As the play Hello and Goodbye heads to York Theatre Royal we talk to director John R Wilkinson

Emilio Iannucci as Johnnie in Hello and Goodbye, directed by John R Wilkinson, inset.
Emilio Iannucci as Johnnie in Hello and Goodbye, directed by John R Wilkinson, inset.
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Studio theatres are important spaces. They are where experiments take place and where potential is created.

A huge number of the big shows we’ve all enjoyed on grand stages began their lives in little studio spaces.

Director John R Wilkinson

Director John R Wilkinson

I remember a couple of years before Calendar Girls was pulling in international audiences in the West End, I saw a small version of it in a village hall.

The Rocky Horror Show was first seen in a little room upstairs at the Royal Court before it conquered the world.

War Horse was worked on in the National Theatre’s Studio spaces before it went to Broadway, where it was seen by Stephen Spielberg who decided to commit it to celluloid.

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The point is, studio theatres, the small unglamorous spaces inside big theatres, are often where you get to see some of the most exciting work and, crucially, at the most exciting moment of its development, right there at the beginning, when it is at its most embryonic.

Studios are a vital part of the ecology of theatre, a place where bold decisions can be taken and from where leaps of faith can springboard.

It’s one of the reasons director John R Wilkinson is so pleased to be bringing his latest production to the stage of the York Theatre Royal Studio.

The building has undergone some seriously big changes over the past few years, with the £6m refurbishment completed in 2016, the stepping down of long time artistic director Damian Cruden and the end of the lengthy reign of Berwick Kaler as the country’s longest serving pantomime dame.

A smaller, but no less significant change was when the theatre stopped programming its own work in the studio theatre. The space was still used, only by visiting companies and not for long runs of its own work. That changes this month when Wilkinson’s production of Athol Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye comes to the Studio.

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“It is with the greatest degree of pride, and spirit, that we announce the return of in-house productions to our Studio with this production,” says Wilkinson, who is an associate artist at York Theatre Royal.

“The blue magic of that space has always given rise to intense, intimate storytelling and I recall a raft of titles including Blackbird, Blue/Orange and The White Crow from the early 2010s which really inspired a generation of artists, including myself.

“Six years on from Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down, the prospect of directing another piece of work in such a defining, dynamic space fills me with tonnes of joy.”

Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down was a significant piece of work for Wilkinson, who graduated to directing the piece from working at the theatre’s box office.

He has since gone on to work on a number of productions, received the Genesis Future Director Award last year and spent 18 months working as an associate at Leeds Playhouse, where he worked on shows including the hugely well received Sunshine on Leith, directed by James Brining.

“This is definitely a feeling of coming home, bringing this to York,” says Wilkinson. It’s a bold choice of work to bring the studio back on line.

“I first came across Fugard when I was watching an arts documentary about him and there was an extract of a two-hander he’d written that was beautiful and brutally intense,” he says.

“As a director my niche has become work that is weird, intense and has quite a noir sensibility and this is definitely in that genre.

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“His work can be presented as being quite abstract and stylised and it gives you a chance to break away from British literalism which is something I’m quite interested in.

“I am big into film noir and playing with light and shade and because of that I find myself drawn towards the European theatre scene. I think by going there and stripping things back, you can end with a quite visceral theatrical experience.”

It sounds like the perfect kind of theatre for a studio space.

In the play Johnnie is being visited by his sister Hester after a long absence at their family home in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. There is conflict between the siblings and their memories of the same events differ. As the drama develops, you begin to realise that the family drama is the conflict of South Africa writ small.

“It’s a hefty old play and wrestling with something like that is a really enjoyable experience,” says Wilkinson.

Helping Wilkinson wrestle with Fugard’s heft are actors Jo Mousley and Emilio Iannucci, who was last seen at York Theatre Royal in Book of Dragons and spent the summer playing Romeo in Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre at Blenheim.

Mousley, who is making her York Theatre Royal debut, has recently completed a year in the Pop-Up Theatre Ensemble at Leeds Playhouse where her roles included playing Gertrude in Hamlet.

Wilkinson, who has cerebral palsy and is a wheelchair user, is interested in what the play has to say about disability.

“On a personal level I am interested in exploring the relationship between siblings caring for a disabled relative. I hope Hello and Goodbye will prove stimulating, gothic, a little bit surprising and a cracking night out.”

Hello and Goodbye is at York Theatre Royal, November 14-30. Tickets 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk