DICK Whittington had to turn round and rest up for a year when Rowntree Players’ 2020 show was cancelled by Covid.
Now, however, Dick and his cat will be on the road from York to London from Saturday (4/12/2021), when the Players take to the Joseph Rowntree Theatre stage with director Howard Ella and co-writer Andy Welch’s pantomime.
Joining Hannah King’s Dick Whittington in the cast will be Graham Smith’s Dame Dora; Gemma McDonald’s Duncan; Martyn Hunter’s King Rat; Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Ratatouille; Geoff Walker’s Alderman Fitzwarren; Ellie Watson’s Alice Fitzwarren and Bernie Calpin’s Kit The Cat.
Howard and Andy first wrote the script remotely, via a satellite link, before the 2020 show was called off. “Socially distanced writing – that was a challenge,” says Howard. “I work away a lot so there had always been an element of remote collaboration, but this was full on.
“What was missing was the ability to read and act as we wrote without a satellite delay. That one-second delay kills humour stone dead, so there was a lot of writing on instinct. Then we had to shelve the script. Totally gutting.”
Roll on a year and out came the script again. “What was great was to lift it out a year later, read it with fresh eyes and still enjoy it,” says Howard. “What’s most strange is that it really demonstrated the stasis we have been in. It still felt relevant, if only because so much of our world of Covid and politics did not change.
“Of course, once we start blocking with the cast, then the gags change and everyone throws in their bit.”
Comedy writing as a duo, in the tradition of Galton & Simpson and Le Frenais & Clement, works well for the Players’ pantos. “I’ve written on my own and with both Barry [former dame Barry Benson] and Andy on different panto years,” says Howard.
“It’s exciting as you can bounce off each other and try things out before anyone else ever sees the script. The trick in making that writing partnership work is honesty and trust. When you don’t find something funny, when it’s not quite good enough, you have to say so and in a clear way.
“If you’re on the other end of the criticism, that’s where the trust kicks in. You trust you partner’s judgement and screw up the page. Sometimes tough, but you have to see it as collaboration, not compromise.”
This year’s cast is down in size by a couple of principals. “But that was story driven,” reasons Howard. “We wrote the script in early 2020 assuming Covid would drift past, so, in reality, there’s no compromises there. The script has the cast it always needed.
“That said, our chorus numbers are slightly lower to facilitate sensible spacing in dressing rooms and to deal with the [pandemic-enforced] practicalities, like not being able to share costumes between teams.”
Adapting to Covid restrictions has created extra challenges both in rehearsal and at the JoRo theatre. “We’ve had mask wearing and sanitising and spacing where we can,” says Howard.
“Everyone has been on different testing regimes through work and school, and they have been ever changing. Also, there’s double jabs where possible (and some of us oldies are boosted too!)
“What’s great is that the Joseph Rowntree Theatre is aligned with all the guidelines and so we’ve worked together, more than ever, to make it as safe as possible for everyone, both backstage and in the audience.
“But in reality we’re in the lap of the gods. From here on in, we put on a great show and hope that we all stay healthy. Otherwise, I’ll be picking up a script and donning a frock!”
As the first night approaches, what’s the mood in the camp? “Excited isn’t the word! We have missed the community aspect so much – and you only realise the strength of bond between the Rowntree Players company when it hasn’t been there and we all get back together.
“Stepping into the theatre on Sunday for the get-in, seeing all those familiar, yet strangely masked, faces was a delight. We haven’t done this for two years but it’s all come flooding back.
“In the company, we have a lot of returning cast and chorus, which has really helped us to short-cut through both Covid and a slightly curtailed rehearsal period because we slotted in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web in September, having delayed that production three times.
“Martyn Hunter has returned to the panto fold after a few years away and he’s done so with gusto, as has Bernie Calpin as Kit the Cat.”
Balancing work commitments with rehearsals, Howard is delighted to be bringing Dick Whittington to the stage. “At its heart, Dick Whittington has traditional pantomime roots. That’s what I love. We try and make every pantomime relevant, recognise how the world is changing and represent it in our own way.
“But underneath all good pantomimes is a tale of right and wrong with a love story in the background and the freedom to be silly in between.
“I’ve also always liked the reminder that nowhere’s streets are paved with gold and that generally you have to work hard and you get out what you put in,” he says, “channelling his inner Yorkshireman”.
Saturday’s opening show will be emotional for cast and audience alike, given the sense of community at the core of all the Players’ work. “Everything we do at Rowntree Players aims to be inclusive of anyone who wants to take part,” says Howard, who is presenting Dick Whittington in tandem with choreographer Ami Carter, musical director Jess Douglas and production manager Helen Woodall.
“There’s a real commitment, there’s a pride in being involved with such an old society returning to the theatre where they started.
“The joy for any audience comes from the cast and their joy in being part of a production. We get so much pleasure from our hobby, we laugh an enormous amount, and I think that enjoyment flows over the pit and into the auditorium in everything we do.”
Rowntree Players present Dick Whittington at Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, December 4 to 11. Performances: 7.30pm, except Sunday; 2pm matinees, Saturday, Sunday and next Saturday. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.