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.
YORK freelance choreographer and movement director Hayley Del Harrison’s creativity can be seen at the double this festive season.
Not only has she choreographed York Theatre Royal and Evolution Productions’ effervescent pantomime Cinderella, up and running until January 2, but also CBeebies Presents: The Night Before Christmas.
Already this CBeebies Christmas show has made its cinema debut on November 28, and the TV launch on the Beeb will come rather sooner than the night before Christmas: Saturday, December 11 to be precise.
This is her second CBeebies project of the year, having worked with York Theatre Royal creative director (and Cinderella director) Juliet Forster on CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet, filmed at Leeds Playhouse.
More on the Theatre Royal pantomime later, but first, Hayley, 50, recalls working on the CBeebies Christmas show from late-September through to October 10 in Plymouth, working under pandemic constraints that meant the company had to be put up in a hotel in social bubbles.
“We had the whole of the Plymouth Theatre Royal building to ourselves and the TR2 rehearsal room too,” she says.
“No-one else was allowed into the space because we knew the risk was too great. We had only that short window to rehearse it, a short window to film it, and that’s why we were so strict.
“We did it all in two weeks; the first week in the rehearsal space, and then in the second week we moved into the theatre, we teched it, and did two shows to invited audiences of schoolchildren and one without one for the couple of days of filming.”
Hayley worked with director Chris Jarvis, a “CBeebies legend” with a theatre background, who had played Lord Montague in Forster’s CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet and has 25 years’ experience of directing, producing, writing and performing in pantomimes. This winter he is playing the dame, Betty Bonbon, in Beauty And The Beast at Poole’s Lighthouse, in Dorset.
Again the creative process was influenced by Covid strictures. “I got the songs [by Banks and Wag] and script in advance, and with everyone being so far away, we had the readthrough online, chats online with Chris Banks and a long Zoom meeting with Chris Jarvis about where my input would be, and I remember at one point jumping to my feet and saying, ‘I’m thinking of doing this’!” says Hayley.
“As the show is for young children, a lot of the choreography is designed so that they can copy it. It’s big on storytelling and simple to replicate because, once the show is on BBC iPlayer, they can watch it over and over again. These CBeebies shows are big on participation.”
Hayley worked with a CBeebies cast of 16. “I’d worked with eight of them before on Romeo And Juliet. It’s different from a theatre pantomime because it’s not like you have an ensemble,” she says.
“Everyone has their role, their unique selling point and their chance to shine, but they’re also brilliant at what they do whether as presenters or actors. it’s been nice to get to know them over the two projects, getting an understanding of how they work and then wrapping the show around their characters to present Clement Clarke Moore’s beautiful poem.
“You’re working with characters who are much loved, so, for example, the character playing the villain has to be silly, rather than frightening, because it’s a show for two to six year olds. It means you have to be very careful; everything is more gentle but really funny.”
Looking back on her two CBeebies’ shows in 2021, Hayley says: “I feel I’ve built up a really good relationship and would love to do more of this work. Fingers crossed.
“It already feels like being part of a family, similar to working at the Theatre Royal. When it feels right, it feels really collaborative and there’s a mutual understanding. I know how they work and they know how I work.”
York-born Hayley’s focus then switched to Cinderella, working once more for York Theatre Royal after last year’s Travelling Pantomime (directed by Forster) and such previous productions as The Storm Whale and A View From The Bridge in 2019, For The Fallen in 2018 and In Fog And Falling Snow at the National Railway Museum in 2015.
She received Paul Hendy’s script in October, when most of the music was signed off by musical supervisor James Harrison by the end of that month. “For this kind of show, the more information I have up front, the better I do my job,” says Hayley.
“I can start getting my head around it, though I do like creating in the room too. I’m up for being flexible, but I like to have a clear vision, and that’s what’s great about working with Juliet.
“Yes, she likes being creative in the rehearsal room but her vision is always clear, and because it’s clear, it gives me freedom. I understand where she’s coming from, and she trusts me.”
For Cinderella, Hayley has worked with the seven principals, a six-strong ensemble and two aerial artists, Connor and Tiffany of Duo Fusion, who take part in some of the dancing too.
“We did the auditions for the ensemble just before I went off to Plymouth, and I’ve been delighted to find such versatile performers,” she says.
“They have to do three separate dance styles: lyrical pieces; fun, comedic, highly technical jazz and tap, and work with the text.
“ I wanted everyone to bring something different to the table to ensure there were different characters within the ensemble, and we’re really happy with them. It’s not, ‘here come the dancers’; they’re very much part of the story.”
Cinderella runs at York Theatre Royal until January 2 2022. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.CBeebies Presents: The Night Before Christmas premieres on December 11 and will then be available on BBC iPlayer.
AFTER last winter’s resourceful response to Covid restrictions with the Travelling Pantomime, York Theatre Royal’s panto returns to the main house for Cinderella from tomorrow (3/12/2021).
This will be the second co-production with the award-garlanded Evolution Productions, whose director and producer, Paul Hendy, has again written the script for Juliet Forster’s cast.
In the company will be CBeebies’ Andy Day (Dandini); Faye Campell (Cinderella) and Robin Simpson (Sister) from the Travelling Pantomime cast; Paul Hawkyard (the other ugly Sister); comedian and ventriloquist Max Fulham (Buttons); Benjamin Lafayette (Prince Charming) and Sarah Leatherbarrow (Fairy Godmother).
“We’ve been looking forward to this moment for a long time now,” says creative director Juliet Forster. “It feels very emotional to be working with a full cast, rehearsing back in the De Grey Rooms.
“We had a great time taking the Travelling Pantomime around the city last Christmas, but, oh my word, it’s just lovely to be back inside the theatre and to give a massive Theatre Royal welcome to Evolution.”
After the exit of the gang of five, Berwick Kaler, David Leonard, Suzy Cooper, Martin Barrass and A J Powell, to the Grand Opera House, Forster’s pantomime cast has more of a diverse look, typical of her work. “I’ve almost always been able to do that with my casting because, in a lot of ways, I like to reflect the world we live in.
“For me, it’s more dynamic that way, and it was a policy with me before it became an Arts Council thing.”
Juliet believes the new Theatre Royal pantomime will appeal to a family audience and be marked by warmth. “That warmth will come from the performers, Paul’s script and from myself directing it,” she says.
“That’s not something you can manufacture. You have to feel it and encourage it, and the number one thing I learned from doing the Travelling Pantomime was the need to work with a cast that’s really funny and warm. When you get that mixture, you have a wonderful bond with the audience.”
Juliet adds: “I learned a lot from last year’s show being my first panto. Even though I’d done a lot of children’s shows, comedies and farces, pantomime is very much its own form, and I acquired a lot of respect for Paul’s panto-writing skills.
“The other thing I learned, and another big reason for wanting to do it again, was Hayley Del Harrison’s choreography, which was so playful and individual. I loved how she worked with each cast member really individually to bring out their character in their dancing.
“Hayley is back this year, and we’re doing more of that way of working – and we have the ensemble back too. Again, it was a big learning curve for me that dance can not only be beautiful and spectacular in panto but playful and fun too, and that’s something Hayley really brings out.”
Writer-producer Paul Hendy is delighted by the casting too. “It’s not by accident,” he says. “It’s done with this in mind: more than anything we want to appeal to a family audience. That’s my driving force.
“The cast must have that appeal; they must be talented, and they have to have that youthful energy to make the audience go, ‘wow, this is a great show, a different show from the norm’, mixing those qualities with spectacle and comedy. They’re all the ingredients that make a good panto.”
Paul acknowledges the “big reputation” of York Theatre Royal’s pantomime built up over Berwick Kaler’s four-decade damehood. “It’s very significant. Berwick helped to really establish York as a pantomime city, and we will carry that on but with a different flavour. I have every confidence in what we do, and we think people will say, ‘oh yes, we love this show too’,” he says.
“There is definitely room for two large-scale pantomimes in this city. People will come and see this show for what it is, done with a lot of love and care, done in a bespoke way for York audiences. If people want high quality, they will enjoy this show.”
After the positive response to the Travelling Pantomime, audiences can expect more of the same, but more of it! “I was so pleased and proud to be associated with last year’s show. Cinderella will be in that style but on a much bigger scale, with that humour, that spirit, that connectivity with the audience.
“It’s also ‘meta-theatre’ with a knowing awareness to it: it’s that thing of everyone knowing it’s not just Andy Day playing Dandini, but it’s Andy Day from CBeebies playing Dandini. It works better when everyone knows it.”
The last word goes to Juliet, who says: “It feels right to start the new era at the Theatre Royal with Evolution with Cinderella, the best known of all pantomimes, but also a pantomime without a dame, to give the transition time, not wanting someone to have to step into Berwick’s shoes straightaway, out of respect for him, but with a gradual progression to the future in mind.”
Cinderella runs at York Theatre Royal from tomorrow (3/12/2021) to January 2.Tickets are on sale on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
IN the original 2020 vision of York’s pantomime season, Dame Berwick Kaler made his comeback in Dick Turpin Rides Again in his newly adopted home of the Grand Opera House.
York Theatre Royal had a ball with Cinderella, bedding in a new partnership with Evolution Productions, and the Rowntree Players filled the Joseph Rowntree Theatre with community spirit as ever.
Then, however, the pandemic, rather than pantomime, became the P word on all lips, tearing up the script for the winter ahead. Dick Turpin never left the stable; the Theatre Royal took to the road with the Travelling Pantomime; Rowntree Players made plans for 2021 instead.
Along came a newcomer, however, in the form of York Stage’s inaugural pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, full of beans, routines, slapstick and musical theatre songs at the Covid-secure Theatre @41 Monkgate, under the direction of debutant writer Nik Briggs.
The post-Christmas impediment of Tier 3 status for York curtailed the panto fun and games on December 30, rather than the planned finale of January 3, but Nik can look back on a job well done with reduced-capacity, socially distanced full houses for the majority of shows since opening on December 11.
“I’ve been blown away by the response we’ve had to our panto,” he says. “The respect I have for the art form and the recognition of how panto inspires so many children every year meant it wasn’t an option for me not to have a panto with real scale and spectacle over Christmas in York.
“It’s something I’ve hopefully brought into my own productions across the years. The respect I have for the art form and the recognition of how panto inspires so many children every year meant it wasn’t an option for me not to have a panto with real scale and spectacle over Christmas in York.”
Reflecting on penning his first panto script, Nik says: “It was certainly nerve wracking putting my own script out, having never penned a show before! Especially in York, following in the footsteps of Berwick [Kaler], who I respect greatly.
“Between lockdowns, I went over for a coffee with him, talked through my ideas and came away with the confidence to put pen to paper. He was so encouraging. I’ve had so many great responses to the script, which is a big compliment.”
Described by Nik as “musical theatre with pantomime braces on” and by choreographer Gary Lloyd as a “pansical”, York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk was distinctive from past pantos in York.
“The triple-threat West End cast were probably the show’s biggest surprise to a York audience. Having all eight performers be at the top of their game, being super-talented actors, singers and dancers,” says Nik.
“I always knew my panto would be very much a musical fairy-tale, which would feature all the elements of panto that are traditional included into the mix. I cast it knowing I’d need brilliant performers who could bring the skills that the show’s structure demanded. You’ll not see songs like the ones we had in a panto any time soon again, not only in York but across the country.”
In picking his cast of May Tether’s Jill Gallop, Jordan Fox’s Jack Trott, Ian Stroughair’s villainous Fleshius Creepius, Livvy Evans’s Fairy Mary, Alex Weartherhill’s Dane Nanna Trott and an ensemble of dance captains Danielle Mullan, Emily Taylor and Matthew Ives, Nik was seeking “three things”.
“Firstly, talent: the triple-threat capability of every cast member. Secondly, strong links to the city and region, and, finally, they had to be lovely people who would be fun to work with,” he says.
“A lot of the cast I’d worked with before and all of them I’d work with again. We brought together eight actors who became a panto family in less than six weeks! They worked tirelessly to create our sensational show and were a nothing short of a beautiful, talented, naturally diverse collection of Yorkshire talent.”
Nik was adamant his panto should have a Yorkshire flavour, not least May Tether revelling in using her Goole accent in a show for the first time. “Being a Geordie import to York, having lived here for over ten years, one thing that has always blown me away about the city is the amount of talent that stems from here,” he says.
“It’s a no-brainer, therefore, that I would use talent from the area primarily! Especially at Christmas, and with what’s going on at the moment, it was always important that this was a show made in York for the people of York.”
In a coup for York Stage, Nik was able to call on the choreographic skills of West End hotshot Gary Lloyd, whose touring production of Heathers remained in hibernation. “I’ve known Gary’s work for many years [his sister is York Stage Musicals regular Jo Theaker]; I’m always knocked out by his choreography and musical staging,” he says.
“We’d spoken before about working together and this time last year I’d have laughed if you’d said we’d be doing a panto as our first show together, but it has been a brilliant experience. His storytelling through choreography is just so inspiring! As a creative, he was fantastic to work with; he really did inspire me in the rehearsal room every day.”
Given the Government’s ever-changing pandemic rules, navigating a safe passage for a show in late-2020 was a challenge like no other for a theatre director, not least the late rule change that cut the capacity from 80 to 55 (with the audience divided into bubbles divided by Perspex screens either side of the traverse stage).
“The whole process was filled with challenges, but we knew, going into the project, it was never going to be easy,” says Nik. “We took every day as it presented itself to us. I’m very comfortable with change and the need to adapt, so as producer I felt confident leading the production through the Covid storm.
“Some days were harder than others, but we knew what we were doing was too important to walk away from.”
One of the talking points of Nik’s first pantomime was the inspired marketing coup of transforming the famous Bile Beans wall sign on Lord Mayor’s Walk into Bile Beanstalk to point passers-by in the direction of Theatre @41 Monkgate.
“It summed up our production perfectly,” he says. “Something new, something well executed, something in York we’re used to, being flipped on its head and turned for a short period into something new! People’s reaction was brilliant; they understood we were having fun and being playful while respecting the landmark.”
On the subject of creating “something new” for York, what more could Nik bring to a pantomime if he could do such a show under normal circumstances? “Who knows?! Talent and spectacle will always be the main two factors in my shows,” he says.
“I’m always looking to push forward and bring the biggest and best theatre to the city. York’s got two new pantos in 2021 with Qdos and Evolution, two of the country’s biggest panto producers, going head to head at the Grand Opera House and York Theatre Royal. How will that end?”
Looking ahead, Nik’s plans for 2021 cannot be set in concrete while the pandemic still refuses to relent: “Have you got a crystal ball?” he says. “We’ve got rights secured for some brilliant titles over the next two years, but they will only be possible to stage when social distancing is over.
“The next big show we can realistically hope to stage is Elf The Musical at the Grand Opera House next November/December. Before that, we’ll be working on smaller shows with brilliant casts, which will be announced throughout the year.”
Through the year too, Nik will be busy running York Stage School, remotely while Covid regulations prevail, but then returning to Theatre @41 Monkgate. “We’ll be continuing to work with our students through 2021 and will be striving to bring them the best theatrical training possible,” he says.
“We have survived two lockdowns and created brilliant work with them and that will continue this term.”
One lasting memory of Jack And The Beanstalk will be Nik’s impromptu emotional moment at the close of the final show, urging everyone to keep supporting theatre. “I don’t do last-night public speaking: it’s not my style and I cringe at it as people don’t come to hear me speak,” he says.
“They come to be entertained and forget whatever is going on outside, but I was ambushed – while I didn’t have any shoes on – and having received notice only a few hours before that our show would have to close that night, emotions were running high around the building.
“It’s scary producing shows at the moment: Will people support us? Will they come if we stage things? Will this bankrupt me?
“The Government closing theatres in Tier 3, where thousands have been spent to keep people safe, but allowing people to still shop and go around picking up produce just doesn’t make sense. It’s idiotic!”
Nik develops his point: “There are no recorded transmissions in theatre, that’s important to stress. So, it’s important audiences do support whatever is being produced. Otherwise, things won’t be produced, things won’t happen, and that’d make for a very sad cultural landscape,” he says.
“A lot of people have said we were lucky to get to perform 40 of the 45 shows scheduled. At first, I agreed, but with hindsight I’ve re-evaluated and realised that is a very dangerous way to think.
“We all worked tirelessly and sacrificed a lot to ensure we created a brilliant show that people could enjoy safely. There was no big financial reward dangling at the end of the run to tempt us to cut corners; we simply wouldn’t have staged the show if we thought we were doing anything unsafely or were creating risk.
“Our friends and family were among the audiences; we wouldn’t have risked them. So, we were lucky we didn’t fall short sooner because of the Governments poor management but there was nothing lucky in losing our final five shows.”
The timing of the Elf production rules out a second York Stage pantomime next winter, but what are Nik’s wishes for 2021? “To get people vaccinated quickly so we can get back to sitting close together, sharing stories and experiences in theatres across the city,” he says.
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.
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.”
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!”
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.
“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.
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
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.
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.
CINDERELLA, you shall not go to the ball, because no pantomime will run at York Theatre Royal this Christmas. There will, however, be three Theatre Royal pantomimes this winter instead. Yes, three.
Rather than the traditional transformation scene of pumpkin and mice into carriage and horses, this Covid-enforced conversion will be a switch from the still-shut St Leonard’s Place building to the York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime.
In tandem with new pantomime partners Evolution Productions, this pop-up enterprise will take the Theatre Royal on the road to every neighbourhood in York – all 21 wards – during December and January.
Each location, ranging from community halls to social clubs and sports centres, will be Covid-secure, adhering to Government guidance for staging socially distanced performances with capacities ranging from 35 to 50, and at each show, the audience members can vote for whether they want to see Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk or Aladdin.
The Travelling Pantomime retains the previously announced Cinderella triumvirate of Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird, who oversaw the breaking of the chain from 41 years of Dame Berwick Kaler pantomimes, associate director Juliet Forster as director and award-winning Evolution director and producer Paul Hendy as the writer, who will pen three scripts with York references aplenty.
Their first big signing is the pocket-sized bundle of York energy Josh Benson, magician, children’s entertainer, actor and Corntroller of Entertainment at York Maze, who had signed up for a further two years as the daft-lad comedy turn in the Halifax Victoria Theatre pantomime after his debut in Beauty And The Beast last winter.
Once confirmed that Victoria devotees would not be amused by Jack And The Beanstalk this winter, however, Josh was available to play his home city, and fresh from performing his Just Josh magic show at the Theatre Royal’s Pop-Up On The Patio festival, he quickly came on board for the panto road show.
‘I’m so chuffed to be able to play a part keeping York’s panto tradition alive, in a year where it feels like the majority of traditions have pretty much gone out the window,” says Benson. “What’s really special for me personally is the ‘full circle’ that’s happened, having actually started my professional career with York Theatre Royal, aged ten, in their 2007 panto Sinbad The Sailor.
“It’ll be so great to be back home for Christmas this year, finding a way to spread some panto joy amongst the current craziness.”
Details of venues, performance times and further casting – possibly a cast of five, but more likely four, local actors – will be released in the coming weeks.
Tom Bird, who has experience of mounting travelling shows when executive producer at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, says: “Our Travelling Pantomime will be a rip-roaring Christmas treat for the whole family. Audiences can expect hilarity and chaos, music and magic as our amazing actors visit every corner of York.
“It’s called the York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime because it does exactly what it says on the tin and will travel to every York neighbourhood. It’ll be a small-scale show with a cast of four or five, where we’ll do whatever we need to do to meet the Government guidance at that time.
“We want it to be this generous offer to each community, where the audience gets to choose between three pantomimes, which gives scope for even more comedy. It’s quite a challenge for the designer [yet to be confirmed], having to design a set for three shows, but still having to taking the audience into another world.”
Bird is delighted that the Travelling Pantomime will still mark the debut of the new Theatre Royal and Evolution partnership. “We believe that Evolution are the most exciting pantomime company in the country right now: they won the Best Panto award again [for750 to 1,500-seat theatres] for Cinderella at Sheffield Lyceum in the 2020 Great British Pantomime Awards,” he says.
“Their pantomimes are dynamic, they’re electric, they’re funny and fabulous, and they’re not snooty, and Evolution are a belting company. I remain convinced that we’ll have one of the best pantomimes in the country when we do Cinderella in 2021 and, in the meantime, we have this exciting opportunity this winter.
“It’s great that Paul is writing the three scripts: his writing for pantomimes is graceful and funny and his shows are not blue, just good fun, and they’ll have a local flavour too.”
Bird is quick to stress that the Travelling Pantomime shows should not be seen as a Covid-necessitated compromise. “It’s a massive logistical enterprise, taking a show to all 21 York wards,” he says. “I have a history of doing shows like this, taking small-scale projects around the world for Shakespeare’s Globe.
“It really does give a project an artistic energy when you face logistical challenges, like we are in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic.
“Taking the Travelling Pantomime into the York communities is very direct, I hope it’s very democratic and it acknowledges the virus because there may be people that might not want to go into town on a bus but will go round the corner from their home to see a show.”
Bird is delighted to have snapped up the comedic, mischievous nuttiness of Josh Benson. “We’re very excited to have Josh in the show. When we saw him on the patio doing his Just Josh show, we thought, ‘this is exactly what we need’. He’s warm, he’s very engaging, he’s local and he’s loved by people in York, and he’ll help to shape the shows.
“It’s also important, coming out of the old panto into the new era, that we should make our pantomime a show for families and Josh helps us to do that.”
Looking forward to leading the Theatre Royal pantomime in his home city, Benson says: “It’s been said of me, ‘if you turn Josh upside down, it says ‘Made In York’, and it’ll be lovely to be in York this winter because I don’t really want to be anywhere else in this strange year.
“I’d signed for one year for the Victoria Theatre panto in Halifax and they then offered me for four more in the comic role, effectively taking over from Neil Hurst, who’d done it for five years before me, and I said, ‘let me do another two’, but when Jack And The Beanstalk had to be postponed, the Travelling Pantomime feels a lovely thing to be able to do and a real honour too.
“It’s nice to be part of a new beginning for the Theatre Royal pantomime, which I think will be great. What’s good for me is that I can dip my toe in a York panto and they can do the same with me.”
He believes it is important to spread his talent wherever possible when still on a learning curve at 22. “This summer aside, I usually do the whole season at York Maze, so you could have too much of a good thing if I do the winter season as well in panto, doing the same jokes and routines!” he reasons. “I’m very much playing the long game, working up to going to the Edinburgh Fringe with a solo show.”
Benson will have to learn not one, but three pantomime scripts. “But that’s a hugely exciting thing to be doing: a choice of three shows each performance. Tom [Bird] did that at the Globe too, and what’s clever about it is that it’ll have a rough-and ready-feel to it, like a village-hall panto, but as Tom has said, it’ll still be a York Theatre Royal panto, with the award-winning Paul Hendy writing it.
“As a pop-up panto, you can open it in that rough-and-ready style, in a conversational tone, so it’s different from the very start, with me going out there as Josh, just like with the kids’ parties I do, jumping up on stage and just talking, whereas normally with a panto in a theatre, the audience are looking at the stage, thinking, ‘Go on, impress me’.”
Doing three shows throws up extra comedic possibilities too for the comic turn with the potential for daft-lad confusion. “I love the idea that I can go, ‘Right, Dick…Jack…I mean, Aladdin’, so suddenly you’re doing that ‘times three’ thing,” he says.
Benson is restlessly creative – he had written and prepared a drive-in show for York Maze, should owner “Farmer Tom” Pearcy have decided to re-open his attraction this summer post-lockdown – and so he will not merely be turning up to rehearsals for the Travelling Pantomime.
“I would really love to be involved in suggesting ‘how about this or how about that?’ for the shows, so I’m going to meet Juliet [director Juliet Forster] in September to talk about it,” he says.
In the meantime, he will keep busy with children’s party magic shows in gardens – whatever the “Rule of Six” permits – after a multitude of lockdown shows on Zoom and Facebook.
Tickets for York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime will go on sale in November. Oh, and Cinderella, you shall still go to the ball, the glittering party merely postponed from 2020/2021 to 2021/2022.
The box-office team will be in touch with ticket holders with the option of moving tickets to next year, cancelling the booking or donating some or all of ticket cost to York Theatre Royal. Ticket holders are being asked NOT to contact the box office, whose reduced team will contact them as quickly as possible in coming weeks.
Just Josh? Just who is Josh Benson? Let him introduce himself:
“HAVING not conventionally trained in anything, 22-year-old ‘Josh of All Trades, Master of None’ is winging his way through the entertainment industry. But don’t tell his mum…she thinks he’s at university studying for a proper job!
As an actor, Josh’s credits include playing Little Ernie in the award-winning BBC Morecambe and Wise biopic Eric & Ernie; being hit by a car in BBC1’s Casualtyand a cameo in Monroefor ITV. He played Tommo in Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls musical The Girls from 2015 to 2017, both in the world premiere at Leeds Grand Theatre and The Lowry, Salford, and at the Phoenix Theatre in London’s West End.
A huge part of Josh’s work is at York Maze, where he is the Corntroller of Entertainments – genuine job title – for the summer season. There, he writes, manages and co-hosts three live-action experiences: a stage show, tractor trailer ride and pig racing. This role has sprung from Josh being a professional children’s and family entertainer for the past seven years, having proudly entertained at hundreds of children’s parties and events, on cruises and in shows.
He is a professional close-up/stage magician and comedian, having performed four seasons of The Good Old Daysat Leeds City Varieties Music Hall, later taking his act down to the Big Smoke for Players Music Hall and the Cockney Sing-Alongat Charing Cross Theatre and Brick Lane Music Hall respectively.
As a “grown-up”entertainer, Josh last year debuted his first one-man cabaret evening, It’s Not The Joshua Benson Show/Josh Of All Trades, a two-act show of all his “pointless yet entertaining” skills. This show tours the UK constantly, “whenever it can fit in between everything else”!
In pantomime, Josh’s career began in 2007, at the tender age of ten, among the babbies and bairns in York Theatre Royal’s Sinbad The Sailor. He was lucky enough to more festive fun in 2008 for Dick Turpin and in 2011 returned to York Theatre Royal as John Darling in Peter Pan,part of the In The Round summer season.
Christmas 2018 saw Josh’s panto comic debut as Buttons in Cinderellaat the Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield, and last year he took over as comic at the Victoria Theatre, Halifax, for Beauty And The Beast.
He was due to return there this year for Jack And The Beanstalk, now postponed until 2021. He is delighted – and feels incredibly lucky! – to have been offered the fantastic alternative of York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime for the winter season.”
YORK Theatre Royal is to make “some redundancies”, faced by the need to reduce costs significantly in the Coronavirus blight.
A statement headlined “York Theatre Royal takes steps to ensure its future” was released today, announcing that, “like so many theatres around the country”, the St Leonard’s Place theatre would be entering into consultations with staff that would “regrettably lead to some redundancies due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic”.
“The theatre has been unable to open its doors for performances since March 17 and, despite Government allowing the return of socially distanced performances from August 1, the theatre’s survival will depend on it reducing costs significantly,” the statement continued.
Eighty-nine per cent of the Theatre Royal’s annual income is generated through ticket sales and from revenue streams associated with welcoming audiences. A £196,493 grant from the Arts Council England Emergency Fund, announced on July 7, will support the theatre, but only to September 30, and crucially details are yet to be announced as to how the much vaunted £1.57 billion Government relief package for cultural institutions will be distributed.
The “crown jewels” of British culture are expected to be at the top of the pecking order, although Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has talked of the need to protect small-scale theatre enterprises too.
In the statement, Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird said: “Since 1744, the people of York have enjoyed, supported and celebrated this theatre. It is our job, as custodians of this great community asset, to do whatever we can to ensure its survival for the people of our city.
“All of the leadership team have taken big pay cuts, and we have maximised our use of government [furlough] schemes.
“It is devastating to me that in the coming weeks we are going to have to make some very difficult decisions. But the theatre can survive this and we will make sure that, when we are able to re-open our doors, York Theatre Royal will come roaring back with an epic programme to help re-energise our community’s creativity.”
Tom added: “I want to take this opportunity to thank the hundreds of people who are donating to the theatre at this time, as a result of our heightened fundraising messages. This is making a real difference.” Donations can be made online via yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Vicky Biles, the Theatre Royal director of communications and development, said: “We’re not going to add anything else at this time.”
That leaves questions aplenty. How many redundancies? When will the Theatre Royal learn if any slice of the £1.57 billion aid package is bound for York? Will Cinderella still be going to the ball in the Theatre Royal’s first pantomime collaboration with Evolution Productions from December 4 to January 10 2021? Watch this space for the answers, whenever they may come.
THE new age of pantomime at York
Theatre Royal will involve Evolution rather than revolution.
For the first panto of the post-Berwick
Kaler era, the Theatre Royal is teaming up with award-winning pantomime producers
Evolution to present Cinderella.
The show dates will be December 4 to
January 10 2021, an earlier start and finish than the December 7 to January 25
run for Sleeping Beauty, Dame Berwick’s last pantomime as co-director and writer
after a 41-year association with the Theatre Royal.
Cinderella will be directed by Theatre
Royal associate director Juliet Forster, who directed Shakespeare’s comedy A
Midsummer Night’s Dream for Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in York in 2018 and Arthur
Miller’s A View From The Bridge in the Theatre Royal main house last September,
as well as children’s shows aplenty.
The script will be written by Evolution
co-founder and producer Paul Hendy in tandem with York-born comedy writer and
podcaster David Reed, who has returned to his home city and will provide
The cast is yet to be announced but
will not be a star vehicle, with variety acts and blossoming pantomime talent
and a “York flavour” likely to be to the fore instead. The set designer, not
confirmed yet, will be charged with creating magical transformations and glittering
sets to complement the “stunning songs and side-splitting laughs”.
Formed in 2005 by Paul Hendy and Emily
Wood, Evolution Productions present “bespoke pantomimes of epic spectacle and
hilarity” for the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield; Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury; The
Hawth Theatre, Crawley; Garrick Theatre, Lichfield; Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury;
Alban Arena, St Albans; Octagon Theatre, Yeovil, and Grove Theatre, Dunstable,
now joined in a co-producing partnership by York Theatre Royal.
Juliet Forster and Theatre Royal
executive director Tom Bird were exhilarated by Evolution’s 2019-2020 pantomime
for Sheffield Theatres, starring long-running dame Damian Williams in
Cinderella at the Lyceum.
Paul Hendy’s script from that hit show will
provide an early template for Reed to set to work on giving it a York branding,
with Cinderella’s rags-to-riches story being switched to this historic city in
a “new pantomime for everyone”.
director Bird says: “We are
over the moon to be creating a spectacular new pantomime for the people of York:
one that’s tailor-made for the whole family, while honouring the pantomime
traditions that our audiences love so much.
“Our recipe includes two of the most
exciting voices in our city, David Reed and Juliet Forster, together with Emily
Wood and Paul Hendy, the finest makers of pantomime in the country – a
Bird continues: “This phenomenal team
will give the York Theatre Royal pantomime a new lease of life with a fresh,
family friendly, fun-filled approach to the story of Cinderella. It’s a
pantomime for the new decade, set with pride in our amazing city.”
Evolution Productions has built a
reputation for superior, bespoke pantomimes with the emphasis on high-quality
production values, strong casting and funny scripts, twice winning Pantomime of
the Year at the Great British Pantomime Awards.
Producer and writer Hendy says: “Emily
and I are absolutely thrilled to be working with York Theatre Royal on this
year’s pantomime. We are huge fans of the theatre and we’re looking forward to
collaborating with Tom and his brilliant team to produce a wonderful, family-friendly
pantomime with spectacular production values, a superbly talented cast,
and a genuinely funny script.”
Ticket prices will remain the same as
for 2019-2020. Family tickets and Sunday shows are being introduced, as well as
schools and groups discounts so that “everyone can go to the ball”.
Theatre Royal members’ ten-day priority booking opened today; members’ five-day priority booking on February 8; 9am in person at the box office, 10am online and phone booking. General booking opens on February 13; same times as above. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Meanwhile, Berwick Kaler’s first pantomime
at his new York home, the Grand Opera House, will be Dick Turpin Rides Again, with
writer, director and revived dame Kaler being joined by regular cohorts Martin
Barrass, David Leonard, Suzy Cooper and AJ Powell for Qdos Entertainment’s
panto partnership with the Ambassador Theatre Group.