Maggie Fox, York actress and LipService Theatre satirist, RIP. A tribute

Maggie Fox, left, and comedy partner Sue Ryding in Lip Service’s award-winning show Withering Looks

YORK actress Maggie Fox, one half of the long-running satirical comedy duo LipService Theatre, has died after a “catastrophic accident”.

In a statement on the company’s website, co-founder Sue Ryding says: “It is with great sadness that I have to announce the death of Maggie Fox, my comedy partner of 40 years and co-artistic director of LipService.

“Maggie passed away yesterday with her family around her. Consequently the Spring Tour of Chateau Ghoul has been cancelled. As you can imagine I am completely heartbroken.”

Maggie and Sue met when studying drama at Bristol University in the 1970s. “We were in a very serious production of Ibsen’s The Lady For The Sea but for some reason the audience was on the floor laughing,” recalls Sue.

“A tragedy for Ibsen – he was good at those – but the launch of an epic comedy partnership. Our theatre company LipService was officially launched in 1985 and we have written 22 original comedies, touring all over the world, managing to have children in between!

Maggie Fox, back, and Sue Ryding in LipService Theatre’s Scandi-noir spoof Inspector Norse

“It’s notoriously difficult to present new work in theatre and we are really proud that we managed to do so and to build an audience for it.”

LipService had been touring their latest two-hander, the haunted house thriller Chateau Ghoul, written, produced and performed by Maggie and Sue with a multi-media combination of on-stage live humour and digital projections.

Sue did give one performance with an understudy, but following Maggie’s death, the tour has been discontinued. “Maggie is irreplaceable and so, reluctantly, Sue Ryding and the rest of the company have decided we must cancel the remaining dates of the upcoming tour,” read LipService’s first announcement released to such venues Pocklington Arts Centre, where regular visitors Maggie and Sue had been booked to perform on March 26.

“We appreciate that this will come as a great shock to our wonderful and loyal followers. We would like to thank them for their understanding at this difficult time and for their valued and much cherished support over the years.

Sue’s LipService website statement continues: “We are still all in a state of shock as this was very sudden following an accident. We had planned a new digital version of Chateau Ghoul, which we had already filmed, which will be shared with you later in the year in memory of Maggie, plus some live events using the huge amount of digital footage we thankfully have archived. Details to be published when have a plan.

Maggie Fox, right, and Sue Ryding in their latest show, the haunted house thriller Chateau Ghoul

“Thank you for supporting us over all these years; we are so lucky to have such a loyal audience. We do hope you will join us to celebrate Maggie’s comedy genius later in the year.”

Janet Farmer, director of Pocklington Arts Centre, paid tribute to Maggie. “We have welcomed Maggie and Sue as LipService Theatre for 15-plus years; they have always been hugely popular with many sell-out performances of their wonderful spoof shows based on literary classics.

“I, along with my colleagues, am shocked and devastated to hear the tragic news of Maggie’s death. It is obviously a huge loss to Sue and to Maggie’s family but also to the touring theatre circuit. 

“Maggie and Sue were a unique duo presenting their laugh-out-loud shows. They even continued with on-line versions of their shows during the pandemic. We are very sad not to be presenting their Chateau Ghoul this Saturday.”

Maggie, the very tall one from Yorkshire, and Sue, the rather shorter one from the other side of the Pennines, toured nationally and internationally to the United States, Germany, Eastern Europe and Pakistan.

Maggie Fox, right, and Sue Ryding in LipService Theatre’s Strangers On A Train Set

An inseparable, instinctive, inventive, mischievous, less-is-more, only-us-against-the-odds double act, they presented such savvy, gently anarchic shows as their Bronte Sisters send-up Withering Looks; Strangers On A Train Set; Inspector Norse; Knit One Murder One; The Picture Of Doreen Gray; Mr Darcy Loses The Plot and Desperate To Be Doris (the musical comedy one they did with a 50-piece community choir in York).

Not forgetting Jane Bond, their James Bond satire in Live And Let’s Dye; Very Little Women; Horror For Wimps; Move Over Moriarty, Women On The Verger; King Arthur & The Knights Of The Occasional Table; B-Road Movie!, Tony & Twizzle, The Glory Years, and Margaret III Parts Two and Three, all subjected to their microscope of mirth.

York Theatre Royal was one of multiple collaborators, along with Oldham Coliseum; The Lowry, Salford; The Brindley, Runcorn; The New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme; Greenwich Theatre, London; Watford Palace and Barclays Stage Partner

Described as the “Laurel & Hardy of literary deconstruction” by the Guardian, “Britain’s favourite literary lunatics” by the Independent and “an unstoppable force for comic inventiveness” by Time Out magazine, Maggie and Sue won the Critics’ Award for Comedy for both Withering Looks and Knot One Murder One at the Edinburgh Fringe; the Manchester Theatre Awards Stage Door Award for Excellence in 2013 and the Manchester Evening News Award for Withering Looks.

LipService duo Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding with Darren Southworth in their Doris Day celebration, Desperate To Be Doris

To complement their mainstream theatre , Maggie and Sue worked with heritage organisations on site-specific events, such as  the Bronte Parsonage Museum, in Haworth; Elizabeth Gaskell’s House; the National Trust at Quarry Bank, Wilmslow, Cheshire; Manchester Histories Festival; European City of Science and Stockport Council.

LipService hosted series on BBC Radio 2 and Radio 4, made television appearances and were commissioned by the Bronte Parsonage to film Withering Looks, The Movie!, shot on location at the Brontes’ parsonage and on the wild and windswept moors with Arts Council England funding.

Maggie also appeared in four roles in Coronation Street (Ruth Audsley, Nurse, Judge Travers, Charmian Gray), between 1990 and 2010; six episodes of The Forsyte Saga, as Bilson, in 2002-2003; seven episodes of Soul Music as Ms Butts; Bob The Builder, as the voice of The Librarian and two episodes of How Do You Want Me?, as another Librarian.

In addition, she played Mrs Parke in the 2012 TV movie The Making Of A Lady and popped up in one episode each of Reckless (Woman With Dog), Shameless (Registrar), Accused (Defence Barrister) and South Riding (Matron).

Interviewed by The Press, York, on LipService’s 30th anniversary in February 2015, when presenting their walk on the Wilde side, The Picture Of Doreen Gray at Harrogate Theatre,  Maggie said: “Thirty years! I know, it’s ridiculous really. You just think, ‘could you not think of anything else to do?’.” Thankfully, the answer was always No, and so LipService have delighted so many with their “general silliness”, as Maggie called it.

Maggie Fox, right, and Sue Ryding sending up TV presenters in Tony & Twizzle, The Glory Years

“We were trying to work out the other day how many hours we must have spent on the road, on a train, in a rehearsal room or on stage,” said Maggie, as she reflected on a partnership that had begun in the Bristol University drama department.

“We hadn’t really come across each other until our third year when we both cast in Ibsen’s The Lady From The Sea. At my height, I’m a dead ringer for Vanessa Redgrave, who’d just done the play at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, where she came on dripping in seaweed. So the image I had was of this queen of drama draped in a hell of a lot of green stuff.

“Anyway, Sue was playing my daughter in the university production, and we were just finding it very funny in rehearsal. The more it went on, the funnier we were finding it, but the others weren’t finding it funny and they weren’t finding it funny that we were finding it funny.

“We were doing that ‘looking into the distance’ acting for Ibsen, draped in seaweed, and it was so liberating to have found someone else who found it funny too, especially when no-one else did.”

Maggie and Sue then did the sound effects for another show, a radio play, to distractingly humorous effect as it turned out.

Maggie Fox, right, and Sue Ryding in their online performance of The Ghost Writer during the pandemic lockdowns

“We found the audience was watching us rather than the show. The director wasn’t happy,” said Maggie. “All I can remember is doing the noises for the clattering of teacups in the tea room and drowning out everyone else.”

Maggie had been born into a theatrical family: her father was on the board of York Theatre Royal; her uncle was a mainstay of the York Settlement Community Players.

“I knew I wanted to act; that was what I was going to do, so Sue and I got together and tried to do cabaret, going up to the Edinburgh Fringe, but no women were doing comedy, until Victoria Wood and Julie Walters became the trailblazers, but still the perception was that men were funnier than women,” said Maggie.

Not for long would she and Sue settle for doing “our flopsy bunny act between two aggressive comedians”. Lip Service would change all that, and how.

LipService double act Maggie Fox, the tall one, and Sue Ryding, the rather shorter one, in their Wilde satire, The Picture Of Doreen Gray

From cabaret roots, with a natural bent for impromptu interaction with the audience, the free flow of improvisation and the desire  to “do the impossible”, Maggie and Sue also established the improv company Comedy Express in the 1990s, taking it to the pubs and clubs of Manchester, where Steve Coogan and Caroline Aherne would come along.

“You can play a lot of the same games in improvised comedy but they work and the shows are different every time, and that’s what I want with Lip Service shows,” Maggie said.

“I want them to be different every night or to have elements of surprise because it’s a different audience each night. We like living on the edge.”

Thank you, Maggie. You brought us so much merry mayhem in slickly organised yet deliriously chaotic comedy; now you have been taken away by tragedy, theatre’s other face. God bless you and a fond farewell.

By Charles Hutchinson

REVIEW: York Settlement Community Players in Ayckbourn’s Woman In Mind ****

Desperately seeking Susan, as she loses her mind: Victoria Delaney in the Settlement Players’ Woman In Mind. All pictures: John Saunders

Woman In Mind, York Settlement Community Players, York Theatre Royal Studio, until Saturday, 7.45pm and 2.45pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

ANGIE Millard “seemed to have avoided Alan Ayckbourn” in her past directorial choices, but she had one play in mind for the Settlement Players’ return to York Theatre Royal after two years.

Ayckbourn’s sad, haunting, darker than dark-humoured psychological drama Woman In Mind had struck a chord in the pandemic climate of isolation and mental health issues.

Premiered in 1985 but still feeling present day in 2022, it remains Ayckbourn’s supreme study of a trapped woman, older than Nora in A Doll’s House but just as affecting as the desperate flight of Henrik Ibsen’s proto-feminist, Susan’s story being told from inside her woozy head.

The setting is 48 hours in her south London garden and beyond: the place where the world is refracted through the prism of Susan’s psyche.

Playing fantasy families: Victoria Delaney’s Susan raises a glass to husband Andy (Paul French), daughter Lucy (Amy Hall) and brother Tony (Neil Vincent)

Following in the footsteps of Julia McKenzie, Stockard Channing and Helen Mirren, in her first stage role since October 2019, Victoria Delaney opens the play on her back and never leaves the stage (interval aside).

Delaney’s suburban housewife is coming round from unconsciousness, after knocking herself out when stepping on a garden rake, as Chris Pomfrett’s cautious yet accident-prone family doctor, Bill Windsor, attends to her. In a brilliant Ayckbourn conceit, his words, like her vision, go from a gobbledygook blur to being clear.

With the bang on the head comes the comforting concern of her champagne-golden  family, as if torn from a Mills & Boon cover or a desirable clothes catalogue: first, handsome old devil husband Andy (Paul French); then tennis-playing brother Tony (Neil Vincent) and her auburn-haired darling of a daughter, Lucy (YSCP debutante Amy Hall).

Too, too perfect, surely, and yet played as straight down the line as Tony practising a backhand winner, they could – at first at least – be real. We see and hear them, just as Susan sees and hears them, but only she does so, just like only urbane novelist Charles Condomine and the audience see and hear his deceased first wife, Elvira, in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

Living on a prayer: Paul Toy as vicar Gerald

The grim reality is very different: husband Gerald (clergyman’s son Paul Toy) is a self-obsessed priggish vicar, always in another room writing his interminably dull, interminably long parish history since 1387. They have reached the separate bed stage already.

Live-in sister-in-law Muriel (Helen Wilson) is obsessed with reconnecting with her late husband and is forever making foul-tasting beverages and even fouler meals, defeated by the lack of labelling on kitchen ingredients.

Wastrel son Rick (YSCP newcomer Frankie-Jo Anderson) is estranged and strange, having joined a cult in Hemel Hempstead, but suddenly he arrives with news.

Where once Susan loved being a wife and mother, now she is neglected by husband and son alike and unfulfilled in her humdrum, loveless domestic domain, Symbolically, the garden plants in Richard Hampton’s design are reduced to twigs, with the only flowers being on the backdrop tapestries, Susan’s bench and Muriel’s cardigan. What lies ahead beyond Susan’s disillusioned forties, her days as frustrating and stuck as a buffering laptop screen?

Muriel (Helen Wilson) serves up another gruesome beverage to vicar Gerald’s (Paul Toy) distaste

Ayckbourn, and in turn Millard and Delaney, capture a “woman on the verge”, and as the real and unreal worlds collide increasingly beyond her control, so too do the ever-blackening humour and pathos, her sanity crumbling and the words returning once more to gobbledygook.

Delaney’s performance is deeply unsettling, her Susan being full of vulnerability, waspish of tongue, her mind grasping desperately at the cliff’s edge, happiness out of reach.

Pomfrett, in particular, provides the comedy, perfectly in step with Ayckbourn’s rhythms; Toy makes the supercilious vicar utterly unbearable but splendidly sets himself up for laughter at his expense; Wilson judges just right how to be annoying yet not annoying as the never-wanted-where-she-is Muriel. Anderson’s disingenuous Rick would fall out with anyone.

French, Hall and Vincent are perfectly well cast as the fantasy family that gradually turns into a nightmare and Woman In Mind becomes a woman out of her mind.

Angie Millard was right: Ayckbourn’s play has indeed taken on even more resonance under the pandemic microscope, where already unhappy marriages have cracked under the strain and the desire to escape has been heightened in enforced isolation.

‘There are so few plays that feature a woman like this,’ says Woman In Mind director Angie Millard. ‘Hedda Gabler and that’s it.’ Meet Alan Ayckbourn’s Susan

Victoria Delaney and Neil Vincent shelter under an umbrella in a February rehearsal for the Settlement Players’ production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman In Mind. Picture: John Saunders

ANGIE Millard has directed myriad plays but “seemed to have avoided” Alan Ayckbourn…until now.

“The present climate of isolation and mental health issues led me to Woman In Mind, which is a perfect choice for this time,” she says, ahead of her York Settlement Community Players production opening on Saturday in the York Theatre Royal Studio.

One of 87 full-length works by the Scarborough playwright, 1985’s Woman In Mind’s portrait of a woman in the verge finds housewife Susan stuck, unfulfilled and neglected in her humdrum marriage.

As played by Victoria Delaney, who remains on stage throughout, Susan’s growing disillusionment with everyday life is brought to a head when she steps on a garden rake and is knocked unconscious.

Whereupon her minor concussion and hallucinations combine to surround Susan with the ideal fantasy family, handsomely dressed in tennis whites as they sip champagne. However, when her real and imaginary worlds collide, those fantasies take on a nightmarish life of their own in Ayckbourn’s hotbed of humour and pathos.

“You can see Ayckbourn’s plays over and over again and still see something new in them each time; they’re so rich in detail,” says Angie. “I love Woman In Mind, and I’m working with very talented and creative people who make every rehearsal a joy, though the problem we’ve faced is the limited amount of time we’ve had to rehearse.

“We’ve been doing just three hours on Sundays, two hours on Mondays and Wednesdays, with the Mondays for intensive sessions for the two-hander scenes, followed by a week in tech.

Victoria Delaney: On stage from start to finale in Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman In Mind

“You need the time to explore the lines, to find the humour, to bring a light touch to it, as it’s that subtle, offhand way that Ayckbourn has in his writing.”

Explaining her reasoning behind selecting Woman In Mind, Angie says: “Because of Susan. I feel there are so few plays that feature a woman like this. Hedda Gabler and that’s it.

“That’s important now in a society where people are having mental health problems – and Susan has massive mental health problems. The pandemic has also thrown up an increased awareness of isolation and of not being happy in a relationship, which has been exacerbated in the lockdowns.”

Angie notes how Susan’s husband Gerald, busy writing his magnus opus on the history of the parish, “doesn’t know how to deal with Susan”. “Men in Ayckbourn’s plays rarely do. It’s a position they take where, over the years, they slide away from their responsibilities in relationships or in their workplace, and that’s rarely something women get to do,” she says.

“But this is where Ayckbourn is really clever, because you also see Susan for who she is. You ask yourself, ‘why did she marry him?’. When Gerald asks, ‘what did I do wrong?’, she says, ‘’Married me’.

“Yes, he’s let her down, he’s a disappointment, but marriages are about a contract and a bargain. It’s about acceptance.” 

Putting Susan’s character on the psychiatrist’s couch, Angie says: “Most people who end up unwell mentally have an addiction, though with Susan, I can’t attribute an addiction to her, except an addiction to perfection.

York Settlement Community Players’ poster for Woman In Mind

“If you’re classically depressed, it’s because the world doesn’t see you as you see yourself, but you have to get over that and not see yourself as so important.”

Victoria Delaney will be joined in Millard’s cast by company stalwarts Chris Pomfrett, Paul Toy, Helen Wilson and Paul French and newcomers Frankie-Jo Anderson, Neil Vincent and Amy Hall in Settlement Players’ first Theatre Royal production since Chekhov’s The Seagull in pre-Covid March 2020.

“This is the first role I’ve done since Covid started,” says Victoria. “My last one was in a play I wrote myself, Mad Alice, in October 2019, and my plan at the time was to start my own company, do a Yorkshire tour and then maybe take it to the Edinburgh Fringe, but then the pandemic happened and it just wasn’t possible. I’ll wait for things to settle down and then I can return to that plan or more writing.

“So, when I saw the casting call-out for Woman In Mind, I jumped at it. I did my research and requested to audition for two roles, Susan and Muriel, as I love comedy and I would have loved to play Muriel too, but what a peach of a part Susan is.”

Victoria initially took a break from her professional acting career after her divorce to focus on being a single mum with an autistic son – who will turn 20 in the summer – and she now works remotely from home giving legal advice on Zoom to families with special educational needs up to the age of 25.

Her acting and writing come into play when the opportunity arises.  “But in my work, I do also sometimes have to think creatively about how the law might get over a problem,” she says.

Rehearsing for an Ayckbourn play has been such a stimulating challenge. “It’s a comedy but it’s a dark comedy, which means I can show lots of sides to Susan. There are moments where I can play the comedy; moments where she’s really vulnerable, or indignant, or annoyed,” says Victoria.

“I’m going to really miss her because she takes you over,” says Victoria Delaney of playing housewife Susan in Woman In Mind. Here she is pictured by John Saunders, masked up in the rehearsal studio

“There’s just so much to her character, and because I never leave the stage, I get to interact with so many characters. I’m going to really miss her because she takes you over. I’ve been called for every rehearsal because Susan is in every scene, and as I have to go through so many emotions, I then need to let those emotions , that adrenaline, seep away.”

To learn all those lines, “I’ve been walking around the village, doing laps at 6am, listening to the play,” says Victoria, who lives in Wheldrake.

She finds liberation in playing a character of such emotional contrasts. “I’ll say things on stage that I would never say myself. Things that I would consider rude. I’d have too many filters to go through to say them!” she says.

“But the absolute drug of acting is to be able to show the audience all these emotions, this sadness, and when you feel them connect with you, I love that connection.

“I’ve meet lot of actors that have a certain shyness about them in their own lives. I mask it, but I have a shy side, and when people say, ‘but you go out on stage’, I say, ‘yes, but I’m playing someone else and I love doing that’.”

As chance would have it, when facing such a demanding week ahead, “luckily the performances are over half-term”, says Victoria, breathing a little more easily at the prospect.

York Settlement Community Players in Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman In Mind, York Theatre Royal Studio, Saturday until February 26, except February 20; 7.45pm plus 2.45pm, February 26. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

REVIEW: York Settlement Community Players in The 39 Steps, running until…fate intervened ****

Chemistry: Sanna Buck’s femme fatale and Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay in Settlement Players’ The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

John Buchan, Alfred Hitchcock, Simon Corble, Nobby Dimon and Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps, York Settlement Community Players, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, no longer dashing about with pencil-slim moustache panache until Sunday afternoon, alas, after cast illness.

DRINK in hand, it was time to sit back in the John Cooper Studio’s cabaret-style seating, relax and let the suspenseful comic drama begin.

Glass empty, (product-placed York Gin) bottle likewise, Aran MacRae’s Lieutenant Richard Hannay is slumped in his dull, lonely, newly rented Portland Place flat. He’s a man in an emotional pickle, on the edge, on the ledge, “tired of the world and tired of life” as the problems pile up. Suicidal, even, and in need of love as it later turns out.

So far, so sombre. What the dashing but hopes-dashed Hannay needs is “something pointless and trivial” to shake him out of his torpor. “I know,” he says. “Go to the theatre.” Boom, there goes the first big laugh, an insider knowing joke told against theatre, delivered with perfect comic timing, and so Harri Marshall’s production immediately hits its stride.

Writer Patrick Barlow: Fast-moving, snappily-clever, needs-must version of The 39 Steps

This is Patrick Barlow’s fast-moving, snappily clever version of The 39 Steps, the one he scripted for the West Yorkshire Playhouse and later West End and international success from an original Yorkshire-founded concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon.

In a nutshell, Marshall’s cast is charged with hitching John Buchan’s story of murder, suspense and intrigue to the thrills, spills and daring deeds of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film in a deranged marriage of comedy, farce, misadventure, mystery and thriller.

In Barlow’s National Theatre of Brent days, he would have his mock two-man theatre troupe, Desmond and Raymond, re-enact the Light Brigade and the Zulu Wars in a send-up of short-handed theatre companies.

Past productions of The 39 Steps divided its 135 characters between a cast of four, one man for Hannay, a woman for three women, and two men or a man and a woman (as in Rowntree Players’ 2015 production at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre), nominally called Man 1 and Man 2, for the rest.

Aran MacRae’s “tired of the world and tired of life” Richard Hannay. Picture: John Saunders

Marshall marshals rather more forces, calling on six men in black, Daniel Boyle, Andrew Isherwood, Matthew Lomax, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison and Stephen Wright, to take on Barlow’s trademark needs-must, bargain-basement theatre style as The Clowns.

This demands that they must improvise props on the hoof amid the dearth of resources, wear multiple hats metaphorically and sometimes physically in leaping from role to role, and somehow ensure the smooth delivery of a performance, (hoping the audience won’t notice the absence of an errant stage manager, but Barlow/Marshall knowing they will).

From Lip Service to Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong, this is a slick, precise, unflappable  comic device that has borne the ripest fruit, and here Marshall’s misrule of six brings a new dimension to both the madcap comedy capers and to the underlying darkness.

Barlow’s play often draws comparison with the anarchic spirit and teamwork of Monty Python; now, after Marshall’s innovation, the absurdist League of Gentlemen come to mind too. Daniel Boyle’s voice and looning eyes remind you of late Python Terry Jones; Matthew Lomax’s female characterisations echo the Gents.  

Unforgettable: Daniel Boyle as Mr Memory in The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

All the while, there is a story to tell, driven by narrator Hannay, MacRae’s upright Hannay playing it absolutely rod-straight, whatever hurdle is thrown his way from Hitchcock’s thriller and other Hitchcock works besides, as he ends up as murder suspect number one when a mysterious German woman with a gun, Annabelle Schmidt (Sanna Buck), dies in his arms after insisting on leaving the London Palladium by his side, desperate to impart important information.

On his tail as he heads to Scotland by train are policemen, secret agents and assorted women, and Marshall’s forces pull off Barlow’s obstacle course with elan, whether faced by re-enacting Hitchcock’s chase on the Flying Scotsman, the escape from the Forth Bridge, the first ever theatrical bi-plane crash [reprised from 1959’s North By Northwest] or a death-defying finale. Every Hitch homage defiantly goes off without a hitch.

Particularly strong is the chemistry between MacRae and Buck, a Swedish-born stage and film actor performing in York for the first time. MacRae, a professional with West End credits, now back in his home city, wholly lives up to Marshall’s billing that he would “balance brilliant playfulness against being earnest when required”, while Buck is to the Thirties’ manner born in her trio of roles as mystery German woman Annabelle, an alluring English femme fatale and a shy but helpful Scottish farmer’s wife. What a debut!

Caught on the hop: Harri Marshall’s company breaks into a dance step in The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

Praise too for Helen Taylor’s wardrobe, especially for MaCrae and Buck, and Richard Hampton and Graham Sanderson’s set and lighting designs.

What rotten luck that, after the supremely assured first night, cast illness should rob the company and audiences alike of further performances of such verbal vim, satirical brio, dextrous stage craft, inventive surprise and even a sudden outbreak of dancing, as taught in rehearsal to the ever-game cast by York Lindy Hop.

No matter how frustrating the sudden curtailment must feel to Harri and her cast, Settlement Players’ first live show since March 2020 has been totally worthwhile, reminding us of MacRae’s considerable talent, first shown in youth theatre days, introducing York to Buck and bringing together a pool of performers it would be good to see working together again.

Director Harri Marshall: Heavy heart at having to call off the remaining performances

York Settlement Community Players’ statement on Friday:

“We are very sorry to announce that, due to cast illness and circumstances beyond our control, all remaining performances of The 39 Steps are cancelled (Fri 12, Sat 13 and Sun 14 November).

“All ticket holders for these affected performances will be contacted by email and receive a full refund. We ask that you please bear with us and theatre@41 while the necessary arrangements are made and thank you for your patience at this time.

“We would like to express our utmost thanks to the cast and crew for their commitment and creativity over the past months. It is with a heavy heart that we make this necessary decision but look forward to putting on more great theatre in York next year.”

‘When I set out to perform, I always wanted to make my mother laugh and smile,’ says Aran MacRae as The 39 Steps opens

Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay: A man contemplating a boring life at the outset of The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

YORK actor, singer, songwriter, self-taught guitarist and percussion player Aran MacRae is playing his first lead role since returning to his home city in March 2019.

From tonight, he takes centre stage as Richard Hannay, “the man with a boring life”, in York Settlement Community Players’ production of Patrick Barlow’s West End hit comedy thriller The 39 Steps at Theatre@41, Monkgate.

Whereas Aran was breaking in a new character when he originated  the role of 14-year-old Tink in the West End premiere of Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf’s musical Bat Out Of Hell at the London Coliseum in 2017, Hannay has history aplenty on stage and screen.

Aran has broken with his previous practice, however, when preparing to play Hannay, whose state of torpor changes when he encounters a woman with a thick accent at a theatre who says she is a spy. He agrees to take her home, whereupon she is murdered, and soon a mysterious organisation called The 39 Steps is hot on Hannay’s trail in a nationwide manhunt that climaxes in a death-defying finale.

“This is the first project where I haven’t looked at any previous material, and that’s partly because I want the character to come from me,” says Aran.

Wanted by the police: Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay, whose his face splashed on the front of the papers

“I’ve truly learned what it takes to become a proper, conscious working actor during this project, with all the highs and lows that come with that, so I’ve been inspired not just by the play, its timeless appeal and the traditional values the British have, one of which is how ridiculous we are, but also by the cast and by the director, Harri Marshall, who is brash in such a way that it’s so intelligent. She’s a superhero, she really is.”

Aran has given Richard Hannay his own back story, beyond that description of a “man with a boring life”, one rooted in Hannay’s war experiences. “The trauma of war in Hannay’s time contrasts with how lucky I am to have been born in a country where we’ve not had to experience that, and we take it for granted, whereas across the world, wars and conflicts still happen,” he says.

“That’s something I realise as a millennial. It’s really pushed me to the edge of thinking about things, in the cause of going close to the edge of distress, but in doing so I’m showing my passion for the people, which is a great passion I have as an actor,” he says.

“When I set out to perform, I always wanted to make my mother laugh and smile, and then I realised that if I’m going to make everyone laugh, I’m going to have to learn a lot – and I’m still learning.”

Hannay is driven by a desire for truth, for knowledge, says Aran. “It’s that ancient thing of the human spirit, the curiosity to bite the apple; it’s something that powers him on,” he notes.

Arms and the man: Aran MacRae in rehearsal for York Settlement Community Players’ The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

In his own desire to reach that point in his performance, Aran has applied a technique he learnt from York, Leeds and Bradford drama teacher Matt Zina. “I sought him out for some acting classes a little while ago, and he talked about the ‘Seven Levels of Why’,” he reveals.

How does it work? “I realised that Hannay is searching for knowledge and truth, and then I asked the question ‘Why?’. The answer I arrived at is that Hannay wants to keep the peace, and then, at the end, when he’s kept the peace and found the truth, he gets the opportunity to be in love,” says Aran. “Maybe it comes by chance, but that’s the beauty of love.

“I set myself a super-objective with each piece I do, and there were many I could have set with this play because it demands that I make many decisions. I question ‘why?’ seven times, so by the time I go on stage, all that questioning is in my body and it all goes on stage with me. That means, if I have a moment of doubt, I remember my super-objective.”

Aran continues: “With each role, I’m trying to learn if I’m an actor-performer as an individual or as part of a collective, and that depends on the style of performance you’re doing” he says. “If it’s television, it’s about the individual, but with theatre, it’s collective: it’s like when birds take off together, you see them flying in formation, and then they move within that formation. It’s almost like a dance.”

Aran, who trained in musical theatre for three years at the Guildford School of Acting and built momentum in his career in the West End, on tour and overseas, is part of Harri Marshall’s cast of eight tasked with the breath-taking challenge of combining John Buchan’s 1915 novel with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film scenes in a blend of virtuoso performances and wildly inventive stagecraft.

Aran MacRae’s Hannay and Sanna Buck’s Arabella in a scene from the Settlement Players’ The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

He is playing Richard Hannay opposite Sanna Buck in three parts and Stephen Wright, Andrew Isherwood, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison, Matt Lomax and Daniel Boyle handling the rest of the 150 characters in the guise of The Clowns.

“Sanna is the most supportive actor to play opposite, and I couldn’t have done it without her,” says Aran. “The support and listening ear she has offered me has been priceless. The spirit she has shown during rehearsals has pulled me close to being a better actor and a better human being.

“All the rest of the cast are gentlemen and scholars, and again, the love for theatre and the support we have shown each other, when coming back to theatre and coming back to social interaction, with all the changes that have gone on, has been fantastic.

“One thing I’ve noticed is our desire to be happy, to have a laugh – though my personal thing is to create a feeling of peace with that lovely cool-down after all the laughter, but that doesn’t mean the clowns should be in charge!”

The pursuit of laughter is all important in Barlow’s version of The 39 Steps, but so is the authenticity of characterisation, not least in Hannay’s military disposition.

Handcuffed: Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay at a loose end in The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

“I’ve used YouTube for a really useful video on the ‘Attention’ and ‘At Ease’ positions, watching soldiers on parade, and I also visited Elvington Airfield a couple of time, talking to people around the air base, and studying planes,” says Aran.

“I’ve also done some movement to music, working to the soundtrack from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back In Town. Music, as I’m still learning, is a great healer and has the ability to take you back in time, so it’s a very useful tool for an actor to use.

“For Hannay’s accent, I was very lucky to have had good training at Guildford [School of Acting], where I had this amazing teacher, Chris Palmer, who taught me Received Pronunciation, so I have a good grounding in that accent.

“Overall, the performance comes down to the body, the mind and the voice; they are the three crucial things to study when you’re developing a character. But I’ve also realised that an actor is like a  magician, because we don’t want to show you the rabbit in the hat, revealing our secrets.”

Amid all the seriousness within this analysis of the art of performance, Aran smiles at the thought that these discussions are in the cause of a comedy being funny.

“He had this brilliant playfulness, balanced against being earnest when required,” says director Harri Marshall, recalling Aran MacRae’s audition

“The script is genius,” he says. “The lines are so funny, it could work just as a radio play, but then you add the physicality and the awareness of the need to be able to laugh at yourself  and to connect with that on stage,” he says.

Aran is an advocate of thinking on your feet as an actor when performing in a comedy. “Instinct! That’s where a lot of comedy comes from,” he says. “The ability to see something that might hurt and then finding something funny in it.

“Comedy makes us question ourselves, which is something we’ve all been doing in the pandemic, when other people keep you going through these moments. Family and a good cup of tea.”

Instinct applies not only to comedy but to casting too, hence the last word will go to Harri Marshall, as she explains her choice of Aran for Richard Hannay. “As soon as he walked in the room for the audition, I knew he’d be perfect,” she says. ”He had this brilliant playfulness, balanced against being earnest when required, and he always wanted to discover and apply new ideas and methods of doing things.”

York Settlement Community Players present John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, tonight and tomorrow, 7.30pm; Saturday, 2.30pm, 7.30pm; Sunday, 2.30pm. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

More Things To Do in and around York as pioneering dating show is game for laughs and love. List No. 57, courtesy of The Press

Seasick Steve: Just him, his home-made guitar and you at York Barbican tonight

CHARLES Hutchinson recommends veteran blues at the double, quilts, a dating show, chaotic Hitchcockian comedy capers, a Brahms Requiem and a Geordie comic out to dazzle.

Solo show of the week: Seasick Steve, Just Steve, A Guitar And Your Tour, York Barbican, tonight, 8pm

LAST year, American DIY blues veteran Seasick Steve released two albums, July’s Love & Peace and November’s Blues In Mono, his tribute to trad acoustic country blues recorded with a microphone from the 1940s as Steve performed the songs direct to an old tape machine. 

Now, York-bound Steve says: “I‘m lookin’ forward to coming and playing for y’all. Just gonna be me, you and my guitar. A few songs and a few stories, kinda like we just hangin’ out together! Gonna be fun. See ya there.” Tickets update: limited availability at yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Sanna Buck, Stephen Wright and Aran MacRae look on as a prone Daniel Boyle takes centre stage in rehearsal for York Settlement Community Players’ The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

Play of the week: York Settlement Community Players in The 39 Steps, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, tonight until Sunday

PATRICK Barlow’s riotous West End comedy hit marks the Settlement Players’ return to live performance for the first time since March 2020.

Harri Marshall’s cast of eight takes on the challenge of combining John Buchan’s 1915 novel with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film scenes in a blend of virtuoso performance and wildly inventive stagecraft, playing 150 characters between them as the mysterious 39 Steps chase Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay’s on a nationwide manhunt. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Hey, it’s The Manfreds: Playing the Grand Opera House, York, tonight

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be? It’s even better at Maximum Rhythm N’ Blues with The Manfreds and Georgie Fame, Grand Opera House, York, tonight, 7.30pm

THE Manfreds and Georgie Fame team up for a celebration of Sixties rhythm & blues in an all-star line-up with hits galore to match.

Original Manfred Mann members Paul Jones, Mike Hugg and Tom McGuinness are joined by Family’s Rob Townsend on drums, Marcus Cliffe on bass and Simon Currie on saxophone and flute, plus former member Mike D’Abo to share lead vocals, and Blue Flames leader Fame on keyboards. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.

Ready to dazzle: Sarah Millican kicks off a three-night run at York Barbican tomorrow

Three-night run of the week: Sarah Millican: Bobby Dazzler Tour, York Barbican, tomorrow to Sunday, 8pm

SOUTH Shields humorist Sarah Millican’s new show, Bobby Dazzler, is doing the rounds on her sixth international tour.

“You’ll learn about what happens when your mouth seals shut, trying to lose weight but only losing the tip of your finger, a surprisingly funny smear test, and how truly awful a floatation tank can actually be,” says Millican, who has “spent the last year writing jokes and growing her backside”. Tickets update: limited availability at yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Masks, of the non-Covid protection variety, will be worn by participants in ventriloquist Nina Conti’s dating show. Picture: Matt Crockett

Game show of the week: Nina Conti: The Dating Show, Grand Opera House, York, tomorrow, 7.30pm

FAST-TALKING, faster-thinking ventriloquist Nina Conti and her cheeky Monkey host a pioneering new dating show for participants picked from the York audience.

What’s in store for the chosen ones? Apparently “she’ll be like Cilla Black with masks. Derailed. Not so much a Blind Date as a re-voiced one.” In a nutshell, they wear masks, she/Monkey talks, with no promise that true love will be found. Box office: atgtickets.com/york. 

Matthew Miller’s Golden Bird quilt from his Cloth & Colour installation at York Theatre Royal from Saturday

Exhibition launch of the week: Matthew Miller’s Cloth & Colour quilts, York Theatre Royal foyer, from Saturday to November 30

BASED in London, but from York, multi-media artist Matthew Miller launches his debut quilt installation in the first Beyond The Gallery Walls pop-up project to be mounted by Lotte Inch Gallery.

Artist Matthew and curator Lotte will be hosting the launch from 11.30am to 1.30pm on Saturday, happy to discuss his Cloth & Colour quilt designs. Interested in the ecological use of fabric in quilting, Matthew has used end-of-roll and pre-worn fabrics throughout his series of vibrant collages in cloth.

Alex Ashworth: Baritone soloist for Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem at Saturday’s concert by the Chapter House Choir. Picture: Debbie Scanlan

Classical choral concert of the week: Chapter House Choir, York Minster, Saturday, 7.30pm

THE Chapter House Choir performs Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem at York Minster in a rare opportunity to hear Brahms’s own arrangement written for piano – more intimate and transparent – with baritone Alex Ashworth, soprano Susan Young and pianists Eleanor Kornas and Polly Sharpe as the soloists.

This will be complemented by the world premiere of Lillie Harris’s Comfort, specially commissioned for Saturday’s concert. Box office: 01904 557200 or at yorkminster.org.

Open on Saturday: Carolyn Coles’s studio at South Bank Studios

Christmas shopping? Present opportunity at South Bank Studios’ Art & Craft Winter Fair, Southlands Methodist Church, Bishopthorpe Road, York, Saturday, 10am to 5pm

THE South Bank Studios artists’ group open their doors and studios to the public this weekend, when 28 artists will be exhibiting jewellery, ceramics, lino prints, textile art and fine art paintings and prints, all available to buy, just in time for Christmas. Entry is free.

Among those taking part are Carolyn Coles, Caroline Utterson, Jane Dignum, Lincoln Lightfoot, Richard Whitelegg, Mandi Grant and Fiona Lane. York Music Centre’s Senior Concert Band, Guitar Ensemble, Senior Folkestra and Big Band will be playing, and the icing on the cake will be the church team’s homemade refreshments.

Voila! C’est La Voix

Most glamorous show of the weekend: La Voix, Grand Opera House, York, Saturday, 7.30pm

FEISTY, flame-haired Royal Family favourite La Voix – the drag artiste creation of Chris Dennis – takes on the big divas and makes them her own in her Grand Opera House debut in The UK’s Funniest Redhead.

Billed as her “most glamorous show yet”, the 2014 Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalist will be combining stellar songs and saucy gags, high energy and diva impersonations, glamour and gowns – eight of them – as she switches between the vocal tropes of Tina Turner, Shirley Bassey, Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland and Cher at the click of a finger. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.

Millie Manders and The Shutup: Definitely not shutting up at the Fulford Arms on Sunday night

Gig with attitude of the week: Millie Manders & The Shutup, Fulford Arms, York, Sunday, 8pm

MILLIE Manders & The Shutup spark up cross-genre punk with a lyricism that pokes fun, draws you in or leaves you questioning social norms, teamed to vocal dexterity, grinding guitars, irresistible horn hooks and a pumping rhythm section.

The Londoners will be airing songs from October 2020’s debut album, Telling Truths, Breaking Ties. Box office: seetickets.com/event/millie-manders.

Willy Mason: Nine-year gap after he made a record called Carry On, but carry on he does at last with Already Dead album and tour date in York. Picture: Ebru Wildiz

Overdue return of the week: Willy Mason, supported by Voka Gentle, The Crescent, York, Tuesday, 7.30pm; standing show

NEW York singer-songwriter and lovely chap Willy Mason returns with Already Dead, his fourth album of characterful, sharp left-field pop, folk and Americana but his first since 2012’s Carry On.

“Magic, miracles, ghosts, world leaders; these days it seems there’s little left to believe in,” says Mason. “Lies outweigh truth and even truth can be dangerous. 

“Already Dead explores honesty and deception, anonymity in the digital age, good intentions with unexpected consequences, freedom, colonialism, love, God and purpose, because now is the time to restore some much-needed faith.” Box office: thecrescentyork.seetickets.com/event/willy-mason.

Soft Cell: 40th anniversary home-coming concert in Leeds. Picture: Andrew Whitton

Oh, and amid all these York events, here is the gig of the week outside the city walls: Soft Cell, Leeds 02 Academy, Saturday, doors, 6pm

IN 1981, Leeds synth-pop pioneers Soft Cell topped the charts with their Northern Soul cover, Tainted Love. This weekend, they play a 40th anniversary home-coming gig with an early start, kicking off with a DJ from 6pm.

LGBTQ icon Marc Almond and producer/instrumentalist Dave Ball will play two sets: the first from 7pm embracing songs from their back catalogue and previewing their first album in 20 years, Happiness Not Included, out on BMG on February 25 2022.

In the second, from 8.20pm, they will perform 1981 debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret in full for the first time. Cue Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, Bedsitter, Memorabilia et al. Box office: myticket.co.uk/artists/soft-cell

Director Harri Marshall overjoyed as York Settlement Community Players return at last with The 39 Steps comedy thriller

Aran MacRae and Sanna Buck in rehearsal for York Settlement Community Players’ production of The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

PATRICK Barlow’s riotous West End comedy hit The 39 Steps marks York Settlement Community Players’ return to live performance for the first time since March 2020.

Harri Marshall’s cast of eight takes to the John Cooper Studio stage at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from November 11 to 14.

“For the past 18 months, the UK feels like it’s lost its theatrical mojo, which is why I’m so excited to bring this light, wickedly funny play to Theatre@41 to share in the love and laughter and to showcase some brilliantly inventive theatre,” says Harri, who previously directed the Settlement Players in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes at the Monkgate theatre in October 2019.

Settlement last trod the boards early last year, presenting Helen Wilson’s production of Chekhov’s The Seagull a week before the first pandemic lockdown locked in, since when the York company has hosted play readings and social meet-ups online.

Now, at last, Settlement’s players can breathe in stage air once more as they take on the breath-taking challenge of performing a two-time Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning comedy thriller that seeks to combine John Buchan’s 1915 novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, The 39 Steps, in a blend of virtuoso performance and wildly inventive stagecraft.

More than 150 characters must make an appearance as Marshall’s cast re-create both the book and film scenes, telling the story of Richard Hannay, a man with a boring life, who encounters a woman with a thick accent who says she’s a spy. When he takes her home, she is murdered. Soon, a mysterious organisation called The 39 Steps is hot on Hannay’s trail in a nationwide manhunt that climaxes in a death-defying finale.

Aran MacRae as Richard Hannay: “As soon as he walked in the room I knew he’d be perfect,” says director Harri Marshall. Picture: John Saunders

“Rehearsals are going very well,” says Harri, who identifies as a deaf director. “We started at the deep end, plunging into the logistics of how to re-create those fabulous iconic scenes that make The 39 Steps famous when it debuted on the West End.

“This includes re-creating chase sequences on board the Flying Scotsman and a live on-stage plane crash! I’m very lucky to be working with such a talented cast. Every single performer is a brilliant star in their own right. Their collective repertoire includes credits at the London Coliseum, York Theatre Royal, York Light Opera, the York Mystery Plays, Pick Me Up Theatre and Settlement shows such as The Cherry Orchard and The Red Shoes.”

Aran MacRae, who has returned to York after West End, national tour and overseas professional roles, will play Richard Hannay; Sanna Buck will split herself in three as Annabella Schmidt, Pamela and Margaret; Stephen Wright, Andrew Isherwood, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison, Matt Lomax and Daniel Boyle will handle the remaining roles between them in the guise of The Clowns.”

Harri was attracted to directing The 39 Steps in this crazy comic caper format – adapted by Barlow from an original concept by Simon Corble and North Country Theatre founder Nobby Dimon – by “the challenge of the play and how it could entertain an audience, drawing them back to the theatre after the venues have been shut for so long”.

“I really wanted to sink my teeth into something where my approach was a wild ‘how an earth do I do this?’. So many of the iconic scenes that make it well loved are insane for any director to choreograph and work through,” she says.

“I didn’t want to shy away from stretching my imagination and creativity. I also saw it as an opportunity for performers to flex their skill in the form of multi-role playing and working as disciplined ensemble. It’s the ultimate play that everyone can enjoy and revel in!”

Director Harri Marshall

Faced with staging a fast-moving piece with regular changes of location, Harri has settled on a design as relaxed it can be within Covid restrictions. “It was important to me to ensure that the audience and performers could feel relaxed at all times,” she says.

“This is why we’re going for a cabaret-style set-up, ensuring people are welcome to come and go as they please, get drinks from the bar whenever they like, and the performers can really interact and play with the space.

“It’s so fast paced that massive sets just weren’t going to work. Our performance will be a rollercoaster of activity that I have no doubt the audience are just going to love! “

To pull off this whodunit, with its multitude of characters, a plane crash, handcuffs, missing fingers and old-fashioned romance, Barlow’s “needs-must” style of comedy in the face of adversity requires completely straight faces from the actors. “That’s easier said than done!” says Harri. “There’s definitely going to be a lot of hidden smiles and giggles. In rehearsal this is one of my biggest notes ‘to not corpse’!

“The cast are just so playful and entertaining, it’s hard not to be swept up in the comedy of it all. They’re gradually getting there. The more we rehearse, the more everyone gets better at staying blank-faced. Although I do think this is half the joy of doing a comedy performance, if the cast and crew are having great fun and the audience can feel that everyone is going to have an excellent time.”

Have Buchan’s juicy spy novel and Hitchcock’s thriller been important research tools for Harri? “The novel not so much, but the film certainly, to find how the thriller elements of the play can be transcribed to the performance,” she says.

Squeezing out every inch of humour: Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay and Matthew Lomax’s Clown rehearsing a scene from The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

“My biggest research tool was having the privilege to chat to Simon Corble, one of the writers of the original stage adaptation. I took on a lot of Simon’s advice and, in a lot of ways, our version has ended up nodding to the original performance that was done before the show took to the West End in Patrick’s version. Elements such as focusing on the storytelling, the ensemble and how less can be more in terms of set, lighting and sound.

“In its original form, this play was meant to tour regionally to studio spaces, so it feels very much like a homecoming for The 39 Steps to be staged at Theatre@41.”

Further research tools involved making set and props to enable Harri and her cast to learn to play with objects so that they could have multiple purposes. “That way we could really stretch the parameters creatively to discover what worlds we could build within the play,” she says.

“The performance itself should be an adventure, a challenge, and a lot of fun for both the cast and myself, and we’ve certainly had fun in the last couple of months bringing this play to life.”

As the director, Harri must achieve the balance between the comedy and the thriller elements. “You have to find those human moments within the play that can get your heart racing or that will make you lean forward in your seat. Where the audience are desperate to listen and discover the secrets of The 39 Steps,” she says.

“It’s wonderful, once we’ve found those moments, to tease the audience into believing they know what’s going on and then subverting expectation. Balancing it against the comedy is certainly no easy task; it takes careful timing, pace and energy.”

Matthew Lomax, left, Jim Patterson and a stuffed cat in the rehearsal room. Picture: John Saunders

The lead role goes to actor, singer, songwriter and musician Aran MacRae, who made a low-key return to the York stage as a sonneteer in York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar at the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre in July, but now steps centre stage once more.

“I’d heard about Aran when he was playing Tink in the Bat Out Of Hell tour, so I was delighted to know that he wanted to audition,” says Harri. “It was one of those cheesy moments when I just knew, because as soon as he walked in the room I knew he’d be perfect.

“This was confirmed during his audition: he had this brilliant playfulness, balanced against being earnest when required, and he always wanted to discover and apply new ideas and methods of doing things. Aran, as with the rest of the cast, is so so talented and as a director it’s been a dream to work with them all.”

York Settlement Community Players present John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, November 11 to 14; 7.30pm, Thursday and Friday; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Saturday; 2.30pm, Sunday. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Please note, all performances will be captioned via the Difference Engine from Talking Birds (with captions delivered to audience members’ own mobile devices via a free app).

Sanna Buck, Stephen Wright and Aran MacRae look on as a prone Daniel Boyle takes centre stage in the rehearsal room. Picture: John Saunders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playwright Patrick Barlow

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

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

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

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

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

Bite-sized Q & A with…Maurice Crichton on his Love Bites piece at York Theatre Royal

Maurice Crichton, as Dorn, with Elizabeth Elsworth, as Polina, in York Settlement Community Players’ production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull at York Theatre Royal Studio in February-March 2020. Picture: John Saunders

THE Love Season will soon set hearts pulsing at York Theatre Royal, where the Step 3 reopening will make its mark with Love Bites: a love letter to live performance and a toast to the city’s creative talent.

More than 200 artists from a variety of art forms applied for £1,000 love-letter commissions to be staged on May 17 – the first day that theatres can reopen after restrictions are lifted – and May 18.

The 22 short pieces selected will be performed each night at 8pm under the overall direction of Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster. Each “bite” will take hold for five minutes.

In the first in a series of CharlesHutchPress Q&As, York actor Maurice Crichton has five minutes to discuss his work, Where Are You Now, You And I?

How did you hear about Love Bites, Maurice?

“I reckon I saw it come up on Facebook and of course via charleshutchpress.”

What is your connection with York?

“I came south from the Glasgow area to university here in the early 1980s and have been here ever since. My three children grew up here. Then in 2009 I got involved in the York amateur theatre scene and theatrical pursuits are now a big part of my life.”

Helen Wilson: Directing Maurice Crichton in Where Are We Now, You And I?. Here she is pictured performing in York Shakespeare Project’s Sit-down Sonnets in the Holy Trinity Church open air in Goodramgate, York

What will feature in your Love Bite, Where Are We Now, You and I?, and why? 

“I can tell you it is a solo piece which I have written and that my partner Helen Wilson is going to bring to bear her considerable directing expertise to try to make sure I don’t make a complete fool of myself. 

“The brief was simple and clear for a very special occasion. A love letter to light up the YTR stage after such a long period of darkness. I had an immediate and personal response to the brief, which I hope will do justice to the opportunity. 

“I was in Anthony Minghella’s Two Planks And A Passion in 2011 in the main house when it was reconfigured in the round. I did a slightly daunting read-through as Pilate for the 2012 Mystery Plays from the main stage to a big audience the following year. But nothing else in that space. So, for lots of reasons, even though it is only five minutes, for me personally it’s going to be a big five minutes.”

So, where are we now, you and I and the rest of us?

“I hope just about OK. I have been very lucky. With any unexpected trauma, it doesn’t really hit home until the danger is past. What has it cost us all? It’s too early to say.”

In lockdown, what have you missed most about theatre? 

“Being able to take for granted that it’s alive and well in our city and has a future.”

“What has it cost us all? It’s too early to say,” says Maurice Crichton of living through these pandemic times

What’s coming next for you?

“I’ve done some filming work on a piece called The Whispering House with Damian Cruden (director) and Bridget Foreman (writer), about the Census in Tang Hall and Heworth, in which I play a Swedish immigrant completing the 1911 census.

“His name is Enoch Stanhope, a real person. He lived at Yew Villa, Heworth Village, and had a jewellery shop on Coney Street. I hope the fruits of that work will be released soon.”

“I’m producing another Sonnets production – the sixth – this summer for York Shakespeare Project. Emilie Knight is going to direct and we hope to able to announce dates for this year in an exciting new outdoor venue very soon. 

“I’m also working on a little project for York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust to take a guided walk along the route of the medieval Mystery Plays. (YMPST, along with York Festival Trust are staging A Resurrection For York on wagons in the Residence Garden, Dean’s Park, beside the Minster Library on July 3 and 4, directed by Philip Parr.)

What would be the best way to spend five minutes if you had a choice?

“Right now, it would be to ring my Mum’s doorbell in Fife and give her a hug or to make a surprise second visit to my new granddaughter (aged four weeks) in Bath and to bounce little Emma on my knee.”

Tickets for Love Bites cost Pay What You Feel at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or on 01904 623568.