Bean there, done that! What we learned from Nik Briggs’s debut York Stage panto

“I’ve been blown away by the response we’ve had to our panto,” says York Stage artistic director Nik Briggs. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

IN the original 2020 vision of York’s pantomime season, Dame Berwick Kaler made his comeback in Dick Turpin Rides Again in his newly adopted home of the Grand Opera House.

York Theatre Royal had a ball with Cinderella, bedding in a new partnership with Evolution Productions, and the Rowntree Players filled the Joseph Rowntree Theatre with community spirit as ever.

Then, however, the pandemic, rather than pantomime, became the P word on all lips, tearing up the script for the winter ahead. Dick Turpin never left the stable; the Theatre Royal took to the road with the Travelling Pantomime; Rowntree Players made plans for 2021 instead.

Along came a newcomer, however, in the form of York Stage’s inaugural pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, full of beans, routines, slapstick and musical theatre songs at the Covid-secure Theatre @41 Monkgate, under the direction of debutant writer Nik Briggs.

The post-Christmas impediment of Tier 3 status for York curtailed the panto fun and games on December 30, rather than the planned finale of January 3, but Nik can look back on a job well done with reduced-capacity, socially distanced full houses for the majority of shows since opening on December 11.

Losing his head: Nik Briggs emerging from the costume for the front end of Daisy the cow in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk. At the back end is socially distanced stage manager Lisa Cameron. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

“I’ve been blown away by the response we’ve had to our panto,” he says. “The respect I have for the art form and the recognition of how panto inspires so many children every year meant it wasn’t an option for me not to have a panto with real scale and spectacle over Christmas in York.

“It’s something I’ve hopefully brought into my own productions across the years. The respect I have for the art form and the recognition of how panto inspires so many children every year meant it wasn’t an option for me not to have a panto with real scale and spectacle over Christmas in York.”

Reflecting on penning his first panto script, Nik says: “It was certainly nerve wracking putting my own script out, having never penned a show before! Especially in York, following in the footsteps of Berwick [Kaler], who I respect greatly.

“Between lockdowns, I went over for a coffee with him, talked through my ideas and came away with the confidence to put pen to paper. He was so encouraging. I’ve had so many great responses to the script, which is a big compliment.”

Described by Nik as “musical theatre with pantomime braces on” and by choreographer Gary Lloyd as a “pansical”, York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk was distinctive from past pantos in York.

Alex Weatherhill as Dame Nanna Trott in Jack And The Beanstalk: part of Nik Briggs’s cast of “super-talented actors, singers and dancers”. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

“The triple-threat West End cast were probably the show’s biggest surprise to a York audience. Having all eight performers be at the top of their game, being super-talented actors, singers and dancers,” says Nik.

“I always knew my panto would be very much a musical fairy-tale, which would feature all the elements of panto that are traditional included into the mix. I cast it knowing I’d need brilliant performers who could bring the skills that the show’s structure demanded. You’ll not see songs like the ones we had in a panto any time soon again, not only in York but across the country.”

 In picking his cast of May Tether’s Jill Gallop, Jordan Fox’s Jack Trott, Ian Stroughair’s villainous Fleshius Creepius, Livvy Evans’s Fairy Mary, Alex Weartherhill’s Dane Nanna Trott and an ensemble of dance captains Danielle Mullan, Emily Taylor and Matthew Ives, Nik was seeking “three things”.

“Firstly, talent: the triple-threat capability of every cast member. Secondly, strong links to the city and region, and, finally, they had to be lovely people who would be fun to work with,” he says.

“A lot of the cast I’d worked with before and all of them I’d work with again. We brought together eight actors who became a panto family in less than six weeks! They worked tirelessly to create our sensational show and were a nothing short of a beautiful, talented, naturally diverse collection of Yorkshire talent.”

West End choreographer Gary Lloyd in rehearsal for York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

Nik was adamant his panto should have a Yorkshire flavour, not least May Tether revelling in using her Goole accent in a show for the first time. “Being a Geordie import to York, having lived here for over ten years, one thing that has always blown me away about the city is the amount of talent that stems from here,” he says.

“It’s a no-brainer, therefore, that I would use talent from the area primarily! Especially at Christmas, and with what’s going on at the moment, it was always important that this was a show made in York for the people of York.”

In a coup for York Stage, Nik was able to call on the choreographic skills of West End hotshot Gary Lloyd, whose touring production of Heathers remained in hibernation. “I’ve known Gary’s work for many years [his sister is York Stage Musicals regular Jo Theaker]; I’m always knocked out by his choreography and musical staging,” he says.

“We’d spoken before about working together and this time last year I’d have laughed if you’d said we’d be doing a panto as our first show together, but it has been a brilliant experience. His storytelling through choreography is just so inspiring! As a creative, he was fantastic to work with; he really did inspire me in the rehearsal room every day.”

Given the Government’s ever-changing pandemic rules, navigating a safe passage for a show in late-2020 was a challenge like no other for a theatre director, not least the late rule change that cut the capacity from 80 to 55 (with the audience divided into bubbles divided by Perspex screens either side of the traverse stage).

Ian Stroughair’s villainous Fleshius Creepius in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

“The whole process was filled with challenges, but we knew, going into the project, it was never going to be easy,” says Nik. “We took every day as it presented itself to us. I’m very comfortable with change and the need to adapt, so as producer I felt confident leading the production through the Covid storm.

“Some days were harder than others, but we knew what we were doing was too important to walk away from.”

One of the talking points of Nik’s first pantomime was the inspired marketing coup of transforming the famous Bile Beans wall sign on Lord Mayor’s Walk into Bile Beanstalk to point passers-by in the direction of Theatre @41 Monkgate.

“It summed up our production perfectly,” he says. “Something new, something well executed, something in York we’re used to, being flipped on its head and turned for a short period into something new! People’s reaction was brilliant; they understood we were having fun and being playful while respecting the landmark.”

On the subject of creating “something new” for York, what more could Nik bring to a pantomime if he could do such a show under normal circumstances? “Who knows?! Talent and spectacle will always be the main two factors in my shows,” he says.

Pantomime transformation scene: York Stage ‘talk’ a good show by adding to the Bile Beans sign on Lord Mayor’s Walk

“I’m always looking to push forward and bring the biggest and best theatre to the city. York’s got two new pantos in 2021 with Qdos and Evolution, two of the country’s biggest panto producers, going head to head at the Grand Opera House and York Theatre Royal. How will that end?” 

Looking ahead, Nik’s plans for 2021 cannot be set in concrete while the pandemic still refuses to relent: “Have you got a crystal ball?” he says. “We’ve got rights secured for some brilliant titles over the next two years, but they will only be possible to stage when social distancing is over.

“The next big show we can realistically hope to stage is Elf The Musical at the Grand Opera House next November/December. Before that, we’ll be working on smaller shows with brilliant casts, which will be announced throughout the year.”

Through the year too, Nik will be busy running York Stage School, remotely while Covid regulations prevail, but then returning to Theatre @41 Monkgate. “We’ll be continuing to work with our students through 2021 and will be striving to bring them the best theatrical training possible,” he says.

York Stage’s poster for Jack And The Beanstalk, the pantomime where “giant magic can grow in the smallest places”

“We have survived two lockdowns and created brilliant work with them and that will continue this term.”

One lasting memory of Jack And The Beanstalk will be Nik’s impromptu emotional moment at the close of the final show, urging everyone to keep supporting theatre. “I don’t do last-night public speaking: it’s not my style and I cringe at it as people don’t come to hear me speak,” he says.

“They come to be entertained and forget whatever is going on outside, but I was ambushed – while I didn’t have any shoes on – and having received notice only a few hours before that our show would have to close that night, emotions were running high around the building.

“It’s scary producing shows at the moment: Will people support us? Will they come if we stage things? Will this bankrupt me?

“The Government closing theatres in Tier 3, where thousands have been spent to keep people safe, but allowing people to still shop and go around picking up produce just doesn’t make sense. It’s idiotic!”

Jordan Fox’s Jack Trott, front, with ensemble trio Matthew Ives, Emily Taylor and Danielle Mullan and May Tether’s Jill Gallop in Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

Nik develops his point: “There are no recorded transmissions in theatre, that’s important to stress. So, it’s important audiences do support whatever is being produced. Otherwise, things won’t be produced, things won’t happen, and that’d make for a very sad cultural landscape,” he says.

“A lot of people have said we were lucky to get to perform 40 of the 45 shows scheduled. At first, I agreed, but with hindsight I’ve re-evaluated and realised that is a very dangerous way to think.

“We all worked tirelessly and sacrificed a lot to ensure we created a brilliant show that people could enjoy safely. There was no big financial reward dangling at the end of the run to tempt us to cut corners; we simply wouldn’t have staged the show if we thought we were doing anything unsafely or were creating risk.

“Our friends and family were among the audiences; we wouldn’t have risked them. So, we were lucky we didn’t fall short sooner because of the Governments poor management but there was nothing lucky in losing our final five shows.”

The timing of the Elf production rules out a second York Stage pantomime next winter, but what are Nik’s wishes for 2021? “To get people vaccinated quickly so we can get back to sitting close together, sharing stories and experiences in theatres across the city,” he says.

The end: York Stage’s pantomime cast bid farewell at the close of Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography


York Theatre Royal is all out of love as season is postponed by Lockdown 3

“A beautiful play, a love story, but a universal one – literally! – about learning in time what matters in the end,” says Julie Hesmondhalgh, introducing her one-woman show The Greatest Play In The History Of The World, part of The Love Season, now postponed at York Theatre Royal

YORK Theatre Royal’s St Valentine’s Day reopening has been given the kiss-off by the Lockdown 3 strictures.

As the killjoy Covid curse strikes again, The Love Season is being postponed, but socially distanced love will out in the end.

Tickets were due to go on sale tomorrow (8/1/2021), but the launch has been put on hold while theatre programmers rethink plans for a season to be performed to a Covid-secure reduced capacity.

Explaining the inevitable decision, chief executive Tom Bird says: “We are committed to spreading the love and sharing the joy of live theatre with The Love Season as soon as we are able to do so safely. We’ll be announcing our revised plans and reopening date as soon as possible.

“The Love Season is designed to remind us that human connection – love, sympathy, kindness, mutual understanding, warmth, equality – is what makes us the wonderful human beings we are. In 2021 we want to celebrate humanity, our own community and a sense of togetherness.  

“We want to do that with words, music, dancing, film and even food! It’s going to be fun and we can’t wait.”

Aside from two previews of York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime on a pop-up stage on December 2 and 3, the Theatre Royal auditorium has remained dark since the March shutdown.

Once the green light is given, The Love Season will be played to a main-house capacity reduced from 750 to a socially distanced 345.

When first announced, the season was to have opened with a York In Love “special event” on February 14, to be followed by plays from around the world embracing love in its many forms, running until April 21.

First up, booked in for February 16 to 20, was the debut tour of The Greatest Play In The History Of The World, a one-woman show for Coronation Street and Broadchurch actor Julie Hesmondhalgh, premiered at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, in 2019, when she won the The Stage Edinburgh Award for her performance.

“We are committed to spreading the love and sharing the joy of live theatre with The Love Season,” says York Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird as he looks forward to rearranging the postponed programme

The putative 2021 itinerary took in further Yorkshire shows at Hull Truck Theatre, from January 29 to February 6, and the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from March 9 to 13.

Recalling the play’s roots, Hesmondhalgh said: “I had a notion, a romantic notion, that my husband, the writer Ian Kershaw, should write a one-woman show for me and we could tour it together into our dotage, like travelling troubadours (or something).

“A couple of Christmases ago, Ian kept disappearing to the cellar for an hour at a time, wrapping presents maybe, I thought. And then he presented me with this lovely thing. 

“A beautiful play, a love story, but a universal one – literally! – about learning in time what matters in the end, about leaving a mark on the world – and maybe beyond – that shows us, the human race, in all its glorious messiness, confusion and joy.

“It was the best present I ever got. In these dark and confusing times, it offers a bit of love and light as we end this difficult year and enter 2021 with fresh hope.”

The Love Season programme also includes the premiere of Tonderai Munyevu’s Mugabe, My Dad And Me, one of the productions postponed when the Theatre Royal had to close.

Theatre Royal associate director John R Wilkinson directs writer-performer Munyevu in this co-production with English Touring Theatre: a one-man show that charts the rise and fall of Robert Mugabe, the controversial Zimbabwean revolutionary and president, through the personal story of Tonderai’s family and his relationship with his father.

Watch this space for updates on the revised Love Season.

Did you know?

YORK Theatre Royal has been granted the use of Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre’s See It Safely mark. This certification affirms the theatre is complying with the latest Government and industry Covid-19 guidelines to ensure the safety of staff and audiences.

York Theatre Royal’s artwork for The Love Season

Pocklington Arts Centre to stream Magic Carpet Theatre’s Magic Circus in lockdown

Director Jon Marshall as the Ringmaster, showing his frustration with Steve Collison’s Clown in Magic Carpet Theatre’s Magic Circus

FAMILIES are being given another chance to watch Pocklington Arts Centre’s online streaming of Magic Circus for free, in response to public demand.

The fun family-friendly show, performed by Hull company Magic Carpet Theatre and filmed behind closed doors at PAC last October, premiered to more than 1,000 viewers over Christmastide. Among them were families accessing food banks in the East Riding, who received exclusive early access. 

Now, the production is being streamed for free online once again to keep children entertained during Lockdown 3, with donations invited to PAC’s crowdfunding appeal at: justgiving.com/crowdfunding/magic-carpet-theatre.

PAC director Janet Farmer says: “In the absence of our usual popular live family Christmas show, we were delighted to be able to bring all the fun and excitement of live theatre to younger audiences with our online production, made possible with thanks to a grant of £4,100 from the HEY Smile Foundation’s I am Fund. 

“It’s fantastic that so many people watched the show at home when it premiered the first time round, and as we’re now in lockdown once again, we wanted to give everyone another chance to enjoy Magic Circus.”

Magic Circus is one of two Magic Carpet Theatre theatre shows filmed live at PAC by Pocklington production company Digifish for audiences to watch online. The second, The Wizard Of Castle Magic, will be available to stream from February half-term.

In addition, online workshops are planned as part of a project designed to encourage sustained arts engagement from younger generations during the pandemic and increased attendance at PAC events when the Market Place venue can eventually re-open its doors. 

“As we’re now in lockdown once again, we wanted to give everyone another chance to enjoy Magic Circus,” says Pocklington Arts Centre director Janet Farmer

Magic Carpet Theatre are firm PAC favourites, noted for their circus skills, magic and audience participation, and have staged numerous sold-out events there.

Directed by Jon Marshall with music by Geoff Hardisty and effects by Theatrical Pyrotechnics, Magic Circus, is a fast-moving, colourful story that combines magical illusions, comedy, circus skills and puppets.

Performed by Marshall and Steve Collison, it tells the humorous tale of what happens to the ringmaster’s extravaganza plans after the artistes and elephants fail to arrive and everything has to be left in the calamitous hands of the clowns. Disaster!

Inevitably, they make a fantastically messy job of it as Magic Carpet Theatre take traditional circus and variety skills, dust them down and invest them with new life, moulding them into a mystifying hour-long play with a circus theme.

Second show The Wizard Of Castle Magic, based on the traditional tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, is also aimed at children aged three to 11 and their families with a script replete with comedy, illusion and special theatrical effects. 

Magic Circus can be viewed on Pocklington Arts Centre’s YouTube channel from 2.30pm today (7/1/2021) for 14 days. The Wizard Of Castle Magic will be streamed via YouTube from 2.30pm on Thursday, February 18. 

Watch online for free at: https://youtu.be/CNrUixTMWdQ.

Wanted: a director of volunteering for the Joseph Rowntree Theatre board

The Joseph Rowntree Theatre: Seeking a director of volunteering

THE Joseph Rowntree Theatre is seeking a director of volunteering to join its board. 

The new volunteer board member will be jointly in charge of helping to manage and support the York theatre’s volunteer staff.  

Dan Shrimpton, the JoRo’s chair of trustees, says: “This role is vitally important to the smooth running of our fabulous community venue. Although unpaid, the post offers enormous rewards to the right candidate, including belonging to a very supportive board and enjoying the magic of theatre first-hand.

“You will be involved in one of the country’s top community-led theatres, working with remarkable people from a wide range of backgrounds to deliver great entertainment to the people of York.”

Barbara Boyce, the JoRo’s director of volunteering already in post, says: “The appointed trustee will be responsible for organising the scheduling of volunteers, both front of house and backstage.

“The workload will be shared between both of us. We are looking to recruit an exceptional person who will be crucial in ensuring the effective staffing of each production staged at the theatre.”

The coordination of the volunteers is done mainly electronically, using an online database and communication tools, hence having strong computer skills is a must. 

Established processes are in place already, but there will be opportunities aplenty for the new director of volunteering to make their own mark on how the role is carried out. The successful candidate must have first-class communication skills and enthusiasm for managing volunteers. 

The time commitment will vary, depending on the JoRo’s scheduled activities, but it is anticipated the role will usually take up approximately four to six hours per week.

In addition, the new trustee will attend 12 board meetings each year, each lasting approximately two hours, usually on the first Monday of each month. At present, meetings are held over video conferencing, so prospective applicants need to be willing to familiarise themselves with this way of communicating. 

All trustees act as duty managers within the theatre several times a month. On a typical show evening, the duty manager arrives by 6pm for a 7.30pm performance, usually leaving the Haxby Road building by 10.30 pm.  

Anyone interested and keen to find out more should email volunteering director Barbara Boyce at barbara.boyce@jrtheatre.co.uk to arrange a visit for an informal discussion with two or three trustees, once such meetings are permitted under Covid strictures.

After the informal discussion, an interview with trustees will be held for shortlisted candidates.

Artistic director sought for York Mystery Plays’ spring Passion Play production

Tom Straszewski: Writing an hour-long script for this spring’s Passion Play, presented by the York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, York Minster and York Festival Trust

AN artistic director is being sought for the York Mystery Plays’ outdoor community production of The Passion and Death of Christ at Easter.

The director will be expected to audition and rehearse in York, possibly virtually in the early stages, and then indoors and outdoors as Covid restrictions permit.

Applicants are asked to submit a one-page initial idea for the Passion Play production, along with a CV. Interest should be registered by emailing York Festival Trust chairman Roger Lee at: roger@yorkmysteryplays.co.uk. More details can be found at: bit.ly/YorkPassionPlay#yorkmysteryplays#york#theatre@YorkFestTrust

Tom Straszewski, director of the 2018 production on York’s streets, is developing an hour-long script for staging on waggons in the grounds of the Minster School, Minster Yard, Deangate, York.

Three performances a day will take place on Saturday, April 3 and Monday, April 5, mounted by a three-way partnership of York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, York Minster and York Festival Trust.

Funding for the spring production will come from York Festival Trust and York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, boosted by a £2,000 grant received already from The Passion Plays Trust. Audience members will pay a nominal sum for tickets to enable the organisers to safely manage numbers, access and distancing, if Covid restrictions still apply.

There will be opportunity for involvement in all aspects of the production. Watch this space for updates.

Alan Ayckbourn’s ghost play Haunting Julia will keep you awake for an extra month

Alan Ayckbourn in his garden at his Scarborough home in May 2020. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

ALAN Ayckbourn’s 2020 audio version of his ghost play Haunting Julia is being given an afterlife.

Originally available through the Stephen Joseph Theatre website from December 1 to today (5/1/2021), the winter chiller now will be online until January 31.

Revisiting his 1994 play, Ayckbourn’s audio recording features the voice of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 81-year-old director emeritus. Or, rather, the three voices of Ayckbourn, who plays all three parts.

Directed by Ayckbourn, the “comic but scary” Haunting Julia was recorded at his Scarborough home studio, where he and his wife, Heather Stoney, had made his first ever audio play, his 84th premiere Anno Domino, in Lockdown 1.

Haunting Julia is set 12 years after the suicide of Otley-born musical prodigy Julia Lukin. Her father Joe, still struggling with her death, meets with former boyfriend Andy and psychic Ken to seek out the truth, but some questions are better left unanswered.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre artwork for the 2020 audio version of Haunting Julia, performed and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Ayckbourn, who voiced characters ranging in age from teenage to septuagenarian in Anno Domino, here plays the parts of Joe, Andy and Ken, while “other voices” – previously off stage – are provided by Naomi Petersen.

The online version of Haunting Julia is going global, drawing bookings from the USA and beyond after a “really positive review” in New York City’s Wall Street Journal.

Bookings have come in from: Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Torrevieja, Alicante; Tucson, Arizona; Victoria, British Columbia; Los Altos, Santa Barbara, Oakland, Eureka, Clovis, Los Angeles, Woodside, Los Osos and Palo Alto, California; Denver, Colorado, and Washington, District of Columbia.

Bookings also have been made from: Decatur, Georgia; Evanston, Warrenville, Oak Park, Illinois; South Bend, Indiana; Madison, Maine; Silver Spring, Chevy Chase, Maryland; Holliston, Wellfleet, Carlisle, Milford, East Falmouth, Boxford, North Brookfield, Massachusetts, and Walled Lake, Michigan.

Naomi Petersen: Voices from beyond in Haunting Julia

So too from: Winona, Minnesota; St Louis, Missouri; Morris Plains, Mountain Lakes, Jersey City, New Jersey; Corrales, New Mexico; Waccabuc, Brooklyn, Larchmont, Rochester and multiple New York addresses, New York; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Media, Easton, Pennsylvania, and Granbury, Texas.

Likewise from: Mission Hills, Kansas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Boca Raton, Sarasota, Jacksonville, Ocala, Belleair, Boynton Beach, California; Salt Lake City, Taylorsville, Utah; Glen Allen, Vienna, Virginia; Bainbridge Island, Seattle, Washington; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Nicosia, Cyprus, and Auckland, New Zealand.

How to listen to Alan Ayckbourn times three in Haunting Julia:

TICKETS for Haunting Julia can be booked any time up to and including January 31 2021, either via https://www.sjt.uk.com/event/1078/haunting_julia or on 01723 370541.

Once a £12 ticket has been bought, the buyer can access the audio show as often as they want between now and January 31, and as many people as are in their household or social bubble can listen in. Go to the website, sjt.uk.com, for more details.

Drag diva Velma Celli kickstarts 2021 with Large & Lit In Lockdown streamed show

Velma Celli: Large & Lit In Lockdown Again but from a new location

AFTER his “Fleshius Creepius” panto villain in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk, Ian Stroughair planned to pull on his drag rags for a live Velma Celli show on January 15 at his adopted winter home of Theatre @41 Monkgate.

He anticipated more shows would have followed too, but then came York’s new impediment of Tier 3 status post-Christmas, and inevitably tighter restrictions still to come until the jabs make their point.

Consequently, he announces instead: “Darlings, as we head back into a lockdown in York, Velma Celli is back on the streaming! My first show, Large & Lit In Lockdown Again, is on Friday (8/1/2021) at 8pm. I would love you to join me for an hour of camp cabaret fun! Get those requests and shout-outs in!”

In 2020, Velma hosted a series of streamed shows from Case De Velma Celli, alias the drag diva’s Bishopthorpe kitchen. Firstly, on April 29, a fundraiser for St Leonard’s Hospice, followed by Large & Lit In Lockdown and virtual versions of the cabaret queen’s hit shows Equinox, Me & My Divas and A Night At The Musicals.

Usually to be found once a month gracing The Basement stage at City Screen, York, Velma returned to live performance in York by signing up for a rugby club – York RI Rugby Union Football Club, in New Lane, Acomb, to be precise – for An Evening Of Song outdoors under the September stars.

Jack And The Beanstalk saw Ian turn to the dark side as the vainglorious “Fleshius Creepius”, and now, newly moved into a riverside abode in York, he is ready to return to Velma Celli mode from Friday.

Tickets for Virtual Velma start at £10 via http://bit.ly/3nVaa4N. Watch this space for news of an online show every Friday from Ian’s new HQ.

Here, Ian answers Charles Hutchinson’s quickfire questions at the outset of a new year still shrouded in uncertainty for the arts world.

From where will you be streaming the January 8 show?  Still as a kitchen-sing drama or from a different room at your new riverside pad?

“The living room.”

On a technical level, what did you learn about doing digital streams from your earlier series of shows?

“That tech is stressful but once you have a system, it’s a piece of cake.” 

Ian Stroughair as Fleshius Creepius in York Stage’s pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk

What will the new show feature: any songs making their debut?

“Expect lots of divas as per. I’m gonna whack in some classic Amy Winehouse too: Back In Black.”

Will a remote guest be joining you?

“Not this time. You get Velma all to yourself.”

Your 2020 ended on a high with the villainous Fleshius Creepius in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk.  How did it feel to be back on stage in a show with a proper run to it?

“It was EVERYTHING. Such a joy and a wonderful experience. Feel so lucky and positive for a return of theatre as a whole!” 

What did you enjoy most about performing this pantomime – a new hybrid of “pansical” or “musical theatre with pantomime braces on” – in your home city?

“Working with the entire team. Everyone was sensational. The most talented cast I’ve ever worked with.” 

What were your highlights of 2020, aside from the pantomime?

“Reconnecting with York. I’ve fallen in love with it big time. Growing up here was a very different place and time, especially for the LGBTQIA+, but now it’s SO much more diverse.”

What realistic hopes do you have for yourself in 2021?

“That I can stay afloat until venues can open. It’s hard but, my lord, I’ll plod on.”

What hopes would you still have for 2021 in an ideal world?

“That theatre and the arts in general would have a boom and rebirth. I’m hopeful but realistic it may take longer than I dream.”

If you could address the Government, why do the arts matter?

“We need the arts more than we ever thought. It’s entertainment. It’s escapism. It’s culture. We all need it.” 

More Things To Do in and around York and at home in 2021, whatever barriers may yet lie ahead. List No 23, courtesy of The Press

Grayson Perry: Two shows in York in 2021; one an exhibition of “Lost Pots” at York Art Gallery, the other, his existentialist gig, A Show For Normal People, at York Barbican

AFTER a year where killjoy Covid-19 re-wrote the arts and events diary over and over again, here comes 2021, when the pandemic will still have a Red Pen influence.

Armed with a pantomime fairy’s magic wand rather than Madame Arcati’s crystal ball from Blithe Spirit, when what we need is a jab in the arm pronto, Charles Hutchinson picks out potential highlights from the New Year ahead that York will start in Tier 3.

Velma Celli: Had planned to present A Brief History Of Drag at Theatre @41 Monkgate in January; now heading online at home instead

Back on screen: Velma Celli, Large & Lit In Lockdown Again, streaming on January 8

AFTER his “Fleshius Creepius” panto villain in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk, Ian Stroughair was planning to pull on his drag rags for a live Velma Celli show in January, and maybe more shows to follow, at his adopted winter home of Theatre @41 Monkgate.

Instead, he writes: “Darlings, as we head back into a lockdown in York, I am back on the streaming! My first show is next Friday at 8pm. I would love you to join me for an hour of camp cabaret fun! Get those requests and shout-outs in!” Tickets for Virtual Velma start at £10 via http://bit.ly/3nVaa4N; expect an online show every Friday from Ian’s new riverside abode.

Shed Seven: Headlining all-Yorkshire bill at The Piece Hall, Halifax, in the summer

Open-air one-off event of the summer: Shed Seven, The Piece Hall, Halifax, June 26

FRESH from releasing live album Another Night, Another Town as a reminder of what everyone has had to miss in 2020, Shed Seven have confirmed their Piece Hall headliner in Halifax has been rearranged for next summer.

The Sheds have picked an all-Yorkshire support bill of Leeds bands The Wedding Present and The Pigeon Detectives and fast-rising fellow York act Skylights. For tickets, go to lunatickets.co.uk or seetickets.com.

Cocktail Party 1989, copyright of Grayson Perry/Victoria Miro, from the Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years exhibition, opening at CoCA, York Art Gallery, in May

Most anticipated York exhibition of 2021: Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years, York Art Gallery, May 28 to September 5

CHANNEL 4’s  champion of people’s art in lockdown, Grayson Perry, will present his Covid-crocked 2020 exhibition of “lost pots” at the Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA) next spring and summer instead.

The Pre-Therapy Years reassembles Perry’s earliest forays into ceramics; 70 “explosive and creative works” he made between 1982 and 1994. Look out too for the potter, painter, TV presenter and social commentator’s existentialist September 6 gig at York Barbican: Grayson Perry: A Show For Normal People, wherein he will “distract you from the very meaninglessness of life in the way only a man in a dress can”.

Chris Moreno: No festive cheer at Christmas, but now he looks forward to presenting The Great Yorkshire Easter Pantomime, Aladdin, on Knavesmire, York, in spring 2021

A pantomime in the spring? Yes, The Great Yorkshire Easter Pantomime in a tent on Knavesmire, York, March 19 to April 11

CHRIS Moreno, director of Three Bears’ Productions four pantomimes at the Grand Opera House from 2016 to 2019, will direct York’s first ever “tentomime”, Aladdin, this spring with a cast of “21 colourful characters”.

The Great Yorkshire Easter Pantomime will be presented in the luxurious, heated Tented Palace, Knavesmire, in a socially distanced configuration compliant with Covid-19 guidance.

The big top will have a capacity of 976 in tiered, cushioned seating, while the stage will span 50 metres, comprising a palace façade, projected scenery and magical special effects. Look out for the flying carpets.

Going solo: Julie Hesmondhalgh in The Greatest Play In The History Of The World at York Theatre Royal from February 16

Falling in love again with theatre: The Love Season at York Theatre Royal, February 14 to April 21

ON December 15, York Theatre Royal announced plans to reopen on St Valentine’s Day for The Love Season, with the audience capacity reduced from 750 to a socially distanced 345.

Full details will be confirmed in the New Year with tickets going on sale on January 8, and that remains the case, says chief executive Tom Bird, after hearing yesterday afternoon’s statement to the House of Commons by Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

“We’re carrying on with our plans, including presenting Coronation Street and Broadchurch actor Julie Hesmondhalgh in husband Ian Kershaw’s one-woman play, The Greatest Play In The History Of The World, from February 16 to 20,” he confirmed.

Van Morrison: A brace of bracing nights at York Barbican in May

Six of the best at York Barbican in 2021

YORK Barbican has remained closed since the March lockdown, foregoing even the UK Snooker Championships in November and December.

A reopening date is yet to be announced but mark these shows in your diary, if only in pencil: Rob Brydon, A Night Of Songs & Laughter, April 14; Jimmy Carr, Terribly Funny, May 2; country duo The Shires, May 23; Van Morrison, May 25 and 26; Paul Weller, June 29, and Rufus Wainwright, Unfollow The Rules Tour, October 13.

Ceramicist Beccy Ridsdel: Looking forward to the 20th anniversary of York Open Studios

Anniversary celebration of the year: York Open Studios, April 17 and 18; 24 and 25, 10am to 5pm

2020 turned into a virtual Open Studios with displays online and in windows, but already 140 artists and makers are confirmed for the 20th anniversary event in the spring when they will show and sell their work within their homes and workspaces.

Many of 2020’s selected artists have deferred their space to 2021, but new additions will be announced soon, the website teases. “We’re channelling the optimism and enthusiasm from all our artists to ensure this year’s 20th show is one of the best,” says event co-founder and ceramicist Beccy Ridsdel.

Dr Delma Tomlin: Administrative director of the 2021 York Early Music Festival, running from July 9 to 17

And what about?

Festivals galore, as always, in the self-anointed “City of Festivals”. Coming up are the Jorvik Viking Festival; York Fashion Week; York Literature Festival; York Early Music Festival; York Festival of Ideas, the Aesthetica Short Film Festival and more besides. 

What did we learn from York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime roadshow?

Robin Simpson’s dame and Reuben Johnson’s villain in far-from-subtle disguise in York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Ant Robling

YORK Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime has been brought to a sudden stop by the Spectre of Christmas Present: the rapid rise in Covid cases in York.

Nevertheless, despite the loss of four post-Christmas shows this week, the decision to go on the road to as many of York’s 21 wards as possible has been vindicated.

Creative director Juliet Forster’s cast of Josh Benson’s rubber-bodied comic turn, Reuben Johnson’s Meerkat-accented villain, Anna Soden’s bass-playing funky fairy, Faye Campbell’s assertive hero and Robin Simpson’s droll dame played to full house after full house.

Despite no recorded transmission of the virus at any performance from December 2 to 23, the Theatre Royal has ruled the show must not go on, foregoing the resumption of its 70-minutes-straight-through, socially distanced touring production, having initially added a handful of post-Christmas shows.

Exit stage left too early, but we still learnt that Josh “Just Joshing” Benson, pocket-dynamo York magician, clown, comic, actor and children’s entertainer, is a natural fit for the silly billy/daft lad role. No magic tricks this time, but that skill is up his sleeve for the future.

Likewise, Robin Simpson’s dame, less outwardly demonstrative but more subtly sophisticated than the average panto man in a dress, is utterly comfortable, cheekily conspiratorial and joyful in the most revered of all pantomime parts.

Victory: Faye Campbell’s hero in York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Ant Robling

So far, so good, but the still-blossoming Josh is tied into a contract as the Viaduct Theatre’s pantomime comic turn in Halifax, after making his debut there in Beauty And The Beast last winter, while Robin lives in Huddersfield, where he is bedded in as the Lawrence Batley Theatre’s dame. Both are set to return to fruitful past pastures next winter.

Johnson, York actor Soden and Campbell all made their mark too in shows blessed with terrific scripts by Paul Hendy, the award-winning co-founder of Evolution Productions, the Theatre Royal’s new partner in pantomime.

The handing-over of the panto baton after last winter’s toxic severance from Berwick Kaler’s 41-year venerated damehood should have seen the triumvirate of Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird, creative director Juliet Forster and Evolution director, producer and writer Paul Hendy presenting Cinderella on the main-house stage.

However, the pestilent Coronavirus pandemic cancelled invitations to the ball, after the St Leonard’s Place building was cast into darkness on March 16. Lockdown 1 and ever-changing rules ensued but in mid-September, the panto trio made the decision to take theatre to the people in the form of the pop-up Travelling Pantomime.

Each location, ranging from church halls to community centres, the Theatre Royal pop-up stage to social clubs and sports halls, had to be Covid-secure, adhering to Government guidance for staging socially distanced performances with capacities ranging from 35 to 50.

At each show, the audience members could vote for whether they wanted to see Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk or Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.

“The one thing I always want to do is bring joy,” says Evolution Productions’ Paul Hendy, writer of York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Ant Robling

Hendy switched smoothly to this new writing task, for a cast of five, with no dance ensemble and no house band: just another challenge faced by Evolution Productions, who have still been involved in seven pantomime productions in this Covid-compromised year.

“In a strange way, I quite enjoyed Lockdown, time with the kids, and not the constant pressure of putting on shows; just the contrast of going out and listening to the birds,” says Paul.

Once the path ahead became clearer, although still shrouded in uncertainty, he and Evolution set to work on co-producing six shows, along with Paul providing the York scripts and directing Dick Whittington, The Pompey Panto at the Kings Theatre, Portsmouth.

From Operation Sleeping Beauty to Nurse Nanny Saves Panto to Damian Saves Panto, Paul penned a series of one-off new shows attuned to Covid times, while his York scripts sought to bottle and preserve the essence of pantomime.

“Awaiting the Government pandemic update on December 16, all we could do was roll with it, go ahead and start rehearsals – which qualified as ‘going to work’ and set about our aim to save pantomime,” says Paul.

“It doesn’t feel fair that the Government can say, ‘No, you can’t go ahead’, when there’s no evidence there’s been an outburst of Covid after theatres reopened with social distancing, especially as a lot of theatres have spent a lot of money on the infrastructure to make theatres a safe place to go, but what can we do?

Travelling players: Robin Simpson’s dame, Faye Campbell’s hero, Reuben Johnson’s villain, Anna Soden’s fairy and Josh Benson’s comic in the York Theatre Royal pantomime roadshow

“But then the pandemic is not fair on anyone in all sorts of industries, and that’s why, at this time, people needed pantomime more than ever.”

Thankfully, York’s Tier 2 status ensured that the Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime could roll out across York with Hendy’s scripts built around the baddie trying to steal the essence of pantomime. “The shows had to be full of laughter, community spirit and topical gags, as there’s so much material there this year,” he says.

Paul relished the opportunity to take pantomime into all manner of venues. “I’ve always said that pantomime can work in a black-box setting with just five actors because of that compact configuration and connection with the audience, and this year that’s what’s happened,” he says.

“It still works because pantomime is an interactive theatre genre – and how many other forms of theatre can you say appeal to five year olds and 95 year olds alike?”

One emotion above all others permeated through Paul’s pantos. “The one thing I always want to do is bring joy, make it funny of course, but ultimately make it a show driven by joy – and we did that,” he says. 

Josh Benson and Robin Simpson may not be back in Theatre Royal colours next winter, but Paul Hendy most definitely will, when Cinderella and York alike will have a ball.

Copyright of The Press, York

York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime stopped in its tracks by rise in Covid cases

Why the glum face, Dame Trott (Robin Simpson)? Blame the pandemic yet again as York Theatre Royal calls off the last week of performances of the Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Ant Robling

THE wheels have come off York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime within touching distance of the final curtain.

The rapid rise in York’s Coronavirus cases has brought the runaway success of the sold-out show to a shuddering halt as the Covid curse strikes yet again.

Despite no recorded transmission of the virus at any performance so far, the Theatre Royal has decided the show must not go on, foregoing the resumption its 70-minutes-straight-through, socially distanced, Covid-secure touring production, having initially added a handful of post-Christmas shows.

The rolling seven-day Covid rate for the City of York Council area in the week to December 23 was 218.4 per 100,000 population, higher than the regional average of 189.1 for Yorkshire and The Humber, and the big-city rates of 172.4 in Sheffield, 190.6 in Bradford and 184.8 in Leeds, but still much lower than the national average for England of 401.9.

The figure is higher than the average of 174.7 for North Yorkshire and 179.1 for East Yorkshire. Most disturbingly, York’s rate his risen steeply since a figure of 65 cases per 100,000 population a fortnight ago, an acceleration to which the influx of rule-breaking Tier 3 visitors and Christmas shoppers is thought likely to have contributed.

Travelling Pantomime director Juliet Forster with writer Paul Hendy, right, and York Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird. Picture: Ant Robling

Explaining the decision, Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird says: “It is with great regret we have decided that the pantomime will not resume for its post-Christmas performances. This has been a tough decision to make, but we feel it is the right one.

“I pay tribute to the whole of the York Theatre Royal team for producing so many performances under such extraordinary conditions, and their diligence and hard work is borne out by the fact that we have no recorded transmission of the virus at the pantomime.”

After two previews at the Theatre Royal, the Travelling Pantomime team took the show to community venues in Tang Hall, Dunnington, Wigginton, Holgate, Clifton Moor, Elvington, Poppleton, Acomb, Carr Lane, Strensall, Copmanthorpe, Fulford, Heworth and Guildhall, to meet the aim of visiting all 21 wards in the city.

This week’s performances by Josh Benson’s comic turn, Robin Simpson’s dame, Anna Soden’s fairy, Faye Campbell’s hero and Reuben Johnson’s villain would have taken the company close to that target by the December 31 finale.

Well travelled: York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime cast and crew for performances across a multitude of York wards this month

“The theatre wants to thank the brilliant audiences, who have supported the pantomime in their local venues, and City of York Council, who have helped to distribute over 200 free tickets to families in need on the run-up to Christmas.”

Box-office staff will be in touch with ticket holders for cancelled performances in the next few days. Those shows would have taken place at Moor Lane Youth Centre, Dringhouses, last night; Southlands Methodist Church Hall, Bishopthorpe Road, tonight, and York Theatre Royal, tomorrow and Thursday.

The York Theatre Royal pantomime, co-produced with 2020 pantomime partners Evolution Productioms, will return to the main house for Cinderella from December 3 to January 2 2022.

Now that the Traveling Pantomime van has parked up for the last time, CharlesHutchPress can reveal that each audience’s vote to pick a panto from Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk and Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs in reality came down to a choice of two.

Courtesy of writer Paul Hendy, each show’s early gag about the Rule of Six ruled out the Seven Dwarfs. “We had to lose one of the dwarfs,” said Robin Simpson’s dame. “Wasn’t Happy!” Boom! Boom!

Brought to its knees: York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime loses out to the city’s rising Coronavirus cases. No joke for comic turn Josh “Just Joshing” Benson et al. Picture: Ant Robling

YORK’S other pantomime, York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk, will continue to run at Theatre @41 Monkgate, unless the Government’s Covid briefing tomorrow pronounces a change in York’s Tier 2 status.

Writer-director Nik Briggs’s show has upcoming performances until January 3 2021 with full details at yorkstagepanto.com. Watch this space for an update tomorrow.