YORK Theatre Royal’s pantomime partnership with Evolution Productions is one of gradual evolution, rather than revolution.
A first year under Covid social distancing in 2020 had daft sausage Josh Benson, fellow York actor Anna Soden’s Fairy and Robin Simpson’s dame leading the Travelling Pantomime cast to community centres and village halls and laid the foundations for the fruitful axis of Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster and Evolution writer-producer Paul Hendy.
It is to be dearly hoped magician Benson’s time will come again in a York panto – you will have to head to Darlington Hippodrome to see his Muddles in Snow White this winter – but Forster and Hendy are in tandem once more and Simpson’s dame has become the Theatre Royal panto’s affable, quick-thinking, fleet-footed fulcrum, already signed up for Aladdin next winter.
Very welcome too is Strawberry Lion theatre-maker Soden’s first Theatre Royal panto appearance since those 2020 travels, cast as – pull the udder one – the groundbreaking character of Dave the Talking Cow, male by name, but very definitely female and a triple threat to boot as feisty bovine performer/hoofer, fabulous singer and trumpet player in the Walking On Sunshine finale.
Her startling version of I’m Just Dave, borrowed from this year’s biggest, pinkest movie, Barbie’s I’m Just Ken, is typical of the topical cultural antennae under Forster-Hendy’s control.
But let’s go back to the beginning, the only slow section of a show whose momentum builds and builds. Artichoke wand in hand, Nina Wadia’s cajoling Fairy Sugarsnap opens the curtain to a stage empty but for two tech team staff removing equipment. That’s novel!
Commanding scenery to appear, with the powers of a Prospero, she introduces the audience to the wonders of pantomime, character by character, in the setting of Giggleswick, a funny name that does what it says on the tin: make you giggle, like Wadia herself.
For first timers, reflecting the new, younger age of the Theatre Royal pantomime post-Berwick Kaler, this is a gentle stepping stone, if a little laboured for the serial panto-goer. Plot is somewhat put on hold, but then it is little more than bean there, done that anyway, and enjoyment rises quickly.
Especially once James “Raven” Mackenzie’s blackbearded Scottish baddie Luke Backinanger (cue an Oasis lyric gag later on), Soden’s loquacious Friesian and Simpson’s Dame Trott make their entries. The latter attired in a fortified Clifford’s Tower dress beneath a balloon headgear, the first in a fashion parade of fabulous, off-the-wall dame costumes by Michael J Batchelor and Hazel Fall (complemented throughout by Ella Neal and Amy Chamberlain’s cast costumes and Helga Wood and Michelle Marden’s sets, especially for Cloudland).
Former chief executive Tom Bird was loathe to build up too many returnees after the years of Dame Berwick’s Infamous Five, but continuity combined with innovation is the way forward. Simpson’s knowing, ever game dame, so appealing to children and adults alike, is the key, here playing with a new toy, the Drone of Love, a piece of camera kit that lets Simpson home in on men in the audience as the same’s potential new beau/victim for the rest of the show.
This is the moment of lift-off for Jack And The Beanstalk, rather more than the misbehaving beanstalk-inflating transformation scene that has Simpson ad-libbing deliciously in surprise.
All the while Mia Overfield’s Jack – short for Jacqueline – Trott and her daft brother Billy (Matthew Curnier) grow into their roles, especially once Overfield moves more to the fore as the story demands and Curnier inserts himself in a bouncing ball (ostensibly a giant tomato), only his head sticking out, and somehow changes costume (in a new development on debuting this physical comedy last winter).
Continuity? The return of the Trolley of Puns, turning pantomime into puntomime, this time on the theme of dog breeds on picture boards, that is all the better for a Simpson slip-up. The inevitable ghost scene, but with a new finale, typical of Forster’s determination never to settle for the conventional.
Look out, here come the perennial digs at “desolate, desperate, depressed” Hull; political putdowns aplenty, for Braverman and Sunak, and Blunderbore the giant being re-named Boris, while Wadia adlibs a Cop28 quip when fluffing a line.
Then add Hayley Del Harrison’s choreography, as joyous for the ensemble of Villagers and Zombies as it is for the lead shakers and moovers (in the case of Dave the Talking Cow). On song too is Robert Louden’s musical direction, playful (listen out for the entry for EastEnders star Wadia), vibrant and varied, topped off by Mackenzie and Soden duetting on trumpet at the close.
Innovations? Dame Berwick introduced film to pantomime, and now Juliet Forster reinvigorates it with the aid of Ed Sunman’s video production wizardry, peaking with a send-up of boy band tropes (Mackenzie’s Luke Backinanger is so called after being turned down for a boy band in younger days). By this point, Jack And The Beanstalk has become by far the best of the Evolution shows so far.
Luke Backinanger’s weather-making machine – for his plans for world domination via climate change – lends itself to revamping the dame’s water slapstick scene. Long may it rain, unexpected final flourish et al.
The surprises and delights keep coming, from the Giant being joined by a grumpy teenage son, Darren (who “hates sleeping”), to Simpson’s costume as a piano-playing Elton John, so clever that it requires a double-take before another fiesta of song title puns.
One more talking point: Dave the Talking Cow is not the only animal to tread the boards. Making his stage debut is a scene and headgear-stealing border collie by the name of Zeus – from god to dog in one step!
This three-time Young Kennel Club Crufts champion is trained by Anna Auster (whose mum goes to the same York art class as Forster’s husband, leading to a conversation about Zeus appearing in the show).
The dame and dog partnership – each negotiating an obstacle course with very differing results – is as unpredictable to Simpson, canine and audience alike. Best in Show winner, no question, in a panto that, like Jack’s beans, will grow and grow.
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