REVIEW: Elf The Musical, York Stage, at Grand Opera House, York, until December 3

Sophie Hammond’s Jovie and Damien Poole’s Buddy leading a dance routine in York Stage’s Elf The Musical. All pictures: Charlie Kirkpatrick, Kirkpatrick Photography

YOU will be lucky if any tickets are still left for York Stage’s Christmas show, and luckier still if you do see Elf The Musical.

The Christmas spirit is alive in more than those irritatingly premature TV adverts; a neighbour has put up the Christmas tree already; pantomimes are underway; the weather has turned all Jack Frost on us, and Elf The Musical is packing out the Grand Opera House, with all manner of accompanying merchandise to tempt, and Christmas jumpers on their first outing of the new season.

On first thoughts, a run nearer Christmas might have been more ideal, but judging by Saturday’s matinee, full of excited young families, a festive trip to the theatre cannot come soon enough after the misery of multiple lockdowns.

Martin Rowley’s storytelling Santa

Under the limitations of social bubbles, York Stage went ahead with their debut musical pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, last Christmas, but Elf The Musical marks the return to shows on the scale of Shrek The Musical, a huge hit for Nik Briggs’s company at the Grand Opera House. The orchestra alone numbers 16 under musical director Stephen Hackshaw’s zestful charge, to complement the cast of 20-plus.                     

Artistic director Briggs, who played the title role in that show, swaps places with Shrek’s director (and choreographer to boot), Damien Poole. Somehow, despite running Damien Poole Theatre Arts in Harrogate and teaching musical theatre at Leeds Conservatoire, he has found time to rehearse and play Buddy – and make him his own one-man national elf service. Did anyone mention Will Ferrell? No! “Damien is Buddy,” said Briggs beforehand, and now you can see why.

Elf The Musical retains the jokes and the naïve charm of the 2003 film, with a witty, playful book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, then leaves out the impractical high-speed snowball fight, and adds all the song-and-dance razzmatazz of a Broadway musical, with music by Matthew Sklar big on winter brass and lyrics by Chad Beguelin full of humour, bold statements and big sentiments.

Get your skates on…but not even that may guarantee you a ticket for York Stage’s hot-selling winter warmer Elf The Musical

Emily Taylor, long associated with Grand Opera House pantomimes, brings her choreographic brio to York Stage’s Elf, excelling in the ensemble numbers, never more so than when a multitude of Santas are letting off their after-hours steam.

Should anyone miraculously have escaped the film, Elf The Musical has Martin Rowley’s old-school Santa introducing the story of how orphan boy Buddy crawls into Santa’s sack and ends up being brought up among all the elf toy makers on a sugar-rich diet with two visits a day to the North Pole dentist. 

In the opening scenes, all except Santa and Buddy are whizzing around on their knees playing elves, immediately establishing the magical yet daft fun of Briggs’s show.

Faateh Sohail as Michael and Jo Theaker as Emily Hobbs

Poole captures this tone perfectly, full of good cheer, love, innocence, cheekiness and a desire to please, like the silly billy/daft lad/Buttons roles we associate with pantomimes at this time of year. Then add boundless energy, delightful singing and nimble dance skills, plus natural stage “likeability” (to borrow a Berwick Kaler expression), and you have the ideal Buddy.

When Buddy learns that he is not an elf after all, despite being so elfish in his thinking, off to New York he must go to try to find his real father, children’s publishing-house manager Walter Hobbs (Stuart Piper), who never knew he had a son from a long-ago relationship. 

Perma-stressed Walter is now married to long-suffering Emily (Jo Theaker), with a son, Michael (Faateh Sohail at the matinee, sharing the role with Declan Childs and Ethan McDonald). 

Elf director Nik Briggs and choreographer Emily Taylor with lead actors Sophie Hammond and Damien Poole

Briggs has cast as well as ever, Piper’s Walter walking the tightrope of being unreasonable/reasonable in his behaviour, Theaker being as lovable as always and Sohail showing bags of confidence and promise.

Like Poole, professional actor Sophie Hammond, first cast by Briggs 11 years ago as Ariel in Footloose, has moved into teaching drama skills but she has jumped at the chance to play Jovie, Buddy’s slow-burn love interest.

Initially, her Jovie is typical of the New York cynicism to be found among the Macy’s department store staff, where Buddy finds himself working as he constantly corrects everyone’s misconceptions over Santa, the North Pole and Christmas. Like the rest of us, she cannot but warm to Buddy’s innocent enthusiasm, even for going on a date. Hammond captures this transmission with more subtlety than would be first apparent in the script’s broad strokes.  

Katie Melia’s Babs and Damien Poole’s Buddy

Strong support comes from Katie Melia’s Deb, Jack Hooper’s Chadwick, and especially Craig Kirby’s grouchy publishing boss, Greenway.

Hackshaw’s band are on ace form, not only the brass section, but with Sam Johnson, Barbara Chan and violinist Claire Jowett among the ranks, the quality is high indeed for the fantastic score.

The snowy icing on the cake is Briggs’s set design, big snowflakes, open North Pole skyline, bustling Macy’s store, finale snow machine et al, as he draws inspiration from Radio City Music Hall. Will there be a magical sleigh ride? Wait and see – if you have one of those oh-so-in-demand tickets of course.

Box office on the off chance: atgickets.com/York.

York Stage Musicals’ Elf on course to sell out as Buddy brings joyful early Christmas present to Grand Opera House from tonight

Sophie Hammond’s Jovie and Damien Poole’s Buddy go green for York Stage Musicals’ Elf

AFTER The Flint Street Nativity and last winter’s debut pantomime Jack And The Beanstalk, York Stage Musicals are serving up Christmas cheer again with Elf The Musical.

Such is the anticipation for this show that the Grand Opera House run from today until December 3 has all but sold out already. “Out of the 11 performances, we have around only ten tickets left for each show,” says delighted artistic director Nik Briggs.

York Stage Musicals are presenting the York premiere of Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin, Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin’s musical, based on the 2003 film, the one with a goofing Will Ferrell.

Should Elf somehow have eluded you, the story follows orphan child Buddy as he mistakenly crawls into Santa Claus’s bag and ends up being transported to his North Pole abode.

Once there, unaware he is human, and not an elf, his enormous size and poor toy-making abilities cause him to face the truth.

Given Santa’s permission, Buddy (played by Damien Poole) must head to New York City to find his birth father, discover his true identity and help the Big Apple to remember the true meaning of Christmas.

“We love bringing big Broadway and West End musicals to York: we’ve done Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert and Shrek The Musical, and I knew Elf would be perfect for the cast we have: high energy and full of fun,” says Nik.

Elf The Musical director Nik Briggs, left, choreographer Emily Taylor and lead actors Sophie Hammond and Damien Poole at York Stage Musicals’ press launch at Sotano, Little Stonegate, York

“With The Flint Street Nativity and our musical panto, Jack And The Beanstalk, we’ve started bringing alternative Christmas shows to York and Elf perfectly fits that bill.”

How does the musical differ from the film? “The songs, obviously! It’s got a stellar songbook to go will all the comedy that people love from the movie,” says Nik. “The beautiful score is accompanied by a big, brassy band: a 16-piece orchestra directed by the wonderful Stephen Hackshaw. It sounds amazing.”

As affirmed by the ticket sales, Elf has winter winner written all over it. “People love the film; it’s a title they know, and after the past 18 months we’ve all had, it’s the perfect show too see. Pure joy!” says Nik.

“Just as Buddy helps New York to find its Christmas spirit, so Damien and the cast will be helping York to do the same.”

Enthusing over his two leads, Damien Poole, as Buddy and Sophie Hammond, as Buddy’s love interest, Jovie, Nik says: “Damien IS Buddy! He loves Christmas, he’s so full of joy, so energetic, and with his ten years of West End credentials in such shows as Grease and Groundhog Day, he can sustain that throughout the run.

“Sophie is just the most beautiful performer. I remember when she first walked in to audition for Footloose, more than ten years ago, I was just blown away, casting her as Ariel, the preacher’s daughter with the looks and rebellious attitude of a bad girl. She really takes the audience on a journey when she performs.”

After mounting Jack And The Beanstalk at Theatre@41, Monkgate, last Christmas with the requirement for social bubbles, a compact cast and the constant uncertainty over whether the show would have to be called off (only the finale was lost in the end), Nik is once more producing a show under the Covid cloud.

“After the past 18 months we’ve all had, Elf is the perfect show too see. Pure joy!” says director Nik Briggs

“We’ve kept our numbers to what would be the cast size for a tour – around 20 – and we’ve never stopped learning from the shows we’ve done since the pandemic forced changes, starting with the outdoor concerts at Rowntree Park in late-summer 2020 and the panto,” he says, as he attends to the Elf and safety requirements.

“That’s put us in a really good position to run a show like this, with all the requirements for Lateral Flow Tests and wearing masks when necessary.”

After the hit run of Shrek The Musical, directed and choreographed by Damien Poole after his return to Boston Spa from his West End work, York Stage Musicals are thrilled to be back at the Grand Opera House for Elf. “We love working with the team here, and we love the technical possibilities the stage affords us,” says Nik, who has done the set design on top of his directing duties.

“We’ve had the set built by companies and builders around the country for a brand new set design that works perfectly with the space, inspired by New York and Radio City Music Hall, in Midtown Manhattan, which I visited in 2019, shortly before Covid arrived.”

Looking ahead, York Stage Musicals will be returning to the Grand Opera House from April 22 to 30 next year for the York premiere of Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls: The Musical. Write that one down on your 2022 calendar and be sure to book early.

York Stage Musicals in Elf The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, tonight (25/11/2021) until December 3. Box office: hurry, hurry to atgtickets.com/York or ring 0844 871 7615.

Copyright of The Press, York

Damien Poole and Sophie Hammond: Actors, teachers and stars of York Stage Musicals’ Elf The Musical

SOPHIE Hammond is completing a full circle as she returns to the Grand Opera House stage in York tonight in York Stage Musicals’ Elf The Musical.

“This is my first time back in a York Stage show since playing Ariel in 2010 in Footloose. I was blonde at the time,” recalls Sophie, her hair now darker, as she takes the role of Buddy’s love interest, Jovie, in Elf.

“That was my first show with York Stage Musicals, as after Footloose I went off to London to train in musical theatre at the American Musical Theatre Academy, where I managed to get myself an agent and went into performing jobs.”

Four years into the profession, Sophie made a career change. “I decided I wanted to teach performing arts at secondary school, and I’ve been teaching at Beckfoot School, in Bradford, for three years, which have whizzed by,” she says.

Sophie performed in the second of York Stage Musicals’ outdoor concerts in Rowntree Park in Summer 2020 and now she is treading the boards once more at the Grand Opera House. “It feels like it’s a nice circle being completed, being back there after 11 years,” she says.

LIKE Sophie Hammond, Damien Poole has left London behind to make a new start.

“I’d lived there for 15 years, working in the West End, but four years ago I decided to set up my theatre school, Damien Poole Theatre Arts, which I run in Harrogate, and I also work at the Leeds Conservatoire music school, working with musical theatre degree students,” he says.

After directing and choreographing York Stage Musicals’ September 2019 production of Shrek The Musical – “an amazing experience,” he says – Damien now faces the challenge of balancing his teaching duties with playing the lead character of Buddy in YSM’s Elf.

“I try to make time by changing my times at the theatre school and Leeds, so I can rehearse on Wednesdays and Sundays and have Thursdays off,” he says.

He is relishing taking on the role synonymous with Will Farrell. “Obviously I’m not going to be able to create what Will Farrell did in creating Buddy’s character in the film, but I get to sing and dance, and you get to see more layers to Buddy in the musical,” says Damien.

More Things To Do in York and beyond, as musicals abound, comedy turns angry and Madchester revives. List No. 58, courtesy of The Press, York

So frustrated: Paul Chowdhry has his say on Covid, fame, England’s football team and Tom Cruise’s chopper at the Grand Opera House, York, tonight

IMAGINE if you could have a busy week ahead? Let Charles Hutchinson fill your diary.

Angriest comedy gig of the week: Paul Chowdhry, Grand Opera House, York, tonight, 8pm

AFTER barely surviving the pandemic, British-Asian stand-up Paul Chowdhry tackles the UK’s handling of the Coronavirus crisis and why the rules of six only worked for white people in Family-Friendly Comedian (No Children).

Two years of pent-up frustration go into this new tour show, where Londoner Chowdhry also discusses fame, England football fans and Tom Cruise landing his helicopter in someone’s garden. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/york.

Chesca Cholewa: Writer of Imagine If Theatre Company’s My Old Man

Studio play of the week: Imagine If Theatre Company in My Old Man, York Theatre Royal Studio, tonight, 8pm

IMAGINE If Theatre Company, from Leeds, is touring a part-theatre, part-film production of Chesca Cholewa’s humorous and heartfelt play My Old Man.

When Michal Piwowarski’s granddaughter, Tasha (played by Cholewa), finally moves out, his whole world changes. The school dinner-lady becomes his favourite person, a new neighbour moves on to the street, and Michal (Paul Shelley) has to face his biggest battle yet as My Old Man follows the trials and tribulations of this old, blind Polish soldier. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorkthreatreroyal.co.uk.

Songs and Stables’ leadership: Kate Stables brings her band This Is The Kit to The Citadel tomorrow night

Experimental gig of the week: This Is The Kit, The Citadel, Gillygate, York, tomorrow, 7.30pm

KATE Stables’ experimental folk quartet This Is The Kit return to York for a special show at The Citadel, the former Salvation Army HQ, presented by Please Please You, The Crescent and Brudenell Presents. Support comes from Nuala Honan and Pavey Ark. Box office: brudenellsocialclub.seetickets.com.

York artist Karen Winship, taking part in the Inspired Christmas event at York Cemetery Chapel

Christmas shopping? Opportunity presents itself at Inspired, York Cemetery Chapel, Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 5pm.

INSPIRED, the annual Christmas show by York artist and designer makers, will be held at York Cemetery Chapel, in Cemetery Road, York, this weekend.

Taking part will be Jo Bagshaw and Richard Whitelegg, jewellery; Catherine Boyne-Whitelegg, pottery; Petra Bradley, textiles; Sally Clarke, collage printmaking; Angela Newdick, collage and surface pattern design; Adi French and Karen Winship, painting, and John Watts and Wilf Williams, furniture.

PQA York’s poster for Disney’s The Little Mermaid Jr at the JoRo

Children’s show of the week: PQA Productions in Disney’s The Little Mermaid Jr, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, tomorrow and Saturday, 7.30pm

PAULINE Quirke Academy (PQA) York journeys under the sea with Ariel and her aquatic friends in Disney’s The Little Mermaid Jr, adapted from Disney’s Broadway show and film, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story of sacrifices made for love and acceptance.

Young mermaid Ariel longs to leave her magical ocean home and fins behind for the world above. First, however, she must defy her father, King Triton, make a deal with evil sea witch Ursula and convince Prince Eric she is the girl whose enchanting voice he has been seeking. Separate casts perform the two shows. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Adam Sowter, Florence Poskitt, Alexandra Mather and Andrew Roberts in rehearsal for Saturday’s Fladam and Friends’ Musical Comedy Hootenanny

Witty and warm songs of the week: Fladam and Friends’ Musical Comedy Hootenanny, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Saturday, 2.30pm and 7.30pm

FLADAM duo Florence Poskitt and pianist Adam Sowter take to the Theatre@41 stage with thespian friends Alexandra Mather, Andrew Roberts and Andrew Isherwood for two shows of musical comedy joy.

Fladam’s own topical witty ditties will be complemented by a celebration of Morecambe & Wise, Bernard Cribbins, Victoria Wood and more. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Scarlett Waugh, left, and Libby Anderson: Sharing the role of Dorothy in NE Musicals York’s production of The Wizard Of Oz

Sparkling slippers of the week: NE Musicals York in The Wizard Of Oz, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, Tuesday (23/11/2021) to Saturday

DIRECTOR Steve Tearle has assembled a cast of 60 for NE Musicals York’s energetic staging of The Wizard Of Oz, led by Libby Anderson and Scarlett Waugh, who will alternate the role of Dorothy.

Further roles go to Maia Stroud as Glinda; YO1 presenter Chris Marsden, the Wizard of Oz; Perri Ann Barley, Wicked Witch of the West; Finley Butler, the Scarecrow; Kristian Barley, the Tin Man, and Tearle himself as the Cowardly Lion.

Expect an all-singing, all-dancing production with special effects by Adam Moore’s team at Tech247. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Phoenix rising again: Phoenix Dance Theatre celebrate their 40th anniversary this autumn, opening their tour at York Theatre Royal

Dance celebration of the week: Phoenix Dance Theatre in 40 Years Of Phoenix, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday and Wednesday, 7.30pm

PHOENIX Dance Theatre launch their milestone 40th birthday programme at York Theatre Royal, bringing together highlights from the Leeds company’s groundbreaking history.

Phoenix will combine celebration and reflection in a show featuring Lost Dog duo Ben Duke and Raquel Meseguer’s Pave Up Paradise; former artistic director Darshan Singh Bhuller’s Heart Of Chaos; Henri Oguike’s Signal; Shapiro and Smith’s satirical piece Family and Jane Dudley’s 1938 masterpiece Harmonica Breakdown. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Director Nik Briggs, left, choreographer Emily Taylor and lead actors Sophie Hammond and Damien Poole at the launch of York Stage Musicals’ festive show, Elf! The Musical

Christmas musical of the week: York Stage Musicals in Elf! The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, November 25 to December 3

YORK Stage Musicals present the York premiere of Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin, Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin’s Elf! The Musical, directed by artistic director Nik Briggs.

Based on Will Ferrell’s 2003 film, Elf! follows orphan child Buddy to Santa’s North Pole abode, where, unaware he is human, his enormous size and poor toy-making abilities cause him to face the truth.

Given Santa’s permission, Buddy (Damien Poole) heads to New York City to find his birth father, discover his true identity and help the Big Apple to remember the true meaning of Christmas. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.

Amaka Okafor: Taking part in the staged readings of Lucy Kirkwood’s Maryland at Friargate Theatre, York

Play readings of the week: Riding Lights Theatre Company presents Maryland, Friargate Theatre, York, November 26, 6.30pm and 8.30pm

TWO staged readings of Lucy Kirkwood’s 30-minute protest play will feature Amaka Okafor, from the original Royal Court Theatre cast, Laura Pyper, Mark Holgate, Cassie Vallance, Kesiah Joseph, Patricia Jones and Meg Blowey.

Kirkwood wrote Maryland as a “passionate and furious act of resistance to draw attention to the shocking numbers of women who repeatedly suffer violent abuse throughout Britain. The play is not specific; it addresses issues of police behaviour and a culture of violence against women and girls”.

After sold-out performances in London, the Royal Court offered Maryland for free for theatre companies to perform in solidarity and protest. York company Riding Lights has taken up that opportunity, with associate director Bridget Foreman directing the readings. Box office: 01904 613000.

James: Teaming up with Happy Mondays for a Manchester night out in Leeds

Gig of the week ahead outside York: James and special guests Happy Mondays, Leeds First Direct Arena, November 25, doors, 6pm

ALL of 33 years ago, Factory label mates James and Happy Mondays first toured together. Now, two of Manchester’s champion bands reunite for a November and December arena tour.

 “Last played with them in 1988, hopefully this time they won’t steal our rider or try and spike my drink,” tweeted Tim Booth, James’s Clifford-born frontman, when announcing the dates with rapscallion rascals Shaun Ryder, Bez and co.

James, who played Scarborough Open Air Theatre this summer, will be showcasing their “sweet 16th” album, All The Colours Of You, released in June. Box office: firstdirectarena.com. Stage times: Happy Mondays, 7.30pm; James, 9pm.