YORK Theatre Royal’s pantomime resumes tomorrow for its final run of shows after a Covid-enforced week off.
Positive tests among cast members and understudies meant the management was seeking its fourth Cinderella when the decision was made to stop the revolving door of replacements and extra rehearsals.
Now, Cinderella will be going to the ball again, extra shows and all, until January 2, and among those returning to the stage will be Andy Day’s Dandini, Faye Campbell’s Cinderella, Benjamin Lafayette’s Prince Charming and ventriloquist Max Fulham’s Buttons (along with his dummy, the cheeky monkey Gordon).
CBeebies’ presenter Andy Day had already made one appearance in York this year before Cinderella…with his band, Andy And The Oddsocks. “We did nine festivals this year – we usually do loads of shows over the festival season – and among those getting in touch was York Balloon Fiesta, where we played in late-August,” he says.
“It was one of our favourites gigs, playing next to the racecourse. I’d been to York only a couple of times before, but my dad is a massive fan of York, so he’s coming to see the panto. He’s not bothered about seeing me, just seeing York!”
Andy is performing in his sixth panto for York Theatre Royal’s pantomime partners, Evolution Productions. “The first one I did for them was Cinderella: that was the last time I did Cinderella, playing Dandini that time too, in St Albans,” he says, going on to recall making his panto debut at 21 as the Genie in Aladdin in Ilford.
Andy is synonymous with CBeebies, not only as a presenter but as an actor too. “I was very fortunate to get into kids’ TV 16 years ago. I always wanted to do that; that was my aim when I was doing stuff at the Millennium Dome and theatre in education in Italy, which I really enjoyed.
“From there, I got an audition for CBeebies, and out of 2,000 applicants, I got down to the last 11, and it just so happened I was different to the others and so I was chosen.”
His wide-eyed expressions, affability, strong singing voice and bond with children make him a natural for pantomime. “The great thing about Evolution pantomimes – and I love Paul Hendy’s writing – is that they really are a show for everyone, making it my favourite form of family entertainment, because parents can enjoy it as much as their children,” Andy says. “Good comedy, good music, something for the adults, and then there’s the magic of it all, especially in Cinderella.”
Andy has worked with Cinderella director Juliet Forster previously, having appeared in her TV production of CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet, premiered in April. “They’re always great fun to do,” he says. “I’d done The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream before, and though I don’t class myself as a Shakespearean actor, it’s really nice to do the roles and enjoy Shakespeare – and Juliet is a real joy to work with.
“I played Lord Capulet, after I was Caliban in The Tempest: I always seem to play the slightly nasty one, whether in CBeebies’ pantos or Shakespeare! Though I was Peter Quince, one of the Mechanicals, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so that was a humorous role.”
Luton-born Andy is making his York Theatre Royal debut at 40, but where might his pantomime ambitions lead him next? “I’d love to play Captain Hook [in Peter Pan] one day. That would be my dream panto role,” he says.
Faye Campbell tweeted her excitement at returning to York today to prepare for tomorrow afternoon’s resumption of stage business. Just as she had been excited at landing the title role. “I got a first taste of working with Juliet last year when I was in the Travelling Pantomime that we took around the city.
“We did a few performances on the main stage at the start and the end of the run, putting the Travelling Pantomime set on that stage, so I have been on a ‘stage’ on that stage before!”
Faye previously did a school tour of Snow White in late 2018, in the title role. “It was similar to the Travelling Pantomime, going to community centres and primary schools for hour-long performances,” she recalls. “Now, Cinderella is my first panto on a theatre main stage.”
As a child, Faye went to pantomimes at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre (and sometimes at Birmingham Hippodrome too). “We used to go every year, and it was my first experience of theatre, as it is for many families,” she says.
“That’s why panto is so special for everyone: they go to pantomimes, even if they don’t go to anything else. Pantomime is more accessible, which I think is important.”
When Faye does not have an acting commitment, she works at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre as an usher. “For a lot of people in the industry, we can’t pretend work has not been slow or hard to get, but it’s just exciting to see theatres re-opening – and it’s very emotional for theatres to be able to present pantomimes again,” she says.
Her Cinderella fits the 21st century style of the Theatre Royal and Evolution co-production. “I’m playing her more as an independent, modern-day woman,” says Faye. “I think it’s important to represent a strong, independent woman today, with the same themes as before but with an edge to her.”
Benjamin Lafayette could not have had a more contrasting start to his professional career, first making his debut in the title role in Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello at The Mill Theatre, Dundrum, South Dublin, followed by his pantomime bow as Prince Charming in Cinderella.
“This is my first time in York, my first time working with Evolution Productions,” says Benjamin, continuing the theme of firsts. “It came about through my agent. I got the call in a busy period because I’d just found out I was going to do Othello in Dublin.
“I was already packing my bags, and then my agent said, ‘Oh, I have an audition for you for a pantomime’. I’d never done a panto, but I’m the kind of person who will give anything a shot’.”
His audition negotiated successfully, Benjamin headed off to Dublin, and then briefly to York. “The launch day for Cinderella was during my rehearsals for Othello, so I flew in and out on the same day,” he says. “I’d just rehearsed Othello’s final scene, and then had to fly in and be…charming at the Theatre Royal launch!”
What an experience was in store for him under the direction of Geoff O’Keefe in Dublin. “Safe to say, I was exhausted after every show, doing two performances a day after the intensive rehearsal period,” he recalls.
“There was no hiding place; there was so much to do, but it was brilliant. I’m still quite young, and playing Othello so young, at 24, was really special to do so early in my career. It was a real learning experience and I’ve really grown as an actor, realising the importance of different stage crafts.”
Performing in a cast with seven Irish actors, alongside Michael Ford from Surrey, Birmingham-born Benjamin drew good reviews – or so he was told. “I really try not to read them at the time, but from what my family and friends said, it went really well,” he says.
Benjamin completed his Othello run on October 22, and when he began rehearsals in York in November, doing pantomime initially “felt really foreign”, but gradually “the glitter of it all” took over.
“Prince Charming is seen as one of the ‘straight’ panto characters but we’ve been given licence by Juliet to have fun with our characters, which is an actor’s dream,” he says. “There are definitely moments of wanting to be part of the joke.”
Plenty of the humour in Cinderella emanates from Max Fulham and his irrepressible Monkey in the ventriloquist’s York Theatre Royal debut.
Already he has a prestigious award to his name: Best Speciality Act at the Great British Pantomime Awards from his 2019-2020 season in Aladdin at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley. “Because of lockdown, I received that award at home, eating crisps, getting a nice little trophy,” says Max. “I was in such esteemed company: I think we beat Sooty and a dance group.”
He began doing ventriloquism – talking with his mouth closed – at the age of nine. “The puppet came first. I’ve always loved puppets, and I’m from the era where it’s not like I saw someone doing a ventriloquist act at a theatre. No, I saw a video on YouTube,” says Max.
“I typed in ‘puppet’, watched a ventriloquist, watched some more, old and new, and I became obsessed with everything, from Paul Zerdin and Jeff Dunham to the earlier talents of Arthur Worsley and Ray Alan, who was the master technique-wise. Phenomenal.”
Max first acquired a monkey puppet when he was ten. “I named him Gordon and he stayed with me as I developed routines, starting to do children’s parties when I was 12/13, in Farnham, after we’d moved from Scotland, where I’d lived from when I was four to 11,” he says.
“I grew up there watching acts at the Edinburgh Fringe every summer, which made me think ‘I could do this’. I used to do shows for my grandmother when my parents were out at work, and I did my first paid gig for £25 when I was 12 for old people in a hall at a New Year’s party.”
Max performed his ventriloquist act throughout his school years. “Yes, of course I was seen as an oddball as I was talking to myself, though comedy is a social survival mechanism for us oddballs,” he says.
“It meant I could entertain people and I’ve always loved making people laugh. Now I can be a professional oddball, and a professional twit is a good thing to be. I like being unusual!”
Max was still in the sixth form when he did his first pantomime in 2017. “I was just turning 18, and I’d just learned to drive and had to drive from Surrey to Lincolnshire, so that was a baptism of fire, as was doing pantomime, because it’s so full-on. It’s great fun but it demands a lot of hard work,” he says.
He has performed in panto each winter since that Spalding debut, taking him to Cambridge, Bromley and the Garrick Theatre in Lichfield last year. “We managed to do our rehearsals for Jack And The Beanstalk, but saw what was developing, so we did a film version that was then streamed online when the performances were cancelled,” Max says.
Thankfully, this winter, Fulham has been able to perform to the Max in Cinderella…until the Covid outbreak in the cast intervened, but now the show can go on again in the finishing straight.
Cinderella’s remaining performances at York Theatre Royal: Thursday, 2.30pm, 7pm; Friday, 11am, 3pm; Saturday and Sunday, 1pm, 5.30pm. Tickets are available for all shows on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
UPDATE at 1.55pm on December 30
EVERYONE from the Cinderella principal cast is back on stage today except for Sarah Leatherbarrow. Amy Hammond, from the ensemble, will deputise as the Fairy.
Guitarist and bass player Luke Gaul is the musical director in place of Stephen ‘Stretch’ Price. Christian Mortimer, from the ensemble, is missing too. All three absences are Covid-related.