Home, I’m Darling turns into Darling, I’m Home for ten days as Covid stops play

Everything stops for tea…and now Covid alas. Sandy Foster and Tom Kanji in Home, I’m Darling, Laura Wade’s comedy where nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, on hold for ten days at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. Picture: Ellie Kurttz

HOME, I’m Darling has turned into Darling, I’m Home for ten days after a company member at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, tested positive for Covid-19.

All performances of Laura Wade’s 1950s-meets-the 21st century comedy are cancelled until the 7.30pm show on Tuesday, July 27.

A statement on the SJT website says: “We’d like to reassure you that the person who has tested positive has not come into direct contact with any members of the public inside our building, and any members of our team that they have come into contact with are also isolating.

“If you have a ticket for one of the cancelled shows, our box office will be in touch soon to organise either a different date for you, a refund or a credit. We’d be grateful if you could wait for our box office to contact you rather than calling them if possible – they’re going to have to make many phone calls and emails over the next few days, and the faster they can do that, the sooner they’ll get to you.”

Home, I’m Darling, an SJT co-production with Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, and the Bolton Octagon Theatre, will run until August 14, once clearance to resume is given.

In the meantime, box-office staff will be running through the cancelled shows in chronological order, so those with a booking for a later show “may not hear from them for a few days – but we promise they’ll be in touch soon,” says the SJT.

“Please be assured that our [socially distanced] Covid security measures within the building will remain as rigorous as ever. In all other respects (our cinema, Eat Me Café, shop, play readings), we will be operating as normal.”

Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door to move back in for four days at SJT in September

Wartime reunion: Naomi Petersen as Lily and Linford Johnson as Alf in Alan Ayckbourn’s The GIrl Next Door. All pictures: Tony Bartholomew

ALAN Ayckbourn’s premiere of his 85th play, The Girl Next Door, will return to Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in September for a limited run of only six performances.

The SJT resumption from September 1 to 4 will be followed by a touring run at the New Vic Theatre, the SJT’s fellow theatre in the round in Newcastle-under-Lyme, from September 7 to 18.

Directed by Ayckbourn, The Girl Next Door received its world premiere in Scarborough from June 4 to July 3, performed by two alternate casts to protect against Covid-19.

Lolling around in lockdown: Bill Champion as jaded and jaundiced actor Rob in The Girl Next Door

September’s returning cast will be Bill Champion, Linford Johnson, Alexandra Mathie and Naomi Petersen, who performed the bulk of the shows in the original summer run.

Written by Ayckbourn in lockdown, The Girl Next Door finds veteran actor Rob Hathaway stuck at home during the summer of 2020, with only his sensible, Government mandarin older sister for company.

Rob has little to do but relive his glory days when, as the star of the nation’s favourite television period drama National Fire Service, he ruled the roost as George ‘Tiger’ Jennings: wartime hero and living legend among firefighters.

Alan Ayckbourn in his garden in Scarborough in May 2020 during the first lockdown

One day, Rob spots a stranger hanging out the washing in the adjoining garden. Strange, he thinks, because the neighbours have not been around for months. Just who is the mysterious girl next door, and why is she wearing 1940s’ clothing?

“I was born in 1939, so my earliest memories are of a sort of lockdown: of crowding into Anderson shelters or subway stations; of sleeping in deckchairs or on my mother’s lap. Things have come full circle for me,” says Ayckbourn, 82.

“The Girl Next Door is an affirmation of love across the generations – I hope it’s positive and hopeful for those today crawling out of their metaphorical Anderson shelters blinking into the light.”

Dressed for a Zoom meeting: Alexandra Mathie as Alex in The Girl Next Door at the SJT

For a time-hopping story divided by 78 years but only a hedge, Ayckbourn is joined in the production team by the SJT’s departing associate director, Chelsey Gillard, designer Kevin Jenkins and lighting designer Jason Taylor.

The Girl Next Door can be seen in the Round at the SJT on Wednesday, September 1 at 7.30pm; September 2, 1.30pm and 7.30pm; September 3, 7.30pm, and September 4, 2.30pm and 7.30pm.

Tickets are on sale at £10 upwards on 01723 370541 and at sjt.uk.com. Prompt booking is advised.

The girl next door in The Girl Next Door: Naomi Petersen as Lily

John Godber Company sets sail at Hull dry dock with filleted, better, topical Moby Dick

Director John Godber watching a rehearsal for Moby Dick at Stage @TheDock, Hull. Picture: Antony Robling

WHERE better to stage John Godber and Nick Lane’s radical reworking of Herman Melville’s maritime (mis)adventure Moby Dick than at Hull’s dry dock amphitheatre.

Welcome to Stage@TheDock – nearest car park, the new Fruit Market multi-storey – where the John Godber Company is presenting a 70-minute, no-interval, fast-paced, socially-distanced, physical production with a cast of eight until June 12.

“We are the first people to put a show on there for more than a couple of nights,” says director and co-director Godber.

What exactly is the Stage@TheDock? “The amphitheatre was established for Hull’s UK City Of Culture in 2017, up by The Deep. It’s what was called Hull’s dry dock and it’s now part of a new development of offices, digital spaces and restaurants,” says Godber.

“It’s also the HQ of the development company, Wykeland Property Group, who put money into setting up the venue and have given us financial support for this show: enough to put the production on in these times; enough to energise us all.

“We started talking with Wykeland in the middle of last year and then nothing developed, but now [with Step 3 of the Government’s roadmap] the opportunity has come up.”

Adhering to social-distancing rules is restricting the 350-seat amphitheatre to a Covid-secure capacity of around 90. “That meant we needed to do a story with a classical arc, one that would fill that space, but we knew that staging Moby Dick would not be possible without funding support,” says Godber.

Frazer Hammill, Sophie Bevan and Lamin Touray in rehearsal for Moby Dick. Picture: Antony Robling

“That’s why, though we don’t normally seek Arts Council [England] funding, we put in a Culture Recovery Fund bid that’s given us more than a match for Wykeland, and we put some money in too.”

The revised adaptation by Yorkshire playwrights Godber and Lane transports audiences from what was the port’s central dry dock to the deck of Captain Ahab’s ship the Pequod in his catastrophic, deranged battle with the monster white whale, Moby Dick.

“It’s a show we first did at Hull Truck in 2002, and I was really pleased with it. We had a cast of only four: what were we thinking?! It was almost impossible,” recalls Godber.

“We’re delighted to have a cast of eight this time because the pandemic has been a crucifying time for anyone in the creative arts. They’re all local professionals, with two of them new to the professional stage, and we wanted actors with a relationship with this city and this coast.”

Godber’s cast duly draws on actors from Sproatley, Long Riston, Hornsea and Goole, alongside former Wyke College students and locally born actors who have appeared at the National Theatre in War Horse, Warner Bros films and BBC Radio Four soap opera The Archers.

Step forward Frazer Hammill as Frank; Nick Figgis as Rob; Tom Gibbons as Pat; Martha Godber as Lucy; Lamin Touray as Ant; Sophie Bevan as Kate; Caitlin Townend as Sue and Goole-born May Tether as Lily, following her appearance as Jill in the York Stage pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk.

“The Covid-compliance to put on this show is almost a show in itself. The actors are staying together in an Airbnb in Hull, doing Covid tests twice a week,” says Godber.

Once Hull’s central dry dock, now the home of Stage @The Dock, where the John Godber Company cast is seen in rehearsal. Picture: Antony Robling

“We’ve employed 20 people overall, from producer, production manager and company manager to front of house, stage manager and costume designer, to actors and outreach educators. We’ve all thought, ‘what would we have done without this?’. Not the finance, but the sense of purpose.”

After a couple of phone discussions with Lane, Godber was the one to put the new script together. “It’s a better show because we’ve filleted it. We didn’t want it to be longer than 70 minutes, because the book [written in 1851] is unwieldy to say the least!” he says.

“Our first version was told by four old soaks in a bar that was about to be knocked down, but now instead all eight characters have a relationship with this part of Hull, through their parents or grandparents, as a place for a sandwich and a chat.”

Significantly too, the script makes reference to Hull’s global importance as a port, its former prowess as a whaling centre and contemporary issues of conservation (that chime with Godber, wife Jane and daughter Martha becoming vegans).

“When I was at Hull Truck, I didn’t write about fishing and trawling at first as I didn’t believe it was my privilege, as I came from a mining family, not a fishing one,” recalls Godber.

“But then I thought, if we are going to do something about the fishing industry, it better be the biggest: Moby Dick!

“I like going to Bruges on the Hull Zeebrugge ferry, but that’s only 14 hours; The Prequod is setting off for three years!”

John, Martha and Jane Godber in their Stephen Joseph Theatre dressing room during last autumn’s run of Sunny Side Up

Godber smiles at the rise to the top of the charts of a certain former Aidrie postman with a sea shanty in the pandemic. “One of the weird things, in lockdown, was how Wellerman caught on on TikTok, when Nathan Evans said he wanted to do something to get him ‘out of lockdown’, with all the stoicism lockdown demanded,” he says.

Last autumn, the Godber family bubble of John, Jane, actor daughter Martha and company manager daughter Elizabeth premiered his play Sunny Side Up at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, between lockdowns, rehearsing at home. “It was the only way we could physically put on a new play that wasn’t a one-man show,” he says.

Now, Godber is at the forefront of the second wave of theatre’s return. “The fact you know, without funding, you’re not going to break even, you could think, ‘so what’s the point of it?’, but the point of it is that this is what we do,” says Godber. “Even if has to be a stab in the dark.

“I do believe there’s been a dissolving into Ground Zero for the arts. A survey said 31 per cent of people won’t go back to cultural activities in the same way. That’s a lot of people and they won’t return. I hope people will, but I don’t know if it will materialise.

“That’s why we’re doing this play in the open air for a number of reasons. It’s almost Covid-zero with social distancing, people in masks,  sanitisers, the space being wiped down regularly.”

John Godber Company in Moby Dick, Stage@The Dock, Hull, until June 12, 7pm nightly plus 4pm matinees on June 5, 9 and 12.

To maintain social distancing, tickets must be bought in groups of one, two or four; wheelchair spaces are available. Seating is unreserved, so early booking is recommended to avoid disappointment. Tickets cost £20 at Eventbrite.

John and Martha Godber in rehearsal for Moby Dick. Picture: Antony Robling

REVIEW: Julie Hesmondhalgh in The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…

Welcome with open arms: Julie Hesmondhalgh making you feel good to be back in a theatre at last

The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…, The Love Season at York Theatre Royal, until Saturday; Hull Truck Theatre, June 7 to 12

NOTE the dots in that title. Ian Kershaw’s 70-minute one-woman show for his wife, Corrie star Julie Hesmondhalgh, does not lay claim to be the greatest play in the history of the world full stop.

However, like NASA’s Voyager probes, Kershaw aims for the stars, and as this most human and humane of love stories progresses, you accumulatively feel you are watching a great play with a sense of history and a grasp of what makes the messy world go round.

Kershaw’s focus is on the comings and goings of quiet, suburban Preston Road, and yet life in this northern town is universal too, such are his skills of observation and the beauty of his moving, witty turn of phrase.

Given the surfeit of solo shows to meet pandemic regulations in 2020 and 2021, you might have expected “Greatest Play” to have been purpose-built for now. Not so, Coronation Street and Broadchurch alumna Hesmondhalgh first performed Kershaw’s work in 2017.

Nevertheless, she has described the delayed 2021 tour as putting her back at Ground Zero, opening with a week-long sold-out run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Scarborough, from May 18, with the need to adapt to change, socially distanced circumstances, not least to no longer using audience members’ borrowed shoes to play assorted characters.

Boxed in: Julie Hesmondhalgh in The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…

That night was the first time she had played to an audience in masks, an experience that John Godber said first felt like he was performing in an operating theatre, rather than a theatre, when premiering Sunny Side Up last autumn at the SJT.

Such is her popularity and versatility, Hesmondhalgh was “double-booked” all her SJT week, appearing simultaneously on screen in BBC1’s whodunit, The Pact. Such is her natural warmth, and ease with performing, whatever the circumstances, that any fear of disconnection between performer and spread-out audience dissolved immediately. Be assured, that will be the same in York from tonight and Hull next week.

Beneath bare light bulbs reminiscent of stars when lit and in front of shelf upon shelf of shoe boxes, stacked high, Hesmondhalgh immediately breaks theatre’s fourth wall to make everyone feel at home back in the theatre, then sets up the story of a man waking in the middle of the night to discover that the world has stopped at 04.40…precisely. He will keep doing so in Kershaw’s account, echoing, albeit distantly, Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day.

Through his bedroom curtains, he sees no signs of life, save for a light in the house opposite where a woman in an over-sized Bowie T-shirt is standing. She is looking back at him, just as bemused, just as unable to sleep, feeling just as isolated…

…So begins the love story of central characters Tom and Sara, and gradually Kershaw fills in the street life, Neighbourhood Watch scheme and characters of Preston Road and opens out his focus, moving between past and present and asking us to ponder who we are, what may be thrown at us, what judgements we may make of those around us.

Detail is all, typified by Hesmondhalgh observing the Latin tattoo on neighbour Mrs Forshaw’s arm that translates as “through hardship to the stars”: in a nutshell, the trajectory of Kershaw’s story.

Julie noted

What takes it to the heights is the way sci-fi enthusiast Kershaw weaves the Voyager probes  into the play, and more particularly the Golden Record taken on each mission with recordings that encapsulate the essence of life on Earth: “People having a good time. People cramming it all in,” as Hesmondhalgh puts it.

This sets both Kershaw and the audience to thinking about what we should include now in such a time-travel experiment, and after Hesmondhalgh has led everyone to both cheers and tears, she will have you smiling, exhilarated, at what makes everything worthwhile, even under the Covid cloud. Cue Here Comes The Sun and smiles all round, behind masks of course!

The solo show is a tough gig, be it for an actor or comedian, but directed by a Raz Shaw touch, Hesmondhalgh is wholly in control, often playful, using stairways as well as the stage, equally adept in a rising tide of emotion or in a moment of calm. She has the timing of a comic, yet the gravitas for tragedy too.

If you are seeking THE play to re-introduce you to the joy of theatre-going after pandemic hibernation, right now this is The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…for doing that. Full stop.

York Theatre Royal performances: evenings at 8pm, plus 3pm, Thursday and Saturday. Box office, 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Hull Truck Theatre performances: evenings at 7.30pm, plus 2.30pm, Thursday and Saturday. Box office: 01482 323638 or at boxoffice@hulltruck.co.uk

All tour performances are socially distanced with Covid-safe measures in place.

Manic Street Preachers…pretentious or what? Up for Chalmers & Hutch debate in Two Big Egos In A Small Car episode 43

WHAT’s up with chatty art podcast duo Chalmers & Hutch? We need to talk about two steps forward, but Step 3 stumble? Deer Shed at Base Camp. LIVE theatre at last! Marc Bolan & T Rex: 21st Century Boy. Street art & what makes a “hero” fit for a mural?

Oh, and yes, Manic Street Preachers…pretentious or what?

Here’s the link: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1187561/8550398

Alan Ayckbourn returns to his rehearsal room for the first time in 19 months

Alan Ayckbourn in the garden of his Scarborough home in May 2020 during the first lockdown. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

ON Tuesday, playwright Alan Ayckbourn returned to his empty, dark, silent rehearsal room next door for the first time since September 2019.

After months and months of work, restlessness but no live play, the Scarborough knight is back where he feels most at home: directing a new Ayckbourn work, The Girl Next Door, from the rehearsal studio in his Longwestgate abode.

“My spirit in lockdown had begun to pall, especially in this one, as I’ve had no springboard for my work,” he says. “Like everyone else, I decided to keep busy at all costs: I wrote play after play, four actually, but they just lay there, unexplored, neglected, unfulfilled, because I had no feedback from actors or audiences of course, so I couldn’t move forward.

“I was parked on the runway, seeing where I might fly off to next.” The permission for take-off has now been granted: The Girl Next Door, 82-year-old Sir Alan’s 85th premiere, will open in The Round at his beloved Stephen Joseph Theatre, where he is Director Emeritus after 37 years as artistic director from 1972 to 2009.

“I wrote it back in spring 2020. I like to think of it as a lockdown love story,” he says of his touching, tender and humorous reflection on the ability of love to rise above adversity and reach across the years.

Sir Alan, who turned 82 on April 12, had experienced the frustration of his 2020 world premiere of Truth Will Out, ironically a prescient play about a virus, albeit of the computer variety, being knocked into the long grass by the first lockdown as the SJT lay dormant from March 17.

For all his unstinting productivity – not only the four plays but also audio-stream recordings of the previously unproduced Anno Domino and a Christmas revival of his ghost play Haunting Julia – Sir Alan has been itching to intereact with actors again.

“Just go for it,” he said as he anticipated Tuesday’s first session. “I’ve been counting down the days to when we start rehearsals just after the Bank Holiday.

“All I can say is, we will be ready! The theatre has been terrific in that respect, so supportive; the play being confirmed for the summer in January; one production meeting; auditions on Zoom, even if the reality with Zoom is there’s always a beat between what they say and what you hear, so it just sounds flat. All we need now is for Boris to panic.”

Panic not. Let’s stay positive and eagerly await The Girl Next Door, a play Sir Alan set about writing as soon as he finished work on Anno Domino in early May and completed by late-May in the best Ayckbourn tradition of quick work.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre poster artwork for Alan Ayckbourn’s June world premiere of his 85th play, The Girl Next Door

The play is a four-hander, as Ayckbourn adapted to Covid times when large casts are not viable for the foreseeable future in this new age of social bubbles, and the setting is two neighbouring houses on the same London street during August 2020.

“But all is not as it seems,” he says. It never is in a play by a playwright who loves playing with time. Here he populates one house with actor Rob Hathaway, 60, and his sister, Alex, 62, a government financial advisor. In the other are the Tindles, soldier Alf, 26, and wife Lily, 24.

“The opening image is Rob seeing the young woman putting washing on the line and in his mind he’s thinking, ‘she has no right to be there’ because the couple who live next door have chosen to go away to their house in the country in lockdown.”

Without giving too much away, past is meeting present, drawing on Sir Alan’s own childhood experiences in London in the Second World War.

“I felt that spirit of optimism as I wrote it because the country needs a bit of optimism right now,” he says. “The last thing anyone wants to watch is someone saying ‘there’s no more hope, folks’.

“So writing the play, it was my life meeting me coming back, because my first memories were of lockdown in wartime, sheltering under the beds, waiting for the bombs to drop. Now we’re sheltering at home, waiting for the germs to land.

“It’s interesting that the parallels are there, though I don’t want to rub them in, so all I can say is, ‘don’t worry, folks, we’ve been here before; the world won’t end’, though many feared it was in wartime.”

Ayckbourn was born in April 1939. “So I have these images of being on my mother’s lap down in the tube station, not wanting to wake her up, and she not wanting to disturb me,” he says.

“I remember the shelters that were great for children, and you could play under the kitchen table, so it was quite a time – and then there was my Mickey Mouse gas mark, with the big mouse ears, which they gave out to children as standard issue. They were like something Stephen King would have been proud of.”

Ayckbourn enjoys playing with the two eras separated by 80 years. “It’s fun to do; there’s a sort of selective release of information where the art is to make the audience feel secure, with a level playing field, but then you hopefully stay slightly ahead of them, trying to get them to second guess you!” he says.

Alan Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door will run at a socially distanced, Covid-secure Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from June 4 to July 3. Box office: sjt.uk.com.

Copyright of The Press, York

Best Picture Oscar winner Nomadland tops film season at Stephen Joseph Theatre

Best Actress Oscar winner Frances McDormand in Best Picture winner Nomadland. Picture: Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios

THE cinema at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre reopens next month with a fortnight of Oscar-nominated films.

Films will be screened in the McCarthy auditorium from Tuesday, May 25, starting with Stanley Kramer’s comedy classic It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, nominated for six Oscars in 1963, followed by 2021 nominees Mank, Nomadland, Wolfwalkers and The Trial Of The Chicago 7.

SJT film programmer Steve Carley says of the first film choice: “When it was re-issued in the 1970s, the publicity said, ‘If ever this mad, mad, mad, mad world needed It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, it’s now!’.

“That seemed particularly appropriate at the moment. I’m hoping this joyous comedy will be the perfect ‘welcome-back’ film.”

“The perfect ‘welcome-back’ film”: It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

In Kramer’s film, an unconnected group of motorists stops to help a driver after a crash, only to discover he is a recently released convict who knows the whereabouts of a stolen $350,000, sparking a madcap car chase to recover the cash.

The all-star cast includes Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas and…Buster Keaton. From half a dozen Oscar nominations, the only win, alas, was for Best Sound Editing. What a mad, mad world indeed, as you can re-discover on May 25 at 2pm and 7pm.

David Fincher’s Mank, the most nominated film at this year’s Academy Awards, will be shown on May 26 at 7pm; May 27 at 2pm and 7pm and May 28 at 2pm.

Best Actor nominee Gary Oldman plays the title role in this black-and-white biopic about screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz and the development of his most famous script, Citizen Kane.

Best Actor Oscar nominee Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz and James McShane as Shelly Metcalf in Mank

From ten nominations, not least for Best Picture and Best Director, Mank won two Oscars: Erik Messerschmidt for Best Cinematography and Donald Graham Burt for Best Production Design.

Nomadland, the big prize winner as Best Picture at the 93rd Academy Awards last Sunday at Union Station, Los Angeles, is booked in for May 28 at 7pm, May 29 at 2pm and 7pm and June 1 and 2 at 7pm.

Chinese-born director Chloe Zhao won the Best Director gong, also being nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing.

Third-time Best Actress winner Frances McDormand plays Fern, who embarks on a new life as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad after losing both her job and her husband.  

Wolfwalkers: Tomm Moore’s final film in his Irish folklore trilogy

Best Animated Feature Film nominee Wolfwalkers has screenings on June 1 and 2 at 2pm and June 3 at 2pm and 7pm.

The third and final film in director Tomm Moore’s fantasy-adventure Irish folklore trilogy, after The Secret Of Kells and Song Of The Sea, it features the voices of Honor Kneafsey, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney, Maria Doyle Kennedy and Tommy Tiernan.

Nominated without ultimate success for five Oscars, topped off by Best Picture, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7, will be shown on June 4 and 5 at 2pm and 7pm.

Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Sacha Baron Cohen, front right, as Abbey Hoffman in The Trial Of The Chicago 7

Eddie Redmayne and Best Supporting Actor nominee Sacha Baron Cohen play political activists Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman in Sorkin’s dramatization of the real-life 1968 trial of a group of anti-Vietnam War protestors. 

Where possible, the SJT is recommending customers should book online at sjt.uk.com. The box-office phone line is open Mondays to Saturdays, 12 noon to 2pm on 01723 370541.

The box office will re-open for in-person bookings from Monday, May 17; noon to 5pm on non-show days; noon to 7.30pm on days with an evening show; 11am to 7.30pm on matinee days.

Julie’s journey from Corrie’s Hayley to The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…

History maker: Julie Hesmondhalgh in the one-woman show The Greatest Play In The History Of The World

AT the heart of The Love Season when York Theatre Royal reopens from May 17 will be The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…, Julie Hesmondhalgh’s one-woman show.

Produced by Tara Finney Productions in association with Hull Truck Theatre, the debut tour of Ian Kershaw’s multi award-winning play will open at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, from May 18 to 22 before History will be made at the Theatre Royal from June 1 to 5 and Hull Truck from June 7 to 12, with all tour performances being socially distanced with Covid-safe measures in place.

Winner of The Stage Edinburgh Award in 2018, The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…takes a heartfelt journey that starts and ends in a small, unassuming house on a quiet suburban road, as Coronation Street and Broadchurch alumnus Julie Hesmondhalgh narrates the story of two neighbours and the people on their street, navigating her way through the nuances of life, the possibilities of science and the meaning of love.  

The show is penned by Accrington-born Julie’s husband, Ian Kershaw, who has written for Coronation Street, Cold Feet and Shameless, and reunites her with award-winning director Raz Shaw after working together on Margaret Edison’s Wit at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 2016.

The taming of the shoe: Under Covid-safe measures, The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…can no longer make use of audience members’ shows during each show

Explaining the play’s genesis, Julie says: “I had a notion, a romantic notion, that Ian should write a one-woman show for me and we could tour it together into our dotage, like travelling troubadours (or something).

“A couple of Christmases ago, he kept disappearing to the cellar for an hour at a time, wrapping presents maybe, I thought. And then he presented me with this lovely thing: a beautiful play, a love story, but a universal one about learning in time what matters in the end, about leaving a mark.”

Let the show begin: a man wakes in the middle of the night to discover that the world has stopped. Through the crack in his bedroom curtains, he can see no signs of life at all, other than a light in the house opposite where a woman in an over-sized Bowie T-shirt stands, looking back at him. Over to you, Julie, from May 18.

Looking ahead to the tour starting at last, she says: “It doesn’t seem for real in some ways because it’s been put off so many times, but now I’m having to learn my lines again with proper commitment, and I’m so excited to be doing it, performing in theatres’ socially distanced bigger spaces. It’ll be a bit of a recalibration for people to get used to being back in a theatre.

“Though it’s completely not a play about lockdown, it is nevertheless about people living in isolation, connection, love, and all those things that have been writ large in this strange time,” says Julie Hesmondhalgh

“Previously, I was interacting with audiences in the show, using their shoes as a vital part of it, and though I’ll miss doing that, this way of doing it will bring something new to it.

“At the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s funny because there are a lot of people who just book everything that’s on at the Traverse, and they arrive and think, ‘right, what are we seeing now? Oh, she’s wearing jeans’, but with this tour, it’ll be the first thing people will have seen in a long time.”

Julie continues: “Though it’s completely not a play about lockdown, it is nevertheless about people living in isolation, connection, love, and all those things that have been writ large in this strange time, so I think it will now land with people in a really different way than ever before.

“The fact that it’s a play set on northern streets that we’ll be taking around northern theatres, I just think it’s going to be an amazing experience for me.”

“You can never second-guess how an audience will behave or react,” says Julie. “It’s so different every performance”

How does Julie, 51, re-acquaint herself with a play she knows so well? “I need to go into it almost at Ground Zero,” she says. “It’s quite a difficult play for me to do, as you can never second-guess how an audience will behave or react.

“It’s so different every performance. Some nights, they will roll around laughing at every line, and it’s a real rollercoaster, but it’s a play with so many twists and turns for the audience, so sometimes people will be thinking, ‘what’s this about? What’s going on here?’, because I’m speaking directly to them…

“And there can be something that feels innately sociopathic about me doing that for 70 minutes with some of them looking like they don’t want to be there! In real life, you’d go, ‘well, anyway’ and move on.

“On quiet nights, I’ve been quietly dying inside, but at the end, the lights go up and there’ll be tears in their eyes, and they really want to talk to you about the show afterwards.

“It’ll be a bit of a recalibration for people to get used to being back in a theatre,” says Julie, as The Greatest Play In The History Of The World begins its northern tour on May 18

“Now, playing to faces wearing masks for the first time, I’ll just have to remember that my job is to tell a story and yours is to sit there and listen!”

One last question, Julie, is The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…really what it says in the title? “Ian went away, wrote the play and came back with that name, but it’s really important to note that it does finish with three dots…

“We’re constantly apologising for it, but I don’t think Hamlet needs to be worried!”

The Greatest Play In The History Of The World… will play Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, May 18 to 22, 7.30pm; 1.30pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, Saturday; York Theatre Royal, June 1 to 5, 8pm; 3pm, Thursday and Saturday; Hull Truck Theatre, June 7 to 12, 7.30pm; 2.30pm, Thursday and Saturday. Box office: Scarborough, sjt.uk.com or 01723 370541; York, yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or 01904 623568; Hull, hulltruck.co.uk or 01482 323638.

Copyright of The Press, York

Stephen Joseph Theatre boosted by big grant from Garfield Weston Foundation

Stephen Joseph Theatre chief executives Paul Robinson and Caroline Routh. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

THE Stephen Joseph Theatre has been awarded £237,752 by the Garfield Weston Foundation to support its work over the coming year.

The Scarborough theatre will put part of the grant from the foundation’s Weston Culture Fund towards its summer and autumn season.

That programme is likely to feature a new play by the SJT’s director emeritus, Alan Ayckbourn; a show in the slot filled previously by The 39 Steps and Stepping Out, and the autumn commission of The Offing, adapted from Benjamin Myers’ novel, set in nearby Robin Hood’s Bay.

The grant also will contribute towards equipment and training to allow film recordings of the SJT’s live shows, plus a programme of community-focused “pop-up” screenings of the films, aimed at engaging those who might not usually access live theatre.

The SJT’s joint chief executives, Caroline Routh and artistic director Paul Robinson, say: “We are absolutely delighted that the SJT and Scarborough have benefited from the great generosity of the Garfield Weston Foundation, which has done such remarkable work over the past 60 years.

Stephen Joseph Theatre: “Benefiting from the great generosity of the Garfield Weston Foundation”. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“We are, of course, conscious of how fortunate we are at a time when so many of our colleagues are struggling in this age of great uncertainty. This grant will allow us to create more much-needed opportunities within the sector, as well as contributing to the wider economy of Scarborough.”

The SJT grant is part of a £30 million programme of grants to arts organisations across Britain announced today by Garfield Weston Foundation’s Weston Culture Fund.

In deciding to support the SJT, the foundation took into account “a wide range of factors, including local cultural provision, the interconnectivity of the sector, the potential accessibility of donors, and accessibility and outreach”.

Foundation director Philippa Charles says: “Our cultural sector is at the heart of our local communities, providing not only entertainment but also education and inspiration for many.

“Our trustees were impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit shown across the arts in response to Covid-19 and it was a privilege to hear what organisations had been doing to not only survive but also to reinvent the way they reach audiences.

Alan Ayckbourn: New play expected in the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 2021 programme. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“What really stood out was the level of collaboration and support they had for each other and the determination to keep going, despite the increasingly difficult situation.” 

Philippa adds: “We all want and need our cultural sector to thrive and, if anything, our time away from the arts has shown just how important they are to us, bringing much-needed pleasure and enrichment to our lives.

“Arts organisations are desperate to re-open and get back to what they do best, and we hope that this new funding will help many of them do exactly that.”

Established in 1958, the Garfield Weston Foundation is a family-founded grant-making charity that supports causes across the UK and gave more than £88m last year. In all, the foundation has donated more than £1bn to charities over the past 62 years.

The foundation’s funding comes from an endowment of shares in the family business that includes Twinings, Primark, Kingsmill and Fortnum & Mason. From small community organisations to large national institutions, the foundation supports charities and activities that make a positive impact in the communities where they work. Around 2,000 charities across the UK benefit each year from the foundation’s grants.

More Things To Do indoors in and around York in Stay Home Lockdown 3. List No 24, courtesy of The Press, York

A Long night: Josie Long will be performing for the Your Place Comedy live-stream from her living room on January 24

AS LOCKDOWN 3 urges everyone to “stay home”, Charles Hutchinson takes that advice in selecting entertainment for the dark days and nights ahead.

Somewhere over the pandemic horizon, he highlights a couple of shows in the diary for the autumn.

Ahir Shah: Joining Josie Long in a remote double bill for Your Place Comedy

Live-stream lockdown humour from living room to living room: Josie Long and Ahir Shah, Your Place Comedy, January 24

LOCKDOWN 3 has brought another round of Your Place Comedy home entertainment. “As before, we’ll be broadcasting from comedians’ living rooms, kitchens and attics or, as was the case with Lucy Beaumont, her homemade pub,” says virtual comedy club organiser Chris Jones, Selby Town Council’s arts officer.

The format remains the same: two headline comedians, some stand-up and some chat, all juggled by regular compere Tim FitzHigham. First up will be Josie Long and Ahir Shah on January 24; line-ups are yet to be confirmed for February 28 and March 28.

The live-stream shows will be free to watch but with donations keenly encouraged at yourplacecomedy.co.uk.

Pea’s home; green: Story Craft Theatre storyteller Cassie Vallance looks forward to next week’s Crafty Tales session

Interactive stories for children: Story Craft Theatre’s Crafty Tales

CASSIE Vallance and Janet Bruce cannot hold their Crafty Tales sessions in person during Lockdown 3 but will continue to deliver sessions “directly to you via the power of Zoom”.

“Each 50-minute session is packed full of crafting, storytelling and educational fun with lots of activities to keep your little folk’s imagination alight,” says Cassie. “There are still a few spaces left for next week’s 10am sessions based around Julia Donaldson’s The Runaway Pea on January 20, 22 and 23.”

Coming up on January 27, 29 and 30 will be Elaine Wickson’s Super Stan. For more details and to book, go to storycrafttheatre.co.uk.

Parasols aplenty: A scene from the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company production of The Pirates Of Penzance at the 2019 International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, now available online. Picture: Jane Stokes

Operetta on screen: International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, G&S Opera TV On-Line Streaming Service

WHEN the Coronavirus pandemic put paid to the 2020 International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival at Harrogate Royal Hall, the festival launched its online streaming subscription service at gsoperatv.

“New content is being continually added,” says festival stalwart Bernard Lockett. “It features the very best of more than 26 years of the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, along with top amateur productions performed at our festival, G&S films and fascinating documentaries and interviews, and is the only place to experience so many outstanding Savoy operas.”

The subscription rates for general viewers is £9.99 per month or £99 annuallyThe 2021 festival is in the diary for August 8 to 22 in Harrogate, preceded by Buxton Opera House the week before.

Chelsey Gillard: Stephen Joseph Theatre associate director, hosting online script-reading sessions

Play for the day appraisal: Online script-reading sessions, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from January 20

RUNNING online on Wednesdays from 11.30am to 1.30pm for five weeks, the fun sessions will dive into five classic comedies: Aristophanes’s Lysistrata on January 20; Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, January 27; Moliere’s Tartuffe, February 3; Sheridan’s The Rivals, February 10, and Feydeau’s A Flea In Her Ear, February 17.

Participants will read sections of the plays aloud and work with SJT associate director Chelsey Gillard to consider their themes, stories, writing styles and historical context in a relaxed discussion. Session bookings can be made at sjt.uk.com.

Clowning around: Jon Marshall’s Ringmaster with Steve Collison’s Clown in Magic Carpet Theatre’s Magic Circus

Online children’s show of the month: Magic Carpet Theatre in Magic Carpet, Pocklington Arts Centre YouTube channel

HULL company Magic Carpet Theatre filmed their fun family-friendly show, Magic Carpet, behind closed doors at Pocklington Arts Centre last October. By public demand, its free streaming run is being extended to January 21 at: youtu.be/CNrUixTMWdQ.

Performed by director Jon Marshall and Steve Collison with magical illusions, comedy, circus skills and puppets, it tells the humorous tale of what happens to the ringmaster’s extravaganza plans after the artistes and elephants fail to arrive and everything has to be left in the calamitous hands of the clowns. Disaster!

His master’s voices: Alan Ayckbourn recorded his audio version of Haunting Julia at home. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Online ghost play of the season: Alan Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

ALAN Ayckbourn’s 2020 audio version of his ghost play Haunting Julia is being given an afterlife. Originally available at sjt.uk.com/event/1078/haunting_julia until January 5, the winter chiller now will be online until January 31.

Revisiting his 1994 play, Ayckbourn’s audio recording features the voice of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 81-year-old director emeritus. Or, rather, the three voices of Ayckbourn, who plays all three parts.

Rufus Wainwright: Songs inspired by middle age, married life, fatherhood, friends, loss, London and Laurel Canyon

Baroque’n’roll gig of the autumn: Rufus Wainwright, York Barbican, October 13

LAUREL Canyon singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright’s October 27 2020 tour date at York Barbican has moved to October 13 2021. Tickets remain valid for the rearranged date with his new band.

Last July, Wainwright, 47, released his ninth studio album, Unfollow The Rules, his first since 2012. “I consider it my first fully mature album; it is like a bookend to the beginning of my career,” says Rufus, whose fearless, mischievous songs were inspired by middle age, married life, fatherhood, friends, loss, London and Laurel Canyon.

Taking the mic: Omid Djalili looks forward to letting the Good Times roll again

Ready for a laugh: Omid Djalili, The Good Times Tour, Grand Opera House, York, November 10

OMID Djalili cannot wait to be back where he belongs, on stage, after experimenting with a Zoom gig where he was muted by no fewer than 639 people and a drive-in gig when he witnessed one audience member leave his car, attach a hose pipe to his exhaust and feed it through the window.

The British-Iranian stand-up’s 2021 excursions could not have a more positive title: The Good Times Tour. Let’s hope he is right, although who can predict if his shows at Harrogate Theatre on May 6 and Hull City Hall on May 26 will be given the go-ahead.

In his diary too are: Platform Festival, The Old Station, Pocklington, July 22, and Masham Town Hall, September 18 and 19. Oh, and Leeds Town Hall on October 28 in faraway 2022.