Blazing Grannies to premiere F Mary Callan’s Bible stories, Voices From The Wilderness, at Spurriergate Centre, York

The poster artwork for Blazing Grannies’ Voices From The Wilderness

BLAZING Grannies stage F Mary Callan’s new play Voices From The Wilderness at the Spurriergate Centre, Spurriergate, York, from tonight to Saturday.

Directed by Baron Productions’ Daniel Wilmot, this Bible show is “designed to plug the gap caused by the lack of York’s big Mystery Plays this year”. 

“My script is a parade of Old Testament characters telling their ‘inside stories’, followed by a few New Testament characters, leading to Christ’s crucifixion and Resurrection,” says Mary, a poet, storyteller and trained catechist in the Middlesbrough diocese.

“I have performed many of them in my one-woman Bible shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, but they have been taken to a new level under Daniel’s lively direction. Our team of amateur actors, playing multiple roles, are incredible.”

Rooted in dramatic and tragic ancient human stories from the Bible and the Quran, Voices From The Wilderness invites this week’s audiences to “discover God’s kindness to Adam and Eve after their disobedience; wander across the wilderness with Moses; flee from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, so close to modern Gaza.

“Be baffled with Joseph, wondering how to handle a surprise pregnancy. Grieve with the bereaved parents in Bethlehem. Listen to the soldiers tormenting their surprise prisoner, Jesus from Nazareth: is he really the King of the Jews?”.”

Callan’s script, in keeping with the medieval Mystery Plays, seeks to “makes the Bible stories utterly relevant to our own era’s trauma and anxieties, leading us, finally, to hope the impossible”.

The cast comprises Phyllis Carson-Smith, Wilma Edwards, Adam Marsdin, Michael Maybridge, Julie Speedie and Pietro Spicer.

For tickets, go to:

York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust’s young directors to stage A Creation For York trilogy around Micklegate on June 1

Katie Smith: Directing The Creation Of Man at St Columba’s, Priory Street

YORK Mystery Plays Supporters Trust will stage A Creation For York on June 1 in a promenade production around Micklegate in runs at 2pm and 3.30pm.

Three aspiring directors mentored by Dr Tom Straszewski, a past director of the York Wagon Play cycle, will be presenting their visions of a trilogy of 20-minute plays from the Creation cycle with a community cast and production team.

The promenade procession will start with The Creation Of Man at St Columba’s, Priory Street, at 2pm and 3.30pm, and progress to Holy Trinity, Micklegate, for The Fall Of Man at 3pm and 4.30pm, then onwards to St Martin’s Stained Glass Centre, Micklegate, for Cain And Abel at 4pm and 5.30pm. On each run, the weary traveller can enjoy refreshments before the third play begins at St Martin’s.

Katie Smith, director of The Creation Of Man, studied acting at Plymouth Conservatoire and is undertaking a Masters in English Literary Studies in York.

“The essence of any piece of theatre is a vision made a reality through the work of a group of artists,” says Katie. “My own vision for The Creation was inspired by workshops of the Italian Renaissance and the artists and polymaths of that time, and so God became a master artist, an inventor, architect, scientist.

“Lucifer was a talented, arrogant apprentice, the other angels hard-working assistants, and the performance space became a bustling art studio, bringing God’s vision to life.

“In turning these ideas into a reality, I have had the privilege of working with an incredibly talented group of artists, from the actors you see on stage, to our composer, set designers, costume makers, and countless others.

“For a performance so centred on the concept of ‘creation’, their work is not just vital in bringing the piece to life, but a reflection of the imagination, creativity, and artistry at the heart of the play.”

In Katie’s cast will be: Daniel Wilmot as Deus; Harry Summers, Lucifer; Colin Lea, Diabolus; Tess Wingard, Seraphyn/Clarinet; Julie Speedie, Cherabyn; Samuel Jackson, Adam, and Joy Warner, Eve. 

Dan Norman: Director of The Fall Of Man at Holy Trinity, Micklegate

Dan Norman, directing The Fall Of Man, is a writer who has directed short films and is venturing into directing theatre for the first time.

“Reading through the three Mystery Plays that make up The Fall Of Man, it is striking how separate Adam and Eve are,” says Dan. “Adam speaks with the Angel, and Eve speaks with Satan, but there’s no interaction between them until Eve persuades Adam to eat the apple.  Their most prolonged conversation is the climactic argument.

“Adam and Eve’s relationship is uniquely strange. Eve was custom-made for Adam – but from the same material has become someone very different to him. Shared humanity must be an odd concept when you are the first humans, and being a partner holds extra significance when you are the only two people.

“At the start of the play, the Angel instructs Adam and Eve that ‘from this hour ye never twin’. The commandment not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge sticks with them, but this one they seem to forget. Maybe it was just as important.”

Dan’s cast comprises David Lancaster as the Angel; Val Burgess, Satan; Nicola Peard, Eve; Oliver Howard, Adam, and David Denbigh, God/Violin.

Isobel Staton, in charge of Cain And Abel, has completed her PhD in Medieval History and has worked with the Lords of Misrule at the University of York.

“In The Sacrifice Of Cain And Abel, humanity reaps the harvest that was sown during The Fall Of Man,” she says. “The children of Adam and Eve – Cain and Abel – must toil to grow and raise their food by ‘the sweat of [their] brow’. Following his father, Cain takes uparable farming, struggling to grow a crop which is not overtaken by thorns and briars while his harvest gets smaller year on year.

“Abel, on the other hand, takes up sheep-farming and is blessed with bounty and relaxation (although outside a play I would never suggest that sheep-farming was easy work!).

“From Cain and Abel’s differing experiences of farming grows resentment, jealousy, deeply different relationships to God, and a conflicting attitude to tithing and sacrifice. What began as a rift between Adam and Eve ends in murder with their sons.

Isobel Staton: Directing Cain And Abel at St Martin’s Stained Glass Centre, Micklegate

“The script of York’s Cain And Abel has been partially lost. In this performance, that lost portion has been filled with an extract from The Murder Of Abel from the Towneley cycle (a related mystery play tradition thought to have been performed in Wakefield), which shares many of the same preoccupations and tensions.”

Isabel’s cast will feature James Tyler as Cain, Allyson Butler as Abel and Charlotte Turner as the Angel, along with musician Jonathan Brockbank and singer Evie Hartley-Rapson.

Music for the production has been composed by musical director Desmond Clarke, who is joined in the production team by producers Emily Hansen and Janice Newton, wardrobe trio Trisha Campbell, Beverley Foster and Claire Little and set and prop designers Richard Hampton, Linda Lockett and Jon Mills.

Looking forward to next weekend, trust chair Linda Terry says: “We are thrilled to offer the opportunity to new directors to take part in York’s heritage tradition and to offer them the benefit of Dr Tom Straszewski’s support. 

“We decided to make this a promenade production with the audience moving between three venues: St Columba’s, Priory Street, Holy Trinity, Micklegate, and St Martin’s Stained Glass Centre, Micklegate. They will be guided on the short walking distance between the venues by cast members.  

“Micklegate was the historical start for performance of the Mystery Plays in the medieval period, so it seems appropriate to bring them back to their home ground. We’ve had terrific support from the venues themselves in staging the event.”

Tickets are on sale at One ticket gives access to all three plays.

In addition, the trio of plays will be performed for the residents of Hartrigg Oaks, in New Earswick, on June 15 as part of the care home’s 25th anniversary celebrations.

Coming next

YORK Mystery Plays Supporters Trust’s next production will be A Nativity For York, touring to The Tithe Barn, Nether Poppleton, St James the Deacon Church Hall, Acomb, and St Oswald’s Church Hall, Fulford, between November 29 and December 7; seven performances in all.

Dr Tom Straszewski: Mentoring three young directors for A Creation For York

York Shakespeare Project deep into rehearsals for first full-scale production by Bard rival, Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II

James Lee, left, as Gaveston and Jack Downey as Edward II in rehearsal for York Shakespeare Project’s Edward II. All reheasal pictures: John Saunders

AT the heart of phase two of York Shakespeare Project over the next 25 years is the mission to stage not only all of Shakespeare’s plays, but also the finest works of his contemporaries.

Next week, the Bard’s rival in focus will be playwright, poet and translator Christopher “Kit”  Marlowe, writer of The Tragicall History of Dr Faustus; Tamburlaine The Great; Dido, Queen Of Carthage; Edward II; The Massacre At Paris and The Jew Of Malta.

York Shakespeare Project (YSP) will stage his intimate historical tragedy Edward II (The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England) under the direction of Tom “Strasz” Straszewski at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from October 17 to 21 at 7.30pm plus a 2.30pm Saturday matinee.

Strasz previously directed The Merry Wives Of Windsor in 2012 and The Two Noble Kinsmen in 2018, now joining Paul Toy, Mark France and Ben Prusiner as three-time directors for YSP. 

“We were delighted that Tom emerged from a strong field to be chosen as the director of the first non-Shakespeare play of YSP’s new project,” says chair Tony Froud.

“Strasz brings great knowledge and wide experience of directing Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and promises an innovative interpretation of Marlowe’s fascinating text.”

Cassi Roberts, left, as Kent and Emma Scott as Young Mortimer

Edward II is king at last. Determined to shower his loved ones with gifts, he summons his exiled lover, Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall. In the face of a king, court and country intoxicated by their passions, the Queen takes her own lover, whereupon the nation is torn apart in a merciless divorce. Their child watches from the shadows, desperate to mend this broken family and nation or bring them to heel.

“This is a play about power and love – who has it, who gives it, who takes it, and who suffers for it,” says Tony. “For this production, we began by exploring the play through creative workshops, editing a script that reflects the people in the room. No characters were cast until after this process.”

Strasz’s cast will be led by Jack Downey as Edward II, James Lee as Gaveston and Danae Arteaga Hernandez as Isabel. Joining them will be Emma Scott as Young Mortimer; Effie Warboys, Princess Edie; Adam Kadow, Spenser; Cassi Roberts, Kent; Alan Sharp, Warwick, and James Tyler as Lancaster/Gurvey.

So too will be Stuart Lindsay as The Bishop; Elizabeth Painter, Margaret de Clare; Charlie Barrs, Maltravers; Harry Summers, Mortimer Senior; Tom Jennings, Lightborn; Emily Hansen, Pembroke, and Robyn Jankel, Philippa of Hainault.

Drawing on personal responses to the script and their own experiences, Strasz’s cast members bring a fresh and modern perspective to Marlowe’s 1592 work. “Like Marlowe himself, we wanted to focus less on historical accuracy or psychological realism, and instead as a fantasia of power and love. This is a fearful England,” says the director, who was at the helm of York Mystery Plays productions in 2018 and 2022.

Cassi Roberts, left, back, as Kent, Emma Scott as Young Mortimer, James Lee as Gaveston, Thomas Jennings as Lightborn, Stuart Lindsay as the Bishop, Emily Hansen as Pembroke and Alan Sharp as Warwick

“Edward, his court and his child all try to protect themselves, but without uniting together they’re vulnerable. Edward is usually portrayed as a weak king, but we found this to be untrue:  Marlowe presents him as somebody who fights fiercely to protect his loved ones, despite his hatred of war and the devastation it brings.

When his lover, Gaveston, is brutally murdered, he finally becomes the king the medieval nobles want him to be – warmongering, merciless, elitist – and it’s to everybody’s cost.”

For James Lee (Gaveston), the play touches on contemporary issues of cancel culture, celebrity and social mobility, with his character destroyed for daring to reach above his station.

“I think Marlowe would get a real kick out of how relevant his characters are. In a world of tabloids and gossip, characters like Gaveston rise and fall every day,” he says. “Social mobility is championed and demonised. We’re never allowed to forget the roles we are supposed to play, regardless of our dreams.”

To aid accessibility for deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members, all performances will include closed captions.

Tickets are available at or by emailing the box office at

The poster for York Shakespeare Project’s Edward II

Paul Burbridge (1953-2023): A tribute

Paul Burbridge: Artistic director of Riding Lights Theatre Company for more than 40 years

A SERVICE of thanksgiving and celebration for the life of Riding Lights Theatre Company artistic director Paul Burbridge (1953-2023) will be held at St Michael le Belfrey, High Petergate, York, on June 10 at 2pm. All are welcome.

Paul, who ran the Christian theatre company and Friargate Theatre artistic programme in Lower Friargate, York, died on April 19 after a short illness.  

A statement from the board and staff on the Riding Lights website reads: “Paul, along with Nigel Forde and Murray Watts, founded Riding Lights in 1977, and led the company for over 40 years with unwavering vision and extraordinary creativity.

“His commitment to the company and to all who encountered it in any way was inspiring and infectious, as were his kindness, warmth and humour.

“He was an encourager, guide, mentor and friend to many, whose faith and faithfulness to God flowed into the lives of others. Riding Lights was his life’s work, his calling, and a source of deep joy to him.

“We know that this will come as a great shock and sadness to many, and that you may wish to be in touch with the company. Any messages can be sent to , and we will do our best to respond in due course.”

The statement concludes: “There will be an opportunity to make donations to Riding Lights in memory of Paul, in order to continue the work he loved. In the meantime, we value your prayers of thanksgiving for Paul’s life, for all of us at Riding Lights, and most of all for Bernadette [Paul’s wife], Patrick, Caitlin and Erin, that they may be comforted and surrounded by the love of God.”

Here CharlesHutchPress reflects on Paul Burbridge’s contribution to York’s theatre world with Damian Cruden, artistic director of York Theatre Royal from 1997 to 2019.

“WHEN I started, we met up, and right from the word go, Paul was one of those people who was always very welcoming and very easy to have a conversation with and always very constructive too,” remembers Damian, now CEO and artistic director of Alnwick Playhouse in Northumberland.

“The first major piece we did together was the Riding Lights/Theatre Royal collaboration on African Snow [Murray Watts’s play about slave ship captain John Newton, of Amazing Grace fame], directed by Paul in 2007. We then did Three Men In A Boat, directed by Paul at the Theatre Royal in April 2008.”

Paul had first adapted Jerome K Jerome’s late-Victorian tale of a trip up the Thames 18 years earlier for Riding Lights, reuniting with his original designer, Sean Cavanagh, for his Theatre Royal version of Jerome’s riparian mishaps and ineptitudes.

A community production of Anthony Minghella’s Two Planks And A Passion, co-directed by Paul and Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster in the round at the Theatre Royal in July 2011, was to be the precursor to the zenith of the Theatre Royal and Riding Lights creative partnership: the 2012 York Mystery Plays in the Museum Gardens.

“Paul was just very easy to work with because he always gave space,” says Damian, his co-director for that unforgettable open-air production. “He didn’t have an ego about himself. Instead, his artistic ego connected with the work of the community that he inspired. Above all, he was just really good fun to be with.

“For years, around the time of the opening of the panto, we cooked  a Christmas dinner in two sittings, one for the panto cast in the afternoon and then everyone else from the two companies in the evening, with the executives of the Theatre Royal and Riding Lights doing all the cooking.

“Afterwards, Paul would usually arrange a cabaret of some sort, with music and Paul doing some sketches as he was very amusing. Very Pythonesque, with a real sense of the absurdity of the world.”

Damian recalls how Paul’s faith was his bedrock. “We talked about it in depth when we were doing the Mystery Plays together; Paul as someone of faith, me as someone not of faith, wondering whether that would be difficult, and what it would mean in terms of creating the work, which I saw primarily as a big story, but for him it had a very different resonance,” he says.

“It was very important to have that mix,  people who have faith, people who were agnostic,  with me and Mike [writer Mike Kenny] as non-believers, Paul and Sean (designer Sean Cavanagh) as believers. It never got in the way at all. It was always very much about focusing on the telling of the story, and I think that faith was an important aspect in how we discussed it.

“I don’t think the production would have been as meaningful without that balance. The community cast that told that story was of a similar diversity of belief and non-belief, who discovered respect for each other’s position, and that was testament to Paul’s ability as an artist and leader to be magnanimous, to allow space, to be so highly inspirational in that way.

“He always wore his faith lightly but with an incredible depth of belief. I would say his faith was unshakeable, and his perception of the world found him working with faith groups in Palestine, stretching across faiths and the barriers that had been created.”

Paul was instrumental in Riding Lights establishing its headquarters in Lower Friargate in May 2000, taking over the 19th century building that previously had housed the Friargate Wax Museum until its closure in 1996.

Aptly, the opening production in the 100-seat studio theatre was Ben Jonson’s satire, The Alchemist, Paul having converted the base metals of a redundant museum into the universal elixir of theatrical gold.

“He was a very good leader, very intelligent, very knowledgeable, very talented,” says Damian. “He wasn’t self-obsessed and always knew why he was doing what he was.

“Riding Lights has been very successful in terms of its shows but also in terms of fulfilling its purpose. It’s a really important venue in York with a really strong commitment to youth theatre and a very clear sense of the community around it, which all theatres need to have.

“While its mission revolves around faith, you don’t feel like you’re going to have a religious diatribe when you go to a show. In many ways, Paul’s work has been superbly humanist, focusing on humanity. Very grounded, very connected.”

Reflecting further on Pauls’ leadership prowess, Damian says: “He would be one of the first people to say Riding Lights wasn’t just about him. He chose people around him that were good at what they did and that let Riding Lights become a potent organisation.”

Assessing Paul’s legacy, Damian starts by saying: “If you just think about the number of people who got up and strutted their stuff because Paul made it possible: whether through the youth theatre, summer projects, presenting work by community theatre companies and welcoming touring performers, on top of putting on all those Riding Lights productions.

“He made all that possible within York, and I can’t imagine how many people he’s influenced. All those people who started out at Riding Lights, it’s a huge list, all inspired by Paul and what the company stands for.”

Looking at Paul’s wider legacy, Damian says. “I hope that York continues to be a place that is absolutely engaged in presenting work that is there for the community and the creativity of that community, and that it remains something that is valued and given proper support.

“In a way, that’s the thing that would most upset Paul: if community creativity were left to wither on the vine. Community theatre, and the broad spectrum it covers, requires constant nurturing: the way Paul did it.

“He was a theatre gardener, knowing how to make sure the garden of theatre could survive in straitened time and be rich and productive in good times.”

God bless you, Paul, and thank you, guiding light of Riding Lights and Friargate Theatre.

REVIEW: Charles Hutchinson’s verdict on York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, A Nativity for York, Spurriergate Centre, York

Anastasia Crook’s Mary with infant Jesus wrapped in swaddling bands in A Nativity for York. All pictures: John Saunders

COVID cancelled last winter’s edition of A Nativity for York and did its worst to scupper this year’s return after a two-year absence.

Nine out of 16 cast members had tested positive during rehearsals, one actor’s all-important negative reading on the day of the dress rehearsal ensuring clearance for take-off.

Divine intervention, you might say, and the arrival of this new-born production under the guiding light of Alan Heaven’s direction is indeed something of a miraculous conception. The very subject of A Nativity, of course.

The shepherds: James Tyler, left, Effie Warboys and Mark Comer

Note the title: A Nativity for York. Heaven’s production is the essence of community theatre, rooted in York’s unrivalled mediaeval Cycle of Mystery Plays. From the streets, those plays move indoors, onto the stone slabs of the ever-convivial Spurriergate Centre, where mulled wine and mince pies spice up the arrival scene.

Writer, director and designer Heaven has constructed a backdrop as if from a builders’ guild – ladders, a plank, dust sheets, work bench – affording a mezzanine level for the Angel Gabriel, and providing the edifice for drapes of changing colours: blue to signify Anastasia Crook’s Mary; red for Nick Jones’s ruthless Herod; black for the hellish scene of Herod’s slaughter of the babes.

Even a clothes line pops up to emphasise the Mystery Plays’ meeting point between the utilitarian and the work of the Lord.

Nick Jones’s Herod and Wilma Edwards’s Chamberlain at a helluva party

Storytelling theatre lies at the heart of Heaven’s Nativity, a familiar story but here told with fresh imagination, shards of humour, especially for Michael Maybridge’s disbelieving, weary Joseph and the shepherds, peppered with bursts of traditional song and communal dance, to the accompaniment of arrangements by The Bertie Set, played by Diane Heaven (keyboards) and Petra Wade (recorders).

Alice Melton’s all-in-flowing-white Angel Gabriel has a shimmering radiance and even a hint of Shakespeare’s Puck when she rouses Joseph from his slumbers with a nudge in the back.

Crook’s Mary – the role every (competitive) girl wanted to play in the school Nativity Play – is played with virtue, calm purpose and awe-struck duty by Crook, with Sally Maybridge’s Anna often by her side.

The Massacre of the Innocents under Herod’s orders

Mark Comer’s Symeon is central to the lovely opening scene under an umbrella as the company spins around him in a whirl of ribbons. Harold Mozley, Daniiel Zavalniuk and Rachel Curnow’s earnest Kings contrast with the country-bumpkin airs of James Tyler and Effie Warboys, sheep under her arm, as they lead the audience in a participatory folk song that needed more clarity on Wednesday to make out what exactly chorus line was when urged to join in.

Jones’s Herod, dapper in his waistcoat and coat but devil-red in his butchery, has a sparring relationship with his truculent son (Tristan Heaven), in the tradition of theatrical fraternal frictions. Their scenes heighten the drama with a Shakespearean edge.

In keeping with Heaven’s renderings of the Last Judgement in wagon plays on the streets of York, the visual peak is the Massacre of the Innocents under Herod’s orders, a scene of terror and horror as the mothers’ screams pierce the night chill. Where earlier the ribbons signified joyful news, now they represent the guts of slaughtered children.

Anastasia Crook’s Mary, seated, in a joyous scene in York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust’s A Nativity for York

As Alan Heaven puts it: “Our production is built on juxtapositions of light and dark, joy and despair, community and isolation as we witness the depths of human suffering alongside the hope brough by the birth of Jesus.”

Words that echo through the streets of today, Christmas lights shining out against a backdrop of financial struggles, strikes, freezing temperatures and an ever greater need for hope and re-birth.

Tickets are on sale at £10, students and under 18s £6, on 01904 623568, at or in person from the Theatre Royal box office.

Heaven guides new York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust interpretation of A Nativity for York at Spurriergate Centre

Heaven’s above: Alan Heaven directing a rehearsal of A Nativity for York. All pictures: John Saunders

A NATIVITY for York returns to the Spurriergate Centre, Spurriergate, York, on Thursday after a two-year enforced break, under the direction of the divinely named Alan Heaven.

Mounted by York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust (YMPST), the production will run for eight performances, preceded by an open dress rehearsal at 7.30pm on Wednesday.

After directing the Last Judgement plays in the York Mystery Plays Wagon cycles on the city streets in 2018 and 2022, Heaven has created a new interpretation of the Nativity, combining “music, dance, sorrows and joys and some audience participation”.

It may be unlucky to open an umbrella indoors, as the saying insists, but York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust cast members, led by Mark Comer, take their chances in the rehearsal room. All pictures: John Saunders

Billed as a fresh, vibrant and magical retelling of the Nativity, based on the York Cycle of Mystery Plays, A Nativity for York features actors, dancers and musicians drawn from a wide range of community volunteers, in keeping with the YMPST productions of A Nativity for York in 2019 and A Resurrection for York in 2021.

Work began on the production in October, and although Covid among nine of the 16-strong cast has disrupted rehearsals in recent weeks, preparations are almost complete for the hour-long performances on Thursday and Friday at 7.30pm, then Saturday and Sunday at 3pm, 5pm and 7.30pm.

“The story is quite familiar but, in order to keep the play dynamic, we have focused on the cast putting every ounce of their energy into their parts, so that they engage with the audience,” says Alan.

“Keeping the play dynamic”: Anastasia Crook’s Mary rehearses a scene that testifies to the movement skills of director Alan Heaven

“Hopefully, as they work together – and most have multiple roles – through all 12 scenes, the result will be a positive and community-minded experience.” 

Heaven, an experienced director specialising in Early Modern theatre practice, community theatre, street theatre, movement and puppetry, is also a playwright, actor, musician, artist, illustrator and film maker.

He first worked with the York Mystery Plays in 2008 and has done so regularly since then, as well as adapting and staging the entire York Mystery Plays corpus for families. 

A restful moment for Michael Maybridge’s Joseph during rehearsals

Delighted to be working with the YMPST on this week’s new Nativity, he says: “It’s a real honour to be entrusted with these texts, which are such a vital part of York`s heritage. I hope to deliver a production that develops the rich and vibrant contrasts of the originals.

“There’ll be comedy and celebrations along with music, dance and song, next to the savagery of Herod and the struggle to escape his reach. This is a wonderful and exciting journey that will involve the audience and thrill and delight everyone involved.”

Tickets are on sale at £10, students and under 18s £6, on 01904 623568, at or in person from the Theatre Royal box office.

Fifty years on from first making his mark at York Theatre Royal, Richard Digby Day reflects on a life in the changing arts world

Richard Digby Day: Theatre director, professor and lecturer

RICHARD Digby Day, artistic director of York Theatre Royal from 1971 to 1976, will talk about his life and work in the theatre world at a fundraising event there tonight at 7pm.

Now 80, this esteemed stage director, international professor and lecturer in Britain and the United States is credited with discovering actors Hugh Grant and Ralph Fiennes in a career where he served as artistic director of Bournemouth Theatre Company, New Shakespeare Company at Regents Park Open Air Theatre, Welsh National Theatre Company, Nottingham Playhouse and Northcott Theatre, Exeter.

He is well-known for his work in classical theatre, notably the plays of William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. He is vice president of the Shaw Society and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and has staged more productions of Shaw’s work than any other living director.

Richard is noted for his productions of Stephen Sondheim musicals too, and his work has been seen in the West End and on tour extensively throughout the UK, Canada, Denmark and Ireland. 

He has worked with many of the theatre greats, not least bringing Dame Judi Dench to the Theatre Royal stage, and he is a contemporary of Sir Ian McKellen, the two having begun their professional careers working on many of the same productions with Digby Day serving as assistant director.

He came back to York three times to direct waggon plays from the York Mystery Plays with the York Settlement Community Players for the Merchant Adventurers’ Guild, presenting The Last Judgement  in 1998, 2002 and 2006. “The last one was the most modern, and I wouldn’t have done it twice more after the first time if it wasn’t so rewarding,” he says.

“There was a great stock of actors, like Ruth Ford, who was not just a wonderful actor but a wonderful person.”

Now Richard returns to the city for 50 Years On: Richard Digby Day In Conversation in the Theatre Royal Studio tonight when creative director Juliet Forster will host the event to raise funds to support ongoing work at the St Leonard’s Place theatre.

“I look back on my days as York Theatre Royal as a time of great excitement, a very good time,” says Richard. “What those days meant to my career and showed to other people was that I could run a theatre, because I was not just the artistic director but also director of the whole thing. I really had the final say in relation to whatever the board wanted.

“I was thinking about this, how the Sixties and Seventies were a wonderful time for the theatre in a way that has not been replicated since. I was in the right place at the right time, as I was at Exeter too. I’d just finished working for the Welsh National Theatre Company at the Casson Studio, in a very rough street in Cardiff: Ruby Street in Splott. I’d founded the company and started it but couldn’t cope with the Welsh politics, so I left.”

What happened next? “There was as an advertisement in The Stage saying York Theatre Royal was looking for a new artistic director, when Donald Bodley was leaving, having made that wonderful addition to the building [the foyer],” Richard recalls.

“I was interviewed in September 1971 and all the candidates were told to hang around…and then it was announced that I’d got the job, in front of all these disappointed-looking other people.”

Richard can reel off the productions that came thick and fast under his artistic direction: “We did The Circle, by Somerset Maugham, starring Jessie Matthews, who appeared twice in the first year. In York Minster was Murder In The Cathedral by T S Eliot, and because there was no studio at the Theatre Royal at that time, we did two plays at York Arts Centre [in Micklegate], Tiny Alice by Edward Albee and Old Times by Harold Pinter. There was an extraordinary range of performances going on,” he says.

“That’s the difference when you compare it with today’s theatre. That time was the flowering of theatre, whereas today money is short and very rarely do actors stay together for more than one play.”

More work comes to Richard’s mind. “We did some work at the University of York; two plays in the De Grey Rooms and a whole series of poetry readings at York Art Gallery,” he says.

He settled in quickly. “York Theatre Royal was well set up: long before I arrived there, it was a working regional theatre with its wardrobe and carpentry departments, and York always tended to have actors that stayed for more than one production,” he says.

“For the second season in Spring 1973, Phyllis Calvert [the English film actress], who’d been in the company before the Second World War, began a long association with me directing her in five plays. The first Shakespeare I did here was The Tempest, in association with the New Shakespeare Company at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre, in London, where I was artistic director for a long time.

“A city without the arts will never be a complete place,” says Richard Digby Day

“We had Michael Dennison playing Prospero, and the production began in York, went on a little tour,  then played Regents Park.”

Judi Dench would return to her home city with Michael Williams to appear in a new play, Content To Whisper, adapted by television writer Alan Melville from a French work. “I can tell you this now, because Judi and I often laugh about it: we knew on the first day of rehearsals that we shouldn’t be doing it, but we did the best we could with it and it packed the theatre! I don’t know if people liked it or not, but they were just content to see Judi back home,” says Richard.

“Looking back, I was able to do a lot of interesting productions and the seasons were a lot more classically based than they are now: Strindberg, Ibsen, Chekhov, but a lot of modern plays too, like the first out-of-London production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus. The National Theatre offered us the rights for it, so we said yes, and then followed it with Hamlet, starring the Scarborough-born Frank Barrie as Hamlet.

“That was the third time I’d directed Hamlet and the nearest one I felt to getting it right. Frank’s father died in the middle of the run and he had to keep going, with all that connection with Hamlet’s father dying.”

Just as Damian Cruden would do later during his 22-year tenure as artistic director, Richard enjoyed using the theatre space in different ways. “We had all the seats taken out and did a promenade production of The Two Noble Kinsmen [Shakespeare’s play co-written with John Fletcher]: the first time it had been done for many years, for York Festival in 1973,” he says.

“In my last season, we had seven plays by Samuel Beckett to celebrate his 70th birthday and we did them on the stage with the safety curtain down and the audience seated on the stage too, and we did this in a repertory season where we closed the main-house auditorium one night a week for the Beckett plays.”

Typical of Richard enjoying the challenge of “making theatre in places that aren’t necessarily theatres” was his production of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf in the Assembly Rooms, “I had the belief that wherever there was an audience, wherever there were actors, that could be a theatre,” he says.

As he heads back to York once more, where he once lived on Tadcaster Road in a “dear little cottage and courtyard” overlooking the racecourse, Richard says: “The city has provided many memories, 50 years of history, but it’s not the place I came to in 1971. I don’t say it in an entirely negative way but any city that has its manufacturing heart taken away can never be as interesting as it was.

“I used to get up at six in the morning and walk down to the shop to buy a paper, and you would see all these workers bicycling to work. You could smell that work. I find what’s happened to Britain so sad, though of course York has so many attractions that it’s made an industry out of tourism.

“There were always tourists but it was completely a working, industrial city, where under all that history was the industry that was supporting it.”

From 1980 to 1984, Richard was at the helm of Nottingham Playhouse. “That was not a happy time,” he says. “I would have to say that Mrs Thatcher interfered in the arts. In particular, William Rees Mogg wrote a ghastly report on the arts when he was made chairman of the Arts Council: a most unsuitable person for the post.

“It was not an easy period and eventually I thought, ‘I just don’t want to go on running a theatre’, so I left and I’ve never really run a theatre since then, but I’ve done lots of other things, like being the director of the National Theatre Institute, in Waterford, in Connecticut, for eight years.”

Richard directed plays aplenty at the Lyric in Belfast. “It was at the height of the troubles, which was a very interesting experience,” he says. “Where I was staying, one night the windows were shattered by an explosion nearby, but on the whole, you learned to get on with things and not be distracted by the divisions.”

Richard has directed star names in one-person shows, from Edward Fox to Eileen Atkins, Margaret Wolfit to Geraldine McEwan. “Most recently, Eileen Atkins put me in touch with Dame Joan Plowright for a show where I interviewed her:  it was a wonderful opportunity to get to know a wonderful person, doing the shows at the National Theatre and Chichester,” he says.

Reflecting on the contrast between now and 50 years ago, Richard says: “Theatre is not funded properly, with very few exceptions. The most worrying thing is the lack of performances of classic plays, and often when they’re done now, they’re very badly spoken, even at places where there’s no excuse, like the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“By comparison with Peter Hall’s days, what the National Theatre is doing now is not what it should be. So, I am concerned. I say this as an old man, but one who tries try not to have too many set ideas, but if you look at the list of what was playing in the West End 30 years ago and what’s on there now, I’m deeply concerned.”

His passion for theatre, his conviction in its importance, remains unbowed, however. “A city without the arts will never be a complete place,” he says.

50 Years On: Richard Digby Day In Conversation, York Theatre Royal Studio, tonight at 7pm. Tickets cost £20 plus an optional additional donation to York Theatre Royal. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Elvis is back in the building in Baz Luhrmann’s movie. Did he take care of business? Chalmers & Hutch decide

The poster artwork for Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis

WHAT we saw in Austin Butler’s Elvis and Tom Hanks’s Colonel Parker is revealed in Episode 97 of culture vultures Graham Chalmers and Charles Hutchinson’s arts podcast, Two Big Egos In A Small Car.

Under discussion too are: Beatle Paul at 80 at Glastonbury; Graham’s charmed DJ skills on a Knaresborough dancefloor and Chemical Brothers’ thunderous rave at Castle Howard.

To listen, head to:

Meanwhile, in Episode 96…

The artwork for A Light For Attracting Attention, the debut album by The Smile, alias Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood and Sons Of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner

CHAMERS & Hutch check out Thom Yorke’s Smile. Graham makes Danish news then dissects David Hepworth’s book on the rise and fall of rock’n’roll stars, Uncommon People. Charles demystifies the York Mystery Plays, “on the waggon” for 2022.

To listen, head to:

Guilds of York to roll out York Mystery Plays wagons on city streets on June 19 and 26

2022 York Mystery Plays artistic director Tom Straszewski

HERE come the wagons, rolling through York’s streets on June 19 and 26 for the 2022 York Mystery Plays.

Once more, the driving force behind the community production will be the Guilds of York, maintaining the four-yearly wagon-play cycle they set in motion in 1998 and last implemented in 2018.

Under the artistic direction of Tom Straszewski, the Mystery Plays will be presented on decorated pageant wagons, in keeping with the medieval custom. Pushed by York residents, these will move through the streets to the accompaniment of musicians.

Straszewski’s production will involve nearly 600 people in all, who will create hours of drama, performed for free. Eight wagons will process through the city centre to stage their chosen plays at four locations, including St Sampson’s Square, St Helen’s Square and King’s Manor.

Roger Lee, chairman of York Festival Trust, says: “With arts and culture being amongst the last areas of our lives allowed to return post-Covid, we are delighted to bring York Mystery Plays back to the city this summer and support the rebirth of live performing arts.

James Swanton as Lucifer with cast members of The Last Judgement when plays from the 2018 York Mystery Plays were staged in the Shambles Market. Picture: Lewis Outing

“Our past productions have met with great popular, academic and critical acclaim, and we hope to build on this success with our 2022 production. In their medieval heyday, the Mystery Plays and the Guilds were inextricably linked, and it is this heritage we are reclaiming with these regular four-yearly productions.

Artistic director Tom Straszewski will work with various partners across York to make the Mystery Plays, their story, themes and message accessible to as many people as possible. “After two years of uncertainty for the arts, this is an opportunity for York’s communities to come together to celebrate our city’s heritage through drama, spectacle and pageantry,” he says.

“This will be a huge boost for people’s well-being and a festival to attract York residents and visitors alike to the city on these two Sundays.”

In the era of pandemic lockdowns and climate change, the theme for 2022’s selection of eight plays will be sustainability and transformation. “The plays will cover the creation of the world, floods, last meals together and resurrections. We are still seeking directors, performance groups and actors to take on these plays, including the iconic Crucifixion with the Butchers’ Gild,” says Tom, who was the artistic director and pageant master for the 2018 Mystery Plays too.

“There are still opportunities to be involved and anyone interested should email”

REVIEW: A Resurrection For York, York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, 3/7/2021

Emily Hansen’s Pilgrim as Mary Magdalene in A Resurrection For York. Picture: John Saunders

A Resurrection For York, Residents Garden, Minster Library, Dean’s Park, York

HAPPENSTANCE may have led to this pandemic-delayed production being staged at the Residents Garden in Dean’s Park, but A Resurrection For York made a compelling case for the York Mystery Plays to take up residence there.

The gardens are self-contained, behind iron railings that facilitate curious passers-by taking a look; the acoustics are clear, without echo; the Minster bells chime on the quarter hour to both complement and compliment the atmosphere, and the setting is perfect for open-air theatre: spacious, green and on a hillock that cries out to be used for moments of high drama or an important monologue.

As Saturday morning’s audience gathered under grey clouds, Philip Parr’s cast members for this York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, York Festival Trust and York Minster tripartite production were already in situ for the first of six performances in two days.

The premise was that they were playing pilgrims, two canvas tents pitched at the back, everyone in walking boots, with roll-up sleeping mats, blankets, rucksacks and picnics in Enid Blyton retro brown paper bags.

Intentionally, community cast and community audience became indistinguishable: we were all in this together, albeit socially distanced; pilgrims all, gathered to tell each other stories, led by Nick Jones and Sally Maybridge’s exhorting narrators.

From this canvas would emerge Parr’s Pilgrims, dotted around the grass, some staying in that guise, others taking on specific roles, both alongside and on the two static wagons rolled out for significant scenes, one to set the cross in place.

The cross always will be the most potent symbol of the York Mystery Plays, and here it was especially central to Parr and 2018 York Mystery Plays director Tom Straszewski’s hour-long story, adapted from the Mystery Plays cycle of the crucifixion and the events that followed.

The most powerful image was in fact an absence, the dying Christ being represented instead by a shroud, wrapped around the cross pulled high by the grafting soldiers, one declaring himself too tired to finish the task in one of those brief interjections of humour that the Mystery Plays – the street theatre of its time – suddenly throw up.

The shroud became the motif woven through Parr’s production, daubed in blood, later folded up across a wagon to signify Christ’s body placed in the tomb by Joseph of Arimathea (Tony Froud), and then being worn by a tall, dark-haired figure, again emerging from the crowd.

In keeping with medieval tradition, the pilgrim playing Christ was not credited, although a reference to “plus David Denbigh” in the list supplied to CharlesHutchPress may indicate it was him.

Judith Ireland’s Mary, Mother of Jesus, and Emily Hansen’s Mary Magdalene stood out in a cast strong on diction and clear delivery. Music played its part too, largely acappella, choral or folk, with minimal accompaniment, and used sparingly but sung lustily or movingly.

What comes next? 2022 is very likely to see the York Mystery Plays being staged on wagons in June, maybe at the Residents Garden. Watch this space.