AT the heart of York Theatre Royal’s pantomime, All New Adventures Of Peter Pan, is a tearaway triumvirate of madcap maritime mayhem.
Paul Hawkyard’s histrionic Captain Hook and fellow returnee Robin Simpson’s daft dame, Mrs Smee, are joined by Jonny Weldon’s cheeky piratical henchman, Starkey, in the troublemaking trio.
Over the past year, Hawkyard and Simpson have been regular partners on stage. “Peter Pan is our fourth show together in that time,” says Paul.
“We did our first panto together, as Mardy and Manky, the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella this time last year, then two shows in Harrogate Theatre’s rep season, Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party and John Godber’s Men Of The World, and now this panto. You [Robin] have probably spent more time with me than you have with your wife this year!”
Pantomime is a demanding form of theatre, in terms of the intensity of the rehearsal period, the performance schedule and the boisterous audiences. “It’s that thing of belonging to the theatre for the winter,” says Paul. “You just go home to sleep.”
Robin concurs: “I just roll out of my bed as late as I can, pull on some clothes, shower at the theatre, grab a coffee and then the day starts again,” he says.
Paul and Robin have shared a dressing room as well as the stage since their days with Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre at the Eye of York. “There was a point where we just looked at each other on stage and we knew we were on the same wavelength,” says Paul.
“You can share a dressing room, but it’s when you’re on stage, and you catch each other’s eye, and you’re thinking, ‘this is Shakespeare’ and you know you can rely on the other person not to break the magic of the moment too early,” says Robin.
“But we’re also respectful of each other’s space in the dressing room,” says Paul, assessing why their partnership works so well.
“Until you get in front of a crowd, you don’t know if that chemistry will click with them, but then you go, ‘oh, it works’,” says Robin. So well did it work in Cinderella that Paul and Robin were nominated for Best Ugly Sisters in the 2022 British Pantomime Awards.
Familiarity boosts their performances together. “It’s a safety thing, like when going into the clash with Robin’s character in Men Of The World,” says Paul. “You might be nervous beforehand, but that stops and you know it’s down to you to pull that scene together; you know you’ve got someone who has your back, without a competitive edge there.
“It’s like throwing the ball to each other, not taking it off someone, just knowing they will pass it back or say ‘have it back’.”
Now there is a third player in that game, Jonny Weldon’s Starkey. “It’s two idiots led by an idiot,” says Paul. “Or the Three Stooges,” says Robin.
Jonny, an actor since childhood days in Mary Poppins in the West End and latterly a viral hit on social media with his comedy sketches, was lying on a beach when his panto role as Starkey was set up. “I was trying not to get a tan as I was filming something for TV that annoyingly I can’t talk about as I’m sworn to secrecy,” he says.
“Paul [Hendy, Evolution Productions’ writer for the York pantomime] called me in the spring to ask, ‘would you do the comedy role in York?’. Starkey wasn’t in the book, so Paul has invented this new character for me – and I barely leave the stage!”
He was attuned to Simpson and Hawkyard’s stage chemistry from seeing Cinderella last winter. “I came with my girlfriend, Lucy Carne, who was playing Belle in Beauty And The Beast at the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond,” he recalls. “I loved York; the Roman tour; I loved the panto.”
Last winter, Jonny had not one but two pantomime roles. “I was in the panto at St Albans, playing Muddles in Snow White, when it was stopped for asbestos in the building, so now I’m an expert on asbestos and how is stops actors from working,” he recalls.
“When I got to Richmond, I thought I’d be having a nice three weeks off, only to be told, ‘the CBeebies presenter in the show at Canterbury has Covid; could you get on the train now?’!
“I got sent the script and a We Transfer recording of the show, where the signal kept cutting out and buffering on the train. I ended up doing a week of shows and was off the book in two days, playing Bobby, Jack’s best mate, in Jack And The Beanstalk, at the Marlowe Theatre.”
Earlier this year, Jonny appeared as Samwell, the Targarian family’s lute-playing minstrel, in the Game Of Thrones spin-off House Of The Dragon. “Just one episode, no sex, no death, just playing the lute,” he says.
This summer he played one of the puppy thieves in 101 Dalmatians at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre in London, and his sketch video success has brought him TV roles as an evil property developer in Christmas On Mistletoe Farm (Netflix) and The People We Hate At The Wedding (Amazon Studios).
Talking of weddings, Jonny and Lucy will be tying the knot in March. “We’re getting married in Herefordshire. Neither of us is from there – I’m from Hampshire, Lucy from Cheshire – but we just like it,” says Jonny, whose grandad will be his best man at 91.
After six pantomimes and plenty of children’s shows too, Jonny is “not particularly sentimental about Christmas”. “I’m used to spending it with landladies,” he says.
Another comedy video could be on its way while he is in York to add to more than 25 so far. “When I get a new idea, I’ll be filming it in my dressing room and putting it up,” he says.
All New Adventures Of Peter Pan runs at York Theatre Royal until January 2 2023. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.