it took eight months to get the roof back on,” says Howard.

“That Biblical plague meant no-one could achieve anything for a year; it was such a crazy year, where you could not imagine a worldwide pandemic would stop everything in its tracks for so long.”

The 2020 Rowntree Players’ pantomime fell by the wayside and The Missing Peace premiere was put on hold, but the Players are returning at “hopefully full pelt”.

“Andy Welch and I wrote the Dick Whittington panto script for last year, so we’re a year ahead of ourselves!” says Howard. “We’ve done a read-through to road-test it, having written it remotely, with screen shares for me and Andy.

The Rowntree Players’ poster for Dick Whittington, Covid-cancelled last year but now taking to the road to London this December

“That was challenging to do, never hearing it out loud, so we got together in my garden once we were allowed to do so, to give it a run, and we’ve since done a couple of tweaks.

“We’re hoping to be able to do the show as we always would have done it, with children and a chorus, but we’ll react to any Covid restrictions if we have to.”

The Missing Peace premiere will complete the trilogy of Rowntree Players’ comeback shows in the form of one play with 15 endings. “I’ve picked out 15 of the monologues from Ian Donaghy’s book, putting them together to be told on a station platform in a collective narrative, with piano accompaniment, maybe a busker” says director Gemma McDonald.

“The play is a series of talking head-style monologues that have been brought together to explore life after death, with each character stepping out to tell their tale. It’s not a play about death, it’s a play about life, so there’ll be moments of laughter, sadness and reflection throughout.”

Out of necessity, Gemma is adapting the monologues anew because some of the original cast members have headed off to university, while others have moved on from York.

Looking ahead, Gemma says: “We would love to have the publicity of doing an extra show at York Theatre Royal, if the run goes well and we raise the money. If that could come off, it would raise the profile of Rowntree Players and we’d have more people coming to our plays.”

Howard adds: “We have to plan for bankrolling plays through our pantomimes, which always sell out, and that allows us to do plays that people have not always heard of.”

Or indeed are new, like The Missing Peace.

The Missing Peace: Missed out on its planned premiere in the lockdown lull but will go ahead in early 2022

Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web will be performed at 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm on Saturday. For tickets for Rowntree Players’ productions, ring 01904 501935 or book online at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Who’s who in the Rowntree Players cast for Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web:

Sir Rowland Delahaye: played by Martyn Hunter;

Hugo Birch: Graham Smith;

Jeremy Warrender: Andrew Roberts;

Clarissa Hailsham-Brown: Gemma McDonald;

Pippa Hailsham-Brown: Katelyn Banks;

Mildred Peake: Jeanette Hunter;

Elgin: Craig Kirby;

Oliver Costello: Jake Botterell;

Henry Hailsham-Brown: Rory Mulvihill;

Inspector Lord: Mark McDonald;

Constable Jones: Sara Howlett.

Did he or didn’t he? All will be revealed when Craig Kirby plays Elgin in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web from tonight until Saturday at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York

More Things To Do in and around York as creative night market launched. List No. 49, courtesy of The Press, York

Big news! York artist Freya Horsley, right, and gallery co-director Ails McGee with Freya’s paintings Turning Tide and Liquid Light at According To McGee, York

BIG paintings, a night market, thrillers at the double, cookery chat, an anniversary celebration, a long-awaited Scottish return and a brace of comedians are the diverse focus of Charles Hutchinson’s attention.

Exhibition of the week: Freya Horsley, Contemporary Seascapes, According To McGee, York, running until October 11

ACCORDING To McGee is playing host to the biggest paintings the Tower Street gallery has ever exhibited: Liquid Light and Turning Tide, two mixed-media works on canvas by Freya Horsley.

The York artist is displaying a new series of seascape paintings depicting the Cornish, Scottish and north east coastlines.

“Her art makes you look twice because it has a calming quality and, like a good sunrise, it makes you go ‘wow!’,” says co-director Greg McGee.

York Creatives Night Market: Debut night of arts, crafts, music, food and drink at Shambles Market tomorrow

York Creatives Night Market, Shambles Market, York, tomorrow, 7pm to 10.30pm

POSTPONED at short notice on August 20, the debut York Creatives Night Market goes ahead tomorrow in a chance to browse art and products by independent traders.

Street food, drinks and music all evening are on the menu too for this free event, open to all.

The Rusty Pegs: Tenth anniversary concert at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York

Celebrating ten years on: The Rusty Pegs, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Saturday, 8pm

TEN years ago, York country band The Rusty Pegs formed, drawn from volunteers at the Monkgate theatre, who were asked to perform their debut gig there at a Raising The Roof fundraiser.

To mark a decade of making music together, the Pegs have decided to come full circle by performing an anniversary gig in the same place where it all started, this time launching the autumn season. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

No mistaking Justin Currie: Del Amitri return with Fatal Mistakes album for first York gig since 2002

Long time coming: Del Amitri, York Barbican, Saturday, 7.45pm

DEL Amitri follow up the May 28 release of their seventh studio album, Fatal Mistakes, with a return to York Barbican after a 19-year hiatus.

Justin Currie’s Glaswegian band last played there in May 2002, the year they released their last album, Can You Do Me Good?.

“It’s been nearly 20 years since we toured with a new album, lord knows what took us so long,” says Currie. “The prospect of sprinkling our set with a few choices from Fatal Mistakes fills us with the sort of excitement that, for some men of our age, might call for light medication. We think the adrenaline will see us through.” Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

No smoke without ire: Scottish comedian Daniel Sloss blows his top at York Barbican

Comedy gig of the week: Daniel Sloss: Hubris, York Barbican, Sunday, 7.30pm

SUNDAY’S gig is third time lucky for Scotsman Daniel Sloss, whose October 3 2020 and May 8 2021 visits were ruled out by the accursed Covid.

Sloss, 30, has sold out six New York solo off-Broadway seasons, appeared on American television’s Conan show ten times and toured to more than 50 countries. Now, at last, comes his new show, with special guest Kai Humphries.

Look out for Sloss’s book, Everyone You Hate Is Going To Die (And Other Comforting Thoughts On Family, Friends, Sex, Love, And More Things That Ruin Your Life), from October 12. For tickets for Sunday, go to: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

What’s cooking? Cookbook writer Yotam Ottolenghi finds flavour at York Theatre Royal on Tuesday

Flavour of the month: Yotam Ottolenghi, A Life In Flavour, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday, 7.30pm

CHEF, restaurateur and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi reflects on A Life In Flavour, provides cooking inspiration and signs copies of his “flavour-forward, vegetable-based” cookbook, Ottolenghi Flavour, after the show on Tuesday.

West Jerusalem-born Ottolenghi will be discussing the tastes, ingredients and flavours that excite him and how he has created a career from cooking.

Expect “unique insights into how flavour is dialled up and why it works, from basic pairings fundamental to taste, to cooking methods that elevate ingredients to great heights”. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Dane Baptiste: Comedian with a chip on his shoulder at Burning Duck Comedy Club

The other comedy gig of the week: Burning Duck Comedy Club presents Dane Baptiste: The Chocolate Chip, The Crescent, York, September 23, 7.30pm

IN his own words, Dane Baptiste is now a “grown ass black man, too old to be concerned with chicken or trainers, too young to be considered a peer of Trevor McDonald”.

Has he got a chip on his shoulder? “Yes. A chocolate one,” says Baptiste, a south east London stand-up who once worked in media sales.

Noted for his boldly provocative material, he hosts the podcasts Dane Baptiste Questions Everything and Quotas Full. Box office: thecrescentyork.com/events.

The Rowntree Players’ poster for next week’s production of Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web

Web of the week: Rowntree Players in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, September 23 to 25, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee

DIPLOMAT’S wife Clarissa is adept at spinning tales of adventure, but when a murder takes place in her drawing room, she finds live drama much harder to cope with in Rowntree Players’ autumn return, directed by Howard Ella.

Desperate to dispose of the body before her husband arrives with an important politician, she enlists the help of her guests. 

In a conscious parody of the detective thriller, Christie’s Spider’s Web delivers suspense and humour in equal measure in an intricate plot of murder, police detection, hidden doorways and secret drawers. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

In the chair: Just Some Theatre in rehearsal for The Killer Question, heading to Theatre@41, Monkgate, York

Mystery of the week ahead: Just Some Theatre in The Killer Question, Theatre@41 Monkgate, York, September 25, 7.30pm

THE Silence Of The Lambs meets Last Of The Summer Wine in Dave Payne’s dark comedy thriller The Killer Question, marking the York debut of Manchester company Just Some Theatre.

Did The Chair game show champion Walter Crump’s obsession with death ultimately lead to his own? Inspector Black believes so, and now Crump’s dopey widow, Margaret, finds herself accused of her husband’s murder. 

Faced by more than one deadly twist in the tale, can Inspector Black solve the mystery? Will Margaret be home in time for Countryfile? Just as important, which actor – Peter Stone, Jake Urry or Jordan Moore – will play which character? The audience decides. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Jill and Stephen Outhwaite bow out of theatre costume hire as Dress Circle closes

The end of the clothing chapter: Jill and Stephen Outhwaite are closing their Dress Circle of York costume hire enterprise. Picture: Melissa Gresswell, Liss Photography

THE final curtain falls on costume-hire emporium Dress Circle of York after 18 years tomorrow when Stephen and Jill Outhwaite will bow out.

“I’ve counted up the number of companies, schools, film companies, event companies and more that we’ve dealt with, and I’m sure I’ve missed out some, but it must be around 160, and then there are all the individuals over the years,” says Jill.

York Stage Musicals, the Rowntree Players, Bev Jones Music Company, Helmsley Arts Centre’s 1820 Theatre  Company and Stephen Tearle’s NEMS York are but five of those companies grateful to theatre costumiers Stephen and Jill and their team of Sophie, Sue, Elaine, Caroline, Emily, Susan and Guy.

“We would like to thank all of valued customers for their support, laughs, friendliness, understanding, cakes and chocolate over the past 18 years,” says the official notice on the Dress Circle website.

“We will miss you and wish you all the very best of luck in the future. Stay safe and well as we take our final bows.”

Dress Circle of York is run in converted buildings of the Outhwaite family farm at Low Grange Farm, off Moor Lane – more and more lane, it is a long lane – in Haxby, near York. “After 0.75 miles, there is a sharp right bend in the road, continue straight down the ‘no-through road’ for 1 mile,” the website advises. “Turn left into the farm yard at white sign ‘Low Grange Farm’.”

Many a farm has diversified, whether into ice cream, maze attractions, fields for solar-heating generation or wedding party teepees, wind farms, holiday cottages, film studios, business parks, beer breweries, the list goes on…

Items for hire, in a flashback to the 1980s, at Dress Circle of York. Picture: Liss Photography

…But theatrical costume hire? Pantomimes, fancy dress, make-up and accessories too, that is another world, one of fantasy, fable and fabulous fun, where a farewell visit just had to be made to thank Stephen and Jill.

All that was missing, and the eyes could not possibly take in everything, was a Daisy the Cow, front and back end, down on this 150-acre farm.

“Dress Circle of York came into being in 2002 when Jill and I brought the theatrical costume-hire business into an empty barn,” says Stephen, who has a history of acting, directing, theatrical make-up and running a youth theatre [he founded and ran Flying Ducks Youth Theatre in York for many years].

“Combined with Jill’s experience of costuming shows and a history degree and encouraged by the Government and our accountant to diversify, when the farming wasn’t that good, we took the first step into developing Dress Circle, acquiring stock from Geraldine Jevons and Sue Morris.

“The business has grown and developed in a way not dreamt of, as we built up a team of staff with a wealth and diversity of experience in costume and the theatrical world.”

In a normal year, from the end of October through to early December would be Dress Circle’s busiest time, but this was the abnormal year where the Covid Grinch cancelled Christmas and much more besides. “Over the past few years, we have, on average, dressed 30 shows in those few weeks, but not this year of course,” says Jill.

In 2020 Dress Circle costumed 170 shows all told; in 2020, only 39, as theatres went dark and largely stayed dark. “Shows that would have been going out, until lockdown kicked in, now aren’t. Even those provisionally booked for next year, the orders couldn’t be confirmed,” says Jill.

Everything a panto dame could dream of matching with over-bold lippy and a wig” at Dress Circle of York

Not only theatre companies called on their Aladdin’s barn of costume opportunities. So too did those seeking clothes for weddings and even funerals; war-themed weekends; big parties with a dress code; bikers gathering in Helmsley for a charity Christmas ride; vintage car enthusiasts headed for the Goodwood Festival of Speed in West Sussex.

Everything could be found, from Lady Gaga and Tina Turner styles to Madonna cones; from Victorian and Edwardian clothes, through Seventies’ Glam to the modern day; from the full kit bag for Cinderella, Beauty And The Beast and Monty Python’s Spamalot to a Gruffalo; from Father Christmas outfits to The Pink Panther.

No fewer than 16,000 costumes and much more besides: hats and more hats; prop after prop; military attire; blazers and tailcoats; socks and handkerchiefs; umbrellas and swords; waistcoats up to a 60-inch chest, ties, scarves, suits-you-sir suits, dress upon dress. Aprons. Everything a panto dame could dream of matching with over-bold lippy and a wig. Anything for a Steampunk sci-fi enthusiast.

“We’re the biggest business of our type in the north east,” says Jill. “We cover as far as Blyth, in Northumberland, down to north Lincolnshire.”

So much glamour, such theatrical flourish, is promised in these most untheatrical of premises. “It was built for cattle, and over the years we had pigs and grain in it too,” says Stephen.

“We insulated all the walls, but heating-wise you don’t want gas because it puts moisture into the atmosphere, electricity is expensive, so I enquired about a wood burner.”

No ordinary wood burner, it turns out. It is as big as a fledgling dancer’s dreams. “We got it from Dowling Stoves in Scotland, though originally he was from Helmsley,” says Stephen. “It’s the only heating we need in here; it keeps a nice dry barn, really good for drying costumes.” Two washing machines can be heard too, yet tomorrow they will fall silent.

“No fewer than 16,000 costumes and much more besides: hats and more hats; prop after prop” at Dress Circle of York. Picture: Liss Photography

“When I was at school, I wanted to be either a farmer or an actor, so I started with farming – better the devil you know – but then I flipped to acting, and I did everything but opera,” says Stephen.

Not that the farming has ever had its final harvest. BSE (“Mad Cow Disease”) put paid to the beef farming, he gave up on sheep too, but pigs – “bed and breakfast weeners” – have played their part and so too have contract grass-seed drilling and diversification into growing 40 acres of miscanthus, a biofuel for greener times.

Somehow, Stephen has found time to spread his wings still further, whether into piloting Flying Ducks Youth Theatre, or providing theatrical make-up services, or building sets for theatre shows.

“The make-up work was by chance initially but then it blossomed into film work too and the Vikings Roadshow, designing the make-up,” he says. “It toured Europe, then came to the Museum Gardens in York.”

Stephen will turn 70 next year, Jill, 67, and 2020’s stultifying pandemic has pressed them into making the decision to call time on Dress Circle. “We have such good staff; we had seven, but three have left already, and that was the toughest thing,” says Jill. “We feel awful; they’re all good friends and we get on so well. We’re a costume-hire team with the personal touch.

“We tried to keep going, and the furlough scheme was a godsend, but there’s just nothing happening in the theatre world. Theatres have to get going again first, and then we could have got going again, but we’d already decided to retire anyway.”

As a reminder of a year brought to a shuddering halt, the costumes for Bev Jones Music Company’s Calamity Jane, stopped a day before opening by the pandemic lockdown, are still hanging unused on a rail.

Cleopatra Rey as Deloris and Joanne Theaker as Sister Mary Roberts in Sister Act, one of York Stage Musicals’ productions that used costumes from Dress Circle of York

“We’re trading to December 19 and then looking at the possibilities of what we can do,” says Jill. “The closure announcement is on Facebook, and ideally we’d like to sell Dress Circle as a going concern, and we’d love it to go locally preferably.”

Stephen reflects on the path ahead. “Time goes on and there comes a time when you have to say, ‘it’s time to move on’…

…“But there is room for this business still to grow if someone takes it on,” urges Jill, who can be contacted at jill­­_outhwaite@btconnect.com.

Not all theatrical enterprises will be ending at Low Grange Farm. Flying Ducks will continue to rehearse in one of the buildings and Steve will still be making set designs, keeping that wood burner alight.

Thank you to Dress Circle of York, so many shows, so many memories of nights in the theatre and contented customers beyond.   As Nik Briggs, artistic of York Stage Musicals, puts it: “Dress Circle have been a great asset to the York theatre scene. Jill and her team will be a huge miss.

“From creating Broadway-worthy sparkly nuns and a bunch of Seventies’ New York gangsters for our production of Sister Act, to creating a wardrobe for our Von Trapp children and the people of Austria on the brink of Anschluss in The Sound Of Music, their work has always been brilliant!”