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.
“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.”
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 yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
Copyright of The Press, York