Panto in a car park? Oh, yes it is, in Horrible Christmas at Elvington Airfield on January 2

Horrible Histories’ cast for Car Park Panto’s Horrible Christmas, destined for Elvington Airfield

THE world’s first drive-in pantomime is to park up at Elvington Airfield, York, for a “terrible end” to Christmas on January 2, courtesy of the gleefully grotesque Horrible Histories team.

Car Park Panto’s Horrible Christmas will be performed at 11am, 2pm and 5pm that day in the finale to a 14-date tour of racecourses, airports, stadiums and a motor-racing circuit that begins on Friday.

This is the second tour of a show first prompted by the pandemic-enforced closure of theatres nationwide in 2020. Birmingham Stage Company and Coalition Presents responded by working together to save Christmas for more than17,000 families by putting on their drive-in panto premiere. 

Writer-director Neal Foster, actor/manager of Birmingham Stage Company, says: “We have to thank the remarkable pandemic closing all the theatres for these car park shows coming about.

“At first, we didn’t know what to do, but various people had ideas about doing things in car parks, and in fact we were contacted by seven companies, but only Coalition followed it up, and so we did Horrible Histories’ Barmy Britain in car parks.

“Then, Guy Robinson, from Coalition, asked if we had a Christmas show, and we said, ‘yes, we have Horrible Christmas’.”

Cue the first tour last winter, when, “by December 31, we were the only company still doing a show, because the theatres had had to close again, and our last show, after two weeks of performances, was in Harrogate [at the Great Yorkshire Showground],” says Neal.

“We then put together Billionaire Boy for car parks, for May, when shows could re-start, and that show then went into the West End. Since May, we’ve done eight shows in seven months; we just haven’t stopped!  

Birmingham Stage Company’s cast for Horrible Histories’ Barmy Britain, the first car park tour show

“In fact, it’s been one of our most successful years, and a lot of that was down to the money we received from the Culture Recovery Fund. We didn’t need to apply for the third round of grants, but we wouldn’t have been able to do this year’s shows without the £200,000 we received earlier on.”

Neal was “amazed and thrilled by how totally successful the Car Park Party productions have proved to be”. “We’re delighted to be back on tour again with Horrible Christmas. It turns live theatre into a truly unique and festive event.”

In a nutshell, Horrible Christmas is a car-centred, Covid-secure experience, wherein children and adults are able to able to jump up and down in their own seats, cheer and make as much noise as they like, even beeping horns, as they watch a celebration of Christmas “delivered in a way that only Horrible Histories can”.

“You don’t need to worry about anyone else because you’re in your own bubble in your car, like everyone there,” says Neal. “It’s like you’re in your own VIP tent!”

In the panto, when Christmas comes under threat from a jolly man dressed in red, one young boy must save the day, but can he save Christmas? From Victorian villains to medieval monks, Puritan parties to Tudor treats, the Horrible Histories cast of eight sets off on a hair-raising adventure through the history of Christmas in the company of Charles Dickens, Oliver Cromwell, King Henry VIII and St Nicholas as they all join forces to rescue the festive season in Terry Deary’s tale.

True, it is not strictly speaking a typical panto, but nevertheless Horrible Christmas will spark up the audience’s festive spirit, from the comfort and security of their own cars.

In doing so, the Car Park Panto seeks to address these scenarios: children being unable to sit still; the need to cater for different snack requirements; the feeling of anxiety in crowds; the inability to find a dog sitter; and a desire to wear pyjamas, fancy dress or a Christmas jumper at the panto and not be judged.

“You can leave all worries at home and relax as a family with Car Park Panto’s Horrible Christmas,” say the promoters. “If traditional panto at your local theatre is proving too expensive for all the family, Horrible Christmas! is the best value ticket for you. 

The poster for Car Park Panto’s Horrible Christmas show

“The ticket covers the car, not the people inside, so you can bring your grandparents and babies and be sound in the knowledge you will be safe seated among family and friends, rather than in a packed theatre auditorium.”

Horrible Histories’ own history of Horrible Christmas began in 2013. “We first did it in a co-production with Derby Playhouse that year, and apart from one year, it’s been put on every year since then, at such places as the Lowry, Salford Quays, Blackpool Winter Gardens, Cambridge and Birmingham,” says Neal.

“It’s different from our other Horrible Histories stories, with a cast of eight, making it the biggest Horrible Histories show we do, whereas we do the Barmy Britain show with a double act and big 3D special effects. Not only do we use eight actors but there’s a screen on stage too, so it’s like a concert, with everything being filmed live.”

Horrible Christmas tells the story of a young boy having all his Christmas presents stolen by ‘Father Christmas’, who turns out not to be Father Christmas.  “The boy goes back to the times of Charles Dickens, Charles II, Oliver Cromwell and Henry VIII, Saint Nicholas, and back to Bethlehem itself, and what’s different to other Horrible Histories is that it’s very touching,” says Neal.

“It’s worth saying, there’s nothing gory about Horrible Christmas, unlike our other shows. It’s more about being silly and funny – and it works really well in a car park.

“Because the play is about how special Christmas is to people, it was great for us that last Christmas, for some, it was the only way to experience a Christmas show. It remains the safest way to see a Christmas show, and it’s particularly good if you have anyone elderly or vulnerable in your family.”

What comes next for Horrible Histories? “We’ve been doing Horrible Histories shows for 16 years now, starting in 2005, and there’s no end to that history,” says Neal. “Fortunately, humans have produced all sorts of horrible history down the years, and Boris Johnson is doing that for us now, isn’t he?!”

Car Park Panto presents Horrible Histories in Horrible Christmas, Elvington Airfield, near York, January 2 2022. Bring blankets, sleeping bags, maybe a favourite festive hat – oh, and a car, obviously. Tickets: £49.50 per car, plus £2.50 booking fee, at carparkparty.com.  

Did you know?

“HENRY VIII is one of the reasons why turkey became popular on Christmas Day,” says Neal Foster. “The world seems to follow the fashion of what the Royals do, and it was Henry who introduced the eating of turkey at Christmas. As with all the Horrible Histories, that story is taken from a Terry Deary book.”

James Swanton’s Dickensian Christmas ghost stories return to familiar haunt of York Medical Society. Tickets at a premium

James Swanton: “Old-fashioned storytelling in a suitably atmospheric space”. Picture: Jtu Photography

AFTER the silent nights of last December, York gothic actor supreme James Swanton is gleefully reviving his Ghost Stories For Christmas trilogy at York Medical Society, Stonegate, York.

“What an enormous relief it is to return to live theatre,” says this former winner of the Outstanding Performing Artist prize in the now dormant York Culture Awards as he prepares for his Dickensian yarn-spinning residency on various dates from December 2 to 13.

Once more, he will be the black-clad, spindle-fingered gatekeeper for all manner of supernatural terrors after memorising three hours of wintery material for his “seasonal roulette of three Dickensian tales”.

Ghost Stories For Christmas comprises James’s solo renditions of A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Haunted Man, returning to life anew in York before transferring to the Charles Dickens Museum, in Doughty Street, London, in the run-up to Christmas.

James’s past Dickensian theatre work has met with the approval of notable fellow thesps Simon Callow and Miriam Margolyes, the former describing his West End show Sikes & Nancy as “startling and enthralling”; the latter finding his 2017 performances at the Dickens Museum “extraordinary”, “superb” and “pictorially vivid”.

‘I’m delighted to finally be getting back to live theatre in my home city of York, where it’s hard to imagine a more authentically Dickensian location than the York Medical Society on Stonegate,” says James.

“This year, I’ve scheduled extra performances of A Christmas Carol: the perfect cheering antidote, I feel, to the misery we’ve all been through over the past few years.

“But the two lesser-known stories, The Chimes and The Haunted Man, are also very relevant to our times. The Chimes is absolutely hilarious, but also overbrims with anger at the injustices done to the most unfortunate in society. And The Haunted Man is not only a chilling supernatural tale, but a portrait of a man wrestling with his mental health. These subjects have been much on our minds through the pandemic.”

James judges A Christmas Carol to be “one of the greatest things ever written”. “I’ve found there’s nothing more satisfying to perform as an actor. And there’s no story that audiences are more eager to hear to the end,” he reasons.

As in 2018 and 2019, Ghost Stories For Christmas is selling quickly. “I was shocked 36 hours ago to find that we’d sold 80 per cent of the seats – I think because York Theatre Royal put us in their email newsletter – so I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re completely sold out in the next few days,” says James.

“I’m hoping – if I give the shows next year – to do them at fuller capacity over a longer period. We’re up to seven nights this year, but I wonder if we might build on even that when we get to (I hope) post-pandemic times. Perhaps a bigger venue is something to look into too.”

James Swanton presents Ghost Stories For Christmas, by Charles Dickens, at York Medical Society, Stonegate, York, December 2 to 13. A Christmas Carol: December 2, 3, 6, 7 and 13. The Haunted Man: December 4. The Chimes, December 9. All performances start at 7pm and last approximately one hour. To book, make haste to the York Theatre Royal box office, ring 01904 623568 or head online to yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

“It’s ironic that the Victorian Christmas has come to stand for a fairytale vision of an idyllic past,” says James Swanton. Picture: Jtu Phoography

Ahead of his Dickens of a theatrical task in York, James Swanton answers CharlesHutchPress’s questions.

What form do your three shows take: a reading or rather more than that in each one-man show?

“I’m happy to say that these are fully fledged dramatisations rather than Jackanory-style readings. It is quite the Labour of Hercules: 180 minutes of text to memorise to cover the three one-hour readings! But it’s worth it to ensure these pieces are truly alive. My abridgements are closely based on Dickens’s own performance scripts, so their faith to their sources is absolute.”

Will you use a similar performance style for each tale?

“This is old-fashioned storytelling in a suitably atmospheric space. I’m hoping to use every physical and vocal trick in my repertoire to make the audience see Dickens’s pictures as clearly as I do myself.”

What are the storylines in The Chimes and The Haunted Man?

“Just like A Christmas Carol, these lesser-known works hinge on disenchanted older men who must encounter the supernatural to change for the better. The Chimes is the exuberant tale of a lowly ticket-porter who finds goblins squatting in the bells of his local church.

“Meanwhile, The Haunted Man is a Gothic chiller about a chemist who hatches a bargain with his ghostly double to remove all of his sorrowful memories.”

What have you been up to since you were last to be spotted on a York stage pre-Covid’s grim clasp?

“Continuing my supernatural association, I’ve just been back on a southern stage, thanks to the London Horror Festival, with a very delayed revival of Irving Undead – a production that of course originated at York Medical Society.

“I’ve maintained the home connection by livestreaming M. R. James and Dickens ghost stories with the wonderful York Ghost Merchants throughout the pandemic, from their premises on Shambles to a global audience.

“People would tune in from the most astonishingly far-flung places: various different states in America, Canada, Australia! It was touching to know that people were coming together to share a moment in the middle of the pandemic.’

“And I’ve bashed out horror film after horror film, including the phenomenally popular Host, in which I make the cameo of the century – to absolutely nobody’s surprise – as the demonic spirit who crashes the Zoom call. Business as (un)usual.”

How did you make the Zoom-set Host under Covid conditions?

“The actors shot it at home on their mobile phones during the first lockdown. I struggle to think of any other feature film that’s been partly shot in Acomb – never mind one that went on to reach a global audience.

“Stephen King said he enjoyed it, which was a bit of a thrill, and it was heralded by many critics as the defining horror film of 2020.”

Does the miserable impact of Covid-19’s lockdowns and its refusal to die a death gracefully put the telling of ghost stories in a different light this Christmas?

“I’m sure it does. These tales are all rather death-obsessed beneath their jollier garnishings, though perhaps it’ll make us more inclined to go to these stories for escapism now.

“We only have a very, very little time to get life right; to leave this world fractionally better than when we entered it,” says James Swanton. Picture: Jtu Photography

“It’s ironic that the Victorian Christmas has come to stand for a fairytale vision of an idyllic past. Dickens was under no such illusions: The Chimes is especially furious – an unhinged rant in places – though A Christmas Carol isn’t far behind.”

How will the theatre-going experience at York Medical Society differ from the 2019 production? Masks on? Social distancing? 

“To keep everyone safe in these uncertain times, it’s primarily been a matter of reducing capacity to give audiences that vital breathing space, so we’re on course for a sell-out much earlier than usual.

“The dividend is that this should guarantee an even more intimate and special experience for those who are able to secure a ticket. But they better rush!”

What makes York Medical Society such a good setting for your performances?

“It’s a building that feels properly immersive: travelling down that alley to the door with the knocker feels like an approach to Scrooge’s house on that fatal night when Jacob Marley’s face put in an appearance.

“I’ve also been pleased to discover that Henry Belcombe, the second president of York Medical Society, was a social acquaintance of Charles Dickens.”

Were you tempted to look at doing any new additions to your Dickens’ Christmas repertoire? Might that happen in future?

“I think the present three work rather well in concert, each one shedding light on the others. Dickens’s other Christmas books can be terribly twee; I did all five at the Dickens Museum in 2017, and Michael Slater (our foremost Dickens scholar) came to The Battle Of Life on the basis that he couldn’t believe anyone had been mad enough to attempt it.

“Of Dickens’s spookier stories, I last year had a crack at The Signal-Man with the York Ghost Merchants – but a less Christmassy tale can hardly be imagined!”

As a performer, what changes when you revisit material you have performed previously? Do you tweak the text at all?

“The material changes as I change; little details leap out or recede every year. For instance, I’ve this time been struck by how Scrooge, like almost all people who pride themselves on ice-cold rationality, turns out to be a being of emotion beyond anything. He bursts into tears at the drop of a hat throughout his story.

“More practically, the text of The Haunted Man has been in a state of flux from the word go. It’s the only one of the three that Dickens didn’t perform himself – he started preparing a script before abandoning it – so I’m determined to one day crack it.”

What can we learn as a modern society from social reformist Dickens’s ideal of a good Christmas?

“Focus on your family. The Christmas dinner served up by the Cratchits is impoverished indeed, but their delight in each other’s company makes it into a feast. 

“But Dickens also means us to acknowledge the entire human family. We are all of us connected and we only have a very, very little time to get life right; to leave this world fractionally better than when we entered it.”

Magic in the air as Malton’s Milton Rooms reopens with Mandy Muden on the cards

Mandy Muden: Magic and comedy

EXCITEMENT is on the rise at the Milton Rooms, Malton, as the prospect of reopening under the Government’s lockdown-loosening roadmap moves closer to fruition.

A varied programme will be on offer for the second half of next month, should all go to plan for the lights to go up once more with Covid-secure measures in place from May 17. Tickets for four events are on sale now at the miltonrooms.com.

In the diary are gigs for fans of rock, pop and indie, plus a healthy dollop of the blues, a talk on the secret messages hidden in flowers in Victorian times and even a magic-meets-comedy show by a Britain’s Got Talent star.

Starting the ball rolling on May 21 will be Martin Gough’s One Man Rock concert, showcasing rock, pop and indie music by artists from the Sixties to the present day.

On May 23, the Dickens Society will take a light-hearted look at the meaning of flowers and how the Victorians loved sending secret messages in a well-chosen bouquet – and how certain flower messages applied to some of author Charles Dickens’s favourite characters. 

Martin Gough: First show at reopened Milton Rooms

Another change of pace will follow on May 27 with the return of the Ryedale Blues Club, presenting Dr Bob & The Bluesmakers.

Mandy Muden Magic will roll into town on May 29, when the 2018 Britain’s Got Talent contestant will stage a new show full of wit, magic tricks and mind-reading.

Onwards into the next month, Fifi La Mer will present A Journey Into French Music from Offenbach to Gainsbourg on June 2. Acoustic covers band Taphouse Burnout are booked for June 5; the Hilarity Bites Comedy Club, with Nick Doody and Karen Bayley, June 11; Kick In The Head’s “Downton Abbey with gardening tips” show, Old Herbaceous, on June 20, and Ryedale Blues Club, hosting the James Oliver Band, June 24.

Venue manager Lisa Rich says: “We’ve been working hard behind the scenes renovating the Milton Rooms and there are exciting plans for the future. We have had our Covid-safe certificate extended by Visit England and we’re really looking forward to welcoming audiences both old and new.

‘’Initially, ticket sales for our diverse programme of events will be restricted because of Covid regulations, so people are advised to book early to avoid disappointment.’’

Bah, Humbug to Covid. Nothing can stop Oddsocks bringing A Christmas Carol to Joseph Rowntree Theatre on Saturday

Ah, humbug…An unexpectedly sweet moment for Andy Barrow’s Scrooge in Oddsocks Productions’ A Christmas Carol

NO year can go by without jocund joshers Oddsocks Productions playing the Joseph Rowntree Theatre in York, not even a Covid-compromised year.

Sure enough, the madcap Derby company return on Saturday for 60 minutes of socially distanced, slapstick-heavy festive fun with their very fast-moving adaptation of a Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol.

Make that 120 minutes because there will be two performances, the first at 3pm, the second at 7.30pm.

“Experience the ghostly tale of greed and comeuppance from the safety of your own table for up to six,” comes the Oddsocks invitation.

“Has Scrooge had his last humbug? Will he join the festive carollers and get some figgy pudding? Will Tiny Tim warm his stone-cold heart?” they ask.

Find out when Oddsocks serve up a Victorian feast of a family show in their own inimitable style using comedy, music and song.”

Oddsocks’ cracking crack at A Christmas Carol combines ghostly puppets from puppeteer Josh Elwell (CBeebies, Disney and The Jim Henson Company) with Oddsocks actor/director Andy Barrow as Scrooge and Joseph Maudsley (Ratty in Oddsocks’ The Wind In The Willows) as Bob Cratchit, also introducing Harrie Dobby to the Oddsocks family as Mrs Cratchit. 

Suitable for all from age seven upwards, A Christmas Carol will be performed without an interval but Humbug galore at the Covid-secure JoRo Theatre. Tickets are on sale at: josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/all-shows/a-christmas-carol/1327# or on 01904 501935.