Barbara Dickson & Nick Holland add second night at All Saints Church, Pocklington

Barbara Dickson: Second night added at All Saints Church, Pocklington

AFTER their October 4 gig sold out in record time, Scottish folk singer Barbara Dickson and her pianist Nick Holland are adding a second acoustic performance at All Saints Church, Pocklington, on October 16.

On each night, they will explore her catalogue of songs in this intimate and historic setting, where the pair will let the words and melodies take centre stage as they draw on Dickson’s folk roots, contemporary greats and her classic hits, Answer Me, Another Suitcase In Another Hall, Caravan and the million-selling chart-topper I Know Him So Well. 

The shows are the second collaboration between All Saints and Pocklington-based Hurricane Promotions and follow on from a sold-out event in December with BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winners The Young’uns. Two further shows are due to be announced later this month. Watch this space.

Emerging from the late-Sixties’ Scottish folk scene, Dickson has become Scotland’s best-selling female album artist, earning six platinum, 11 gold and seven silver albums. Her stage career has included the roles of the original Mrs Johnstone in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers and Viv Nicholson in Spend Spend Spend, both bringing her an Olivier Award for Best Actress. In 2002, she was awarded an OBE for her services to music and drama.

Holland joined her touring band in the 2000s, playing keyboards and adding vocals on her  September 2004 album Full Circle, the first to feature the style of music she now performs. 

Dickson and Holland work as a duo where she plays guitar and piano, her vocals being complemented by his keyboards and harmonies, whether in cathedrals, festivals or theatres.

 “It’s a different experience to working with the bigger band, but just as enjoyable, and gives the music breathing space,” says Dickson, 76.

All Saints Church is “always delighted to see the church used for community events”. “Churches historically have been the social hubs of their communities, bringing people together for fellowship, entertainment and the sharing of ideas and opinions,” says the church statement. “This concert wraps those three things up in one great package.”

Barbara Dickson & Nick Holland, All Saints Church, Pocklington, October 4 (sold out) and October 16, 7.30pm. Also: Leeds City Varieties Music Hall, October 20, 7.30pm. Box office:; Leeds,

Why the ’empowering, cathartic’ Calendar Girls means so much to Maureen Nolan

“It’s such a touching story, especially for my family, where cancer has played such a part – and still is,” says Calendar Girls The Musical actress Maureen Nolan. Picture: Jack Merriman

CALENDAR Girls The Musical has a bucketload of poignancy for Maureen Nolan.

As ever, the collection buckets will be out, raising funds for Blood Cancer UK from tomorrow to Saturday when the Gary Barlow and Tim Firth musical plays the Grand Opera House, York.

“It’s such a touching story, especially for my family, where cancer has played such a part – and still is,” says Maureen, who will be playing Ruth in Jonathan O’Boyle’s touring production.

Sister Bernie, who appeared in the play version of Calendar Girls, died of breast cancer in 2013; eldest sister Anne, diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time in April 2020, is in remission; younger sister Linda last year announced her cancer had spread to her brain.

“That didn’t make it more difficult for me to do the show,” says Maureen, who made her name as part of The Nolans, the Anglo-Irish family of singing sisters from Blackpool. “Calendar Girls is almost empowering, cathartic. People come up constantly afterwards with these very sad stories but they’re still smiling on the way out.”

Quick refresher course: Calendar Girls, the film, the play, now the musical, was inspired by the true story of Rylstone Women’s Institute members raising £5 million (and counting) for blood cancer research.

Maureen Nolan, as Mrs Johnstone, with Sean Jones as her son Mickey Johnstone, in Blood Brothers at the Grand Opera House, York in 2013

The story goes: Following the death to leukaemia of Annie’s much-loved husband, the ordinary women of a small Yorkshire Women’s Institute are prompted to do something extraordinary, whereupon they set about creating a nude calendar to raise money for charity.

However, upturning preconceptions is a dangerous business and none of the women are prepared for the emotional and personal ramifications they will face as the fabulous and funny calendar brings each woman unexpectedly into flower.

Explaining those audience smiles, Maureen says: “I think it’s because Annie, who loses her husband, does get over it, raising £5 million for this amazing charity. Life has to go on. People are weeping in the audience, but the reality is that cancer is a a massive part of life but is getting more curable. Like my sister Linda, who has had cancer since 2005 in different forms but is still enjoying life.”

Maureen, whose Grand Opera House appearances included Mrs Johnston in Willy Russell’s musical Blood Brothers in October 13, is joined on the 2024 leg of the Calendar Girls tour by stars of music, stage and television: Laurie Brett as Annie; Liz Carney as Marie; Helen Pearson as Celia; Samantha Seager as Chris; Lyn Paul as Jessie and Honeysuckle Weeks as Cora.

“I first got involved at the end of the summer last year, when they said, ‘would you have a chat with Tim [Firth] and the director, Jonathan [O’Boyle]?’. He’s a young man, 40 this year, who had to work with all these women, seven women of differing ages, menopausal and older, and I can’t imagine anyone handling it better. He never lost his cool,” she says of her rehearsal experience.

The cast had to work on a condensed version of Barlow and Firth’s original version of the musical, premiered at Leeds Grand Theatre in November-December 2015 under the title of The Girls (returning there on the 2023-2024 tour’s first leg last November) .

Maureen Nolan as Ruth, holding her “Russian friend”, in Calendar Girls The Musical. Picture: Jack Merriman

“They don’t have the children in the show now, with Tim wanting to concentrate on the women, not the back story, with new songs as well, so we were a little under-rehearsed when we opened after only three weeks,” says Maureen, who had seen only the film and an amateur production of the before taking on the role of Ruth.

“I had nothing to go on, having not seen the original musical, so I play Ruth like Mavis [Thelma Barlow’s Mavis Riley] from Coronation Street! Others think she’s a bit OCD-ish, but it turns out she’s had a mentally abusive relationship [with a philandering husband] and she’s hiding a drink problem.

“At first I didn’t think Ruth was in it much, but it’s about quality not quantity, and at my age [she will turn 70 on June 14] I get the chance to stand in the dressing room making tea – and Ruth has some great comedy lines.”

Maureen enthuses: “Along with Blood Brothers, it’s the best show I’ve ever done. We were laughing and crying throughout rehearsals: the writing is genius by Tim and Gary; like Willy Russell’s shows, you can’t go wrong.

“Between Tim’s words and Gary’s music, the songs are beautiful and uplifting, and the music really adds to the show. I’ve been in things that I wish I hadn’t been in, but I am so proud of this musical.”

Sunflower power: The principal cast for Calendar Girls The Musical, including Maureen Nolan, right. Picture: Jack Merriman

Not least because of Ruth’s song, the tragicomic My Russian Friend And I, that ‘friend’ being the vodka bottle. “It’s a funny scene but then tragic: what people like her go through and yet keep hidden.”

Ruth ostensibly quaffs a drink to quell her fears of undressing, until the darker truth is revealed, but how did Maureen come to terms with the need to strip for the calendar photoshoot each show? “It was really funny because for about two weeks of rehearsals we didn’t really talk about it, and it became the elephant in the room!” she recalls.

“Then the director said there would be a meeting to talk about the photography scene – taking clothes off on stage was something I couldn’t imagine at my age! – but we talked about how much we would show, what we could wear, and then it’s one of those moments where you think, ‘oh, just get them off!’.

“It was all done so beautifully by our director, where we were really treated with respect. Every night, the tech team has to leave stage left.”

Back on the road, with four new cast members, after a winter break when she found time to appear as the Wicked Queen Cruella in Snow White in Cannock for a week, Maureen says: “I love, love, love going to York. It’s so beautiful.”

Calendar Girls The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, tomorrow (February 6) to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday matinees. Box office:

Did you know? Maureen Nolan’s real name is Marie Antoinette Nolan; Mo for short

REVIEW: Blood Brothers, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday *****

Niki Evans, as Mrs Johnstone, and Sean Jones, as her son Mickey, as the Blood Brothers principals reunite at the Grand Opera House, where they previously performed together in May 2011

OUT of nowhere in The Rocky Horror Show’s March return to the Grand Opera House, narrator Philip Franks suddenly mischievously mimicked Blood Brothers. Oh, how everyone chortled.

That’s rich, CharlesHutchPress thought, given that Willy Russell’s tragi-comic Liverpool musical is a vastly better structured show without the fall-away in song quality and story in Richard O’Brien’s stupendously silly second act that seemingly all and sundry chooses to ignore.

The chance to compare the two hit shows with the Jacobean tragedy finales comes quickly with the return of Blood Brothers to the Cumberland Street theatre, and if there is any rivalry, it can only be in the number of visits being stacked up.

Rocky Horror? Lost count, but it must be heading for two full sets of fingers. Blood Brothers? Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson’s perennial production keeps on giving blood, sweat and tears, having chalked up eight runs since 1996.

The ninth is better than ever, bolstered by the return of Niki Evans to the role of Mrs Johnstone after a decade and the chance to see Sean Jones, so synonymous with Mrs J’s son Mickey, on his “last ever tour” after 23 years on the road on and off.

More on, than off, with only eight of them in total spent away from Blood Brothers, his latest break coming since 2019 to tend to his poorly parents. When impresario Kenwright invited him back for the 2022 tour, Jones accepted, and here he is at 51 “running around as a seven-year-old in a baggy green jumper and short trousers”, promising to keep going for as long as Kenwright wants him. Like Bob Dylan’s never-ending tour.

More on Jones’s performance later, but first, what a delight to see Niki Evans reviving her Mrs Johnstone, the mother with the fateful family secret, in a devastatingly moving performance of pathos and pain, jagged-edged Scouse humour, love and desperate resilience.

For Mrs Johnstone, struggling with too many children on an impoverished Liverpool estate and deserted by her waster of a husband, the discovery she is pregnant again, this time with twins, is too much for her budget on the never-never.

She can only “afford” one more child, not two, she tells Mrs Lyons (Paula Tappenden), the barren wife of a travelling businessman from up the posh hill for whom she cleans.

All too rashly, a pact is agreed, one where she gives away one of the baby boys to the cold-hearted Mrs Lyons, setting in motion the superstition that if twins separated at birth ever discover each other’s existence they will die instantly.

Brothers in arms: Sean Jones, as Mickey, left, and Joel Benedict, as Eddie, in Blood Brothers

Clodagh Rodgers, Stephanie Lawrence, Bernie Nolan, Sharon Byatt, Marti Webb, Maureen Nolan and Lyn Paul have all played Mrs J in York; Evans is the first to do so twice, in her case divided by 11 years.

First time around, in May 2011, your reviewer observed: “Above all others, Evans will stick in the mind, for being the most real. What makes her performance all the remarkable is that the Birmingham mother of two had never seen a theatre show, except for pantomimes, nor heard of Blood Brothers or impresario Bill Kenwright when she was offered the role on the West End stage after making the semi-finals of The X Factor in 2007”.

Eleven years on, benefiting from more rings on the tree of theatre life, Evans remains a natural for musical theatre, more than she was for a burst of X Factor-fuelled pop stardom.

At 49, her voice is even more powerful, her broad face an expressive canvas for so many emotions, played out in a Scouse accent that accentuates light and dark alike. Evans’s council-house upbringing and her experiences as a working mum both bring authenticity to the performance too, not least in her renditions of the show’s supreme numbers, Tell Me It’s Not True, Marilyn Monroe and Easy Terms.

The harshest songs aptly go to Robbie Scotcher’s ever-present Narrator, a Faustian debt collector full of social truths and spooked folklore, as he steers the path of Russell’s 1983 cautionary tale.

In football parlance, Blood Brothers is a game of two halves, as one face of theatre, comedy, is ultimately overwhelmed by the other, tragedy, as it befalls the split-up brothers, scally Mickey (Jones) and scholarly Eddie (Joel Benedict).

Divided by class, their paths nevertheless keep crossing through fate, and once more Jones plays it with all the conviction of a man who believes there is no role in musical theatre to rival Mickey on his journey from cheeky, blissfully innocent child’s play, through tongue-tied teenage love pangs for Linda (Carly Burns), to the forlorn broken adult reliant on mind-numbing pills.

More than ever, you note the changes in his movement, his voice, from skip to slouch and slump, from up to down. Sean, whatever you do next, thank you for making this reviewer laugh and cry down the years.

Benedict more than holds his own as Eddie, the charmer in the making with a rebellious streak that then turns to steely political activism as a councillor. The role is more emotionally contained, to emphasise the contrast in nurturing, but nature permeates the brotherly bond in Jones and Benedict’s performances. Burns burns brightly too as lovely Linda.

Andy Walmsley’s familiar street scenery, Nick Richings’ lighting, Matt Malone’s musical direction and Dan Samson’s sound design all add to the hard-hitting impact of Russell’s unsentimental yet heart-rending doomed drama. Evans and Jones, reunited from 2011 to even more telling effect, make Blood Brothers a Must See once more.

Blood Brothers, Grand Opera House, York, 7.30pm tonight (7/4/2022) and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 7615.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

More Things To Do in and around York, where studios are opening up for spring inspection. List No. 76, from The Press

Kimbal Bumstead: one of 30 new participants in York Open Studios

NOW is the chance to go around the houses, the studios and workshops too, as recommended by Charles Hutchinson on his art beat.

Art event of the week and next week too: York Open Studios, today and tomorrow; April 9 and 10, 10am to 5pm

AFTER 2021’s temporary move to July, York Open Studios returns to its regular spring slot, promising its biggest event ever with more than 150 artists and makers in 100-plus workshops, home and garden studios and other creative premises.

Thirty new participants have been selected by the event organisers. As ever, York Open Studios offers the chance to talk to artists, look around where they work and buy works.

Artists’ work encompasses painting and print, illustration, drawing and mixed media, ceramics, glass and sculpture, jewellery, textiles, photography and installation art. Check out the artists’ directory listings and the locations map at or pick up a booklet around York.

Caius Lee: Pianist for York Musical Society’s Rossini concert

Classical concert of the week: York Musical Society, Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, St Peter’s School Memorial Hall, York, tonight, 7.30pm

DAVID Pipe conducts York Musical Society in a performance of Gioachino Rossini’s last major work, Petite Messe Solennelle, composed when his friend Countess Louise Pillet-Will commissioned a solemn mass for the consecration of a private chapel in March 1864.

After Rossini deemed it to be a ‘poor little mass’, the word ‘little’ (petite) has become attached to the title, even though the work is neither little nor particularly solemn. Instead, the music ranges from hushed intensity to boisterous high spirits.

Caius Lee, piano, Valerie Barr, accordion, Katie Wood, soprano, Emily Hodkinson, mezzo-soprano, Ed Lambert, tenor, and Stuart O’Hara, bass, perform it tonight. Box office:

Bingham String Quartet: Programme of Beethoven, Schnittke, LeFanu and Tippett works

Late news: York Late Music, Stuart O’Hara and Ionna Koullepou, 1pm today; Bingham String Quartet, 7.30pm tonight, St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel, York

BASS Stuart O’Hara and pianist Ionna Koullepou play a lunchtime programme of no fewer than eight new settings of York and regional poets’ works by York composers.

In the evening, the Bingham String Quartet perform Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat major, Schnittke’s String Quartet No 3, York composer Nicola LeFanu’s String Quartet No 2 and Tippett’s String Quartet No 2. Box office: or on the door.

The poster for York Blues Festival 2022

A dose of the blues: York Blues Festival 2022, The Crescent, York, today, bands from 1pm to 11pm

YORK Blues Festival returns for a third celebration at The Crescent community venue after two previous sell-outs. On the bill will be Tim Green Band; Dust Radio; Jed Potts & The Hillman Hunters; TheJujubes; Blue Milk; DC Blues; Five Points Gang and Redfish.

For full details, go to: Box office:

The Howl & The Hum: Sunday headliners at YorkLife in Parliament Street

Free community event of the weekend: YorkLife, Parliament Street, York, today and tomorrow, 11am to 9pm

YORK’S new spring festival weekend showcases the city’s musicians, performers, comedians and more besides today and tomorrow. Organised by Make It York, YorkLife sees more than 30 performers and organisations head to Parliament Street for this free event with no tickets required in advance.

York’s Music Venue Network presents Saturday headliners Huge, Sunday bill-toppers The Howl & The Hum, plus Bull; Kitty VR; Flatcap Carnival; Hyde Family Jam;  Floral Pattern; Bargestra and Wounded Bear.

Workshops will be given by: Mud Pie Arts: Cloud Tales, interactive storytelling; Thunk It Theatre, Build Our City theatre; Gemma Wood, York Skyline art; Fantastic Faces, face painting;  Henry Raby, from Say Owt, spoken poetry; Matt Barfoot, drumming; Christian Topman, ukulele; Polly Bennet, Little Vikings PQA York, performing arts, and Innovation Entertainment, circus workshops.  Look out too for the York Mix Radio quiz; York Dance Space’s dance performance and Burning Duck Comedy Club’s comedy night. 

Oi Frog & Friends!: Laying down the rules at York Theatre Royal

Children’s show of the week: Oi Frog & Friends!, York Theatre Royal, Monday, 1.30pm and 4.30pm; Tuesday, 10.30am and 1.30pm

ON a new day at Sittingbottom School, Frog is looking for a place to sit, but Cat has other ideas and Dog is happy to play along. Cue multiple rhyming rules and chaos when Frog is placed in in charge. 

Suitable for age three upwards, Oi Frog & Friends! is a 55-minute, action-packed play with original songs, puppets, laughs and “more rhyme than you can shake a chime at”.

This fun-filled musical has been transferred to the stage by Emma Earle, Zoe Squire, Luke Bateman and Richy Hughes from Kes Gray and Jim Field’s picture books. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

Mother and son: Niki Evans as Mrs Johnstone and Sean Jones as Mickey in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, returning to the Grand Opera House, York

Musical of the week: Blood Brothers, Grand Opera House, York, Tuesday to Saturday

AFTER a three-year hiatus, Sean Jones has returned to playing scally Mickey in Willy Russell’s fateful musical account of Liverpool twins divided at both, stretching his involvement to a 23rd year at impresario Bill Kenwright’s invitation in what is billed as his “last ever tour” of Blood Brothers.

Back too, after a decade-long gap, is Niki Evans in the role of Mickey and Eddie’s mother, Mrs Johnstone.

Blood Brothers keeps on returning to the Grand Opera House, invariably with Jones to the fore. If this year really is his Blood Brothers valedictory at 51, playing a Scouse lad from the age of seven once more, thanks, Sean, for all the years of cheers and tears. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or

May in April: Imelda May plays York Barbican for a third time on April 6

York gig of the week: Imelda May, Made To Love Tour, York Barbican, Wednesday, 7.30pm

IRISH singer-songwriter and poet Imelda May returns to York Barbican for her third gig there in the only Yorkshire show of her first major UK tour in more than five years.

“I cannot wait to see you all again, to dance and sing together, to connect and feel the sparkle in a room where music makes us feel alive and elevated for a while,” says Imelda. “A magical feeling we can only get from live music. Let’s go!”

Her sixth studio album, last April’s 11 Past The Hour, will be showcased and she promises poetry too. Box office:

Corruption and sloth: English Touring Opera in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel

At the treble: English Touring Opera at York Theatre Royal, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 7.30pm

ENGLISH Touring Opera present three performances in four nights, starting with Bach’s intense vision of hope, St John Passion, on Wednesday, when professional soloists and baroque specialists the Old Street Band combine with singers from York choirs.

La Boheme, Puccini’s operatic story of a poet falling in love with a consumptive seamstress, follows on Friday; the residency concludes with Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel, a send-up of corruption and sloth in government that holds up a mirror to the last days of the Romanovs. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Eleanor Sutton in the title role in Jane Eyre, opening at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on Friday

Play of the week outside York: Jane Eyre, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, Friday to April 30

CHRIS Bush’s witty and fleet-footed adaptation seeks to present Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre to a fresh audience while staying true to the original’s revolutionary spirit.

Using actor-musicians, playful multi-role playing and 19th century pop hits, Zoe Waterman directs this SJT and New Vic Theatre co-production starring Eleanor Sutton as Jane Eyre, who has no respect for authority, but lives by her own strict moral code, no matter what the consequences. Box office: 01723 370541 or

Beth McCarthy: Homecoming gig at The Crescent in May

Welcome home: Beth McCarthy, The Crescent, York, May 2, doors, 7.30pm

BETH McCarthy will play a home-city gig for the first time since March 2019 at The Crescent community venue.

Beth, singer, songwriter and BBC Radio York evening show presenter, has moved from York to London, since when she has drawn 4.8 million likes and 300,000 followers on TikTok and attracted 465,000 monthly listeners and nine million plays of her She Gets The Flowers on Spotify. Box office:

Oh, and one other thing

MODFATHER Paul Weller’s gig on Tuesday at York Barbican has sold out.

Sean Jones heads back to York as scally Mickey in his ‘last ever’ Blood Brothers tour

Brothers in arms: Sean Jones as scally Mickey, left, and Joel Benedict as scholarly Eddie in Blood Brothers, on tour at the Grand Opera House, York, next week

AT 51, Sean Jones is still “running around in a baggy green jumper and short trousers” playing Liverpool lad Mickey in Willy Russell’s heartbreaking musical Blood Brothers into a 23rd year.

“It would definitely be me, Yul Brynner and Topol in the top three,” says the Welsh actor, in recognition of their long service to Blood Brothers, The King And I and Fiddler On The Roof respectively, although Sean has not kept a record of the exact number of performances he has chalked up.

Next week, on his return to impresario Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson’s touring production for a run from January to late-October, Sean will be taking his Mickey back to the Grand Opera House in York.

Musicals were not his first love, but maybe this was destiny. “I’d had had a string of auditions for musicals off my agent but was getting very disconcerted as I’d trained to be an actor, not a singer and dancer, and then he said again, ‘I’ve got you an audition…for a musical.”

However, this time it was different. “It was the chance to be cover for Mickey in Blood Brothers, which has always been my dream role.

“It’s the most prepared I’ve ever been for an audition! Thankfully I got the gig as understudy on tour, and I remember we came to York on that first tour in 1999.”

He had trodden the boards in York previously. “On my first time there, I did [Agatha Christie’s] A Murder Is Announced with Richard Todd in 1993 in my first job after drama college, with Bill Kenwright as producer, and I remember thinking, ‘that might give me an inroad to Blood Brothers’!”

Sean would subsequently become embedded in Russell’s musical, even meeting his wife, actress Tracy Spencer, though the show. “Tracy played Mrs Lyons. We got married in 2004 on a two-show day when we were at the Cardiff New Theatre,” he says.

Sean Jones in his 2022 return to Blood Brothers as Mickey, with Niki Evans as Mrs Johnstone

“We got married in the morning, did the matinee, took the cast out for a drink, then did the evening performance.

“Blood Brothers is absolutely ingrained in me. When Tracy fell pregnant with Eleanor, after three months, we decided we would go out on tour for four years in the show!”

In Russell’s fateful musical, when young mother Mrs Johnstone is deserted by her husband, she is left to her own devices to provide for seven hungry children, taking a job as a housekeeper to make ends meet.

Whereupon her brittle world crashes around her when she discovers herself to be pregnant yet again, this time with twins. In a moment of desperation, she enters a secret pact with her employer, leading to Mickey and Eddie being separated at birth, growing up on the opposite sides of the tracks, only to meet again with tragic consequences.

“It’s such a journey that Mickey goes on and such a great role for an actor to get his teeth into, with all the high comedy that Willy Russell has written that requires plenty of skill, and then the final hour that takes the audience to some really dark places, with the last few scenes being so harrowing.”

Sean’s career has taken in stage roles in pantomime, Macbeth and Jacqueline’s Wilson’s world premiere of Wave Me Goodbye and television appearances in Emmerdale, The Royal Today and Hollyoaks, but he keeps returning to Blood Brothers, never tiring of playing Mickey from the age of seven, through his teens and into his troubled adult life.

Out of the past 22 years, only eight have not been spent stretching that trademark baggy jumper over his knees. “It’s one of those things, whatever job anyone has, there’s a certain amount of repetition, whether working in a bank or a shop. Same job, different ****! With Blood Brothers, same job, same lines, but the audience keeps you fresh,” he says.

“Each audience comes with a different challenge each show, and you find yourself becoming a bit of a scientist, thinking, ‘who we’ve got in today; what do they want; what do they need?’. You pay attention to that, and that’s why it will always be fresh.

Sean Jones, as Mickey, and Marti Webb, as Mrs Johnstone at the Grand Opera House, York in 2008

“On top of that, Mickey is such a phenomenal role that I’m still finding new things in it after all these years.”

Playing Mickey for more than two decades, Sean has found his performance evolving over that time. “When you’re using techniques in order to get yourself into the zone for those last 30 minutes, the more you can draw on your own emotional memories, because all you are as an older person is a young person with more despair.”

Sean left the show for three years after his parents became poorly. “I needed to be there, with them,” he says. “But I always felt there might be a chance to come back.”

When Bill Kenwright asked him to reprise his Mickey once more, he said yes. “It’s like, go find me a better musical theatre role than Mickey,” says Sean. “There’s a plethora of great roles in musical theatre but none that goes on the journey that Mickey does. It’s brilliant storytelling theatre with so much comedy and then absolute heartbreak.”

The tour publicity states this will be Sean’s “final ever tour of the show”, but will it? “I’m happy to carry on doing it as long as Bill Kenwright is happy for me to get away with doing it!” he says.

“I appear to still have the same energy, hitting all the right notes in the right order, and as long as that keeps happening, I’m happy to keep going, but all I want to do is to keep on being a jobbing actor. That term shouldn’t be a slur. It’s about doing a job I love, whether in Blood Brothers, or in a small play at Theatre Clwyd, though I’d also love to do more screen work.”

Blood Brothers runs at Grand Opera House, York, from April 5 to 9, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at

Sean Jones’s Mickey and Maureen Nolan’s Mrs Johnstone at the Grand Opera House, York in 2013

After ten years Niki Evans says yes to returning as Mrs Johnstone, the Blood Brothers role she turned down four times

Niki Evans’s Mrs Johnstone and Sean Jones’s Mickey in the 2022 tour of Blood Brothers, running at the Grand Opera House, York, from April 5 to 9. Picture: Jack Merriman

NIKI Evans will be returning to the Grand Opera House as Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers from Tuesday, but there is one place nearby in York that she will be avoiding.

“One time I was in York, they took me to the York Dungeon on my own and I’ve never screamed so loud,” she recalls. “I don’t know how I managed to do the show that night, I screamed so much. I won’t be going back to the Dungeon but York is a beautiful city.”

2007 X Factor semi-finalist Niki last played Mrs Johnstone in Willy Russell’s Liverpudlian musical in 2012, having first done so in 2008, visiting York in May 2011. “Returning to it was scary at first,” she says. “The first time I did it, I’d never done a musical or been a part of the theatre world so when [producer] Bill Kenwright called me I think I turned it down four times.

“I was like ‘No, you’re OK!’ but he persuaded me to audition, and my audition was terrible. But he saw something in me and within a week I was on stage in the Phoenix Theatre [in London]. It was such a whirlwind. Since then, I’ve done lots of other roles, mainly funny ones, so to come back to such a dramatic role is very scary but it’s like a dream come true. They’d asked me to come back before but I had to be ready, and now I am.”

Blood Brothers revolves around Mickey and Edward, twins separated at birth by their mother Mrs Johnstone, who then grow up on the opposite sides of the tracks, only to meet again with tragic consequences.

What makes Mrs J such an iconic musical theatre role, Niki? “It’s because of her strength and the emotions you have to go through when you’re on stage,” she says. “She starts as a young girl in her 20s, then within 20 minutes she’s got seven kids and has to give one away. It’s a big part and it’s a big part for a woman, which is rare at my age [Niki is 49].

“My window is tiny to get a part where you’re on for more than ten minutes. She’s a strong female lead and she’s so real. Every mother in this country can relate to her on some level because of how real she is.

“Every mother must see something in Mrs Johnstone that they’ve also gone through. I know I can. I’ve got two sons, so her Mickey and Eddie are my Morgan and Jonah. My kids have had troubles, I’ve had troubles, and the way I look at it is: I don’t have to play her, I just have to be her.”

Niki is still discovering new things about Mrs Johnstone in her latest interpretation of the role, ten years on. “She’s not such a feisty tiger as I thought when I first did the show. They used to call me ‘the Feisty Tiger Mrs Johnstone’. I come from a family of four; we grew up on a council estate; we had no money; I used to go to school in jelly shoes, even in November, and my mum was a tough cookie,” she says.

“You didn’t mess with her and that’s how I thought Mrs J was, or at least that she was how I was, like, ‘Don’t mess with my kids or I’ll come at you with a baseball bat’. But now I’m older, I’ve mellowed. I’ll be 50 this year and I’m not so bouncy as I was ten years ago, so my take on her is much more grounded. She’s stronger without being quite so feisty.”

Blood Brothers is such an emotional rollercoaster for Niki and audience alike. “There are a couple of parts in the show, without giving spoilers, where it rips me to shreds,” she reveals. “I do it as though someone is about to take one of my children and I can’t hold back. I have to feel it every time I do it.”

Aside from Blood Brothers, Niki has appeared in musicals in the West End and on tour, such as Kinky Boots and Shout. “There’s been loads and I’ve loved every character I’ve played, but if I had to pick one it would be Paulette in Legally Blonde,” she says.

Niki Evans in a past production of Blood Brothers

“To go from playing Mrs Johnstone to Paulette in just two weeks was brilliant because it was such a contrast. I’ve never laughed and smiled so much as I have when doing the bend and snap. It was the first time I realised I could make people laugh as well as cry.” 

Busy, busy, busy, but when Covid lockdowns left theatres closed, Niki took a job outside that familiar world. “I worked in a factory packing boxes for Amazon because I didn’t want to lose my house. I’m a working mum and I have to pay bills,” she says.

Post-lockdown, she appeared in Girls Just Wanna Have Funon tour and played Mimi the Magical Mermaid in Peter Pan, the Wycombe Swan Theatre’s pantomime, before going straight into Blood Brothers after only two days off.

“The first time I got back on stage, I was petrified because I hadn’t done it for two years and had to open myself up again to people watching me. All your insecurities come back and you’re like, ‘Am I good enough? Can I still do this?’, but the feedback from the audience, the love and the warmth – I can’t tell you what it means and how it feels.”

The return of live theatre felt “just amazing” to Niki. “People told me, ‘This is just what we needed’ and recently I was talking with a bunch of students in a theatre cafe who saw Blood Brothers and loved it. That enthusiasm is something you can’t buy.

“To have young people go, ‘You were so real, we were so engrossed’ is priceless. To know that you’re not just reaching older people, but young kids as well makes me so emotional. “What’s also interesting to me is how men in the audience react to Blood Brothers.

“When I look out into the auditorium, it’s the men who have their heads down because they can’t watch. It’s always the men who say, ‘I don’t like musicals, she’s dragged me along, but oh my God, I’m coming back to see this again’.”

Singing was Niki’s passion as soon as she could open her mouth, going on to finish in the top four in the 2007 series of The X Factor and to perform at Her Majesty The Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations at Windsor Castle.

“Singing is like breathing to me, it’s so natural for me to do, but the actual performing scares the pants off me,” she says. “I was always happy as a backing singer or in the studio where nobody is looking at me. I know that sounds really weird, but when I’m out there I have to forget there’s people watching because it’s terrifying.”

The X Factor changed Niki’s life “completely. “It’s given me a career I didn’t think I was capable of, although it did eventually break up my marriage because I was never there,” she says.

“My life since X Factor couldn’t be more different. My kids didn’t even know I sang because I’d given it up. So much has happened in the past 15 years career-wise and I’ve got a partner and I’m getting married soon, which is very exciting!”

Blood Brothers returns to Grand Opera House, York, from April 5 to 9, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at

Re-educating Rita as Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson resume Willy Russell’s smart comedy in more intense version

Stephen Tompkinson’s Frank and Jessica Johnson’s Rita in Educating Rita at York Theatre Royal from Tuesday next week. Pictures: Matt Humphrey

STEPHEN Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson have an association with Educating Rita as long as Rita’s degree course.

“We started doing this play about three years ago, and it’s since had various outings trying to complete the 40th anniversary production,” says Stephen, as they head to York Theatre Royal on Tuesday. “It’s closer to the 42nd anniversary now!”

Tompkinson, star of DCI Banks, Wild At Heart, Drop The Dead Donkey and Ballykissangel, plays grizzled university tutor Frank, opposite Johnson’s lippy hairdresser Rita in Willy Russell’s comedy two-hander, in a Theatre by the Lake production now being toured by producer David Pugh under the direction of Newcastle Live Theatre director emeritus Max Roberts.

“I saw Jess in Goth Weekend at the Live Theatre and was blown away by her,” says Stockton-on-Tees actor Tompkinson.

Jessica already had played Rita in a 2017 production of Educating Rita at the Gala Theatre, Durham. “But I didn’t get a long run at it and when I said I’d love to do it for longer, I suggested Stephen would make a really good Frank,” she recalls.

“I’ve been on an incredible journey with Rita,” says Jessica Johnson

The partnership was duly formed and the stop-start progress began as Covid spread its claw. “It stopped at the Grand Theatre at Blackpool, but we were lucky that the next place we could do was outdoors at the Minack Theatre on the Cornish cliffs [at Porthcurno, Penzance] last summer,” says Stephen.

“It was the most incredible place for the set of a teacher’s office in a northern university, against the amazing backdrop of double rainbows and dolphins in the sea.

“They’re a very hardy audience down there! We performed through two storms and the tech crew couldn’t see us at all at one point!”

Jessica adds to the memories: “It was so cold, I was wearing every piece of costume I had for one scene!”

When Educating Rita resumed, it stopped again after only a week at Kingston as lockdown returned. Still, Jessica was no stranger to a short burst of performances after the Gala Theatre production in 2017. “We did a week of shows there after two weeks of rehearsals,” she says. “It was a north-eastern version that we did, and the up-to-date one…

Being Frank: Stephen Tompkinson at the university tutor’s desk in Educating Rita

… “But it remains a universal story, wherever you set it,” says Stephen. “Everyone understands it, and Will Russell is a hero for working-class women. Despite the play being set in the world of academia, he makes it very accessible.”

Jessica rejoins: “I’ve been on an incredible journey with Rita. I first read it when I was 13/14 and I’ve used Better Song To Sing from the play for auditions. Rita’s been with me for a long time and she grows as she stays with me.”

Tompkinson and Johnson have clocked up almost 250 performances together, now touring a more condensed version with no interval for Covid-safety reasons. “It makes the play more intense, focusing even more on the relationship in the shorter text,” says Stephen.

“Both Jess and I and Max Roberts, our director, put forward suggestions for cuts, and we’ve cut out 20 minutes as well as the interval.”

Has the play changed in its impact over more than 40 years on stage? “Audiences are very woke to social issues that were quite new in 1979,” says Stephen. “Willy Russell said to us that ‘it’s the audience that’s changed in the 40 years, not the play’s themes’. Making the play shorter has just made it more intense.”

“Rita really wanted to get out of her working-class drudgery, to escape to something more beautiful, and Russell captures that beautifully,” says Jessica Johnson

Stephen and Jessica admit to being a “little star struck” when working with Russell, the writer of such hits as Shirley Valentine, Blood Brothers and Our Day Out.

“He’s a lot cleverer than people give him credit for. When you go into the text of Educating Rita, look at the book choices he makes, the literary references. They are so apt,” says Stephen. “There’s the link between the story and that classic tragedian thing of ignoring your own faults, with Frank not seeing his.

“But it’s not just Russell who’s undervalued. Plaudits rarely go to comedic writers and yet most actors will tell you it’s much harder to make people laugh.”

Jessica takes the point further: “Rita really wanted to get out of her working-class drudgery, to escape to something more beautiful, and Russell captures that beautifully with his writing and the character he created in Rita.”

Drinking it all in: Stephen Tompkinson’s Frank in Educating Rita

Stephen rejoins: “They say, always write about what you know, and Willy is both these characters in Educating Rita: they are two halves of Willy Russell, and that’s why audiences root for the relationship, rather than taking sides, in that they are both horrible at times, but they both go on beautiful journeys.”

Just as Jessica and Stephen sing Willy Russell’s praises, so he has paid them the ultimate compliment. “Willy came up after the first night and said, ‘Thank you for giving me my play back,” reveals Tompkinson.

What better recommendation could there be for seeing next week’s run in York.

Educating Rita runs in York Theatre Royal’s Summer Of Love season, August 31 to September 4. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

The tour poster for Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson in Willy Russell’s two-hander

What’s coming up for Jessica Johnson after she makes her York Theatre Royal debut?

“I’ve got a part in the new series of Vera,” she says, as the ITV crime drama returns from August 29. Look out for Episode 3.

What’s in the pipeline for Stephen Tompkinson after the Educating Rita tour ends in Newcastle on September 19?

“I’ll be playing a character called Warnock in Sherwood, the new James Graham six-part drama for BBC1. It’s a modern piece, dealing with the aftermath of the 1984 Miners’ Strike in Nottinghamshire [where Graham was born].

Tompkinson haunted the big screen in 1996 as a skint miner on strike turned hapless, suicidal clown in York writer-director Mark Herman’s film Brassed Off.

“It’s something that’s very close to my heart,” he says, as he mines the subject matter for a second time.

Copyright of The Press, York

REVIEW: Esk Valley Theatre in Shirley Valentine, Robinson Institute, Glaisdale, near Whitby, until August 28 ****

Greece is the word: Ashley Hope Allen’s Shirley Bradshaw with her holiday tickets. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

ESK Valley Theatre producer Sheila Carter has strived for five years to acquire the performing rights for Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine.

“I knew it would really suit us and our audience,” she said, beaming, as Tuesday’s full house gathered outside the Robinson Institute for a pre-show catch-up after a Covid-enforced fallow summer in 2020.

Persistence paid off when, bingo, Carter spotted the 2021 availability of Russell’s one-woman play. A contract was duly signed to complete Esk Valley Theatre’s hattrick of Russell comedies after the two-hander Educating Rita in August 2016 and the push-the-boat-out tenth anniversary production One For The Road with its cast of four two summers earlier.

From four to two to one, the cast size drops, but what a one: size really does not matter here! Quality over quantity, as the saying goes.

Director Mark Stratton has picked a right good one too in Ashley Hope Allan, who Coronation Street devotees will recall from her soap role as TV star medium Crystal Webber.

A medium is defined as “a person who claims to be able to contact and speak to people who are dead, and to pass messages between them and people who are still alive. Without stretching the connection with Ashley’s soap role too far, Russell’s story serves as a medium for bored, enervated Liverpool housewife Shirley Bradshaw as she reconnects with her younger self, the Shirley Valentine of the title, wondering where she had gone, in a death of sorts.

“We’ve probably all felt a bit like Shirley recently,” says Stratton in his programme notes. “Stuck in our homes with a life we don’t want. It feels appropriate that we can join her, as she re-discovers who she is and sets off on an adventure that will change her life forever.”

Everything is brown at the start: the Seventies’ décor in the kitchen of Shirley’s semi-detached Liverpool house in Graham Kirk’s set design, matched by costume designer Christine Wall’s mood-board palette for Hope Allen’s skirt. Her marriage is brown too: she and husband Joe are attached yet detached, in a rut of routine and rotas.

Shirley is stuck in a world of domestic monotony at 42; her children are already grown up and no longer at home; Joe expects his set tea on the set table at the set time each day, on the dot of his arrival home from work.

If Shirley hasn’t yet been driven up the wall, she is certainly talking to it – isn’t she, wall? Today should be steak day, but Joe will just have to do with chips and egg, prepared in real time by Hope Allan’s Shirley in Act 1, Scene One.

Here comes the sun: Hope Ashley Allan’s Shirley feeling so at home with the Greek way of life in Esk Valley Theatre’s Shirley Valentine. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Pouring herself a glass of white as the one perk-up of her day, Shirley pours out her heart to…us. Immediately this feels more intimate, more personal, than the 1989 film that starred Pauline Collins, Tom Conti and Alison Steadman in its expanded focus, but Russell’s stage version is all the better for everything being seen through Shirley’s eyes.

From slicing potatoes to frying the egg, Shirley chats away about her happier past and drab, flat-tyre present with Joe; her son’s cheeky Nativity Play exploits back in the day; and her sudden chance to escape to a Greek island for two weeks with best friend Jane, without telling Joe, because she knows exactly what he would say.

Confessional Shirley is engaging, amusing, frank company, fearless in self-expression in a way she has not been in her stymied day-to-day, no-holiday grind. Just as she brings herself back to life, so every character is brought to life by vocal dexterity and facial expression, and when applied with the chameleon skills and comedic timing of Hope Allan, this is Valentine’s day all over again as she emboldens herself to head for the sun.

Come Act Two, Kirk’s design swaps a backdrop of grey Liverpool postcards for sun-tanned Greek island ones, and brown wallpaper makes way for everything in signature Greek blue and white, right down to the beachside recliner.

In sun hat, sunglasses and floaty beach wear, Shirley is revived by the weather, the food and new company alike as she switches from conversing with a Liverpool wall to a Greek rock.

Russell, whose economical yet still rich script never wastes a word, now taps into tenderness to add to the comedy and drama, rather than echoing the pathos of ancient Greek plays. Instead of bitterness or regret, Shirley looks forward, to bright skies and a brighter future, responding to re-connecting with her Valentine heart.

Under Stratton’s light-touch, just-right direction, Hope Allan is a joy to behold, both fun and funny: spot-on with her accents and characterisations, uplifting in spirit, astutely paced and rhythmical in her storytelling, always aware of when and where to move.

Russell’s sharp, yet blunt Liverpool humour resonates anew. For all its period setting, the play’s truths hit home more than ever, four decades on, all the more so for the emotional honesty of writer and performer alike.

A glorious surprise awaited at the end: after all those disparate voices, Ashley Hope Allan turned out to be Scottish. Who knew!

Esk Valley Theatre’s Shirley Valentine can be seen at 7.30pm, Mondays to Saturdays, until August 28, complemented by 2.30pm matinees on August 19, 24 and 26. Tickets cost £16, concessions £15, on 01947 897587 or at

More Things To Do in and around York as deathly silence is broken at libraries. List No. 43, courtesy of The Press, York

James Lewis Knight, left, as Jimmy and Matt Stradling as James in Next Door But One’s library tour of Operation Hummingbird in York

GO forth and multiply the chance to see the summer spurt of theatre, musicals and outdoor shows, urges Charles Hutchinson, who also highlights big gig news for autumn and March 2022.

Breaking the library hush: Next Door But One in Operation Hummingbird, in York, today and August 12

YORK community arts collective Next Door But One are teaming up with Explore York for a library tour of Matt Harper-Harcastle’s 45-minute play Operation Hummingbird.

James Lewis Knight plays Jimmy and Matt Stradling, James, in a one-act two-hander that takes the form of a conversation across the decades about a sudden family death, realising an opportunity that we all wish we could do at some point in our life: to go back and talk to our younger self.

Today’s Covid-safe performances are at 3.30pm at New Earswick Folk Hall and 7pm, Dringhouses Library; August 12, York Explore, 2pm, and Hungate Reading Café, 7pm. Box office:

Exit-kitchen-sink drama: Ashley Hope Allan as bored Liverpool housewife Shirley, planning a holiday to Greece in Esk Valley Theatre’s production of Shirley Valentine. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Play launch of the week outside York: Esk Valley Theatre in Shirley Valentine, Robinson Institute, Glaisdale, near Whitby, tonight until August 28

ESK Valley Theatre complete a hattrick of Willy Russell plays with Shirley Valentine from tonight, under the direction of artistic director Mark Stratton as usual.

In Russell’s one-woman show, Coronation Street star Ashley Hope Allan plays middle-aged, bored Liverpool housewife Shirley in a story of self-discovery as she takes a holiday to Greece with a friend, who promptly abandons her for a holiday romance. Left alone, Shirley meets charming taverna owner Costas. Box office: 01947 897587 or at

It’s here at last! Heathers The Musical opens its delayed tour at Leeds Grand Theatre tonight. Picture: Pamela Raith

Musical of the week outside Leeds, Heathers The Musical, Leeds Grand Theatre, tonight until August 14

HEATHERS The Musical launches its touring production in Leeds from tonight with choreography by Gary Lloyd, who choreographed the debut York Stage pantomime last Christmas.

Produced by Bill Kenwright and Paul Taylor-Mills and directed by American screen and stage director Andy Fickman, this high-octane, dark-humoured rock musical is based on the Winona Ryder and Christian Slater cult teen movie.

The premise: Westerberg High pupil Veronica Sawyer (Rebecca Wickes) is just another nobody dreaming of a better day, until she joins the impossibly cruel Heathers, whereupon mysterious teen rebel JD (Simon Gordon) teaches her that it might kill to be a nobody, but it is murder being a somebody. Box office: 0113 243 0808 or at

Round To Low Horcum, by Sue Slack, one of the 33 artists and makers taking part in Ryedale Open Studios

Art event of the week: Ryedale Open Studios, Saturday and Sunday and next weekend, 10am to 5pm each day

THE newly formed Vault Arts Centre community interest company, in Kirkbymoorside, is coordinating this inaugural Ryedale Open Studios event, celebrating the creativity and artistic talent of Ryedale and the North York Moors.

Artists, makers and creators will be offering both an exclusive glimpse into their workplaces and the opportunity to buy art works directly. Full details of all 33 artists can be found at; a downloadable map at

Serena Manteghi: Performing in Eurydice at Theatre At The Mill this weekend

Hit and myth show of the week: Eurydice, Theatre At The Mill, Stillington Mill, near York, Saturday and Sunday, 7.30pm

THIS weekend, Serena Manteghi returns to the play she helped to create with writer Alexander Wright, composer Phil Grainger and fellow performer Casey Jane Andrews with Fringe award-winning success in Australia in 2019.

Manteghi, a tour de force in the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s Build A Rocket, will be joined by Grainger for the tale about being a daily superhero and not giving in to the stories we tell ourselves.

Woven from spoken word and soaring live music, Eurydice is the stand-alone sister show to Orpheus; her untold story imagined and reimagined for the modern-day and told from her perspective. Box office:

Kaiser Chiefs: Yorkshire anthems galore at Scarborough Open Air Theatre on Sunday

Yorkshire gig of the week outside York: Kaiser Chiefs, Scarborough Open Air Theatre, Sunday, gates open at 6pm

LEEDS lads Kaiser Chiefs promise a “no-holds-barred rock’n’roll celebration” on their much-requested return to Scarborough OAT after their May 27 2017 debut.

“We cannot wait to get back to playing live shows again and it will be great to return to this stunning Yorkshire venue,” says frontman Ricky Wilson. “We had a cracking night there in 2017, so roll on August 8!”

Expect a Sunday night of such Yorkshire anthems as Oh My God, I Predict A Riot, Everyday I Love You Less And Less, Ruby, Never Miss A Beat and Hole In My Soul. Box office:

Simon Amstell’s hippy-chic poster for his autumn tour show, Spirit Hole, visiting York, Sheffield and Leeds in the autumn

Comedy gig announcement of the week: Simon Amstell, Spirit Hole, Grand Opera House, York, September 25, 8pm

INTROSPECTIVE, abjectly honest comedian Simon Amstell will play the Grand Opera House, York, for the first time since 2012 on his 38-date Spirit Hole autumn tour.

Agent provocateur Amstell, 41, will deliver a “blissful, spiritual, sensational exploration of love, sex, shame mushrooms and more” on a tour with further Yorkshire gigs at The Leadmill, Sheffield, on September 12 and Leeds Town Hall on October 1.

York tickets are on sale at; York, Sheffield and Leeds at

Look sharp! Tickets are on sale for Joe Jackson’s second-ever York concert…next March

York gig announcement of the week: Joe Jackson, York Barbican, March 17 2022

JOE Jackson will play York for only the second time in his 43-year career on his Sing, You Sinners! tour next year.

Jackson, who turns 67 on August 11, will perform both solo and with a band at York Barbican in the only Yorkshire show of his 29-date British and European tour, promising hits and new material.

“We’ve been dealing with two viruses over the past two years, and the worst – the one we really need to put behind us – is Fear,” he says. “Love is the opposite of fear, so if you love live music, come out and support it!” Box office:

Coronation Street star Ashley Hope Allan to play Shirley Valentine for Esk Valley Theatre

Exit-the-kitchen-sink drama: Ashley Hope Allan as Shirley Valentine in Esk Valley Theatre’s Shirley Valentine. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

ESK Valley Theatre complete a hattrick of Willy Russell plays with Shirley Valentine at the Robinson Institute, Glaisdale, near Whitby, from Thursday to August 28.

In Russell’s one-woman show, Coronation Street star Ashley Hope Allan plays middle-aged, bored Liverpool housewife Shirley in a story of self-discovery as she takes off to Greece with a friend, who promptly abandons her for a holiday romance. Left alone, Shirley meets charming taverna owner Costas.

After a gap year brought on by the Covid lockdown, Esk Valley Theatre, a professional theatre company rooted in the North York Moors National Park, return with Russell’s 1986 play, the winner of two Olivier Awards and a Tony before its conversion into Lewis Gilbert’s 1989 film starring Pauline Collins and Tom Conti.

Ashley Hope Allan in rehearsals for Esk Valley Theatre’s August production of Shirley Valentine. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Director Mark Stratton says: “Shirley Valentine is the third Willy Russell play we’ve produced after Educating Rita, with Amy Spencer as Rita and Ian Crowe as Frank in August 2016, and One For The Road, with Laura Bonnah, David Smith, Andrew Cryer and Joanne Heywood, in our tenth anniversary show in August 2014.

“It’s always a joy to direct his work. He has an economy of style and precision in his writing that always hits home and his ability to capture the wit and humour of Liverpudlians is second to none.”

Actor Ashley Hope Allan played the television medium Crystal Webber in Coronation Street, having appeared earlier in Emmerdale, The Crown and Nuzzle And Scratch.

Esk Valley Theatre’s Ian Crowe as Frank and Amy Spencer as Rita in Willy Russell’s Educating Rita in 2016. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Among her stage credits are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and As You Like It for the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival and Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

Director Stratton is joined in the production team by producer Sheila Carter, designer and lighting designer Graham Kirk and costume designer Christine Wall.

Mark, who set up Esk Valley Theatre with Sheila in 2005, has had a varied career in theatres across Britain, as well as appearing in numerous television shows and films, most notably with Anthony Hopkins in Across The Lake, as a guest detective opposite Felicity Kendall and Pam Ferris in Rosemary & Thyme and as an American professor opposite Vidya Balan in the Bollywood movie Shakuntala Devi, released in July 2020. 

The Esk Valley Theatre cast and production team for Willy Russell’s One For The Road in 2014

Mark has performed in more than 20 pantomimes and will add Widow Twankey in Aladdin at Cast, Doncaster, to that list this winter.

Sheila has choreographed for many of Britain’s leading theatre companies, enjoying a long association with Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, where she has worked on many of his premieres.

She choreographed By Jeeves, the Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that ran in London, played at several theatres in the United States and ended up on Broadway.

Valentine’s day: Ashley Hope Allen in an early scene in Esk Valley Theatre’s production of Shirley Valentine, in rehearsal for the Robinson Institute run in Glaisdale. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

She directed and choreographed Where Is Peter Rabbit? in its two London runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and has choreographed for film and TV too, including Franco Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre in 1996.

Esk Valley Theatre’s Shirley Valentine can be seen at 7.30pm, Mondays to Saturdays, from August 5 to 28, complemented by 2.30pm matinees on August 7, 12, 14, 17, 19, 24, and 26. A post-show talkback will be held on August 18. 

Tickets cost £16, concessions £15, on 01947 897587 or at