REVIEW: The Coppergate Woman, York Theatre Royal, until Sunday ***

Radiant: Kate Hampson’s Coppergate Woman sees the light in The Coppergate Woman. Picture: : Jane Hobson

THIS is the first York Theatre Royal community play in five years and, more significantly, the first since pandemic restrictions were lifted, although the cloud of Covic hangs all too heavy over Maureen Lennon’s storytelling drama.

There is a sense of relief that we can gather again, perform together, build plays from scratch with faces old and new, but The Coppergate Woman is not a drama suffused with joy until its finale’s promise of a post-apocalyptic green new world.

Such a vision is ushered in with composer and musical director Nicolas Lewis’s most upbeat song, hand claps and all, but given all that is going around us, from higher and higher temperatures to higher and higher living costs and fuel prices, it is sung on a wing and a prayer.

The harsh realities of these times have seen cast members pull out through not being able to afford the travel costs or having to commit to working extra shifts to make ends meet, and therefore no longer being available for the heavy rota of rehearsals.

Ancient meets modern in The Coppergate Woman at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Jane Hobson

That said, community spirit bursts out of the 90 performers and plentiful choir members, as they build on the legacy of Blood + Chocolate (on York’s streets in 2013), In Fog And Falling Snow (at the National Railway Museum in 2015) and Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes (by the Minster and at the Theatre Royal in 2017 ).

All three were rooted in York history, and so, to an extent, is The Coppergate Woman, albeit she is as much a woman of mystery as Viking history. Her bones were found in a shallow grave in an excavation by the River Foss and she has since lain encased in glass at Jorvik Viking Centre.

Research revealed she had moved to Jorvik (York) from either South-West Norway or northernmost Scotland, was robustly built, had a pronounced limp from a degenerative joint disorder, consumed a heap of herring in her lifetime and died at 46.

Hull playwright Maureen Lennon’s number one haunt as a child was Jorvik, where she was drawn to those bones and to the model of that woman in blue. Now she puts flesh on those bones, and after the choir, ensemble and assorted principals set the play in motion on Sara Perks’s open-plan, uncluttered set with a backdrop of David Callanan’s audio-visual designs, professional actor Kate Hampson’s Coppergate Woman emerges in her glass case in that familiar blue.

Breakout moment: Kate Hampson’s Coppergate Woman emerges in her glass case. Picture: Jane Hobson

She duly smashes the case – as denoted by the sound of breaking glass and accompanying visuals – and sets about smashing the scientific facts as she re-awakes in modern-day York, charged with uncovering the answers as to why we are where we are.

She was 44, she corrects with a smile, probably a weaver, and now certainly a weaver of stories. Now let’s get down to business. She will be the conduit between past and present in Lennon’s world of myth and modern reality, but first she sets the scene, with a humorous observant eye, one that made your reviewer crave for rather more of this then-and-now contrasting York detail.

Coppergate Woman comments with amusement on Jorvik Viking Centre’s infamous stinking smell, but then sniffs 2022 York air for the first time. It smells of metal, she says, chemicals and cleaned surfaces: a triple-whammy discomfiting reminder of pollution, climate change and Covid.

Later, reference is made to King’s Square now being the place of buskers: another wry observation that plays well to the home crowd filling the Theatre Royal auditorium.

Sigyn (Catherine Edge) catches venom to protect her imprisoned husband Loki (Edward Hammond). Picture: Jane Hobson

Past and present constantly interweave in Lennon’s dense construction as she asks: “In an ever-changing world, how do we hang on to who we are when the grounds are shifting beneath our feet? How do we look forward and rebuild, when the End Times feel ever more real?”

Coppergate Woman sheds the rudimentary clothing to be revealed as a Valkyrie, a shepherd of the dead and dying, a servant of Odin, whose duty is to guide lost souls to the halls of Valhalla. Why? Because Ragnarok is coming, “when the gods will perish, fire will triumph, and only then will the world will rise again, made anew”.

In other words, Hell on Earth is nothing new, as Lennon mirrors four stories of ghastly, grim, abominable Norse legend with torrid tales of toiling, struggling people in York today.

As old gods do battle with new, Lennon favours an epic scale for the past, the world of Odin (Paul Mayo Mason), Frigg (Jessica Murray), Baldr (Andy Williams), thunderous Thor (Andrew Isherwood), cunning Loki (Edward Hammond), wife Sigyn (Catherine Edge) and Fenrir, the wolf (portrayed by a swaying sextet of bodies, superbly choreographed by movement director Xolani Crabtree).

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster, left, and playwright Maureen Lennon with the model of the Coppergate Woman at Jorvik Viking Centre

Modern York’s stories are more in keeping with soap opera or kitchen-sink drama: from Nicola Wild’s Sarah to Val Burgess’s Nana, Joanne Rule’s Fern to community play debutant Darren Barrott, constantly kicking out in frustration.

The voice of the future, the herald of hope, is young Liv (Hannah Simpson on Wednesday, sharing the role with Ilya Cuthell), driven by her predilection for painting in the rain (and if she didn’t start off with watercolours, they would be by the end).

Lennon does not shy away from the blood and guts of Norse legend, for example Loki being bound in chains made from the stretched entrails of his son. Those entrails are red, a virulent colour motif that runs throughout the play, used to powerful effect both by designer Perks and movement director Lewis.

Hampson, in her belated Theatre Royal debut in the city where she has lived for three decades, leads with a performance that glows: she can be gravely serious, frustrated, questing, comforting, resolute, but also delights in shards of humour and a narrator’s permission to step outside the action.

Hammer to the Thor: Andrew Isherwood enjoys delivering another blow in The Coppergate Woman. Picture: Jane Hobson

Isherwood’s Thor, hair extensions et al, has something of the Marvel comic-book about him; Barrott and Hammond stand out too, but this is a team show, from ensemble to choir, musicians to a multitude of costume makers and the hair and make-up crew.

Hazel Jupp’s costume designs are worthy of a carnival, and praise too for Craig Kilmartin’s lighting and Mike Redley’ sound (making light of having so many voices on stage).

Nicolas Lewis’s largely earnest compositions would benefit from more oomph and greater contrast, characteristics essential to community singing that demands rather more fun and coloratura. Too much had to weigh on that last number.

Directors Juliet Forster and John R Wilkinson pull the strings of such a large-scale enterprise with a passion for community theatre writ large, spectacle aplenty and more than a nod to in-vogue gig theatre. The joy here, however, rests more in that return after five years than in a troubling play for the End of Days that feels a bit of a drag when we need an uplift.

The Coppergate Woman, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight until Saturday; 2.30pm matinees, Saturday and Sunday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

The end: Composer and musical director Nicolas Lewis, centre, leading the finale to The Coppergate Woman. Picture: Jane Hobson

More Things To Do in York and beyond amid festival fever and a Viking reawakening. List No. 93, courtesy of The Press, York

Bull : York band play Deer Shed Festival 12 on Sunday

MUSIC in meadows and parks, a Viking community play and Osmondmania revisited, knitting and a superstar by the sea are Charles Hutchinson’s alternatives to summer holiday queues at ports.    

Festival of the weekend: Deer Shed Festival 12, Baldersby Park, Topcliffe, near Thirsk, today and tomorrow

DEER Shed Festival 12 takes the theme of Pocket Planet, “a celebration of different things from different planets”, spanning live music, DJ sets, comedy, science, Fringe and children’s shows, spoken word, films, sports, workshops and wellbeing.

John Grant, from Buchanan, Michigan, headlines the main stage tonight, preceded by a special guest set from Self Esteem, alias Rebecca Lucy Taylor, from Sheffield/Rotherham. Art-rock Londoners  Django Django top Sunday’s bill, backed up by South London post-punk hipsters Dry Cleaning, while York’s ebullient Bull headline the Acorn Stage that night. For ticket details, head to: deershedfestival.com.

The Feeling: Headlining MeadowFest in Malton. Picture: Andy Hughes

The other festival at the weekend: MeadowFest, Talbot Hotel gardens and riverside meadows, Malton, today, 10am to 10pm

MALTON’S boutique midsummer music festival, MeadowFest, welcomes headliners The Feeling, Alistair Griffin, New York Brass Band, Huge and Hyde Family Jam to the main stage.

Performing on the Hay Bale Stage will be Flatcap Carnival, Ross McWhirter, Simon Snaize, George Rowell, Maggie Wakeling, Nick Rooke, The Twisty Turns and Graeme Hargreaves.

Children’s entertainment, inflatables, fairground rides, street food and a festival bar are further attractions. Bring folding chairs, picnics…and well-behaved dogs on leads. Tickets: tickettailor.com/events/visitmalton.

Kate Hampson in the title role of The Coppergate Woman, York Theatre Royal’s summer community play

Play of the week: The Coppergate Woman, York Theatre Royal, today until August 7

IN an ever-changing world, how do we hang on to who we are when the grounds are shifting beneath our feet? How do we look forward and rebuild, when the end times feel ever more real? In the heart of York lies a woman with the answers.

Discovered in a shallow pit by the River Foss, the remains of an unknown woman are displayed in a Jorvik Viking Centre glass cage for all to see. Until, one day, the visitors are no more, the city is quiet and the Coppergate Woman rises again in Maureen Lennon’s community play, directed by Juliet Forster and John R Wilkinson with a cast of 90 led by Kate Hampson. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Crowning glory: Annie Stothert’s papier-mâché sculpture at Blossom Street Gallery

Exhibitions of the week: Colourforms, by Fiona Lane and Claire West; Enchanted Forest, by Annie Stothert, Blossom Street Gallery, York

BLOSSOM Street Gallery has two exhibitions running simultaneously until the end of August.

Colourforms presents brightly coloured paintings by York Open Studios mixed-media artist Fiona Lane and “art to make you smile” painter Claire West, from Beverley. Enchanted Forest brings together a highly imaginative collection of papier-mâché sculptures by Annie Stothert, from Yorkshire, inspired by folklore, myth and fairy tales.

Yoshika Colwell: Knitting together music, metaphysics and words in Invisible Mending at the Stilly Fringe

Edinburgh Fringe taster of the week: Yoshika Colwell in Invisible Mending, Stilly Fringe, At The Mill, Stillington, near York, Sunday, 7pm

IN the summer of 2020 as a pandemic raged, Yoshika Colwell was processing the death of her beloved grandmother, Ann. A woman of few words, Ann’s main outlet was her glorious, virtuosic knitting. As she approached the end of her life, Ann started a project with no pattern and no end goal.

Yoshika takes up this piece where Ann left off, creating a show about love, grief and knitting with fellow experimental music/theatre-maker Max Barton, from Second Body. Original music, metaphysics and verbatim material combine to explore the power in small acts of creativity. Box office: atthemill.org.

How they became big in the Seventies: The Osmonds: A New Musical tells the family story in song at the Grand Opera House, York

Musical of the week: The Osmonds: A New Musical, Grand Opera House, York, Tuesday to Saturday

YOU loved them for a reason. Now, for the first time, family drummer Jay Osmond turns his story into a family drama on the musical stage, offering the chance to re-live the ups and downs, the hits and the hysteria of the clean-living Seventies’ boy band from Utah, USA.

Directed by Shaun Kerrison and choreographed by Olivier Award-winning Bill Deamer, this is Jay’s official account of how five brothers born into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints faith were pushed into the spotlight as children on the Andy Williams Show and the hits then flowed, Crazy Horses, Let Me In et al. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York.

Christina Aguilera: Biggest American female star to play Scarborough Open Air Theatre since Britney Spears

American superstar grand entrance of the week: Christina Aguilera, supported by Union J, Scarborough Open Air Theatre, Tuesday, gates open at 6pm

CHRISTINA Aguilera piles up the Billboard Hot 100 hits, the Grammy awards and the 43 million record sales, to go with the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the honour of being the only artist under the age of 30 to feature in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest singers of all time.

Add to those accolades her coaching on NBC’s The Voice and her role as a global spokesperson for World Hunger Relief. Tuesday, however, is all about Genie In A Bottle, Beautiful, What A Girl Wants, Dirty and Fighter. Box office: scarboroughopenairtheatre.com.

Kate Pettitt: Kate Pettitt: One of the artists taking part in Arnup Studios Summer Open Weekend. Picture: Olivia Brabbs

Open studios of the week: Arnup Studios Summer Open Weekend, Panman Lane, Holtby, near York, August 6 and 7, 10am to 5pm

ARNUP Studios open their countryside doors for a weekend of art, craft and, fingers crossed, summer sunshine.

Once the home and workplace of the late potter and sculptor Mick and Sally Arnup, Arnup Studios are now run by daughter and stoneware potter Hannah, who oversaw their renovation. Liz Foster, Michelle Galloway, Kate Pettitt, Reg Walker, Emma Welsh and Hannah all have working studios there.

All but abstract sculptor Reg of these resident artists will be taking part, showing a mix of painting, print, drawing, ceramics and jewellery. They will be on hand to discuss their work and share processes and techniques with visitors, who are invitated to buy original one-off pieces of art and craft, smaller gifts and cards direct from the makers or simply to browse and enjoy the day.

As well as a small carpark on site, free on-street parking is available in the village. The studios are bike and dog friendly; families are welcome. 

Who was the Coppergate Woman? Kate Hampson prepares to put flesh on Viking bones in Theatre Royal community play

Shrouded in mystery: Shrouded in mystery: Kate Hampson prepares to tell the Coppergate Woman’s story at York Theatre Royal

REHEARSING the lead role in York Theatre Royal’s summer community production can be lonely for Kate Hampson.

“On a morning rehearsal, it’s usually just been me and the directors,” says Kate, the only professional in Juliet Forster and John R Wilkinson’s cast of 90 for Maureen Lennon’s epic storytelling drama The Coppergate Woman.

This is partly because the York actor and yoga enthusiast had to play catch-up. “I’ve stepped into rehearsals when you don’t want to feel like you’re on the back foot, but Juliet and John have done a great job in integrating me after the community cast started a while before me and had already formed various scenes. My task has been to think, ‘how do I enhance those scenes?’.”

Fostering a love of theatre from the age of eight and trained in theatre, film and television at York St John University and clowning at the Utrecht School of Arts, Kate has performed for Northern Broadsides, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Oldham Coliseum and Hull Truck Theatre, playing Mother and Mrs Perks in The Railway Children last winter, but The Coppergate Woman will mark two firsts.

Kate Hampson in rehearsal for The Coppergate Woman

“I’m working with a community cast for the first time,” she says. “There’s a little bit of pressure there; it’s a challenge, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was a feeling of it being daunting, but everyone has been really supportive and it’s been exhilarating to work with so many people. I think it’s perfect that a play all about the community has been cast from the community.”

Despite living in York for 27 years, Huddersfield-born Kate has never performed on the Theatre Royal’s main-house stage. “I did some work on a New Playwrights project, doing play readings with Damian [former artistic director Damian Cruden], but that was in the Studio, so Saturday will be my first time,” she says.

She will be keeping it in the family, however, as her husband, fellow professional actor Julian Kay [from the  Kay family of York lawyers] has graced that stage, performing in pantomimes.

Kate took a ten-year break from the stage to focus on bringing up their two children (son Arthur, 14, who has taken his first steps as an actor in Doctor Who and Brassic, and daughter Elsie, 12).

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster, left, and The Coppergate Woman playright Maureen Lennon with Jorvik Viking Centre’s model of the Coppergate Woman

“I admire actors who do continue to work in theatre when they have a young family, but with both Julian and I doing theatre professionally, it just felt that wasn’t possible,” she says.

“In those ten years off stage, I did some TV and commercials, and if you’re lucky enough the corporate world will sustain you. I love theatre but with young children, they’re the priority.”

The Railway Children at Hull Truck was a joyous return. “It’s lovely to be back in theatre, playing to live audiences, working with people in the business again,” says Kate.

From Saturday, she will be experiencing that excitement again, playing the title role in The Coppergate Woman, Maureen Lennon’s story that puts the flesh on the bones of a woman whose remains were found near the River Foss and are now exhibited under glass at the Jorvik Viking Centre.

“That’s another pressure. To do her justice, this woman who had family, friends, a job, and you want to recognise that sensitively,” says Kate Hampson of playing the Coppergate Woman

“What we know from history is that she was either Norwegian or northern Scottish and you can tell from her teeth that she’d eaten a lot of herring,” says Kate.

“So, you make choices from that. Is she Scandinavian, is she northern? We’re identifying her as Yorkshire; we know she came to York in her teens. It’s curious to think about what her accent would have sounded like, and I guess we can’t really know, so you just have to decide.”

Kate was familiar with the Coppergate Woman from the many visits she undertook to Jorvik with her children. “I felt like we were almost on speaking terms as we went there so frequently. At one point, the children kept wanting to go every weekend!” she recalls.

In Lennon’s play, the Coppergate Woman vacates her Jorvik resting place to venture into “crisis-hit modern-day York”. “Maureen weaves post-Covid stories into the play, when there’s still a hangover from such challenging times,” says Kate. “She also weaves in more Norse myths and legends and stories of everyday York folk today.

“My task has been to think, ‘how do I enhance those scenes?”, says Kate Hampson, after joining rehearsals for The Coppergate Woman with the community cast’s preparations already well under way

“Ultimately, it’s all about storytelling, connecting  and communicating, and how we collaborate with each other. It’s a play about hope and how we need to come together for our future.”

At the core of that play is the Coppergate Woman, as portrayed by Kate. “It’s a privilege to be playing a real person – wondering what she looked like, what she thought and what her origins were. You want to honour her, as you would with any real person you play,” she says.

“That’s another pressure. To do her justice, this woman who had family, friends, a job, and you want to recognise that sensitively – and Maureen has done that in her writing.

“I listened to a podcast about the Coppergate Woman, where they looked at historical artefacts, and then historians created her life from that, but not just one life, but various options. Maureen listed to that podcast too and chose the play’s path from that.”

Kate Hampson looks forward to performing on York Theatre Royal’s main-house stage for the first time

Summing up The Coppergate Woman, Kate says: “For me it’s about Norse legends and myths, and though Norse gods are usually imposing figures, the Coppergate Woman is a real woman who existed, and it’s important to see her as a human that the audience can connect with.

“We know very little about her, but we’re trying to get the essence of her, and that’s why you have to ground her in a real person.”

Championing York Theatre Royal’s passion for staging community theatre productions, Kate concludes: “It’s become a tradition here, and one the management wants to continue as the Theatre Royal were leading lights in establishing such shows. It’s a real testament to the theatre’s commitment that so soon after the Covid lockdowns, they’re mounting a play on such a scale.

“It’s remarkable how so many people want to give so much time to make a drama together, telling stories of York.”

The Coppergate Woman, York Theatre Royal, July 30 to August 7 (no shows on July 31 and August 1). Performances: 7.30pm, July 30, August 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6; 2.30pm, August 6 and 7. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

Rumours spread and rebellion rises as York Theatre Royal’s new season makes a stand

The Tragedy Of Guy Fawkes playwright David Reed outside the Guy Fawkes Inn in York. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

“THE theatre has always been a place where rebellion thrives,” says chief executive Tom Bird as York Theatre Royal sets its Rumours And Rebels season in commotion.

Two legendary York figures, Guy Fawkes and the Coppergate Woman, will come to life as the spotlight is turned on those who resist, rebel and stand up to injustice, corruption and persecution this summer and autumn.

“We wanted to talk about opposition and intrigue and how ‘sticking it to the man’ manifests itself, which is often in the form of rumours first,” says Tom. “We knew we were going to be doing this strand of work with rebellion shot through it, but we also wanted a nod to the fact that rebellion can start in a more subtle phase with rumour.

“We already had rebellion in the diary with Guy Fawkes, Julius Caesar and Red Ellen, which all start with ‘talk’, and I was thinking about how you’re naturally quite wary of making heroes of people who are seen as terrorists, so I didn’t want the season to be too on the nose in celebrating rebellion without also saying it’s a complicated business.

“Look at Guy Fawkes; we think of him as a York hero but actually he wanted to blow up hundreds of people.”

Long in the planning for its York Theatre Royal world premiere, York-born writer David Reed’s “explosive new comedy about York’s most infamous rebel”, The Tragedy Of Guy Fawkes, will run from October 28 to November 12, directed by Gemma Fairlie as Monty Python meets Blackadder.

“We’ve had the script since before I came here in December 2017,” says Tom. “David [one third of the The Penny Dreadfuls comedy trio] is a local writer; the script is brilliant and funny, and the pre-sale of tickets is fantastic.”

Co-director Juliet Forster, left, and playwright Maureen Lennon with JORVIK Viking Centre’s model of The Coppergate Lady

Further explaining the Rumours And Rebels season title, Tom says: “The other reason for ‘Rumours’ is the impact of social media, where it feels like we’re surrounded by an unsolicited swirl of rumour that could lead to action, even to direct rebellion, like you saw with Trump’s supporters marching on Capitol Hill.

“Uncurated rumours bother us a lot, and that’s why we’re curating the summer and autumn programme under this title to highlight the importance of curation when news has stopped being that and so many people no longer trust experts.  Theatre is a place for resistance and for celebrating it since Athenian times.”

Standing alongside Reed’s Guy Fawkes tragi-comedy in the season ahead will be Maureen Lennon’s community play The Coppergate Woman, wherein a Valkyrie woman with the answers rises again to move among the people of York, a goddess resisting the havoc wrought by pandemic, from July 30 to August 6.

These in-house productions will be preceded by Northern Stage, Nottingham Playhouse and Royal Lyceum Theatre’s touring production of Red Ellen, Carol Bird’s epic story of inspiration Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, who was forever on the right side of history, forever on the wrong side of life, from May 24 to 28.

“We’re super-excited about Red Ellen, which had been planned by Lorne Campbell before he left Northern Stage to move to the National Theatre of Wales. After The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff, this is another unsung political hero to be celebrated by Northern Stage.”

Flicking through the brochure, in Shakespeare’s Globe’s Julius Caesar, on June 10 and 11, the protagonists fear power running unchallenged as Diane Page directs this brutal tale of ambition, incursion and revolution; in Conor McPherson’s Girl From The North Country, from September 5 to 10, the chimes of freedom flash through a story rooted in Bob Dylan’s songs;  in Pilot Theatre’s revival of Noughts & Crosses, from September 16 to 24, the love between Selby and Callum runs counter to the politics of their segregated world.

In Frantic Assembly’s reimagined 21st century Othello, from October 18 to 22, Othello faces a barrage of racial persecution in Shakespeare’s tragedy of paranoia, sex and murder; the year ends with the Theatre Royal’s third pantomime collaboration with Evolution Productions, where Peter Pan joyously stands up to the tyranny of time, from December 2 to January 2.

York Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird

Delighted to welcome Shakespeare’s Globe, Tom says: “I left the Globe to move here, and as the Roman Quarter project gets underway in Rougier Street, we were interested in doing a Roman-themed work.

“We’d known for a while this would be a rebellion season, and the Globe knew we were keen to link up with them, so they gave us a couple of options. National companies are getting really good at that, and it’s great to have the Globe back for the first time since they did Henry VI.”

Tom says the season fell into place partly through the stars aligning. “If Frantic Assembly’s Othello is on tour, you take it,” he says. “It fitted perfectly with our own choices of Guy Fawkes and [York company] Pilot Theatre reviving Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses.

“The first tour did really well, there’s since been the TV series, and it’s a story really loved by young audiences as a Romeo & Juliet for the 21st century. It’s a no-brainer to bring it back.”

Bringing a “big show” to York Theatre Royal is not easy, says Tom, given the seating capacity of 750, but that does not deter him from seeking to do so. Take the double Olivier Award-winning West End and Broadway hit Girl From The North Country, written and directed by The Weir playwright Conor McPherson.

He reimagines the songs of Bob Dylan in a universal story of family and love set in the heartland of America in 1934, when a group of wayward souls cross paths in a time-weathered guesthouse in ‘nowheresville’ [Duluth, Minnesota]. As they search for the future and hide from the past, they find themselves facing unspoken truths about the present.

“God we had to fight to get it but I’m seriously glad we did,” says Tom. “It premiered at The Old Vic and it’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Bob Dylan had been badgered for years about doing a jukebox musical, and he said, ‘only if it’s a bit weird’. Luckily, he was involved in Conor getting to do it.

Girl From The North Country: “Doing a Conor McPherson on a Bob Dylan jukebox musical”

“It’s a marriage made in heaven! He does a Conor McPherson on a Bob Dylan jukebox musical: it’s an incredible, haunting story with a cast of odd characters you’d find travelling on a Greyhound bus, when you gather all this eccentricity in America and you can’t escape them, set to Dylan’s songs.

“Everyone knows Bob Dylan songs are sung better when Dylan doesn’t sing them, and for this show, they take a genuine cross section of songs from across his career, not only the Sixties.”

Among further highlights, York Stage will make their Theatre Royal debut in a 40th anniversary production of Howard Ashman and and Alan Menken’s musical Little Shop Of Horrors, from July 14 to 13, and Original Theatre will present Susie Blake as Miss Marple in Rachel Wagstaff’s new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, from October 4 to 8.

“I’d been a bit worried whether a murder mystery is still what people want as we’ve seen that move from drawing-room plays to musicals in audience tastes, but The Mirror Crack’d has gone like a train at the box office,” says Tom.

Summing up the philosophy behind Rumours And Rebels, he concludes : “It’s not easy to have a themed season when we put on such diverse work here, but when we see ways to do seasons with connected themes we will do it, like the Theatre Royal did with seasons focusing on Yorkshire and women before I came here.

“By having a theme, hopefully it will encourage people to see more plays in the season having enjoyed one.

“Overall, for me, what we’re eliminating from York Theatre Royal is the middle-of-the-road. When we bring in touring shows, we might as well go ‘big’, bringing in new audiences; when we produce plays, we’re going to do new work like The Tragedy Of Guy Fawkes and The Coppergate Woman, not Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which might be my favourite play but wouldn’t get an audience.”

For the full programme and tickets details for Rumours And Rebels at York Theatre Royal, go to: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Box office: 01904 623568.

Copyright Of The Press, York

Susie Blake as Miss Marple in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d

JORVIK’S Coppergate Woman to come to life in York Theatre Royal’s community play. Actors and backstage team needed

York Theatre Royal co-directors Juliet Forster, second from right, and John R Wilkinson and playwright Maureen Lennon with JORVIK staff members at the recruitment launch for The Coppergate Woman community play

HAVE you ever wondered who was “The Coppergate Woman”, whose remains are displayed in a glass case in the JORVIK Viking Centre in York after being discovered in a shallow pit by the River Foss.

One of only two full skeletons on show from the archaeological dig, she features in model form in the Coppergate visitor attraction, her identity unknown, but now she is to be “brought back to life in modern-day York” in this summer’s York Theatre Royal community project.

Directed by creative director Juliet Forster and associate artist John R Wilkinson, the storytelling show is being written by Hull playwright Maureen Lennon, fleshing out the very barest of bones for four interlinking stories to be performed by a community ensemble of between 80 and 100 from July 30 to August 6 on the main stage.

This week, working in partnership with JORVIK, the Theatre Royal issued a call-out for people to participate in the production, both backstage and on stage, where the company will be led by a yet-to-be-confirmed professional actor in the title role. 

Performers, musicians and those keen to work in stage management, wardrobe, lighting, props, marketing, fundraising and front-of-house are asked to visit yorktheatreroyal.co.uk for details of how to sign up for roles on and off stage.

Explaining how  she came to write the play, Maureen says: “Juliet approached me to say they were thinking of doing a community show that engaged with York’s Viking history and how stories of our ancestors might bridge the gap between their world and our world. How might they have an impact on how we live now, and what could we learn from each other?”

Playwright Maureen Lennon with JORVIK Viking Centre’s model of The Coppergate Woman

Juliet recalls: “The idea came from thinking about the importance of storytelling in our world and how do we draw people together. The Vikings were storytellers and I started thinking about the Vikings because it’s an area we as a theatre had not explored before and is a very interesting part of our history.

“I’d seen Maureen’s early play Bare Skin On Briny Waters at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe and invited her company, Bellow Theatre, to bring it to the Theatre Royal Studio in 2018. She felt the right fit for the play we wanted to do this summer, but we’d never met in person until Monday this week!”

Maureen was delighted to receive the Theatre Royal commission. “Growing up in Hull, I used to really love going to JORVIK as a child, when although it was a museum, it felt like going to a theme park,” she says. “I hadn’t been back for years, but then revisited it to research for the play and I got really interested in the Coppergate Woman.”

Being confronted by her skeleton was a real example of two worlds meeting, says Maureen. “That’s the privilege of storytelling: we get to imagine her story, thinking about who she might have been and what she might say of our world.

“She’s in our world now, whether she likes it or not. I wondered if she was lonely. I wondered who she had been and what she would think about me staring at her now. It felt intimate and yet so much about her was unknown. 

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster with JORVIK’s skeleton of The Coppergate Woman

“I wanted to give her the power to look at us just like I was looking at her in that moment. I wanted her to speak – although obviously in reality I’m glad she didn’t.”

This summer’s play was always envisaged as a project that talked about community, togetherness, and the power of storytelling in our societies, in light of the pandemic, says Maureen.

“That was the jumping-off point for The Coppergate Woman, which weaves myth with contemporary stories. The Vikings had an end-of-the-world story in their mythology, Ragnarok, and in our tale the Coppergate Woman is awakened to try to help four people of York live through their own version of Ragnarok. It’s about hope and heartache and loss – and starting again, together.”

Co-director John R Wilkinson says: “It’s been five years since we last did one of our community plays, but given all that’s gone on in the past couple of years, it’s really necessary and heartening to be able to bring people together again, this time through a storytelling piece.

“I would argue that storytelling has become a slightly underappreciated artform, so it’s interesting to be able to explore it in a community play.”

“Theatre should be about accentuating its strengths: that live interconnection between performers and the audience through direct storytelling,” says The Coppergate Woman co-director John R Wilkinson

Maureen says: “Storytelling has a flexibility to it that’s perfect for this show, because it’s not a show about one person but about the people of York, who take part in the story as a chorus of ‘Norns’, storytellers who operate in a similar way to the Fates in Greek mythology.”

Juliet rejoins: “That makes it distinctly different from any community production we’ve done in the past. We’ve gone back to the bare bones to conjure a world just with words. That act of coming together collectively to tell a story is something we’ve been really lacking.”

John concurs: “There seems to be a trend for trying to compete with streamed shows, but theatre should be about accentuating its strengths: that live interconnection between performers and the audience through direct storytelling.”

The last word goes to Maureen, who says: “The Coppergate Woman is a chance to tell a different story about the Viking community when we tend to associate them with invasion, violence and horns.”

The Vikings built bridges in the city, just as her community play builds bridges between York’s past and present through storytelling.

Tickets for The Coppergate Woman will go on sale next month with more details to follow.

Copyright of The Press, York