REVIEW: Simple8 in Moby Dick, York Theatre Royal, on the hunt till tomorrow ***

Guy Rhys’s Captain Ahab in Simple8’s Moby Dick

THE publicity for Simple8’s Moby Dick promised a “fun, fast and joyous” production: three words not usually associated with Herman Melville’s labyrinthine leviathan novel.

What’s more, writer Sebastian Armesto described his adaptation as “mercifully brief”. “If you haven’t read the novel, you can watch our show and then pretend that you have,” he said, wryly.

Fun? No? Joyous? No. Fast? First half, yes, but the second half began to lull before a storming finale. Overall, “mercifully brief” would be doing a disservice to the intelligence and theatrical invention behind Royal & Derngate artistic director Jesse Jones’s production, although it never quite reaches the sublime heights, beauty, tragedy and surprising humour of Ockham’s Razor’s circus adaptation of Tess at the Theatre Royal last month.

The two touring productions share a use of planks of woods and sheets, an ensemble cast and a script pared back from a weighty 19th century novel, along with a combination of physicality and psychology that is the essence of theatre.

Spoiler alert, the whale of the title that cost Captain Ahab his leg turns up only in the “last few pages” as Guy Rhys’s Ahab takes his vendetta against the sperm whale to reckless extremes with his Pequod crew.

The rest is imagination: getting inside the head of Ahab and, first, the equally single-minded Ishmael (Mark Arends), the schoolmaster drawn to Nantucket to experience whale hunting on the Pequod.

The unseen threat of Moby Dick – mirroring Covid’s creeping progress, as Armesto commented in his interviews – is conjured through description and even in the shape of bones held aloft by cast members as we await the leviathan’s stealthy arrival. The only puppet is a porpoise pulled from a bucket.

Equally, Captain Ahab is the subject of much discussion, the last to arrive on board, inducing fear, adrenaline and stomach butterflies as much as the whale. His delayed entry, when it does come, is preceded by the thud of his stump, raising the blood pressure still more.

Arends’s Ishmael, rather than Ahab, is the narrator, the thinker, the innocent, intrigued outsider, learning as we do, gradually consumed by Ahab’s obsessive mission for vengeance.

In keeping with the duties of a crew, Jones’s ensemble cast of actor-musicians are “all in this together”.  “Everyone does everything for a really live, complicit experience,” as Armesto puts it. They act, they move scenery, they sing rousing, haunting sea shanties, all the while evoking the dangers of the sea and the mystery and the wonder of whales.

Who needs water or the shape of a whaling ship when you can make do with plenty of floorboards, scaffolding, sheets, a raised platform and a crow’s nest.

Armesto has called his play “a ripping yarn, a great piece of theatre for all ages”. It has humour, especially in the first encounter of Ishmael and Tom Swales’s Queequeg; it has spectacle too, but it is primarily a psychological drama full of existential fear and isolation, more than a seafaring (mis)adventure, leading to the loss of momentum until the climactic clash of whaler and whale.

For all that talk of being “fun, fast and joyous”, you should not expect to have a whale of a time, but Armesto, Jones and a highly committed cast deliver a deep dive into Moby Dick.

Simple8 in Moby Dick, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: 01904 623568 or ***

Whale alert! Simple8 take to the sea in Sebastian Armesto’s staging of Moby Dick at York Theatre Royal from June 6 to 8

Simple8’s Moby Dick scriptwriter, Sebastian Armesto

OCTOBER 1839. The Pequot is soon to sail out of Nantucket and her skipper, one Captain Ahab, needs a crew in Simple8’s production of Moby Dick, on tour at York Theatre Royal from June 6 to 8.

Seeking fortune and adventure, a humble schoolmaster named Ishmael ships aboard, joining a company charged with one task: to wreak revenge in the hunt for the white whale that took Ahab’s leg – the infamous Moby Dick.

Combining theatrical flair and invention, Sebastian Armesto’s adaptation captures the spirit of Herman Melville’s novel – romantic, ambiguous and rich with allegory – for the award-winning Simple 8, specialists in creating worlds out of nothing in bold new plays that tackle big ideas with large casts.

Complete with sea shanties played live on stage, planks of wood, tattered sheets and a battered assortment of musical instruments, the ensemble of actors and actor-musicians brings Moby Dick ingeniously to life.

Guy Rhys plays Captain Ahab, joined by Mark Arends (Ishmael), Jonathan Charles (ensemble), Hannah Emanuel (Starbuck), Syreeta Kumar (Manx), Hazel Monaghan (ensemble), James Newton (Flask), William Pennington (Stubb) and Tom Swale (Queequeg).

“It is a great pleasure to bring together this supremely talented ensemble of performers,” says director Jesse Jones. “Together, as a company we will conjure the world of the play using their musical ability, dynamic physicality and powerhouse performances to breathe life into this poignant yet playful production.”

Simple8, in association with Royal & Derngate, Northampton, present Moby Dick, York Theatre Royal, June 6 to 8, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or

In focus: Guy Rhys on playing Captain Ahab

Guy Rhys’s Captain Ahab, centre, leading his crew in Simple8’s Moby Dick. Picture: Manuel Harlan

SOMETIMES, as he makes his first appearance on stage in Moby Dick, Guy Rhys becomes aware that heads are turning in the front row as audience members wonder, “Is it real?”

The ‘it’ is Captain Ahab’s peg leg, a legacy of the seaman’s brush with a mighty whale – the Moby Dick of the title – that the vengeful Ahab is determined to hunt down and kill.

The answer is that the leg is fashioned from one of Guy’s old prosthetics to resemble Captain Ahab’s whalebone peg leg. The leg previously made an appearance, wrapped in leather, when the actor played a one-legged pirate.

Guy, who was born with a leg deformity that led to amputation when he was eight, does not consider himself a disabled actor and has only shown his prosthetic leg in four shows.

Those roles included Hercules . “I’d just got this brand-new blade and thought I’d show it off. I thought it would make Hercules look cool,” he says.

“The lack of a leg hasn’t been an issue as an actor. I only show the prosthetic when it’s suitable for the show. It’s got to be right. If you’re playing a pirate in Peter Pan, why not use the prosthetic? And obviously if you’re playing Captain Ahab, you’ve got to use it.

“One of my prosthetics has been redesigned as a peg leg. It looks great and the noise that my right leg and left peg leg make on the wooden boards has been put into the music. The musical director, Jonathan Charles, has mimicked the sound I make walking as Ahab and turned it into a sound bite.”

Simple8’s production of Moby Dick is very physical, and consequently the peg leg can become uncomfortable. Guy makes what he calls ‘pit stops’, when he leaves the stage to pull off the prosthetic for a few seconds to stop his leg swelling up. “I wouldn’t spend a day on that peg leg,” he says.

He does not know if the producers were looking specifically for an amputee for the part of Ahab but sees such casting as being in the spirit of a show that does not hide anything. There is no trickery. Everything is real, everything is done on stage with no hiding as Ahab and his crew hunt the whale that cost him his leg. Sea shanties are sung live; Ahab’s boat, the Pequot, is built before the audience’s eyes.

Guy was already well acquainted with Melville’s story because John Huston’s 1956 film version is one of his favourite films. “I’m an amputee so Captain Ahab is a bit of a legend to me,” he says.

“This stage version is like the film – action-packed. The 850 pages of the book are down to 63 pages in this version by Sebastian Armesto. It has really interesting spectacle and is really quite punchy.”

Moby Dick marks Guy’s first visit to York Theatre Royal in a career taking in roles in everything from Macbeth to Grimm Tales, from Much Ado About Nothing to Mother Courage. Yet acting was not always a goal. He was washing dishes for a living when theatre first entered his life and he “needed something to do on a Monday night”.

This turned out to be a theatre group that more or less took over his life. “I ended up virtually living in the theatre, going to Russia and meeting Peter Brook,” he says, referring to the great director.

Then Guy decided to go to drama school but lacked the necessary finance. His path instead took him to managing a Blockbuster Video shop.

“I watched films, read plays, went to art galleries and finally applied to the Drama Centre in 1997,” he says. “They offered me a place on the spot and I got three scholarships. The past has been a rollercoaster ride which is like every theatre career.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright of The Press, York

And then there were two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you know?

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