Will Dick Turpin Ride Again or not at Grand Opera House? Qdos Entertainment panto decision upcoming for Berwick and co…

We’ll meet again…or will they? AJ Powell, Berwick Kaler, Suzy Cooper, David Leonard and Martin Barrass settle into the Grand Opera House auditorium at the launch of Dick Turpin Rides Again on February 14, but now Qdos Entertainment have a decision to make. PIcture: David Harrison

BUMPING into Martin Barrass last night beneath At The Mill’s magical open-air theatre tent at Stillington Mill set the mind to pondering the fate of his winter pantomime in York.

Will comic stooge Martin bounce back with Suzy Cooper, David Leonard and A J Powell in veteran Dame Berwick Kaler’s panto debut at the Grand Opera House this Christmas after their shock transfer to Qdos Entertainment from York Theatre Royal?

Here is the latest statement from Qdos, the pantomime powerhouse across the land, amid the continuing blight of Covid-19’s social-distancing requirements leaving theatres in the dark.

“We had been very clear that we required clarity from the Government regarding the re-opening of theatres by Monday, 3 August, in order for our pantomime season as we know it to take place,” the statement read.

Martin Barrass in his last York Theatre Royal pantomime role as Queen Ariadne in Sleeping Beauty. Picture: Anthony Robling

“Based on the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s reiteration last week that the Government won’t be providing further guidance on theatres operating without social distancing until November at the earliest, we are left with no choice but to begin the consultation process with our partner theatres about the viability of each show. This is a complex process and will take several weeks to complete.

“We are not immediately announcing the postponement of all shows, however plans will be announced by individual theatres and communicated to ticket holders in due course.”

Watch this space for Qdos’s decision on whether Dame Berwick’s pantomime comeback, Dick Turpin Rides Again, will or will not ride again. What will it be: pantomime or pandemime?


QDOS Entertainment today cancelled their biggest pantomime outside London: the Birmingham Hippodrome production of Goldilocks And The Three Bears starring Jason Donovan.

Scuppered by the Covid-19 pandemic, the show is now re-scheduled for Christmas 2021, Donovan, co-star Matt Slack and all.

Qdos’s pantomime at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Sleeping Beauty, has been put to sleep too until 2021.

One park bench, three shows, prepare for outdoor theatre in Rowntree Park garden

Park Bench Theatre director Matt Aston on a park bench in Rowntree Park, York. Picture: Livy Potter

THREE monologues on a park bench in a Rowntree Park garden herald the return of theatre to York from the Glorious Twelfth onwards.

Engine House Theatre artistic director Matt Aston has assembled a summer season of open-air shows that will combine Samuel Beckett’s rarely-performed First Love with two premieres, Aston’s own new piece, Every Time A Bell Rings, and a new adaptation of the classic children’s song, Teddy Bears’ Picnic, co-created for all the family by Aston and Cassie Vallance.

The trio of productions will be presented from August 12 to September 5 in the Covid-secure setting of the carefully laid-out and spacious Friends Garden at Rowntree Park, allowing audiences of up to 75 to maintain social distance from each other in the park’s most enclosed space.

“Who’d have thought six months ago that we would be having such a stressful, terrifying, bizarre time since March,” says Matt, more heavily bearded in lockdown than when he co-directed York Theatre Royal’s somewhat stressful 2019-2020 pantomime, Sleeping Beauty.

“I first had idea of doing something this summer, running round Rowntree Park in the middle of lockdown on one of my Government-ordained bursts of daily exercise. Sitting on a bench [too late to tell him off now!], I was thinking about doing some socially distanced indoor theatre, but then someone suggested, ‘Why not do some outdoor theatre in Rowntree Park?’.”

The seeds for Park Bench Theatre were sewn. “The name Park Bench Theatre does what it says on the tin: performing theatre on or around a park bench, which I first did 20 years ago in Nottingham,” Matt says.

“The idea was always to keep it simple, having first started thinking about in April/May, knowing that it has to feel safe and secure but also feel ‘normal’, feeling like it would pre-Covid, but keeping the production costs basic.

The Park Bench Theatre production team: Ben Pugh, back left; directors Matt Aston and Tom Bellerby, seated; Luke James and Mike Redley; Harriet Marshall, front left, and Pauline Rourke. Picture: Livy Potter

“Theatre is social, sharing stories, and these shows will be a collective story-telling experience.”

His Rowntree Park exertions set the plays and their subject matter in motion. “I had the idea of someone sitting on a park bench and thinking about what they’re going through,” says Matt, explaining the trigger for Every Time A Bell Rings.

“I thought of the isolation and the fact that she might actually have been isolated for many years. I then remembered First Love was also set on a park bench and the idea rolled on from that.”

The first to open, running from August 12 to August 22, will be Matt’s production of First Love, Beckett’s 45-minute monologue about a man, a woman, a recollection, awash with the Irish playwright’s signature balancing of comedy and tragedy.

First Love was the last piece of the Park Bench Theatre jigsaw to fall into place. “I think the Beckett estate had a few questions about what we were doing, as it’s not a play, but it had been done at the Arcola Theatre [in London] as a learnt reading,” says Matt.

“For me, it reads as a monologue, but we’re being respectful to it as the short story it was written as. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, really accessible, really funny, and Chris is bringing out all the humour.”

The ‘Chris’ in question is Chris Hannon, best known for his CBeebies role as Dad in Topsy And Tim and as the pantomime dame at Wakefield Theatre Royal for more than a decade. “My first panto as director at Wakefield was his first panto as the dame there,” says Matt. “There was a tradition of never inviting anyone back, but he was so brilliant that he’s been going back ever since, and he writes it now as well.”

Tom Bellerby: Director of Every Time A Bell Rings

Next up, from August 26 to September 5, will be Aston’s 50-minute premiere of Every Time A Bell Rings, performed by Northern Broadsides and Slung Low regular Lisa Howard and directed by Tom Bellerby, back in York from London.

Tom had been resident assistant director at the Donmar Warehouse, London, after making his mark at York Theatre Royal as associate artist at Pilot Theatre and as associate director at Hull Truck Theatre from 2016 to 2018, taking in Hull’s year as the 2017 UK City of Culture. 

The play’s setting is Lockdown, Easter Sunday 2020, when Cathy searches for solace on her favourite park bench in her favourite park in Aston’s funny and poignant look at how the world is changing through these extraordinary times.

“I’ve written it in Lockdown, having had a vague notion some years ago of doing a piece revolving around a woman dealing with grief when I was dealing with the death of my stepfather,” says Matt.

“I started having a go at writing a piece in the spare hours between child-care and then felt it would be right for Park Bench Theatre once I felt confident that we were going to get the go-ahead.

“Then I had the idea that someone else should direct it, and though I hadn’t met Tom before, I knew he’d returned to York and it made sense for him to come on board.”

After two shows with “very strong language”, the third will be a complete contrast: Teddy Bears’ Picnic on August 19 to 22, 27 to 29 and 31 and September 1 to 5, based on an original idea by Julian Butler.

Cassie Vallance in The Storm Whale at the York Theatre Royal Studio last December. Picture: Northedge Photography

“I really hope they don’t come to the wrong show!” says Matt, who is renewing his creative partnership with Cassie Vallance after she starred in his adaptation of Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale in the Theatre Royal Studio last Christmas.

Suitable for everyone aged three and over, this 30-minute show carries the billing: “Every year, Jo’s family used to have a big family gathering – a teddy bears’ picnic – but then she got too old and too cool for that sort of thing. Now she’s grown up, she wishes she could have them all over again.”

“Julian Butler and I had the idea for this show when we were doing The Storm Whale, and Cassie and I are creating it over the next few weeks,” says Matt. “She was brilliant in The Storm Whale and has been doing fantastic work online with Crafty Tales, so I’m thrilled to be working with her again.”

Roll on, August 12, for the first Park Bench Theatre performance. “The relief is being able to talk about putting on shows, rather than all the other stuff that’s going on,” says Matt. “Loads of people have been doing creative things in lockdown, and it’s good that Park Bench Theatre has come about in that time.”

Yet Matt strikes a note of caution for the winter ahead for theatre and the arts at large, however. “As I’ve said for many weeks, any organisation that relies on anyone being indoors for any length of time faces a problematic situation,” he says.

“I think the Government will let one industry take a hit and I fear that industry will be the arts, despite arts and culture bringing so much to the national and local economy.”

Cassie Vallance in rehearsal for Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Picture: Northedge Photography

Full details on Park Bench Theatre, including tickets and the audience use of headphones, can be found at: parkbenchtheatre.com.

The monologues:

First Love by Samuel Beckett, August 12 to 22, 7pm; August 15 and 22, 4pm matinee.

A story of a man, a woman, a recollection, awash with Beckett’s signature balancing of comedy and tragedy. Performed by Chris Hannon, directed by Matt Aston. Running time: 70 minutes. Contains very strong language. 

Every Time A Bell Rings, premiere by Matt Aston, August 26 to September 5, 7pm; August 29 and September 5, 4pm matinee. 

Lockdown. Easter Sunday 2020. Cathy emerges from her own isolation to search for solace on her favourite park bench in her favourite park. Touching, funny, poignant look at how the world is changing through these extraordinary times. Performed by Lisa Howard, directed by Tom Bellerby. Contains very strong language. Running time: 50 minutes.

The Park Bench Theatre production team observing social distancing in Rowntree Park, York. Picture: Livy Potter

Teddy Bears’ Picnic, premiere, August 19 to 22, 27 to 29 and 31; September 1 to 5; 11.30am and 1.30pm. Co-created by Cassie Vallance and director Matt Aston.

Every year, Jo’s family had a big, brilliant family gathering – a teddy bears’ picnic. Then she grew too old and too cool for that sort of thing, so she stopped going. But now she’s grown up, she wishes she could have them all over again. Running time: 30 minutes. Suitable for everyone aged three and over. Bring your favourite teddy and a picnic.

A word from: Helen Apsey, head of culture and well-being at Make It York

“This is a fantastic initiative to bring live theatre back to York in the beautiful surroundings of Rowntree Park. It is a great addition to the city’s summer offering – providing a safe outdoor theatre experience designed for families and people of all ages.”

A word from: Abigail Gaines, Friends of Rowntree Park trustee

“We are thrilled to have open-air theatre in Rowntree Park. The park has been a lifeline to many during Lockdown, and hearing it inspired the writing of one of the plays makes hosting the performance even more meaningful.

“The park is a key place for families and we know they will love the family performances. The Friends of Rowntree Park always support arts in the park and are very much looking forward to the shows.”



Yes, headphones will be required to hear the dialogue, sound effects and music in performances. All audience members will be given a receiver on entry that headphones can be plugged into.

Audiences are encouraged to bring their own set, but no wireless or Bluetooth ones. Instead they must be plug-in headphones or earphones. You can buy takeaway headphones for £1 when you book your ticket online, for collection when you visit. 

Director Matt Aston on a Rowntree Park park bench. Audience members will be on blankets or chairs

Performance area?

The Friends Garden is an enclosed lawn at Rowntree Park that will have socially distanced seating in an outdoor Covid-secure setting with clearly delineated areas/boxes marked on the grass – three metres square – for audience members to sit in.

Up to three or four people from the same household can sit in each box. Further individual seats will be spaced around the side of the lawn. 

The capacity for First Love and Every Time A Bell Rings is 75 tickets; the maximum for Teddy Bears’ Picnic is 50 as boxes will be slightly bigger for up to four people from the same household.


Audience members are encouraged to bring blankets for the first few rows and chairs for the back few rows.

Ticketing policy?

If you have any symptoms of Covid-19, have been diagnosed with the virus or have been in direct contact with a diagnosed individual in the past 14 days, you must not attend the event.

If unable to attend due to other illness, contact the box office to arrange a ticket transfer. Tickets can be refunded only if the booked performance has sold out.


IN conversation with City of York Council, and in line with Government guidance, Park Bench Theatre has implemented a range of measures to ensure the health and safety of audiences and staff. The measures are under constant review and apply across all performances throughout the season. 

Arriving: Gates will open an hour before the show start time to allow everyone to arrive at their leisure and avoid large queues. All tickets will be digital and checked without contact at a social distance at the entrance to the performance area. There will be a one-way system to enter and exit the performance area.

Social distancing: Each household or social, bubble will be seated at a safe distance from other households or social bubbles. Volunteer stewards will direct audience members to their designated bubble.

Food and refreshments: Bring your own food and drink to all performances but no alcohol is allowed. 

Departure: Stewards will manage the departure so large crowds do not all leave at the same time.

Loos. All performances take place without an interval. The Rowntree Park loos will be open before and after all performances.

York Theatre Royal to make job cuts to ensure future. “Devastating,” says director

Silent night: The empty York Theatre Royal stage and auditorium bathed in “emergency red” on the nationwide #LightItInRed campaign night on July 6

YORK Theatre Royal is to make “some redundancies”, faced by the need to reduce costs significantly in the Coronavirus blight.

A statement headlined “York Theatre Royal takes steps to ensure its future” was released today, announcing that, “like so many theatres around the country”, the St Leonard’s Place theatre would be entering into consultations with staff that would “regrettably lead to some redundancies due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic”.

“The theatre has been unable to open its doors for performances since March 17 and, despite Government allowing the return of socially distanced performances from August 1, the theatre’s survival will depend on it reducing costs significantly,” the statement continued.

Eighty-nine per cent of the Theatre Royal’s annual income is generated through ticket sales and from revenue streams associated with welcoming audiences. A £196,493 grant from the Arts Council England Emergency Fund, announced on July 7, will support the theatre, but only to September 30, and crucially details are yet to be announced as to how the much vaunted £1.57 billion Government relief package for cultural institutions will be distributed.

The “crown jewels” of British culture are expected to be at the top of the pecking order, although Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has talked of the need to protect small-scale theatre enterprises too.

York Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird, pictured in happier times. “It is devastating to me that in the coming weeks we are going to have to make some very difficult decisions,” he says

In the statement, Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird said: “Since 1744, the people of York have enjoyed, supported and celebrated this theatre. It is our job, as custodians of this great community asset, to do whatever we can to ensure its survival for the people of our city.

“All of the leadership team have taken big pay cuts, and we have maximised our use of government [furlough] schemes.

“It is devastating to me that in the coming weeks we are going to have to make some very difficult decisions. But the theatre can survive this and we will make sure that, when we are able to re-open our doors, York Theatre Royal will come roaring back with an epic programme to help re-energise our community’s creativity.”

Tom added: “I want to take this opportunity to thank the hundreds of people who are donating to the theatre at this time, as a result of our heightened fundraising messages. This is making a real difference.” Donations can be made online via yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Vicky Biles, the Theatre Royal director of communications and development, said: “We’re not going to add anything else at this time.”

That leaves questions aplenty. How many redundancies? When will the Theatre Royal learn if any slice of the £1.57 billion aid package is bound for York? Will Cinderella still be going to the ball in the Theatre Royal’s first pantomime collaboration with Evolution Productions from December 4 to January 10 2021? Watch this space for the answers, whenever they may come.

York Theatre Royal boosted by emergency funding from Arts Council England

York Theatre Royal’s stage and auditorium bathed in “emergency red” when taking part in the #LightItInRed campaign on Monday night

YORK Theatre Royal is to receive £196,493 from Arts Council England’s emergency response fund.

Executive director Tom Bird tweeted: “We’re massively grateful for the @ace_national support from their emergency fund. It keeps us going so we can keep supporting & developing creativity in this wondrous city. Thanks @ace_thenorth. Back to it.”

Bird told CharlesHutchPress: “We received the sum we requested, and it was strictly done on the basis of ‘what do you need to get you through to September 30’.

“But I must stress it is only a sum to take us to that point, when the reality is that we’re a venue usually with an annual turnover of £4 million.”

From Arts Council England’s £33 million pot for National Portfolio and Creative People & Places Organisations, York Museums Trust has received £362,000; Harrogate Theatre, £395,000; Leeds Playhouse (Leeds Theatre Trust), £669,326; Northern Ballet, Leeds, £500,000 and Sheffield Theatres Trust, £675,569.

York Theatre Royal goes into the red…to highlight the need for emergency support

Red sky at night : York Theatre Royal taking part in the #LightItInRed campaign tonight

YORK Theatre Royal will be bathed in “emergency red” tonight as part of the nationwide #LightItInRed campaign.

The 9pm event was announced before the Blues came to the arts industry’s aid in the dead of night last night when the Government suddenly announced a £1.57 billion grant and loan package after the Covid-19 pandemic left theatres and music venues in the dark, both physically and as to when they might re-open both safely and economically viably, stymied by social-distancing measures.

The choice of red has turned out to be prescient, given the most well-worn reaction of the day being that “the devil is in the detail”.

Taken as red: The foyer “mushrooms” pictured on #LightItInRed night at York Theatre Royal

Organised by Clearsound Productions in partnership with the Backstage Theatre Jobs, the #LightItInRed project sees theatres, arts and music venues up and down the country lighting their buildings in red to “raise awareness of the difficulties facing the UK events industry as a result of the Coronavirus crisis”.

Unlike for other industries, no set date is in place for live events, shows, festivals and performances to re-start after the COVID-19 lockdown, against the backdrop of the “creative sector” usually generating around £110 billion annually for the UK economy, based on figures from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Since mid-March 16, however, major events have been prohibited, leaving more than 25,000 businesses without any income. York Theatre Royal, for example, has lost £650,000 in expected income since its closure on March 17. 

In a statement today, the Theatre Royal “welcomes, with gratitude, the announcement that the government will support the arts with a £1.57bn funding package and keenly awaits the details of how the funding will work”. 

“We currently have no clear time frame as to when our doors will be able to re-open,” says York Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird

Before the late-night announcement of a deal thrashed out by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and the Chancellor, Richmond MP Rishi Sunak, the Theatre Royal’s executive director, Tom Bird, had warned that “the clock is ticking” after Dowden initially announced a road map for theatre’s return “that a child could have drawn up”.

Others had called the five-step plan – short on detail, devoid of dates – a road map to nowhere, a faulty SatNav leading only to a cliff’s edge.

Today Bird called for a “clear time frame” for urgent action beyond the words. “York Theatre Royal makes a huge social and economic impact in our city, and we have been working very hard behind the scenes to ensure we come roaring back with an epic programme for all the community to enjoy,” he said.

Silence is…red: The York Theatre Royal stage and auditorium, as empty as they have been since March 17, on the #LightItInRed campaign night

“We are delighted and grateful that the Government have committed £1.57bn to support the arts sector. However, our theatre remains closed, and we currently have no clear time frame as to when our doors will be able to re-open.

“Just 11 per cent of our annual income comes from state funding, the rest is made up by our audiences: the thousands of people who come to be entertained and inspired by us every year.

“We are pursuing all possible sources of funding, including the Government support, but we ask that you join the many who have already supported us by donating to us.”

Tom continued: “This is a difficult time for our building, but it is an incredibly difficult time for the freelancers who make up such an important part of our theatre family. 70 per cent of people who work in theatre and performance in the UK are freelance, and it’s for this workforce that the impact of the current situation is most acute. Our freelance family are very much in our thoughts and plans for the future.” 

On red alert: The Joseph Rowntree Theatre, the York community theatre in Haxby Road, taking part in tonight’s #LightItInRed emergency campaign

The Theatre Royal is asking people to share photos of the red-lit building in St Leonard’s Place on social media, using the hashtag #LightItInRed. Donations to York Theatre Royal can be made online at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Tonight, York Theatre Royal, the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House will be among 564 “iconic landmarks” to be lit up in “emergency red to draw attention to the critical condition of the live events and entertainment industry”, in a campaign inspired by Germany’s #NightofLight protest in June that triggered €1billion in emergency arts funding.

A spokesman for #LightItInRed said: “While we welcome the rescue package from the Government, we await clarification about what this means for freelancers, suppliers and those in the wider theatrical and events industry.  We continue to light buildings red this evening to show we are still standing by to reopen.”

Taking part too tonight will be the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, whose chair of the board of trustees, Dan Shrimpton, said: “We want to show our support for this movement.  Our theatre is all about involvement and community and because of the generous support given to us by local company Technical Stage Services, we’ve been able to get the ‘Emergency Red’ lighting set up quickly. “

Shortly before the closure of theatres, the JoRo, in Haxby Road, York, launched its Raise The Roof appeal to raise a £90,000 shortfall for roof repairs, with the remaining costs coming from reserves. 

“A prolonged closure will result in the theatre needing to dip into those reserves to meet running costs, so the charity will be keeping a watch to see if it will be able to apply for grants or loans from the government’s scheme,” said Dan.

Nigel Slater’s Toast pops up online as animated radio play, Walnut Whips and all

Nigel, meet Nigel: Cookery writer Nigel Slater with Giles Cooper, who played his younger self on stage and will do so again in next month’s radio play and animated film. Picture: Simon Annand

NIGEL Slater’s childhood memoir, Toast, is popping up again, this time online as a radio play and animated film with a recipe card from the cookery writer, from July 1 to 31.

For the full flavour to flood out, to match the interactive, sensory nature of the 2019 stage play, where the smell of food added to the pleasure, “new ways for audiences to feel, hear, smell and taste” Toast will be part of the broadcast experience.

This innovative response to lockdown times is being brought to the air by the Lawrence Batley Theatre, in Huddersfield, “rising to the forefront to make a difference during this cultural shift for a second time in a bid to raise money for the theatre industry when it faces ongoing struggles”.

Already, the West Yorkshire theatre has mounted an online adaptation of The Understudy, Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation of David Nicholls’ 2005 novel. Starring Stephen Fry, it reached international audiences in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Kuwait, Russia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Switzerland and the United States, as well as in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Working in partnership with The Lowry, Salford, LBT’s Toast will feature the original West End cast, led by Giles Cooper, a close friend of Slater, who will be recording his lines in his London home, where Slater lived when he began writing his award-winning autobiography.

Cooper also played Slater in Toast’s national tour that visited York Theatre Royal last November. Now he reprises the role once more, re-joining, albeit remotely, his London co-stars Lizzie Muncey as Mum, Stephen Ventura as Dad,Marie Lawrence as Joan and Jake Ferretti as Josh, under the direction of Jonnie Riordan again. 

The poster for Nigel Slater’s Toast

Filloux-Bennett’s two-hour adaptation of Slater’s autobiography vividly re-creates his childhood through the tastes and smells he shares with his mother, culminating in the young Nigel’s escape to London. From making the perfect sherry trifle, through the playground politics of sweets, the rigid rules of restaurant dining, and a domestic war over cakes, this tale of love, loss and toast is “A Play About Growing Up. With Food”. 

The cast and creative team involved in Toast are taking part completely in isolation, with the actors’ lines, recorded at home, being brought to life by the sound design team of Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, Annie May Fletcher and Sophie Galpin. 

Commenting on the LBT’s upcoming broadcast, Slater says: “Toast has already had a life as a book, a film and a stage production and I am thrilled to see it in its latest format as an animated radio play.

“To bring the play to such a wide audience is a brilliant idea from the Lawrence Batley Theatre and The Lowry and working with so many of the original production team and cast again has been an absolute joy.”

Writer Filloux-Bennett says: “I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to bring Toast back to this new virtual stage. We were completely blown away by the response the play had from audiences across the country, and we’re so excited that people who weren’t able to catch the play before now can, and that for those who enjoyed it on stage we can bring the story – and the Walnut Whips – back again.”

For more information on how to listen to Toast or watch the animated film next month, go to thelbt.org. Tickets cost £10 to £16 at thelbt.org/shows/nigel-slaters-toast-2/, with those booking for the higher price receiving a package of goodies, including a programme, Nigel Slater recipe card and two Walnut Whips, “so you can have a heart-warming and stomach-filling evening from your front room”. 

The LBY website says: “You will receive an email with a link to the play and recipe card three days prior to the date that you have booked to watch the performance.  If you have selected to receive a programme, recipe card and Walnut Whips, then you will receive these through the post prior to your performance date.”

Here is Charles Hutchinson’s review of Toast from last November

Nigel Slater’s Toast, York Theatre Royal, November 19 to 23 2019 *****

Giles Cooper in his stage role as Nigel Slater in Toast last year

HERE is the challenge facing director Jonnie Riordan. “Think about how long it takes to actually make a piece of toast, and then how do you do that on stage when you’re trying to keep the audience engaged?” he says.

It brings a new meaning to pop-up theatre in York after the summer Elizabeth version at Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, and Riordan and writer Henry Filloux-Bennett have made a wonderful job of adapting cookery writer Nigel Slater’s coming-of-age memoir for the stage.

Like Jonathan Watkins for Matt Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive, on tour at the Theatre Royal only two weeks ago, Riordan is both director and choreographer. However, whereas Watkins’s show took time to find its footing on a somewhat strange-looking set – was it a crater or a cracked cloud egg? – Toast is sure footed, even light on its feet from the start.

Nigel, our narrator, guides us through his story like Slater’s lovely writing leads you through his recipes and epicurean thoughts in his mellifluous books. Played by the delightful Giles Cooper in schoolboy tank top and short trousers, Nigel is nine and already drawn to the one cookery book in the Slaters’ Wolverhampton home: Marguerite Patten’s ground-breaking Cookery In Colour, a full-colour Sixties’ bolt out of the cordon bleu after the grey gravy of before.

From within the cream and brown Sixties’ kitchen of Libby Watson’s design, Cooper’s Nigel likes to orchestrate all the storytelling, stepping in and out of a scene to converse with the audience, but such is the skill of Filloux-Bennett’s writing that the events of his young life have a habit of pulling the rug from under him. At one point, his mother stops him in his tracks and tells him to re-trace his steps to relate the true, darker version of events.

Attention to detail: Giles Cooper’s Nigel Slater seeks culinary perfection in Toast

There is abundant humour, absolutely true to Slater’s own tone in his books, but the darkness has to break through too, given what happened to Slater in his childhood and teenage years.

His love of food is omnipresent, and yes, we see toast popping up in real time and later Nigel making mushrooms on toast with a chef’s flair and precision in one so young. We enjoy the culinary sensations, and when Nigel is regaling us with the delights of sweets – amid his father’s insistence that certain sweets are for boys, others for girls – bags of sweets are passed around the audience. The real Nigel Slater had a bag by his feet as he sat in the dress circle, by the way!

Food is at the heart of Toast, glorious food and not so glorious food in the case of Nigel’s father’s first attempt at making spaghetti bolognaise, mountains of “sick-smelling” Parmesan dust et al. Part of the joy here  is having our own recollections of mishaps around our own kitchen tables.

Through food too, we see the difference between Nigel’s relationship with his Mum (Katy Federman), pretty much tied to the apron strings, such is their bond, and his abusive Dad (Blair Plant, back at his old Theatre Royal stamping ground).

Into the story comes the dreadful Joan (Samantha Hopkins) and assorted characters played by Stefan Edwards, as the first stirrings of Nigel’s sexuality play out.

Brilliant performances, a superb choice of soundtrack from La Mer to Dusty, and a finale as warm and toasty as toast make Toast a five-star treat, both measured and deeply flavoured like a Nigel Slater recipe.

Review copyright of The Press, York

York on Flood alert…for second instalment of Radio Mystery Plays on Sunday morning

Director Juliet Forster, second from right, top row, in a Zoom rehearsal for The Flood, part of this summer’s York Radio Mystery Plays

TODAY is Corpus Christi Day, the day when the York Mystery Plays were first performed on wagons on the city streets from dawn until dusk in mediaeval times.

The Covid-19 pandemic scuppered any chance of a wagon production this summer, however, so instead the 2020 Mystery Plays are taking to the airwaves.

Instalment two of the four-part series will be aired on the Sunday Breakfast Show with Jonathan Cowap on BBC Radio York, partners to York Theatre Royal in this debut audio collaboration.

The York Radio Mystery Plays form part of York Theatre Royal’s Collective Acts, a programme of “creative community engagement” set up in response to the St Leonard’s Place building being closed under the Covid-19 strictures.

“The York Mystery Plays are part of the DNA of this city,” says director Juliet Forster, whose production began last weekend with Adam And Eve. “In lockdown, these plays seem exactly the right choice to pick up, find a new way to create, communicate afresh and encourage one another.”

Juliet, incidentally, previously co-directed Anthony Minghella’s Two Planks And A Passion at the Theatre Royal in July 2011, a play set around a performance of the York Mystery Plays on Corpus Christi Day in midsummer 1392.

This time, she and writer husband Kelvin Goodspeed have adapted Mystery Play texts for the radio series, drawing on material dating back to the 1300s, first resurrected after a long, long hiatus for the Festival of Britain in 1951.

Working remotely from home, a cast of 19 community and professional actors has recorded the 15-minute instalments that continue with The Flood Part 1 on June 14, The Flood Part 2 on June 21 and Moses And Pharaoh on June 28.

“When we went into lockdown, Tom [Bird, the Theatre Royal’s executive director] kept saying we ought to try to do something with the Mystery Plays, and I suggested that we should do radio plays,” recalls Juliet.

“But I’d never done a radio broadcast, so I contacted Radio York and said ‘let’s do this together’.”

Under the partnership that ensued, the Theatre Royal has chosen the texts, sourced the scripts, recruited the actors and provided the music, while BBC Radio York sound engineer Martin Grant has mixed the recordings, splicing them together into finished crafted instalments. 

“Making these radio plays in lockdown has probably been the most challenging thing I’ve ever worked on,” says director Juliet Forster

Ed Beesley has provided composition, sound design and foley artist effects. Madeleine Hudson, musical director of the York Theatre Royal Choir, has given the choir and cast songs to perform.

In choosing the plays, Juliet says: “The ones that make for the most fun are the ones around Noah’s flood, but they are also about a family in isolation for 40 days, maybe falling out with each other, so there are parallels with what’s happening now.

“Then there’s the positive ending, which would be good, and that sense of starting again, so it was the perfect choice.”

The Flood, Parts 1 and 2 were picked initially for a spring pilot show, but then the BBC decided to build a series around the Corpus Christi Day tradition in June, and so two more plays were added: Adam And Eve and Moses And Pharaoh.

“I’d already started working on Adam And Eve and thought about doing a Nativity play, but in our conversations with Radio York, they then talked about wanting to keep the series going, with the possibility of four Nativity plays at Christmas and four for Easter based around the Crucifixion,” says Juliet.

“So, I thought, ‘I’ll stick with Old Testament stories’, and I’d done the Moses and Pharaoh story for The Missing Mysteries with the York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre in 2012.

“It’s a play about a desire for freedom to get out, which again relates to now: that need to breathe, to get to the other side, but there’s also that moment where they dare not go out, where they stay behind closed doors, so that really is like now. That feeling of living in fear.”

As for Adam And Eve, again the Genesis story is a resonant one. “They were living in this paradise but then lost it, facing hardship and their own mortality, which we’re all facing now,” says Juliet.

“That sense of not knowing paradise is what you have until it’s gone; also that role of being guardians but always wanting that little bit more, when instead we need to be more environmentally friendly.”

In choosing the cast, Juliet says: “I knew I wanted to involve a mixture of professional and non-professional actors from York, and straightaway I thought of casting Paul Stonehouse as God. He’d been in Two Planks And A Passion and had gone on to gain a professional contract for radio plays for the BBC.

A scene from Two Planks And A Passion, co-directed by Juliet Forster at York Theatre Royal in July 2011

“I knew Mark Holgate from directing him in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the first year of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in York. He has a lovely Yorkshire voice and I knew he’d turned part of his house into a mini-sound studio to do voiceover work.

“I cast him as Noah, and the next role that came into my head was Rosy Rowley for Mrs Noah. She was so amusing in that role in the 2012 Mystery Plays and she brings such an instinctive intelligence to the text.

“I ended up with a cast where I’d worked with almost all of them before, thinking how they all might fit in.”

One exception was Taj Atwal, a recommendation by Tom Bird. “She grew up in York, played Rita in Rita, Sue And Bob Too at the Theatre Royal in November 2017 and was back self-isolating in the city, so she’s playing Eve in Adam And Eve and 3rd Daughter in The Flood instalments,” says Juliet.

In keeping with Covid-19 social-distancing rules, the production required the actors to record their lines on a smart phone from home, having done collective rehearsals for each play over the Zoom conference call app.

“It might depend on the day of the week you ask me, but I would say that making these radio plays in lockdown has probably been the most challenging thing I’ve ever worked on,” says Juliet.

“Normally, when I’m in a rehearsal room, I like to guide, but not be too instructive, not telling them exactly what to do; it’s more flexible that way, whereas with this project, there was no chance to do that as we were all rehearsing in isolation, gathering on Zoom, rather than in a room.

“When it came to the recordings, done alone at home, on a number of occasions, I would send a note by email or phone them to say ‘could you re-do that line with more of this or more sense of that?’.

“On top of that, I had to get my head around each play, thinking about how they needed to be adapted for radio recordings and what did I want I want to get out of the project. All the actors have been so generous, knowing how difficult it would be to do a production in these circumstances, so it’s been a real challenge but also really exciting.”

So much so, Juliet would welcome the opportunity to do further Mystery Plays radio recordings. “But first we’ll see what the response is to the first series…” she says.

That series rolls on this weekend. If you missed Adam And Eve, would you believe it, in addition to the early-morning broadcasts on Jonathan Cowap’s Sunday show, the radio plays can be heard on BBC Sounds at bbc.co.uk/sounds.

How Rory and Rosy recorded their remote roles for the York Radio Mystery Plays

Rory Mulvihill experiments with recording the role of Satan in the shower of his Naburn home, by torchlight, with the script stuck to the wall

THE first instalment of the York Radio Mystery Plays will be aired on BBC Radio York’s Sunday Breakfast Show this weekend.

Aptly starting at the beginning with Adam And Eve, this audio collaboration between York Theatre Royal and the BBC station comprises four 15-minute plays, continuing with The Flood Part 1 on June 14, The Flood Part 2 on June 21 and Moses And Pharaoh on June 28.

Under the direction of Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster, who has adapted the mediaeval texts with writer husband Kelvin Goodspeed, a cast of 19 community and professional actors has recorded the episodes, each working remotely.

In keeping with Covid-19 social-distancing rules, the production required the cast members to record their lines on a smart phone from home, having done collective rehearsals for each play over the Zoom conference call app.

Among the cast are Rory Mulvihill and Rosy Rowley, Rory reprising his role as Satan from the York Millennium Mystery Plays in York Minster in 2000, this time in Adam And Eve; Rosy returning to Mrs Noah in The Flood, a no-nonsense role she first played in the 2012 York Mystery Plays in the Museum Gardens. 

“It’s a first for me, doing a radio play,” says Rory, a leading light of the York Light Opera Company for 35 years and a Mystery Plays stalwart too, not least playing Jesus Christ in 1996.

Hades in red: Rory Mulvihill as Satan in the York Millennium Mystery Plays in York Minster in 2000. Copyright: York Mystery Plays/Kippa Matthews

“But I did do a radio recording after the Blood + Chocolate community play in 2013: World War One At Home, done for the BBC, with each local radio station doing its own series.

“But my radio claim to fame – and this should be the title of my autobiography! – is ‘I Was Andy Kershaw’s Weatherman’!

“He once had the graveyard slot of Radio Aire on a Sunday night, with just him and me in the studio, so I had to copy down the weather forecast and read it out on the hour.”

Rehearsing on Zoom has been a novel experience. “I find it a bit strange, video conferencing. I first had a couple of sessions with York Light, and it’s enjoyable but I felt like I was watching Celebrity Squares or Blankety Blank, except that I was on it!”

Juliet tried to “normalise the rehearsals as much as possible”, despite the reliance on technology. “I thought it could be a sterile experience if we were just reading it, but once I was confident with the lines, I decided, ‘let’s look up, get a rapport going’, but the first time I tried doing that with Taj Atwal, I looked up…at Taj’s epiglottis on the screen! She was in the middle of the biggest yawn!” recalls Rory.

“That’s the effect I have on people! If there’s a moral to this story, it is to take Zoom on the chin and accept the way it works.”

Juliet Forster:Associate director of York Theatre Royal and director of the York Radio Mystery Plays

Rory was late to join his first Zoom rehearsal. “They could all hear me but I couldn’t hear them, and by the time I started, they’d decided it should be 14th century Yorkshire vernacular, rather than RP [Received Pronunciation], but I didn’t know that.

“I’m a Leeds lad born and bred, but not I’m not like a Sean Bean Yorkshireman! Anyway, when I played Jesus in 1996 I did very much a Yorkshire accent, whereas for Satan in 2000, I was ‘well spoken’ to contrast with Ray Stevenson’s Jesus.

“In the end, Juliet decided she wanted to try different versions, one ‘better spoken’, one with  a Yorkshire accent, and she then settled on the Yorkshire Satan.”

There was another adjustment needed. “The Mystery Plays are declamatory because they were meant to be shouted off the top of a wagon in the streets, so everyone could hear them, especially this ‘pantomime villain’ Satan, who’s not understated in any way,” says Rory.

“That was one of the things that needed to change for the radio, so after my first effort, Juliet said, ‘maybe tone it down a little’!”

Rory experimented with doing his first recordings in his shower at his Naburn home, thinking it would be an ideal insulated sound booth. “Living in the country, the bird song is beautiful and loud, and I suppose it’s a garden of Eden, and I thought the shower would be quiet,” he says.

Zoom for manoeuvre: A remote rehearsal for The Flood in the York Radio Mystery Plays, with Rosy Rowley (Mrs Noah), second from left , middle row, and director Juliet Forster, top row, second from right

“I stuck my script on the wall and had to use torchlight because I couldn’t have the extractor fan on, but when Juliet heard the recordings, she said it was a tinny noise, bouncing off the wall, so she rejected them!

“I had to do them sitting at my desk in the end, with Julia saying it didn’t matter if there was a bit of birdsong in the background!”

Rory can foresee the Theatre Royal and BBC Radio York rolling out further episodes. “I can really see the potential in this: a situation almost like the York Shakespeare Project, where you do all the canon,” he says.

“But Juliet has to be consistent. We can’t have anyone else playing Satan. I’d be most upset!!”

As with Rory, Rosy faced challenges in choosing the right time and location for the recordings for her role in The Flood Part 1 and 2.

“Living in a busy street and having teenagers in my house, I ended up rehearsing in the garden shed and having to record at two in the morning in my bedroom in the attic as it’s quiet up there,” she says.

Rosy Rowley: Saying “Yes” to playing Mrs Noah for a second time

Collective rehearsals by Zoom were “pretty normal, apart from not being in the same room, as we worked on breaking down the script, but it was just after lockdown started and lots of us had just been furloughed, so that felt a little strange,” says Rosy.

Recording solo and remotely was “lonely, having to record on your own with no voice to respond to”. “So, you had to imagine how someone would have said a line, or try to remember how they had said it in rehearsal, and Juliet would ask you to record lines in different ways for her to choose from, so it was a fragmented process.” says Rosy.

Recording a song remotely with Madeleine Hudson, musical director of the York Theatre Royal Choir, presented another unusual experience. “Maddy tried to get us to sing together for the recording but we had to deal with time legs because of working on separate equipment!” Rosy reveals.”Not easy when you needed to have two phones, one for listening to the backing track, and another for recording your vocals.”

She is delighted to be taking part in the radio recordings. “I’m passionate about the York Mystery Plays, having done the 2012 production and been involved in the Waggon Plays,” she says. “So, I was going to miss them not being done on the streets this summer, but it’s great to have this chance to air them on the radio.”

Playing Mrs Noah is not the only role that Rosy has taken on in lockdown while on furlough. “I’ve become a Covid-19 testing volunteer at the Poppleton testing site,” she says. “I saw an advert and thought that would be a good thing to do, so me and my daughter Imogen [a third-year BSc Fashion Buying and Merchandising student at the University of Manchester] signed up to do part-time volunteering, two days on, two days off.

“We had half a day’s training, partly to learn about PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], to be sure we were fully prepared, as well as learning how to do swabs – and it is rather invasive putting swabs up someone’s nose.”

Rosy had expected to be working eight-hour shifts, but instead it had been “quite quiet”. May it please become quieter still.

Note that in addition to the June broadcasts on Jonathan Cowap’s Sunday show on BBC Radio York, the York Radio Mystery Plays can be heard on BBC Sounds at bbc.co.uk/sounds.

Why the show will not go on for York Light Opera at York Theatre Royal in 2021

Rory Mulvihill as Fagin and Jonny Holbek as Bill Sikes in York Light Opera Company’s February production of Oliver! at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Tom Arber

AFTER 60 unbroken years, York Light Opera Company will NOT perform at York Theatre Royal in 2021.

The decision has been taken in response to the ongoing uncertainty surrounding when, how and in what form theatres will re-open as the Government conducts a phased easing of Covid-19 lockdown measures, with theatres expected to be at the back of the queue.

“We said, ‘let’s just bite the bullet’ and so we’ve scrapped our February 2021 show,” says leading player Rory Mulvihill, a York Light member for more than 35 years. “Given the present situation surrounding theatres, I’d be very surprised if we weren’t vindicated.”

Reviewing the situation: “We said, ‘let’s just bite the bullet’,” says Rory Mulvihill after York Light decided the show must not go on in 2021 in these Covid-19 times. Picture: Anthony Robling

Rory led the York Light cast as light-fingered gang boss Fagin in the late-February 2020 production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!. “We’re celebrating 60 consecutive years at the Theatre Royal this year and we were able to do that show, when this [Coronavirus] tsunami was coming but was still on the horizon,” he says.

York Light’s next show, Ali Kirkham’s June production of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago at Theatre @41 Monkgate, has been “cancelled until further notice”.

York Theatre Royal goes digital for Suffragette stream of Everything Is Possible protest play

Suffragette city: Women on the protest march in Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes on the York Minster Plaza in June 2017. Picture: Anthony Robling

YORK Theatre Royal will stream the 2017 community play Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes for free on YouTube from May 6.

Co-produced with Theatre Royal company-in-residence Pilot Theatre, this large-scale production was performed by a community cast of 150 and a choir of 80 from June 20 to July 1 that summer.

Set in early 20th century York, Juliet Forster and Katie Posner’s production began with Suffragette protest scenes and rallying calls on the plaza outside York Minster before moving indoors to the Theatre Royal’s main stage.

Leading professional actress Barbara Marten, who lives in York, played the lead role of Annie Seymour Pearson, a Heworth housewife who risked her life in 1913 to fight for women’s right to vote as women across the country, outraged by inequality and prejudice, began to rise up and demand change.

Barbara Marten as York Suffragette campaigner Annie Seymour Pearson at York Theatre Royal in June 2017.
Picture: Anthony Robling

Annie began her involvement in the Suffragette movement as an ordinary, middle-class housewife in a church-going family with a middle-management husband and three children.

She also was part of the Primrose League, who went out canvassing among women like themselves to influence them into urging their husbands to vote for certain candidates for election.

Yet you would struggle to find outward acknowledgment in York of Annie Seymour Pearson’s place in the city’s social history. “The house in Heworth Green, where she ran a safe house, no longer stands and there’s no blue plaque,” said Barbara at the start of rehearsals in late-May 2017. “Even her obituary made no mention of her having been a Suffragette.

“It’s interesting to choose Annie as a central character because she was such a genteel, respectable woman who didn’t start out as a militant, but various events propelled her forward.”

Barbara Marten, the one professional in the community cast of 150, in rehearsal for Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes

Not least, Annie was arrested in January 1913 when a union deputation of York Suffragettes headed to London as thousands of women converged on the capital to protest at the poverty that many women were living through.

“Annie was arrested for obstruction, just for walking on the pavement, and the charge was ‘obstruction’ simply because there were so many women there,” said Barbara.

“She was charged 40 shillings for her offence or three weeks in prison and she wrote to her husband to say that she would not pay her fine, but she would serve her sentence and was prepared to be imprisoned again.

“She’s there in prison for two days, when her husband comes down to London and pays the fine – and you can imagine the scene when she got home.”

Barbara Marten as Annie Seymour Pearson: wife, mother, Suffragette. Picture: Anthony Robling

Everything Is Possible highlighted how the Suffragette movement was not solely a London movement. “Instead, it was made up of women from all over the country, like in Manchester and Leeds, where lots of women worked in factories, and in York as well,” said Barbara. “Scarborough was very militant too.”

The 2017 “protest play” recalled how women in York ran safe houses, organised meetings, smashed windows and fire-bombed pillar boxes, the production telling the story of their dangerous, exhilarating and ground-breaking actions for the first time.

York playwright Bridget Foreman, who wrote Everything Is Possible, says of the timing of next month’s streaming: “It’s really poignant, in the midst of isolation and social distancing, to think about the making of Everything Is Possible; the extraordinary coming together of hundreds of local people, and the staging of huge crowd scenes both on the York Theatre Royal stage and outside York Minster.

“And now the stage is dark and the streets are empty. But looking back to the way in which that show brought people together, inspiring them in so many ways, is a wonderful reminder of the power of theatre and community.”

Playwright Bridget Foreman at the read-through for Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: John Saunders

Bridget continues: “We saw participants and audience members getting involved with theatre, politics, activism, local history, family research. Now, I really hope that people watching the production digitally will find their own inspiration, their own vision and energy for engaging with and changing the world when we come through this crisis.”

Directed by Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and Pilot Theatre associate director Posner, now co-artistic director of Paines Plough in London, Everything Is Possiblewaspart of the Theatre Royal’s 2017 season Of Women Born, curated by a team of women to focus on work made and led by female artists, built around women’s stories.

Everything Is Possible can be streamed online on the Theatre Royal’s YouTube channel from 7pm on Wednesday, May 6 to Sunday, May 31. In the run-up to the streaming, the Theatre Royal will be sharing messages on social media from the volunteers who helped bring this production to the stage.

“These responses from the theatre’s community, promoted by the question ‘What does ‘everything is possible’ mean to you right now?’, aims to spread messages of hope and courage to the wider York community during the Coronavirus pandemic,” says marketing officer Olivia Potter.

The full cast and choir for Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes on the York Theatre Royal stage in June 2017. Picture: Anthony Robling

The Theatre Royal is asking viewers to support the stream by making an online or text donation, “so that York Theatre Royal can continue to engage and entertain the York community in the future”.

The Everything Is Possible online stream is part of the theatre’s Collective Acts programme of creative community engagement, taking place while the building is closed under the Coronavirus pandemic strictures.

Further details on the Everything Is Possible online stream and Collective Acts can be found at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Deeds not words: Suffragette protesters leave the York Minster Plaza to make their way to York Theatre Royal in the 2017 community play Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: Anthony Robling

REVIEW: Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes, York Theatre Royal/Pilot Theatre, at York Theatre Royal and York Minster Plaza, from The Press, York, June 23 2017.

DAMIAN Cruden has no hesitation in naming his greatest achievement in his 20 years as artistic director at York Theatre Royal: the rise and rise of the community play.

The city already had the York Mystery Plys, the street plays staged in myriad forms through the centuries, and when Cruden and Riding Lights’ Paul Burbridge directed the 2012 plays on their return to the Museum Gardens, a template was established for the series of community productions that has ensued.

Each has told a chapter of York’s history: the chocolate industry in the dark shadow of the First World War in Blood + Chocolate on the city streets; the rise and fall of the Railway King, George Hudson, in In Fog And Falling Snow at the National Railway Museum, and now the York Suffragettes in Everything Is Possible, outside the Minster and in the Theatre Royal’s main house.

Street protest: One of the modern-day protesters in the opening scenes from Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: Anthony Robling

A rabble noise swells from the Minster Plaza, a canny way to make the city aware that a major production of political dimensions involving more than 300 people is taking place in their midst at a time when the political landscape is more divisive and more inflammatory than for years. The scene, a throng of rebel songs and impassioned speeches, replicates demonstrations of yore, suddenly suffused by placard-waving Suffragettes in 1913 attire, followed by policemen forcibly breaking up the crowd.

The likes of Sophie Walmsley on her acoustic guitar need to placed higher above the crowd, but where Barbara Marten’s Annie Seymour Pearson takes her place on the Plaza steps is a better sight line.

“Deeds Not Words” say the placards: a mantra that wholly applies to how these community plays are mounted, volunteers to the fore on and off stage, this time under the guidance of a professional production team led by the Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and Pilot Theatre associate director Katie Posner

Juliet Forster: York Theatre Royal associate director, co-director of Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes

Once we are ushered by the coppers to the theatre, there is a little lull for chatter and drinks refuelling before Bridget Foreman’s account of the previously untold story of York’s involvement in the Suffragette movement circa 1913 has its day and has its say.

Marten and Suffragettes historian Professor Krista Cowman have played significant parts in bringing the story to the stage, so too have Foreman and a research team, and now at last the role of Annie Seymour Pearson and her Suffragette safe house at 14, Heworth Green, next to the home of anti-Suffragette campaigner Edith Milner, has its rightful place in the city’s history.

Barbara Marten might strike some in the audience as being a little old for her role as a mother of four young children, but Foreman places her as much in the role of a narrator looking back on the events of a century ago as that of protagonist in the drama, and all of Marten’s passion for the story, as well as her celebrated acting skills come to the fore.

A scene from Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: Anthony Robling

York, it must be said, played rather less of a central role in the Suffragette drive for votes for women than it did in this year’s General Election with its visits by Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.

Yes, it played not even second fiddle to London and Leeds, but Emmeline Pankhurst (Liz Elsworth), leader of the British suffragette movement, made a speech here that forms the climax of the first half; leading Leeds campaigner Leonora Cohen (Loretta Smith) visited too, as did Lilian Lenton, the wild-card London arsonist, played by the breakthrough new talent of this show, University of York student Annabel Lee. A firecracker indeed, a professional career surely awaits.

Annie’s arrest in London for obstructing a policeman – when he had been the one to inflict a bloody nose – and the militant activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union in York, led by Jo Smith’s Violet Key Jones, are prominent in the play, A silent movie-style film sequence linked to live action shows the full horror of the prison practice of force-feeding hunger-strikers, showing off Sara Perks’s set to best effect too.

Rallying call: Two protesters on the York Minster Plaza at the outset of Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: Anthony Robling

Men have their place in the piece in the form of Mark France’s Arthur Seymour Pearson (rather reminiscent of the husband figure in Brief Encounter) and Rory Mulvihill’s stentorian Home Secretary.

A choir of 100 is tucked away out of sight in the gods, assembled by Madeleine Hudson to perform Ivan Stott’s folk-rooted campaigning compositions, but rightly they have their moment in the spotlight on stage at the finale.

Forster and Posner’s very lively, highly committed, educational and resolute production, peppered with anarchic humour as much as political zeal, forms the pinnacle of York Theatre Royal’s Of Woman Born season of women’s words and deeds. In straitened times for funding for the arts, Everything Is Possible affirms that anything is possible when a community comes together and turns York into Suffragette City.

Review by Charles Hutchinson. Copyright of The Press, York.