Every year like clockwork, you wolf down the first clutch of chocolates from your Advent calendar, then panto arrives.
Men as women.
Women as men.
Two crew members as a horse.
Oh yes, it is!
Oh no, it isn’t!
Children’s eyes agog.
But not in 2020.
The year that the show MUSTN’T go on.
Just watch the news.
Tisn’t the season to be jolly!
As theatres up and down the land spend Christmas in darkness, a shard of light could be seen down an alleyway off Monkgate.
It’ll never work.
How could it work?
Necessity is the Mother of Invention.
This needed ideas, creativity and the personnel to pull it off and even then one announcement could pull its plug at any moment.
This had failure written all over it.
As we walked past the finest piece of genius marketing on Boxing Night, extending the locals’ favourite landmark – the Bile Beans sign on Lord Mayor’s Walk – to read “Bile BeanSTALK”, we were smiling even before the first line.
“Where’s the Minster?”, people ask? “It’s just over the wall from the Bile Beans sign.”
After a balanced diet of cheese and Toblerones, could this be the panto to keep us “healthy, bright-eyed and slim?”.
As we walked through the door, greenery festooned every bannister and surface.
With a tiny capacity of only 60 to meet Covid safety requirements, this was not so much a family panto as a “bubble panto”.
Jack was played by the endearing Jordan Fox, who somehow managed to be both idiot and hero at once.
Flesh Creep was played by the joyously evil-turned-up-to-11 Ian Stroughair, who was nearly eight feet tall with hat!
A three-piece dance troupe featuring dance captains from both the Grand Opera House (Emily Taylor) and Theatre Royal (Danielle Mullan) felt like a luxury as did a small house band (Jessica Douglas, Sam Johnson and Clark Howard).
Corners could have easily been cut but weren’t. Quality clearly means everything to writer-director Nik Briggs.
The cast faced magnetic north as a convoy of beautiful original songs and production numbers ran through the show, choreographed by West Ender Gary Lloyd .
The harmonies as all the cast sang together were spellbinding, as the hairs on the backs of your arms acknowledged this wasn’t another panto re-heat -this was fresh.
I could listen to May Tether (who played Jill) sing the terms and conditions of an insurance policy and she’d make it sound like Carole King had penned it.
Where many pantos have actors, singers or dancers with on obvious ‘also ran’ in their skill set, every cast member was a Swiss Army knife of lethally sharp talent.
Rarely do you get soulful vocals from a panto fairy (Livvy Evans) and even the Dame, played by Alex Weatherhill, showed off a range to stop Mariah Carey warbling her festive favourite.
Surprisingly, the cast showed no fatigue from the three-shows-a-day schedule but it begs the question why this wasn’t in a bigger venue with Covid measures in place. I can only imagine that the paperwork and risk assessments took more paper than the script in this impossible year. The audience were even guided to do hand gestures, as everybody desisted from shouting “Oh yes he is” all night.
Every ticket in this traverse set-up was a golden ticket as each group was separated into plastic booths. This is “in your face” theatre – but socially distanced of course – that you can feel, not just watch.
Featuring some of the most original gags I have ever heard in a panto to reflect the times, plus a couple of very well-known faces on screen who could grace any stage in the land, this is a show full of surprises: doing the same things differently. Proving that theatre can adapt to fit around the safety of its audience to give a Christmas to remember to a year many of us would like to forget.
In 2020, when Amazon have delivered everything to your doorstep, Briggs has delivered not just a panto, but also West End-quality musical theatre, while maintaining a safe distance, and NOBODY will be writing ‘Return to Sender’ on this triple threat-laden package.
York’s Tier 2 status meant that the doors could open, but there is nothing Tier 2 about this show in Monkgate. This is top-tier entertainment for all of your bubble.
Review by Ian Donaghy
Show times: December 29, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; December 30, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; New Year’s Eve, December 31, 12 noon (sold out); January 2, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; January 3, 1pm and 6pm.
Please visit yorkstagepanto.com for an update on performances once York’s new Tier status is confirmed in the Government briefing tomorrow (30/12/2020).
Box office: online only at yorkstagepanto.com. Please note, audiences will be seated in household/support bubble groupings only.