Rowntree Players return from lockdown and fire with Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web

Rowntree Players in rehearsal for Agatha Christie’s A Spider’s Web, directed by Howard Ella

AGATHA Christie’s Spider’s Web opens at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre tonight in the first of three Rowntree Players’ productions in four months after the long pandemic hiatus.

Coming next, from December 4 to 11, will be Howard Ella and Andy Welch’s pantomime Dick Whittington, followed by the January 27 to 29 world premiere of The Missing Peace, adapted by director Gemma McDonald from York author, musician and public speaker Ian Donaghy’s book on bereavement and life after death.

Howard Ella, who has taken up a director of productions role for original Netflix series in the UK, is somehow finding time to direct Christie’s murder mystery.

What happens? Diplomat’s wife Clarissa Hailsham-Brown is adept at spinning tales of adventure, but when a murder takes place in her drawing room, she finds live drama much harder to cope with.

Desperate to dispose of the body before husband Henry arrives with an important politician, she enlists the help of her guests. 

“In a conscious parody of the detective thriller, Christie delivers a unique blend of suspense and humour,” says Howard. “There is tension and laughter in equal parts in an intricate plot of murder, police, hidden doorways and secret drawers.”

Explaining the choice of play for Rowntree Players’ return to the stage, Howard says: “For a few years we’ve talked about doing a murder mystery, having done Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and John Godber plays.

Jeanette Hunter in the role of Mildred Peake in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web

“For me, I need a comic bent to find my way through a play, and because Spider’s Web has an element of tongue in cheek about it, you could almost argue that Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong is based on Spider’s Web and not on The Mousetrap.

“It’s funny, it’s heightened drama; it does the mystery bit that it brings out with a smile, and it lets Rowntree Players find our feet again after two years, with a cast of 11 taking part, some of them new to the Players.

“It’s also a proper set-build for us, now we have a roof back on our store and all our kit has been replaced after the fire that tore through our sets and props at Moor Farm in Murton in January 2020.”

The fire destroyed half of Rowntree Players’ stock. “Smoke and water damage made most of the rest of it useless, and then because of the Covid lockdowns, it took eight months to get the roof back on,” says Howard.

“That Biblical plague meant no-one could achieve anything for a year; it was such a crazy year, where you could not imagine a worldwide pandemic would stop everything in its tracks for so long.”

The 2020 Rowntree Players’ pantomime fell by the wayside and The Missing Peace premiere was put on hold, but the Players are returning at “hopefully full pelt”.

“Andy Welch and I wrote the Dick Whittington panto script for last year, so we’re a year ahead of ourselves!” says Howard. “We’ve done a read-through to road-test it, having written it remotely, with screen shares for me and Andy.

The Rowntree Players’ poster for Dick Whittington, Covid-cancelled last year but now taking to the road to London this December

“That was challenging to do, never hearing it out loud, so we got together in my garden once we were allowed to do so, to give it a run, and we’ve since done a couple of tweaks.

“We’re hoping to be able to do the show as we always would have done it, with children and a chorus, but we’ll react to any Covid restrictions if we have to.”

The Missing Peace premiere will complete the trilogy of Rowntree Players’ comeback shows in the form of one play with 15 endings. “I’ve picked out 15 of the monologues from Ian Donaghy’s book, putting them together to be told on a station platform in a collective narrative, with piano accompaniment, maybe a busker” says director Gemma McDonald.

“The play is a series of talking head-style monologues that have been brought together to explore life after death, with each character stepping out to tell their tale. It’s not a play about death, it’s a play about life, so there’ll be moments of laughter, sadness and reflection throughout.”

Out of necessity, Gemma is adapting the monologues anew because some of the original cast members have headed off to university, while others have moved on from York.

Looking ahead, Gemma says: “We would love to have the publicity of doing an extra show at York Theatre Royal, if the run goes well and we raise the money. If that could come off, it would raise the profile of Rowntree Players and we’d have more people coming to our plays.”

Howard adds: “We have to plan for bankrolling plays through our pantomimes, which always sell out, and that allows us to do plays that people have not always heard of.”

Or indeed are new, like The Missing Peace.

The Missing Peace: Missed out on its planned premiere in the lockdown lull but will go ahead in early 2022

Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web will be performed at 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm on Saturday. For tickets for Rowntree Players’ productions, ring 01904 501935 or book online at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Who’s who in the Rowntree Players cast for Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web:

Sir Rowland Delahaye: played by Martyn Hunter;

Hugo Birch: Graham Smith;

Jeremy Warrender: Andrew Roberts;

Clarissa Hailsham-Brown: Gemma McDonald;

Pippa Hailsham-Brown: Katelyn Banks;

Mildred Peake: Jeanette Hunter;

Elgin: Craig Kirby;

Oliver Costello: Jake Botterell;

Henry Hailsham-Brown: Rory Mulvihill;

Inspector Lord: Mark McDonald;

Constable Jones: Sara Howlett.

Did he or didn’t he? All will be revealed when Craig Kirby plays Elgin in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web from tonight until Saturday at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York

What did we learn from York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime roadshow?

Robin Simpson’s dame and Reuben Johnson’s villain in far-from-subtle disguise in York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Ant Robling

YORK Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime has been brought to a sudden stop by the Spectre of Christmas Present: the rapid rise in Covid cases in York.

Nevertheless, despite the loss of four post-Christmas shows this week, the decision to go on the road to as many of York’s 21 wards as possible has been vindicated.

Creative director Juliet Forster’s cast of Josh Benson’s rubber-bodied comic turn, Reuben Johnson’s Meerkat-accented villain, Anna Soden’s bass-playing funky fairy, Faye Campbell’s assertive hero and Robin Simpson’s droll dame played to full house after full house.

Despite no recorded transmission of the virus at any performance from December 2 to 23, the Theatre Royal has ruled the show must not go on, foregoing the resumption of its 70-minutes-straight-through, socially distanced touring production, having initially added a handful of post-Christmas shows.

Exit stage left too early, but we still learnt that Josh “Just Joshing” Benson, pocket-dynamo York magician, clown, comic, actor and children’s entertainer, is a natural fit for the silly billy/daft lad role. No magic tricks this time, but that skill is up his sleeve for the future.

Likewise, Robin Simpson’s dame, less outwardly demonstrative but more subtly sophisticated than the average panto man in a dress, is utterly comfortable, cheekily conspiratorial and joyful in the most revered of all pantomime parts.

Victory: Faye Campbell’s hero in York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Ant Robling

So far, so good, but the still-blossoming Josh is tied into a contract as the Viaduct Theatre’s pantomime comic turn in Halifax, after making his debut there in Beauty And The Beast last winter, while Robin lives in Huddersfield, where he is bedded in as the Lawrence Batley Theatre’s dame. Both are set to return to fruitful past pastures next winter.

Johnson, York actor Soden and Campbell all made their mark too in shows blessed with terrific scripts by Paul Hendy, the award-winning co-founder of Evolution Productions, the Theatre Royal’s new partner in pantomime.

The handing-over of the panto baton after last winter’s toxic severance from Berwick Kaler’s 41-year venerated damehood should have seen the triumvirate of Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird, creative director Juliet Forster and Evolution director, producer and writer Paul Hendy presenting Cinderella on the main-house stage.

However, the pestilent Coronavirus pandemic cancelled invitations to the ball, after the St Leonard’s Place building was cast into darkness on March 16. Lockdown 1 and ever-changing rules ensued but in mid-September, the panto trio made the decision to take theatre to the people in the form of the pop-up Travelling Pantomime.

Each location, ranging from church halls to community centres, the Theatre Royal pop-up stage to social clubs and sports halls, had to be Covid-secure, adhering to Government guidance for staging socially distanced performances with capacities ranging from 35 to 50.

At each show, the audience members could vote for whether they wanted to see Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk or Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.

“The one thing I always want to do is bring joy,” says Evolution Productions’ Paul Hendy, writer of York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Ant Robling

Hendy switched smoothly to this new writing task, for a cast of five, with no dance ensemble and no house band: just another challenge faced by Evolution Productions, who have still been involved in seven pantomime productions in this Covid-compromised year.

“In a strange way, I quite enjoyed Lockdown, time with the kids, and not the constant pressure of putting on shows; just the contrast of going out and listening to the birds,” says Paul.

Once the path ahead became clearer, although still shrouded in uncertainty, he and Evolution set to work on co-producing six shows, along with Paul providing the York scripts and directing Dick Whittington, The Pompey Panto at the Kings Theatre, Portsmouth.

From Operation Sleeping Beauty to Nurse Nanny Saves Panto to Damian Saves Panto, Paul penned a series of one-off new shows attuned to Covid times, while his York scripts sought to bottle and preserve the essence of pantomime.

“Awaiting the Government pandemic update on December 16, all we could do was roll with it, go ahead and start rehearsals – which qualified as ‘going to work’ and set about our aim to save pantomime,” says Paul.

“It doesn’t feel fair that the Government can say, ‘No, you can’t go ahead’, when there’s no evidence there’s been an outburst of Covid after theatres reopened with social distancing, especially as a lot of theatres have spent a lot of money on the infrastructure to make theatres a safe place to go, but what can we do?

Travelling players: Robin Simpson’s dame, Faye Campbell’s hero, Reuben Johnson’s villain, Anna Soden’s fairy and Josh Benson’s comic in the York Theatre Royal pantomime roadshow

“But then the pandemic is not fair on anyone in all sorts of industries, and that’s why, at this time, people needed pantomime more than ever.”

Thankfully, York’s Tier 2 status ensured that the Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime could roll out across York with Hendy’s scripts built around the baddie trying to steal the essence of pantomime. “The shows had to be full of laughter, community spirit and topical gags, as there’s so much material there this year,” he says.

Paul relished the opportunity to take pantomime into all manner of venues. “I’ve always said that pantomime can work in a black-box setting with just five actors because of that compact configuration and connection with the audience, and this year that’s what’s happened,” he says.

“It still works because pantomime is an interactive theatre genre – and how many other forms of theatre can you say appeal to five year olds and 95 year olds alike?”

One emotion above all others permeated through Paul’s pantos. “The one thing I always want to do is bring joy, make it funny of course, but ultimately make it a show driven by joy – and we did that,” he says. 

Josh Benson and Robin Simpson may not be back in Theatre Royal colours next winter, but Paul Hendy most definitely will, when Cinderella and York alike will have a ball.

Copyright of The Press, York

York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime stopped in its tracks by rise in Covid cases

Why the glum face, Dame Trott (Robin Simpson)? Blame the pandemic yet again as York Theatre Royal calls off the last week of performances of the Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Ant Robling

THE wheels have come off York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime within touching distance of the final curtain.

The rapid rise in York’s Coronavirus cases has brought the runaway success of the sold-out show to a shuddering halt as the Covid curse strikes yet again.

Despite no recorded transmission of the virus at any performance so far, the Theatre Royal has decided the show must not go on, foregoing the resumption its 70-minutes-straight-through, socially distanced, Covid-secure touring production, having initially added a handful of post-Christmas shows.

The rolling seven-day Covid rate for the City of York Council area in the week to December 23 was 218.4 per 100,000 population, higher than the regional average of 189.1 for Yorkshire and The Humber, and the big-city rates of 172.4 in Sheffield, 190.6 in Bradford and 184.8 in Leeds, but still much lower than the national average for England of 401.9.

The figure is higher than the average of 174.7 for North Yorkshire and 179.1 for East Yorkshire. Most disturbingly, York’s rate his risen steeply since a figure of 65 cases per 100,000 population a fortnight ago, an acceleration to which the influx of rule-breaking Tier 3 visitors and Christmas shoppers is thought likely to have contributed.

Travelling Pantomime director Juliet Forster with writer Paul Hendy, right, and York Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird. Picture: Ant Robling

Explaining the decision, Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird says: “It is with great regret we have decided that the pantomime will not resume for its post-Christmas performances. This has been a tough decision to make, but we feel it is the right one.

“I pay tribute to the whole of the York Theatre Royal team for producing so many performances under such extraordinary conditions, and their diligence and hard work is borne out by the fact that we have no recorded transmission of the virus at the pantomime.”

After two previews at the Theatre Royal, the Travelling Pantomime team took the show to community venues in Tang Hall, Dunnington, Wigginton, Holgate, Clifton Moor, Elvington, Poppleton, Acomb, Carr Lane, Strensall, Copmanthorpe, Fulford, Heworth and Guildhall, to meet the aim of visiting all 21 wards in the city.

This week’s performances by Josh Benson’s comic turn, Robin Simpson’s dame, Anna Soden’s fairy, Faye Campbell’s hero and Reuben Johnson’s villain would have taken the company close to that target by the December 31 finale.

Well travelled: York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime cast and crew for performances across a multitude of York wards this month

“The theatre wants to thank the brilliant audiences, who have supported the pantomime in their local venues, and City of York Council, who have helped to distribute over 200 free tickets to families in need on the run-up to Christmas.”

Box-office staff will be in touch with ticket holders for cancelled performances in the next few days. Those shows would have taken place at Moor Lane Youth Centre, Dringhouses, last night; Southlands Methodist Church Hall, Bishopthorpe Road, tonight, and York Theatre Royal, tomorrow and Thursday.

The York Theatre Royal pantomime, co-produced with 2020 pantomime partners Evolution Productioms, will return to the main house for Cinderella from December 3 to January 2 2022.

Now that the Traveling Pantomime van has parked up for the last time, CharlesHutchPress can reveal that each audience’s vote to pick a panto from Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk and Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs in reality came down to a choice of two.

Courtesy of writer Paul Hendy, each show’s early gag about the Rule of Six ruled out the Seven Dwarfs. “We had to lose one of the dwarfs,” said Robin Simpson’s dame. “Wasn’t Happy!” Boom! Boom!

Brought to its knees: York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime loses out to the city’s rising Coronavirus cases. No joke for comic turn Josh “Just Joshing” Benson et al. Picture: Ant Robling

YORK’S other pantomime, York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk, will continue to run at Theatre @41 Monkgate, unless the Government’s Covid briefing tomorrow pronounces a change in York’s Tier 2 status.

Writer-director Nik Briggs’s show has upcoming performances until January 3 2021 with full details at yorkstagepanto.com. Watch this space for an update tomorrow.

REVIEW: Theatre Royal’s travelling show for the people rescues the essence of panto

Switched on at all times: Robin Simpson’s joke-generation dame lights up York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime. All pictures: Ant Robling

REVIEW: York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, New Earswick Folk Hall, York, 5/12/2020

NO Rolling Stones show goes by without rock’n’roll’s greatest paleontological survivor, Keith Richards, leaning into his microphone to mumble: “It’s good to be here…it’s good to be anywhere”.

Lo and behold, “It’s great to be here…it’s kind of great to be anywhere,” says York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime’s comic turn, Josh “Just Joshing” Benson, at the outset of Saturday evening’s Covid-secure, socially distanced, temperature-tested, bubble-seated pantomime.

How right he is. Saturday was day four of the new dawn of the York Theatre Royal pantomime, the  first after 40 years in the wildness of the Dame Berwick Kaler era. Until Covid-19 became the joyless new villain, out to destroy the land of theatre, Cinderella was to have marked the transition from Kaler capers to a new partnership with regular Great British Pantomime Award winners Evolution Productions.

On his knees but not for long: York Theatre Royal’s inexhaustible pantomime comic turn Josh Benson

When invitations to the ball turned to cinders, chief executive Tom Bird, creative director Juliet Forster and Evolution writer-director Paul Hendy decided to tear up the script and compose three new ones instead to take the panto to the people.

Hence it is indeed great to be here, there and everywhere, because, while the Theatre Royal main stage awaits resuscitation in 2021, the Travelling Pantomime will definitely be pitching up at 16 of York’s 21 wards, possibly more if Covid-safe passage can yet be guaranteed to others. At least four more shows are being lined up for after Christmas and a recording of the second-night preview will be made available for streaming soon too.

On Saturday, New Earswick Folk Hall was transformed into a theatre for the first time, creating an impromptu stage with Hannah Sibai’s red-curtained, green-framed travelling theatre frontage and a traditional pantomime backdrop.

It’s all about the bass: York Theatre Royal’s multi-tasking fairy, singing captain and musician Anna Soden

Everything is slimmed down – a cast of five, no ensemble, no live band, no interval, no panto cow, but less just means being more inventive and cramming so much into what we are told will be an hour but stretches gladly well beyond.

Edinburgh Fringe shows work to tight running times, and quality, not quantity, rules here too. To Paul Hendy, that means bottling up the “the essence of panto” and right now, in Covid-19 2020, that essence is Joy.

Once we are introduced not just to Just Josh’s rubber-bodied comic, but also Robin Simpson’s classic dame, Faye Campbell’s modern hero, super-tall Reuben Johnson’s villain and Anna Soden’s trumpet/guitar/bass-playing fairy, we must vote for our choice of show: Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk or Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Seven dwarves, note; there is a knock-out joke a’coming.

Hitting the Jack-pot: Faye Campbell’s super hero in Jack And The Beanstalk

Jack won out on Saturday: Josh becoming, well, Josh, with the daftest streak of blond in his hair since Kevin Petersen pummelled 158 against Australia with a skunk plonked on his bonce in 2005. He is a lovably daft ball of energy, cheeky but not saucy, and if he kept his magic tricks up his sleeve this time, what an asset for the future.

Simpson, on loan from Huddersfield’s  Lawrence Batley Theatre, is the penniless but pun-full, mirthful Dame Trott, reaching for both a cuppa and the gin; Johnson, all in black with a dash of red to match his Russian accent, is a Flesh Creep with an amusingly dismissive air and a mischievous hint of Borat.

Campbell’s Jack must fight the old prejudices against girls being fit for purpose for heroic tasks while keeping the name Jack. Soden’s rapping, funky, blue and pink-haired Fairy is more likely to hit the bass line than wave a wand, as flashy as her lit-up boots.

Kill-joy: Reuben Johnson’s Flesh Creep in Jack And The Beanstalk

Juliet Forster directs with momentum, brio and thrills rather than frills, complemented by Hayley Del Harrison’s fun, compact choreography and musical director James Harrison’s rapid-fire bursts of high-energy songs.

Yes, there is a beanstalk and a Giant called Pundemic. Above all, York Theatre Royal have hit the jackpot with Paul Hendy’s script-writing prowess, love of a double-act routine and a knowingly contrived, convoluted path to a pay-off line.

He handles the pandemic crisis with a success rate to make the Government jealous, throwing in topical references galore with witty, often unpredictable Pandemime punchlines, but nothing insensitive in such traumatic times.

Writer Paul Hendy: Bottling the essence of pantomime, labelled with joy

A magazine title slapstick to-and-fro between Benson and Simpson is already a contender for panto scene of the year, and if there are jokes for adults, Hendy favours a Gilbert O’Sullivan song title, rather than adult material or in-jokes.

Pantomime 1, Pandemic 0, the Travelling Pantomime triumphs on its already sold-out run to December 23. Hendy will be back next winter for the full Evolution to roll out; Benson is due to return to the Victoria Theatre panto in Halifax next Christmas, alas, but his Theatre Royal day will surely come, even if he can’t magic his way out of that one.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

21 wards, three shows, prepare for York Theatre Royal pantomime like no other

Just Joshing: York entertainer and magician Josh Benson larks around on the York Theatre Royal stage as rehearsals begin forThe Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Anthony Robling

REHEARSALS are underway for York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime, the neighbourhood show that will tour to all 21 wards in York.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s confirmation that theatre rehearsals could continue behind closed doors during Lockdown 2, despite all entertainment venues being closed from November 5, has facilitated director Juliet Forster bringing the cast together for sessions in the Covid-secure billiards room in the De Grey Rooms.

“It was a huge relief,” says Juliet, the Theatre Royal’s associate director. “We anticipated he would because he’d said film and TV rehearsals wouldn’t stop, but he hadn’t mentioned theatre at that time, so there was that awful feeling of not knowing, but it was great when the news came out at 9pm that night.”

Welcoming the cast of Robin Simpson, entertainer and magician Josh Benson, actor-musician Anna Soden, Reuben Johnson and Faye Campbell, chief executive Tom Bird says: “We’ve put Covid safety measures in place and will be carefully following Government guidelines over the weeks ahead, but we’re thrilled that we can carry on with our plans to take our pantomime out to the people of York this year.”

Revised dates – moved to a later start after Lockdown 2 was announced – are now in place for a run from December 3, with more to be added. The preview night on a pop-up theatre on York Theatre Royal’s main stage on December 3 will be filmed for broadcast so anyone who misses out on a ticket can still enjoy the show, co-produced by York Theatre Royal and new pantomime partners Evolution Productions.

“Be assured, one way or another, York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime will be coming to you,” says Tom.

“Panto really benefits from the input of the live audience, so that’s why it was always our intention to do the recording in front of an audience,” says Juliet.

York Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and chief executive Tom Bird with Paul Hendy, producer of pantomime partners Evolution Productions

Joined in the production team by Pop-Up On The Patio designer Hannah Sibai, choreographer Hayley Del Harrison and musical director James Harrison, Juliet will be working on not one, but three 70-minute pantomimes written by Evolution producer Paul Hendy for each audience to vote whether to see Jack And The Beanstalk, Dick Whittington or Snow White.

Three pantomimes? Plenty to rehearse there, Juliet?! “It’s do-able, and thanks to the Government, we have a bit more rehearsal time now,” she says.

A cast of only five will help too. “Because we’re working on a small touring stage, it wouldn’t have made sense to do a big-sized show with a dance ensemble,” says Juliet. “You may lose some spectacle, but in terms of story-telling, chatting with Paul [writer Paul Hendy], we decided that having just the five key characters intensifies the story, investing in each character’s journey.”

Actor and writer Reuben Johnson will play Fleshcreep and Ratticus Flinch, the villain’s roles, after working previously with Juliet last year, appearing as the thoroughly decent Marco in the Theatre Royal’s autumn production of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge.

“It was quite a different show from doing a panto!” he says. “We met on Skype to talk about it, and it’s a perfect chance to work on something fun in such dark times.”

“Reuben has such comedic funny bones, which you wouldn’t have seen in A View From The Bridge, but even there he mined a few comic moments,” says Juliet. “Sometimes you get someone in your head when you read a script, and they keep coming back into your head, like Reuben did, even though I think of him as a very serious actor. Some of my best casting has come that way.”

“I’m trying to find the humour and likeability of the villain, which really contradicts the audience’s thoughts and expectations,” says Reuben Johnson as he prepares to play Fleshcreep and Ratticus Flinch. Picture: Anthony Robling

Reuben may be a pantomime debutant but says: “I’m a theatre fan in general. I love Shakespeare, new plays, physical comedy, pantomime. Panto wouldn’t normally be number one, but I enjoy all theatre and we do need some big fun right now.”

Reflecting on taking on the villain’s role, he says: “I’ve played baddies quite a bit, and what I like to think I can bring to them, when playing stereotypical villains, is trying to find the humour and likeability of that character, which really contradicts the audience’s thoughts and expectations about that person.

“When I watched them as a child, I often thought that bad guys were hilarious to be around, very rowdy, exciting. Now I’ve got the chance to go to town with it in pantomime.”

One rule of acting asserts that you do not have to sympathise with the characters you play, but you should at least empathise with them. “As long as you know your motivation, it’s how you then go about playing the villain,” says Reuben.

“In pantomime, you’ll want to hear people both laughing at you and with you. It’s that love/hate thing.”

Robin Simpson was last seen on the Theatre Royal stage in Northern Broadsides’ Much Ado About Nothing in May 2019 and has Theatre Royal credits to his name in The Railway Children, The Wind In The Willows, Pinocchio and Pygmalion. 

This winter he returns in the juiciest of all pantomime parts, the Dame, a role he has played for the past three years at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield.  “This time feels very different because of the current situation and the nature of the show,” says Robin, who played Dame Dolly in Jack And The Beanstalk, Widow Twankey in Aladdin and Nanny Fanny in Sleeping Beauty.

“We didn’t mine that name for any humour, I can assure you! We were all very grown up about it, weren’t we!”

“It’s like being the best kind of party host,” says Robin Simpson, summing up the joy of playing the dame in York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Anthony Robling

Defining the dame’s importance to pantomime, Robin says: “It’s like being the best kind of party host, being welcoming, over the top, ebullient, everyone’s friend, which is so nice to play.”

In dame tradition, from Dan Leno to Berwick Kaler, he has settled on his distinctive persona. “If you’ve got something that works, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Robin says of the upcoming prospect of playing three variations on Dame Dolly next month.

“My dame is like Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck rolled into one! There won’t be any variation, except trying to remember who I’m playing each time, with the different frocks denoting the character.

“It’s very much a case of the dame generally being a working-class single mother, with numerous children; hard working, straight talking and funny. I’m sort of basing it loosely on northern women when I was growing up. That Ena Sharples character [in Coronation Street], gossiping over the wall; that matriarch; that Les Dawson send-up with Roy Barraclough.

“There’s lots of love there, but she’s also as hard as nails, and you don’t see that much anymore, but hopefully it’s still recognisable. But ultimately with the dame, she comes on stage as a bloke in a dress who tells jokes.”

Lockdown in March turned the lights out on stages across the country but both Johnson and Simpson have sought to keep busy. “I’ve done OK,” says Reuben. “Fortuitously for me, I write as well, doing spoken-word, so I’ve got by on that, with a few little acting jobs as well, but I’ve been craving getting back to work on a stage and that’s not been possible until now. Returning to the rehearsal room has been like a dream.”

Robin, who is also a storyteller, working in schools, libraries and museums all over the country, says: “I don’t want to complain too much because I know people have been going through worse. I’ve worked online, recording stories, learning skills like how to record and creating little films and kids’ stories on Facebook Live for Oldham Libraries,” he says.

York actor-musician Anna Soden, who will play Fairy and Sea Captain and a multitude of musical instruments in The Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Anthony Robling

“I think there’s merit in recording shows as I can reach places I couldn’t do with live performances for the library service, though you’ll never beat the ‘liveness’ of a show.”

Juliet rejoins: “It all comes back to the shared experience.” “That’s what we’re all desperate for,” says Robin.

“That’s why we couldn’t let go of the need to do a Theatre Royal pantomime this Christmas, even when we knew we weren’t going to be able to open the theatre,” says Juliet. “The prospect of not doing a panto felt wrong.

“We’d talked about community touring and rural touring, and our research told us that audiences would feel more comfortable going to a show locally with their neighbours, rather than coming to the theatre with people from all over the place.

“That’s why we decided to take something so synonymous with Christmas out of the theatre into York’s community centres, church halls and schools for families to have some festive fun with Paul’s shows that are really warm, funny for all ages, packed full of good characters and not innuendo.”

For tickets, dates and more details for The Travelling Pantomime, go to yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Here, there and everywhere: York Theatre Royal’s poster for The Travelling Pantomime

YORK THEATRE ROYAL’S TRAVELLING PANTOMIME schedule of performances. Confirmed so far:

December 2: Members-only preview, York Theatre Royal (pop-up theatre on main stage).

December 3: Preview, York Theatre Royal (pop-up theatre on main stage).

December 4: Tang Hall Community Centre, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 5: New Earswick Folk Hall, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 8: The Reading Room, Dunnington, 7pm.

December 9: Wiggington Recreation Hall, 7pm.

December 10:  St Barnabas Primary School, Holgate. Afternoon school performance; public

Performance, 6pm.

December 11: Clifton Church Hall, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 12: Elvington Village Hall, Wheldrake, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 13: The Poppleton Centre, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 15: Acomb Parish Hall, 7pm.

December 16: Carr Junior School. Afternoon school performance; public performance, 6pm.

December 18: Copmanthorpe Methodist Church Hall, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 19:  Clifton Green Primary School, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 20: York Pavilion Hotel, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 22: Heworth Christ Church, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 23: Archbishop Holgate’s School, 4.30pm and 7pm.

Additional venues to be confirmed.

Brushing up on his role: Josh Benson goes to work at York Theatre Royal

Tickets cost £10 for adults, £5 for children, with a maximum party size of six people in a household or support bubble.

Up to 25 per cent of tickets will be made free of charge to families in need this Christmas.

Capacity at some venues is small. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis to anyone living in a York city ward.

Did you know?

TRAVELLING Pantomime musical director James Harrison was musical supervisor/director for Evolution Productions’ award-winning 2019-2020 pantomime, Cinderella, at Sheffield Lyceum Theatre. He was awarded the Best Music prize at the Great British Pantomime Awards. 

 Please note:  York Theatre Royal’s planned 2020/21 pantomime, Cinderella, will not go to the ball until next winter.

No turning back for Dick Whittington as Rowntree Players postpone panto to 2021

Cherish the memories of past Rowntree Players pantomimes…until the show can go on again in December 2021.

DICK Whittington will still be the next Rowntree Players pantomime…but not until 2021.

“After many weeks of deliberation, it is with a very heavy heart that the Rowntree Players’ committee has eventually decided that this year’s pantomime, Dick Whittington, will not go ahead this year,” came today’s statement.

“But it will be back better than ever in December 2021.” Dates for next year’s diary will be December 4 to 11 with the usual evening and matinee performances.

The Players’ annual “rollicking romp of a panto” has taken place, with only a few breaks, for more than 70 years at York’s community theatre in Haxby Road. Given that long history, the decision to cancel the 2020 pantomime run amid the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic was not taken lightly.

Co-writer and director Howard Ella has worked closely with the board of trustees to mull over the possibilities, now that indoor performances are permitted, but in the end they bowed to the curse of social distancing and the uncertainty over when and if theatres can re-open at full capacity. No compromise was their verdict.

Howard says: “We could have considered performing to a small audience, with a three-piece band, no chorus, a limited cast and set, no shout-outs from the audience but, let’s be honest, that would not be the Rowntree Players’ panto everybody knows and loves.

“We have never done a compromised show and nor do we want to start to. The script is now locked in a secure vault in Alderman Fitzwarren’s bank, ready for summer auditions next year.”

The Players’ decision comes as the viability of Christmas pantomimes across the country is being assessed.  “At a time when many venues are perilously close to closure, the Joseph Rowntree Theatre is unique in York in that it’s owned by the charity that runs it and has no staff overheads, run as it is by more than 170 volunteers,” says Dan Shrimpton, chair of the board of trustees.

“We wholeheartedly support Howard and his committee’s decision on this year’s pantomime, heart-breaking though it is.  The ten-day run of performances in December is the real highlight of the theatre’s year, but we look forward to welcoming the Rowntree Players back next year with the postponed show. The show will go on – oh, yes it will!”

The Rowntree Players’ pantomime is “very much a community affair”, billed as all-round, good, affordable fun for all, written and directed by York artists, suitable for absolutely all ages, and not requiring any knowledge of previous shows or of the local area.

“Tickets will go on sale from the Joseph Rowntree Theatre box office in the summer of 2021 and are expected to sell very well, given the uncertainty surrounding many other local pantomimes,” today’s statement concludes.