DIRECTOR Juliet Forster first noted Robin Simpson and Paul Hawkyard’s stage chemistry when they played two of the Rude Mechanicals in her Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in York in July 2018.
Now York Theatre Royal’s creative director has cast them us unruly stepsisters Manky and Mardy in Cinderella.
Both have dame roles in their panto locker, Robin last year donning the frocks for the Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime, having appeared in the Lawrence Batley Theatre panto in Huddersfield in the past few years.
“I was never under contract though; it was always just a case of them giving me a call early in the year, so it was a very free and easy arrangement,” he says.
Last Christmas, the Huddersfield panto was cancelled, and so Robin was able to continue an association with York Theatre Royal that began with The Little Mermaid in 2005 by appearing in Juliet and Evolution Productions’ writer-producer Paul Hendy’s first collaboration, the Travelling Pantomime.
“It was a lovely script and such a lovely show to do, when we were all so happy to be in that situation of being able to perform when so many places were in Tier 3, but there we were in Tier 2, taking every day as a blessing, testing every other day, but still worrying that it would be shut down or that someone would test positive,” he says.
“We were always living on a knife edge, but we got through most of the run and we had such a blast because people were delighted they could see a show again and were so happy to see their children enjoying themselves.”
Lawrence Batley Theatre’s creative team changed with a new chief exec coming in; likewise, York Theatre Royal was looking to move on from Berwick Kaler’s 40-year damehood.
“Both theatres were starting afresh, and with me facing a choice, I thought it would be a good time for me to move on, as they could start with a clean slate at Huddersfield, and performing in York always feels like coming home,” says Robin, who lives in Slaithwaite, near Huddersfield.
“York Theare Royal is such a wonderful theatre and I’ve done so many shows on that stage. I think York is the city I’ve worked in the most, playing at the National Railway Museum and Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre as well.”
Paul Hawkyard, standing somewhat taller and wider than Robin at 6ft 2, was born and raised in Leeds, and, as chance would have had it, he had just moved back to Yorkshire after many years of living down south when the opportunity to appear alongside him in Cinderella came about.
“We’d loved being in the Scottish play [Macbeth] and A Midsummer Night’s Dream together in 2018,” he recalls. “Robin played the Wall in ‘the Wall Play’, I played Bottom, and we’d bring the show to a stop on numerous occasions, getting told to stop doing that!
“We were neighbours in the dressing room and got on so well, putting the world to rights, waiting for our cues, scrambling to the stage, so it’s lovely to be doing this show together.”
Actor and wildlife artist Paul has shed four stones since first playing Bottom. “I got diabetes and I packed in everything after that. I started the Blenheim Palace production in 2019 at one size and ended it at another. I don’t think the costume lady was very pleased!” he says of his fitness regime. “I started doing boxing workouts again and I’m no longer in the diabetic range.”
Paul subsequently left behind Bordon, Hampshire, for a new beginning in Selby. “Covid kicked in hard, and that was a big factor in deciding to return north. It meant I could come back because a lot of auditions are done on Zoom now, so you’re in a position where you don’t have to live in or near to London,” he says.
“I had a look around a lot of areas in Yorkshire and settled on Selby. I’d only been there once before, but I just wanted to be somewhere near York, as I love the place, and Selby is just down the road. I saw the house and that was it!”
Weight loss, house move, and now Paul has become engaged too, to Nicola Filshie. “I decided to marry the girl I’ve known for 26 years, who lives in Glasgow, so I spend a time a lot of time going up there. We’ve worked together a few times, and now we’ll be marrying next October,” he says.
Paul contacted Juliet Forster before making the move to Selby. “I said I was moving to Yorkshire and it would be lovely to see her, asking her to keep me in mind if anything came up.”
Lo and behold, up came the Ugly Stepsister partnership with Simpson in Cinderella. “We are very different,” says Paul. “He’s quietly brilliant and I’m very loud!”
Making his professional debut in pantomime, he first played Simple Simon in a Pantoni Productions show in his early 20s and has since appeared as Buttons, assorted dames and even the villainous Abanazar out in Dubai.
By comparison, Robin has always played dame. “Maybe a lot of dames see themselves as appealing to the adults, with the comedian turn for the children, but I’ve never thought of it like that. You have to appeal to everyone. I don’t want to alienate children,” he says.
Somehow, this even applies when playing the outwardly unappealing, antagonistic stepsisters Manky and Mardy. Robin and Paul may enter each time to ever more raucous jeering, but they are lovably absurd, boastful villains, mean but funny. “Aren’t we brilliant?” they jest. They are, as it happens!
COVID UPDATE 23/12/2021
NO performances of Cinderella from December 23 for a week after a Covid outbreak among cast members. Provisionally, the production will resume on December 30, with two extra performances being added to the run that ends on January 2. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
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