The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, Glass Half Full Productions, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight and Friday; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
THE Rise And Fall Of Little Voice has a habit of rising again and again on a cycle of major tours.
It might even be argued that Jim Cartwright’s epic yet claustrophobically intimate tragi-comedy has been over-done, but its 30th anniversary is as good a reason as any for another revival.
This week’s run is not playing to big houses – most likely because the cost-of-living crisis is putting a tight squeeze on nights out, with holidays overseas taking priority, rather than Little Voice ennui – but Bronagh Lagan’s superb production deserves bigger audiences.
She has cast brilliantly, not only in the leads, Christina Bianco, Shobna Gulati and York-born Ian Kelsey, but also in the supporting Akshay Gulati, Fiona Mulvaney and the ever-welcome William Ilkley.
A decade ago, Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre opened its Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Stories season with ‘Little Voice’, that theme title summing up Cartwright’s bitter yet tender clash of the blitz and the glitz perfectly.
Lagan and set and costume designer Sara Perks retain the 1992 unspecified northern setting in Mari Hoff’s damp, run-down terrace-end house with its dodgy electrics, worn furniture, empty fridge, stack of booze bottles and on-the-blink meter. Excitement amounts to the installation of a new phone, bought on the never-never.
That only adds to the noise emanating constantly from Shobna Gulati’s heavy-drinking, needy motormouth Mari, flirting in the last chance saloon, while being neglectful of her daughter LV, yet smothering her all the while.
Drowned out by by man-eating Mari’s white noise, LV (American actress, singer and impersonator Christina Bianco) is reclusive (but not agoraphobic, she says). Spending days in her pyjamas, she listens to her late father’s vinyl collection in her bedroom, perfecting the vocal tropes and mannerisms of bygone divas Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Shirley Bassey and Bianco’s new addition, Cilla Black.
As and when necessary, she cleans up after her wild-living mother, whose neediness finds her treating her sugar-guzzling, simple, oversized neighbour Sadie (Fiona Mulvaney) like a comfort blanket to be picked up and discarded on a whim.
Cartwright depicts a dysfunctional, desperate world where lives are stymied by circumstance, but the wish to fly, to escape, to dream, to live beyond means, is omnipresent. LV does so through those records, kept in immaculate condition; Mari does so by placing her eggs in her latest basket: Ian Kelsey’s viper-tongued artist manager Ray Say, who sees himself as “the king of this gutter”, always on the make, but yet to make it.
When he hears caged songbird LV singing upstairs, while he’s romping with Mari on the sofa, Ray thinks he has a pathway to gold at last, if only he can persuade her to perform in public at Mr Boo’s tacky club in town.
In the wrong hands, Cartwright’s northern drama can become nasty, brutish and brash, even a freakshow, especially Mari, but the key is to locate its heart and to bring balance, to not let the white noise dominate.
Anyone who saw Gulati’s Ray in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at Leeds Grand Theatre will not be surprised at her tour-de-force Mari: selfish, grotesque, restless, volatile, relentless, potty-mouthed, over-heated yet devoid of warmth, but vulnerable too, and as funny as she is tiresome.
Bianco has hankered after the role of LV for a decade and what a performance she delivers, mastering an Oldham accent, suitably quiet and diffident yet full of stage presence, and bringing the house down with her myriad voices.
Her contrasting chemistry with Gulati’s volcanic Mari and Akshay Gulati’s tentative, caring, in-the-shadows telephone engineer Billy is impressive too as he tentatively leads her towards the light and freedom. Pent up for so long, when LV finally speaks her mind to Mari, Bianco finds devastating new heights.
Kelsey’s Ray Say has a veneer of charm, but the dark desperation is always bubbling away beneath the sleek yet seedy surface, as the chancer turns to user and abuser. Kelsey’s Theatre Royal debut at 55 is long overdue in his home city, and we can only hope more powerhouse roles will follow here.
Meanwhile, William Ilkley’s Mr Boo, the club boss with the flatlining patter, is a delightfully observed cameo from clubland’s past.
Echoing the heightened language of Greek drama and Shakespeare, yet redolent of Fifties and Sixties’ kitchen-sink dramas too, Cartwright’s world of outsiders and leftovers elicits fears, cheers and finally tears as LV finds her voice.
In the closing words of Mari, “I beseech you, I beseech you, I beseech you” to buy a ticket this week.
YORK has been on New Yorker Christina Bianco’s bucket list of British cities to visit for “the longest time”.
Glory be for the American actress, supreme impressionist and YouTube sensation, she will be at York Theatre Royal all this week, playing reclusive songbird LV in Jim Cartwright’s deeply dark comedy-drama The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice.
“I’m going to be all over that city, taking a million photos,” she vows. “Apologies to the locals of York for my camera being out and my blocking traffic in the streets! It’s one of those places, which, coming from America, you don’t believe is real. It looks like something out of Harry Potter! So yes, to finally be in York is truly amazing.”
Ahead of this week’s run, Christina already had a sneak preview of York in the company of co-star Ian Kelsey, who took her on a guided tour of his home city last month, taking in York Minster, the Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate street sign, a pub and the Theatre Royal stage.
From bucket list to wish list as Christina realises a long-held ambition to play LV. “When I was young growing up in New York, I always did impressions and loved singing many genres of music,” she says. “My parents tell me I had a natural instinct for mimicry, especially when it came to Judy Garland in The Wizard Of Oz.
“For some reason, I always gravitated toward British culture, television, films and comedy, watching the video of Four Weddings And A Funeral when I was little, and later Monty Python, and there was something about the British sensibility that I just loved.
“One of my favourite things in the world to watch was Absolutely Fabulous. I especially loved Jane Horrocks in it, and I love how your comedies have such broad characters but deal with serious subjects. Something hit me about the difference with American comedies.”
Later, Christina’s father saw a review of York director Mark Hearld’s 1998 film adaptation of Cartwright’s play, Little Voice, starring the aforementioned Horrocks. “Given LV’s love for Judy and all the diva impressions, he said we had to see it. I was blown away by Jane Horrocks’ performance and, of course, by the story itself. I became a little obsessed with it!” she says.
First, Christina brought her talent for mimicry to the fore in Forbidden Broadway off-Broadway in 2008. “I was doing impressions in public for the first time and gratefully being well reviewed for doing so,” she recalls.
“It put me on the map as an impressionist, and over the next few years I pushed myself to try more and more impressions and to eventually build my own show – both because I was enjoying it and because I realised there was an audience for this sort of act. It was around this time I posted some impressions videos on YouTube and they started racking up some views.”
Move the story forward to the summer of 2012, when Christina saw a notice that Little Voice was to go on a British tour, directed by Cartwright himself. “I’d never seen the show on stage before, so my husband and I planned a six-day trip to London…with my ulterior motive being to take a train to Guildford to see the show!” she says.
“My managers at the time suggested ‘Why don’t you write to Jim, introduce yourself and tell him how much you love the show?’.”
Cartwright duly wrote back to say “I’ve just watched your stuff online. You’re fabulous! Come to the stage door and we’ll chat”. “I ended up sitting down with Jim and talking about the show for quite some time,” says Christina.
“We stayed in touch and soon after, when some of my YouTube videos went viral and I had a run of sold-out shows at the Hippodrome, Jim came and said ‘we have to make LV happen for you’! That was in 2013. So, as you can see, doing this show has been a very long journey! Now, to finally get to do it, on this grand scale, with this incredible cast, is just thrilling.”
How come it still took so long to “make LV happen” after Cartwright’s vow? “We definitely have to rule out two years of Covid, of course, but the first reason was that I met him just as he was directing a big production of his play, so I knew I’d have to wait four or five years for another big production,” says Christina.
“Then I was attached to a production that Jim gave his blessing to that was supposed to go to Broadway, but that didn’t happen after going through three different directors – but that’s the story of showbiz.
“Then, the really tricky thing is that in the UK ‘Little Voice’ is so loved and some people say it’s overdone, being done by regional theatres and colleges as well, so the wait went on.”
Nevertheless, Christina was undaunted in her pursuit of adding LV to her CV, and once producer Katy Lipson attained the rights to the play, she promptly contacted the American actress, having seen her vocal impressions in concert. “She said, ‘I want to work with you; what would you like to do? Come up with a couple of ideas’. I said I’d love to do LV before I can’t do it.”
Sure enough, despite a further delay, Christina’s LV has arrived “when I’m still not too long in the tooth” at 40. “When Jane Horrocks first did it, she was in her late-20s, and in the movie, she was in her 30s. LV is not in her teens; she’s emotionally regressed, staying in the emotional state of a child.”
Christina’s diva impersonations on LV’s bedroom floor and the northern club stage are drawn specifically from the vinyl record collection of LV’s late father. “Everyone probably expects me to come out and do Celine Dion but it’s not the right time period,” she says.
“What I will be doing, though, is attempting Cilla Black for the first time in my life. Everybody I impersonate in the show will be of the classic musical era LV’s father loved: Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Shirley Bassey…”.
When adding a new diva to her repertoire, how does she master the voice? “It depends on the particular vocalist but typically I immerse myself with them for a couple of days. I listen to lots of their music before I watch any video footage of them.
“I like to get the essence of their voice first. Then I study their physicality in more detail. I try to take on as many mannerisms, characteristics and facial expressions as I can. Thank goodness everyone’s liking my Cilla; everyone’s clapping; no-one’s booing! I did have the fear of God put into me about singing You’re My World just right, but I made a point of knowing that she’d been told to sing it with a mid-Atlantic accent, which I’m doing.”
Christina’s biggest challenge is playing an introvert. “It’s very funny timing for me, with my last part being Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, who’s the polar opposite of LV. Fanny couldn’t help attracting attention, whereas LV is happy to fade into the background,” she says.
“Everyone says Fanny Brice is one of the most challenging roles of all time, and I don’t disagree. You never leave the stage except to change costume; you sing 12 songs, laugh, cry, dance and do physical comedy – the list goes on!
“But I can safely say I’m more nervous about doing Little Voice because I’m not an introvert. There’s the part of me that needs the platform to perform, though [away from the stage] I can be quite shy and I don’t like to stand out, so I’ve channelled that side of me. I don’t like confrontation too, and that part of me hasn’t changed with age.
“What many people wouldn’t know about me is that I’m an only child who’s happy to be alone, and if there’s no ideal platform for me to be on stage, if someone asks me to stand in front of a microphone I’ll shrink.”
Christina fully memorised the script before entering the rehearsal room. “I wanted to be as comfortable with the text as possible, in order to be fully comfortable performing it in a Northern accent,” she reasons.
“Sure, I’m good at accents but it’s a very different thing when you’re doing an accent in the place where that accent actually comes from. I’m not doing this show in New York. I’m doing a Lancashire accent for people in the north. That’s very intimidating!”
For that reason, she did consult a voice coach. “People have this assumption that if you’re good at vocal impressions, you’ll be good at accents too, but it’s so important that you’re comfortable in the accent. It’s either right or wrong, an accent, whereas an impression is an interpretation, and that’s different.
“I worked with a voice coach on Zoom over lockdown to get the Oldham/Manchester accent, and as Katy Lipson is from Manchester, she’d let me know if I was getting it wrong!”
Christina notes how American and British audiences differ. “I think Americans kind of watch you, leaning back, giving off an ‘entertain me’ vibe. I feel a British audience leans forward a bit more. They come into you and your world. Both are great and I’m not trying to insult my home country but I do feel British audiences are a little more appreciative.
“On the other side of that, Americans are much more likely to leap to their feet at the end of the show! Over here you can give the best performance of your life and the audience cheers like crazy but they don’t always leap to their feet.
“It’ll be interesting to see the reaction to this play. It won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy but I personally don’t see it as a traditional comedy. I see it as a true drama that happens to have a lot of comedic moments – and I know Jim and our director, Bronagh Lagan, are really looking to bring out the heart at the centre of it. How people are imperfect, make mistakes and have rises and falls – but they persevere.
“Fear of ‘starting over’ is a big theme in the show and I think we can say we’re all having to start over now in many ways. On both sides of the pond, and all over the world. It’s very timely.”
Summing up why Cartwright’s play has resonated with audiences through 30 years, Christina says: “First of all, I think this play is a true love letter to the UK. It celebrates so many great British artists and their music.
“But the story itself is something everybody can relate to, regardless of whether or not they know the music in the play. The idea that no matter how difficult things get, you can still persevere and rise from the ashes. And I think that’s exactly the message we need after the last two years.
“It’s a story about not being afraid to try something different and starting again. We’ve all been through something together that has changed us, just as the characters in the play do.”
Christina hopes audiences will embrace her as an American performer, taking on such an iconic British character. “I’d like to think that I’ve earned some stripes working in the UK quite a bit already, so maybe that will help,” she says. “And I’ve actually just become a resident, along with my husband and our dog Jeff Vader. We all live here now [on a three-year visa in London], so you’re stuck with me!”
Jeff Vader, Christina? “I named the dog after an Eddie Izzard joke,” she reveals of a surrealist shaggy- dog story that took in the Death Star, a cafeteria, Lego, and yes, Jeff Vader.
The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, starring Christina Bianco, Shobna Gulati and Ian Kelsey, runs at York Theatre Royal until July 9, 7.30pm, plus 2pm, Thursday and 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
FROM open-air films to the Proms, Early Music festival connections to Nordic sunshine, Charles Hutchinson’s summer season is in full bloom.
York Light Opera Company in A Night With The Light, Friargate Theatre, Friargate, York, today at 2.30pm and 7.30pm
UNDER the direction of Jonny Holbek and musical direction of Martin Lay, York Light presents a feel-good programme of powerful, funny, emotive and irreverent numbers from favourite musicals and new ones too.
Look forward to songs from Hamilton, Waitress, Wicked, Chicago, Chess, Avenue Q, The Phantom Of The Opera, Les Misérables, The Sound Of Music and plenty more. “Come join us as we have Magic To Do!” say Jonny and Martin. Box office: 01904 655317 or ridinglights.org/a-night-with-the-light/.
Films under the stars: Picturehouse Outdoor Cinema, York Museum Gardens, York, tonight and tomorrow; August 5 to 7, 7.30pm
PICTUREHOUSE, owners of City Screen, York, present two weekends of open-air cinema with a summer vibe.
Tonight’s Grease (Sing-A-Long) (PG) will be followed by tomorrow’s 70th anniversary celebration of Singin’ In The Rain (U).
Next month’s trio of films opens with a 40th anniversary screening of Blade Runner (15) on August 5; next comes Steven Spielberg’s 2021 re-make of West Side Story (12A) on August 6; last up, Disney’s Encanto (Sing-A-Long) (U) on August 7. Box office: picturehouses.com/outdoor-cinema/venue/york-museum-gardens.
The sun always shines on…a-ha, Scarborough Open Air Theatre, tomorrow, gates, 6pm
NORWEGIAN synth-pop trio a-ha head to the Yorkshire coast on their 2022 World Tour of Europe, the United States and South America, 40 years since forming in Oslo.
Vocalist Morten Harket, guitarist Pal Waaktaar-Savoy and keyboardist Magne Furuholmen will be releasing a new album in October, True North, their first collection of new songs since 2015’s I, recorded in two days 25km inside the Arctic Circle.
Will they preview new songs alongside the familiar Take On Me, The Sun Always Shines On TV, Hunting High And Low and Stay On These Roads? Find out on Sunday. Box office: scarboroughopenairtheatre.com.
Play of the week: Glass Half Full Productions in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, Monday to Saturday, 7.30pm; 2pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, Saturday
YORK actor Ian Kelsey returns to his home city to play viperous talent-spotting agent Ray Say in his Theatre Royal debut in a new tour of Jim Cartwright’s bittersweet comedy-drama, directed by Bronagh Lagan.
Coronation Street star Shobna Gulati plays louche, greedy, loud mother Mari Hoff and American actress and YouTube sensation Christina Bianco, her daughter LV, the recluse with the hidden singing talent for impersonating Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey et al. Can Ray draw her out of her shell and with what consequences? Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Festival of the week: York Early Music Festival 2022, July 8 to 16
YORK Early Music Festival returns to a full-scale live programme for the first time since 2019 under the theme of connections.
“Concerts are linked together through a maze of interconnecting composers,” says festival administrative director Delma Tomlin. “We’re delighted to be able to shine a light on the many connections that hold us together in the past and into the future.”
At the heart of the 2022 festival will be three 7.30pm concerts in York Minster by The Sixteen (July 9, the Nave); The Tallis Scholars (July 11, Chapter House) and the Gabrieli Consort & Players (July 13, the Nave). For the full programme and tickets, head to: ncem.co.uk.
York gig of the week in Leeds: Skylights, Leeds O2 Academy, July 9, doors, 7pm
YORK indie-rockers Skylights play “the biggest gig of our lives” next weekend up the road in Leeds, where previously they have sold out Leeds University and The Wardrobe and performed at Leeds United’s centenary celebrations in Millennium Square in October 2019.
Four Acomb lads in the 30s, singer Rob Scarisbrick, guitarist Turnbull Smith, drummer Myles Soley and bassist Jonny Scarisbrick, will perform to 2,300 fans in celebration of their debut album, What You Are, reaching number 34 in the charts in May. Box office: academymusicgroup.com.
Picnic party of the week: York Proms, York Museum Gardens, York, July 10, gates, 4pm
MUSICAL director Ben Crick conducts the 22-piece Yorkshire Festival Orchestra in next weekend’s performance of classical and film pieces, a special Platinum Jubilee section in the second half and a rousing Proms finale.
Soloists will be soprano and dancer Natasha Agarwal, who performed in Opera North’s Carmen, and bass-baritone John Anthony Cunningham, who has chalked up principal roles with English National Opera, Opera North and the Royal Opera House.
York Proms founder Rebecca Newman’s special appearance includes a tribute to her husband and co-founder, Jonathan Fewtrell, who died suddenly in 2020. The Fireworkers provide a firework finishing flourish. Box office: 01904 555670 or yorkproms.com/tickets.
New Romantic nostalgia in the air: Calling Planet Earth, York Barbican, January 21 2023, 8pm
THIS New Romantic Symphony takes a journey through the electrifying Eighties’ songs of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, The Human League, Ultravox, Tears For Fears, Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Japan, ABC and Soft Cell.
Calling Planet Earth combines a live band with symphonic arrangements and vocals in a show designed to “simply define a decade”. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk or ticketmaster.co.uk.
YORK actor Ian Kelsey returns to his home city to play viperous talent-spotting agent Ray Say in a new tour of Jim Cartwright’s bittersweet comedy The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice from Monday.
In doing so, he will be making his York Theatre Royal stage debut, although the former railway carriage works coach builder did hand out sweets in the guise of Mr Toffee in the foyer before performances of The Railway Children many moons ago in his “first professional gig”.
“I’ve seen many, many pantos and shows there but I’ve never performed there before,” says Ian. “I’m a little bit jittery about the maybe more critical eyes of people I went to school with or who I worked on the railway with. I also hope I don’t meet the Grey Lady [the Theatre Royal ghost]!”
Ian, 55, will be joined in Bronagh Lagan’s production for Glass Half Full Productions by Coronation Street star Shobna Gulati as Mari Hoff and New York actress and YouTube sensation Christina Bianco as LV (Little Voice).
Heavy-drinking, louche, loud Mari and reclusive LV are the contrasting mother and daughter in Cartwright’s fairy-tale, where LV is left to her own devices, embodying the famous divas she plays on repeat in her room, from Judy Garland to Shirley Bassey, from her late father’s record collection.
When manipulative Ray Say hears that cloistered nightingale sing, he foresees an overnight sensation and a route to a pot of gold in a story of the highs and the lows of small-town dreams, family rivalry and finding your voice in a noisy world.
Ian is in a touring show for the first time since The Verdict in 2019. “I was isolating in Dublin for two weeks in a hotel, doing an ITV drama, when Dublin was in its Lockdown number five, only on set for an hour, and this job came through while I was there,” he recalls. “It was my first audition on Zoom, so I had to embrace this new way of working.”
Ian jumped at the chance to play “king of the gutter” Ray in Cartwright’s painfully truthful northern drama. “I’d not the seen the film or the play before, although I was aware of it and what it’s about. But I just started reading the script and found Ray so funny, as well as horrific at the same time,” he says. “How can you not say yes to playing Ray Say?!” he says.
“He’s a bit of a leech really and so self-centred. He uses people. I think he has a good heart, or he had one, but it’s clear he only thinks of himself when it comes to his relationship with Mari. He’s not interested in her once he realises he can better his life through the singing talents of her daughter.”
Halfway through, Ray’s character changes. “There’s a speech where he just rips into Mari at one point and I was gobsmacked by what he says, but it’s brilliantly written by Jim Cartwright,” says Ian.
“He’s a fantastic writer and as you’re reading it you can hear it being said. The rhythms are just how people talk in the world in which it’s set. The characters don’t have much money, but they aspire to live above their station, which is also really funny.”
Can 6ft 3ins Ian relate to the intimidating Ray in any way? “I hope not! But when I’m reading a script, it really helps if I have someone in mind and all their nuances start to come into play.
“With Ray, I’ve got a couple of people in mind, although I don’t want to say who they are of course. I’ve met proper northern gangsters, who act like comedians, but all the time you’re thinking, ‘you’ve got something in your boots’. I can say, there’s also a bit of Johnny, who played my father in Coronation Street, in there too.”
After landing the role, Ian resisted any temptation to watch Michael Caine’s award-winning performance in York director Mark Hearld’s 1998 film. “I don’t want to be influenced by it, otherwise for the audience it will feel like I’m doing my take on his take,” he reasons.
“By not seeing the film, it’s all fresh coming off the page, so the vision of how to play Ray comes from my head.”
Before Ray Say, Ian has taken on several roles associated with film versions. “Such as when I played Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, and that was ingrained in me because it’s one of my favourite films,” he says.
“In that instance, you can’t help but give a nod to iconic performances. I’ve done Danny in Grease and I completely pinched Travolta’s walk, the Danny strut. You can’t help pinching from the best.”
This time, Ian has taken a different approach, although he has discussed the role with a fellow actor and Jim Cartwright. “One of the lads out of Coronation Street had played Ray, so we had a really good chat about it, and then, when Jim was in the audience in early June, we got talking about different actors bringing their different trombones to it,” he says.
“You can bring a wheelbarrow of trombones to a comedy, and then after two weeks, you think, ‘OK, I need to hold back those trombones here’!
“What you have to do is to get back to the script and not bring a trombone to the party – although Jim loves trombones!”
Mark Hearld set Little Voice in Scarborough; Cartwright’s play, premiered in 1992, refers only to being set in a northern town. “I think Scarborough’s too big for it. There are too many Ray Says in that town,” says Ian. “It needs to be a one-club town. It needs to be smaller than Scarborough.
“Ray’s the king of that one-club town, which is why, when he hears LV sing, he can see the potential of exploiting her talent. I can only imagine going to perform in somewhere like Wakefield would be big news!”
Ian reflects on the significance of 1992 in his own life. “It’s weird because, I’m 55 now, and that was the year I came out of drama school at Guildford,” he says.
“I didn’t realise people from York could go to drama school: I’d come out of school at 16, did six years at the railway carriage works, doing a coach-building apprenticeship, and then a year at Carris & Son, at Poppleton, making oak-leaf conservatories.
“It was there that I got my allergy to cedar wood and they told me I’d have to wear a face mask – that sounds familiar! – when working for the rest of my career. That’s when I ‘flipped’ and decided to go to drama school, when I was already in my early 20s.
“Three years at drama school, and two years after that I got my first soap role in Emmerdale. They advised me to take five years off my age to get roles!”
Ian – definitely 55! – is enjoying his travels on tour. “Live theatre is different every night and you’re constantly trying to win the audience over. I learned so much doing [John Godber’s] September In The Rain about the set-up for comedy and it’s such a brilliant craft because you’re always learning new things. I don’t think I’ve ever done a job where I’ve not learned something,” he says.
“The thing I’ve been most looking forward to is taking my motorbike with me. One of the most difficult things about being on tour is filling the time between getting up and curtain-up. I’m not one for historical buildings and all that, and if you’ve been on the telly a bit you can’t just go and sit in a coffee bar for the afternoon without being recognised. So, it’s fantastic to just put a crash helmet on and go and explore.”
Already he has taken American co-star Christina Bianco on his own version of a guided tour of York. Come Monday, Ian and his bike will be all revved up with one place to go as he heads home to the city where he cut his performing teeth in Mike Thompson’s Rowntree Youth Theatre productions of Half A Sixpence, Kiss Me Kate and Some Like It Hot at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre. Now, he will have his Say at York Theatre Royal at last.
The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice runs at York Theatre Royal from July 4 to 9, 7.30pm plus 2pm, Thursday, and 2.30pm, Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
THE Hound Of The Baskervilles is at loose this Haunted Season at York Theatre Royal, returning Serena Manteghi to the city where she cut her acting teeth.
“I studied [at the University of York] and lived in York for many years and still work there often,” she says, ahead of the October 19 to 23 run. “It’s my spiritual home and I’ve been assured I can now call myself an honorary Yorkshire lass, so I’m very much looking forward to heading back there.”
Although based in London, Serena has spent plenty of time up north this summer, performing in early August in Alexander Wright and Phil Grainger’s Eurydice at Theatre At The Mill, Stillington, and later that month in the Harrogate Theatre community play Our Gate in and around the Wesley Centre, Harrogate.
Now she is part of a fast-moving cast of three in Lotte Wakeham’s production of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most celebrated detective tale as it receives a farcical overhaul, with Serena playing only men in Steven Canny and John Nicholson’s adaptation, first staged by Peepolykus in 2007 with West End success.
The story is as familiar as ever: world-renowned detective Sherlock Holmes and his colleague Dr Watson are asked to unravel the mystery surrounding the untimely death of Sir Charles Baskerville. Amid rumours of a cursed giant hound loose on the moors, they must act fast in order to save the Baskerville family’s last remaining heir.
What ensues, however, is an exhilarating collision of farce, ingenious theatrical invention and comic performances to “offer a brand-new twist on the greatest detective story of all time”, in the hands of the multi role-playing Serena, Jake Ferretti’s Sherlock Holmes and Niall Ransome’s Dr Watson.
“I play a whole host of colourful characters, including Sir Charles Baskerville, Dr Mortimer, a helpful London cabbie, three ‘yokels’ (one wise, two less so) and last but not least, the romantic lead (after Dr Watson, of course) and newest Squire of Baskerville Hall, Sir Henry Baskerville,” says Serena, who heads to York after breaking in the Bolton Octagon Theatre and Original Theatre Company production on the road under tour director Tim Jackson following rehearsals in London.
“Yes, they’re all male characters that I’m playing, but I’ve not really thought about their gender; you just play the character – and I have played men before.
“There were male characters in Build A Rocket, Christopher York’s one-woman play I did for the Stephen Joseph Theatre [Scarborough], and I played Rene Magritte in Belt Up Theatre’s Lorca Is Dead [York Theatre Royal, May 2010].
“And there are female characters in this show, played by Jake Ferretti, just as they were played by men when it was created by three wonderful performers [Javier Marzan, John Nicholson and Jason Thorpe]. I predominantly play Sir Henry, in the spirit of that original production.”
One consequence has come from the four weeks of shows so far, demanding more than “Olympian dexterity” from Serena, Jack and Niall. “It’s been quite hard on my voice because I’m having to use a much lower register all the time, so I have to work hard on my warm-ups,” says Serena, who is no stranger to challenging her vocal cords, having played LV, with all her singing voices, in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice at the SJT in 2017.
Likewise, The Hound Of The Baskervilles, and indeed myriad Sherlock Holmes stories have been stretched in multiple ways. “I think the books are woven so deeply and lovingly into our cultural vocabulary that, growing up in the UK, you feel the infamous Holmes and Watson are just a part of the literary furniture, as it were. Like Father Christmas,” says Serena.
“That said, I absolutely loved the recent BBC adaptations [starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman] and would tune in as soon as they were aired for fear of someone spoiling the mystery.
“I think the diverse versions work because the Holmes and Watson partnership is so iconic; the performers and the audience begin from such a familiar starting point and that means you can take them on a slightly unexpected journey.”
Holmes and Watson are embedded in our cultural psyche as much as Morecambe & Wise, suggests Serena. “They’re loved just as much, and that dynamic is beautifully honoured by Jack and Niall; that joy Holmes and Watson have in each other’s company, which is so apparent in Conan Doyle’s writing,” she says.
“Any literary die-hard fanatics of Conan Doyle will be pleasantly surprised by our show: it’s a comedy retelling, written by a well-established comedy partnership in Steven Canny and John Nicholson – we met John when he came to see it in Exeter – and it’s an utter pleasure to perform. You’d be very hard-pressed not to enjoy yourself watching this play.”
Ah, but is it still scary, Serena? “There are some scares, but it leans heavily on the humour, less so on scariness,” she says. “Every spooky note is buttoned with a gag, but it’s not a send-up. It never mocks the story; it’s more an affectionate take on it.
“Very often, when you have farcical versions of the classics, you have to leave behind the story, but here you do get the whole story, just laden with joy and fun.”
Look out for David Woodhead’s set and costume designs too. “They’re beautiful. That’s another reason to see the show,” says Serena. “The set is just gorgeous to behold, elevated and malleable for multiple uses, and everything we wear is beautifully made.” In other words, no tat, Sherlock!
Original Theatre Company and Octagon Theatre Bolton present The Hound Of The Baskervilles, York Theatre Royal, October 19 to 23, 7.30pm; 2pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, Saturday. Age guidance: eight upwards. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.