Next Door But One reflect on death and lessons for life in Operation Hummingbird

Next Door But One chief executive officer and artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle directing a rehearsal for Operation Hummingbird

YORK community arts collective Next Door But One are taking part in the 2023 TakeOver Festival at York Theatre Royal next week, performing a revival of Operation Hummingbird.

NDB1 premiered artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle’s one-act two-hander to sold-out audiences in the socially distanced summer of 2021. Now, buoyed by being among 984 arts organisations to be granted National Portfolio (NPO) status by Arts Council England and winning the award for Resilience and Innovation at the 2023 Visit York Tourism Awards, they have launched their new programme.

“It’s quite apt that our first touring production as an NPO is Operation Hummingbird,” says Matt. “‘We’ve spent ten years working hard, dreaming big and forging fruitful partnerships. That’s how we got here. Now we’re looking into the future and are so excited for what the next three years hold. A reflective, hopeful story about looking back and looking ahead feels perfect for now.”

Already this month NDB1 have staged Operation Hummingbird in library performances York Explore, Haxby Explore, Clifton Explore, Tang Hall Explore and Acomb Explore, from May 9 to 12, and now they are heading to the theatre and arts centre circuit. 

Midday and 7pm performances on May 23 and 24 on York Theatre Royal’s main stage will be followed by Pocklington Arts Centre on May 25 and Helmsley Arts Centre on June 2, both at 7.30pm.

David Lomond, back, and James Lewis-Knight in Next Door But One’s 2023 tour of Operation Hummingbird

“I realised it could work as a main-house piece when I watched Pilot Theatre’s Run Rebel, when they had sold only the stalls, but there was something nice about playing a performance to the stalls,” says Matt. “We’ll make it intimate by using only the front half of the stage, working with a new lighting designer, Abi Turner, from London,  who has designed  previously for the Donmar Warehouse.”

Based on his own memoir of living with loss, Matt’s two-hander tells the story of teenager Jimmy, who is dealing with his mum’s terminal diagnosis by diving into computer games. Through this virtual reality, he meets his future self and asks: will everything turn out OK?

“Operation Hummingbird is a humorous and uplifting exploration of grief, loss and noticing just how far you’ve come,” says Matt, whose cast features NDB1 associate artist James Lewis-Knight, returning in the role of Jimmy, and Scarborough actor David Lomond, joining the company for the first time to play James, the future version of Jimmy, 35 more years on the clock.

“For me, the concept is: this play is a really specific look at terminal illness, death and bereavement, but the narrative is universal. If we could fast-forward time and then be able to go back, older and wise, to stop our younger self by passing on advice. We’ve all had those questions that our older selves would like to have been able to give the answer to our younger selves.”

The two-hander format is ideal, suggests Matt. “After Covid, people are wanting shorter shows – this one is only 50 minutes – where you don’t have to travel far to see it and you could even see it at lunchtime if you went to a library performance.

James Lewis-Knight’s Jimmy in a scene from the 2021 premiere of Matt Harper-Hardcastle’s Operation Hummingbird. He returns for the new production

“We’ve brought Operation Hummingbird back after we had brilliant feedback from the first run, when we had only just come out of Covid restrictions and so only small, socially distanced audiences were allowed.

“For the 2023 revival, we decided we’d go to the satellite Explore York libraries we didn’t play before. Now we’ve been able to pick up the project and say, ‘we know it works but what’s the full iteration?’.

“That means also performing it on the Theatre Royal main stage and taking it to Pocklington and Helmsley. It’s actually our first ever show at the Theatre Royal because we’ve never looked into doing one there before, as the heart of our work is taking it to the community, places on people’s doorsteps, such as libraries, community centres and the Camphill Village Trust (with our show The Firework-Maker’s Daughter).”

Matt continues: “It feels like a significant moment of growth for us. We’re known to the communities we engage with, like the Snappy Trust and York Carers Centre, who appreciate our values, and this revival is an introductory chance for us to say, ‘if you don’t know our work, this is what we do’.

“I hope I have turned a story that started from a very personal place into something that we can all relate to,” says writer-director Matt Harper-Hardcastle

“One of the first pieces of feedback we had was someone saying, ‘I can’t believe how much you can tell in a story with so little. We’re the opposite of doing big-scale theatre productions. It’s still a big story, about death and bereavement, and for me, as a director, the main thing has to be the story.

“You could detract from it with a big set and a light show, so we tell a story with three boxes, a few props and two actors and no blackouts of the auditorium. The focus is on the story.”

Matt concludes: “There’s something in this show for everyone. I hope I have turned a story that started from a very personal place – with the sudden death of my mum in 2016 – into something that we can all relate to. I know that audiences in 2021 left entertained and reflective about their own life. I hope we can achieve the same this time, but reach an even bigger audience across the region.”

Tickets for all venues can be booked at Also: York Theatre Royal, 01904 623568 or; Pocklington, 01759 301547 or; Helmsley, 01439 771700 or

Copyright of The Press, York

REVIEW: Run, Rebel, Pilot Theatre, on the run at York Theatre Royal until Saturday ****

Simran Kular’s Ruby, left, and Jessica Kaur’s Amber in Pilot Theatre’s Run, Rebel. Picture: Pamela Raith

Pilot Theatre in Run, Rebel, York Theatre Royal, March 10 at 1pm and 7pm; March 11, 2pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or

RUN, Rebel has only a short run in York, more of a sprint than a marathon.

However, Pilot Theatre’s premiere is a co-production with regular partners York Theatre Royal, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Derby Theatre and Mercury Theatre, Colchester, ensuring a longer stretch across the theatre canvas for actress, children’s author, screenwriter and playwright Manjeet Mann’s adaptation of her 2020 debut verse novel.

Such has been the impact of Pilot’s stage versions of children’s and young adults’ books The Bone Sparrow, Noughts & Crosses and Crongton Knights that Mann was resolute in wanting the York company to mount the premiere.

Good decision, Manjeet! In return, she has delivered a superb, serious, searing drama that marries her knowledge of stage craft as an actress to how best to present words for maximum impact on stage under Tessa Walker’s astute direction (a Walker directing a play full of running!).

As the title would suggest, both running and rebellion feature, along with a third ‘R’, revolution. Midlands schoolgirl Amber Rai (Jessica Kaur), aged 15, is trapped by her Punjabi family’s rules (or more particularly her heavy-drinking father Harbans’ intransigence); their expectations (arranged marriage, like her sister Ruby (Simran Kular) and her own fears (represented in video designer Daniel Denton’s imagery of “The Man” and cast members cutting roses in bloom).

Jessica Kaur’s Amber and Pushpinder Chani’s Harbans in Run, Rebel

At the heart of Debbie Duru’s set is what looks like the Rowntree Park skateboard park, rising at both ends, but serving as a running track and symbolic of uphill struggles, topped by metal fencing. This open-plan design facilitates a smooth transition from outdoor to indoor, from school playground to schoolroom to house interior.

Niraj Chag’s compositions add to the Punjabi flavour, while Denton’s ever-changing video backdrop combines street photography with playful schoolroom scrawls, charting the path to revolution encouraged by Amber’s history teacher and imagery of Amber’s mother Surinder (Asha Kingsley) learning the alphabet and English language (leading to a shopping list), along with the aforementioned sinister face in close-up.

Physical theatre is as crucial to Run, Rebel as Mann’s dialogue (where her use of repetition works wonderfully), and significantly the cast is always in view, whether central to a scene or watching from the sides. Pushpinder Chani’s threatening, abusive Harbans, for example, feels ever present.

Physicality is double-edged for Amber. On the one hand, her prowess at running (to a national championship standard) gives her a sense of freedom, but her father threatens to kill her if she goes against his refusal to let her race.

Volume down, telly off, not even five minutes to themselves for mother and daughters when the drunk Harbans staggers through the door demanding his supper. Gradually, however, the seeds of revolution are sown not only by Amer, but by Surinder too, whether hiding her job earnings from him or finding support to break free when needing an escape.

Keep on running: Tessa Walker’s cast is always on the move in Run, Rebel

The school world is equally well drawn by Mann, both in Amber’s friendship complications and misunderstandings with David (Kiran Raywilliams) and Tara (Hannah Millward), and in Amber taking out her jealous teenage frustrations by bullying a classmate (Kular again). Chani’s hip History teacher will have everyone wishing he was their teacher too.

Suitable for age ten plus, Run, Rebel carries the warning of containing violence, domestic violence, alcoholism, bullying and discrimination, and it handles such subject matter with righteous ire, in the tradition of a Sixties’ kitchen-sink drama, but also with a deep understanding of different cultures. Mann finds room for flinty humour too, in the school banter and the mother-and-daughter relationships, and hope burns brightly as the fires of revolution spark up.

Walker’s thrilling, moving, uplifting production even revels in a burst of dancing as if from a Bollywood movie climax, when teenage love is a’fluttering too. Kuldip Singh-Barmi’s movement direction matches the physical force of the language, capturing the release of running as much as the running into trouble.

Walker’s cast does Run, Rebel proud, a six of the best led by Kaur’s troubled yet talented Amber, who is not a conventional gilded school sports hero, but a warts-and-all teenager, difficult for even her friends to love at times. Kaur captures all that, putting her in the running for a 2023 Hutch Award. And what better week to present Run, Rebel than in York International Women’s Week.

More Things To Do in York and beyond for rebels and revellers alike. Here’s Hutch’s List No. 10 for 2023, from The Press, York

On the run: Pilot Theatre in Manjeet Mann’s teenage drama Run, Rebel. Picture: Pamela Raith

A TEENAGE rebel,  a vintage murder mystery, panel games, circus and singing feats and a diverse women’s festival command Charles Hutchinson’s attention. 

Play premiere of the week: Pilot Theatre in Run, Rebel, York Theatre Royal, 7pm, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 1pm, Wednesday to Friday; 2pm, Saturday

SCHOOLGIRL Amber Rai is trapped by her family’s rules, their expectations, her own fears, but on the running track she is completely free. As her body speeds up, the world slows down, the tangled lines in her head becoming straighter.

York company Pilot Theatre combine physical theatre and mesmerising visuals in Manjeet Mann’s stage adaptation of her verse novel, suitable for age 11 upwards, as she addresses domestic violence, alcoholism, bullying and discrimination. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Blue diamond ceramic by Ilona Sulikova at Pyramid Gallery, York

Exhibition of the week: Abstract, Pyramid Gallery, Stonegate, York, until March 28, open 10am to 5pm, Monday to Friday; 10am to 5.30pm, Saturdays

CZECH-BORN York ceramacist Ilona Sulikova will be at Pyramid Gallery today from 12 noon to 2pm to meet gallery visitors and give an insight to her large, full-bodied raku-fired vessels , decorated with intricate geometric patterns that repeat, expand and contract as they progress. “The intention is to create sequences of rhythm and movement,” she says.

Abstract complements ceramics by Sulikova and Carolyn Genders with oil paintings by Kimbal Bumstead and glass sculptures by Crispian Heath, Yuki Kokai and Jon Lewis. 

Elysian Singers: Psalms, sonnets and songs at the Unitarian Chapel

Concerts at the double: Late Music presents Ruth Lee, Harp Recital, March 4, 1pm to 2pm; Elysian Singers, Psalms, Sonnets And Songs, March 4, 7.30pm; both at St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel, York

IN an afternoon concert of folk-inspired new music for harp, Ruth Lee premieres a David Lancaster work, visits Eleanor Turner’s Alice In Escher’s Wonderland and gives a rare performance of Hindemith’s Sonata for Harp (First Movement).

At night, the Elysian Singers present a tripartite modern take on the milestone publication of William Byrd’s Psalmes, Sonnets and Songs Of Sadness and Piety in 1588. Composer Nick Williams gives a pre-concert talk at 6.45pm ahead of the premiere of his new work. Tickets: or on the door.

Rachael Maskell MP: Taking part in York International Women’s Week

Festival of the week: York International Women’s Week, March 4 until March 12

UNDER the theme of Solidarity, York International Women’s Week embraces live and online events. A full programme is available at or in print from community venues, libraries, cafés and independent shops.

Among the highlights will be End Period Poverty: A Community Conversation in the Priory Street Centre on March 10 from 6.30pm to 8.30pm. Confirmed for the panel are chair Justine Hughes, activist and period queen Anna Johnston, York Central MP Rachael Maskell, Freedom4Girls’ Tina Leslie and YorKits’ Janice Lawson.

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue: Host Jack Dee and his panellists Tony Hawks, Pippa Evans, Marcus Brigstocke and Milton Jones at York Barbican

Spoilt for choice at York Barbican: Cirque, The Greatest Show, March 5, 1pm and 5pm; I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, March 6, 8pm; Giovanni Pernice: Made In Italy, March 9, 7.30pm

MUSICAL theatre meets circus spectacle in Cirque, where West End and Broadway hits combine with aerialists, contortionists, and feats of agility and flair.

Droll Jack Dee hosts BBC Radio 4’s antidote to panel games, setting the challenges to Tony Hawks, Pippa Evans, Milton Jones and Marcus Brigstocke. Cue inspired nonsense, Mornington Crescent and musical accompaniment from Colin Sell.

Strictly Come Dancing 2021 professional champ Giovanni Pernice journeys to his homeland in Made In Italy, promising hot, hot, hot action with his ensemble of ballroom dancers and singers.  Box office:

Giovanni Pernice: Made in Italy, performing in York

Murder mystery in York: The Mousetrap, Grand Opera House, York, March 6 to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Wednesday and Saturday matinees

AGATHA Christie’s mystery The Mousetrap, “the longest running play in the world”, takes in a return to York’s Grand Opera House on its 70th anniversary tour.

Ian Talbot directs this twisting, turning tale of intrigue and suspense set at Monkswell Manor, a stately countryside guesthouse where seven strangers find themselves snowed in as news spreads of a murder in London. When a police sergeant arrives, the guests discover – to their horror – that a killer is in their midst, but whodunnit? Box office:

Conducting enquiries: Joseph Reed as Detective Sergeant Trotter in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap at Grand Opera House, York. Picture: Matt Crockett

Soulful musical journey of the week: Arsen Petrosyan, National Centre for Early Music, St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York, March 10, 7.30pm

ARMENIAN duduk specialist Arsen Petrosyan returns to the NCEM after his Making Tracks showcase there. This time he leads his quartet, featuring Astghik Snetsunts (on qanun), Avetis Keoseyan (dhol/percussion) and Vladimir Papikyan (santur), through Armenian traditional, early, classical and sacred music. 

Hokin Janapar: My Soul’s Journey is his nostalgic exploration of the  music that has stirred his soul in turbulent times, reflecting the continued odyssey of his nation on the border between Europe and Asia. Box office: 01904 658338 or

Arsen Petrosyan: Playing Armenian duduk music at NCEM, York

The great gig in the café: 50 Years of Dark Side Of The Moon: Vinyl Listening Party, FortyFive Vinyl Café, Micklegate, York, March 23, 6pm to 7pm

CELEBRATING 50 years of one of the greatest albums of all time, FortyFive Vinyl Cafe is marking this momentous occasion by inviting you to bask in an early second issue of the original 1973 pressing of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon.

“These copies were produced for a short time only, between first pressing and first repress,” explains Dom White, from FortyFive. A short break for drinks will bridge the gap between Sides 1 and 2, the other side of the ‘Moon’. Reissued vinyl copies of the album will be for sale, along with a new book detailing the vinyl pressing history. Entry is free.

Dark Side Of The Moon: Welcome to the Pink Floyd Listening Party at FortyFive Vinyl Café, York

This one will run and run as Pilot Theatre present premiere of Manjeet Mann’s teenage tale Run, Rebel at Theatre Royal

Keep on running: A scene from Pilot Theatre’s Run, Rebel, with Kuldip Singh-Barmi’s  movement direction the key to capturing the sensation of running. Picture: Pamela Raith

BLACK Country actress and writer Manjeet Mann was feeling directionless.

Her father had died, she was working as a personal trainer as well as treading the boards, but getting out of bed was becoming a struggle. Where had her drive gone?

“I thought, ‘right, I’m going to run a marathon’,” says Manjeet, “I started the 22-week plan, where if I just run the prescribed 20 minutes each day, I’m winning – and I did. I got out of my slump.

“I’m an advocate of how sport can really help your mental health, and that’s when I thought about writing the book.”

The book in question is Manjeet’s multi award-winning debut verse novel, Run, Rebel, now transferred to the stage in Manjeet’s own adaptation, premiered by York company Pilot Theatre in the latest co-production with York Theatre Royal, Mercury Theatre, Colchester, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Derby Theatre.

Children’s author Manjeet, who was a runner in her schooldays, tells the story of schoolgirl Amber Rai, 15, who is trapped by her Punjabi family’s rules, their expectations, her own fears, yet on the running track feels completely free. There the world slows down as her body speeds up.

Jessica Kaur and Pushpinder Chani in Run, Rebel. Picture: Pamela Raith

Defining her place in that tangled world, Amber (played by Jessica Kaur) navigates a difficult home life and bullying at school, her sanctuary coming through running and running fast. Now is the time to kick-start a revolution, for her mother, her sister and herself in a play suitable for 11-year-olds and upwards that addresses violence, domestic violence, alcoholism, bullying and discrimination and makes reference to “honour” killings.

“Running is Amber’s one form of escape, and that story partly comes from personal experience at school,” says Manjeet, who now lives by the sea, where she swims every day, weather permitting.

“The other symbolism of running is that life is a  marathon, not a sprint, and there will be knockbacks and injuries along the way.”

The name of Amber was chosen with significance too. “I like my main protagonists’ names to have meaning. Amber has a few meanings, depending on what culture you’re from. Amber is a healing stone and a stone for courage too,” says Manjeet, explaining her choice.

She had been equally particular in seeking out Pilot Theatre for the premiere, aware of the impact of their co-productions with the York, Colchester, Coventry and Derby theatres since they forged a partnership in 2018 to develop, produce and present theatre for younger audiences, adapted from young adult novels.

Run, Rebel follows Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses, Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights and Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow on to the touring stage, this time directed by Tessa Walker with a combination of physical theatre  and “mesmerising visuals”.

Jessica Kaur, front, as Amber, with Asha Kingsley and Simran Kular in Pilot Theatre’s production of Manjeet Mann’s Run, Rebel. Picture: Pamela Raith

As Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson reflects: “Our project has sought to bring brand new stories to the stage for young adults and secondary school-age children, introducing them to characters who are living and experiencing the world as they are too in the 2020s.

“The goal has been to inspire an expansion and diversification of the range of work that is made and programmed for this age group, including on the school curriculum: we’ve aimed to enable theatres and schools to offer to young people and their carers and educators, narratives that are fresher and may feel more immediately relevant and relatable to their lives, than might be said of existing set and ‘classic’ texts.”

Hence Manjeet and Tessa’s determination that Pilot “would be the very best company to collaborate with”.

“I’d worked with a Tessa at Birmingham Rep, where I was an associate for a couple of years, when she was a mentor as well as working on projects with me, so we became great friends,” recalls Manjeet, whose two solo tour shows, Flying Solo and A Dangerous Woman, were directed by Tessa.

“The book came out in March 2020 – what a great year to become an author! – and she read it in 2021. I said I could really see it as a play, and after we did research and development with Arts Council funding, she thought, ‘Yes, this does have legs’.”

Unbeknown to Manjeet, Tessa gave a copy of the first draft to Esther Richardson, a draft that Manjeet considered to be “rubbish”. Nevertheless, Esther, who had done a previous R&D project with Manjeet, had “really liked” the author’s second book, 2021’s The Crossing. So far, so good.

Manjeet Mann: Novelist, playwright and actress

“Then I told her it would only be Pilot that I would want to do Run, Rebel on stage.” A production was born, and Manjeet took on her new writing challenge, adapting a story for the theatre. “It’s been a real learning curve,” she says. “I was naïve going into it, thinking ‘it’s my book, it’ll be easier for me to adapt, right? I’m not reinventing the wheel’. But I was!

“The first draft was very much just the book on stage, and then I started doing something very different with it, and now the play is a mix of the two. I found that things in the book can go in a different order on stage, and what drives a book  doesn’t necessarily drive what’s going on on stage.

“With Tessa being not only an amazing director, but a great dramaturg [script editor] too, it became really fun to do, especially when I put the book down, because I knew the story, and just let the play live.”

Has Manjeet participated in the rehearsals? “As an actor, I know what it’s like to have the writer in the room,” she says. “Tessa said, ‘Come in as often as you want’, but I think it can be stifling to be there.

“It’s best to leave it to the directors and actors, so I was only there on the first three days for the readthrough.”

Running is at the core of Run, Rebel. “The cast has been working with movement director Kuldip Singh-Barmi, who’s fabulous, to represent ‘running’ with lots of movement sequences in the performance,” says Manjeet.

Pilot Theatre’s poster for Run, Rebel, running (what else!) at York Theatre Royal from March 7 to 11

“I remember watching a comedian, Richard Gadd, who ran on a treadmill for the entire show, Monkey See Monkey Do [his story of training for the Man’s Man Final in Mansfield, ‘the ultimate competition of manly masculinity’]. That was awesome! The running in Run, Rebel won’t be too literal; it’s more showing running in a stylistic way, which really works.”

Manjeet’s next book had been scheduled for publication in 2023 until the task of adapting Run, Rebel for Pilot’s premiere took precdence during the past year. “It’s now coming out in June 2024,” she says

“It’s another verse novel, with another underdog , another female protagonist, set in India. She’s a teenager who gets accused of being a witch and then comes back later to take her revenge.

“There are 2,000 deaths a year of women accused of being witches, but the true fuigure is probably higher because they’re not all reported. The women are burnt or hanged from a tree, or witch doctors give them something that will kill them in the end, like having chillis put down their throat. It’s horrific.”

The title? Wait and see: it is yet to be confirmed with the publishers.

Pilot Theatre in Run, Rebel at York Theatre Royal, March 7 to 11, 7pm, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 1pm, Wednesday to Friday matinees; 2pm, Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Copyright of The Press, York