ROWNTREE Players’ rollicking romp of a pantomime, Babes In The Wood, will roll two shows into one at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, from December 3 to 10.
Let writer-director Howard Ella explain: “We’re combining the stories of Robin Hood and Babes In The Wood. Two tales in one means there’s a lot for me to play with.
“Our beautifully hand-crafted panto promises fun from start to finish with traditional characters intertwined with a modern twist. There’ll be lots of fun for the whole family with the traditional slapstick routines, audience participation and of course, a love story: everything you would expect and want from a pantomime.”
Facing the challenge of writing a new panto script for each winter, Howard says: “It takes a lot of head scratching to keep an element of freshness and originality around the traditional stories and the old – but lovingly recycled – jokes.
“The constant drive and annual re-invigoration come from bringing a talented and enthusiastic team together on and off stage.”
As always, Rowntree Players promise adventurous showstopper dance numbers to “have you dancing until Christmas”, having produced dazzling routines over the years showcasing York’s dancing talent.
Choreographer Ami Carter says: “It’s hard to pick just one number to be my favourite routine, because there are always moments from all the routines over the years that stick out in my mind – usually because it was a crazy idea that ended up working out really well – such as making a ship from people in Sinbad or having a troupe of dancers emerge from a fireplace in Cinderella.
“So far this year, I think my favourite is ‘Musical’, simply because I love the effect of all those musical references happening one after the other. The audience are in for a real treat with this seven-minute number.”
Howard has chosen very ambitious numbers for this year’s cast to sing, but that comes naturally for newly married musical director Jessica Viner (nee Douglas), who is a regular MD on York’s musical theatre circuit and also teaches and inspires the city’s next generation of musicians.
“I’m super-fortunate that my hobby and job are all rolled up into one as a freelance MD and pit musician,” she says. “As part of that, I teach at York Stage School and I’m also a peripatetic instrumental teacher at a school in Harrogate.”
For Babes In The Wood, Rowntree Players will be utilising a nine-piece band. “They are all so talented, so audiences are in for a real treat,” says Jessica.
Hannah King’s Robin Hood will be joined by a Merry Band of Meg Badrick, Keelie Newbold, Erin Willis, Charla Banks, Libby Roe, Mollie Surgenor and Eva Howe as they take on Jamie McKeller’s Sheriff of Nottingham and his all-too-regular tax hikes with his sidekick, Joe Marucci’s Will Snatchall.
Adding to the merriment will be the familiar sight of Graham Smith’s Dame Harmony Humperdinck and Gemma McDonald’s Kurt Jester, entertainers extraordinaire who tour the land with their cabaret double act to help to save Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Maid Marion and the Babes in the Wood (Fergus Green, Ayda Mooney, Henry Cullen and Maddie Chalk).
The prospect of silly jokes, big musical numbers, slapstick and good old-fashioned family fun has led to tickets selling well already, prompting the advice to not delay in booking.
“It’s the perfect way to kick off Christmas,” says Howard. “Watch a show then go home and put up your tree. It’s what we all do.”
Rowntree Players in Babes In The Wood, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, December 3 to 10. Performances: December 3, 2pm (last few tickets) and 7.30pm; December 4, 2pm (limited availability) and 6pm; December 6 (limited), December 7 (limited), December 8 (last few); December 9, 7.30pm; December 10, 2pm (last few) and 7.30pm (limited). Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
CharlesHutchPress puts Rowntree Players writer-director Howard Ella in the pantomime spotlight ahead of Babes In The Wood’s first night
What makes Robin Hood and Babes In The Wood better for interweaving the two storylines, Howard?
“Robin Hood is a great, and ultimately, very traditional story. It’s very basic in its journey, and so being able to add some elements in the form of the Babes in the Wood helps broaden the story telling.
“It gives Robin heroic motivation that is broader than wooing Marion and, because it involves a younger cast, it opens up opportunities to take on larger roles. Of course, the original Hansel and Gretel story is incredibly dark, so I take a huge sidestep and some significant creative liberties!”
What will be the “new twists” you mentioned?
“There’s some twists this year in terms of casting choices and of course the plot goes off on tangents that aren’t wholly (or sometimes remotely) loyal to the initial storytelling. It’s not irreverence that drives that, but a push to keep things fresh and fun.
“Details on the twists? Well, no spoilers – you need to come and see the show – but as a taster, the Dame and comic this year no longer work in the Sheriff’s castle, but are travelling actors: Dame Harmony Humperdinck, the greatest Shakespearean actor of her age (and what an age!) and Kurt Jester, comic extraordinaire.”
What will be the fresh features of this pantomime?
“It’s not just originality in the set that lets us renew every season but also our approach to set design. We’re so lucky to be one of the few amateur companies in the country to have a full set-building store with engineers, carpenters and the most amazing scenic painter – all volunteers working year-round on our productions.
“This year, for the first time, all of our scenery, every single glittered gem of a piece, has been designed and made for us by that team. Add to that the amazing costumes our team pull together and we have a show that really is a dazzler.”
How important is the elixir of panto right now, given the doom, gloom and financial strictures of the winter ahead and beyond?
“It’s hard to keep positive given the doom and gloom of the wider world and financial forecasts. Escapism, now and then, is an important rejuvenator in trying times. The magic of going to the theatre, specifically the elixir of panto, is such a good way to reboot together with friends and family, to laugh and tap your feet and be reminded of the positives there are in community, opportunity and good old fart gags!
“A night at the panto lasts far longer than two and a half hours. The kids will be talking about the characters for weeks, the adults will leave humming the tunes, and the dads will be recycling my handcrafted, yet ultimately silly jokes for years to come!”
What will be the big musical numbers in Babes In The Wood?
“There’s a phrase… ’Self indulgence is better than no indulgence at all’. Well, that’s certainly true about the choice of music in panto. Musical theatre is a great passion of mine and so panto is an opportunity to play with all my favourite show tunes and perform some fun pastiches of various shows.
“This year we tackle a seven minute-long beast of a number and the dame [Graham Smith] hits some dizzy heights in Act 2. We’ve got hints of Hairspray, Something Rotten, Gypsy, Wicked. It’s a real tour of showstoppers!”
How did you sign up Jamie McKeller, alias York ghost tour host Dorian Deathly, to play the villian?
“This year, as well as giving a lot of our younger company a chance to step into new roles, we have some exciting first-timers. The amazing Jamie McKeller and Joe Marucci have landed the roles of the Sheriff and his henchman respectively.
“Both are Rowntree Players alumni, having been in several plays over the years, but it’s a first foray into the ludicrous for both. It’s especially pleasing for us to have Jamie, aka Dorian Deathly, the award-winning York spookologist, playing it evil in panto. Although there’s still a touch of showbiz lurking behind the venom.”
Plenty of familiar faces are brought back together in the cast: Hannah King’s principal boy Robin Hood opposite Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Maid Marion; Graham Smith’s dame and Gemma McDonald’s daft lass. Audiences enjoy such partnerships….Discuss!
“Of course, along with new faces are some older ones. Some older than others! There’s a balance between keeping it fresh and building a winning team. Pantomime is one of those genres where audiences return and enjoy familiar faces and some annual in-jokes.
“Added to that is the relationships the cast members build. None is as important as that between ‘Dame’ and ‘Comic’. For us that is Graham and Gemma who, despite the rigorous audition process, have managed to be cast together for several years. That shorthand, trust, comic timing, audience understanding and ability to let a script ebb and flow is a vital backbone to a strong pantomime.”
What do you most enjoy about directing the Rowntree Players in pantomimes?
“Pantomime for everyone is a huge commitment and pretty all-consuming in the run-up to Christmas. For me, it’s become a year-long process of writing, casting, then going into pre-production, directing the show and overseeing the visual and technical elements.
“It’s a stretch to balance off against work in London and actually being at home sometimes, but it feeds the creative control freak in me.
“The process is so incredibly rewarding but there are two hugely satisfying elements. Firstly, I can invent whatever silly, nonsensical story, characters and scenarios I fancy and the team of talented, dedicated and, ultimately, incredibly patient volunteers bring it to life. We’re back to the self-indulgence thing.
“Secondly, and most importantly, we introduce a bunch of young people to the stage. Often from the age of nine or ten until they drift off into adulthood, we all get to share in their growth in confidence, talent and height and, I hope, skills they can use later on in life on or off the stage. Watching those performers get stronger every year is the ultimate reward.”