REVIEW: A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction, York Theatre Royal. Sustainable tour concept ****; production ***; play **

Cycling and recycling: Sustainable theatre at York Theatre Royal in A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction, starring Stephanie Hutchinson, centre. All pictures: James Drury

THE opening of this “bold experiment in eco theatre-making” coincided with the publication of the State Of Nature 2023 report into the UK’s biodiversity.

The headline news? One sixth of our species is under threat of extinction. Meanwhile, in the latest state of the nation report, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is turning the blue tide against green change: more oil fields, no 2030 deadline ojettisoning diesl and petrol cars. So much for leading the way at Cop26.

To top it all, a 16-year-old boy has been arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage in connection with the felling of the 300-year-old Sycamore Gap tree – the landmark one from Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves – at Hadrian’s Wall.

What a week to be staging the closing chapter of the groundbreaking zero-travel tour of American playwright Miranda Rose Hall’s “darkly humorous, life-affirming one-woman show” that confronts the world’s urgent ecological disaster.

It is billed as a “fiercely feminist off-grid production that is part ritual, part battle cry, in a moving exploration of what it means to be human in an era of man-made extinction”.

That tells only half the story because the concept behind the tour, mounted by Headlong and partners York Theatre Royal and the London Barbican, turns out to be more impactful than Hall’s 80-minute diatribe.

Since opening at the Barbican, the play has travelled with an original creative template by director Katie Mitchell and black-and-white design palette by Moi Tran, but neither materials, nor people have been sent to Coventry, Plymouth, Newcastle, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Prescot.

Stephanie Hutchinson: Playing a dramaturg forced into performing on stage in the absence of her company’s actors, then putting all her research into a plea for saving animals and humans from extinction

Instead, each venue has provided its own director and performer, in York’s case, Theatre Royal resident artist Mingyu Lin and Leeds actress Stephanie Hutchinson.

Stephanie delivers a monologue, but she is not alone on the boards. A sound engineer and lighting technician sit to either side and eight cyclists fill the stage, the whir of their steady, rhythmical, kinetic pedal power being turned into electricity for the sound and lighting by a mechanism to delight any scientists in the audience.

Recycling is as important as the cycling: only existing theatre stock – props and the microphone – can be used, along with clothing from charity shops; the bicycles being lent by Recycle York.

A typical main-house production uses 60,000 watts per performance for lighting, 10,000 for sound. A Play For The Living’s cyclists generated the necessary amount here; far, far less wattage in total.

All this is uplifting, and food for thought, a potential blueprint for eco-theatre touring, in the vein of Coldplay making their Music Of The Spheres world tour “as sustainable and low carbon as possible”.

All power to the sustainable concept, but Hall’s play is under-powered by comparison: bleak and apocalyptic, as to be expected in this age of the Sixth Extinction, but the “dark humour” is strained, with unnecessary swearing, and the doomsday scenario runs contrary to the claim of being life-affirming.

Apparently, the best we can seek is a “good death”, in a messianic finale that would not have been out of place delivered from a church pulpit, topped off by the York Theatre Royal Choir’s hymnal finale, delivered in funereal black, re-emphasising that message. Brecht & Weill would have loved it.

Saddling up to spark electricty: the cyclists from the cycling city of York doing their bit for “eco-theatre making”

Stephanie had talked in advance of being determined not to be preachy, but Hall’s tone ended up being exactly that. Rather than delivering a TED talk, “in a story like this, we need to care,” said Ming in her interview.

True, but we need to do more than care, amid so much dead talk. We need to act. Faced by footage of animal after animal facing extinction, it had the depressing, deadening air of futility. Not the intention surely, but where was the battle cry, the rallying call, rather than that hallelujah chorus of an incoming “good death”?

Lists can have an emotional impact – listen to Steve Earle’s mining disaster memorial It’s About Blood for proof – but the emotional elements of A Play For The Living are botched. The explanation of why Stephanie’s character, Zero Emissions Theatre Company dramaturg Naomi, is forced into being on stage for one night in an impromptu performance, after her fellow company founders are called away to a tragic emergency, is too around-the-houses.

We are here to care about extinction all around us, not a human accident. Likewise, we are not here to judge Naomi’s acting skills – or Stephanie being an actor playing someone who is not a natural actor, although she does just fine in that elaborately structured transition.

Later, Naomi talks of her dog disappearing, but again it is not the same as a creature’s extinction, so why include it here?

You will often hear that a play should not be expected to come up with answers, but what is the purpose of this one?  To encourage more responsible behaviour through its sustainable touring model, definitely, but where was the positivity that mankind can and will work together to save the planet and its endangered inhabitants, from the Little Brown Bat to the Kingfisher? Its absence spoke volumes. Maybe we really are all doomed as Private Frazer forecast in Dad’s Army.

The end.

Performances: 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow (30/9/2023). Box office: 01904 623568 or

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Bach’s St John Passion, English Touring Opera, York Theatre Royal, April 6

Luci Briginshaw: “Laudably managed to infuse musicality into her arias despite the speedy tempos”

WHEN Bach’s St John Passion is given during Lent, one expects an evening of concentration on Christianity’s central event, enhanced by the composer’s incomparable music.

Gratitude that English Touring Opera had scheduled this music at all during its spring tour – the first Bach passion here since the pandemic – quickly dissolved in the reality of what was involved in this ‘semi-staging’, directed by James Conway.

The theatre’s stage had been cleared to the back wall, which allowed York Theatre Royal Choir, augmented by the Chapter House Youth Choir, to fill the bleachers at the back, with 15 members of the Old Street Band spread across the stage in front of them, leaving soloists and conductor nearest the audience.

It did not matter that this was a hybrid performance, with choruses and arias sung in German and the chorales sung in English, in new translations specially commissioned from such as the former Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and the former Dean of Exeter, Dr Jonathan Draper. Some of their paraphrases were colourful.

What disfigured this performance were the antics of the conductor, Jonathan Peter Kenny. His flamboyant, grandiose gestures might be generously described as bordering on the balletic but were rarely less than manic. He was clearly determined that the evening was about him and him only.

Unwilling to be patronised by such histrionics, choir and orchestra paid him scant attention. The audience did not have that choice and the evening was best experienced with eyes closed. Even then, Kenny’s adrenaline regularly ran out of control so that tempos were mostly on the dangerous side of rapid.

When the ‘Kreuzige’ (Crucify) chorus, for example, is delivered prestissimo, it loses most of its impact, the singers given no time to crunch the ‘Kr’ or hiss the ‘z’ in the word ‘Kreuzige’ as Bach intended. Under this assault, the choirs survived remarkably well, with the Chapter House Youth providing an occasional semi-chorus in chorales. Any raggedness was inflicted from outside.

The Evangelist duties were mainly shared between Richard Dowling and Thomas Elwin, both highly competent, although cantering through their narratives with little regard to nuance. Peter’s weeping, for example, was cursory rather than deeply felt.

Occasionally the soprano Luci Briginshaw took on some of the recitative but whenever Jesus was in focus – at his death, for example – his character was entrusted to countertenor Tim Morgan. It was a directorial fancy and not altogether persuasive, but pardonable. Briginshaw laudably managed to infuse some musicality into her arias despite the speedy tempos.

Christus himself was sung rather matter-of-factly by Edward Hawkins, although he was not given much space to develop gravitas and he sang one aria with aplomb. By far the best German, and hence also the best characterisation, came from Bradley Travis, who gave a suitably weak-kneed Peter as well as a forthright Pilate.

There was a good deal of wandering around from the soloists, all of whom were dressed in everyday rig, accompanied by a fair amount of hugging and even hand-holding. None of it amounted to much dramatically.

The orchestra kept its cool remarkably, and duets from flutes and oboes were eloquent, with some lovely theorbo during the evening serenade in the garden and a cellist who doubled adeptly on gamba.

The musical benefits seemed to have been achieved despite, rather than because of, the conductor. If he is to be used again by this company, he must be firmly tethered in the pit where he is largely out of sight of the paying public. What he did at this performance was outrageous and totally out of keeping with the seriousness of the setting.

Review by Martin Dreyer