In the wings

As the region's theatres prepare to open their autumn seasons, Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad looks at what's on the way.
LOCAL HEROINE: The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca by Maxine Peake premieres in Hull; inset Sally Cookson directs WYPs The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.LOCAL HEROINE: The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca by Maxine Peake premieres in Hull; inset Sally Cookson directs WYPs The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
LOCAL HEROINE: The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca by Maxine Peake premieres in Hull; inset Sally Cookson directs WYPs The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

This morning I’m due to meet Kay Mellor and Nick Lloyd-Webber to find out how they’re getting on with rehearsals for Fat Friends the Musical.

Then I’m off to put the finishing touches to a radio documentary I’ve been making this past year about Barrie Rutter and his company Northern Broadsides.

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It’s that kind of time in Yorkshire theatre. A new musical, which takes years to make happen is born as Rutter leaves his theatre company after a quarter of a century. As we head into the autumn of 2017, I am looking ahead to this new season with more anticipation than I have for some time – and not only because my own new play opens the season for the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

It feels like the people who run the region’s theatres in the South, West, out East and up in the North are men (they are all men – something that has to be addressed at some point) who are firmly established and confident in their own leadership.

In Sheffield and in Scarborough are the relatively new men Robert Hastie and Paul Robinson.

Both just over a year in to their jobs, they have shown an impressive ability to be humble and ambitious, paying homage to the past while looking like the kind of people who will beat their own respective paths.

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Robert Hastie’s Julius Caesar was one of the boldest takes on the play I’ve seen since the RSC took the story to Africa then brought it to Yorkshire and it demonstrated a seriously deft touch when it came to how to handle the demands of the Crucible’s odd thrust stage.

This season Hastie will be at the helm of the world premiere of Chris Thompson’s new play Of Kith and Kin, opening the theatre’s season on September 15. Co-producing with the Bush theatre, the venue now run by Madani Younis, formerly of Bradford’s Freedom Studios, it’s always good to see such collaborations happening. A story of adoption and surrogacy, it will be good to see Hastie flex his muscles in the studio space of the theatre complex. Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms is going to be one of theatre’s big productions, starring Matthew Kelly, also in September, and Tamara Harvey’s return to the theatre after her Pride and Prejudice with Uncle Vanya is going to be worth seeing. One show that’s bound to book up quick will be the Christmas production: this year The Wizard of Oz. Hastie’s given himself a heck of a challenge with that. I suspect he’ll be up to it.

At the other end of the county Paul Robinson is doing a great job of slowly pointing the Stephen Joseph Theatre in a different direction. So long the Scarborough theatre was all about Sir Alan Ayckbourn, and while he remains a very important part of the institution, Robinson is making the place his own. As well as celebrating Ayckbourn this coming Autumn, I am really looking forward to seeing the theatre’s production of Waiting for Godot and in particular Robinson’s ‘interactive musical retelling’ of A (Scarborough) Christmas Carol. Hey, it worked for Bill Murray and Scrooged.

Hull, of course, continues to be this year’s UK City of Culture and the party is far from over. This week it was announced that a new play by Maxine Peake will be part of the celebrations of 2017. The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca will be staged at The Guildhall in Hull, but is very much a Hull Truck Theatre production. The site-specific performance will lead audiences through Hull’s historic Guildhall, the Grade II listed home of Hull City Council. It sees Peake reunite with regular collaborator Sarah Frankcom and features a live musical score from celebrated folk artists Adrian McNally and The Unthanks. The story will follow Hull hero Lillian Bilocca and her crew of head-scarved women through The Guildhall, joining them in 1968 as they dare to speak out and take action to improve the safety conditions for their men at sea.

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Before then, Hull Truck’s artistic director Mark Babych will be at the helm of a new stage adaptation of Marina Lewycka’s bestselling novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Written for the stage by award-winning playwright Tanika Gupta, the production opens on September 22 and will, I imagine, continue the high standard the theatre has set with its work in this special year for the city.

Also watch out for the theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol. Deborah McAndrew writing, Amy Leach directing: there’s nothing not to love about this production.

As he reaches two decades running York Theatre Royal, the impressively loyal and always inventive Damian Cruden continues to do his thing, only now from within a much improved venue. How inventive is he? This autumn the theatre combines with Nottingham Playhouse to present a new version of Pride and Prejudice by comedian Sara Pascoe. I can’t wait.

At the West Yorkshire Playhouse the big Christmas production of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe will be spectacular for the reason of the director and the total reconfiguration of the stage. Sally Cookson is staging the story in the round. It’s going to be epic.

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I haven’t even mentioned the productions that began this article. Fat Friends the Musical opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on November 7. It’s the first musical written by Kay Mellor, but she’s got form in TV – it’ll be fine.

And then there’s Barrie Rutter. It’s his last performance with Broadsides: For Love Or Money by Blake Morrison. It opens at the Viaduct in Halifax on September 15 before a national tour. It’s going to be emotional.


The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe: I started writing about theatre in Yorkshire in 2001. I’ve never seen the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre in the round in that time. It’s going to be spectacular.

A Christmas Carol: With Deborah McAndrew providing the writing talent this will be irreverent, cheeky and lots of fun at Hull Truck Theatre.

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Under the Elms: One of the great American plays meets one of Britain’s great stage actors. Matthew Kelly might be known to some as a TV host – he’s been carving out an extraordinary reputation for stagecraft since those days.

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