REVIEW: Tonderai Munyevu in Mugabe, My Dad & Me, York Theatre Royal

Tonderai Munyevu at the microphone stand in Mugabe, My Dad & Me on the York Theatre Royal stage. Picture: Jane Hobson

Mugabe, My Dad & Me, English Touring Theatre & York Theatre Royal, at York Theatre Royal until Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

IT has been a long wait for Zimbabwean-born writer-performer Tonderai Munyevu to premiere Mugabe, My Dad & Me.

The English Touring Theatre & York Theatre Royal production has gone through two pandemic-imposed postponements, three workshops and a transfer into an audio dramatization for Audible.com.

The play had long been billed as a one-man show but the published text states the presence of an Mbira player is compulsory, and sure enough, after Tonderai’s introduction and back story,  the Theatre Royal curtain rose on actor-musician Millie Chapanda, in sun-bright African dress, with the Zimbabwean Shona people’s instrument by her side.

Mugabe, My Dad & Me has been in a state of flux, moving from its planned Studio baptism to the main house, growing in length from 70 minutes to an over-long 90 minutes, and switching from the Theatre Royal’s Summer Of Love programme to The Haunted Season.

Tonderai Munyevu with mriba musician Millie Chapanda in Mugabe, My Dad & Me. In the background is a Union Flag dress, associated with Tonderai’s favourite Spice Girl, Gerri Halliwell

Which would he prefer? “I think ‘Haunted’. It sounds longer lasting. ‘The Summer Of Love’ sounds impermanent,” Tonderai said in his interview with CharlesHutchPress.

As it turns out, the play suits both: there is love, for his late father and the motherland he left with his mother for a new life in London at the age of 12; and there is sex, Soho nights and all.

There is a haunting presence too: the figure of President Robert Mugabe, the freedom fighter turned despot, a permanent representation of Zimbabwe in Tonderai’s life until the barnacle president resigned at 93 in 2017.

Tonderai set himself the writing task of working out his identity, who he is, where he belongs, by constructing a memory play but one that does not stop in the past but informs the Tonderai of today, Tonderai at 39: a gay, Catholic, Zimbabwean writer and actor, who lives in London and will be marrying next year.

Tonderai Munyevu recalls experiencing snow for the first time in London in a scene from Mugabe, My Dad & Me. Picture: Jane Hobson

Taking to the stage in a white shirt, overlapping his blue jeans, microphone in hand as if for a stand-up comedy gig, he recalls being asked “Where are you from?”, as he poured a pint when working as a barman in one of those fallow times that actors grow accustomed to enduring.

It was this question that prompted him to look for answers in Mugabe, My Dad & Me. “I need to work things out, to understand – about my father, about Mugabe, about all these ghosts from the past,” he says in the prologue to Scene 2.

“I need to wrestle with where I stand in it all. With who I am today. This isn’t going to be an easy or straightforward story to tell,” he forewarns. It won’t all make sense, as much to him as to us, he cautions, but he turns out to be a highly coherent storyteller, shining a light on the chaos, chance and contradictions of life.

Set and costume designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen conjures memories and ghosts of Tonderai’s past by hanging row upon row of clothes above his head, a constant presence that is lowered or raised, depending on the scene.

Tonderai Munyevu and Millie Chapanda beneath the rows of clothes denoting people and stories from Tonderai’s past. Picture: Jane Hobson

The garments represent Tonderai, his mother, his father and Mugabe through the years, as well as uncles, aunts, his first lover, and Bob Marley at his famous Zimbabwe concert (although apparently Mugabe wanted Cliff Richard, considering Jamaican reggae icon Marley to be “too crude”).

Those clothes weigh heavy on the unfolding drama, like Banquo or the ghost of Hamlet’s father, but they rule out the need for any other means of evoking people or place, Tonderai’s words sufficing on their own.

The only “prop” is a chair for Millie Chapanda, as she changes position on the stage to suit the focus of each scene, under the concise yet poetic direction of Theatre Royal associate John R Wilkinson.

As the title suggests, Tonderai weaves together the impact of his father and Mugabe, the “father” of his homeland, and is unsparingly frank in his appraisal of both. 

His father, a bright and good looking “everyman”, was a womaniser, a wife-beater, a drinker, who died in desperate circumstances, as impoverished as the “bread basket of Africa” became in the later years of Mugabe’s presidency.

Tonderai Munyevu in “conversation” with the ghost of President Robert Mugabe at the climax to Mugabe, My Dad & Me. Picture: Jane Hobson

His father had worked at an accountancy firm, until a dispute with a white colleague ended with him punching him. Told he would not be fired if he apologised, he declined to do so, losing his job, setting a spiral of decline in motion.

Piece by piece, Tonderai puts the jigsaw together to explain his father’s incendiary character, recalling how belatedly he learned of the trauma that had shaped him.

As for Mugabe, in the climax to the play, Tonderai confronts the late President, by now represented in full regalia, as to why he turned from revolution to tyranny, failing those who had been promised a fruitful farming future after guerrilla service in the name of freedom and ending colonial rule.

Encountering the personable, forthright Tonderai over these 90 confessional, conversationalist minutes, this son of the Zimbabwean diaspora has his heart in his still-troubled southern African homeland, its culture and heritage, and yet he appreciates the freedoms brought to him by London life. Does that leave him in a no man’s land or a place of opportunity? Both, but roll on next year’s wedding, he will say.

One frustration in this male-dominated story: we learn next to nothing of his mother, but maybe Millie, her mriba and her calming presence can be read as testament to her influence. After all, Millie, not Tonderai, has the last word.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Millie Chapanda and her mriba in Mugabe, My Dad & Me. Picture: Jane Hobson

More Things To Do in and around York as creative night market launched. List No. 49, courtesy of The Press, York

Big news! York artist Freya Horsley, right, and gallery co-director Ails McGee with Freya’s paintings Turning Tide and Liquid Light at According To McGee, York

BIG paintings, a night market, thrillers at the double, cookery chat, an anniversary celebration, a long-awaited Scottish return and a brace of comedians are the diverse focus of Charles Hutchinson’s attention.

Exhibition of the week: Freya Horsley, Contemporary Seascapes, According To McGee, York, running until October 11

ACCORDING To McGee is playing host to the biggest paintings the Tower Street gallery has ever exhibited: Liquid Light and Turning Tide, two mixed-media works on canvas by Freya Horsley.

The York artist is displaying a new series of seascape paintings depicting the Cornish, Scottish and north east coastlines.

“Her art makes you look twice because it has a calming quality and, like a good sunrise, it makes you go ‘wow!’,” says co-director Greg McGee.

York Creatives Night Market: Debut night of arts, crafts, music, food and drink at Shambles Market tomorrow

York Creatives Night Market, Shambles Market, York, tomorrow, 7pm to 10.30pm

POSTPONED at short notice on August 20, the debut York Creatives Night Market goes ahead tomorrow in a chance to browse art and products by independent traders.

Street food, drinks and music all evening are on the menu too for this free event, open to all.

The Rusty Pegs: Tenth anniversary concert at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York

Celebrating ten years on: The Rusty Pegs, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Saturday, 8pm

TEN years ago, York country band The Rusty Pegs formed, drawn from volunteers at the Monkgate theatre, who were asked to perform their debut gig there at a Raising The Roof fundraiser.

To mark a decade of making music together, the Pegs have decided to come full circle by performing an anniversary gig in the same place where it all started, this time launching the autumn season. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

No mistaking Justin Currie: Del Amitri return with Fatal Mistakes album for first York gig since 2002

Long time coming: Del Amitri, York Barbican, Saturday, 7.45pm

DEL Amitri follow up the May 28 release of their seventh studio album, Fatal Mistakes, with a return to York Barbican after a 19-year hiatus.

Justin Currie’s Glaswegian band last played there in May 2002, the year they released their last album, Can You Do Me Good?.

“It’s been nearly 20 years since we toured with a new album, lord knows what took us so long,” says Currie. “The prospect of sprinkling our set with a few choices from Fatal Mistakes fills us with the sort of excitement that, for some men of our age, might call for light medication. We think the adrenaline will see us through.” Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

No smoke without ire: Scottish comedian Daniel Sloss blows his top at York Barbican

Comedy gig of the week: Daniel Sloss: Hubris, York Barbican, Sunday, 7.30pm

SUNDAY’S gig is third time lucky for Scotsman Daniel Sloss, whose October 3 2020 and May 8 2021 visits were ruled out by the accursed Covid.

Sloss, 30, has sold out six New York solo off-Broadway seasons, appeared on American television’s Conan show ten times and toured to more than 50 countries. Now, at last, comes his new show, with special guest Kai Humphries.

Look out for Sloss’s book, Everyone You Hate Is Going To Die (And Other Comforting Thoughts On Family, Friends, Sex, Love, And More Things That Ruin Your Life), from October 12. For tickets for Sunday, go to: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

What’s cooking? Cookbook writer Yotam Ottolenghi finds flavour at York Theatre Royal on Tuesday

Flavour of the month: Yotam Ottolenghi, A Life In Flavour, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday, 7.30pm

CHEF, restaurateur and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi reflects on A Life In Flavour, provides cooking inspiration and signs copies of his “flavour-forward, vegetable-based” cookbook, Ottolenghi Flavour, after the show on Tuesday.

West Jerusalem-born Ottolenghi will be discussing the tastes, ingredients and flavours that excite him and how he has created a career from cooking.

Expect “unique insights into how flavour is dialled up and why it works, from basic pairings fundamental to taste, to cooking methods that elevate ingredients to great heights”. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Dane Baptiste: Comedian with a chip on his shoulder at Burning Duck Comedy Club

The other comedy gig of the week: Burning Duck Comedy Club presents Dane Baptiste: The Chocolate Chip, The Crescent, York, September 23, 7.30pm

IN his own words, Dane Baptiste is now a “grown ass black man, too old to be concerned with chicken or trainers, too young to be considered a peer of Trevor McDonald”.

Has he got a chip on his shoulder? “Yes. A chocolate one,” says Baptiste, a south east London stand-up who once worked in media sales.

Noted for his boldly provocative material, he hosts the podcasts Dane Baptiste Questions Everything and Quotas Full. Box office: thecrescentyork.com/events.

The Rowntree Players’ poster for next week’s production of Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web

Web of the week: Rowntree Players in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, September 23 to 25, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee

DIPLOMAT’S wife Clarissa is adept at spinning tales of adventure, but when a murder takes place in her drawing room, she finds live drama much harder to cope with in Rowntree Players’ autumn return, directed by Howard Ella.

Desperate to dispose of the body before her husband arrives with an important politician, she enlists the help of her guests. 

In a conscious parody of the detective thriller, Christie’s Spider’s Web delivers suspense and humour in equal measure in an intricate plot of murder, police detection, hidden doorways and secret drawers. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

In the chair: Just Some Theatre in rehearsal for The Killer Question, heading to Theatre@41, Monkgate, York

Mystery of the week ahead: Just Some Theatre in The Killer Question, Theatre@41 Monkgate, York, September 25, 7.30pm

THE Silence Of The Lambs meets Last Of The Summer Wine in Dave Payne’s dark comedy thriller The Killer Question, marking the York debut of Manchester company Just Some Theatre.

Did The Chair game show champion Walter Crump’s obsession with death ultimately lead to his own? Inspector Black believes so, and now Crump’s dopey widow, Margaret, finds herself accused of her husband’s murder. 

Faced by more than one deadly twist in the tale, can Inspector Black solve the mystery? Will Margaret be home in time for Countryfile? Just as important, which actor – Peter Stone, Jake Urry or Jordan Moore – will play which character? The audience decides. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

What’s Tonderai’s relationship with Mugabe, his father and Zimbabwe as he seeks his identity in York Theatre Royal premiere?

Tonderai Munyevu: Zimbabwean-born performer and writer, premiering his new play, Mugabe, My Dad And Me, at York Theatre Royal from tonight’s first preview

ZIMBAMWEAN writer-performer Tonderai Munyevu’s new one-man show, Mugabe, My Dad & Me, appears in York Theatre Royal’s brochures for both the Summer Of Love and The Haunted Season.

“Which one suits it best, Tonderai?”, he is asked, when shown both. He smiles, then decides: “I think ‘Haunted’. It sounds longer lasting. ‘The Summer Of Love’ sounds impermanent.”

Tonderai is sitting by the first-floor bar at the Theatre Royal, ahead of his long-promised, pandemic-delayed world premiere opening tonight (9/9/2021), directed by Theatre Royal associate artist John R Wilkinson.

“I did a job in Bristol, then one week off, and we were going into rehearsals when everything stopped,” he says. “It’s just been postponed and postponed but I’m glad that John and the Theatre Royal have stuck with it.”

Mugabe, My Dad & Me, running until September 18 in the main house, charts the rise and fall of one of the most controversial politicians of the 20th century through the personal story of Tonderai’s Zimbabwean family and his relationship with his father, against the backdrop of the abiding legacy of British colonisation.

“Around the time when Robert Mugabe was deposed as president in 2017, I just felt like I needed to be back there,” he recalls. “At that point, I hadn’t been there for a few years, not for safety, but more for work and family. I found it was triggering a reaction in me, thinking, ‘I’m going to be in England, and not part of this amazing turnaround’, when I want to experience it’.”

Initially, Tonderai pondered doing a play based solely on freedom fighter-turned despot Mugabe’s speeches from 1962 to 2017, or “potentially to 2018, when he did that final press conference that was so telling”. “But then I thought, when I looked at my father’s story, being born in subjugated Rhodesia, I should tell that story too,” he says.

“I just knew my father’s basic story; I knew he was my dad; he drank too much; he womanised; he was fantastic, such fun, but he was a wife beater too. He lost his job as an accountant – I was about 11; he was in his 40s – and life just changed for him at that point.

The poster for Tonderai Munyevu’s Mugabe, My Dad & Me, premiering at York Theatre Royal

“Just as Mugabe’s speeches changed from calling for equality and England knighting him to the speeches of the 1990s and his fall-out with [international development secretary] Clare Short and ‘Prime Minister] Tony Blair, going against the Lancaster Agreement, over how land was to be dealt with and how people would be compensated. That fall-out led to an impoverishment of Zimbabwe that was unparalleled.”

Based in London, Tonderai set to writing Mugabe, My Dad And Me. “I knew if I made it too political, we’d lose the sense of a story being told, but if we could see it through a family’s eyes, with the story of my father dying in an impoverished state, after I left for England with my mother when I was 12, that would work better,” he says.

“The story of Zimbabwe is the story of Mugabe and the story of my father’s generation, but also the story of my generation, who have moved away from home and are grappling with who they are, when you’re asked, ‘Where do you belong?’, and you know you are technically part of that culture but you’re not there anymore, so where do you belong?”

A quarter of Zimbabweans left southern Africa in the big exodus around 2003. “That happened once the economy tanked, the white farmers left and the land was not being cultivated. It started a very tragic downward turn,” says Tonderai.

What about his father losing his job? How come? “The issue involved my father and another accountant at work having a dispute. They said my father wouldn’t be fired if he offered an apology, but he felt hard done by and so he didn’t apologise.” Instead, he left the company.

“My mother and I then left [for London] before it got really bad for him, and I would keep in touch with letters, but not really knowing how things were for him. But then, when I went back, I learnt what really happened, with my uncle being killed when he was only 17 by white Rhodesians who had paraded his body as a warning to those who were guerrilla-fighting in the fields for freedom,” says Tonderai.

“My family was never offered the land that was promised to freedom fights, so Mugabe didn’t deliver on that promise. There’s no-one with moral authority in this story as you can’t defend Mugabe, but equally Blair had a superficiality about him.”

Learning more of his father and his family’s back story led Tonderai to feel more sympathetic towards him. “Though my mother says, ‘No, whatever happens in your life, it doesn’t justify you being a wife-beating, womanising drinker’.”

“Until I wrote this play, there were things that I’d never written about; things that were holding me hostage,” says Tonderai

As for Tonderai’s own sense of identity as an African, Catholic, gay artist, he says: “It had always been connected with Mugabe’s long, long life, like his contemporaries, The Queen and Prince Philip. Now I had to grapple with the President no longer being on pictures everywhere, but also that joy that now we have a democracy, we can protest on the street.

“I started looking at things, about where I wanted to be, and I wanted to understand myself, and part of that was understanding my father. If you’re an artist, you’re an emotionally and intellectually mature person, and I want to investigate that.”

Nothing is simple in his assessment. “The colonisers were ostensibly a negative force in that land, but in some ways positive too, just as Mugabe was an icon of liberation but then tainted by his later actions, and my father was an amazing man, but he was violent too,” says Tonderai.

“In Africa, we have been colonised, but we have colonised ourselves too…some people think Zimbabwe is worse now [post-Mugabe]. I think it’s a very journey to having the opportunity for young people to have the choice of what happens in that country because Zimbabwe is still locked into that thing of ‘What war did you fight in? Why do you, as a young person, have the right to say what Zimbabwe should be?’.

“It does feel like we have to wait for a while to see what the future path will be for Zimbabwe. We have a military hold on religion. You feel despondency because you have hope, just like in South Africa, with Nelson Mandela’s presidency, so when we start looking at African culture, maybe it will be more attuned to Marxism, Socialism for sure, but not democracy as it stands now.

“What I have to do humbly in this story is to show how complex it is and to say there are no easy solutions.”

Tonderai ponders: “Is it more helpful to say that humans have always done it – subjugating people – but we don’t have to define ourselves now by the same standards, when we solve our problems by focusing on our resources, on education, to be fully human, without racism.

“Rather than having to be respected by a white person, or a white person having to admit that they did wrong, instead our priority is our children and our sense of worth that is not defined by subjugation or being considered lesser by another race.

“We move forward. The broader thing that has humbled me in doing Mugabe, My Dad & Me is I could write something where everything feels it’s about race, but instead in this play I’m writing about my culture, the complexities of that legacy and now not defining myself as a migrant in Britain. No-one is ever just a ‘migrant’.”

Tonderai Munyevu, right, in Leeds company Eclipse Theatre’s Black Men Walking, on tour at York Theatre Royal in 2019

Tonderai, who last took to the Theatre Royal stage in Eclipse Theatre’s touring production of Testament’s Black Men Walking in September 2019, turns to discussing the “Me” in Mugabe, My Dad & Me. “There’s a point in this play when I say ‘I’m a gay man, I’ve just got engaged and I’m getting married next year’, and though there’s a necessity to say it, I’m a free man and I’m incredibly privileged to be supported,” he says.

“I think my father always liked me because I was confident, erudite, intelligent, fun, and for my father in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, he loved that about me, and I loved that about him. My parents were both bright people and I loved that about them.

“My father said, in the last conversation we ever had, ‘I know I don’t have to ask you if you have a wife’. My feeling is, I think he knew I was gay, rather than him saying I was too young to marry!”

Writing Mugabe, My Dad & Me has proved cathartic for Tonderai. “Yes, things have been resolved by writing it. I think I know who I am now because of writing it; I’m definitely a writer because, until I wrote this play, there were things that I’d never written about; things that were holding me hostage,” he says.

“I never had a straight answer about Zimbabwe, but to have the confidence to be able to talk to a white farmer, Ben, about his life there was important to me. He knew everything by the book and had a very clear argument as to what he thought.

“When I was doing my preparation for this play, I would say, ‘hey, I’m writing this play and I’d like a white man’s perspective on Zimbabwe’, and to have a conversation with such clarity about being Zimbabwean was fantastic. We’re friends now.

“Ironically, he stayed in Zimbabwe, unlike me, and his rhythms of life are dovetailed with the rhythms of nature.”

The pandemic lockdowns have held back the premiere of Mugabe, My Dad & Me, but that has worked to Tonderai’s advantage. “Originally, it was going to be in the Studio, but I’ve always wanted to be on the main stage with a piece like this because I believe it can hold the main stage and I can hold the main stage, and I’m really excited to be performing it on that stage,” he says.

Summing up his one-man show about three men, Tonderai says: “This play is not a raking-up of the past; it’s a play about the present. One of the things that the pandemic has made us realise is that a leader can **** up a country, and sometimes in Europe, we don’t realise how dangerous it is to put people in this position, taking you in a dangerous direction.”

Cue Mugabe, My Dad And Me, premiering from tonight in English Touring Theatre and York Theatre Royal’s co-production in York. For tickets: 01904 623568 or online at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

“I’ve always wanted to be on the main stage with a piece like this because I believe it can hold the main stage,” says Tonderai Munyevu, as he sits on the York Theatre Royal stage

The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon to play York Barbican on next spring’s hits tour

The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon: Compilation album and greatest hits tour in 2022. Picture: Kevin Westerberg

THE Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon will play York Barbican on April 30 next spring in his first York concert since May 2011.

That bygone night, the Irish chamber-pop leprechaun performed at York Minster, but the “divine” in The Divine Comedy was not the reason he could be found in northern Europe’s largest Gothic cathedral.

The Dean and Chapter had agreed to allow Tribeca Arts impresario Ben Pugh to run a series of rock/world concerts in the Minster, and if Hannon let slip a couple of X-rated words – one to describe Minster arsonist Jonathan Martin, the other in a lyric – the wrath from above did not befall him. He looked up heavenwards only when sipping red wine from a glass, mouthing “sorry” playfully.

His return to York next spring will follow the February 4 2022 release of Charmed Life – The Best Of The Divine Comedy, marking the completion of the Northern Irish singer, songwriter, musical score composer and cricket enthusiast’s third decade as a recording artist.

This 24-track, career-spanning compilation of hit singles and fan favourites, compiled by Hannon and remastered at Abbey Road Studios, London, takes in such eloquent, often mischievously humoured landmarks as National Express, Something For The Weekend, Songs Of Love, Our Mutual Friend, A Lady Of A Certain Age, To The Rescue and Norman And Norma, complemented by the new composition The Best Mistakes.

“I’ve been luckier than most,” reflects 50-year-old Hannon. “I get to sing songs to people for a living and they almost always applaud. So, when asked what to call this collection I thought of Charmed Life. I like the song and it rather sums up how I feel about my life.”

The career retrospective will be available as a 24-track standard double CD; on double heavyweight black vinyl in a gatefold sleeve; on limited-edition double heavyweight colour vinyl in a gatefold sleeve and as a limited-edition triple CD edition, bolstered a “Super Extra Bonus Album” of new and unreleased recordings.

Discussing the bonus disc, Hannon says: “It felt right to celebrate 30 of The Divine Comedy. I can’t give you an overview of these songs. They’re a crazy mixed-up bunch. Some are strangely seasonal, some relate to what we’ve all been going through recently, some are just nuts. Enjoy!”

The poster for The Divine Comedy’s April and May 2022 tour

Hannon signed his first record deal at 20 in1990, subsequently releasing 12 albums and performing hundreds of shows. He will add to that tally with 19 British and Irish dates next April and May, when he will play a second Yorkshire show at the Victoria Theatre, Halifax, on May 13.

 “I am so looking forward to playing live again,” says Hannon. “The last couple of years have been a reminder of how much it means to me personally. It really is my favourite thing. And it seems fitting that we’ll be coming back with a greatest hits set. You know, in case everyone’s forgotten who I am and what we do!”

 Tickets go on sale at 10am on Friday (10/9/2021) at yorkbarbican.co.uk and victoriatheatre.co.uk.

Track listing for Charmed Life:

Charmed Life; National Express; Norman And Norma; Something For The Weekend; Songs Of Love; The Best Mistakes; At The Indie Disco; Bad Ambassador; A Lady Of A Certain Age; Becoming More Like Alfie; Come Home Billy Bird; Have You Ever Been In Love; Our Mutual Friend; Generation Sex; How Can You Leave Me On My Own; Perfect Lovesong; Your Daddy’s Car; You’ll Never Work In This Town Again; Absent Friends; Everybody Knows (Except You); The Certainty Of Chance; Sunrise; To The Rescue; Tonight We Fly.

Track listing for Bonus deluxe 3CD/deluxe digital disc:

I’ll Take What I Can Get; Don’t Make Me Go Outside; Who Do You Think You Are; The Adventurous Type; When When When; Home For The Holidays; Te Amo España; Perfect Lovesong 2021; Simple Pleasures; Those Pesky Kids.

Did you know?

THE last time Neil Hannon’s compositions were heard on a York stage was in the Theatre Royal’s August 2019 production of Swallows And Amazons, a play with music that affirmed Hannon as a songwriter always ripe for musical theatre in the Flanders & Swann and Stiles & Drewe mode, with even a pinch of Sondheim salt and Randy Newman pepper.

Alex Wingfield (front) with Hanna Khogali, Laura Soper and William Pennington in Swallows And Amazons, featuring music by Neil Hannon, at York Theatre Royal in August 2019. Picture: Anthony Robling

Why Antony Eden keeps coming back to The Woman In Black after 1,000 shows

“You could say, I’m a bit of an old hand! I actually first did The Woman In Black when I was 14,” says Antony Eden, who has returned to the role of The Actor. Picture: Tristram Kenton

AFTER 547 days, the Grand Opera House, York, will step out of the darkness and into The Woman In Black from September 13.

Robert Goodale will play lawyer Arthur Kipps opposite Antony Eden as The Actor in PW Productions’ latest tour of Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story.

Neither is a stranger to performing the torrid tale of an elderly lawyer obsessed with a curse that he believes has been cast over his family by the spectre of a “Woman in Black” for 50 years now.

“That is true,” says Antony. “You could say, I’m a bit of an old hand! I actually first did it when I was 14 after I saw it in the West End. I was already acting, and we wrote to PW Productions , director Robin Herford and Susan Hill to ask if we could put it on in the school theatre at Winchester.”

The answer was affirmative. “James Orr was my co-star…and in fact he came to see me in the show in Cambridge this summer with his son. I’d played The Actor when I was 14, and when we met up afterwards, I said, ‘I’m still playing the same part I was at 14, so I haven’t progressed much’!”

Robert Goodale as Arthur Kipps and Antony Eden as The Actor in The Woman In Black, haunting the Grand Opera House, York, from September 13 to 18. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Antony first performed in Robert Herford’s West End production in 2010, followed by a couple of tours, visiting York Theatre Royal in February 2013, a return to the West End in 2016 and a tour of Asia and Singapore. Now both he and The Woman In Black are back on the road again.

Such is his perennial association with PW Productions’ production that he has become associate director Of The Woman In Black. “I’ve worked with Robert Goodale before because, when he and Danny Easton were doing the last tour, part of my job was to go and see them every six weeks or so,” he says.

That tour spooked out York Theatre Royal in November 2019, but after the lockdown hiatus, Easton has gone west. “He decided not to come back into the tour. He does a running podcast now,” says Antony.

And so, while Danny keeps on running, Antony has resumed the role of The Actor from June 21 at Cambridge Arts Theatre, once more under the direction of the ubiquitous Herford, who directed the premiere of Mallatratt’s splendidly theatrical stage adaptation when it began life as a bonus Christmas show at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1987 in novelist Susan Hill’s hometown of Scarborough.

Gripping moment: Antony Eden as The Actor with Julian Forsyth as Arthur Kipps at York Theatre Royal in February 2013

“We started working together for The Woman In Black and have done many things together since,” says Antony. “I think we have a shared philosophy of theatre, rooted in that Stephen Joseph Theatre, Alan Ayckbourn, Robin Herford mould. I love that small-scale way of making theatre.

“I’ve been a theatre fan since I was nine and I have to say that The Woman In Black is my favourite play. This piece is all about the audience, just as it is for Alan Ayckbourn, who sees the writing as only part of the process: the blueprint for the performance.”

Antony had the joy of performing in writer-director Ayckbourn’s company for the SJT premiere of A Brief History Of Women and revival of Taking Steps in summer 2018. “I was doing a tour of Relatively Speaking with Liza Goddard and Robert Powell that Alan came to see, and then did Kay Mellor’s A Passionate Woman with Liza and Russell Dixon, one of Alan’s regulars, at Cheltenham,” he recalls.

“When it then came to working with Alan, I’d already got a fair way along that path, as I was in that mindset from working with Robin and I’m naturally inclined to that style of theatre.

Antony Eden as Anthony Spates, Frances Marshall as Lady Caroline Kirkbridge, left, and Louise Shuttleworth as Mrs Reginald ffluke in Alan Ayckbourn’s A Brief History Of Women. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“Alan would apply the philosophy of painting to setting scenes, with the most details for the central character and then the others would fill in the background. My favourite piece of advice from him was: ‘Do as little as you can and then do even less’.”

“Less is more” applies equally to The Woman In Black, where a cast of only two must do everything and yet Mallatratt’s play and Herford’s direction are rich in detail, drawing in the audience hook by hook.

“You really feel they are connected: the performers and the audience,” says Antony. “This play is a drama, a mystery, a whodunit, even a comedy at times; there’s so much to it and it plays to theatre’s strengths.

“To me, what’s important and fun about theatre is that it’s all about empathy the actors have for each other and the audience, and likewise the audience have for the actors. That’s what makes it special. This circle of empathy is what theatre specialises in; there’s no other artform like it for empathy.”

“I’ve been a theatre fan since I was nine and I have to say that The Woman In Black is my favourite play,” says Antony Eden, right. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Antony had been playing Ron in Harry Potter And The Cursed Child in the West End when Covid shutdown theatres, with 12 weeks still to go on his contract at the Palace Theatre.

“It’s a totally different experience from doing A Woman In Black. You have a staff director re-creating John Tiffany’s original direction, whereas Robin Herford is still directing The Woman In Black, and that’s why actors really want to do it because it’s a different partnership each time, two actors, one script, that’s all.

“Harry Potter And The Cursed Child is 50 actors, a script, pyrotechnics, special effects. It’s filmic in its scope, and that’s different from the theatricality that The Woman In Black is all about.

“I’ve done this play more than 1,000 times now and I’ve never once got bored with it.”

The Woman In Black, Grand Opera House, York, September 13 to 18, 7.30pm; 2.30pm, Wednesday and Saturday matinees. Box office: atgtickets.com/york

Copyright of The Press, York

Who’s who in York Theatre Royal’s pantomime Cinderella? Meet the cast…

O, happy Day: CBeebies presenter Andy Day will play Dandini in York Theatre Royal’s Cinderella

CBEEBIES presenter Andy Day will be joined by Travelling Pantomime familiar faces Robin Simpson and Faye Campbell for York Theatre Royal’s homecoming pantomime, Cinderella.

Presented in tandem with perennial panto award winners Evolution Productions, creative director Juliet Forster’s production will run from December 3 to January 2: an earlier start, shorter run and much earlier last night than past main-house pantos.

Day, who will play Dandini, joined CBeebies in 2007, since when he has presented animal and nature programmes, whether tackling dinosaurs, investigating baby animals and going on safari.

Sister act: After his Dame Trott in the Travelling Pantomime, Robin Simpson will be back in York as one of the sourpuss Sisters

Nominated for a Children’s BAFTA award for best presenter in 2009, he has pantomime history, appearing in the CBeebies annual televised panto, as well as playing the Genie in Aladdin, Dandini in Cinderella, Muddles in Snow White and Billy Goose in Mother Goose.

Day is no stranger to director Forster, by the way, having been in the cast for her 50-minute CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet, screened on April 2 and available subsequently on BBC iPlayer.

Day fronts his own live band, Andy And The Odd Socks, who once again will be launching Odd Socks Day for Anti-Bullying Week in schools up and down the country alongside the Anti-Bullying Alliance, a charity for whom Andy is a patron.

Look who’s back: Faye Campbell moves on from The Hero in York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime to the title role in Cinderella this winter

Faye Campbell will take the title role in Cinderella after playing The Hero in Jack And The Beanstalk and Dick Whittington in the Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime in 16 York wardslast December.

Actor-storyteller Robin Simpson will be returning too, following up his Dame Trott last winter on the back of a three-year damehood at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield. For Cinderella, he will form an (Ugly) Sister double act with Paul Hawkyard.

Comedian and ventriloquist Max Fulham, set to shine as Buttons, has played leading comedy roles in pantomimes throughout the UK, being voted Best Speciality Act in the 2020 Great British Pantomime Awards for his Washee in Aladdin at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre. 

Award-winning ventriloquist Max Fulham: Making his York Theatre Royal debut as Buttons

Fulham has created his own comedy series, Drivel Pedlar, for his You Tube channel. Next summer, he will head to Australia to play Muddles in Snow White at the new Sydney Coliseum.

Forster’s cast for the first main-house Theatre Royal pantomime since the Dame Berwick Kaler reign will be completed by Benjamin Lafayette’sPrince Charming and Sarah Leatherbarrow’sFairy Godmother.

Written by Evolution producer Paul Hendy, the Theatre Royal’s Cinderella will relocate the timeless rags-to-riches story to York, as the stage “comes to sparkling life with magical transformations, glittering sets, stunning songs and side-splitting laughs”.

Sister double act: Paul Hawkyard as the other Sister, teaming up with Robin Simpson in Cinderella

Audiences should expect a ”brand-new pantomime for everyone with the promise of a truly epic spectacle and heaps of hilarity”, directed by Forster, who was at the helm of both the Travelling Pantomime’s tour of community venues and this summer’s Around The World The World In 80 Days, her circus-themed adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel that visited four York school playing fields in 16 days before a Theatre Royal finale last week.

Chief executive Tom Bird says: “We’re over the moon to be creating a spectacular new pantomime for the people of York – one that’s tailor-made for the whole family, while honouring the pantomime traditions that our audiences love so much.

“The phenomenal team will give the York Theatre Royal pantomime a new lease of life with a fresh, family friendly, fun-filled approach to the story of Cinderella, set with pride in our amazing city.”

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster and chief executive Tom Bird with Evolution Productions producer and writer Paul Hendy

Evolution Productions, started by Emily Wood and Hendy in 2005, have built a reputation for superior, bespoke pantomimes with the emphasis on high-quality production values, strong casting and highly humorous scripts. Two-time winners of Pantomime of the Year at the Great British Pantomime Awards, they are the team behind Sheffield Theatres’ “extraordinarily successful” panto at the Lyceum Theatre.

Hendy says: “Emily and I are absolutely thrilled to be working with York Theatre Royal on Cinderella. We’re huge fans of the theatre and we’re looking forward to collaborating with Tom and his brilliant team to produce a wonderful, family-friendly pantomime with spectacular production values, a superbly talented cast and a genuinely funny script.”

Tickets are on sale on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright of The Press, York

More Things To Do in and around York in the embers of the summer festival season. List No 46, courtesy of The Press, York

Liam Gallagher: Tomorrow’s headliner at Leeds Festival

SUMMER ends with Leeds Festival, apparently, but Charles Hutchinson begs to differ by highlighting plenty more reasons to be cheerful as nights start to lengthen.

Biggest crowd of the week: Leeds Festival, Bramham Park, near Wetherby, tomorrow (27/8/2021) to Sunday

AFTER a gap year in Covid-crocked 2020, Leeds Festival returns from tomorrow with a sold-out crowd at full capacity. 

Among the first day’s top acts are headliners Lian Gallagher and Biffy Clyro, Gerry Cinnamon, Wolf Alice, Blossoms and Doncaster’s Yungblud.

Saturday’s names to watch are Stormzy, Catfish And The Bottlemen, AJ Tracey, Mabel, Sam Fender and Sports Team. Sunday promises Post Malone, Disclosure, Two Door Cinema Club, The Wombats and Slowthai.  

Shed Seven: Topping the all-Yorkshire bill at The Piece Hall, Halifax, on Saturday

On the other hand, Yorkshire’s gig of the week is…Shed Seven at The Piece Hall, Halifax, Saturday.

YORK favourites Shed Seven at last can go ahead with their all-Yorkshire bill after 2020’s two postponements and a move from June 26 to August 28 this summer.

The dates may change but the bill remains the same: York’s on-the-rise, rousing  Skylights, Leeds bands The Pigeon Detectives and The Wedding Present and the Brighton Beach DJs on the decks.

Never mind the clash with Leeds Festival. “Let’s just say our fans are not their demographic,” says the Sheds’ Rick Witter.

Andrew Harrison: Performing Nigel Forde’s one-man show, The Last Cuckoo, at Stillington Mill, near York, tomorrow night

Bird song of the week: Sea View Productions in Nigel Forde’s The Last Cuckoo, Theatre At The Mill, Stillington, tomorrow, 7.30pm.

ON his return home from his irascible ornithologist uncle Harry Baskerville’s ’s funeral, Duncan Campbell begins the slow, sad process of working through its effects in The Last Cuckoo, a one-man show about loss, hope and birds.

As he does so, he finds within the ghostly confines of this remote coastal cottage a way into a world he never knew existed: the entrance into a life he never dared hope for. However, this awareness brings with it costly choices and, most daunting of all, the possibility of real change.

Penned exquisitely by Warter poet and writer Nigel Forde, former presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Bookshelf, this beautiful theatre piece will be performed by Riding Lights Theatre Company alumnus Andrew Harrison, directed for Sea View Productions by Robin Hereford. Box office: tickettailor.com/events/atthemill.

The Carpenters Experience: Tribute show to Karen and Richard at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre

Tribute show of the week: The Carpenters Experience, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, Saturday, 7.30pm

IT’S Yesterday Once More as British singer Maggie Nestor and eight musicians capture the smooth American sounds of Richard and Karen Carpenter. 

Expect echoes of Karen’s silky contralto, Richard’s pretty piano and seamless harmonies in a big production featuring Close To You, We’ve Only Just Begun, Top Of The World, Rainy Days And Mondays, Solitaire, Goodbye To Love, For All We Know and Only Yesterday. Box office: josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Being Frank: Stephen Tompkinson in Educating Rita, on tour at York Theatre Royal from Tuesday. Picture: Matt Humphrey

Theatre show of the week in York: Educating Rita, York Theatre Royal, August 31 to September 4

WHEN married hairdresser Rita enrols on a university course to expand her horizons, little does she realise where her journey will take her.

Tutor Frank is a frustrated poet, brilliant academic and dedicated drinker, less than enthusiastic about taking on Rita, but soon they learn how much they have to teach each other.

Directed by Max Roberts, Willy Russell’s comedy two-hander stars Jessica Johnson as Rita and Stephen Tompkinson as Frank. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Curtains! Another catastrophe is imminent in Magic Goes Wrong, Mischief and Penn & Teller’s calamitous comedy caper at Leeds Grand Theatre

Theatre show of the week ahead outside York: Magic Goes Wrong, Leeds Grand Theatre, casting a spell from August 30 to September 4

BACK with another comedy catastrophe, this time dusted with magic, Mischief follow up The Play That Goes Wrong and The Comedy About A Bank Robbery with a show created with   Penn & Teller, no less.

A hapless gang of magicians is staging an evening of grand illusion to raise cash for charity, but as the magic turns to mayhem, accidents spiral out of control and so does the fundraising target.

On tour for the first time, the show is written Penn Jillette, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields and Teller and directed by Adam Meggido. Box office: 0113 243 0808 or at leedsheritagetheatres.com.

Fangfest co-organiser Gerry Grant dunking a raku ceramic in water

Top of the pots: Fangfest, Fangfoss, September 4 and 5, 10am to 4pm each day

FANGFEST, the celebration of pottery, crafts, art and scarecrows in Fangfoss, ten miles east of York, returns next month after a Covid-enforced hiatus in 2020.

To keep the family event as Covid-safe as possible, much of the festival organised by Gerry and Lyn Grant, of Fangfoss Pottery, will be taking place outdoors.

The weekend combines art, pottery, illustration, jewellery, printmaking, archery, wood carving, textiles, willow weaving, classic cars, East Yorkshire history, food and scarecrows. Entry is free.

Kate Winslet, left, and Saoirse Ronan in Ammonite, showing at the Yorkshire Fossil Festival in Scarborough

Dinosaurs, stones and more in Yorkshire Fossil Festival’s fistful of films: Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, September 10 and 11

FOR the first time, the Stephen Joseph Theatre is teaming up with the Yorkshire Fossil Festival SJT to bring five palaeontology-inspired films to the McCarthy screen.

Highlights include September 10’s 8pm screening of stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen’s 1969 dinosaur classic, The Valley Of Gwangi, introduced by palaeo-artist James McKay, who hosts a post-screening Q&A too.

Further films on September 10 will be Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (2pm) and Jurassic Park (5pm); September 11, The Land Before Time (2pm and 5pm) and Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan (8pm). Box office: 01723 370541 or at sjt.uk.com.

Fish’n’quips: George Egg serves up his Movable Feast on tour in October

Meals on wheels, jokes on a plate, here comes George Egg’s cracking tour show…

COMEDY and cooking combine when anarchic cook George Egg serves up his Movable Feast on tour in Yorkshire in October.

Determined to make food on the move, Egg offers his guide to cooking with cars, on rail tracks and in the sky.  “It’s time for Planes, Trains and Automob-meals (sorry),” he says. 

Sprinkled with handy hacks, the 7.30pm shows conclude with the chance to taste the results on the three plates. Tour dates include Stillington Village Hall, near York, October 10; Pocklington Arts Centre, October 13, and Terrington Village Hall, near Malton, October 17. Box office: georgeegg.com.

Roll up, roll up, for circus double act Emilio and Ali in Around The World In 80 Days

The circus-themed stage taking shape at York Theatre Royal for this afternoon’s performance of Around The World In 80 Days

“IT’S been a few years coming, but finally getting to flail around on the @YorkTheatre main stage today. We’re here till the 28th.”

So reads actor Emilio Iannucci’s tweet, accompanying a photo of the circus-themed set in situ for this afternoon’s 2pm performance of Around The World In 80 Days.

“Flailing around” were not words that tipped off the keyboard keys for CharlesHutchPress’s review when watching Iannucci racing against time with elegant aplomb as globe-traversing Phileas Fogg in an outdoor performance on the Copmanthorpe Primary School playing fields.

From today to Saturday, creative director Juliet Forster’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel moves indoors for a York Theatre Royal homecoming finale led by Iannucci’s dual lead role of Ringmaster and Fogg.

On the back of eye-catching turns for the Theatre Royal in The Book Of Dragons and Hello And Goodbye and for Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre Romeo & Juliet, Richard lll, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2018/2019, he was always Forster’s pick to have fun with Fogg. “That’s very flattering to hear, though I’m sure there are other people who could do the role!” says Emilio.

“I’ve been recovering from long Covid, so in a way I’ve been having a race against time myself to do this show. It’s not like I’m missing a physical bit of me, but there are still ups and downs, though they’re now further apart and less intense – and drawing on the energy of my fellow cast members has been very helpful.”

Phileas Fogg is noted for his efficiency and managing his life very carefully, a philosophy that Iannucci has applied to his recuperation and return to performing. “Long Covid has been a horrible thing to go through but it’s challenged me to approach things in new ways, rather than my usual process, now trying to achieve the same things but in a different way,” he says.

Emilio Iannucci in a scene from York Theatre Royal’s Around The World in 80 Days. Picture: Charlotte Graham

Iannucci’s main inspiration for his characterisation of Phileas Fogg is Verne’s novel. “That’s because the Ringmaster is adamant that we have to be faithful to the book, not the films. He’s determined to tell the story by the book, though whether that’s for budgetary reasons, like explaining why there’ll be no hot-air balloon…!” he says.

“The first part is all about telling you who Fogg wasn’t, what he wasn’t, not judging him too quickly, because he’s a strange character in that he’s not very likeable at the start and not wholly likeable by the end, but gradually you do come round to his side.

“He’s the opposite of the Ringmaster, who’s stroppy, flustered and always trying to herd cats.”

Dame Berwick Kaler has often talked of the need for actors to be “likeable” in his pantomime companies, and Iannucci has displayed such likeability in buckets in myriad stage roles but says: “I’d counter that by saying I don’t try to be likeable; I try to be honest…and Fogg is very honest. He can be a bit an a**e – he may or may not be guilty of theft – so I’m just trying to stay to what’s honest to that character and let the audience judge.

“I’m more used to playing low-status characters, who have to move props and help people, but Fogg is calling the tune here.”

In this energetically humorous account of Around The World In 80 Days, Iannucci’s Phileas Fogg is sort of a double act with his servant, French-Moroccan actor Ali Azhar’s Passepartout.

Azhar made his mark previously in York in the second summer of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre at the Eye of York, appearing as a Spirit in The Tempest (“moving a tree around!”) and as the Dauphin (“a delicious part”) in 2019.

Ali Azhar, left, with Eddie Mann, Dora Rubinstein and Ulrika Krishnamurti, playing Victorian gents at the Reform Club in Around The World in 80 Days. Picture: Charlotte Graham

“It was a rewarding adventure: four months of Shakespeare, the best bootcamp an actor can have,” says Ali. “And I love York! To wake up in this city with all that lovely fresh air and beautiful sites is bliss.”

Parisian Azhar plays not only the put-upon yet resourceful Passepartout but also The Clown, part of the circus company charged with telling Verne’s tale, as well as juggling or forming human pyramids or balancing on a seesaw with fellow actor Eddie Mann.

“That’s really helpful for the play because it means the cast can tell you about British colonisation and imperialism in Victorian times [Fogg made his journey in 1871], where we can all join in the debate without schooling everyone when it’s a story and we want everyone to have fun, so it’s joyful ride.”

Introducing The Clown, Ali says: “He’s recently been hired by the Ringmaster and has no idea about Jules Verne and doesn’t know the novel. He’s wild, a joker, but when he’s told he has to play the part of Passepartout, he tries not to take too much of the attention, whereas a clown usually does that.

“I think he must be the quietest clown I’ve ever played – and he seems to be always late or trying to catch up!”

Around The World In 80 Days is at York Theatre Royal for four days, August 25 to 28; performances at 2pm and 7pm. Signed performance: August 26, 2pm. Suitable for age seven upwards. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Why acrobat Dora is so happy to be at full stretch in Around The World In 80 Days

Dora Rubinstein, right, as Nellie Bly with Eddie Mann, top, Ali Azhar and Ulrika Krishnamurti in York Theatre Royal’s circus-themed Around The World In 80 Days. Picture: Charlotte Graham

AFTER traversing the city on a trailer for 16 days, the York Theatre Royal circus pitches up back home in St Leonard’s Place from Wednesday for the final run of Around The World In 80 Days.

Among the travelling players for creative director Juliet Forster’ stage adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel is actor, singer, acrobatic and yoga teacher Dora Rubinstein, a North Easterner, originally from Newcastle, who has settled in York.

She has history with Forster, having voiced Mary Magdalene in the York Mystery Plays audio plays for the Theatre Royal and BBC Radio York during lockdown, under Forster’s direction, and then taken on the guise of pioneering Anne Lister, alias Gentleman Jack, for musical theatre composer Gus Gowland’s The Streets Of York at the Theatre Royal’s re-opening show, Love Bites, overseen by Forster in May.

“It was so different doing that short piece for Love Bites,” says Dora. “I was approached by Gus, as we had lots of mutual friends who work in musical theatre, and Suranne Jones, who plays Anne Lister in the Gentleman Jack TV series, is not too far away from me in terms of my looks.

“It was lovely to be back in the theatre, as though most of my recent work has been circus based, I still love singing.”

Although Dora had worked with Juliet on the Radio Mystery Plays, Covid restrictions had limited the rehearsals and recordings to being conducted remotely. “That’s why I wasn’t sure if she knew about my circus skills, so I sent her an email, but it turned out she was aware, though I don’t know how, but I’m just happy she did,” she says.

Dora, who runs workshops in acrobalance, handstands, flexibility, contortion and aerial skills in York and Leeds, is now playing The Acrobat and American journalist, industrialist, inventor and charity worker Nellie Bly, who, like the fictional Phileas Fogg in Verne’s story, made a race-against-time trip around the world. 

“I grew up seeing plays at York Theatre Royal,” says Dora Rubinstein. “So it’s always felt like home”

“At the auditions, I had to do an American accent for Nellie Bly; I used a Geordie accent for The Acrobat – my choice – and I also have to play two ship captains, one from Hull, the other, a salty old sea dog,” she says.

All those acrobatic and contortionist skills naturally come in handy for The Acrobat in Around The World In 80 Days, but how come the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts graduate has developed those skills?

“My mum is a visual artist, who makes community pieces, and she was fascinated by how close the circus community was. As part of her research, she went to a trapeze class in Newcastle, and she said she felt like she’d come home,” says Dora, taking the country route in her explanation.

“She was so at home with it, whereas most people, when they first try it, find it incredibly hard. When I came back home from Arts Ed [her musical theatre diploma course in London], she knew how much I’d enjoyed the physical side of it and so she introduced me to circus culture, where I felt I really fitted into that world, the acrobatic world, rather than dance.

“Then, when I later left Mountview, I kept it up even more, doing aerial classes, and it’s since fed into my other work, with more to play with from the devising perspective.”

Dora teaches a “really wide range of people”, whether leading workshops for children and young families or teaching York burlesque performer Freida Nipples flexibility tricks to integrate into her routines.

Emilio Iannucci’s Phileas Fogg, left, with Dora Rubinstein, Eddie Mann, Ali Azhar and Ulrika Krishnamurti‘s scoffing Reform Club members in a scene from Around The World In 80 Days. Picture: Charlotte Graham

Even during rehearsals, she has continued to hold workshops at weekends, such as the acro-yoga sessions she leads at The Stables, in Nunmill Street, just off Bishopthorpe Road.

“My mum [Jane Park] is coming down to teach with me; we’re the first mother-and-daughter acro-yoga instructors,” she says.

Dora moved to York two years ago after living in London for a decade. “I felt that was long enough down there,” she says. “A lot of my work was in the north, and though you are fed this idea that you have to be based in London to make a career as a performer, I met this amazing actress, Helen Longworth, when I did two pantomimes at Lancaster.

“She was also doing TV parts and radio in The Archers, had a young child and was living in a village outside Morecambe, and I just thought, ‘why should I spend £1,300 a month on a flat in London?’.”

Why settle on York? “My boyfriend loves taking photographs, so we wanted a city that was beautiful to walk around, with good rail connections, and York really was the only one! We’ve now bought a house, so it looks like we’re staying!

“My grandfather lived in Portland Street, and I grew up seeing plays at York Theatre Royal, when I came here every two or three months. He loved the theatre too, so it’s always felt like home.”

This week will find Dora performing on that Theatre Royal stage, bringing Nellie Bly’s story to the fore as Phileas Fogg’s race against the clock to complete a full circuit of the Earth is interwoven with investigative journalist Nellie’s own record-breaking journey.

Not one to be boxed in: Dora Rubinstein in the lead-up to playing The Acrobat, a role that writer-director Juliet Forster first contemplated calling “The Contortionist” but doubted she could find one. Ironically, Dora is as equally adept at contortionism as acrobatics!

“I hadn’t heard of Nellie until I got the audition, though it’s incredible all the amazing things she did leading up to her going around the world,” she says.

“I remember being taught about Queen Elizabeth 1, Queen Victoria and Grace Darling [the English lighthouse keeper’s daughter, who risked her life to rescue the stranded survivors of the wrecked steamship Forfarshire in 1838], but not about Nellie Bly’s achievements.

“When she submitted an anonymous response to a newspaper article that said women should be in the kitchen, it was so well written that the editor put out a call to discover who it was.

“She became an investigative journalist, going undercover into a mental institution, putting her life on the line to make a difference for others. She had such chutzpah.”

As for Dora’s other principal role as The Acrobat, “Funnily enough, Juliet almost called her ‘The Contortionist’, but she didn’t think she would find one, but there I was all along, doing partner-acrobatic work and some contortion work in Japan, and performing contortion acts at the Durham Juggling Festival and Play Festival in North Wales!” she says .

Looking ahead, after undertaking research work with her mother at Dance City, Newcastle, and working with mentor and dramaturg Sarah Puncheon, Dora is creating her first acrobatics-based piece, Hold Your Own, built around family relationships. “Hopefully we’ll start doing it next year and tour it later in 2022,” she says.

Around The World In 80 Days races around York Theatre Royal from August 25 to 28; performances at 2pm and 7pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Suitable for age seven upwards.