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.

Dickens of a week lies ahead for Christmas ghost storyteller James Swanton

James Swanton: Dickensian storyteller par excellence. PIcture: Jayne Nicoll

AFTER spinning yarns all this week at London’s Charles Dickens Museum, Gothic York actor James Swanton returns home with his Ghost Stories for Christmas.

At the time of going to CharlesHutchPress, only five tickets remain on sale for the entire run.

As last year, Swanton will be performing three Dickens works, one each night, at York Medical Society, Stonegate, from Tuesday to Saturday.

A Christmas Carol on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday will be complemented by the lesser performed The Chimes on Wednesday and The Haunted Man on Friday, all at 7pm.

Swanton, the Outstanding Performing Artist winner in the 2018 York Culture Awards, will be the black-clad gatekeeper for all manner of supernatural terrors after memorising three hours of wintery material for his “seasonal roulette of three Dickensian tales”.

Ahead of his Dickens of a week in York, James answers Charles Hutchinson’s questions.

Why is A Christmas Carol so amenable to being presented in so many guises each winter in York and elsewhere, James?

“Could it be that it’s the greatest story ever written? Ebenezer Scrooge has joined Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula as Victorian literature’s most endlessly adapted characters.

“But unlike the master detective and the master vampire, who constantly crop up in diverse new contexts, Scrooge remains inseparable from his original story. It’s perfectly structured and passionately written. It demands to be told, just as we all demand to hear it, year after year. There’s a great responsibility not to do it badly!”

What form do your three shows take: a reading or more than that in each one-man show?

“I’m happy to say that these are full-fledged dramatisations rather than Jackanory-style readings. This has been quite the Labour of Hercules: 180 minutes of text to memorise to cover the three one-hour readings! But it’s worth it to ensure these pieces are truly alive. My abridgements are closely based on Dickens’s own performance scripts, so their faith to their sources is absolute.”

Will you use a similar performance style for each tale?

“This is old-fashioned storytelling in a suitably atmospheric space. I’m hoping to use every physical and vocal trick in my repertoire to make the audience see Dickens’s pictures as clearly as I do myself.

“The formidable Miriam Margolyes saw me performing one of these pieces in 2017 at the Charles Dickens Museum. She was very complimentary about its pictorial vividness – and she’s not easily pleased!”

Give quick synopses of The Chimes and The Haunted Man…

“Just like A Christmas Carol, these lesser-known works hinge on disenchanted older men who must encounter the supernatural to change for the better. The Chimes is the exuberant tale of a lowly ticket-porter who finds goblins squatting in the bells of his local church.

“Meanwhile, The Haunted Man is a Gothic chiller about a chemist who hatches a bargain with his ghostly double to remove all of his sorrowful memories.”

Dickens’s concern over Ignorance and Want rings out in A Christmas Carol. Rather than being ghosts, the ills of greed and the need for charity and care for others are as alive as ever. Discuss.

“You know, the absence of Ignorance and Want might be the only flaw in The Muppet Christmas Carol (a near-perfect film, as everyone knows). Dickens spectacularly revives the figure of Ignorance in The Haunted Man, in which the feral child receives a ferocious human embodiment. Deeply disturbing.

“And The Chimes is so socially angry that it might as well be called ‘A Brexit Christmas Carol’. It attacks the untrustworthy press, the still more untrustworthy rich, and a world that condemns the poor without considering how they came to such grief. These might be Victorian ghost stories, but they are indisputably stories for our own age.”

We still respond to what Dickens says in a way that contrasts with so many people turning their back on religion. Why?

“Dickens might be considered to have reinvented Christianity for an increasingly secular world. He’s particularly invested in the idea of redemption, and how it might be realised through the death of an innocent child.

“Death is ever-present for Christ, even at the Nativity: think of King Herod’s massacre of the innocents, or the Wise Man who gifts him with the myrrh that’ll preserve his body after the crucifixion.

“All three of these Dickensian ghost stories centre on children in mortal peril. Tiny Tim must be resurrected just as miraculously as Scrooge. Dickens suggests that we can conquer death, but in ways more practical than waiting for an afterlife.”

James Swanton’s Ghost Stories For Christmas, York Medical Society, Stonegate, York, 7pm nightly; A Christmas Carol, December 17, 19, 21; The Chimes, December 18; The Haunted Man, December 20. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

James Swanton with his bust of actor Henry Irving in Irving Undead at York Medical Society in October

REVIEW: James Swanton in Irving Undead, York Medical Society, Stonegate, York, October 10 to 12 2019

IT starts with a dusty recording of Henry Irving drifting across the York Medical Society carpet.

This is the sound of “the strangest actor who ever lived”, and to a modern ear, the voice is indeed strange and deathly as Irving negotiates a speech from Shakespeare’s Richard III.

A door opens to the side of the stage, and what first emerges is a thin, long finger of actor-writer James Swanton, then all his digits curl round the door frame. Enter the gaunt Swanton, as spindly of leg as Irving notoriously was.

James Swanton in his role as Henry Irving, ” the strangest actor who ever lived”

As ever, whether playing Dracula, Dickens’ Bill Sikes, Frankenstein’s Creature, Lucifer or now Irving, Swanton brings an angular physicality to his bravura performance, wherein he seems to consume the character he plays, so wholly does he take on the part.

As we know too from his solo performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol last winter, he is a wonderfully eloquent storyteller, his writing full of intelligence, understanding, wit and drama.

Here Swanton’s Irving relates the story of his life and death, not least how Bram Stoker, his business manager for 20 years is said to have immortalised him by writing the horror story Dracula. The pain behind the mask for the “undead” and restless Irving is that Dracula is now better known than theatre’s first knight: a case of being out for the Count.

“I hope to do the old man justice,” said James Swanton, as Henry Irving confronted his demons in Swanton’s one-man show

Obsessive in his art, ill-fated in love, fearful of scandal, Irving specialised in playing mad monarchs, guilt-stricken murderers and the Devil, delivered with a Gothic, macabre air that apparently “petrified 19th Century London”. Swanton delights in playing Irving’s Romeo, a frightening performance from the early master of horror acting met with derogatory reviews that Irving reads out with a glum glower.

Swanton contends that Irving was a deeply subversive figure with a work, work, work ethic, driven by some mightier force. All this comes through in an intense performance, underscored with admiration for his fellow traveller along theatre’s pit-laden path.

“I hope to do the old man justice,” said Swanton in advance. He certainly does that, while adding to his stock as a formidable talent in his own right.

Charles Hutchinson

Review: A Nativity for York, Spurriergate Centre, York

Babe in arms: Raqhael Harte’s Mary with the infant Jesus. Picture: John Saunders

A Nativity for York, York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, Spurriergate Centre, Spurriergate, York, until Sunday

A NATIVITY for York is a new solo venture for the York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, an hour-long festive first directed by Philip Parr.

The City Guilds wagons have parked up for the winter; Corpus Christi feast day is but a summer memory, and the mediaeval Mystery Plays have moved indoors for four nights and days of Christmas shows.

Glad tidings of great joy: Sally Maybridge’s Angel Gabriel in A Nativity for York. Picture: John Saunders

Thursday’s audience is sitting at tables, sipping hot drinks, the community cast placed among them from the start, to emerge one by one into their roles, with the company’s musicians and singers to the back of the church building. This positioning is a reminder that the Mystery Plays are of the people, for the people, by the people; always were, always will be.

This Nativity play is not one for tea-towel headgear, tons of tinsel, awkward children and extraneous animals in the stable. Instead, Parr’s production knits together text from eight of the 48 plays in the York cycle, here presented in a “northern dialect of Middle English origins but modernised”. Modernised might be stretching it: this is still the street language of the plays of yore, where “mickle” means “a large amount” or “much”.

Stable relationship: Raqhael Harte’s Mary and Chris Pomfrett’s Joseph with the new-born Jesus. Picture: John Saunders

What is modern is the presence of rucksacks and backpacks, a pram, an M&S bag, high-street clothes and Raqhael Harte’s Mary in jeans and hooded winter coat. That said, Las Vegas Elvis would love the cut of two of the Kings’ outfits, regal white for Wilma Edwards and dazzling blue for Stephanie Walker, an irreverent comment maybe, but their countenance could not be more reverent.

Costume designer Filip Gesse balances past and present, the everyday and the holy, robes and jackets in equal number, linking the plays’ history with today. Just as the deeply affecting storytelling has resonance with our need for a new guiding light, new hope, new beginnings (disconnected, it would seem, from the Godless political event going on that divisive, decisive day).

Wise move: Stephanie Walker’s King seeks the infant Jesus. Picture: John Saunders

Parr’s Nativity for York juxtaposes the Christmas miracle with the story of an ordinary couple caught up in events beyond their control that will change their lives forever. 

“The Nativity is probably a story that much of our audience will know, but we wanted to give it a fresh, new and contemporary perspective,” he says. “Joseph, Mary and their baby are really no different from any other refugees: fleeing their country, persecution and the threat of death.” Thought for the day, indeed.

Bearing her gift: Jenna Drury’s Shepherd with Raqhael Harte’s Mary and Jesus. Picture: John Saunders

Sally Maybridge’s Angel Gabriel looks down from above in radiant white, while cast members move among the full house, sometimes in circular motions as the Kings (completed by Ben Turvill) and the Shepherds (Ged Murray, Michael Maybridge and Jenna Drury) make their journeys to seek out the new-born king, wrapped up in Mary’s arms.

All the while, Chris Pomfrett’s Joseph is protective, concerned, dutiful, specs propped on his head in his few calm, reflective moments, fearful at others.

The weight of responsibility: Chris Pomfrett’s Joseph must take Mary and Jesus to a safe place after learning of Herod’s decree to put all infant males to death. Picture: John Saunders

Parr, artistic director of Parrabola and driving force behind the York International Shakespeare Festival, not only directs with suitable gravitas and awareness of making the fullest spectacle of the church setting, but also has written and arranged the beautiful music. Instrumental or choral, accompanied or a cappella, it sounds wonderful as it rises within these bare walls.

Thursday and tonight’s performances have sold out, but seats are available for shows at 12 noon, 2pm and 6.30pm tomorrow (December 14), and 12 noon and 2pm on Sunday. Rejoice at this news and book now on 01904 623568, at or from the Theatre Royal box office in person.

Charles Hutchinson