REVIEW: Agatha Meehan so at home in The Wizard Of Oz, Leeds Playhouse *****

Agatha Meehan, from York, in the lead role of Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz at Leeds Playhouse, All pictures: The Other Richard

The Wizard Of Oz, Leeds Playhouse, until January 25 2020. Box office: 0113 213 7700 or at

AGATHA Meehan is going places. Right now, the blossoming York acting talent is travelling in a whirling tornado from her Kansas farm to Oz and the Emerald City in the lead role of Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz.

Already she has starred in the West End as Summer Hathaway in School Of Rock and Annie in Annie, a part she first played for York Musical Theatre Company in March 2017 while a pupil at St George’s RC Primary School.

After adding Jane in the UK premiere of A Little Princess at the Royal Festival Hall to her London credits, now she is alternating Dorothy with Lucy Sherman in the first Christmas family musical in the Quarry Theatre since the Leeds Playhouse’s £15.8 million redevelopment. All this, and she is only 12 years old. What a whirlwind rise.

Sam Harrison’s Tinman leading a merry dance in The Wizard Of Oz

There’s no place that Agatha feels more at home than on stage, and she gives a remarkably assured performance, from the moment she sings the iconic Over The Rainbow.

Her Kansas accent is spot on; her Dorothy, in pigtails and farm dungarees and later the ever-evocative blue gingham dress, is a stoical young girl of moral conviction, passion and determination, challenging adult authority and inertia in Baum’s  Kansas of the 1900s and Emerald City alike.

Combining Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg’s songs from the more innocent 1939 MGM film with John Kane’s witty, somewhat knowing 1987 script for the Royal Shakespeare Company, artistic director James Brining’s production delivers on an epic, filmic scale, full of heart and humour, joy and jeopardy, Munchkins and monkeys, mystery and magic.

Eleanor Sutton’s Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz

Meehan’s Dorothy is surrounded by a combination of hi-tech and lo-tech, and likewise the familiar and the freshened up, with Jitterbug re-introduced as one of two premier league showstoppers alongside The Merry Old Land Of Oz, choreographed to dazzling effect by Lucy Cullingford.

Phil Cole’s Uncle Henry and Angela Wynter’s Aunt Em are a mixed-race couple; Eleanor Sutton is a female Scarecrow; Sam Harrison’s Tinman is gay and the outstanding Marcus Ayton is a black timorous Lion, with boxing moves and a knock-out singing voice to boot for If I Were King Of The Forest.

Simon Wainwright, from innovative Leeds company Imitating The Dog, provides the video projections for the twister scene that combine with the time-honoured skills of spinning aerialists. Toto the dog is played by a real dog before the storm, then by a puppet animated so expressively by Ailsa Dalling in Oz. Look out too for the crow puppets, and be sure to duck when the Wicked Witch of the West and her dive-bombing monkeys are flying overhead.

A roaring success: Marcus Ayton’s outstanding Lion in The Wizard Of Oz at Leeds Playhouse

Polly Lister is terrifically terrifying as the mean, twisted neighbour Miss Gulch and the cackling, droll Wicked Witch, whose vamp camp air never quite ventures into pantomime villainy.

As you would expect of a major-city Christmas show, this is a big, big production:  a cast of 20, supported by a young Leeds community company as the Munchkins; a band of 11 directed with panache by Tamara Saringer; and wonderful set and costume designs by Simon Higlett, whose palette progresses from parched, dustbowl Kansas with its plain farmhouse and water tower, to the spectacular greens and yellows of a futuristic Emerald City.

Click your ruby red heels, make a wish and find yourself having a wizard time on the Yellow Brick Road at Leeds Playhouse this winter.

Toto and puppeteer Ailsa Dalling in The Wizard Of Oz

Review by Charles Hutchinson

REVIEW: Tim Stedman’s 20th anniversary in Snow White, Harrogate Theatre ****

Tim Stedman’s Happy Harry, left, Howard Chadwick’s Nora the Nanny, Zelina Rebeiro’s Snow White, Pamela Dwyer’s Fairy Ruby Rainbow (back), Colin Kiyani’s Prince Lee (front) and Polly Smith’s Wicked Queen Ethel Burger in Snow White at Harrogate Theatre

Snow White, Harrogate Theatre, until January 19 2020.  Box office: 01423 502116 or at

JUST by the entrance to the stalls is a sign. Snow White contains Smoke/Haze, Pyrotechnics, Flashing Lights. The usual, in other words, but then it adds Poison Apples.

A-ha. This is why Harrogate Theatre’s pantomime is such a joy for adults, as well as the children they bring along. The witty extra details.

This latest pantomime collaboration between director Phil Lowe and co-writer and chief executive David Bown doesn’t contain “And The Seven Dwarfs” in the title, but it does contain Tim Stedman in his 20th year as Harrogate’s strawberry-cheeked, squeaky-voiced daft lad.

Back to Stedman in a moment, but first more of those details that make the difference: the sign on stage that points to Base Camp and Too Camp; Harrogate being renamed Happygate in the county of Yawnshire; and the pop-culture words to spot in Wicked Queen Ethel Burger’s castle lair. Spells For Teen Spirits (one for Nirvana fans); Keep Calm & Cast Spells; Tears/Fears.

Then there are the regular mentions of Harrogate’s event of the year:September’s week-long cycling festival, the UCI Road World Championships, that turned the Stray into looking more like a Waif and Stray. “And the bikes have been put away,” came the first mention. “It’s only grass, it will grow back,” we were re-assured by Stedman and on the back page of a mocked-up Happygate Advertiser.

Lowe and Bown certainly have fun stoking the fires of this hot topic that vexes more than agitated letter writers to the local paper.

On a happier note, Stedman’s 20 years of putting the funny ha-ha in Harrogate is a cause for celebration, albeit that his silly billy is given a new name for these politically correct times: Happy Harry, rather than the usual Muddles. Happy to report, however, that he is still the sharpest fool in the foolbox, and the fool is still making fools of others, just as he did in Shakespeare’s plays.

Stedman’s jaunty jester is in cracking clowning form, picking his “victim for humiliation” with a Catch The Apple game that ends with teacher Mrs Smith – an appropriate name, he notes – as his stooge for this particular performance.

His Wheel of Happiness – we should all have one installed at home – is a thing of joy with its tension-building Slice of Danger and his hapless slapstick scene with Pamela Dwyer’s Scottish Hunter the Handyman recalls Laurel and Hardy, while the terrible Christmas cracker jokes keep rolling by. “What do call an exploding monkey?” he asks. “A ba-boon!” Cue groans.

Colin Kiyani’s Prince Lee and Zelina Rebeiro’s Snow White keep the romance and soppy ballad count ticking over and the seven dwarfs make their appearances as big puppet heads, while Alice Barrott’s Magic Mirror is a frank-speaking Southerner in a northern town.

In a piece of metatheatre, Dwyer’s Fairy Ruby Rainbow makes a point of stepping outside the pantomime boundaries to explain that “technically fairies aren’t allowed to be around humans but you can keep my secret safe” as she transforms into castle dogsbody Hunter the Handyman. Both roles are handled with aplomb.

Polly Smith returns to the Harrogate panto, this time as Wicked Queen Ethel Burger, a role with plenty of bite and spite, while fellow returnee Howard Chadwick’s grouchy dame lives up to his name of No Nonsense Nora the Nanny, banning the singing of Baby Shark. Look out for his paintbrush hair-do, one of many delights in Morgan Brind’s designs that provide humour and spectacle in equal measure.

Nick Lacey’s sprightly musical direction and David Kar-Hing Lee’s zesty choreographer add to the enjoyment as Harrogate Theatre revels in the restlessly cheeky Stedman’s 20th anniversary. He’ll return for Cinderella next Christmas, and surely the Stray grass will be back by then too. Won’t it?

Charles Hutchinson

REVIEW: Cinderella, Northern Ballet, Leeds Grand Theatre *****

Minju Kang and Rachael Gillespie in Northern Ballet’s Cinderella at Leeds Grand Theatre

Northern Ballet in Cinderella, Leeds Grand Theatre, until January 2 2020. Box office: 0844 848 2700 or at

FOR the most magical Christmas show of this winter, look no further than Northern Ballet’s revival of Cinderella, first staged at Leeds Grand Theatre in 2013.

The prettiest, most breath-taking transformation of Yorkshire’s winter theatre wonderland is back, three bounding huskies et al.

The Cinderella story exists in myriad forms across the world and through the ages, our British pantomimes being the most familiar but also the most misleading when presented with the Eastern mysticism of Canadian artistic director, choreographer and costume designer David Nixon and his associate director Patricia Doyle’s beautiful, painfully romantic interpretation.

Set in Imperial Russia at a time when “superstitious people believe in the possibility of magic” and the repressive authorities believe in the power of gun rule and constantly barking dogs, Northern Ballet’s oriental fairy-tale production opens in a burst of yellow flowers beneath the deepest blue sky on the hottest of days, far removed from pantomime’s glitter and chintz.

Out go the Fairy Godmother and Buttons, pumpkins and cross-dressing Ugly Sisters. In come acrobats and a towering stilt walker, a bear and huskies, a kindly Easter magician (the wonderful Ashley Dixon); a servant who ends up being shot for helping Cinderella and skaters sashaying across a frosted lake.

Cinderella’s anything but ugly stepsisters, Natasha and Sophia (Kyungka Kwak and Rachael Gillespie) are not wild cards but wholly subservient to the despicably wicked yet immaculately fashionable step-mother, Countess Serbrenska (Minju Kang, roundly booed but soon cheered at the end after her fabulously theatrical performance).

Duncan Hayler’s set design has the sleight of hand of a magician, not only in the transformation scene where the kitchen comes alive but also when the invitation envelope to the royal ball is peeled open to reveal a dazzling, white ballroom. Philip Feeney’s compositions, gorgeous throughout, bring even more of a flourish to Hayler’s works of wonder.

Yet the designs never out-dazzle Sarah Chun’s put-upon but blossoming Cinderella or Jonathan Hanks’s powerful Prince Mikhail.

A glorious show in a well-deserved return, Cinderella is Northern Ballet at Nixon’s very best.

Charles Hutchinson

REVIEW: Treasure Island, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Scarlet Wilderink, Ben Tolley, Niall Ransome and Marcquelle Ward (front) in Treasure Island. Pictures: Sam Taylor

Treasure Island, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until December 29. Box office: 01723 370541 or at

TREASURE Island is re-envisaged with sea shanties, baguette swords, talking vegetables, puppets, rap battles and a giant mechanical crab called Susan in the Stephen Joseph Theatre Christmas show.

Stolen and re-told by story pirate Nick Lane, Robert Louis Stevenson’s nautical adventure is presented by an actor-musician cast of five billed as The Fearsome Pirates.

Or not that fearsome at the Relaxed Performance your reviewer attended where they introduced themselves and explained who each would be playing, while the stage management outlined how the sword fighting would not be dangerous and the maximum noise to be expected was the closing of a trapdoor. Likewise, no-one should be alarmed by the sight of smoke (dry ice) emerging on deck.

Scarlet Wilderink: Revelling in her big fake moustache character switch in Treasure Island

It was fascinating to see the care being taken in making everyone at ease, reaffirming the importance of theatre’s powers of storytelling reaching out to everyone.

Lane’s “brilliantly bonkers” shows, whose adventures always begin and end up back in Scarborough in time for Christmas, have become a staple of the SJT winter programme, Treasure Island following in the unconventional footsteps of Pinocchio, A (Scarborough) Christmas Carol and Alice In Wonderland.

Lane’s humour is always wind-assisted, with any excuse for the word “bum” and prodigious feats of, how to put this, bottom burping. Adults might feel there is too much wind in this particular sail this time, but try telling that to the young ones, who revel in the repetition of Marcquelle Ward’s involuntary trumpeting in the role of apple-loving Jim Hawkins. Nevertheless, maybe a tad less wind next year would still blow the house down.

Marcquelle Ward, left, Scarlet Wilderink, Alice Blundell and Niall Ransome as the Fearsome Pirate storytellers in Treasure Island

Lane’s play feels more episodic than in past years, not merely because the cast announces each chapter, but because there is so much to cram in after dishing out the roles for Ward, Alice Blundell, Niall Ransome, Scarlet Winderink and Ben Tolley, the pick of this winter’s troupe under Erin Carter’s direction.

Tolley arrives in a suit, saying he is attending on behalf of the Stevenson estate to make sure no disrespectful nonsense is allowed on stage, whereupon he is commandeered to play assorted parts, such as Long John Silver (or LJs as he becomes in the climactic rap battle).

This is a typically inventive device by Lane, and Tolley responds to the max as the ship full of Scarborough scalleys heads to Treasure Island in search of Captain Flint’s treasure before the pirates find it.

Alice Blundell with the accident-prone puppet of Captain Smollett in Treasure Island at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

In a second Lane innovation, out goes a talking parrot, in comes a talking…carrot, perched on Silver’s shoulder in his “disguise” as a pirate cook. “Five a day, five a day,” says the Carrot, in one of the comic high points.

Look out for the seagulls too, dropping their messages from the sky on Silver’s head, much to the children’s glee.

Helen Coyston’s stage designs bring out the full potential of the Round setting, especially when the cast creates the deck of the Hispaniola, and the giant mechanical crab claws that emerge through one of the exits ticks the “mild peril” box to amusing effect.

Ben Tolley’s Long John Silver in Treasure Island

Musical director Simon Slater’s new songs are terrific: shanties and nautical nuggets as fresh and bracing as the sea air with fun lyrics to boot.

While not matching the heights of Alice In Wonderland, in particular, Lane’s Treasure Island still has a treasure trove of jollification, adventure and daftness to be discovered, hapless Captain Smollett puppet, big fake moustache, baguette sword fights and all.

Charles Hutchinson

Treasure Island’s remaining performances:

Tuesday December 24; 1pm

Thursday, December 26, 7pm

Friday, December 27, 1pm and 7pm

Saturday, December 28, 1pm and 6pm

Sunday, December 29, 1pm.

Green light for Blue Light Theatre Co’s panto capers in Oh! What A Circus

Zoe Paylor’s Pinata and Mark Friend’s Pinocchio, from Blue Light Theatre Company’s Oh! What A Circus cast, at Acomb Cobblers. All pictures: Scott Atkinson

ROLL up! Roll up! The Blue Light Theatre Company’s pantomime, Oh! What A Circus, will open at Acomb Working Men’s Club, York, next month.

Made up of paramedics, ambulance dispatchers, York Hospital staff and members of York’s theatre scene, the company will be in action on January 24, 25 and January 29 to 31 at 7.30pm nightly, plus a 1pm matinee on January 25.

Blue Light Theatre Company’s cast members for Oh! What A Circus at Acomb Working Men’s Club

“Our story revolves around two circuses, one good and one evil, and their search for a star act, but which circus will succeed?” says Mark Friend, who plays Pinocchio.  “This is a family-friendly show that would make a perfect Christmas gift for the whole family, especially as it features many famous fairy-tale characters such as Pinocchio, Geppetto, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Tinkerbell and Hansel and Gretel.”

In the cast will be Steven Clark, as dame Dolly Mixsteur; Glen Gears, Darius De’vil; Jorvik Kalicinski, Geppetto; Mark Friend, Pinocchio; Perri-Ann Barley, Rapunzel; Devon Walls, Red Riding Hood; Brenda Riley, Magenta, the Sorceress; Craig Barley, Cyril and Old Man, and Kevin Bowes, Nodoff, the Clown.

Shoe-in for success: Blue Light Theatre Company’s Zoe Paylor (Pinata), Jorvik Kalicinski (Geppetto) and Mark Friend (Pinocchio) at Acomb Cobblers

So too will be Linden Horwood, as Tinkerbell; Pat Mortimer, Signora Fi Lacio; Zoe Paylor, Pinata and Suki; Kristian Barley, Hansel; Katelyn Botterill, Gretel, and Kalayna Barley, Bird and one of the four Piglets, Pandora. The other three will be Kathryn Donley as Pringles; Charlotte Botterill, Pippa, and Abigail Botterill, Primrose.

Director and producer Craig Barley leads the production team, joined by writer/co-producer Perri-Ann Barley; choreographer Devon Wells and the costumes team of Brenda Riley and Christine Friend. Steven Clark has written additional material.

Sizing up Pinocchio: Jorvik Kalicinski’s shoemaker Geppetto works on Mark Friend’s Pinocchio’s shoe as Zoe Paylor’s Pinata looks on at Acomb Cobblers

As in previous years, Blue Light will be raising money for York Against Cancer and Motor Neurone Disease (York). “We hope to exceed our record-breaking £3,000, which was split between the charities after our last production, Wonderland,” says Mark.

“We’ve had fantastic support from local and national businesses, and our raffle prizes include family passes to many of York and North Yorkshire’s famous attractions. We also offer a cheap bar, which now accepts credit and debit cards, and cheap pick’n’mix sweet bags for sale at the shows.”

Tickets cost £10, adults, £8, concessions, £5, children, at, on 07933 329654 or from cast members. “We’re hoping to sell some tickets for Christmas zero-waste presents over the next couple of days,” says Mark.

Did you know?

SHOULD you be wondering, the publicity photographs were taken by Scott Atkinson at Mansell Hughes’s shoe repairs shop, Acomb Cobblers, in Green Lane, Acomb. “Mansell is a huge support to us, giving us free rein of his shop for our photo-shoot,” says Mark Friend.

Storm warning! Cassie Vallance is on whale watch at York Theatre Royal Studio

Whale watch: Cassie Vallance’s Noi looks out for the little whale in The Storm Whale . Picture: Northedge Photography

CASSIE Vallance, such a scene stealer in Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre’s jazz-age Twelfth Night in the summer in York, is seeing out the year in snow, ice and storms at York Theatre Royal.

Until January 4, Cassie is starring in writer-director Matt Aston’s new adaptation of two Benji Davies stories of The Storm Whale in the Studio’s Christmas show for four year olds and upwards.

Cassie is no stranger to the Theatre Royal as a storyteller in the Story Craft Theatre children’s sessions and an adult theatre workshop practitioner. The Storm Whale, however, marks the first time she has performed in a production there.

“I’m very familiar with the space,” she says. “I’ve been here a lot and seen a lot of shows. Now I’m very pleased to be doing a show that both my kids can come and watch.”

Her children, aged four and one, are the reason she knows Davies’s The Storm Whale and The Storm Whale In Winter, the two stories that have been turned into a stage play by Aston’s company, Engine House, in a co-production with York Theatre and the Little Angel Theatre in London.

“I have two boys, so I read the books a lot,” says Cassie. “I knew Grandad’s Island by Benji Davies as well. I do storytelling at the theatre and the first one I did was The Storm Whale In Winter.”

Cassie Vallance: actor, storyteller, clown and theatre workshop practitioner

Cassie plays Noi, a boy who lives with his Dad and their six cats by the sea. One day Noi rescues a little whale washed up on the beach during a storm and a friendship begins that changes their lives forever.

As in all good children’s theatre, big issues permeate the story. “It’s very much about the importance of belonging and relationships and not feeling lonely. Sometimes people are lonely even in the busiest crowded room,” says Cassie.

“Noi is a sweet young boy who is very excitable when it comes to treasure hunting on the beach. He cares very much for his Dad but isn’t necessarily in a relationship where they talk all the time. He’s very passionate about finding friends, a bit awkward but very lovable.” 

“And yes, I’m a grown woman playing a ten-year-old boy!” says Cassie, who sums up Noi in three words: “Endearing, awkward, thoughtful.”

In addition to the cast of three, Vallance, Julian Hoult and Gehane Strehler, the show features puppets aplenty: a whale of course, plus seagulls, a cat called Sandwich and even a small puppet Noi. 

“Puppets change everything,” say Cassie. “And when you see a puppet being worked well, you get completely absorbed and lose the person behind it.”

Putting up the Christmas decorations: Cassie Vallance’s Noi with Julian Hoult’s Dad in The Storm Whale. Picture: Northedge Photography

She sees no difference between working on adult theatre, such as playing the gormless, goofy servant Fabian in Twelfth Night and Guildenstern in Hamlet this summer, and children’s theatre, such as The Storm Whale. What she does not enjoy is experiencing family shows that are patronising to children. “A lot of the time, children have a much great understanding than we give them credit for,” says Cassie. “Kids are really tuned in, especially on this big emotional stuff.”

Reflecting on ten summer weeks in York spent performing Shakespeare in a pop-up Elizabethan theatre on the Castle car park, Cassie says: “It was absolutely brilliant and I had the most fantastic time doing it.

“I was very fortunate. My other half and I are both actors and got the opportunity to do the show. I had a whale of a time – no pun intended.  It was lovely to see people getting so much out of it. I got to be an absolute clown, which I loved doing.”

Now her focus is on playing Noi, and should you be seeking a treasure of a family show this winter, hunt this one down, recommends Cassie. “It’s a really lovely, hot chocolatey, yummy jam sandwich Christmas show,” she says.

The Storm Whale makes a splash at York Theatre Royal Studio until January 4 2020. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

Charles Hutchinson

REVIEW: The Storm Whale, York Theatre Royal Studio ****

Julian Hoult, Gehane Strehler and Cassie Vallance in The Storm Whale at York Theatre Royal Studio. Picture: Northedge Photography

The Storm Whale, York Theatre Royal Studio, doing swimmingly until January 4 2020. Box  office: 01904 623568 or at

CHILDREN’S author Benji Davies was in the house on press night, travelling up from the south to see director Matt Aston’s second adaptation of one of his stories.

Or, rather, two stories. It takes only two and a half minutes each to read Davies’s enchanting, award-winning works The Storm Whale and its sequel The Storm Whale In Winter. Put them together in one show divided by an interval, and children aged four and upwards will indeed have a whale of a time, with a little “mild peril” thrown in for the second half.

After moving to York two years ago, Aston’s company Engine House brought Davies’s story Grandad’s Island to the Studio in February 2018, and The Storm Whale is better still.

This time, the show is an Engine House co-production with York Theatre Royal, The Marlowe in Canterbury and Little Angel Theatre, in London, where it will play next winter.

As you take your seat, you take care to walk around Lydia Denno’s typically delightful set: the wooden floor evokes a sandy sea front, with the froth of a wave making you want to dip your toe in.

Cassie Vallance’s Noi in The Storm Whale: her second outstanding performance of the year in York

On her stage are scaled-down versions of a lighthouse that does light up, and the island home where a little boy, Noi (a name pronounced in the way the Northern Irish say “now”), lives with his fisherman Dad.

So do their six cats with such town names as Deal and Sandwich, the latter represented by a puppet that likes to leap on to Dad’s shoulder. The other five are in picture frames, or more precisely, bursting out of the frames to give them life and evoke playfulness.

The house front seen in miniature is then replicated in full scale, with a washing line, fishing netting, steps, a boat and a porch, from which the endearingly awkward, thoughtful, restless Noi (Cassie Vallance) looks out, in need of company when hard-working Dad (Julian Hoult) is at sea.

Our narrator is Flo (Gehane Strehler), who looks back at this story from the distance of initially erratic adult memories as she recalls how she used to lick the strawberries and cream lighthouse in hope of a sweet flavour. Flo’s own story will flow in and out of Noi’s tale, and she too is often on her own.

“The Storm Whale stories are about loneliness, and we’re not shying away from that,” says Aston. “As Benji Davies says, ‘it’s OK to be on your own but not OK to be lonely’, and that’s absolutely true.”

Julian Hoult’s Dad and Cassie Vallance‘s Noi in a Christmas scene in The Storm Whale

Through a combination of storytelling, puppetry and Julian Butler’s acoustic songs (one with a hint of The Pogues’ Fairytale Of New York, no less), we encounter the height of a  storm and Noi’s subsequent encounter with a little whale, washed up on the sand and soon to occupy the house bath (later doubling as Dad’s fishing boat) as they bond in friendship.   A simple story, you might say, but that’s why it goes to your heart.

Post-interval comes the aforementioned “mild peril” as Dad undertakes his last fishing trip but his boat becomes stuck in the frozen waters of deep winter. In his absence, Noi craves seeing the whale once more, and these two storylines overlap with a sense of wonder at the finale, enhanced by the puppetry.

Vallance was last seen in York stealing scenes over the summer in the supposedly minor role of gormless, goofy servant Fabian in Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre’s jazz-age Twelfth Night, and she is a delight once more here. Her Noi is wide eyed, curious for knowledge at ten, often hunting for treasure by the sea , ready for experience and friendship, and full of love to give, coming to terms with the loss of his mother.

Hoult’s Dad is stout-hearted, kindly, jolly, but feeling the weight of responsibility of now being the sole guide for Noi. Strehler’s Flo is an engaging narrator, as she moves in and out of the storyline, in a magical, moving, beautiful show for Christmas, cotton wool snowy rooftops and all.

Meanwhile, the inaugural Aston Kaler pantomime partnership, Sleeping Beauty, runs aground in the main house until January 25, co-directed by Aston and Dame Berwick. In sole command for The Storm Whale, Aston makes a bigger splash here.

Charles Hutchinson   

No rest for Matt Aston after Sleeping Beauty as The Storm Whale takes to sea

Julian Hoult as Dad, Gehane Strehler as Flo and Cassie Vallance as Noi in The Storm Whale at York Theatre Royal Studio. Picture: Northedge Photography

NO theatre director is busier in York this season than Matt Aston.

After moving to the city two years ago, he is directing his own adaptation of Benji Davies’s children’s stories, The Storm Whale, at the York Theatre Royal Studio and co-directing the main-house pantomime, Sleeping Beauty, with retired dame Berwick Kaler.

Matt, whose production of Davies’s Grandad’s Island played two seasons at the Theatre Royal, has been able to combine the two roles, directing rehearsals for The Storm Whale either side of overseeing rehearsals for the trademark panto mayhem with Dame Berwick.

“The Snow Whale was already in place for the Studio; I’d been in discussion with Damian and Juliet [now former artistic director Damian Cruden and associate director Juliet Forster], and then with Tom Bird [the Theatre Royal’s executive director],” recalls Matt.

“Then, when I had a meeting with Tom, just after Damian announced he was leaving and Berwick had confirmed he’d be writing the script, Tom said they needed a co-director for the panto and asked me if I would do it.

“I’d got around to writing The Storm Whale, and I’ve done this thing before of having to juggle with shows for Christmas, so as a way of organising it this time, I held five weeks of rehearsals for The Storm Whale, did the tech and got the show up and running for two performances at Pocklington Arts Centre on October 23, then put it into storage until the panto press night.

The Storm Whale director Matt Aston. Picture: Alan Fletcher

“Sometimes it can work better, going back to a show  after time off, so that’s what we’ve done, going into tech on December 12 and 13, dress-rehearsing on December 14, with the press night on December 17…and then I’m going to bed!”

Julian Hoult, Gehane Strehler and Cassie Vallance are performing Davies’s story of Noi, who lives with his Dad and their six cats by the sea. One winter, while his fisherman Dad was busy at work, Noi rescued a little whale that washed up on the beach during a storm.

A friendship began that night that would change their lives forever. The following winter, Noi’s Dad takes one last trip in his fishing boat. Noi is alone once more and longs to see his friend again, but will it take another winter storm to bring them back together again?

“Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale and The Storm Whale in Winter are two books very close to my heart as they’re firm favourites with my two children,” says Matt. “It’s beyond fantastic to get the chance to adapt both Benji’s books into one show for young people and their families.  

“And to do it again at York Theatre Royal – after having such a brilliant time on last year’s Grandad’s Island – has made these past few weeks and months even more exciting.”

The Storm Whale is targeted at children aged four to seven. “But oldies will enjoy it too,” he says. “When we did the show to a class of four to nine year olds in Pocklington, you could hear a pin drop at times because they were so caught up in it.”

Cassie Vallance’s Noi with a Christmas decoration in The Storm Whale. Picture: Northedge Photography

The Storm Whale is told with a combination of storytelling, song and puppetry. Is there a big whale, Matt? “Big enough!” he says.

Writer Benji Davies paid Matt the compliment of coming up from London to attend Tuesday evening’s performance. “I’d met Benji through first doing Grandad’s Island two years ago, when his publishers really liked that show and wanted me to do another one,” he says.

“After Grandad’s Island, The Storm Whale became the obvious thing to do, but it’s always a struggle with only one short book. The Storm Whale takes only two and a half minutes to read, but luckily Benji had brought out another Storm Whale book, which made it ideal to combine them as one show.

“I think it’s actually better than Grandad’s Island in many ways, because it really feels like a proper children’s play with two halves.”

To transform those stories from page to stage, “you have to remember it’s a show for everyone and you must not be frightened to have moments of mild peril in it, but first you have to gain the children’s trust in the first half, then introduce that ‘mild peril’, and then everything is OK at the end,” says Matt.

“The Storm Whale stories are about loneliness, and we’re not shying away from that. As Benji says, ‘it’s OK to be on your own but not OK to be lonely’, and that’s absolutely true.”

Staged by York Theatre Royal, Little Angel Theatre and Matt’s company Engine House, The Storm Whale will play the Little Angel Theatre, London, next Christmas and Matt is hoping to mount a tour too in between, subject to gaining Arts Council funding.

Meanwhile, after 14 years as a freelance director, Matt has notched up his first experience of working on a York Theatre Royal pantomime, Sleeping Beauty, after directing three rock’n’roll pantos at Leeds City Varieties and one at Theatre Clwyd, as well as two traditional pantos at Wakefield’s Theatre Royal, Sleeping Beauty and Aladdin.

He has worked too with another pantomime legend, Kenneth Alan Taylor, the Berwick Kaler of Nottingham Playhouse, where Taylor continues to write and direct the show after retiring from the dame’s role.

“York is my home town now and directing the pantomime was an opportunity too good to miss,” says Matt. “I know how important the Theatre Royal pantomime is to city, where it’s an institution, and it’s an honour to be involved.”

Sleeping Beauty runs at York Theatre Royal until January 25, The Storm Whale takes a bath at York Theatre Royal Studio until January 4. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

Charles Hutchinson

Copyright of The Press, York

REVIEW: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Grand Opera House, York

The Seven Dwarfs and Muddles (Martin Daniels, right) attend to the poison apple-drugged Snow White (Louise Henry) in the Grand Opera House pantomime. Picture: David Harrison.

Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Grand Opera House, York, until January 4 2020. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at

THIS is Three Bears Productions’ fourth Grand Opera House pantomime, written, directed and co-produced by Chris Moreno, a canny veteran of commercial theatre.

He has made two significant additions this year, bringing a York flavour to his familiar panto template of a serviceable script and set design. First, “York’s very own” Louise Henry, 22, from Knaresborough, was picked from more than 30 hopefuls for the title role, in a year when she has impressed as Liesl in York Stage Musicals’ The Sound Of Music at the same theatre  and in Rigmarole Theatre Company’s apocalyptic When The Rain Stops Falling last month.

Playing Snow White marks her professional debut, a step up she handles with aplomb and poise, in song, dance and bonding with fellow York panto debutant Jonny Muir’s upstanding Prince Rudolph and the Seven Dwarfs (played by two alternating teams of children, the Magic Mirrors and Magic Apples). Louise Henry will be back, for sure.

The second smart move was to invite one of York’s most familiar voices, Minster FM breakfast show co-host Ben Fry, to reprise his official role as York’s Town Crier, ringing his bell and making proclamations, as he has since May, but this time on stage. “Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah,” he says. “Oh no, oh no, oh no,” comes the audience’s reply without hesitation or invitation.

Fry, spoiler alert, also pops up as the ageing King and has plenty of fun with North Eastern entertainer and magician Martin Daniels’ Muddles in the time-honoured Busy Bee water slapstick scene: one of those moments that can be played off the cuff by two performers tuned into quick thinking.

There is room for more such impromptu outbreaks, in particular for Steve Wickenden’s southern dame, Nurse Brexit, a divisive name but never a divisive character in his fourth Grand Opera House panto. The Brexit joke gets done once and then disappears even more quickly than Boris Johnson hopes to conclude his oven-ready deal.

Last year, after Ken Morley was taken ill in the very first performance of Cinderella, Wickenden turned himself into both Ugly Sisters, a solo double act that was twice the pleasure. This time, by comparison, he is a little underused, although his version of Avenue Q’s I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today is an inspired, unexpected choice, delivered with panache, and his wardrobe is as peachy as ever.

Getting Nurse Brexit done: Steve Wickenden’s dame in: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Picture: David Harrison.

Rather than topical satirical comment, big names are occasionally dropped in, Laurence Llewelyn Bowen, Donald Trump and Gordon Ramsay, for example. Much of the comedy is rooted in traditional pantomime routines, putdowns and daft one-liners, although Daniels’ Muddles, the show’s very reliable glue in his jester’s hat, has room to roam into adlibs while being the children’s favourite. His magic ingredient is his cheeky nous, but he has magic tricks up his sleeve too.

Daniels and Wickenden have become important to the Grand Opera House panto, continuity being the third factor in establishing the Three Bears brand.

Star names always play their part too. Say ’Allo, ’Allo! to Vicki Michelle as the vampy, vain Wicked Queen Titania (“You can call me Titty,” she says) and comedian and presenter Mark Little, once of Neighbours, now her Australian sidekick in the land of Much Piddling.

Little had been expecting to play the Evil Sorcerer when the cast first gathered for the press launch but he is now billed as Lord Chamberlain of Trumpville, one of those evil, but actually not evil roles that inevitably loses some of his bite. Little and not so larger than life, in other words. That said, his duet of Elvis Presley’s Trouble with Michelle is one of the musical high spots.

Musical director Aaron Nice has chosen the ballads and cheesy pop hits well, from the opening ensemble number Nicest Kids In Town; through the Dwarfs’ signature song, I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), and the Snow White-led Whistle Whistle; to the crowd pleasers, Live While We’re Young and especially Shutup And Dance.

Emily Taylor’s choreography is bright and bubbly, driven by dynamic bursts of movement, amusingly so when the Dwarfs join in. Played in the past by dwarves from the actors’ union, the roles now tend to go to puppets or, as is the case here, children with adult voiceovers and movement to give them character.

Strictly speaking, look out too for a familiar fairy face in the mirror, Debbie McGee, seeking out the fairest in the land, and you can’t say fairer than that.

Charles Hutchinson

Copyright of The Press, York

See the latest Grand Opera House pantomime trailer here:

Review: The Flint Street Nativity, York Stage Musicals ****

Mary, Mary, very contrary: Fiona Baistow., left. and Florence Poskitt clash over who plays Mary in York Stage Musicals’ The Flint Street Nativity

The Flint Street Nativity, York Stage Musicals, John Cooper Studio @41 Monkgate, York, until Sunday. Box office: 01904 623568, at

THIS is the second time York Stage Musicals have gone back to school to stage Tim Firth’s riotous Christmas comedy.

First seen on television with York actor Mark Addy in a donkey head, and then adapted for the stage at the Liverpool Playhouse in 2006, The Flint Street Nativity that re-creates the trepidatious highlight of the primary-school Christmas calendar, the Nativity play.

“There’s no treachery assassination, double-dealing, deceit, coercion or blackmail that you encounter later in life that you will not have been prepared for in the classroom,” says teacher’s son Firth, who brings to school the clash between teamwork and individual desires that flavoured his pent-up comedy in Neville’s Island, Preston Front and Calendar Girls.

Verity Carr’s Wise Gold, Chloe Shipley’s Shepherd and Florence Poskitt’s Angel Gabriel in The Flint Street Nativity

Robert Readman was YSM’s equivalent of “Mizzis Horrocks”, the play’s schoolteacher, for the York company’s first go at Firth’s Nativity play in November 2011. Now Nik Briggs makes an ass of himself…in a good way, not only directing but also playing the Addy role of Ass, having starred opposite a Donkey as Shrek in YSM’s Shrek The Musical at the Grand Opera House in September, by the way.

Briggs has designed the classroom stage and costumes too. “Nik has been very busy this term and shows a real aptitude for theatre,” his school report would say.

Mizzis Horrocks is often heard, but not seen, in Firth’s play, as she strives to guide her class of seven years olds through their Nativity play at Flint Street Junior School, being reduced to sounds, rather than words, that nevertheless capture her increasing exasperation at their antics.

Firth’s salient powers of observation are as sharp as ever as the children pretty much do their own thing, much like Mary’s donkey, a holiday relic that swears in Spanish.

Inn-timidating: Paul Mason as the Inn Keeper in The Flint Street Nativity

Andrew Roberts’s jumper sleeve-picking, stoical Narrator is resolute that the show must go on, flattening everything before him, voice and all, but he must contend with petty squabbles, rampant egos and the disappearance of Peter Crouch, the school stick insect.

Your reviewer called on York directors to give Florence Poskitt a lead role next year after seeing her Ethel Cratchit in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Scrooge The Musical last month. Glory be, that rallying call has been answered early in the form of her seemingly ruthless little madam playing the Angel Gabriel, so determined to gazump Mary’s role. Anything but angelic, Poskitt nevertheless reveals the girl’s inner vulnerability behind the hard-nosed, playground bully front.

Her usurping classroom troublemaker is but one comic joy, topped off with her spiralling spat with Fiona Baistow’s class swat Jenny B as they vie for the prized role of Mary.

Fiona Baistow’s little miss goody two shoes playing Mary

Two roles require constant headgear: Briggs as the loveable Irish lad who grows so attached to his Ass’s cardboard head that he will not remove it, and Matthew Clarke as the NASDA-fixated dreamer designated the part of the Star of Bethlehem in a performance full of pathos and frustration as much as wonder.

Conor Wilkinson makes a delightful YSM debut as the boy assigned to play both King Herod and Joseph, but obsessed with re-enacting the Ally McCoist era on A Question Of Sport and smiling distractedly at his parents in the audience.

Jack Hooper taps into the sadness, desperation and pain in the new boy playing Wise Frankincense, struggling with his lisp as he shies away from saying “Jesus”.

Mizzis Horrocks’s class performing their Nativity play in York Stage Musicals’ Christmas production

Verity Carr’s Wise Gold, Louise Leaf’s Angel and especially Chloe Shipley, as the blunt , no-nonsense farm girl bringing home truths to the role of a Shepherd, contribute plenty to the fractious fun too.

Fun, meanwhile, is not the word the rest of the class would choose to describe the oddball loner (Paul Mason), a pub landlord’s son with a last orders’ threat about him, whose scary Innkeeper keeps stealing scenes.

Firth complements the delicious mayhem, social comment and joy of watching adults play children with two masterstrokes. Firstly, to Jessica Douglas’s strident school-piano accompaniment, each child sings a familiar Carol with satirical new lyrics that tell the truth about their parents, from a child’s frank, hurt or frustrated perspective.

Star-struck: Matthew Clarke as the NASA-obsessed pupil playing Star

Secondly, the YSM actors re-emerge for the finale as those parents, whose behaviour so explains why the children are how they are. Darkness descends at the finale, Firth fuelling the nature-versus-nurture debate, the real-life story trampling over the Nativity play.

Chances are you won’t see a funnier Nativity play this term.

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