No rest for post-dame Berwick Kaler as Sleeping Beauty awakes at Theatre Royal

The final curtain: Berwick Kaler saying farewell to 40 years as York Theatre Royal’s pantomime dame on February 2 2019

LAST night was press night for Sleeping Beauty, the first York Theatre Royal pantomime since Berwick Kaler hung up the dame’s big boots after 40 years.

Unlike Elvis, however, Kaler has not left the building. Now 73, he is still taking care of business, writing the script; co-directing with Leeds City Varieties rock’n’roll alumnus Matt Aston; appearing in two film sequences and in doll’s head form for baby Beauty, and providing sporadic voiceovers too.

How was the show? A thing of beauty, or should this panto format be put to sleep? See Charles Hutchinson’s verdict later today.

In the meantime, let’s remember the Dame Berwick Kaler years from an Ugly Sister in 1977 to exit stage left, February 2 2019. The total reads: Jack And The Beanstalk, six pantos; Mother Goose, five; Cinderella, five; Aladdin, five; Dick Whittington, four; Babes In The Wood, three; Sleeping Beauty, two; Sinbad The Sailor, two; Humpty Dumpty, one; Beauty And The Beast, one; Old Mother Milly, one; Dick Turpin, one; Humpty Dumpty, one; York Family Robinson, one; Robin Hood & His Merry Mam, one, and his last stand, The Grand Old Dame Of York, one. 

Northern Ballet travel to Imperial Russia for Cinderella’s Christmas in Leeds

Up in lights: Northern Ballet dancer Martha Leebolt in David Nixon’s Cinderella. at Leeds Grand Theatre from December 17. All pictures: Emma Kauldhar

NORTHERN Ballet return home from December 17 for the festive season in Leeds with artistic director David Nixon’s enchanting adaptation of Cinderella at the Grand Theatre.

In the Canadian-born choreographer’s account of “the world’s most famous rags-to-riches fairy tale”, he combines dance with magic and circus skills, as seen on tour already at Nottingham Theatre Royal and Norwich Theatre Royal last month.

Puff the magic! Ashley Dixon as The Magician in Northern Ballet’s Cinderella

In Northern Ballet’s Cinderella,a tragic end to a perfect summer’s day leaves Cinderella with no choice but to accept a desolate life of servitude. At the mercy of her wicked Stepmother, Cinderella seeks joy where she can but, after encountering the handsome carefree Prince skating on a glistening lake of ice, she yearns for another life.

Despite her sadness, Cinderella never forgets to be kind and her generosity is repaid when a chance encounter with a mysterious magician changes her destiny forever.

Touching moment: Javier Torrres as Prince Mikhail and Minju Kang as Cinderella

Cinderella is not only choreographed and directed by Nixon, but he has designed the opulent costumes too. The ballet is performed to an original score by Philip Feeney, played live each performance by Northern Ballet Sinfonia. Duncan Hayler has designed the transformative sets, complemented by Tim Mitchell’s lighting design.

Nixon says: “This production of Cinderella, while being immediately recognisable as the famous fairy tale, offers something different to other traditional ballet adaptations.

Point of order: Minju Kang and Rachael Gillespie in Cinderella

“We have staged our ballet in the winter wonderland of Imperial Russia, opening up the possibilities of this colourful world as a new setting for Cinderella to make her journey. “Audiences will see the dancers skate on a glistening lake of ice, stilt walkers entertaining in a marketplace and the fateful Ball held in a Fabergé-inspired ballroom.”

He concludes: “Cinderellais ultimately the story of a young woman who must travel a challenging road to achieve happiness and our ballet is a joyful adaptation filled with action, magic and fun.”

You will go to the Ball: Minju Kang’s Cinderella in Northern Ballet’s Cinderella

Northern Ballet’s Cinderella runs at Leeds Grand Theatre, December 17 to January 2 2020, 7pm (not December 24 or 31); 2pm matinees, December 18, 21, 24, 27, 28 and 31, January 2; Sunday shows at 4pm, December 22 and 29; no Sunday evening shows. No performances on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Box office: 0844 848 2700 or at leedsgrandtheatre.com.

Cinderella production credits

Choreography, Direction and Costume Design: David Nixon

Music: Philip Feeney

Set design: Duncan Hayler

Lighting design: Tim Mitchell

Associate and original scenario: Patricia Doyle

Costume design assistant: Julie Anderson

Circus skills training: Greentop Circus

Magic consultant: Richard Pinner

John O’Connor re-creates a Dickens of a reading of A Christmas Carol…minus the raw egg

John O’Connor as Mr Charles Dickens, presenting A Christmas Carol at the De Grey Rooms Ballroom

IN 1858, Charles Dickens came to Yorkshire to give public readings of A Christmas Carol, including in York on September 10 that year.

From next Tuesday to Saturday, in the De Grey Rooms Ballroom, next to York Theatre Royal, John O’Connor invites you to “experience what it must have been like to have been in the audience” as he transforms himself into Mr Dickens to present a heart-warming evening with the author himself, in the spirit of Christmas past, present and future.

“It’s one of the richest stories in English literature,” says John, whose one-man show will be staged by the European Arts Company at 7.45pm nightly. “Like all great works of art, it’s infinitely adaptable and has never fallen out of fashion.

“Its themes of loneliness, compassion, forgiveness, social inequality, money, family and redemption are as relevant today as in 1843 when it was written. As soon as the story was published, several stage versions appeared on the London stage and this tradition has continued to the present day. From Doctor Who to The Muppets, the story is constantly being reinterpreted for new audiences in interesting ways.”

What makes O’Connor’s performance distinctive amid the annual glut of A Christmas Carol shows? “Charles Dickens came to York and gave a public performance of A Christmas Carol on September 10 1858. What must it have been like to have been in the audience 161 years ago? By all accounts, Dickens completely captivated everyone lucky enough to see him. In this show, we try and recreate that experience for the audience,” says John.

“Our production takes place in the De Grey Rooms, a beautiful Georgian ballroom that provides the perfect backdrop. Many adaptations tend to overplay the sentimental side of A Christmas Carol, but it’s also a very dark story written as a cry of anger against the Poor Laws, which unjustly punished the dispossessed of society, especially children, through the workhouse system.

“It’s fascinating to hear Dickens balance the sentimental with the fantastical and the political to create an incredibly powerful piece of theatre.”

Although we tend to think of poverty as being a 19th-century problem, the charity Barnardo’s estimates that more than three million children live in poverty in Britain today.

“This is why we’re raising money for the Great Ormond Street Hospital charity to help transform the lives of modern-day Tiny Tims this Christmas.,” says John. “Our show is an authentic glimpse into the heart of the story, in a gorgeous atmospheric setting, and in aid of a good cause.”

By O’Connor taking on the guise of Charles Dickens, his audience receives the story directly from the author himself. “At its best, the show is like a conversation with the author,” he says. “We use Dickens’s original public-reading script, so it’s fascinating to see what he highlights in the telling of it and how he takes us on Scrooge’s redemptive journey.”

Unlike Dickens, however, Euroepan Arts Company’s production has the benefit of modern theatre techniques, such as lighting, sound effects and video projections, to take the audience on a transformative trip.

“It’s a very emotional journey and the audience laughs and cries along with the author himself,” says John, who will be dressed in Dickens mode and plays all the characters.

“I’ve researched and studied the way Dickens performed it and use some of these techniques in the show,” he says. “However, there are also some authentic parts of Dickens’s performance that I’ve chosen to leave out.

“For example, how he prepared for a reading: two tablespoons of rum mixed with cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea and, half an hour before he went on stage, a glass of sherry with a raw egg beaten into it!”

European Arts Company presents John O’Connor in A Christmas Carol, De Grey Rooms Ballroom, York Theatre Royal, York, December 17 to 21, 7.45pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk 

Neighbours’ Mark Little turns evil in York for panto sorcery in Snow White

Mark Little at the press day to launch Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at the Grand Opera House, York. Picture: David Harrison

MARK Little has to decide on the colour for his pantomime goatee beard when playing the evil Lord Chamberlain in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at the Grand Opera House, York.

“It was purple two years ago, green last Christmas, maybe black and white this time,” says the ex-pat Australian actor, comedian, writer, television presenter and 2019 Dancing On Ice contestant, who will be appearing in his 15th panto from tomorrow (December 12) to January 4.

After starting out playing the “silly billy” daft lad, he has since settled into the baddie’s role. “You get to an age in pantomime where you become a bit old for the fool, which needs a lot of energy,” says Mark. “I reached a point where I thought, ‘where do I fit in’? Ah, the baddie.”

Now 60, Snow White will be his eighth panto since switching to the dark side. “My villains tend to be crazed rather than evil. Unhinged. More Maggie on acid, than Boris! Unnerving,”  he says.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

“I don’t make my baddies creepy. I call the children ‘stinkers’, and the more I insult them, the more angry they get with me, and they know the more they show dissent, the more I react, but they know that good has to triumph over evil, so I love to hear them booing.

“There’s a lot going on right now to make us want to boo, but theatre is a safe environment to do it. That’s one of the reasons theatre is there for, especially panto, to mock things we don’t agree with, celebrate things we love and reflect on where we’re going.

“So I like to ‘place’ my baddie in that present time. Like Trump not being acceptable, and we have a licence to openly mock that.”

After making his name as Joe Mangel in the Australian soap Neighbours from 1988 to 1991, Mark has lived in Britain for 25 years, 20 of them in Brighton before moving to Wood Green, London, to be close to his grandchildren.

The great cape: A swirling Mark Little in evil Lord Chamberlain mode for Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Picture: David Harrison.

He has presented The Big Breakfast, appeared regularly on The Wright Stuff and Big Brother’s Bit On The Side and toured his one-man show Defending The Caveman, playing the Grand Opera House in 2007 and York Theatre Royal in 2010. Pantomime has become a fixture on his calendar in Britain, but back in Australia, it is a different story.

“There’s no such thing. Australia doesn’t have theatre in its DNA. Sport, yes, but culture’s put to one side. It’s all sport. You have to have a number on your back! But here in the UK, Brits are going to the theatre from the age of six and playing football. You do both.

“As I was growing up, all our television came over from Britain. It’s not a mystery that I ended up living here because we were brought up on all that culture.”

Gradually Australia sought its identity through film, whereas “even Neighbours took a while for Australia to connect with,” says Mark. “It wasn’t heralded the same way it was over here. It was ‘the show with the sets that wobbled’. But it was celebrated here.”

Neighbours went from being “the soap that no-one noticed in Australia” to,” whoosh, a show that really took off”. Mark arrived in Britain to perform his own comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe just as the first series began to be aired over here, two years behind Australia.

“I wasn’t ready for what happened next. Joe Mangel took over!” he says. “That’s a phenomenon I’ll never recover from. If the Brits get into something they love, they hold on hard and strong. Joe Mangel will live with me forever.

“I ended up presenting The Big Breakfast, having done that type of TV in Australia on Zoo TV, and they thought I could do the same thing here. My style of comedy is fairly crazy, anarchic, plenty of mayhem. People trusted Joe Mangel, so I was ‘Johnny Foreigner taking the mick and mocking British culture’, which they don’t like usually here, but they’d taken to Joe Mangel, so they loved it.

“My comedy suited that Tiswas style, and it’s the kind of show that TV looks like it’s crying out for now.”

Mark Little, left, with his Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs co-stars, Steve Wickenden, Martin Daniels, Louise Henry, Jonny Muir, and Vicki Michelle. Picture: David Harrison

At the time of this interview, Mark was sporting a full beard from a three-week shoot filming the low-budget independent film Passing Through in the South of France. “David Hall, a playwright and theatre director, wrote the part for me,” he says.

“It’s his first feature film, and I play an Australian teacher who’s been in Britain for 25 years and decides to go to the South of France with his new wife, on her new anti-depressants, to try to forge a new life amid the gypsies,” he says.

“But along comes his estranged son to remind him of his old life. All their problems come up and we see if they can be rectified or not.

“It’s not a car-chase film! It’s not chick.lit! It’s a bit old-fashioned in style with an international flavour. It’s taking a cathartic look at a modern relationship, a modern family, in an anti-depressant world, where they’re trying to deal with the past and the present by creating a new future when he has his redundancy money.”

Metaphysical in tone, Passing Through is set at a time “when it’s hard to be happy, and what is happiness anyway?”, says Mark. “It doesn’t come up with schmaltzy answers. My character just thinks we better have some fun making a future.”

By comparison, pantomime is a world of certainty where good will defeat evil, and Mark Little’s grandchildren will enjoy every chance to “boo Pop”.

Mark Little stars in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Grand Opera House, York, from December 12 to January 4 2020. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york

Charles Hutchinson

REVIEW: Rowntree Players in Sinbad, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York ****

Gourmet Graham: Rowntree Players’ dame, Graham Smith, in one of myriad guises in Sinbad

Sinbad, Rowntree Players, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, until Saturday. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk

HOWARD Ella and Andy Welch are at the helm of their sixth Rowntree Players pantomime, Sinbad.

If they are all at sea, it is only in a good way, because this writing team is so skilled and quick witted now that their sea-faring adventure/misadventure is plain sailing to a big success. Tickets are at a premium, so don’t delay. In fact, book now, then resume reading this review…

…Director Ella and his co-writer and Old Man of the Sea, Welch, have delved into The Arabian Nights: Tales Of One Thousand And One Nights and then decided to give it a blast of bracing Yorkshire sea air: Whitby and Scarborough Harborough, as it seemed to be called at one point at Sunday’s raucous matinee.

It starts in olden storytelling mode, but Ella and Welch quickly establish they will be putting the naughty into nautical. That means Irreverent, rather than saucy, although Graham Smith’s dame, Tilly Tinbad, will sail pretty close to the wind, without ever being as blue as the Scarbadian sea.

More of Graham later. First, there are a couple of Brexit jokes from narrator Welch that both Leave and Remain camps can enjoy (but maybe not after Thursday’s General Election result). Even climate change pops up.

Sinfully good: Laura White’s outstanding Abadun in Sinbad

Laura White’s villainous, spiteful Abadun is out to spoil everyone’s party, turning Geoff Walker’s King Olaf into the Monkey King (cue plenty of funny monkey business and cartwheels from Josh Roe).

Can the two Hannahs, Hannah King’s resolute Sinbad and Hannah Temple’s plucky Princess Talida, find the Old Man of The Sea to revoke the spell and defeat vainglorious Abadun and dogged dogsbody Neckbeard (Sian Walshaw)?

Who else could be on hand to help/hinder them but the redoubtable mother-and-son comedy double act of Hapless Smith and McDonald, Graham and Gemma’s very silly Tilly and Gilly Tinbad.

You surely remember Madonna’s iconic cone bra? Smith makes the dame’s entrance wearing squashed ice cream cones, an amusing Scarborough variation with another cone for a hat. This is but one of many fab-u-lous costumes assembled by Leni Ella, Pam Davies, Jackie Holmes and Heather King to complement Howard Ella, Paul Mantle and Lee Smith’s delightful sets, ship decks, ultraviolet submarine and psychedelic rocks.

Hannah King’s Sinbad, front left, Hannah Temple’s Princess Talida, centre, and Laura White’s Abadun in the climactic sword fight on deck

Smith’s ever-so-slightly tetchy brand of Les Dawson dame and McDonald’s cartoon-esque sidekick in a shrunk Annie wig, daft voice and all, are comedy gold, rich with quickfire interchanges, whether reeling off every fish name under the sea or a series of words that rhyme with “sailor”. Here’s one: “he retired from the panto but didn’t leave…Berwick Kaler!”

The marriage of Ella and Welch’s waspish wit and Smith and McDonald’s irrepressible playfulness grows ever more fulfilling by the year. As promised by Welch too, the duo’s slosh scene below deck is their best yet, so well timed in its physical clowning.

Smith’s running gag of playing a heap of helpful aunts ­– with terrible accents, as McDonald teases him ­­– is another joy, but please don’t think this is merely their show.

Far from it. King, Temple and Walshaw thrive in action and song; Welch has his moment in Old Man beard, wig and cape, leading the ever-responsive ensemble like Wizzard’s Roy Wood in one of the show’s best set-piece numbers, Light At The End Of Tunnel.

Better still is White’s Abadun, to the villainous manner born, with a dash of panache in song and dance, an eye for humour and a singing voice that keeps hitting new peaks in The Smell Of Rebellion.

Musical director Jessica Douglas is on top form with her band, and when they combine with Ami Carter’s choreography for the likes of Pretty Little Gangplank (as in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Blondie’s One Or Way, in the climactic fight scene, the results are both spectacular and fun.

If you still haven’t bought a ticket, despite the earlier advice, do so NOW for this ridiculous, but ridiculously good Rowntree riot of a pantomime.

Charles Hutchinson

Rowntree Players’ Sinbad set sails from “Scarbados” for rollicking panto romp

Mop-handed: Laura White’s villainous Abadun demands her crew polish up their act in Rowntree Players’ Sinbad

HOWARD Ella and Andy Welch are at the helm of their sixth Rowntree Players pantomime, Sinbad.

All at sea – in a good way – at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, until Saturday (December 14), this rollicking romp finds the co-writers returning to The Arabian Nights: Tales Of One Thousand And One Nights, or 1,001 Scarbadian Nights, more precisely, as Welch’ storyline gives the seafaring adventure a Yorkshire shake-up.

Director Ella and co-writer Welch put the naughty into nautical by telling the story with significant artistic licence, especially for Graham Smith’s dame, Tilly Tinbad.

“In honesty, the seven voyages of Sinbad are invariably a disaster,” notes Welch. “They tend to end with the ship sunk and the crew lost.  Not so many laughs in that!”

Enter the humour of Ella and Welch. “We’ve taken the bare bones of the stories – a young and eager sailor with a good heart and a taste for adventure – and we’ve set him on a course to fight pirates, rescue royalty and search for sunken treasure…”

“…But with plenty of silliness in between,” says Welch. “There’s the regular environmentally friendly, recycled comedy material, brilliant song and dance and what, we hope, is the biggest and best slosh scene we’ve ever done!

Hannah King’s Sinbad in Sinbad at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York

“I don’t want to give too much away, but needless to say the band in the pit are bringing brollies!”

In the sixth year of their writing partnership, Ella and Welch are confident that time is not jading them. “We’ve really started to find our rhythm as writers and know what bits we each sparkle at!” says Ella.

“Basically, unless we both laugh at a gag, it doesn’t make it; unless we both love a song, it doesn’t go in, but that’s become an instinctive filter that really helps us hone the script. 

“It’s that need to appeal to every age and humour that remains the challenge, but I think we’re getting the hang of it.”

“Definitely,” decides Welch.  “This year is an absolute belter: fast paced, great fun and totally ridiculous. What more do you expect from panto?!”

Rowntree Players present Sinbad, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, Haxby Road, York, until Saturday, December 14. Performances: 7.30pm plus 2pm Saturday matinee (sold out).  Ticket availability is limited for the remaining shows, especially for Friday (only a few left). Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Charles Hutchinson

Review: Kay Mellor’s Band Of Gold, Leeds Grand Theatre *****

Emma Osman’s Carol, left, Laurie Brett’s Anita and Gaynor Faye’s Rose in Kay Mellor’s Band Of Gold. All pictures: Anthony Robling

Kay Mellor’s Band Of Gold, Leeds Grand Theatre, until December 14. Box office: 0844 848 2700 or at leedsgrandtheatre.com

LEEDS writer and director Kay Mellor knew there was more life “on the lane” in Bradford to be mined. The result is a Band Of Gold that’s arguably worth even more on stage than her already precious, ground-breaking 1990s’ TV drama about northern sex workers.

For her new story of street life in Bradford’s red-light district of Lumb Lane, Manningham, Mellor has revisited the plot and characters of the first series and the score-writing heft of Dire Streets guitarist and original composer Hal Lindes, while retaining and honing her own brilliant skills of everyday detail made fresh, northern humour, dark truths, huge emotional impact and suspenseful, thrilling storytelling. A big story, both funny and sad, now condensed into two hours.

“They’ll get all the joy and the suspense they had from the television version, but it’s live theatre so it has that excitement to it because it’s unfolding in front of their very eyes” said Mellor beforehand.

Emma Osman in her “break-out role” as sex worker and single mum Carol…and what a break-out

Back then, she was an unknown writer, they were unknown characters; they are both well-known now, but still capable of surprises, shocks…and there is still a killer on the loose, but who killed Gina, the naïve, novice sex worker – spoiler alert – is different. So everyone can play detective along with The X Factor winner, Coronation Street star and Madame Tussauds’ waxwork Shayne Ward’s Inspector Newall.

Mellor tells the story of four women, Carol, Rose, Anita and Gina, and the men that use and abuse them as they battle to survive while working in the lane. All life is here: the street pub; the homes; the dark lane; the councillor (ever reliable York actor Andrew Dunn’s Ian Barraclough); the dodgy cleaning contract businessman (Mark Sheals’s George); the chicken factory boss with a fetish (Steve Garti’s Curly); the abusive husband (Kieron Richardson’s Steve); the loan shark (Joe Mallalieu’s “Mister Moore and more) and Gina’s over-stretched mum (Olwen May’s Joyce).

“The Dunn deal”: Andrew Dunn as Councillor Ian Barraclough

Directing as well as writing Band Of Gold, Mellor has unearthed another gem in Emma Osman, who was born in Leeds, but later brought up in York, where she stood out as one to watch when playing Oda-Mae Brown in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Ghost The Musical in 2014. Playing single mum Carol, she is being billed as “newcomer Emma Osman”, and although she has appeared in Doctors and Snatch, this is indeed her “break-out role” at 25. And what a break-out.

Carol was “the Cathy Tyson role”, but Osman makes it her own, bringing lip, no-nonsense nous, jagged humour, resilience and a strut to a feisty woman who can handle a disinfectant bottle as well as she can deal with men’s demands and the inherent dangers of her work, taking care of herself and daughter Emma.

Carol takes Sacha Parkinson’s Gina under her wing when ends don’t meet up paying off a loan shark by selling cosmetics door to door, having jettisoned punchy, threatening husband Steve from their home. Parkinson is terrific too, introverted by comparison with Osman’s flashy, gobby turn, but deeply affecting.

Mellor’s casting is uniformly excellent, from Andrew Dunn’s typically Dunn deal to Sheals’s repulsive George, while she writes superbly for both the younger and older women. Laurie Brett’s Scottish Anita now sings karaoke hits in the prostitutes’ hang-out pub, wishes her life could be more pink and won’t call herself a call girl, although her sexual favours furnish her home, while she also looks after the girls’ toiletry needs etc at a price. Heart of gold, struggling for the readies, this is life on the edge, but in a different way.

The Mellor’s tale: Writer-director Kay Mellor on the red carpet at Tuesday’s press night for Band Of Gold. Picture: Anthony Robling

Gaynor Faye’s far-from-sweet Rose runs the street, hard as nail gloss, hooked on drugs, desperately missing the daughter she lost to the social services. Mellor pulls off a heart-tug of a finale, and even somehow infuses humour into the killer revelation, while all the while making serious points about the exploitation of women.

Janet Bird’s set design of blackened sliding doors, painted thickly with street building imagery, adds to the suspense, the sense of danger, especially when allied to Jason Taylor’s lighting and Mic Pool’s sound design, while Yvonne Milnes deserves a medal for her spot-on costume design, especially for Carol.

Kay Mellor’s 2017 stage conversion of Fat Friends into a musical at Leeds Grand was frank and funny, the wonderful Jodie Prenger and the novelty of Freddie Flintoff singing et al, but the fearless Band Of Gold is weightier, more significant, more empowering, more revealing. The gold standard, in fact.

Charles Hutchinson

Why Steve Wickenden will be “getting Nurse Brexit done” from Thursday as Snow White’s dame

The “softer side” of Steve Wickenden’s dame, Nurse Brexit, in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at the Grand Opera House, York. Picture: David Harrison.

STEVE Wickenden suddenly had to divide himself into two in last winter’s Cinderella And The Golden Slipper.

This time he is playing a dame with a most divisive name, Nurse Brexit, in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs as the cheeky southerner returns north for his fourth successive Grand Opera House pantomime in York.

“I’m always one for a challenge. I love a challenge, and that’s what happened last year when we lost Ken [fellow Ugly Sister Ken Morley] from the show when he was taken ill at the first Friday matinee,” recalls Steve.

“I love Ken, he’s a dear friend, and it was sad he couldn’t continue, but then there had to be that element of ‘Come on, let’s make something of this’.

“By Saturday morning we were re-blocking the show on stage after I re-worked the songs on the Friday, with me now doing both Ugly Sisters’ lines.”

Ken Morley: Steve Wickenden’s fellow Ugly Sister in Cinderella And The Golden Slipper last year before illness struck the former Coronation Street soap star. Picture: David Harrison

Steve Wickenden’s rival sibling double act as Ugly Sisters Calpol and Covonia pretty much stole the show, but he says: “When you’re working with people you trust and that trust you, like Martin Daniels and John Collins, they’ll have your back. It was the younger ones in the cast who were more nervous at first, but the thing about panto is you just have to get on with it, as the rehearsal process is so quick you just have to crack on.”

Was Steve paid double for his impromptu one-man double act? “I’m still waiting. Funny that!” he says.

Certainly, audiences more than had their money’s worth from Wickenden’s extra-quick wit. “That was the thing. The audiences were really sympathetic and just went with it, once it had been explained why there was only me when they were expecting two Ugly Sisters. Our audiences here are very understanding and supportive and that’s why they keep coming back.”

Last winter’s show turned into a learning curve for Steve. “The main thing I learnt is that normally, playing the dame, if I have a spot, a gag, a routine, I can do whatever I want. It just affects me, but what happened last time made me think about partnerships, and they’re about the other person and that relationship,” he says.

“It’s taught me to be more mindful of other people I’m working with in the rehearsal room, where it’s all so quick you tend to only think of yourself.”

Steve Wickenden’s Nurse Brexit with fellow Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs cast members Louise Henry, Jonny Muir, Vicki Michelle, Martin Daniels and Mark Little on the Grand Opera House stage. Picture: David Harrison

Playing Ugly Sister was harsh and mean spirited by comparison with his latest dame, Nurse Brexit. “I’m looking forward to being someone softer this time, after the nasty wicked Ugly Sisters. She’s more gentle, and I’ve been working with Martin, who’s playing Muddles this year, to maximise our comic relationship, to create comedy vignettes for us.”

There ain’t nothing like the dame in panto, reckons Steve. “This is THE part to play. When I first came into panto, I always wanted to play dame. I’d done bits and pieces of comic roles and straight roles, but I always felt most comfortable doing this role,” he says.

“I started quite young at 27; they took a punt with me at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, when I played Hyacinth Horseradish in Rapunzel. It’s not a panto that’s done very often, but what was great was that it was a very Mother Goose-type role in a very dame-driven show, so it really gave me the full first experience.

“I remember they said I was ‘very good but far too pretty’ as this beautiful young thing as I didn’t do make-up like I do it now.”

Steve had been the youngest auditionee in the room, but he took everything in his stride. “My agent had fixed it up for me because I’d kept saying ‘I really want to play dame’ when people had said, ‘you’re really good but come back in two years’.

“The main thing I took from that was ‘be ugly’, and I can’t believe how lucky I was to be given that first chance, but the even luckier thing was then to come here, to the Grand Opera House, and develop my character and ‘find’ my dame,” he says.

“I remember they said I was ‘very good but far too pretty’ as this beautiful young thing as I didn’t do make-up like I do it now,” says Steve Wickenden, recalling his first pantomime dame at the age of 27.

“I really play on my ‘inner southerner’, taken from my grandmother and great grandmother, and that southern turn of phrase works really well in a northern theatre, where it’s a bit alien, and the dame is a bit alien anyway, and doing it in a northern theatre makes it stranger still!”

He can’t wait for opening show on Thursday (December 12) when he starts to “get Nurse Brexit done”, right on cue on General Election night. “One of the things I said about my first year here was the warmth coming off the audience towards me, which, to an extent, I’ve not been able to have since then because of the characters I’ve played: Mirabelle in Beauty And The Beast and the Ugly Sisters,” says Steve.

“I’m looking forward to having that warmth again, rather than last year’s boos, but it’s always exciting because it’s dame again but in a new setting. I just love coming back here and I think it’s become my second home now.”

In the year since he was last in York, Steve has been busy directing a children’s theatre show, the musical Annie, doing plenty of teaching, and performing with his Fifties’ rock’n’roll band The Bandits, even headlining The Vintage Rock’n’Roll Festival in the South West, “just beyond Stonehenge”.

“I’d love to do a rock’n’roll number in the panto. Why not? Maybe Tutti Frutti!” he says. “I always say that one of the wonderful things about here is that there’s absolutely no expectation that the dame will sing well. You can screech!”

Steve Wickenden plays Nurse Brexit in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Grand Opera House, York, December 12 to January 4 2020. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york

Charles Hutchinson

The funniest Nativity play in York this Christmas? Head to Flint Street

Florence Poskitt: Making her York Stage Musicals debut as Gabriel, the angel who covets the role of Mary in The Flint Street Nativity. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

YORK Stage Musicals will bring an alternative festive offering to York this Christmas for the first time, staging The Flint Street Nativity at the John Cooper Studio @41Monkgate from December 12 to 22.

Tim Firth’s story was first performed as a television drama on ITV in 1999 with a cast featuring York actor Mark Addy, Frank Skinner, Neil Morrissey and Jane Horrocks.

Firth, the Frodsham-born writer of Neville’s Island, All Quiet On The Preston Front, Calendar Girls and the Madness musical Our House, then re-worked it for the Liverpool Playhouse stage premiere in 2006.

Firth’s show follows “Mizzis Horrocks’s” class of seven year olds as they prepare to perform their Nativity play at Flint Street Junior School for the proud mums and dads – and the occasional social worker.

Squabbles arise when Angel Gabriel wants to play Mary; the Star grumbles he isn’t a proper star like they have at NASA; Herod won’t stop waving to his parents and the subversive Innkeeper is determined to liven up the traditional script. Then the class stick insect escapes.

Leading the ensemble company as the ambitious Angel Gabriel will be blossoming York actress and comedienne Florence Poskitt, making her York Stage debut alongside Fiona Baistow in the coveted role of Mary. Look out too for YSM debutant Conor Wilkinson, playing both Herod and Joseph.

The York Stage Musicals’ show poster for The Flint Street Nativity

Here, Charles Hutchinson asks York Stage Musicals artistic director Nik Briggs to come forth on Firth by answering a Christmas sack-load of questions.

What made you choose this Tim Firth piece as your debut Christmas production?

“York is the ultimate Christmas destination, and many people ask us each year what we’re staging at Christmas but it hasn’t been something we’ve ventured into before. But then Jim Welsman [chairman at the time] asked us if we’d be interested in bringing a Christmas offering to 41 Monkgate, so I jumped at the chance and knew what show would be the perfect choice.

“I was looking for one that really would provide the city with an alternative theatrical offering. It needed to be a show that suited York Stage and the 41Monkgate venue. Flint Street was the perfect choice. It’s not saccharine; it’s fun, energetic and a tad off the wall.

“So, come join us as we alter your perspective on not only the art and politics of the humble Nativity, but the John Cooper Studio as a whole!”

What makes The Flint Street Nativity so humorous?

“This festive play really is one of the funniest observations I’ve come across based on the Christmas holidays. Everyone knows the traditions surrounding the institution of the school Nativity, tea towels tied to the head and tinsel-clad Angels everywhere, but Tim Firth has created a brilliant script, set in the build-up to the much-anticipated show filled with laughs and pathos in an oversized classroom where adults play the children in Mrs Horrocks’s class.”

What do you most enjoy about Tim Firth’s writing?

“The detail in the observation of the people he writes about is just brilliant; it really is all on the page. Like in Calendar Girls, you can relate to and recognise the characters. The seven year olds just come to life through the writing.

“I work with children of this age quite regularly and, as I read the script, I could see the children he was talking about and describing. It seems far-fetched to some, but it really isn’t! Then, the twist in the final scenes and his ability to inject just the right amount of pathos into a riotous comedy is what clinches it for me.”

What are the particular challenges of this piece for director and cast?

“The key to the whole show, for me, comes in getting the final part of the show just right, when – spoiler alert! – the actors who’ve been playing the children throughout then turn to play the respective parents and we see what’s made the children the way they are.

“It’s been fairly easy to work on the scenes with the brilliant actors where they’re playing around and having lots of fun playing the seven year olds, but actually getting that to tie in with the adults is where the magic is, so we started the rehearsals with the adult scenes and got to know them before we then worked on creating their children, as it’s the adults who nurture.”

What is Tim Firth’s Christmas message?

“The final line in the play is ‘I’m in a Nativity. Yeah, it’s great…really brings it home’, and I think that sums it up. In the fast-paced world we live in, the simplest, purest things can really make you slow down and take stock.”

Assistant director Jonny Holbek with Florence Poskitt’s despondent Angel Gabriel

What are your recollections of Nativity plays when you were nobbut a lad?

“Absolute terror! Every year, I’d come in from school and tell my mother that I’d been cast as a lead role in the show. Every year, she’d then have to go in and tell that year’s teacher that they should be prepared that come the day of the show, I’d just cry and refuse to go on as I suffered from crippling stage fright!

“They would assure her I’d been fine in class rehearsing and that I was doing brilliantly with it. Then every year she’d turn up and sit in the hall expectantly, to be hauled out by the teacher and informed I was having a meltdown. This happened every year until I was ten!”

Why are Nativity plays still important?

“Purity! It’s plain and simple to see in any Nativity the purity in the children and the performances they give. Sadly, it’s not a quality we always see in society and on stage nowadays. so let’s cling on to it in Nativity plays! 

What have been your highlights of the York Stage Musicals year in 2019?

“2019 really has been a dream. We had the opportunity to produce a classic musical in The Sound Of Music; have worked on new writing with Twilight Robbery; created magic with our acclaimed youth production of Disney’s Aladdin, but I think the cherry on the top has to be Shrek The Musical at the Grand Opera House in September.

“The buzz around the production, from auditions through to the closing night, were just electric. The reviews and comments were just sensational. It really did raise our bar yet again and will really be a cherished production for us for a very long time.”

What’s coming next for York Stage Musicals?

“We have a bit of a bumper year planned already actually. An Eighties’ classic, a York premiere, a birthday celebration and what is set to be possibly the biggest and messiest youth show the city has ever seen!

“We start in February with Robert Haring’s Steel Magnolias at 41 Monkgate. We then head across town to the Grand Opera House with a brand-new production of Bugsy Malone in April.

Chris Knight’s perennially enthusiastic Donkey in York Stage Musicals’ “monster hit”, Shrek The Musical, at the Grand Opera House, York, in September

“Then it’s a return to Monkgate in May to present the York premiere of Sondheim On Sondheim to mark Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday [on March 22 2020].

“We’re still firming up plans for our big autumn show, but things are looking exciting, and we’ll again end the year back at 41 Monkgate with another Christmas alternative!” 

And finally, Nik, what would be your Christmas Day message to the nation?

“People of the United Kingdom, it seems that the country truly is in the… No, in all seriousness, we are in a transition, whether we want to be or not.

“In times of transition and change, we have to really look out for each other as not everyone will move at the same pace or be able to keep up. Stay genuine and be kind to those around us and trust that love will always win. 

“Sadly nowadays, there are too many people in the world who like to over-promise and oversell themselves for personal gain. This can only lead to disappointment as we can see everywhere. “Know yourself, know your limits, don’t compare yourself to others and work hard to run your own race. Celebrate successes briefly, remain humble and learn from your mistakes.”

York Stage Musicals present The Flint Street Nativity, John Cooper Studio @41 Monkgate, York, December 12 to 22, 7.30pm except Sundays at 6pm. Box office: 01904 623568, at yorkstagemusicals.com or in person from the York Theatre Royal box office.

Creative Team

Director and designer: Nik Briggs 

Assistant director: Jonny Holbek 

Musical director: Jessica Douglas

Cast 

Mary: Fiona Baistow 

Wise Gold: Verity Carr

Star: Matthew Clarke

Wise Frankincense: Jack Hooper 

Angel: Louise Leaf 

Innkeeper: Paul Mason 

Angel Gabriel: Florence Poskitt

Narrator: Andrew Roberts 

Shepherd: Chloe Shipley

Herod/Joseph: Conor Wilkinson 

All rise for Martin Barrass, new queen of York Theatre Royal’s pantomime

Putting the Royal into York Theatre Royal: Martin Barrass as Queen Ariadne in Sleeping Beauty. Picture: Anthony Robling

HE ain’t nothing like a dame. Instead, Martin Barrass, perennial pantomime soft lad, comic stooge and sidekick punchbag, will not so much step into Berwick Kaler’s big boots at York Theatre Royal as reinvent himself in regal mode for Sleeping Beauty.

All rise for Barrass’s Queen Ariadne as the Hull-born actor adds to his repertoire in his 33rd panto, performing once more alongside David Leonard’s villainous Evil Diva, Suzy Cooper’s Princess Beauty and AJ Powell’s Darth Diva.

Dame Berwick may have left the stage after 40 years of pantomayhem, but he has not left the building, writing the script once more and directing the morning rehearsal sessions, as he works in tandem with new co-director Matt Aston for the first time.

Kaler has not been available for interviews, concentrating his energies elsewhere at 73 and leaving the spotlight to Barrass and others, although the betting odds are shorter than for Frankel at York Racecourse in 2012 that the departed dame will make an appearance on screen.

He’s still with stupid! “There’s still a bit there that’s my familiar character, so it has shades of the idiot,” says Martin Barrass. Picture: Anthony Robling

“My Queen will be like a duck,” says 63-year-old Barrass. “Looking serene on the surface but paddling away frantically beneath the water.

“This year, it sounds very much like I’ll be in a transitional place, where the dame would have been. My Queen will be ‘alpha and unputdownable’, but there’s still a bit there that’s my familiar character, so it still has shades of the idiot.”

Rather than anyone filling the black hole of pandemonium left by Kaler, the Panto Four will share the challenge, although the most intriguing progression is Barrass’s switch. “I’m aware it’s an enormous undertaking because people stop you in the street to ask, ‘So, Martin, are you the dame this year?’, and I have to say, ‘No, I’m the Queen of all her subjects’.

“I know I’m following in the footsteps of a master, the greatest ad-libber ever, and what you have to be in this role is slightly above it, aware of what’s going on around you, being prepared for any audience heckles.

Re-united: The Panto Four, now minus retired Dame Berwick Kaler,, in familiar pose, Suzy Cooper, David Leonard, Martin Barrass and A J Powell

“Comedy like this always has to be flexible, always switched on for the unexpected, the chance to be anarchistic.

”It will be a case of calming myself down for what lies ahead, but I’m lucky to have watched a genius in operation at close hand.”

You can sense that far from being intimidated by the task, Barrass is rising to it, just as he did when playing the deformed Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man or Stan Laurel in Laurel And Hardy at the Theatre Royal; station porter Albert Perks in E Nesbit’s The Railway Children at the National Railway Museum; or the 87-year-old waiter in Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors for the National Theatre at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Or, earlier this year, excelling as band conductor Danny Ormondroyd, “the Peter Postlethwaite role”, in Brassed Off at the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Bounce back: Martin Barrass in rehearsal for Sleeping Beauty. Picture: Anthony Robling

“I loved playing Perks, blowing the whistle, controlling the engines, just as I loved playing Danny, conducting a band of 36. I don’t know how we crammed them all in!” says Martin. “Being tone deaf, I had to learn everything about conducting. Playing Danny, he’s the king of his fiefdom, his colliery brass band, and he’s to be feared in some way, when you really make people listen to you.

“So now, playing Queen Ariadne, she won’t be afraid to throw her weight around, but in a nice way, as I’m only eight and a half stone.”

Over his 33 years as the stooge, Barrass has played all manner of animals, a giant carrot, a goofy archbishop and a twist on his hapless One Man, Two Guvnors character, the venerable, if physically vulnerable Chinese philosopher Wisehopper. The Queen will be different again. “Don’t expect to see a scrap of make-up because it’s in the tradition of Old Mother and Berwick’s dame: you know it’s played by a bloke,” he says.

“But how you play it is a tonal thing: you can have a lot of fun with the ‘bunchness’ of the voice, for example. Berwick always said, ‘I don’t want to offend the men in the room’, so I won’t be veering into the realms of drag and camp. I’ll leave that to David Leonard!”

Exit the dame: An emotional Martin Barrass, for so long his comic stooge, embraces Berwick Kaler at the close of the veteran dame’s last performance in The Grand Old Dame Of York on February 2.. Pictures: Anthony Robling

Placing his Queen, as opposed to a dame, Martin says: “Normally the role is someone like a washer woman of lower status, but you don’t get any bigger than the Queen! I’ll be playing her as a cross between Eric Morecambe and Fanny Craddock.

“As Berwick would be the first to say, you should do whatever suits you, whatever you’re at ease with, though there’ll still be traces of Hull in my Queen.

“So this Queen will be as common as muck, and that’s how you have fun with it, along with assuming Berwick’s role of always having the last say.”

He’s just had it!

Martin Barrass stars in Sleeping Beauty, York Theatre Royal, December 7 to January 25. Box office: 01904 623568, at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or in person from the Theatre Royal box office.

By Charles Hutchinson

Copyright of The Press, York