REVIEW: Northanger Abbey, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, till April 13 **

Rebecca Banatvala’s Cath, back, AK Golding’s Iz and Sam Newton’s Hen in Northnager Abbey

THE journey from page to stage is familiar, well trodden, but still unpredictable for classic novels. Sometimes it works, sometimes it tries too hard, when a book remains better read than said.

This co-production by the SJT, Scarborough, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, Octagon Theatre, Bolton, and Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, is one such occasion.

We have seen many adaptations in this manner: a small, busy-as-Heathrow cast working with more imagination than props in Hannah Sibai’s design, breaking down theatre’s fourth wall from the start,  speeding between roles and  differing theatre styles, but here falling short of the best work of Tilted Wig, Wise Children and Nick Lane’s adaptations.

Writer Zoe Cooper defines Jane Austen’s coming-of-age satire of Gothic novels as “a book about invention that revels in layers of fictionality, of imagination”, one that she first read at 19, roughly the same age as lead character Catherine Morland when she leaves behind her claustrophobic northern family to join the smart set in Bath.

In her programme note, Cooper recalls how she felt out of place, awkward and grubby in her posh university town. Austen’s Catherine Morland (Rebecca Banatvala’s Cath) is a bookworm who feels that same discomfort and disconnection after being drawn to Bath by books and dreams.

Cooper and Banatvala express Cath’s tendency to over-excitement and bad behaviour, ending up in difficult situations that she navigates by warping reality with fiction amid the balls and parties.

Cooper draws on another recollection of her English Literature studies, how her tutorials were “generally male, very white, and very heterosexual”. Her reading of Northanger Abbey was rather different: she liked the book because “it felt a little bit naughty” in the friendship of Catherine and society sophisticate Isabella.

That plays out passionately in this account, where the loving bond between impressionable Cath and worldly Iz (AK Golding) runs deeper than Cath’s relationship with Hen (Sam Newton).

Tessa Walker’s production, however, needs to be more humorous, darker in its Gothic climax, but that requires sharper writing by Cooper. The performances have to swim against the tide, too much work to do.

Matt Haskins’ lighting is a delight, but that should never be the stand-out feature. An Audience with Lucy Worsley on Jane Austen, with “new research and insights into a passionate woman who fought for her freedom”, at York Barbican on October 14 will be more enlightening.

Box office: 01723 370541 or

Bottom’s up for love & looning in More Things To Do in Ryedale, York & beyond. Hutch’s List No. 9, from Gazette & Herald

Rebecca Banatvala, back, AK Golding, middle, and Sam Newton, front, in Northanger Abbey at the SJT, Scarborough. Picture: Pamela Raith

GOTHIC Austen, a clowning Bottom, dark pop chat, vintage blues and harmonious folk feature in Charles Hutchinson’s suggestions for a busy diary.

Play of the week outside York: Northanger Abbey, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until April 13, 7.30pm plus 1.30pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees

ZOE Cooper adapts Jane Austen’s coming-of-age satire of Gothic novels in a co-production by the SJT, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, Octagon Theatre, Bolton, and Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, starring Rebecca Banatvala (Cath), AK Golding (Iz) and Sam Newton (Hen) under Tessa Walker’s direction.

In a play fizzing with imagination, humour and love, Cath Morland knows little of the world, but who needs real-life experience when you have books to guide you? Cath seizes her chance to escape her claustrophobic family life and join the smart set in Bath. Between balls and parties, she meets worldly, sophisticated Iz, and so Cath’s very own adventure begins. Box office: 01723 370541 or

Megson: Folk duo Debs and Stu Hanna at Helmsley Arts Centre

Folk concert of the week: Megson, Helmsley Arts Centre, Saturday, 7.30pm

BRITISH folk duo Megson combines Debs Hanna’s vocals, whistle and piano accordion with Stu Hanna’s guitar, mandola and banjo on songs filled with perceptive lyrics and exquisite musicianship. An infectious mix of heavenly vocals, lush harmonies and driving rhythmic guitars mark their concerts, topped off with northern humour between numbers.

Chalking up 13 studio albums in 20 years, the four-time BBC Radio 2 Folk Award nominees and two-time Spiral Earth Award winners will be showcasing their latest release, March 2023’s What Are We Trying To Say?. Box office: 01439 771700 or

Red, a dare: Tweedy’s Bottom, clowning around and chancing his luck in love in the Everyman Theatre Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on tour at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Andrew Huggins/Thousand Word Media

York play of the week: Cheltenham Everyman Theatre in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, York Theatre Royal, April 9 to 13, 7pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees

THE Everyman Theatre Company staging of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream puts a new twist on the familiar tale by casting comedy clown Tweedy as Bottom and making him “comedy advisor” on Paul Milton’s production to boot.

The night’s magic, mischief, and mayhem unfold in an enchanted forest in Athens, intertwining the romantic misadventures of four young lovers, the playful meddling of mischievous fairies and the comedic antics of amateur actors, culminating in a tale of love, mistaken identity and reconciliation engineered by Jeremy Stockwell’s meddlesome Puck. Box office: 01904 623568 or

John Robb: Rock’n’roll tales at Pocklington Arts Centre

Pop chat of the week: John Robb: Do You Believe In The Power Of Rock’n’Roll?, Pocklington Arts Centre, April 11, 8pm

JOHN Robb discusses his life in music; his pop culture book Art Of Darkness: The History Of Goth; being the first person to interview Nirvana; inventing the word Britpop and his adventures on the post-punk frontline.

Blackpool-born Robb is an author, musician, journalist, television and radio presenter and pundit, music website boss, publisher, Louder Than Words festival boss, eco-warrior and talking-head singer of The Membranes. His special guest is The Sisters Of Mercy co-founder Gary Marx. Box office: 01759 301547 or

Pianist Robert Gammon: Performing with Maria Marshall and Alison Gmmon at musical tea concert

Dementia Friendly Tea Concert: Maria Marshall, Robert Gammon and Alison Gammon, St Chad’s Church, Campleshon Road, York, April 182.30pm

CELLIST Maria Marshall opens this Dementia Friendly Tea Concert with Faure’s Elegy, accompanied by pianist Robert Gammon, who then plays two short solo Grieg piano pieces. Alison Gammon joins them for Beethoven’s trio Opus 11 for clarinet, piano and cello.

The relaxed 45-minute concert, ideal for people who may not feel comfortable at a formal classical concert, will be followed by tea and homemade cakes in the church hall. Seating is unreserved; no charge applies to attend but donations are welcome for hire costs and Alzheimer’s charities. On-street parking along Campleshon Road complements the church’s small car park.

The Nightcreatures’ Henry Botham and Tom Davies: Blues songs and stories at Milton Rooms, Malton

Blues gig of the week: The Nightcreatures, Farewell To Storyville, Songs and Stories from New Orleans, Milton Rooms, Malton, April 12, 8pm

THE Nightcreatures duo of pianist Henry Botham and guitarist and singer Tom Davies take a journey to old New Orleans for a night of songs and stories, serving up a spicy gumbo of filthy blues, funky grooves and classic tunes.

Old blues, Mardi Gras songs and vintage New Orleans material are explored, drawing on the heritage of Dr John, James Booker, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint and the great Louisiana bluesmen. Jenny Wren and Her Borrowed Wings, a trio led by singer and double bassist Jenny Trilsbach, support. Box office: 01653 696240 or

Sam Jewison: Interpreting the Great American Songbook at the SJT

Jazz gig of the month: Sam Jewison, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, April 27, 7.30pm

JAZZ singer and pianist Sam Jewison returns to the SJT after a sold-out show in 2023 to perform his interpretation of the Great American Songbook in a fusion of jazz, classical and popular music.

Expect to hear new treatments of songs from the Broadway stage, Hollywood screen and golden age of American popular music, made famous Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Oscar Peterson, from the pens of Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin. Joining Jewison will be Fraser Smith (tenor saxophone), Harry Sankey (guitar), Harry Evans (double bass) and Joe Dessauer (drums). Box office: 01723 370541 or 

Lucy Worsley: Revelations from the life of Jane Austen at York Barbican

Show announcement of the week: An Audience with Lucy Worsley on Jane Austen, York Barbican, October 14,

FOLLOWING up her Agatha Christie tour, historian Lucy Worsley’s latest illustrated talk steps into the world of Jane Austen, one of English literature’s most cherished figures as the author of Pride And Prejudice, Sense And Sensibility and Persuasion. 

Through the houses, places and possessions that mattered to Austen, Worsley looks at what home meant to her and to the women like her who populate her novels. Austen lived a “life without incident”, but with new research and insights Worsley reveals a passionate woman who fought for her freedom. Box office:

REVIEW: Pilot Theatre in A Song For Ella Grey, York Theatre Royal, Hull Truck Theatre and on tour ****

Pilot Theatre’s Jonathan Iceton, left, Beth Crame, Olivia Onyehara, Grace Long and Amonik Melaco in A Song For Ella Grey

NEWCASTLE. Shopping for vintage clothes. Nights on the toon. Bamburgh Beach. Camping out. Beach parties. Cheap supermarket plonk. Best friends for life. First tingle of love.

Such is the teenage stuff of David Almond’s novel for young readers, and the stuff too of Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson’s days of growing up in the North East. Been there, done that, bought the book, the first one she read after taking up her post with the York company.

Eight years later, Richardson is directing Pilot’s touring co-production in partnership with York Theatre Royal and Northern Stage, in Newcastle, where rehearsals and the first peformances took place.

Almond has adapted past works for the stage, but this time Pilot commissioned Zoe Cooper, a playwright and dramaturg who has an M Phil in playwriting from the University of Birmingham and cut her teeth on the Royal Court Young Writers programme. Both her script and Almond’s book are on sale alongside the brownies and chai lattes at the café counter.

Working in tandem, Richardson and Cooper have pitched this particular theatrical tent on the cornerstones of storytelling, music, sound and vision to seek to capture the elusive nature of Orpheus, the “man-god” (as Richardson calls him). I say ‘him’, but this Orpheus is called ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’, at various points, depending on who is speaking.

Pilot’s primary target audience is teenage, studying Eng Lit, maybe theatre, and indeed schoolchildren were clustered in the dress circle at Thursday’s matinee, but peppered around the stalls were Theatre Royal matinee regulars.

Overhearing one in the interval and chatting with them afterwards, they praised the performances but had reservations over the storytelling. More specifically, the clarity of what we were watching. In a nutshell, not only was Orpheus elusive, so too was the story.

Your reviewer wholeheartedly agreed about the uniformly excellent cast, but did find himself drawn into the mysteries and murk of Almond’s modern-day re-telling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, one that carried this contents notice in the foyer: References to death of a young person, bereavement/loss and adoption.

Already, on stage in York, at Stillington Mill, in Australia too, Wright & Grainger have explored the myth in a trilogy of exhilarating spoken-word and music shows, Orpheus, Eurydice and The Gods The Gods The Gods, billed as “stories from Greek mythology, told as if they were happening today”.

What Pilot Theatre’s production shares is both modernity and rich imagination in the storytelling, in this case the story of Ella Grey (Grace Long), who was adopted at the age of two and dreams of Orpheus singing to her in the company of her biological parents.

Ella prefers to spend her days and nights with Claire (Olivia Onyehara), her intense best friend since she was four, and Claire’s more open parents, with their baked aubergine suppers and ultra-comfy, tweedy sofas from a Scottish cottage industry. They understand her better, she protests.

Studying Eng Lit etc at A-level, they hook up regularly by the Northumbrian coast with Sam (Amonik Melaco), with his perfectly manicured eyebrows and far from perfect attitude towards young women; the more sensitive birdwatcher Jay (good name for a birdwatcher, Jonathan Iceton) and the ever-curious-to-experiment Angeline (Beth Crame, outstanding).

Craving a feeling of belonging, Ella is ever more drawn to Orpheus, represented here by a silhouetted figure with a crown of twigs behind white curtaining, by distant song and music too. Only she hears the voice at first, but gradually…well, that would be telling.

The content warning serves as a spoiler alert of her death, represented at the sea’s edge by her vintage dress, leaving so many questions to be answered for her friends, audience and Orpheus alike in Act Two.

Designer Verity Quinn switches the colour scheme for the two circular mounds that serve as beds and rocks on the beach from white to funereal black, accompanied by the squawk of a murder of crows and even a crow in the twig head gear worn by Claire.

All the while, Adam P McCready’s all-pervasive sound design (water, water everywhere), Chris Davey’s lighting and especially Si Cole’s video designs on the white backdrop give the atmosphere psychological depths.

Most evocative of all are the compositions of Emily Levy, whose programme note talks of her starting points of “voice (spoken and sung), folk song, and the crossover point where naturally occurring sound morphs into music”. Her songs “pass through and between the performers”, beautifully, spellbindingly so, and they evoke the mystical North East as much as The Unthanks do.

The links with the Orpheus and Eurydice of yore grow ever clearer in song and storytelling alike, as the tragedy and pain of human fallibility, the impossibility of immortality, heighten once in the underworld, but come the finale, Almond and Cooper still allow teenage dreams to be so hard to beat as new worlds beckon for Ella’s friends.

Musician Zak Younger Banks rightly joins the cast on stage to take a bow: thoroughly deserved for his vital contribution. 

Performances: York Theatre Royal, tonight, 7.30pm; tomorrow, 2.30pm, 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or Hull Truck Theatre, March 5 to 9, 7.30pm; 2pm Wednesday & Saturday matinees. Box office: 01482 323638 or

More Things To Do in York and beyond as arts take to the bike & beach. Hutch’s List No. 8 for 2024, from The Press, York

Pilot Theatre’s cast for A Song For Ella Grey at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Topher McGrillis

BEACH encounters with Orpheus, tandem cyclists divided by Brexit,  a joyful mess in art, an Eighties rom-com revisited, Ukrainian opera and big summer concerts brighten Charles Hutchinson’s days ahead.

York play of the week: Pilot Theatre in A Song For Ella Grey, York Theatre Royal, February 20 to 24, 7pm plus 1pm, Thursday and 2pm, Saturday; Hull Truck Theatre, March 5 to 9, 7.30pm plus 2pm, Wednesday and Saturday

IN Zoe Cooper’s stage adaptation of David Almond’s novel for York company Pilot Theatre and Newcastle’s Northern Stage, Claire and her best friend, Ella Grey, are ordinary kids from ordinary families in an ordinary world as modern teenagers meet ancient forces.

They and their friends fall in and out of love, play music and dance, stare at the stars, yearn for excitement, and have parties on Northumbrian beaches. One day, a stranger, a musician called Orpheus, appears on the beach and entrances them all, especially Ella. Where has Orpheus come from and what path will Ella follow in this contemporary re-telling of the ancient Greek myth. Box office: York, 01904 623568 or; Hull, 01482 323638 or

Displayful artists Luke Beech, Wendy Galloway, Kate Fox and Liberty Hodes, exhibiting at Scarborough Art Gallery. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Coastal exhibition of the season: Displayful, Scarborough Art Gallery until May 7

DISPLAYFUL celebrates happy accidents and joyful mess, aiming to brighten the winter months by inviting visitors to enjoy uplifting contemporary artistic responses to objects from the collections of Scarborough Museums and Galleries.

The show combines new work by five regional artists, Luke Beech, Kate Fox, Wendy Galloway, Liberty Hodes and Angela Knipe, alongside historical artefacts and asks audiences to consider new possibilities for the lives of objects.

Amber Davies’s Vivian and Oliver Savile’s Edward, centre, in a scene from Pretty Woman The Musical, on tour at the Grand Opera House, York, next week

Musical of the week: Pretty Woman The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, February 20 to 24, 7.30pm, plus 2.30pm Wednesday and Saturday matinees

BILLED as Hollywood’s ultimate rom-com, live on stage, Pretty Woman: The Musical is set once upon a time in the late 1980s, when Hollywood Boulevard hooker Vivian meets entrepreneur Edward Lewis and her life changes forever.

Amber Davies plays Vivian opposite Oliver Savile’s Edward; 2016 Strictly Come Dancing champion Ore Oduba, last seen at this theatre in fishnets in March 2022 as Brad Majors in The Rocky Horror Show, has two roles as hotel manager Barnard Thompson/Happy Man, and Natalie Paris will be Vivian’s wisecracking roommate Kit De Luca. Box office:

The poster artwork for Dnipro Opera’s Madama Butterfly at York Barbican

Opera of the week: Dnipro Opera in Madama Butterfly, York Barbican, February 20, 7pm

DNIPRO Opera, the Ukrainian National Opera, returns to British shores after last year’s visit to perform Puccini’s favourite work, Madama Butterfly, sung in Italian with English surtitles (CORRECT).

Set in Japan in 1904, this torrid tale of innocent love crushed between two contrasting cultures charts the affair between an American naval officer and his young Japanese bride, whose self-sacrifice and defiance of her family leads to tragedy. Box office:

Carly Bednar in rehearsal for her role as Leila Arden in Griffonage Theatre’s Rope at Theatre@41, Monkgate

Thriller of the week: Griffonage Theatre in Rope, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, February 21 to 24, 7.30pm

HALFWAY through her MA in theatre studies, Katie Leckey directs York company Griffonage Theatre in their Theatre@41 debut in Patrick Hamilton’s thriller Rope, with its invitation to a dinner party like no other.

Set in 1929 against the backdrop of Britain’s flirtation with fascism, this whodunit states exactly who did it, but the mystery is will they be caught? Cue a soiree full of eccentric characters, ticking clocks and hushed arguments. Box office:

An Eiffel and an earful: Don (John Lister) and Carol (Kate Caute) share a cycle but not political views in Paris in 1812 Theatre Company’s Scary Bikers

Ryedale play of the week: 1812 Theatre Company in Scary Bikers, Helmsley Arts Centre, February 21 to 24, 7.30pm

HELMSLEY’S 1812 Theatre Company stage their first John Godber comedy next week, his 2018 two hander Scary Bikers. Outwardly, redundant miner Don (John Lister) and former private school teacher Carol (Kate Caute) have little in common, but beneath the surface their former spouses are buried next to each other. Soon widowed Don and Carol bump into each other.

An innocent coffee leads to a bike ride through the Yorkshire Dales, then a bike tour across Europe to Florence. All looks promising for a budding romance, but their departure date is June 23 2016 and Don and Carol are on the opposite sides of the Brexit fence. Box office: or in person from the arts centre.

S Club: Post-racing party songs at York Racecourse on July 27

Bring it all back: S Club, York Racecourse Music Showcase Weekend, July 27

JULY 27 will be S Club Party time after the Saturday afternoon race card on the Knavesmire track. Once S Club 7, now the five-piece S Club comprises Jo O’Meara, Rachel Stevens, Jon Lee, Tina Barrett and Bradley McIntosh, following last April’s death of Paul Cattermole from heart complications at 46 and Hannah Spearritt not featuring in 2023’s 25th anniversary tour.

This month finds S Club in the USA playing Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Roll on summertime to enjoy chart toppers Bring It All Back, Never Had A Dream Come True, Don’t Stop Movin’ and Have You Ever, plus You’re My Number One, Reach, Two In A Million, S Club Party et al in York. Tickets:

James: Returning to Scarborough Open Air Theatre in July. Picture: Paul Dixon

Yorkshire gig announcement of the week: James, supported by Reverend & The Makers and Girlband!, Scarborough Open Air Theatre, July 26

MANCHESTER band James play Scarborough Open Air Theatre for the fourth time on July 26, the night when Leeds lads Kaiser Chiefs finish off the evening card at York Races.

“If you haven’t been there before, then make sure you come,” says James bassist and founder member Jim Glennie. “It’s a cracking venue and you can even have a paddle in the sea before the show!” New album Yummy arrives on April 12. Box office: James, from 9am on Friday; Kaiser Chiefs,

Orpheus in the underworld moves to Ella Grey’s teenage world on the beach in Pilot Theatre premiere at York Theatre Royal

Grace Long as Ella Grey, left, and Olivia Onyehara as Claire in A Song For Ella Grey. Picture: Topher McGrillis

THE first book Esther Richardson read after being appointed Pilot Theatre’s artistic director was A Song For Ella Grey.

Eight years later, she is directing the York company’s co-production of Zoe Cooper’s stage adaptation of David Almond’s Northumbrian novel. Next stop for a play full of music, sound and storytelling will be York Theatre Royal, from Tuesday to Saturday.

“It’s my favourite of David’s books,” says native north easterner Esther, who is directing a work deeply connected to her own story and upbringing for the first time. “I got totally swept up in his translation of the timeless myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to the locations in which I grew up.

“I lived in Teesside until I was 11, then we moved to Durham, to be nearer to my dad’s family, and my aunts were all in Newcastle. If you grow up in Durham, you go out in Newcastle, so that was a big part of my youth.

“My uncle used to take us up to the beach at Bamburgh Castle, and that’s where I camped when I did the Duke of Edinburgh awards.”

Monday morning was Esther’s first official working day back in York since she began rehearsals on January 2 at production partner Northern Stage’s rehearsal studios in Byker, ahead of its February 1 opening in Newcastle, where “it’s gone really well”.

Esther has wanted to stage A Song For Ella Grey ever since reading it. “Landscape is very important to the story and that landscape was very much part of my growing up,” she says. “That entry to Newcastle on the train, with all those bridges across the Tyne is so mythic; it’s majestic, so is the coast. Doing this play is a love letter to them both.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson

“When I read the book, it spoke to my heart, as I recognise the kids; the running away to Edinburgh; hanging out in very specific places in Newcastle; traipsing around the shops there. It’s that whole rendering of what it’s like to be a teenager in Newcastle.”

Published in 2014, Almond’s novel for young people relocates the Orpheus and Eurydice myth and its story of enduring love and loss to the north east in a lyrical retelling set among a group of teenage friends – “ordinary kids from ordinary families in an ordinary world” – that fall in and out of love, play music and dance, stare at the stars, yearn for excitement, and have parties on Northumberland’s beaches.

“So often working-class stories are told through a male lens, but this one is told from the perspective of a survivor, of a young queer woman,” says Esther. “It takes place in the liminal space between childhood and adulthood when you become aware you can never go back. You can never be a kid again.”

The focus falls on the bond between Claire and her friend Ella Grey, one that is as close as it could be until one day they encounter a stranger, Orpheus, a lyre-playing, Dr Martens-wearing young man, on Bamburgh Beach. He entrances them all, especially Ella, but what path will she follow in this tale of modern teenagers and ancient forces?

Cooper’s stage adaptation is written from Claire and Ella’s perspective as they re-tell their story to one another and the audience. “The idea is that they are making what happened to them into a myth,” reasons the playwright.

“The myth of Orpheus is so powerful,” says Esther. “Is he a man or a god? He’s a man-god, who goes into the underworld and is told, ‘you can bring someone back from the underworld, but only if you don’t look back at her before you re-enter the world above.

“But of course, there’s an inevitability that he will look back. Our humanity is our mortality, and we know you can’t bring someone back from the dead.”

Incoming message: Grace Long’s Ella Grey. Picture: Topher McGrillis

Esther continues: “It’s also about creativity and art, and that thing of something being out of reach when you’ve woken and it first seemed so clear. What that’s doing is chasing a fever dream, and that’s the most powerful part of being human.

“How we want to over-reach, to be immortal, to turn back the clock. Modern art can do that, like a photograph freezing a moment in time. So there’s a really spiritual dimension to the story that connects with us really deeply, and it was a beautiful, tantalising prospect to put it on stage.”

She commissioned Zoe to write the adaptation on account of the lyricism she shared with Almond. “I wanted someone who wouldn’t be afraid of that lyricism. I didn’t want it to be domestic; I wanted it to be epic,” she says.

“With Orpheus, David has created this elusive figure; you have a character who is a spirit, who is music, who’s in the landscape; sometimes he’s there and he’s real; sometimes he’s not real and can’t be found as he disappears into the night – which is really difficult to stage.

“The first thing that Zoe and I talked about was how do we adapt that for the stage, and we decided we should not make the slippery Orpheus a single human form because that would have killed the lyricism.

“What Zoe has done is create a text where Orpheus has the potential to appear in many different forms, sometimes human, but mainly an elusive being in the world.”

Pilot Theatre’s cast for A Song For Ella Grey. Picure: Topher McGrillis

Teenage audiences have “really hooked into” Cooper and Richardson’s production in the Newcastle run. “At first we thought, ‘are we being too oblique?’, but you have to commit to imagination, and if you create a really good structure and architecture for the story, audiences will go with it,” says Esther.

“We trusted our audience, having tested a scene at a school in Cramlington, which gave us the confidence that we were doing the right thing.

“As theatremakers, we try to stay in touch with childhood, and with our shows, whether Noughts & Crosses or A Song For Ella Grey, quite often teenagers get what’s happening ahead of adultds, with teens explaining things to perplexed adults!”

From the very start, Esther knew music would be important in A Song For Ella. “There was a clue in the title!” she says. “You think, ‘well, what is the ‘song’?”

She duly commissioned composer Emily Levy – noted for her use of folk traditions and song – to work with Pilot for the first time. “I love music and I love working with composers,” she says. “I had Emily at the edge of my thinking, as I’d heard her work with Streetwise Opera, who work with homeless people, and I knew she was passionate about using the voice as an instrument and that she could do amazing choral scores.

“A happy accident was that David [Almond] was a huge fan of Emily’s music, which I didn’t know in advance – and I trust him as being so creative, with amazing insights. So I met Emily, Zoe thought she was terrific too, and everything span off from there.”

Beth Crame as Angeline in A Song For Ella Grey. Picture: Topher McGrillis

The music in Pilot’s production is “incredible,” says Esther, “But it can’t offer all the solutions. That’s when I got the designer, Verity Quinn, involved to bring Orpheus into the play in a different way.

“Making theatre on the mid-scale, looking into that rectangle, you have to deliver something epic: that starts with the words but you disregard the visual at your peril.

“In the end, my work is very stripped back, not just because of Pilot’s level of resources, but because we all respond to colour emotionally, and the visual is rocket fuel to how you create meaning and how you connect to the human heart and mind in the audience. By stripping back you encourage the use of imagination.

“Theatre offers a reflective space, and in that moment, you use your imagination and your humanity comes to the fore. You are aware of who you are. It’s so difficult to find a space where you can just be present, listening to a story, being part of a story, and kids need that more than anyone else.”

In that last sentence, Esther sums up the essence of Pilot Theatre and why the pioneering York company continues to be at the forefront of theatre with a young voice.

 Pilot Theatre, Northern Stage and York Theatre Royal present A Song For Ella Grey, York Theatre Royal, February 20 to 24, 7pm plus 1pm, Thursday and 2pm, Saturday; Hull Truck Theatre, March 5 to 9, 7.30pm plus 2pm, Wednesday and Saturday. Box office: York, 01904 623568 or; Hull, 01482 323638 or

Author David Almond on A Song For Ella Grey

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson, left, with novelist David Almond and playwright Zoe Cooper. Picture: Mark Savage

Why revisit the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice?

“People have been telling this story forever,” he says. It’s one of the oldest stories ever told. There are endless versions of it, in cinema, on stage, in books and poetry and songs. I knew, at some point, I was going to write my version of it.”

Why Newcastle and Bamburgh beach?

“It made sense to set it among a group of normal Tyneside teenagers,” says Almond, whose daughter was a teenager at the time he wrote the book, giving him the awareness of “being young and falling in love, experiencing the possibility of loss, the possibility of bliss. Plus, I like the idea of Hades being under Newcastle.”

What does his lyrical writing celebrate?

“The beauty of northern rhythms, of the beats of northern language, to find something that is distinctively regional which can reach out to the rest of the world.”

From page to stage…

“There’s nothing like live theatre,” says Almond. “It’s our oldest form of art. It’s a very ancient way of telling a story. It’s how we told each other stories when we were still in caves 1000s and 1000s of years ago.”

“There’s nothing like live theatre,” says Almond. “It’s our oldest form of art. It’s a very ancient way of telling a story. It’s how we told each other stories when we were still in caves 1000s and 1000s of years ago.”


Review: Focus on female new writing in Northern Girls for Signal Fires Festival

The tree-lit setting for Northern Girls in the YMCA Theatre Car Park in Scarborough. Picture: Matthew Cooper, Msc1photography

Review: Signal Fires Festival, Northern Girls, Pilot Theatre and Arcade, YMCA Theatre Car Park, St Thomas Street, Scarborough, October 27 and 28

ALAS, we are confined to keeping only the home fires burning as Lockdown 2: The Sequel beds in from Thursday, putting live theatre back in its box for at least a month.

Yet in this desperate year, nights such as the Northern Girls showcase for female voices have risen from the ashes of 2020 to make the Signal Fires Festival a heart-warming herald of how theatre can diversify to survive the stultifying Covid strictures that have left the industry under threat.

Over the years, CharlesHutchPress has reviewed productions staged in York in an echoey multi-storey car park and at a pop-up Elizabethan theatre built on a car park. Now, the Tarmac surface of the Scarborough YMCA Theatre car park can be added to that list, on a Tuesday night of numbing exposure to the autumn elements that made the glowing presence of four fire pits so welcome to complement scarves and the now de rigueur masks.

Ben Cowens’ silvery lighting of a lonely tree added magic to the setting and provided a point of focus for the performers brought together by pioneering York company Pilot Theatre and Arcade, the new Scarborough community producers

Asma Elbadawi performing Girl Next Door for the Signal Fires Festival. Picture: Matthew Cooper, Msc1photography

The time-honoured tradition of telling stories at the fireside lies at the heart of Signal Fires, albeit that everyone was keeping their social distance, sitting in pods of two, rather than huddling around the heat, all wearing a headset for clarity of sound, as is the norm at outdoor performances this year.

Each commissioned vignette was a solo piece – a concentrated artform but practical for Covid times – setting free eight stories of girls and women who live along the North East coastline, as Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson did when growing up in Redcar until the age of 11. Linking them altogether was the theme of what mattered most to writers and performers alike in 2020.

Here was a chance to see a quickfire new work by fast-rising High Kilburn playwright Charley Miles, setting the bar high with the opening Erosion, performed by professional debutante Holly Surtees-Smith, who returned for Rant, by Amy-May Pell, one of four new writing talents nurtured for Northern Girls by York theatre-maker, playwright and tutor Hannah Davies.

Richardson and Arcade’s Rach Drew spread the net wide along the coastline to fish out stories from Zoe Cooper, from Newcastle (Kat/Cassie, performed by Laura Elsworthy) and Maureen Lennon, from Hull, whose rousing The Scarborough Porpoise marked Northern Girls’ second professional stage debut by the bravura Laura Boughen.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson leading a rehearsal for Northern Girls. Picture: Matthew Cooper, Msc1photography

This frank, fearless, funny and fiery feminist tale was chosen for the finale, such was its potency and desire for freedom, riding the waves amid the porpoises.

British-Sudanese spoken-word artist (and basketball player) Asma Elbadawi performed her own work, The Girl Next Door, reflecting on growing up as a hijab-wearing girl in Bradford.

Lighting the torch for breaking barriers and finding liberation, Northern Girls also introduced new works by Shannon Barker, from Scarborough (First Date), and York College A-level student Ariel Hebditch (Yin And Yang), both performed by Siu-See Hung.

Claire Edwards, writer of the past five Scarborough YMCA Theatre pantomimes, here changed tack to make waves with Waves in a second monologue for the outstanding Laura Elsworthy.

Good news too, Signal Fires will not merely turn to ash. Suitably fired up by Northern Girls, Esther Richardson is keen to roll out this pioneering writing project in other communities too.

Holly Surtees-Smith making her professional debut in Northern Girls amid the smoke and fire of the Signal Fires Festival. Picture: Matthew Cooper, Msc1photograph

Signal Fires Festival lights torch for Pilot and Arcade’s female stories from the coast

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson. Picture: Robert Day

TELLING stories around a fire is an early form of theatre, one that is to be celebrated in the nationwide Signal Fires Festival this autumn.

Among those taking part are York company Pilot Theatre and new Scarborough community producing company Arcade, who are collaborating on Northern Girls, an hour-long, socially distanced, fire-lit outdoor performance on October 27 and 28 in the YMCA Theatre Car Park, St Thomas Street, Scarborough YO11 1DY.

At 7pm each night, Pilot and Arcade will set free the stories of girls and women who live along the North East coastline and were encouraged to write and present tales that matter to them most in 2020.

Next week’s performances will feature short commissioned pieces from Asma Elbadawi, Zoe Cooper, Maureen Lennon and Charley Miles, complemented by work created with York spoken-word artist and tutor Hannah Davies and a group of young women from Scarborough, .

A signal fire is defined as “a fire or light set up in a prominent position as a warning, signal, or celebration”, now re-purposed amid the Coronavirus crisis for the arts to “signal the vibrancy of touring theatre and the threat our industry continues to face”.

“This whole Covid situation has made it important to create theatre support networks across the country, with the issues faced by smaller companies, mid-scale companies and larger companies,” says Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson.

“If there has been any upside, it is that the theatre network across the country is far stronger now.”

The idea for the Signal Fires Festival came from English Touring Theatre and Headlong Theatre, building on the original desire to highlight the work of companies who do not have their own theatre base. “We were also thinking about ‘what can we do for freelancers in theatre’ and, most important of all, ‘how can we send out a fire signal that we want to bring back theatre stronger than ever?’,” says Esther.

Hannah Davies: York writer, spoken-word performer, tutor and actress

Pilot’s link-up with Arcade is rooted in Rach Drew and Sophie Drury-Bradey running the Scarborough company. “We knew Rach from her work at York Mediale and I’ve known Sophie for a long time from when she was at the Albany, when she asked me to develop some work with new writers, 15 years ago,” says Esther.

“It was then a coincidence that Sophie had come to Scarborough, but when this project came about, to amplify northern women as leaders as well as writers, it was just a natural progression to say, ‘What do you think, guys, about doing this project together?’.”

The theme of Northern Girls resonated with Esther not only because “Pilot has always been about helping those who are disadvantaged in the community”, but also because of her childhood on the North East coast.

“I lived in Redcar from the age of three to 11, so I’d always had this tug to do something on the coast. I’m someone who left there and has had a career in theatre but I keep in touch with people who live there,” she says.

“I’m aware of the lack of investment in those places, and the direct effect that has on young people and women in particular. So, this project was about creating an opportunity to unlock what people can do when they set their hearts and minds to it.”

Esther was keen to achieve a geographical spread of four female writers, all still in the process of establishing themselves. “Maureen Lennon is from Hull and I was aware of her work for Middle Child Theatre that is full of insight into working-class lives,” she says.

“Asma Elbadawi is a spoken-word artist and professional basketball player Bradford, and she’s someone we’ve been excited about for a while but we hadn’t found a project for her.

“Northern Girls was perfect for her to bring her perspective of growing up as a hijab-wearing girl in West Yorkshire.”

High Kilburn playwright Charley Miles

Zoe Cooper is an award-winning playwright from Newcastle. “Again, I’d been aware of her for a while, but if you think about women playwrights from the North, there’s Middle Child’s work in Hull, Charley Miles at Leeds Playhouse, but in the North East, there seems to be a dearth of female writers, so we’re delighted to be featuring Zoe’s work,” says Esther.

Charley Miles, from the Hambleton village of High Kilburn, first came to attention with her lyrical moorland village drama Blackthorn at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2016, and her all-female Yorkshire Ripper play, There Are No Beginnings, was the first to be staged when the Leeds Playhouse re-opened last October.

“We wanted writers from different places because we want to continue this process, to explore how we might take this writing project to other communities to develop new works,” says Esther.

She is pleased too by the impact of York writer Hannah Davies on the four women she has been working with in Scarborough: Amy-Kay Pell, Shannon Barker, Ariel Hebditch and Claire Edwards.

“Hannah is not just a wonderful writer but also she’s wonderful at working with young writers,” says Esther. “She has a really special gift for inspiring new writers, nurturing them and getting them to nurture themselves, in this case Amy, Shannon, Ariel and Claire.”

Asma Elbadawi will present her own work, while Laura Boughen, Laura Elsworthy, Siu-See Hung and Holly Surtees-Smith will perform the others, working with directors Esther Richardson, Gitika Buttoo, Oliver O’Shea and Maria Crocker.

All the short pieces address the barriers that women face, with each story being “in some sense an act of liberation”.  “With everyone writing to the same theme, straight from the heart, some plays are more political, but they all make you think about things you might not have thought about otherwise,” says Esther.

The “fire” setting will be fire pits in the car park. “At first we wanted to do it by the sea, but there are loads of problems doing a show with a fire on the beach, not least the tides!” says Esther.

Pilot Theatre and Arcade present Northern Girls for the Signal Fires Festival, at YMCA Theatre Car Park, St Thomas Street, Scarborough YO11 1DY, on October 27 and 28, 7pm to 8pm.

The recommended age is 14 plus. Please bring headphones. Each £10 ticket is sold for a clearly marked bubble that can seat one or two people. Audience members must wear a mask on arrival and throughout the performance.

For tickets, go to:

Sophie Drury-Bradey and Rach Drew of Arcade, the new Scarborough community producing company