ROWNTREE Players are heading for a sold-out pantomime run of Cinderella with only ‘limited availability’ or ‘last few tickets’ notices for each performance.
Co-written by regular writer-director Howard Ella and delightfully daft comedy dipstick Gemma McDonald in a new creative partnership, this rollicking panto romp will run from Saturday to December 16 at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, Haxby Road, York.
“When we launched our panto tickets in August, we had record-breaking sales on the first day,” says Gemma, who will be playing Buttons. “We sold the equivalent of a whole show within the first two days and they’ve just kept on selling.”
“I’ve been learning from the best,” she says of her experience of teaming up with Howard on script duties. “It’s hard work to get a script right, and you don’t realise the processes you have to go through to achieve that until you face them.”
Howard says: “For me, that awareness comes from doing repertory panto all those years ago in Harrogate when it was a traditional family show,” he says. “Writing a panto now, I want to keep the innocence for children but with those cheeky double entendres for parents and adults in the audience.
“How do you do that in 2023, keeping it relevant and challenging without it being too challenging, because you do have to get the balance right between being challenging and getting bums on seats? That’s not an easy line to tread, but we’ve managed to do it.
“Not forgetting that by making our panto profitable, we support Rowntree Players’ ability to put on plays each year that are challenging, rather than just doing the same old plays, and we’re proud to follow that fading principle in theatre.
“We’ve pretty much doubled our audiences over the past 12 years, and hopefully that’s down to the quality and wide appeal of our pantos, but you can never rest on your laurels, and we all know that the York panto landscape has changed over the past few years [with veteran dame Berwick Kaler’s transfer to the Grand Opera House and Evolution Productions teaming up with York Theatre Royal].”
Howard notes how York theatregoers are very supportive of community and amateur productions. “People go to all see all sorts of groups putting on all sorts of shows, which feels like a really healthy eco-system,” he says.
“For Rowntree Players, we’re lucky to have a theatre like the Rowntree Theatre with a decent capacity and good stage facilities, so we have a professional structure for staging shows, building a relationship with the theatre where we can push ourselves to the limit with the support of the theatre and all those volunteers who make it so special.”
Gemma adds: “Over the years, we’ve built a diverse team with diverse skills to run our panto, who work so hard together, such as our engineer Lee Smith, who has welding skills to help us to design things like a magic carpet rig, which everyone else would hire in. We couldn’t do that, but with Lee, we can make things, and so our imagination grows as to what we can do.”
Cinderella has proved “the most difficult” of Howard’s pantomimes for him to write. “Coming from York and having watched Berwick Kaler’s pantos, we all like to mess with the plot, but Cinderella has so many plot points you have to cover, and culturally accepted norms you have to cover, that when you try to have fun with it, there’s not much room to do that when you have to get all that in.
“In pantomime, the easiest comedy flows between the dame and the comic, but in Cinderella it’s harder to work out where the humour flows when the dame is replaced by two baddies, the Ugly Sisters. It’s the most demanding of all pantomime writing experiences but when you get there, it’s the most rewarding.”
Regular dame Graham Smith is taking a year out, and instead Ugly Sisters Cassandra and Miranda will be a partnership of last year’s villain, Jamie McKellar, alias York ghost-walk guide and spookologist Dr Dorian Deathly, and Michael Cornell. “They know each other of old,” says Howard. “That’s not why they’ve been cast together, but it clearly helped in the auditions.
“When we learned that Jamie, who’s a very experienced actor, was properly up for playing the Sheriff of Nottingham in Babes In The Wood last year, we were delighted. Panto is fun to do but it’s hard work too, where you can break the fourth wall as the villain, but you can’t be too funny, and he was clearly right for the role.
“This year it will be different again, as Graham wanted a year out, and we’ll see Jamie in a new guise as Ugly Sister.”
Sara Howlett’s Cinderella, Hannah King’s Prince Charming, Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Wicked Queen and Jeanette Hunter’s Queen of Hearts need no introduction to Rowntree Players panto regulars.
Look out too for Sophie Bullivant and radio presenter Laura Castle, such a hit together in Rowntree Players’ March production of John Godber’s Teechers, now playing Dandini and Fairy Flo respectively.
“What’s interesting is that everyone read the script in a way I hadn’t thought of at the first readthrough, which really shook the script up and made me look at it in a different way,” says Howard of a show also featuring 12 numbers under James Robert Ball’s musical direction and a dozen dance routines choreographed by Ami Carter.
“We’re conscious that we have a regular gang in the panto but that we always have to make sure to give others an opportunity, both in the ensemble and with two Ugly Sisters giving us an ‘extra dame’ this year, it’s been the perfect opportunity to open it up,” says Howard.
“If you just work with familiar relationships within the cast, it can make you lazy, so having new faces makes you up your game, particularly when directing.”
Gemma concludes: “We have a mixture of old and new faces in the cast this year, which is really nice,” says Gemma. “It’s a really strong ensemble and that’s exactly what Cinderella needs.”
Rowntree Players present Cinderella, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, December 9 to 16, except December 11. Performances: December 9, 2pm and 7.30pm; December 10, 2pm and 6pm; December 12 to 15, 7.30pm; December 16, 2pm (sold out) and 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 501395 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
Who is in Rowntree Players’ principal cast for Cinderella?
Cinderella: Sara Howlett
Buttons: Gemma McDonald
Baron Hardup: Barry Johnson
Wicked Queen: Marie-Louise Surgenor
Cassandra: Jamie McKeller
Miranda: Michael Cornell
Fairy Flo: Laura Castle
Queen of Hearts: Jeanette Hunter
Prince Charming: Hannah King
Dandini: Sophie Bullivant
Flunkit: Geoff Walker
Head Fairy – Bernie Calpin
Director: Howard Ella
Choreographer: Ami Carter
Musical director: James Robert Ball
Writers: Howard Ella and Gemma McDonald