ALL-ROUND York entertainer Josh Benson performed his first children’s magic show in a kitchen in Fulford.
Now, after a decade of doing other children’s parties, Josh has decided he should have his own bash as a tenth anniversary present to himself.
On Sunday afternoon, this ever-perky purveyor of daft comedy chaos – “daft is cleverer than stupid,” he says – presents Just Josh’s 10th Birthday Party! at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York.
“It’s a big stage, much bigger than a church hall, community centre or school room that I usually do these shows in. I needed to upsize for this one,” he says.
Expect Josh’s usual comedy magic, juggling, “balloonology”, dancing and games, plus some extra-special surprises in a show for “anyone from four to 104”.
“It’s the perfect Sunday afternoon treat for the whole family. Yes, even Dad! It is Father’s Day after all!” he says.
“I’m having a huge Just Josh sign made for the stage – by Spectrum Signs in Elvington – as it’s my tenth year of these shows and I can have a sign if I want to! It’s six foot high with lettering that I’m painting blue and red as per my logo.”
Newly confirmed to play Muddles in Darlington Hippodrome’s 2022-23 pantomime, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs after three seasons at Halifax’s Victoria Theatre, Josh is equally happy doing magic tricks to children or playing the silly billy to a panto crowd each winter.
Add to that list performing on the P&O Britannia cruise ship, as he was earlier this spring, when his act would be followed by Basil Brush, and being the Corntroller in charge of the summer entertainment at York Maze, at Elvington, Britain’s largest maze attraction.
“That’s why I need a triple-ended candle, not just one that burns at both ends,” says Josh. “As Corntroller since 2019, I write the shows, sing the theme tune, manage the shows and co-host them, and I’m a control freak, so like to be able to do everything.
“I’m overseeing five shows this summer: The Crazy Maze, a big corny game show; Cornula One, which has replaced the pig racing, using converted [should that be cornverted?] shop mobility scooters.
“Then there’s Cobzilla, the dinosaur meet-and-greet experience; Crowmania, the pantomime on wheels that had a big overhaul in 2021, and the Cornival, which is the closest to one of my kids’ parties, being a party more than a show.”
Josh, who will celebrate ten years at “Farmer Tom” Pearcy’s York Maze next year, is in charge of a team of 15 entertainers, with Maia Stroud, Kit Stroud, Sam Wharton and Fiona Baistow among the York names in the Crowmania cast. Charlotte Wood and Annie Donaghy play their part in the stage team too when available.
“The closest comparison to the Crowmania Ride is Disney’s Jungle Cruise. Imagine that with a much more sarcastic, very self-aware writer, lots of one-liners and way more corn and crow-based gags,” he says.
“The 25-minute ride is on a 110-seat trailer, pulled by a tractor, with 25 rides a day, so around 2,500 people can go on it on any one day if we’re full.”
After presenting seven years of children’s parties, “I knew we needed something like that at York Maze, so we introduced the Cornival, with an enormous foam cannon – which I can promise you won’t come out at the Joseph Rowntree show as there’s no grass there!
“But Sunday’s show will feature some of the York Maze characters, like Kernel Kernel, Sweetie Corn, his girlfriend, Russell Crow and Maizey, a pantomime cow with corn cobs around her neck.”
Josh still has first magic show business card, printed in June 2013. “I remember doing shows at Stockton on the Forest Village Hall, Rawcliffe Pavilion and a smaller one in Copmanthorpe for friends of my mum’s,” he says.
“I was 15, a kids’ entertainer who was a child myself and couldn’t drive, so my mum had to drive me to shows with my briefcases of tricks for full-on magic shows. But then I’m still a big kid, as we all know!” A big kid, who now drives a little grey van, as it happens.
Reflecting on ten years of children’s parties, Josh says: “The thing that I really want to get across is that doing these shows is what’s been massively important to me, providing me with a constant that a lot of performers don’t have.
“There are people who want me to move away from it, which I don’t understand. I’ll go from playing to 1,500 at the panto to playing to 30 children in a village hall on a day off, but work is work.
“I’m very lucky that I’ve built up a reputation where kids really want me to do their parties; they’re adamant that it has to be Josh! That’s so beautiful and lovely, and I don’t feel like an expensive babysitter but an entertainer.
“You’re being booked for your skill set rather than kids just being shoved on to a bouncy castle. Bouncy castles are my Kryptonite! You don’t need to do anything. Just book me and I’ll do it all, no bouncy castle, because how can I compete with an amazing bouncy castle that frankly I’d prefer to be on?! Mind you, bouncy castles have gone up in price, but that’s inflation for you!”
Josh had started his professional theatre career with York Theatre Royal, aged ten, in the 2007 Berwick Kaler pantomime Sinbad The Sailor, later appearing there as John Darling in Peter Pan, and going on to play Little Ernie in the award-winning BBC Morecambe & Wise biopic Eric & Ernie.
He was chosen for the cheeky-chappie role of Yorkshire schoolboy Tommo in Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s The Girls, the Calendar Girls musical, appearing from 2015 to 2017 in the world premiere at Leeds Grand Theatre and The Lowry, Salford, and the subsequent West End run at the Phoenix Theatre, London.
He did four seasons of The Good Old Days at Leeds City Varieties Music Hall, taking his magic act down to London for the Players Music Hall at Charing Cross Theatre and Cockney Sing-Along at Brick Lane Music Hall before launching his one-man cabaret act It‘s Not The Joshua Benson Show/Josh Of All Trades.
“Especially when I was living in London, actors were doing kids’ parties because they had to, for the money, but I do them because I haven’t fallen out of love with them,” he says.
“It’s part of what I do: kids’ parties; the cruise ships; the York Maze summer season and Hallowscream; the panto comic, which I started doing as Buttons in Cinderella at the Pomegranate Theatre in Chesterfield in 2018, and the Brick Lane Music Hall adult pantomime in London, mixing panto with Carry On humour, from January to March each year.
“Those shows take a huge amount of thought, written by David Phipps-Davis, a renowned panto dame. The next one will be my third year, Peter Pan And His Loose Boys. Last time it was Goldilocks And The Bare Bears and before that, Robin Hood And His Camp Followers.
“They’re panto for adults, which is cleverer, I think. Not dropping the C-bomb but full of clever lines. With these pantomimes, you have adults that are prepared to be kids for the next couple of hours, where I can be naughtier but with the same energy levels as at a family pantomime.”
Josh bills himself as the “Josh of All Trades, Master of None”, having never trained conventionally in anything, but he has skills aplenty that add up to being “Just Josh” joshing around.
“I may have been doing kids’ parties for ten years but annoyingly I didn’t come up with the ‘Just Josh’ name until I did a double act show with WonderPhil [Easingwold magician, actor, soul singer, guitarist, event organiser and polymath Phil Grainger]. When we first made a show for the Great Yorkshire Fringe in York in 2019 – called Making A Magic Show – we wrote it the night before from 10pm to 4pm, then did the first performance!” he recalls.
Sunday’s audience can expect an appearance by Phil Grainger on Zoom and should look out for the Halifax pantomime drummer, Robert Jane, too. “There’s nothing better than pantomime percussion and no-one better at reading my unpredictability than Robert,” says Josh.
“Frankly he makes me funnier, with his Swanee whistles and an actual slap stick, and he makes the sound of falling down better with a drum roll. Knocking my knees together is funnier with a cowbell accompaniment than without. I think the term ‘punctuating the movements’ is really key to comedy and pantomime, and I learnt a lot about that at Halifax.”
Reflecting on cramming so much into 25 years, Josh says: “I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to doing another West End musical, but the perception that I want to be famous? No. not really. I just want to be good and keep it real.
“I got a little bit of a taste of fame when I was doing The Girls, when I definitely wanted to be a star, the next Bradley Walsh, but I realised that once you get there, it’s the hardest thing to stay normal in showbiz.
“I’m happy to be me in this life, where it’s real. Theatre is my first love and always will be, but I’m just lucky that I can do everything, the kids’ parties, the York Maze, the big family pantomimes at Christmas. I like to tread that line.
“My dad [Josh’s sometime partner in cabaret and former Rowntree Players’ panto dame Barry Benson] drummed into me that while it’s nice to be important, it’s more important to be nice. It’s simple advice, but he’s right.”
Josh Benson: Just Josh’s 10th Birthday Party!, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, Sunday, 4pm. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk