C J Sansom, adapted by Mike Kenny
York Theatre Royal
King's Manor, York

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Fergus Rattigan, Sam Thorpe-Spinks and the Women of York Chorus in Sovereign Credit: Charlotte Graham
Livy Potter and Fergus Rattigan in Sovereign Credit: Charlotte Graham
Mark Gowland in Sovereign Credit: Charlotte Graham
Matthew Page and the Women of York Chorus in Sovereign Credit: Charlotte Graham

When Henry VIII came to York in 1541 as part of his tour of the regions, vast sums and manpower were spent on lavish improvements to the King’s Manor, his official place of residence in the county. Jumping forward nearly half a millennium, there’s a moment in Mike Kenny’s adaptation of C J Sansom’s historical whodunit Sovereign where we see a cast of local community actors busying themselves with chisels at the actual ancient brickwork in question (the chisels are carefully wielded not to do actual damage to the historical building).

It’s this sort of teeming action, this sense of a community coming together on the actual site of the action described that is so striking about this canny adaptation, and the craft of the York Theatre Royal’s team mirrors that of the Tudor guildsfolk in its quality and skill.

The theatre now has over a decade-long tradition of staging huge community plays based on stories with a local flavour, often placed in a non-theatre space. This production takes Sansom’s 2006 novel, the third in the Shardlake series, and assembles a cast of over a hundred community performers, two professional actors and an army of other volunteers to recount the story of intrigue and conspiracy, all in the courtyard of King’s Manor. The audience is seated in a well-covered temporary auditorium, though the actors are exposed to the elements.

As is often the case in these productions, there are numerous performers who more than hold their own alongside the paid actors. In this instance, though, the ubiquity of Sam Thorpe-Spinks as Barak and, especially, Fergus Rattigan as Matthew Shardlake, who holds the story together and acts as an audience proxy as we discover the mysteries at play, do justify the distinction between community and pro.

Mysteries run through this adaptation in more ways than one. Mike Kenny, who was responsible for the script of the magnificent 2012 Mystery Plays, wittily opens this production with a Waggon chorus depicting the Creation ("Ego Sum Alpha et Omega")—only for Henry VIII (Mark Gowland) to interrupt and announce himself as the one to be worshipped.

It’s a cunning framing device which launches us into a surprisingly sprightly tale, augmented by a chorus of York townsfolk who tell us the story—but aren’t necessarily letting us in on everything they know. The pace and coherence of the piece is surprising, mainly because Kenny and co have succeeded in condensing this 600+ page book (and a good amount of crucial historical framing) into a two and a half-hour production which never drags, lags or confuses. The script is easily up with Kenny’s best—sympathetic to the source but theatrical to its bones.

Likewise, the direction, by a strong trio of Juliet Forster, Mingyu Lin and John R Wilkinson, is deeply impressive. Despite the potentially unwieldy cast size, the action flows seemingly effortlessly, and several imaginative stage pictures are constructed and evolved with ease by a well-organised and dedicated cast.

Livy Potter as Tamasin Reedbourne has several key scenes with the lead duo, performing with wit and presence. There are also memorable cameos from the likes of Joe Hopper as a despicable (but never pantomimic) gaoler, Maurice Crichton as a rough and suspicious local power-broker, and Katie Leckey as the sharp but guarded lady-in-waiting Jennet Marlin. Matthew Page as Giles Wrenne holds the stage with a fitting air of calm, dignified focus. And Nick Naidu-Bock plays Edward Broderick, a noble imprisoned for his anti-Tudor sentiments, with compelling intensity. Like many of the community cast, he has only a scattering of scenes but leaves a strong impression.

Ultimately, though, it is the collective endeavour that must win the plaudits. The set-piece moments are—deliberately—not on the same scale as some earlier such works, but the power of the chorus here is that you get a real sense of a city at work and play. The aforementioned ensemble activity gives us street scenes, choral interludes, and courtly bustle—but also show us the way this community turning against the newcomer ‘southrons’, or merging and mingling to protect one of its own (the disgruntled native who hurls a cabbage at the visiting monarch). This chorus could be dangerous.

Hazel Fall’s costumes are superbly detailed and varied, aiding the storytelling by marking out members of the royal retinue and other factions with great clarity. The movement direction, by Hayley Del Harrison, also offers some fantastic moments: a jig showcasing the seemingly endless cast line-up, and—even better—some simple but wonderfully evocative puppetry and physical work to evoke a parade of horses or a chained bear on display for the amusement of the King’s court.

Dawn Allsopp’s set is sympathetic to the space while producing flexible playing areas and directing the eye superbly. And all of this is woven through with music: a combination of a live choir and pre-recorded period instrumentation, with original compositions by Dominic Sales.

Occasional technical hiccups (with one of the radio mics clearly on the blink, meaning occasional expositional chorus lines were lost the night I saw it) and a smattering of rain can’t detract from this well-paced, intrigue-filled detective drama, nor from the specialness of the setting and the whole team’s achievement. Their large-scale community works have become seen as the jewel in York Theatre Royal’s crown, and this one will shine bright in the memory.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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