Aesthetica Film Festival’s transformative season of shorts making sense of the world is underway at York Theatre Royal

Aesthetica Film Festival launches York Theatre Royal season

AESTHETICA Film Festival is teaming up with York Theatre Festival for a season of independent film to highlight how the big screen helps us to make sense of the world.

“Film is transformative, powerful and resonating,” says Cherie Federico, director of the BAFTA Qualifying festival held in York very autumn. “It can change the world in a matter of seconds.

“In this season, we bring you films that look at the LGBTQ+ experience and the climate crisis; an interrogation of humans and technology; the best of Black British cinema,
alongside our comedy club screening and a slate of BAFTA and Oscar-winning short films.

“Here is your chance to step away from the ordinary to immerse yourself in the power of narrative through independent film.”

The season opened on Friday (22/4/2022) to mark Earth Day with a series of short films looking at mass consumption and the global community under the theme of Fragile Existence: Witness to the Climate Crisis. “There’s no doubt that the climate crisis is moving towards the tipping point. Filmmakers are key witnesses to these changes.

“The impact of population growth, globalisation, urbanisation, industrialisation and the exhaustion of natural resources has finally taken its toll.”

On April 29, the 80-minute Comedy Club: Join Us For A Laugh programme will be shown. “Comedy offers something for everyone, following unwitting characters through their day-to-day lives as they descend into surreal, unexpected moments,” says Cherie.

“These short films are sure to surprise and connect viewers through universal emotions and shared experiences – the everyday turned absurd. Be surprised by your reactions to our mind-bending, humorous selection.”

At 2.15pm on April 30, the spotlight falls Animation: Imagination & Discovery. “This
60-minute collection of films introduces children to the wonderful world of animation. The range of styles depicts all the fantastic possibilities for this enthralling genre,” says Cherie.

“Stories are highly emotive and cover a range of topics that are relevant in a child’s emotional education. Beyond that, some of the films are simply good fun.”   

On May 7, the subject matter will be To Be Human: Global Stories. “The human condition comprises all of the characteristics and key events that define the essence of human existence, from birth and growth to desire and aspiration, conflict to mortality,” says Cherie.

“This 105-minute selection of screenings examines what it means to live on such an extraordinary planet, offering global perspectives into who we are and how we live, alone and together.

Technology, Humans and Machines will be theme of May 27’s 95-minute film selection. “Our relationship with – and dependency on – technology grows every day,” says Cherie.

“It connects us, teaches us and assists with our day-to-day lives. We have immense power at our fingertips. In the age of the selfie, immersive technologies and AI, these films from visionary ASFF alumni consider humanity’s reliance on innovation.”  

June 17’s programme, shown in partnership with Iris Prize, will be LGBTQ+ Shorts: Defining Gay Cinema. “The four films are easy to label as ‘brutal,” says Cherie of this 90-minute screening . “They are, at times, difficult, but they unfold into a truly rewarding cinematic experience.

“The stories deal with the broader themes of mental health and the search for love. Specifically, these projects ask questions about love, and where it can be found.”

We Are Parable brings Black British cinema and will do so at York Theatre Royal on June 24 in the 75-minute Raised Voices: Black British Cinema.

Their nationwide season Who We Are is a celebration of Black cinema from around the world, dedicated to ensuring the work of past, present and emerging Black storytellers is amplified and given every possible platform available.  

The season will conclude on July 8 with the 105-minute showcase of BAFTA & Oscar Recognised Short Films.Every year, Aesthetica Film Festival screens some of the most engaging films by rising stars from the film industry,” says Cherie.

“Many of these people will go onto become household names in future years. We are delighted to present a selection of films from the festival that have either been nominated or won a BAFTA or an Oscar.”

All screenings will start at 7.15pm unless stated otherwise. Tickets can be booked on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

April 29’s focus: Comedy Club: Join Us For A Laugh

More Things To Do in and around York when Wrong is the right choice. Magical List No.79, courtesy of The Press, York

Mind games: Beverley actor Rory Fairbairn as the Mind Mangler in Magic Goes Wrong, on tour at York Theatre Royal from Tuesday

MAGIC is on the cards in the week ahead, and you can’t wrong if you follow Charles Hutchinson’s tips for what else to do and see.

Mayhem in April: Mischief in Magic Goes Wrong, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday to Sunday, 7.30pm (except Sunday); 2pm, Thursday and Sunday, 2.30pm, Saturday

MASTERS of catastrophic comedy Mischief team up with deconstructionist American magicians Penn & Teller for Magic Goes Wrong, their most daring calamitous show yet.

When a hapless gang of magicians strive to stage an evening of grand illusion to raise cash for charity, magic turns to mayhem, accidents spiral out of control and so does their fundraising target. Penn & Teller will not be appearing on stage. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Kristin Hersh: Fronting her Electric Trio at The Crescent

Cult gig of the week: Kristin Hersh Electric Trio, The Crescent, York, tomorrow, 7.30pm

BOSTON songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and author Kristin Hersh, leader of indie rock band Throwing Muses and noise rock power trio 50 Foot Wave, is on the road with her hard-hitting super-group.

Joining Hersh, 55, will be 50 Foot Wave drummer Rob Ahlers and Throwing Muses bassist Fred Abong, who opens the night playing solo, promoting his Yellow Throat album. Expect Throwing Muses’s 2020 album, Sun Racket, to feature alongside material spanning Hersh’s 30-year career. Box office: thecrescentyork.com.

Improvising a musical: Showstoppers Ruth Bratt, left, Lauren Shearing and Pippa Evans with Duncan Walsh Atkins, on keys, and Chris Ash on reeds. Picture: Alex Harvey-Brown

Anything could happen: Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, York Theatre Royal, tonight, 7.30pm

OLIVIER Award winners Showstopper! return to York with…well, you decide! At each show, a new musical comedy is created from scratch as audience suggestions are transformed on the spot into an all-singing, all-dancing production.

From Hamilton in a hospital to Sondheim in the Sahara, you suggest it and The Showstoppers will sing it. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Blues power: Guitarist Joanne Shaw Taylor returns to York Barbican

Blues gig of the week: Joanne Shaw Taylor, York Barbican, Sunday, 7.30pm

WEST Midlands blues guitarist and singer-songwriter Joanne Shaw Taylor plays York as one of five British dates this month, performing songs from 2021’s The Blues Album.

That album showcased covers of 11 rare blues classics first recorded by Albert King, Peter Green, Little Richard, Magic Sam, Aretha Franklin and Little Milton. Expect selections from her albums Reckless Heart, Wild, The Dirty Truth, Almost Always Never, Diamonds In The Dirt and White Sugar too. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Gabrielle Sargent: Soprano soloist for York Guildhall Orchestra’s St George’s Day concert

Celebration of the week: York Guildhall Orchestra’s St George’s Day Concert, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, Sunday, 7.30pm

YORK Guildhall Orchestra make their JoRo debut under the baton of conductor Simon Wright, who turns the spotlight on English composers in an Anglophile programme of light music to mark St George’s Day.

“Come down for a springtime evening of joyful music and not a dragon in sight,” says Wright, who will be combining favourite pieces with lesser-known gems. Sullivan, Elgar and Handel feature; so do Strachy’s Party Mood (from Housewives’ Choice), Wood’s Barwick Green (The Archers) and Coates’s By The Sleepy Lagoon (Desert Island Discs). Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

One giant leap for Lee Harris’s Mr Toad during rehearsals for NE Musicals York’s York premiere of The Wind In The Willows The Musical

Family musical of the week: NE Musicals York in The Wind In The Willows The Musical, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, April 27 to May 1, 7.30pm; 2.30pm matinees, Saturday, Sunday

NE Musicals York transform the JoRo theatre into a riverbank and wildwood for director and designer Steve Tearle’s York premiere of Julian Fellowes’ stage adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s story with a score by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

Join Ratty (Finlay Butler), Mole (Jack Hambleton), Badger (Tom Henshaw) and the impulsive Mr Toad (Lee Harris), whose insatiable need for speed lands him in serious bother. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Horse Chestnut Leaves, a watercolour by Selby artist Lynda Heaton, from her Village Gallery exhibition in York

Exhibition launch of the week: Lynda Heaton, Expressions In Watercolour, Village Gallery, Colliergate, York, Tuesday to June 4

SINCE retiring, Selby artist Lynda Heaton has spent much of her time painting in her home studio. “I’m passionate about watercolour painting and love the way the colours mingle and move across the paper, sometimes giving surprising effects,” she says.

“My works come from my imagination or from memories of somewhere I’ve been and the mood of that place.” Other pieces are inspired by the natural world, the colours, textures and rhythms found in nature.

Diversity performing Connected in their April 4 performance at York Barbican. Picture: Sarah Hollis

Quick return of the week: Diversity: Connected, York Barbican, Wednesday, 7.45pm

HOT on the heels of their April 4 visit, London street dancers Diversity return to York Barbican due to public demand as part of their 79-show 2022 tour.

In a show created by choreographer Ashley Banjo, the 2009 Britain’s Got Talent winners will be building their routines around the internet, social media, the digital era and how it connects us all. Their Black Lives Matter-inspired dance, premiered on Britain’s Got Talent to a flood of complaints to Ofcom in September 2020, definitely features. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

This woman’s re-work: Sarah-Louise Young in An Evening Without Kate Bush at Theatre@41

An Evening Without Kate Bush but with Sarah-Louise Young, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York,  Thursday, 7.30pm

THE “chaotic cabaret cult”, An Evening Without Kate Bush”, finds Cabaret Whore, The Showstoppers, La Soiree performer Sarah-Louise Young teaming up theatre maker Russell Lucas to explore the music and mythology of one of the most influential voices in British music.

Kate’s not there, but you are, for a show that is as much about fandom as Bush’s songs and wider cultural impact. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Rory Fairbairn revels in mind games in his Mischief debut in Magic Goes Wrong

Playing on the mind: Rory Fairbairn as the Mind Mangler in Magic Goes Wrong

BEVERLEY actor Rory Fairbairn is making his debut for mayhem makers Mischief as the Mind Mangler in Magic Goes Wrong, on tour at York Theatre Royal from Tuesday.

Trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, he has since performed for such companies as the Dead Puppet Society, Lion & Unicorn Theatre and Bard In The Botanics but has always had Mischief in mind.

“I’ve been aware of Mischief for a very long time, maybe 12/13 years,” says Rory. “I remember seeing Lights Camera Action, a show about every film that has ever been made and every film yet to be made, performed by Mischief’s Jonathan Sayer at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“Then, a couple of years later, I saw Mischief Theatre’s brilliant The Play That Goes Wrong upstairs at the Pleasance Courtyard, a tiny venue at the Fringe, and you think, ‘oh, I’ll never get to work with them’!”

Hey ho, that was the thought that went wrong because here is Rory, playing the Mind Mangler in Magic Goes Wrong, Mischief’s magically chaotic, comically catastrophic show created with deconstructionist American  masters of magic Penn & Teller.

“After coming out of lockdown, when I worked at Tesco in Beverley – so many actors I know worked at Tesco, six of them! – I did my audition tape with a bunch of things you have to read for what’s called ‘a self tape’ for Magic Goes Wrong,” recalls Rory.

“The show is such a mind-warp because everything has to be technically right to make the magic look like it’s gone wrong,” says the Mind Mangler, Rory Fairbairn

“Then I went down to London for the audition and had a really fun couple of days of working with [magic consultant] Ben Hart – a magician who you might recognise from Britain’s Got Talent – where he got us in for a magic try-out day, making sure we fitted the tricks and weren’t claustrophobic, as we looked at these insane props, as none of us had ever done a show like it.”

Magic had never been part of Rory’s acting repertoire of skills. “But I’ve always been fascinated by it, like the Masked Magician on TV revealing how tricks were done. I don’t think he was very popular among magicians!” he says.

Now, as Mischief complete a hattrick of shows in York after The Play That Goes Wrong and The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, Rory is part of a touring cast featuring the likes of Sam Hill’s Sophisticato, Kiefer Moriarty’s The Blade and Jocelyn Prah’s Spitzmaus in a hapless gang of magicians that stages an evening of grand illusion to raise cash for charity. When the magic turns to mayhem, accidents spiral out of control and so does their fundraising target.

“We were given magic skills to learn, involving cards, but most of the magic is in the tricks themselves because they’re so well designed and well built, though we did have to learn some little things,” says Rory.

“The show is such a mind-warp because everything has to be technically right to make the magic look like it’s gone wrong,” adds the Mind Mangler.

The cast members have not met Penn & Teller. “Sadly not, but the Mischief boys [writer-directors Sayer, Henry Lewis and Henry Shields] did fly out to Vegas to meet them and write the show with them, and I think Penn Jillette popped over for the original London run in 2019.”

Penn & Teller: Co-creators of Mischief’s Magic Goes Wrong

Should you have it in mind to enquire as to what a Mind Mangler does, let Rory elucidate: “He’s a take on the mentalist type of magician who claims they can read your mind and speak to the dead – or that’s what he believes, but he’s unbelievably bad at it and the audience ends up being better at his job than he is!”

Has anything gone wrong in Magic Goes Wrong’s tour performances that was not planned to do so? “Oh, absolutely! But that’s live theatre in general. This show is a fascinating piece because it’s a scripted play with improvised sections and really good magic, and as with any live show things can go wrong, and when that’s happened you have to style it out. We just work together, whatever goes wrong, and hope the audience don’t notice it.”

Rory has loved working with Mischief, directed by Adam Meggido as part of a fresh troupe of Mischief makers. “It’s a brand new company for this tour, a group of lovely people to work with, getting the chance to make wonderful theatre, and that’s a sad side of acting: you work so closely together, and then it’s over,” he says.

“We’re not too far from the end of this tour, but I’d love to audition for Mischief again, for any of their shows, as they’re so good at what they do. They really have made a niche for themselves and it’s so noticeable how they get younger audiences than so many shows, when so often theatre isn’t included on people’s To Do list.

“It’s just wonderful that we can make people laugh so much post-lockdown, which of course we need more than ever right now.”

Mischief in Magic Goes Wrong, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday to Sunday, May 1, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm matinees, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Age guide: 11+. Please note, Penn & Teller will not be appearing on stage.

CBeebies’ favourite Justin Fletcher promises fantastic family fun in The BIG Tour show at York Theatre Royal

CBEEBIES superstar and children’s favourite Justin Fletcher presents an all-singing, all-dancing spectacular extravaganza in Justin Live! The BIG Tour at York Theatre Royal on Thursday and Friday.

Over 20 years, Justin has become a TV institution, piling up BAFTA award-winning appearances on Something Special, Justin’s House, Jollywobbles, Gigglebiz and Gigglequiz, as well as providing character voices for Tweenies, Boo, Toddworld and Shaun The Sheep, latterly voicing Shaun in the Aardman movie Farmageddon. 

Tickets for his 11am and 2.30pm performances, presented by Imagine Theatre, are on sale on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Here Justin discusses his new live show and his inspirations with CharlesHutchPress.

What inspired you to make your first step into children’s entertainment?

“As a child, I used to watch Playschool with Johnny Ball, Derek Griffiths and Floella Benjamin and loved acting out the stories. During my three-year course at drama school, I was inspired by Philip Schofield and Chris Jarvis in the CBBC Broom Cupboard and thought I’d like to perform in some family theatre and television.

“I put a show reel together and managed to secure an audition for the theatre tour of Playdays, which was the show that took over from Playschool, and I landed the part of Mr Jolly. That was the very first part I played, which started my career in family entertainment.”

Who was your inspiration when growing up?

“I was very much inspired by the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. I used to watch their slapstick routines over and over again. They had such an amazing chemistry between them.

How has the world of family entertainment changed over the years and have you had to adapt your approach?

“The choice of family entertainment on television is now huge, whereas when I was a child there was a very limited number of programmes available to watch. However, having a good, strong, story-based script and engaging characters is still the key to having a successful programme.”

Although best known for your TV shows, you have produced and performed in plenty of theatre shows too. How important is live theatre for children and what do you enjoy most when playing to a theatre full of young people?

“Creating many family theatre productions over the last two decades has been incredibly important to me and hugely enjoyable. There’s nothing like performing on stage and meeting the families that support you and your television shows.

“Children’s theatre is so important, as it’s quite often their first live show experience. We’re hoping to inspire the next generation of theatregoers.”

Justin Fletcher’s map of destinations for The Big Tour

What do you enjoy about touring a live show?

“We have an amazing production team who work extremely hard to prepare the show before it goes out on the road. We’re like one big family. From the performers to the lighting and sound operators, the catering team, and the backstage crew, we’re all working together to put on the production. 

“We also support each other whilst out on the road, which is really important when you’re away from home for fairly long periods of time. Touring provides a fantastic opportunity to experience so many different towns and theatres across the country and to meet so many new friends along the way.”

How did you start the creative process for writing Justin Live! The BIG Tour show and what inspired you?

“It always starts with a storyline. Once you have that in place, I think about the music content. Music is a vital element of all my shows, and I try to write some original songs myself, as well as featuring some of the much-loved traditional songs too.”

The BIG Tour will be full of slapstick. Why is this form of comedy timeless?

“Slapstick comedy has such wide appeal. It’s great when children and their families laugh out loud watching comedy routines by performers like Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. It’s a timeless format and you can’t beat the sound of belly laughter coming from the audience from children and adults alike.”

What interactive fun and games can audiences expect in the BIG Tour show?

“When children and their families come to see my shows, I don’t try to create a show that is simply to be watched, I create a show that they can be a part of. I love audience participation and almost every song we do is interactive and we always end with a big party that everyone can join in with.”

What are your favourite songs in the show?

“I love the action songs that we usually start the shows with. You can’t beat seeing the audience join in with classic songs such as Head, Shoulders, Knees And Toes, If You’re Happy And You Know It and The Hokey Cokey.

“Then, in a heartbeat, we can fill the auditorium with magical stars and all join in singing and signing Twinkle Twinkle. That’s the beauty of live theatre, you never quite know what’s coming next!”

Why should people come to Justin Live! The BIG Tour?

“It’s been a very long time since we’ve been able to tour. I can’t wait to get out on the road and to meet all of our friends once again.”

How would you sum up the show in three words?

“Fantastic family fun!”

More Things To Do in and around York as chocolate spreads the love over Easter break. List No. 78, courtesy of The Press

WHAT’S in the chocolate box of Eastertide delights? Charles Hutchinson unwraps the goodies in store, from a sweet-flavoured festival to a musical premiere, a Led Zeppelin legend to two Big shows.

My cocoa shoe: Edible high heels at York Chocolate Festival

Festival of the week: York Chocolate Festival, oozing chocolate in Parliament Street, York, until Easter Monday, 10am to 5pm

RUN by York Food Festival and Make It York, York Chocolate Festival returns over the Easter weekend for the first time since 2019 in celebration of York’s heritage as the Chocolate City.

More than 40 stalls are complemented by workshops, demonstrations by chocolatiers, a chocolate sampling trail and chocolate pairing sessions with wine and whisky for adults. Look out for stands selling specialist origin chocolates, eggs, cakes, truffles, brownies, macarons, chocolate-flavoured drinks and liqueurs, even savoury outliers such as chilli jams, artisan pizzas and pies. Entry is free; some events are ticketed.

Robert Plant and Suzy Dian fronting Saving Grace, on tour at Grand Opera House, York

York gig of the week: Saving Grace with Robert Plant and Suzy Dian, supported by Scott Matthews, Grand Opera House, York, tonight, 7pm

SAVING Grace, the folk-blues co-operative led by Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, play York tonight, followed by a further Yorkshire gig at Halifax Victoria Theatre on April 26.

Singer and lyricist Plant, now 73, will be joined on the April and May tour by Suzi Dian (vocals), Oli Jefferson (percussion), Tony Kelsey (mandolin, baritone, acoustic guitar) and Matt Worley (banjo, acoustic, baritone guitars, cuatro). Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York.

Celebrating the music of The Dubliners: Seven Drunken Nights rolled into one Sunday in York

Irish jig of the week: Seven Drunken Nights – The Story of The Dubliners, Grand Opera House, York, tomorrow, 7.30pm

FROM their roots in O’Donoghue’s Pub in Dublin, Seven Drunken Nights raises a toast to the 50-year career of The Dubliners, telling the story of the Irish folk band that took the world by storm.

Irish musicians, singers and storytellers will evoke the atmosphere, theatre and cultural history of Ireland while invoking the spirit of Ronnie Drew, Luke Kelly, Barney McKenna, John Sheahan, Ciaran Bourke and Jim McCann on a tour that will take in 20 countries in 2022 and 2023. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York.

Bonding together: The BBC Big Band perform the 007 hits, shaken and stirred, at York Theatre Royal

Bond and band in harmony: The BBC Big Band, The Music Of James Bond…and Beyond, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday, 7.30pm

THE BBC Big Band are joined by guest vocalists Emer McPartlamd and Iain Mackenzie for a celebratory concert inspired by the music of James Bond film franchise.

Theme songs by York composer John Barry feature prominently in a set list sure to include Diamonds Are Forever, Thunderball and Goldfinger, alongside Monty Norman’s James Bond theme.

Expect a selection of more contemporary songs from the 007 musical library too, performed in the BBC Big Band’s inimitable style. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

BIG news: CBeebies’ Justin Fletcher is heading for York Theatre Royal on the BIG Tour

Children’s show of the week: Justin Fletcher in Justin Live, The BIG Tour, York Theatre Royal, Thursday and Friday, 11am and 2.30pm

CBEEBIES superstar and children’s favourite Justin Fletcher presents an all-singing, all-dancing spectacular extravaganza on The BIG Tour.

Justin is a TV institution, piling up BAFTA award-winning appearances on Something Special, Justin’s House, Jollywobbles, Gigglebiz and Gigglequiz, as well as providing character voices for Tweenies, Boo, Toddworld and Shaun The Sheep, latterly voicing Shaun in the Aardman movie Farmageddon. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Normal service resumed: Grayson Perry presents his rearranged Harrogate performance of A Show For Normal People on Friday

Who-knows-what-to-expect arty gig of the weekGrayson Perry in A Show For Normal People, Harrogate Convention Centre, Friday, 7.30pm

IN his own words, despite being an award-winning artist, Bafta-winning TV presenter, Reith lecturer and best-selling author, Grayson Perry is a normal person – and just like other normal people, he is “marginally aware that we’re all going to die”.

Cue A Show For Normal People, Grayson’s enlightening, eye-watering evening where existentialism descends from worthiness to silliness. “You’ll leave safe and warm in the knowledge that nothing really matters anyway,” he promises.

At a show rearranged from last autumn, Grayson asks, and possibly answers, the big questions on a night “sure to distract you from the very meaninglessness of life in the way only a man in a dress can.” Box office: harrogateconventioncentre.co.uk.

York Stage Musicals’ poster for the York premiere of Calendar Girls The Musical

Musical of the week: York Stage Musicals in Calendar Girls, Grand Opera House, York, Friday to April 30

THE true story of the Calendar Girls from Rylstone Women’s Institute has been turned into a beautifully poignant musical by writer Tim Firth and composer Gary Barlow.

Join York Stage Musicals as they bring the show to York for the first time. “Be prepared to laugh and cry throughout a truly memorable evening filled with unforgettable songs that prove there is no such thing as an ordinary woman,” says producer Nik Briggs. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York.

The Chemical Brothers: Big beats and dance moves at Castle Howard this summer

Rave of the North Yorkshire summer: The Chemical Brothers at Castle Howard, near Malton, June 26

HEY boy, hey girl, electronic pioneers The Chemical Brothers will take to the grass at Castle Howard this summer.

Manchester big beat duo Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, both 51, will galvanize rave diggers in the North Yorkshire stately home’s grounds where gates will open at 5pm for the night ahead of Setting Sun, Block Rockin’ Beats, Hey Boy, Hey Girl, Let Forever Be, Galvanize, Go et al. Box office: castlehoward.co.uk.

Rumours spread and rebellion rises as York Theatre Royal’s new season makes a stand

The Tragedy Of Guy Fawkes playwright David Reed outside the Guy Fawkes Inn in York. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

“THE theatre has always been a place where rebellion thrives,” says chief executive Tom Bird as York Theatre Royal sets its Rumours And Rebels season in commotion.

Two legendary York figures, Guy Fawkes and the Coppergate Woman, will come to life as the spotlight is turned on those who resist, rebel and stand up to injustice, corruption and persecution this summer and autumn.

“We wanted to talk about opposition and intrigue and how ‘sticking it to the man’ manifests itself, which is often in the form of rumours first,” says Tom. “We knew we were going to be doing this strand of work with rebellion shot through it, but we also wanted a nod to the fact that rebellion can start in a more subtle phase with rumour.

“We already had rebellion in the diary with Guy Fawkes, Julius Caesar and Red Ellen, which all start with ‘talk’, and I was thinking about how you’re naturally quite wary of making heroes of people who are seen as terrorists, so I didn’t want the season to be too on the nose in celebrating rebellion without also saying it’s a complicated business.

“Look at Guy Fawkes; we think of him as a York hero but actually he wanted to blow up hundreds of people.”

Long in the planning for its York Theatre Royal world premiere, York-born writer David Reed’s “explosive new comedy about York’s most infamous rebel”, The Tragedy Of Guy Fawkes, will run from October 28 to November 12, directed by Gemma Fairlie as Monty Python meets Blackadder.

“We’ve had the script since before I came here in December 2017,” says Tom. “David [one third of the The Penny Dreadfuls comedy trio] is a local writer; the script is brilliant and funny, and the pre-sale of tickets is fantastic.”

Co-director Juliet Forster, left, and playwright Maureen Lennon with JORVIK Viking Centre’s model of The Coppergate Lady

Further explaining the Rumours And Rebels season title, Tom says: “The other reason for ‘Rumours’ is the impact of social media, where it feels like we’re surrounded by an unsolicited swirl of rumour that could lead to action, even to direct rebellion, like you saw with Trump’s supporters marching on Capitol Hill.

“Uncurated rumours bother us a lot, and that’s why we’re curating the summer and autumn programme under this title to highlight the importance of curation when news has stopped being that and so many people no longer trust experts.  Theatre is a place for resistance and for celebrating it since Athenian times.”

Standing alongside Reed’s Guy Fawkes tragi-comedy in the season ahead will be Maureen Lennon’s community play The Coppergate Woman, wherein a Valkyrie woman with the answers rises again to move among the people of York, a goddess resisting the havoc wrought by pandemic, from July 30 to August 6.

These in-house productions will be preceded by Northern Stage, Nottingham Playhouse and Royal Lyceum Theatre’s touring production of Red Ellen, Carol Bird’s epic story of inspiration Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, who was forever on the right side of history, forever on the wrong side of life, from May 24 to 28.

“We’re super-excited about Red Ellen, which had been planned by Lorne Campbell before he left Northern Stage to move to the National Theatre of Wales. After The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff, this is another unsung political hero to be celebrated by Northern Stage.”

Flicking through the brochure, in Shakespeare’s Globe’s Julius Caesar, on June 10 and 11, the protagonists fear power running unchallenged as Diane Page directs this brutal tale of ambition, incursion and revolution; in Conor McPherson’s Girl From The North Country, from September 5 to 10, the chimes of freedom flash through a story rooted in Bob Dylan’s songs;  in Pilot Theatre’s revival of Noughts & Crosses, from September 16 to 24, the love between Selby and Callum runs counter to the politics of their segregated world.

In Frantic Assembly’s reimagined 21st century Othello, from October 18 to 22, Othello faces a barrage of racial persecution in Shakespeare’s tragedy of paranoia, sex and murder; the year ends with the Theatre Royal’s third pantomime collaboration with Evolution Productions, where Peter Pan joyously stands up to the tyranny of time, from December 2 to January 2.

York Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird

Delighted to welcome Shakespeare’s Globe, Tom says: “I left the Globe to move here, and as the Roman Quarter project gets underway in Rougier Street, we were interested in doing a Roman-themed work.

“We’d known for a while this would be a rebellion season, and the Globe knew we were keen to link up with them, so they gave us a couple of options. National companies are getting really good at that, and it’s great to have the Globe back for the first time since they did Henry VI.”

Tom says the season fell into place partly through the stars aligning. “If Frantic Assembly’s Othello is on tour, you take it,” he says. “It fitted perfectly with our own choices of Guy Fawkes and [York company] Pilot Theatre reviving Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses.

“The first tour did really well, there’s since been the TV series, and it’s a story really loved by young audiences as a Romeo & Juliet for the 21st century. It’s a no-brainer to bring it back.”

Bringing a “big show” to York Theatre Royal is not easy, says Tom, given the seating capacity of 750, but that does not deter him from seeking to do so. Take the double Olivier Award-winning West End and Broadway hit Girl From The North Country, written and directed by The Weir playwright Conor McPherson.

He reimagines the songs of Bob Dylan in a universal story of family and love set in the heartland of America in 1934, when a group of wayward souls cross paths in a time-weathered guesthouse in ‘nowheresville’ [Duluth, Minnesota]. As they search for the future and hide from the past, they find themselves facing unspoken truths about the present.

“God we had to fight to get it but I’m seriously glad we did,” says Tom. “It premiered at The Old Vic and it’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Bob Dylan had been badgered for years about doing a jukebox musical, and he said, ‘only if it’s a bit weird’. Luckily, he was involved in Conor getting to do it.

Girl From The North Country: “Doing a Conor McPherson on a Bob Dylan jukebox musical”

“It’s a marriage made in heaven! He does a Conor McPherson on a Bob Dylan jukebox musical: it’s an incredible, haunting story with a cast of odd characters you’d find travelling on a Greyhound bus, when you gather all this eccentricity in America and you can’t escape them, set to Dylan’s songs.

“Everyone knows Bob Dylan songs are sung better when Dylan doesn’t sing them, and for this show, they take a genuine cross section of songs from across his career, not only the Sixties.”

Among further highlights, York Stage will make their Theatre Royal debut in a 40th anniversary production of Howard Ashman and and Alan Menken’s musical Little Shop Of Horrors, from July 14 to 13, and Original Theatre will present Susie Blake as Miss Marple in Rachel Wagstaff’s new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, from October 4 to 8.

“I’d been a bit worried whether a murder mystery is still what people want as we’ve seen that move from drawing-room plays to musicals in audience tastes, but The Mirror Crack’d has gone like a train at the box office,” says Tom.

Summing up the philosophy behind Rumours And Rebels, he concludes : “It’s not easy to have a themed season when we put on such diverse work here, but when we see ways to do seasons with connected themes we will do it, like the Theatre Royal did with seasons focusing on Yorkshire and women before I came here.

“By having a theme, hopefully it will encourage people to see more plays in the season having enjoyed one.

“Overall, for me, what we’re eliminating from York Theatre Royal is the middle-of-the-road. When we bring in touring shows, we might as well go ‘big’, bringing in new audiences; when we produce plays, we’re going to do new work like The Tragedy Of Guy Fawkes and The Coppergate Woman, not Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which might be my favourite play but wouldn’t get an audience.”

For the full programme and tickets details for Rumours And Rebels at York Theatre Royal, go to: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Box office: 01904 623568.

Copyright Of The Press, York

Susie Blake as Miss Marple in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on English Touring Opera’s La Bohème and The Golden Cockerel, York Theatre Royal

Francesca Chiejina as Mimi and Luciano Botelho as Rodolfo in English Touring Opera’s La Bohème

English Touring Opera, La Bohème, April 8; The Golden Cockerel, April 9, at York Theatre Royal

IT was good to have English Touring Opera back in town. Don’t take my word for it. The Theatre Royal had to open its upper reaches to accommodate the throngs gratefully gathered for professional opera for the first time since Covid struck.

York Opera had led the way in fine style last autumn; ETO followed suit, with a potboiler and an exotic rarity.

Puccini’s La Bohème inevitably relies for its success on the lovers at its heart. The company had cast its net wide before settling on Brazilian tenor Luciano Botelho for the lovelorn Bohemian Rodolfo, casting Nigerian-American soprano Francesca Chiejina as his Mimì.

On this occasion, both began diffidently: it was partly a reflection of the amatory sheepishness of their characters, but also a result of under-projection. Botelho’s tenor disappeared into his head the higher up the range he went, while Chiejina took a while to release the tension in her jaw, which diminished her projection. She left the difficult final note of Act 1 far too early, a sure sign of lacking confidence.

Thereafter both improved and their Act 3 duet by the customs barrier found them much more relaxed and thus less self-conscious.

James Conway’s thoughtful production, revived here by Christopher Moon-Little, was based around deliberately simplistic designs by Florence de Maré (revived by Neil Irish). A large reflective glass panel leaned in on the bohemians’ attic, with the regulation stove in one corner and unusual seating provided by the basket of a hot-air balloon whose sandbags were cushions. Set on tea-chests, these became pillows for Mimì’s deathbed.

These bourgeois boys were well-clothed, affirmation that they would be returning to provincial ways once their salad days were done. In this way, set and production were complementary.

Michel de Souza’s warm baritone made a sympathetic Marcello, who was never going to be fooled by the glamour of Jenny Stafford’s Musetta; she in turn was more hard-edged than flirtatious.

Trevor Eliot Bowes’ pensive Colline and Themba Mvula’s lively Schaunard rounded out the well-balanced bohemians. Chorus members filled the cameo roles very competently and children from the York Music Hub Choir sang pleasingly – rather than the usual shouting – as Parpignol’s acolytes (he was ‘Pa’Guignol’, a Punch-and-Judy man).

Iwan Davies – not the main conductor for the run – stood in with distinction, his clear beat shaping accompaniment that always put the singers’ needs first. His orchestra responded with keen rhythms.

The chorus was in good heart at Café Momus, maintaining discipline amongst the hi-jinks. Despite the lack of outstanding soloists, this was a good, solid Bohème, well worth catching at Gala Theatre, Durham, on May 9 if you missed it this time in York.

Paula Sides as the exotic Queen of Shemakha in English Touring Opera’s The Golden Cockerel

Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the all-time great orchestrators and The Golden Cockerel, his last opera and the only one staged regularly outside Russia, offers plenty of evidence of this. Touring has made a reduced adaptation necessary, which Iain Farrington has handily provided.

It lacked some of the exoticism that a larger orchestra might have offered but kept the vital woodwinds very busy and retained enough glockenspiel glitter for the astrologer’s motif. Gerry Cornelius conducted it lovingly while keeping a good balance between stage and pit.

James Conway’s new production was well-timed. The fairy-tale libretto, based on a Pushkin poem, was sung here in a neatly rhyming translation by Antal Dorati and James Gibson. It tells of half-witted King Dodon’s fear that his country is about to be invaded.

When the work was selected it can hardly have crossed the company’s mind that a terrible real-life sequel would actually ensue. The analogy cannot be pushed too hard, but the exotic Queen of Shemakha – ‘Mother Russia’ it was suggested to me in the interval – does all she can to seduce Dodon and his court, opposed only by the ineffectual General Polkan.

The Astrologer who frames the action reveals at its close that only he and the Queen are real characters, “all the rest were dream, delusion…”. In fact, the opera is better seen as parodying naive techniques in Russian opera and to that extent anticipates Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

Conway did well to stick to the score and not introduce an excess of up-to-date connotations, other than dressing the royal housekeeper Amelka and three of her minions in military khaki. In the designs by Neil Irish, the general wore a Kaiser-style helmet, which implied a pre-First World War setting. The cockerel of the title was mainly perched on a look-out tower, so as to warn of impending invasion. She was appealingly drawn by the nimble Alys Mererid Roberts.

Grant Doyle gave an amusingly doddery Dodon, struggling to hold on to power, with his sons – who accidentally bump each other off in battle – portrayed as Tweedledum and Tweedledee by Thomas Elwin and Jerome Knox.

Amy J Payne was a regular martinet as Amelka, Edward Hawkins made a nicely bumbling Polkan, and Robert Lewis coped valiantly with the ultra-high tenor role of Astrologer, more than faintly reminiscent of Rasputin.

That left the bulk of the serious singing, in Acts 2 and 3, to Paula Sides as the Queen. Her coloratura, deliberately parodistic, hit the spot, and her somewhat shrill tone suited the orientalism of Rimsky’s score.

It was just as well we had English side-titles, as diction was generally less than ideal. The chorus played a full part in keeping the comedy vital, crawling out from under the curtain for their finale.

It has been 37 years since this work was given in Yorkshire, by Opera North, so unless you are young you may want to head to Durham on May 10.                                         

Review by Martin Dreyer

‘I wanted to be able to write about women of different ages and backgrounds,’ says Michele Lee. Cue Rice at York Theatre Royal

From antipathy to friendship: Angela Yeoh, as Yvette, left, and Anya Jaya-Murphy, as Nisha, in Michele Lee’s Rice

RICE, Michele Lee’s humorous observation on gender, globalisation, family and friendship, plays York Theatre Royal tonight and tomorrow.

Winner of the Australian Writers’ Guild Award for Best Original Stage Play, Lee’s story focuses on the powerful – if unlikely – bond between an ambitious young businesswoman and her office cleaner as they navigate the complexities of their lives and the world at large.

Nisha (Anya Jaya-Murphy), a headstrong hotshot executive at Golden Fields, Australia’s largest producer of rice, is determined to become the first female Indian chief executive officer in Australia.

She is close to sealing a contract with the Indian government in a secret deal worth billions that would see her company take over India’s national rice distribution system.

Working late nights in the office, she encounters Yvette (Angela Yeoh), an older Chinese migrant, who cleans up her mess. Yvette has her own entrepreneurial ambitions, but her daughter faces court after participating in a protest against the unethical practices of a national supermarket chain.

“I’ve always wanted to centre a story around two strong female actors of colour and that was my starting point,” says Michele. “In this play their characters traverse a range of identities and jump between and transform across many different roles.

“I feel exhilarated that this drama is being staged on opposite sides of the world and hope its universal themes around gender, ambition and friendship will resonate with audiences in the UK.”

The British production is being mounted by Actors Touring Company and Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, in association with Plymouth Theatre Royal, under the direction of ATC artistic director Matthew Xia.

“Maybe maybe I’m kind of hopeful because ultimately the play ends in a mostly hopeful way,” says playwright Michele Lee

“It feels fantastic after this pandemic-enforced hiatus to finally be back touring shows again,” he says of a tour that already has visited Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre on March 4 and 5 in its first North Yorkshire showcase.

“I’m looking forward to introducing this dynamic and expansive drama, which stays true to ATC’s mission in bringing fresh dialogue and perspectives from different cultures and intersections to audiences up and down the country.”

Hmong-Australian writer Michele Lee tells stories through theatre, live art, audio and on screen, exploring otherness, Asian identity and found families, usually through “contemporary narratives that privilege the experiences of women and people of colour”.

“The play began with me thinking about these roles of power that don’t tend to be diverse,” she says. “When I was beginning to write plays, it was against a backdrop of people of colour being limited in what they could be cast for because, in the plays that were being written, they were never more than the side role.

“Whereas I wanted to be able to write about women of different ages and different backgrounds, and with Rice, it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to consider what could connect people in different ways.”

Michele did “heaps of research”. “I went to India; I met a farming advocacy group; an Australian crop baron, who had a variety of crops, not just rice, and he was interesting because he was educated in agricultural science,” she says.

“His parents were farmers but had studied the business side and this was indicative of how things had changed from when people who farmed lived in villages pre-industrial revolution.

“The play is an exposition of some of the real-world issues, focusing on two women who are spiky and that really resonated with me.”

Addressing universal themes around gender, ambition and friendship: Anya Jaya-Murphy’s businesswoman Nisha, left, and Angela Yeoh’s cleaner Yvette in Rice

Michele is a writer of Southeast Asian descent. “My background is Hmong, a diaspora of stateless people, with that diaspora being due to war,” she says. “My dad came out to Canberra as a student on an Australian government scholarship, and my mum was allowed to join him on a humanitarian visa. After the Hmong were exposed as ‘anti-Communist for supporting the Americans’ in the Vietnam war, she had fled to a refugee camp.”

Born into 1980s’ Australia, Michele grew up in Canberra as one of only 4,000 Hmong people in Australia. “I’m an Australian citizen, and I’ve written stuff that’s autobiographical, but with Rice I’m writing about people who are ‘absented’ in Australia,” she says.

“They are two women from different Asian backgrounds with differences in how they appear and the cultures they come from, but they overlap more than they don’t, and though it starts off with their antipathy, maybe I’m kind of hopeful because ultimately the play ends in a mostly hopeful way when they’d started off not being friendly.

“The cynic in me says that would never happen, but there’s a wider hope and aspiration to allow them to look for friendship.”

Michele enjoyed writing for the two-hander format. “There’s no relief because there’s no-one providing a third voice,” she says. “It heightens the intensity, and though there are moments of levity, it allows for frank discussions.”

She did not make it to the London run but travelled over to Britain from her Melbourne home last month when the regional dates were underway with a different cast and new touring set. “I got to Liverpool on the Friday, feeling very zonked, and saw it on the Saturday, feeling less zonked. I enjoyed it,” she says.

“It’s hard to separate my inner critic, always looking for something wrong about it, when I should be thinking, ‘what do I like about it?’, and there’s plenty!”

Actors Touring Company and Orange Tree Theatre present Michele Lee’s Rice, York Theatre Royal, tonight (13/4/2022) and tomorrow at 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

When Harry met Christine on York Theatre Royal stage for a grand Yorkshire night out

In the news: Christine Talbot and Harry Gration

YORKSHIRE broadcasting legends Harry Gration and Christine Talbot host a journey down memory lane at York Theatre Royal tonight on a rare occasion when these friends but former news-breaking rivals will have presented together.

Once the familiar faces of the BBC’s Look North and ITV’s rival Calendar respectively, the duo will be looking back at memorable stories, plus a smattering of their crazier fundraising exploits, from tandem rides and a sofa push to Harry being tied to weather presenter Paul Hudson for days on end.

Special guests at A Grand Yorkshire Night Out will be production team members from the original All Creatures Great And Small series, vet Julian Norton, Leeds band The Dunwells and Harry’s musical son, Harrison, singing songs from the shows.

“I’ve never done anything on stage, apart from when I was 11 at dance school,” says Christine, 52. “I stuck to the TV studio, but seeing this theatre at the press launch, what a beautiful place it is. It’s going to be fun to be on that stage. There’ll be a lot of ad-libbing on the night to go with everything we’ve planned and we just want everyone to have a nice, relaxing time.”

Son of York Harry, 71, is no stranger to the St Leonard’s Place building. “It’s a place I’ve been coming to for so many years to see shows or occasionally be on stage,” he says. Not only on stage, but Harry was a fixture in the infamous film sequences in Berwick Kaler’s pantomimes too.

How did A Grand Yorkshire Night Out take shape? “We’d been talking about doing a show as soon Christine announced she’d be leaving Calendar,” recalls Harry. “I got in touch to say, ‘should we do something together?’ as we’d always discussed the possibility but had been working on opposite sides of the TV world in Yorkshire, though we did do a joint Look North and Calendar broadcast on the first anniversary of the Covid pandemic.”

Christine says: “We’ve always been friends, we’ve never been rivals, and I’ve always had great relationships with all of the news teams on both Calendar and Look North. A lot of them cross over between the two programmes.”

Covering Yorkshire is a newshound’s dream: in a nutshell, biggest county, big, big stories. “You can say almost with total confidence that there’ll be ten belting stories in Yorkshire each year,” says Harry.

“We’ve met and interviewed fantastic people over the years, and we’ll be talking about those experiences in this show,” says Christine.

Harry Gration and Christine Talbot on stage at York Theatre Royal on their press day

The duo had looked at the format of one-man and one-woman shows around the Yorkshire patch, coming to the conclusion it would be better to broaden the focus, combining their stories with a celebration of God’s Own Country. “We didn’t want it to be just us but a Yorkshire show with good chat and brilliant music,” says Harry.

“That’s why, as well as clips from the shows down the years and some funny stuff, we’ve got some amazing guests like Julian Norton, from The Yorkshire Vet, and members of the production crew from the BBC’s original All Creatures Great And Small, director Tony Virgo and production manager Mike Darbon, and author Oliver Crocker, who’s written All Memories Great And Small.

“For the music, we have The Dunwells, from Leeds, who have an EP coming out at the same time, and my son Harrison, who’s 18 now and training to be an opera singer at the Royal Academy of Music. He’ll be singing popular songs.”

Looking back over his days in the TV studios, Harry says: “When I started , the way I presented was very formal, but later I became more animated. Des Lynam was my hero – I did a few Grandstands in the 1980s – and I loved his presenting style, though I’m not sure you could get away now with some of the things he said.

“It’s more scripted now. You have to be careful, more than ever before, about quips with you co-presenters. There’s a lot more sensitivity.”

Christine notes how she changed from her early days. “When I left Calendar they did a look back at when I started, when my voice sounded so posh after I moved over from the BBC!” she says.

“People have to be able to connect with you and see you as a friend when they watch as you become part of people’s lives, where they’re used to seeing you in the corner of their living room each night, so you have to be relatable.

“Wherever we go, people will come up and say ‘Hi’ because they feel they know you well, and I really like it that they do that, and in a sense, A Grand Yorkshire Night Out is an extension of that.”

The show, nevertheless, is something of a journey into the unknown for Harry and Christine. “Is it a gamble?” Harry ponders. “Well, it is in one sense as we don’t know how many people will turn up, but we can guarantee we will relate to the audience, respond to how they react, as we all celebrate our region.”

Have they missed presenting the news since their TV exits? “The thing I found really strange at first was not having that structure to the day, missing the Calendar team, that family, after being in one place for 30 years, but since then doors have opened up and you have to shake the tree and see what falls out,” says Christine.

The Dunwells: Heading over from Leeds to York tonight

“Various projects are in the book, like doing an on-stage chat show at the Great Yorkshire Show, and I’m on the board of the children’s hospital in Leeds and Harrogate Flower Show.”

Harry “doesn’t really miss” presenting Look North. “I felt I’d gone as far as I could with it, and at 70 it was the natural time to go,” he says. “Ultimately, I would have been having to compete for a job with Amy [Garcia}, and I didn’t want to go down that line.

“I don’t ever wake up thinking I wish I was working there today. I don’t want to do broadcast news now. I see where I am now as semi-retirement: I still get to do lots of things and I’ll be going to a lot of cricket.”

Tonight’s show may be A Grand Yorkshire Night Out but Christine has a confession to make. “I’m from the wrong side of the Pennines – I was born Christine Standish, near Wigan – but luckily I’ve been welcomed with open arms and I’ve lived here in Yorkshire longer than anywhere else. My daughter was born at Jimmy’s [St James’s Hospital] in Leeds, so hopefully I have my Yorkshire passport now!”

Harry’s career path took him to BBC Southampton for four years. “I loved it but I came back north in 1999, and Yorkshire really has been the only place I’d want to be. The twins, Harvey and Harrison, are probably not going to come back to live in York; one’s at Exeter University, the other’s in London, but my wife Helen’s businesses are in Yorkshire, running two children’s nurseries in York and two in Leeds, and York is our home.”

As for Christine: “I’d never dare leave Yorkshire. My husband’s a Huddersfield Town fan!” she says.

A Grand Yorkshire Night Out with Harry Gration & Christine Talbot, York Theatre Royal, tonight (11/4/2022), 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

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