Three actors, two roles, one relationship, add up to Gus Gowland’s musical premiere of Mayflies at York Theatre Royal

Entwined: Rumi Sutton’s May and Emma Thornett’s Fly in a scene from Gus Gowland’s musical Mayflies, in rehearsal at the Central Methodist Church, York. Picture: Sam Taylor

THE world premiere of York Theatre Royal resident artist Gus Gowland’s new musical, Mayflies, opens tomorrow with a cast of Nuno Queimado, Rumi Sutton and Emma Thornett.

Except that you will not see all three of them on stage that night (28/4/2023), nor indeed at any performance in the run until May 13.

To explain, Mayflies tells the story of a romantic relationship between May and Fly, who match up on a dating app and begin a tentative conversation, whereupon their romance grows into something real. Then they meet.

Same story each show, but Gowland uses a rotating cast whereby any performance could feature a configuration of Nuno (May), Emma (Fly) or Rumi (“the super-talented one” because she can play either May or Fly).

“Come on three nights and you will see all three configurations,” advises director Tania Azevedo, a specialist in bringing new musicals to the stage, with credits for the award-winning But I’m a Cheerleader (Turbine Theatre) and as resident director for & Juliet in the West End.

Nuno Queimado’s May and Emma Thornett’s Fly in a touching moment in Mayflies. Picture: Sam Taylor

“Gus has specifically written what to our knowledge is the only musical able to be played by anyone of any age, gender, sexuality or race. May and Fly don’t come from anywhere specific; they have no identity whatsoever, which feels really special because it’s such a joy to watch, whether it’s Nuno and Rumi, Rumi and Emma or Nuno and Emma: we’re making a show that is universal. You get to experience the bravery to fall in love, whether you’re straight, gay, young or old.”

Composer, lyricist and writer Gowland, director Azevedo and musical director Joseph Church ran a full week of auditions, seeing more than 300 actors. “There had to be some decisions made at the beginning,” says Tania. “We could have had just two actors but settled on three, which allows us to really show how flexible the script is.

“Within that, we wanted to select people from different backgrounds and with differing vocal qualities, not just your average musical theatre performers. We also needed playful actors, able to cope with changes, as this show will be as fresh as it can be, with the latest re-write finished only a few weeks ago.

“They need to be playful to discover the juice within it. It will always have their imprint on it, stretching the concept as far as possible.”

Portuguese-born Nuno, who played the alternate Alexander Hamilton in the West End run of Hamilton, says: “Gus hasn’t written specifically drawn characters but doesn’t shy away from very specific themes, but the device he uses to change the configurations is what’s so special. That’s the juice that sets it apart from other shows.

“Then they meet”: Nuno Queimado’s May and Rumi Sutton’s Fly in Mayflies. Picture: Sam Taylor

“What’s great in the rehearsal period is being able to carve out the characters in 3D, finding out what’s different in each of our characterisations.”

To aid that journey, mood boards have been steadily filled with ideas and notes in the rehearsal room at the Central Methodist Church in St Saviouragte.

Tania rejoins: “What’s been really interesting is how generous they’ve been to each other, truly working as an ensemble with a collective understanding of the story while searching for the differing nuances of each pairing, so we’re developing the individuality of each character. Even with the same blocking, each pairing will feel really different.”

Emma, whose credits include War Horse, says: “To get that distinction between the different combinations, Tania has allowed us to develop why my Fly is different from Rumi’s.

“Having two people playing the same character at different performances brings a different dynamic to each scene, which will end up with it feeling like it’s a different show.

Director Tania Azevedo and musical director Joseph Church overseeing a rehearsal for Mayflies. Picture: Sam Taylor

“This is so rare in musical theatre because it usually has a prescribed time and place and specific type of acting, with freedom being somewhat restricted, but here it’s unique for allowing the true actor’s craft to be infused into the songs.”

Nuno says: “Tania, as the director, will go back to what’s important to squeeze as much juice as we can from each scene, whether we have to be busy or relaxed or open to being vulnerable, but always sticking to what the scene needs. Keep asking what each character needs: that way it doesn’t ever let the oven of creativity get cold.”

Another dimension to the show is representing the world of online dating. “What’s fascinating is that for a third of the play they can’t see each other as they’re connecting through online dating, which has had such an impact, especially since the pandemic when it was the only way to connect and find a new partner,” says Tania.

“No longer do people meet in a bar if you’re looking for love now. Chances are they will meet online. It’s interesting to see how the relationships changes when they’re in the same room [at an hotel], reading texts, talking on the phone or voice noting…”

…”And whether they react and how they react or not, in each situation,” says Rumi, who is making her York Theatre Royal debut after appearing in Hex and Heathers The Musical.

Mayflies composer, lyricist and writer Gus Gowland, seated, with York Theatre Royal cast members Emma Thornett, left, Rumi Sutton and Nuno Queimado

“The impact on when they’re in the room together face to face is pretty extreme,” says Tania.

To add another ingredient, Mayflies does not plough the straight furrow from the relationship’s beginning to finale. “It’s not chronological!” says Nuno. “It keeps jumping between online and offline and we keep jumping backwards and forwards too!”

Those worlds have to be represented in the designs of TK Hay, who so thrilled audiences with his innovative geometric carapace of one and a half miles of fibre-optic cable lighting for the multiverse story world of University of York alumnus Nick Payne’s Constellation at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, last autumn.

“The main thing I told him is that it’s a musical with only two people but we need to make it exciting on a big, big stage,” says Tania. “People have an expectation of how opera will look and we have to find a way to present things in a new style.”

Gus Gowland’s Mayflies runs at York Theatre Royal from tomorrow to May 13, 7.30pm; 2pm, May 4 and 11; 2.30pm, May 6 and 13. In a special deal, you can see all three casting configurations for the discounted price of £15. Box office: 01904 623568 or