REVIEW: Gus Gowland’s Mayflies, York Theatre Royal, flying until May 13 ****

Not always seeing eye to eye: Nuno Queimado’s May and Emma Thornett’s Fly in one version of Gus Gowland’s Mayflies at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Sam Taylor

OH, the app-hazard nature of modern love under Covid’s black cloud.

You shadow box tenderly, tentatively, expectantly, for two years online after dating app initiations, then finally meet for one fateful night in a seaside hotel, shedding skins as much as clothes, a knockout blow that turns the morning after into the mourning after. The chatter, then the shatter.

All this mirrors gone-in-24-hours life of the mayfly (the insect here making an appearance on the cover of May’s jigsaw, Mayfly On River, Germany).

What a brief breath of life in flight, after up to two years spent twiddling thumbs and knotting scarves in gestation underwater, only to crash and burn on impact.

York Theatre Royal artist-in-residence Gus Gowland’s musical world premiere has followed a similar path of anticipation. Already an award winner for Pieces Of String (Mercury Theatre, Colchester, 2018), he had tantalised York audiences with five-minute showcase contributions to Love Bites in 2021 and Green Shoots in 2022, and now the wait is over.

Be assured, Mayflies will not die after one day (or three if you choose to see all three configurations of Tania Azevedo’s flexible casting). An afterlife is deserved by Gowland’s concept, book and songs alike.

Gowland eschews burdening his putative lovers with defined gender, race, sexual orientation or age, further extending its potential shelf life.

For +Juliet director Azevedo’s premiere, two from three will perform in any show. It could be Nuno Queimado’s May with Emma Thornett’s Fly; Rumi Sutton’s Fly with Queimado’s May or Sutton’s May in a gay coupling with Thornett’s Fly. Clear so far?

Raising a glass: Rumi Sutton’s May and Emma Thornett’s Fly in a second configuration of Mayflies. Picture: Sam Taylor

It is not essential to see all three combinations, but the potential of both Gowland’s book and in particular his songs are better revealed the more pairings you meet, rather than only one match of the day. Both the idealistic Fly’s restless urges in Looking Back and realist May’s pile of relationship debris in Running On Empty will fly, whoever sings them. Queimado’s account of that heartrending ballad is especially affecting.

As much as the mayfly is Gowland’s motif for a love affair’s arc from joy to sorrow, matched by the mayfly hanging lamps’ choreographed movements in TK Hay’s design, equally significant is May’s love of jigsaw puzzles, one of the quirky revelations that builds a picture of a character.

The audience is invited to piece the jigsaw together, not without a picture, but with the extra challenge of Gowland detailing the relationship in both flashbacks and flashforwards.

As with jigsaw pieces, some scenes have jagged edges, others are rounded, and gradually the full picture emerges before the pieces are put back in the box for reassembling in different hands (as the magician’s flourish of a finale portends).

Just as the casting presents differing versions of the coupling, so Gowland highlights how we present differing versions of ourselves depending on the circumstances. Which is the truthful version: the one played out online, at a distance, or in the compression, the intensity, the heat of the moment, in that hotel hothouse?

Does May not want children, as is revealed at the hotel, or want them, as had been indicated in passing conversation online? Preferences on custard creams or shortbread, pizza consumption and more besides provoke doubts on what may have been said and whether it matters whose recollection is right.

Where goofy awkwardness has never blighted them behind the online shield, once May and Fly are together, in that room, wondering what to do next – whether and when to make a move, watch TV, eat a biscuit, order pizza – the sheer ordinariness of it all has the tea cup stain of familiarity that elicits both humour from cringy own goals  and vulnerable deeper emotions in Gowland’s dialogue as he walks the tightrope between warm-hearted romcom and angsty kitchen-sink drama.

The best speech – and the longest – goes to Fly, an epistle to love, to connection, to being a “defining feature in someone else’s story”, that signals the death knell to May and Fly and has you thinking, not for the first time, “Shut up, please shut up, you’re blowing this”, but also recognising the truths within the compulsive behaviour.

The juddering rhythms of the staccato scenes, a fusillade of snapshots that go to the heart, are countered by beautiful, choreographed scene changes where May and Fly entwine, flit flirtatiously or throw a prop from one to the other as if living their best life.

In the heat of the long-awaited moment: Nuno Queimado’s May and Rumi Sutton’s Fly in the third pairing of Mayflies. Picture: Sam Taylor

The songs, closer to Sondheim and Willy Russell than Lloyd Webber, contain wit, authorial wisdom and sometimes withering truths, ranging in content from conversational to confessionally dramatic, from playful, wishful or jousting duets to hopeful or wistful internal monologues.

Gowland doesn’t write OTT chart bangers, but consistently his storytelling songs – intelligent, incisive, funny or poignant – have an impact. Tellingly, Queimado, Sutton and Thornett find full expression in their nuances.

Azevedo’s direction is both musical and lyrical, orchestrating scenes as much as directing them, complemented by musical director’s Joseph Church’s lean, clean arrangements for his piano and Joel Benedict’s guitar.

This intricate but never ornate production is full of work of the highest standard, not only from the performances that can switch from charming to charmless, funny to foot in mouth, thoughtful to thoughtless in both characters, but also in Chris Whybrow’s sound designs and David Howe’s lighting, in turn transforming from warm to chill to match the ever-changing moods.

T K Hay’s breath-taking set design for Nick Payne’s multiverse in Constellations last November at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre whetted the appetite for his creativity for Mayflies. The profusion of ever-moving mayfly lamps delights, while he cleverly wraps a standard-fare hotel room inside multi-levelled building blocks, with a staircase leading to a balcony/kitchenette above.

This enhances the contrast between their online ‘connectivity’ in separate spaces – using the Theatre Royal stage to the full – and the sudden sardine-tin claustrophobia of the hotel.

Previously Gowland played with time, setting Pieces Of String simultaneously in the 1940s and present day (just as Alan Ayckbourn did in The Girl Next Door in 2021). Now he joins Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years and University of York alumnus Payne’s Constellations in giving differing perspectives on the path and fragile nature of love, the greater truths emerging from the writer rather than his players on life’s stage. How wonderful if Mayflies could match their success.

What’s more, just as Fly says there is a difference between running and knowing when to leave, so Gowland judges his running time spot on at 90 minutes of longing, loss and love in its all ridiculous yet enriching madness.

Mayflies, York Theatre Royal, tonight, 7.30pm (Emma & Rumi); Thursday, 2pm (Nuno & Emma) and 7.30pm (Rumi & Nuno); Friday, 7.30pm (Emma & Rumi); Saturday, 2.30pm (Nuno & Emma) and 7.30pm (Rumi & Nuno). Box office: 01904 623568 or

Mayflies composer, lyricist and writer Gus Gowland, seated, with cast members Emma Thornett, left, Rumi Sutton and Nuno Queimado

Three actors, two roles, one relationship, add up to Gus Gowland’s musical premiere of Mayflies at York Theatre Royal

Entwined: Rumi Sutton’s May and Emma Thornett’s Fly in a scene from Gus Gowland’s musical Mayflies, in rehearsal at the Central Methodist Church, York. Picture: Sam Taylor

THE world premiere of York Theatre Royal resident artist Gus Gowland’s new musical, Mayflies, opens tomorrow with a cast of Nuno Queimado, Rumi Sutton and Emma Thornett.

Except that you will not see all three of them on stage that night (28/4/2023), nor indeed at any performance in the run until May 13.

To explain, Mayflies tells the story of a romantic relationship between May and Fly, who match up on a dating app and begin a tentative conversation, whereupon their romance grows into something real. Then they meet.

Same story each show, but Gowland uses a rotating cast whereby any performance could feature a configuration of Nuno (May), Emma (Fly) or Rumi (“the super-talented one” because she can play either May or Fly).

“Come on three nights and you will see all three configurations,” advises director Tania Azevedo, a specialist in bringing new musicals to the stage, with credits for the award-winning But I’m a Cheerleader (Turbine Theatre) and as resident director for & Juliet in the West End.

Nuno Queimado’s May and Emma Thornett’s Fly in a touching moment in Mayflies. Picture: Sam Taylor

“Gus has specifically written what to our knowledge is the only musical able to be played by anyone of any age, gender, sexuality or race. May and Fly don’t come from anywhere specific; they have no identity whatsoever, which feels really special because it’s such a joy to watch, whether it’s Nuno and Rumi, Rumi and Emma or Nuno and Emma: we’re making a show that is universal. You get to experience the bravery to fall in love, whether you’re straight, gay, young or old.”

Composer, lyricist and writer Gowland, director Azevedo and musical director Joseph Church ran a full week of auditions, seeing more than 300 actors. “There had to be some decisions made at the beginning,” says Tania. “We could have had just two actors but settled on three, which allows us to really show how flexible the script is.

“Within that, we wanted to select people from different backgrounds and with differing vocal qualities, not just your average musical theatre performers. We also needed playful actors, able to cope with changes, as this show will be as fresh as it can be, with the latest re-write finished only a few weeks ago.

“They need to be playful to discover the juice within it. It will always have their imprint on it, stretching the concept as far as possible.”

Portuguese-born Nuno, who played the alternate Alexander Hamilton in the West End run of Hamilton, says: “Gus hasn’t written specifically drawn characters but doesn’t shy away from very specific themes, but the device he uses to change the configurations is what’s so special. That’s the juice that sets it apart from other shows.

“Then they meet”: Nuno Queimado’s May and Rumi Sutton’s Fly in Mayflies. Picture: Sam Taylor

“What’s great in the rehearsal period is being able to carve out the characters in 3D, finding out what’s different in each of our characterisations.”

To aid that journey, mood boards have been steadily filled with ideas and notes in the rehearsal room at the Central Methodist Church in St Saviouragte.

Tania rejoins: “What’s been really interesting is how generous they’ve been to each other, truly working as an ensemble with a collective understanding of the story while searching for the differing nuances of each pairing, so we’re developing the individuality of each character. Even with the same blocking, each pairing will feel really different.”

Emma, whose credits include War Horse, says: “To get that distinction between the different combinations, Tania has allowed us to develop why my Fly is different from Rumi’s.

“Having two people playing the same character at different performances brings a different dynamic to each scene, which will end up with it feeling like it’s a different show.

Director Tania Azevedo and musical director Joseph Church overseeing a rehearsal for Mayflies. Picture: Sam Taylor

“This is so rare in musical theatre because it usually has a prescribed time and place and specific type of acting, with freedom being somewhat restricted, but here it’s unique for allowing the true actor’s craft to be infused into the songs.”

Nuno says: “Tania, as the director, will go back to what’s important to squeeze as much juice as we can from each scene, whether we have to be busy or relaxed or open to being vulnerable, but always sticking to what the scene needs. Keep asking what each character needs: that way it doesn’t ever let the oven of creativity get cold.”

Another dimension to the show is representing the world of online dating. “What’s fascinating is that for a third of the play they can’t see each other as they’re connecting through online dating, which has had such an impact, especially since the pandemic when it was the only way to connect and find a new partner,” says Tania.

“No longer do people meet in a bar if you’re looking for love now. Chances are they will meet online. It’s interesting to see how the relationships changes when they’re in the same room [at an hotel], reading texts, talking on the phone or voice noting…”

…”And whether they react and how they react or not, in each situation,” says Rumi, who is making her York Theatre Royal debut after appearing in Hex and Heathers The Musical.

Mayflies composer, lyricist and writer Gus Gowland, seated, with York Theatre Royal cast members Emma Thornett, left, Rumi Sutton and Nuno Queimado

“The impact on when they’re in the room together face to face is pretty extreme,” says Tania.

To add another ingredient, Mayflies does not plough the straight furrow from the relationship’s beginning to finale. “It’s not chronological!” says Nuno. “It keeps jumping between online and offline and we keep jumping backwards and forwards too!”

Those worlds have to be represented in the designs of TK Hay, who so thrilled audiences with his innovative geometric carapace of one and a half miles of fibre-optic cable lighting for the multiverse story world of University of York alumnus Nick Payne’s Constellation at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, last autumn.

“The main thing I told him is that it’s a musical with only two people but we need to make it exciting on a big, big stage,” says Tania. “People have an expectation of how opera will look and we have to find a way to present things in a new style.”

Gus Gowland’s Mayflies runs at York Theatre Royal from tomorrow to May 13, 7.30pm; 2pm, May 4 and 11; 2.30pm, May 6 and 13. In a special deal, you can see all three casting configurations for the discounted price of £15. Box office: 01904 623568 or