Settlement Players to return from pandemic hiatus with high-wire comedy The 39 Steps at Theatre@41 Monkgate

Harri Marshall: Directing York Settlement Community Players’ production of The 39 Steps

YORK Settlement Community Players return from lockdown mothballing with Harri Marshall’s production of The 39 Steps at Theatre@41 Monkgate, York, from November 11 to 14.

Patrick Barlow’s two-time Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning comedy thriller – a hit in the West End, on Broadway and on multiple tours – asks the cast to play more than 150 characters in recreating an against-the-odds combination of both John Buchan’s 1915 novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film.

The task is to tell the fast-moving story of Richard Hannay, a man with a boring life, who meets a woman with a thick foreign accent who claims to be a spy. When he takes her home, she is murdered.

Soon, a mysterious organisation called “The 39 Steps” is hot on the man’s trail in a nationwide hunt that climaxes in a death-defying finale in Barlow’s adaptation, based on an original concept by North Country Theatre’s Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble.

Aran MacRae: Cast as Richard Hannay in the Settlement Players’ The 39 Steps

Aran MacRae, a professional actor who returned home to York in lockdown after working on the London musical theatre stage and on tour overseas, will play Richard Hannay, fresh from Aran being one of the sonneteers for York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar 2021.

Sanna Buck will take the roles of Annabella Schmidt, Pamela and Margaret, while Stephen Wright, Andrew Isherwood, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison, Matt Lomax and Dan Boyle will be The Clowns, whereas normally they are played by only two actors rushing around frantically trying to do most of the 150-plus characters.

York Settlement Community Players’ last live theatre production was Chekhov’s The Seagull at York Theatre Royal Studio in March 2020, when the run ended a week before the theatre went dark for the first pandemic lockdown. Since then, the company has hosted play readings and social meet-ups online.

Benedict Turvill’s troubled playwright Konstantin and The Seagull of the title in York Settlement Community Players’ last stage production at the York Theatre Royal Studio in March 2020. Picture: John Saunders

The 39 Steps will be Harri Mashall’s second production for YSCP, after directing Nanci Harris’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes at Theatre@41 in the autumn of 2019.

“For the past eighteen months, the UK feels like it’s lost its theatrical mojo, which is why I’m excited to bring this light, wickedly funny play to Theatre@41 to share in the love and laughter and to showcase some brilliantly inventive theatre,” says Harri, who identifies as a deaf director.

“Rehearsals are going very well; we started at the deep end, plunging into the logistics of how to re-create those fabulous iconic scenes that made The 39 Steps famous when it debuted on the West End.

Playwright Patrick Barlow

“This includes re-creating chase sequences on board the Flying Scotsman and a live on-stage plane crash.”

Harri adds: “I’m very lucky to be working with such a talented cast. Every single performer is a brilliant star in their own right. Their collective repertoire includes credits at the London Coliseum, York Theatre Royal, York Light Opera, the York Mystery Plays, Pick Me Up Theatre and previous successful York Settlement Community Players’ shows, such as The Cherry Orchard and The Red Shoes.”

This amateur production of The 39 Steps is presented by arrangement with Concord Theatricals Ltd on behalf of Samuel French Ltd.

Tickets for the 7.30pm evening shows and 2.30pm Saturday and Sunday matinees in the John Cooper Studio are on sale at tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

The poster artwork for York Settlement Community Players’ The 39 Steps

REVIEW: Settlement Players in The Seagull, York Theatre Royal Studio

Benedict Turvill’s troubled playwright Konstantin and The Seagull of the title in York Settlement Community Players’ production. All pictures: John Saunders

REVIEW: The Seagull, York Settlement Community Players, York Theatre Royal Studio, until March 7, 7.45pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

IT didn’t end well for the goat in Edward Albee’s The Goat at Theatre @41 Monkgate last week. It doesn’t end well for the seagull – borrowed from the National Theatre, no less – in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Theatre Royal Studio, but there is awkward comedy aplenty in both plays.

Absurd comedy in Albee’s jaw-dropping 2002 piece; tragicomedy in Chekhov’s 1895 dysfunctional family drama, as Helen Wilson completes her ten-year project to direct all four of the Russian playwright’s major works for Settlement Players in the York company’s centenary year.

As with Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters, the adaptation is by Michael Frayn, who has praised Settlement, and by implication Wilson, for not tampering with period, location, genders and politics to “make them more relevant” for modern audiences.

Livy Potter’s Nina performs Konstantin’s radical but mannered new play in The Seagull

“People in York are evidently made of sterner stuff,” Frayn said. “Just occasionally, perhaps, it’s worth trying to catch the sense and feel of what Chekhov actually intended.”

Wilson has pursued the same directorial policy once more, placing her trust in Frayn’s dialogue, replete with dramatic and comic irony, complemented by an uncluttered set design by Graham Sanderson, with a plain backdrop, chairs and a mini-stage, bedecked with flowers, for Konstantin’s play within a play.

Frayn knows that territory from his own 1982 backstage comedy Noises Off, a classic English unruly farce, but like Frayn’s appraisal of York audiences, The Seagull is made of sterner stuff.

Forlorn love: Lucy May Orange in black, playing Masha, destined to be forever ignored by Konstantin (Benedict Turvill)

“They’re all vulnerable, every one of them,” says Wilson of Chekhov’s characters, and she has made a spot-on judgement call in wanting vulnerability and warmth in equal measure in her staging. Enter Lucy May Orange’s Masha, dressed in black to match her forlorn conviction that her love for troubled young playwright Konstantin (Benedict Turvill) will be forever unrequited.

At this point we laugh in recognition, not least because she is saying this to smitten teacher Medvedenko (Samithi Sok), seemingly oblivious to her indifference towards him, and soon we shall find Turvill’s over-sensitive Konstantin in torment at putative girlfriend Nina (Livy Potter), his muse and actress for his “ground-breaking” play, not worshipping him the same way her worships her.

Turvill’s radical theatre-maker Konstantin has an even more troubled relationship with his mother, faded actress Arkadina (Stephanie Hesp), than Hamlet had with Gertrude, merciless in her dismissal of his writing talent, so insensitive in stealing attention away from Nina’s performance of his bold but admittedly dreadful play at Sorin’s increasingly anguished house party one lakeside summer evening.

Clinging on: Stephanie Hesp’s Arkadina losing the attention and affections of her lover, Ben Sawyer’s Trigorin

Sorin (Glyn Morrow), Arkadina’s ageing brother, wants the next generation to thrive, to blossom; so too does Maurice Crichton’s Scottish-accented doctor, Dorn. Paul Joe Osborne’s retired lieutenant, Shamrayev, now Sorin’s steward, loves a story, and Osborne has a splendid night in his mimicry and comic timing; wife Polina (Elizabeth Elsworth) is his best audience.

The Seagull is a play with a generation gap that grows wider the more the drama unfolds, It goes from what Wilson calls the “comic souffle” of the playful Act One, when we can “laugh at these slightly inept, sometimes pretentious characters thinking they’re something they’re not”, to the painful, poignant consequences of such ineptitude and self-deception, when youthful dreams are dashed and unfulfilled ambitions turn bitter amid the fractious artistic egos.

Chekhov “likes to lob a bomb into the room in Act Three” in his plays, as Wilson puts it, and here the incendiary device is Arkadina’s lover, vainglorious novelist Trigorin (Ben Sawyer, suitably smug), under whose spell the impressionable Nina falls.

Twinkle in the wry: Maurice Crichton as Dorn, the doctor

In a naturalistic play with theatre and writing and creativity at its heart, but ennui and abject despair eating away at the tumultuous edges, Wilson’s company extract the ironic, perverse comedy to the full, then bring out all the damaging familiar failings of those prone to so much sterile philosophising.

Frayn would be delighted with the performances of Settlement’s experienced hands, while both Turvill and Potter (by day York Theatre Royal’s marketing and press assistant) impress in their first principal roles for Wilson in the intimacy of the Studio space.

Yes, the seagull dies, but not before The Seagull flies high, full of art and too much hurt heart.  

Benedict and Livy enjoy being all at sea as storms brew in Chekhov’s The Seagull

TORRID TIMES: Benedict Turvill as Konstantin and Livy Potter as Nina in The Seagull. Picture: John Saunders

TUMULTUOUS passions and artistic egos collide in York Settlement Community Players’ production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull at York Theatre Royal Studio.

The February 26 to March 7 run completes director Helen Wilson’s ten-year project to stage all four of the Russian playwright’s major works in York, after Three Sisters in 2010, The Cherry Orchard in 2015 and Uncle Vanya in 2018.

Chekhov’s 1895 tragicomedy follows famous Russian actress Arkadina (played by Stephanie Hesp) as she brings her novelist lover Trigorin (Ben Sawyer) to spend the summer at her brother’s lakeside estate.

Arkadina’s son Konstantin (Benedict Turvill) is preparing for the premiere of his bold new play starring his girlfriend Nina (Livy Potter). For the assembled audience of family and friends, the play’s first and only performance sets off a series of events that will alter the course of all their lives, forever.

Wilson’s multi-generational cast also features Maurice Crichton as Dr Dorn; Glyn Morrow, Sorin; Paul Joe Osbourne, Shamrayev; Elizabeth Elsworth, Polina; Lucy May Orange, Masha, and Sami Sok, Medvedenko.

Helen says: “Chekhov always wrote for an ensemble cast with wonderful parts for women. The Seagull is no exception. Actors love Chekhov and it’s my mission to bring the public round to him too.

“He is so often misunderstood. The Seagull is a comedy, as Chekhov describes it, and laughter and tears often spill over into each other.”

Taking principal roles for Helen for the first time will be Benedict Turvill, 22, last seen in York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust’s A Nativity For York at the Spurriergate Centre in December, and Livy Potter, 26, whose last role was “being blokey” in York Shakespeare Project’s Antony And Cleopatra at Theatre @41 Monkgate last autumn.

Benedict Turvill and Livy Potter: performing for Settlement Players director Helen Wilson for the first time in The Seagull

“Playing Konstantin and his girlfriend Nina, they have such emotional journeys to go on,” says Helen. “They must go from being so in love in Act One to being in abject despair in Act Four. For young actors, The Seagull has everything in it for them.”

Livy says: “The ‘realness’ of the language can sometimes take your breath away. You read it for the first time and then read it again later, after you’ve experienced something, and the humanness of those words is so affecting.”

Benedict says: “When I’ve read Chekhov in the past, I’ve always thought it was a rather rigid attempt at being natural, but once it comes off the page, as you rehearse it, it really works.”

“When you get to that point, you can really open your performance to it,” says Livy, who will be performing at the theatre where she works as the marketing and press assistant.

“I’m really looking forward to doing that, because I’ve seen a lot of plays in that Studio space and I know what works and what doesn’t and that makes it an exciting prospect to be on that stage. It’s an awareness of how to use that space that is the key.”

Adapting to that space, Helen says: “I’ve learnt from the past productions not to have so much on stage, like having a piano and chaise longue previously. There’ll be a soundscape and lighting, but what really matters is that the play will be absorbing to watch in such an intimate space.”

Amid such intimacy, Chekhov’s comedy will blossom. “There’s such humour in the pretentious characters,” says Benedict. “Playing a funny character who’s not consciously funny, the audience will laugh at you, not with you.”

Roll on Wednesday, when The Seagull takes flight until March 7. Tickets for the 7.45pm evening performances and 2pm matinee on February 29 are on sale on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Emma Whitelock’s Epiphany, now featuring in the poster for York Settlement Community Players’ production of The Seagull

Did you know?

YORK artist Emma Whitelock has provided the promotional artwork for the Settlement Players’ production of The Seagull.

Describing her painting Epiphany, Emma says: “Its lone figure on the shore echoes perfectly Chekhov’s mood of longing in The Seagull. The piece was inspired by a misty winter sunrise on the Yorkshire coast and aims to capture a poignant moment; the outer world reflecting the inner.”

Emma’s artwork explores land, sea and solitude, her inspiration coming from the dramatic Yorkshire moors and coast, together with the exceptional light and vibrancy of Cornish summers.

Artist Emma Whitelock in her studio

Using acrylic with mixed media, she builds layers that evolve intuitively to create textured, semi-abstract works, marked by big skies, atmospheric colours and an expressive style. “I aim to transport the viewer to wild places, resonant with memories or possibilities,” she says.

The next chance to see Emma’s paintings will be at York Open Studios 2020 at Venue 43, 11 Trentholme Drive, The Mount, York, on April 18, 19, 25 and 26 from 10am to 5pm, preceded by a preview evening on April 17.

Helen Wilson completes her Chekhov big four with The Seagull, but what next?

York Settlement Community Players director Helen Wilson bonding with Cliff, the seagull from Dotty’s Vintage Tearoom in Staithes, ahead of her production pf The Seagull

CHEKHOV devotee Helen Wilson set herself the challenge of directing the 19th century Russian’s four greatest plays for York Settlement Community Players in ten years.

Next month, the project will be completed with his 1895 tragicomedy The Seagull, his most famous work, as Settlement celebrate their centenary by returning to the York Theatre Royal Studio.

First, however, Helen will give a library talk tomorrow (January 29) from 6pm to 8pm at York Explore to mark Anton Chekhov’s 160th birthday, under the title of Adventures In The Cherry Orchard: Chekhov And Me. 

“Why is Anton Chekhov so beloved and called ‘the father of the modern theatre’,” Helen will ask herself. “I’ll seek to explain why through anecdotes and a little biography; casting a light on why he called his plays ‘comedies’.

“So, come and toast Chekhov’s 160th birthday with a glass of vodka or wine and be entertained by extracts of his work from The Seagull cast. As I direct the fourth of his major plays, I’ll share my enthusiasm for a great Russian dramatist.”

Chekhov And Me: Helen Wilson’s talk at York Explore

This will be York tutor, theatre director and actor Helen’s final Chekhov production as Settlement tackle the late 19th century work that heralded the birth of modern theatre with its story of unrequited love, the generation gap and how life can turn on a kopek: a raw tragicomedy of poignancy yet sometimes absurd playfulness.

She had not envisaged doing all the Chekhov quartet when she set out in March 2010. “I did Three Sisters in the Theatre Royal Studio, and I thought that would be that, as it was my ambition to do that play,” recalls Helen.

“But then I did The Cherry Orchard at Riding Lights’ Friargate Theatre in September 2015, and I was on a roll, so we did Uncle Vanya in the Theatre Royal Studio in March 2018 and now The Seagull in the Studio again. Two actors have been in all of them: Maurice Crichton and Ben Sawyer. They just keep auditioning!”

Helen can see patterns in Chekhov’s work when putting the four side by side. “Chekhov has both ensemble text and ‘duo-logue’, where there’s so much going on and so much subtext too,” she says.

“So for The Seagull, I’m having to hold both ensemble rehearsals and separate rehearsals for the main characters.

Helen Wilson and seagull Cliff in Staithes

“And having done the three other plays, I can point to the pattern where Act One is always a souffle, with plenty of laughing at these slightly inept characters thinking they are something they’re not, and the audience having that delicious moment of thinking, ‘well, actually that’s not going to happen’. Then Chekhov likes to lob a bomb into the room in Act Three.”

Helen has “always felt that The Seagull has never fully made sense on stage” when she has seen past productions. “Like Irina Arkadina has always been seen as a monster, when she’s not,” she says.

“It’s important to show what’s beneath that, and Chekhov always gives you the opportunity to see the other side of the character. That’s what I want to explore and exploit.

“They’re all vulnerable, every one of them…but when I went to see Vanessa Redgrave in the play when I was nine, I wasn’t very impressed! Her speech at the end wasn’t very good!

“In this production, I want there to be vulnerability, but also warmth, in every character, for the audience to be able to laugh and cry with them.”

Settlement regular Maurice Crichton (Vanya) and Amanda Dales (Yelena) in rehearsal for York Settlement Community Players’ Uncle Vanya in 2018

Helen sees a difference between The Seagull and the other three plays. “It isn’t like the others in that the ending is very abrupt,” she says. “Chekhov was very influenced by Ibsen, and this is more of an Ibsen ending than elegiac, but the play is also a great deal funnier than people realise, especially in Act One.

“As with Ibsen and Shakespeare, you can be too reverent in how you present it, but I want people to find the characters recognisable types that they know.

“All life is there; you don’t have to hit people over the head with it. All the resonance is there. It’s all going at someone’s home and that’s how it should feel.”

What has Helen learned from her earlier productions? “Not to have so much on stage, like having a chaise longue previously! The costumes will be period, there’ll be a soundscape and lighting, but what matters is to make it absorbing to watch, so it’s going to be very intimate.”

Settlement’s production, by the way, will be carrying the best wishes of writer/translator Michael Frayn, who has sent the York company a message of gratitude. “It’s a wonderful achievement for YSCP to have performed all of Chekhov’s four last great plays – and I can’t help being pleased, of course, that they have chosen to use my translations,” he wrote.

Helen Wilson standing by cherry blossom when directing The Cherry Orchard in 2015

“Most productions of the plays these days seem to be ‘versions,’ with the period, location, genders, and politics changed to make them more relevant to audiences who might otherwise not be up to understanding them.  

“People in York, though, are evidently made of tougher stuff, because the simple intention of my translations is to get as close to the original Russian as I can.  Just occasionally, perhaps, it’s worth trying to catch the sense and feel of what Chekhov actually intended. So, thank you, YSCP!”

Helen has stated this will be her last Chekhov, but out of the blue she says: “Having done the other three, in some ways I’d like to do Three Sisters again. Having learned things since I did it, I’d do it differently but more or less with the same cast.

“You get into a rhythm of what these plays are like, and they still move me every time. It’s like a labour of love doing them.

“But when I finish this one, I’d love to do an Arthur Miller one next. The thing about Chekhov and Miller is that they’re universal. You don’t have to modernise them for resonance. They will always resonate in their own period.”

A word in your shell like by the sea at Staithes: Cliff and The Seagull director Helen Wilson

York Settlement Community Players in Chekhov’s The Seagull, York Theatre Royal Studio, February 26 to March 7, 7.45pm plus 2pm matinee on February 29; no Sunday or Monday performances. Box office: 01904 623568, at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or in person from the Theatre Royal box office.

Tickets for Helen Wilson’s Chekhov talk at 6pm tomorrow (January 29) at York Explore, Library Square, Museum Street, York, cost £5 at yorkexplore.org.

Quick question:

What’s the story behind seagull Cliff, Helen?

“He’s called Cliff and he lives in the window of the much frequented Dotty’s Vintage Tearoom in Staithes, collecting coins for the RNLI. He was allowed to commune with me for an hour or two and seemed to enjoy it!”