How cabbage soup, David Walliams and a Crown Jewels-thieving Gangsta Granny became a recipe for stage show success

Oh, no, cabbage soup again: Granny (Isobel Ford) serves up another spoonful to 11-year-old grandson Ben (Justin Davies) in Birmingham Stage Company’s Gangsta Grammy
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WHEN actor, humorist, author, talent-show judge, Channel swimmer and activist David Walliams was a child he spent time aplenty with his grandmas.

So began his odyssey to writing Gangsta Granny, his book for children that has since transferred to the stage in Birmingham Stage Company’s touring production, whose latest itinerary takes in the Grand Opera House from February 3 to 6, having first played the York theatre in September 2016.

“Sometimes I would selfishly think spending time with my grannies could be boring,” he says. “But when I got them on a subject like living in London during World War II, when bombs were raining down, they would become very animated and I would be enthralled. I realised everyone has a story to tell.”

In Walliams’s tale, Friday night means only one thing for Ben: staying with Granny, where he must put up with cabbage soup, cabbage pie and cabbage cake. Ben knows one thing for sure – it will be so, so boring – but what Ben doesn’t know is that Granny has a secret.

Soon Friday nights will be more exciting than he could ever imagine, as he embarks on the adventure of a lifetime with his very own Gangsta Granny.

“There was definitely a smell of cabbages in one of my grandmas’ houses,” recalls Walliams, giving an insight into his inspiration for Gangsta Granny. “The other did break wind like a duck quacking when she walked across the room.”

Walliams acknowledges the special bond between children and their grandparents. “I think grandparents love being grandparents because they get to give the children back to the parents!” says the 50-year-old Little Britain and Partners In Crime television star.

“Children love spending time with their grandparents because they love hearing their stories and being allowed to stay up past their bedtime.”

He is delighted that Gangsta Granny has become a stage show. “It’s a huge thrill seeing Gangsta Granny have this whole new life on the stage. It’s already been a TV film. People seem to really like the story,” says Walliams. “In fact Gangsta Granny is my best-selling book by far, and the stage show is brilliant – better than the book.”

Assessing the potential challenges or difficulties in staging Gangsta Granny, he says: “There is lots of action, especially when they try to steal the Crown Jewels. It’s quite a challenge for Birmingham Stage Company to bring those scenes to life but they do it so well,” he says. “Shows for children need to be fun and fast paced, which Gangsta Granny certainly is.”

He particularly likes how the characters of Ben’s mum and dad work on stage. “Their obsession with ballroom dancing is very funny, brought to life in the play,” says Walliams, who first saw the Birmingham company in one of their Horrible Histories shows, which made him keen to work with them. “I loved the humour and the interaction with the audience, so I look forward to seeing more of that.

“The great thing about seeing Gangsta Granny on stage is you will get to share it with an audience. So hopefully you will laugh and cry along with everyone else. That’s what makes theatre so special.”

What does Walliams hope children will take away from watching Gangsta Granny in York next month? “The moral of the story is, ‘don’t assume old people are boring just because they are old’,” he advises. “In fact, they are likely to have had a much more interesting life than yours. Talk to old folk, listen to their stories. They are bound to be full of magic and wonder.”

Wise words indeed from Walliams, who took up writing children’s fiction 15 years ago. “I had an idea for a story: what if a boy went to school dressed as a girl? I thought it would be a thought-provoking children’s book. That became The Boy In The Dress, my first of many children’s novels,” he says.

“The only limitation in a children’s book is your imagination. You can take children on magical journeys in books that many adults would be reluctant to go on.”

Walliams highlights the challenges presented by writing for children? “Children love to be scared but it can’t be too horrifying. Children love to laugh but it can’t be too rude. You always have to be the right side of the line,” he says.

He admires the work of Roald Dahl, arguably the 20th century doyen of children’s authors. “I think Dahl’s books always feel a little bit forbidden. He manages to balance the humour and scary elements in his stories perfectly,” says Walliams, who picks The Twits as his favourite Dahl story. “It’s utterly hilarious and I love that it’s a children’s book with no child characters.”

He recalls enjoying other writers, such as Dr Seuss, in his childhood days. “I loved Dr Seuss books as a child, especially Green Eggs And Ham. His books are like nightmares come to life. They are rich and strange and utterly unlike anybody else’s work,” says Walliams.

David Walliams has become popular in his own right as a children’s author and ticket sales for Gangsta Granny testify to that popularity. “I imagine children like the humour and that I don’t patronise them,” he says, summing up his appeal as a storyteller. “I deal with quite big topics, cross-dressing, homelessness, grief. I know children are a lot smarter than most grown-ups think.”

Premiered in 2015, Gangsta Granny has become a West End hit twice over, prompting stage adaptations of Walliams’s books Awful Auntie and Billionaire Boy too. Now Birmingham Stage Company actor-manager Neal Foster’s adaptation returns to York for a second Grand Opera House run, full of Walliams’s humorous home truths wrapped inside family relationships. 

Birmingham Stage Company in Gangsta Granny, Grand Opera House, York, February 3 to 6; Thursday to Saturday, 2.30pm and 7pm, Sunday, 11am and 3pm. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/york. Suitable for age 5+.

Did you know?

Since the 2008 publication of his first novel, The Boy In The Dress, David Walliams’s  books have sold  44 million copies worldwide and been translated into 55 languages.

There is nothing like…two dames

Berwick Kaler: Had to miss the last week of Dick Turpin Rides Again at the Grand Opera House, York, after positive Covid test. Picture: David Harrison

HOW did a York theatre cope with Covid crocking its legendary dame? Find out in Episode 73 of Graham Chalmers and Charles Hutchinson‘s Two Big Egos In A Small Car podcast. Under discussion too are Peter Jackson’s fab, formidable Beatles documentary Get Back; Mike Leigh’s Naked foreseeing Britpop and The Tourist going down better than Novax in Australia.

To listen, head to: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1187561/9886020

Alan McHugh: Aberdeen’s dame answered the call when Covid struck Berwick Kaler

The film flopped but can Rachel Wagstaff’s play crack The Da Vinci Code? Find out at Grand Opera House, York, this spring

Hannah Rose Caton, in character as Sophie Neveu in The Da Vinci Code, at The Temple Church, London,  a location featured in Dan Brown’s story. Picture: Oliver Rosser

THE world-premiere stage adaptation of Dan Brown’s thriller The Da Vinci Code will play the Grand Opera House, York, from May 30 to June 4.

Directed by Luke Sheppard, who was at the helm of the award-winning West End musical & Juliet, the debut tour from January 10 to November 12 will take in further Yorkshire dates in Sheffield, Hull, Leeds and Bradford.

Producer Simon Friend says: “We have a truly stellar cast and creative team bringing The Da Vinci Code to life on stage for the first time, and with Dan Brown’s full endorsement of the show and the talented director Luke Sheppard at the helm, we’re confident that we’ll please devoted fans as well as newcomers to this magnificent story.

“Dan Brown’s epic thriller has been read by millions worldwide and seen by millions worldwide on the big screen, and we’re all looking forward to taking our brand-new stage version to audiences all over the UK.”

Writer Dan Brown says: “I’m thrilled that The Da Vinci Code is being adapted for the stage and excited to see the unique potential of live theatre enhance this story.

Hannah Rose Caton’s Sophie Neveu, Nigel Harman’s Robert Langdon and Danny John-Jules’s Sir Leigh Teabing in The Da Vinci Code. Picture: Oliver Rosser

“The team making the production has been faithful to the book, but will also bring something new for the audience, in what is certain to be a gripping, fast-paced stage thriller and a thoroughly entertaining show.”

Nigel Harman and Danny John-Jules will be performing the roles of Robert Langdon and Sir Leigh Teabing up to April 16 in Newcastle, taking in Sheffield Lyceum Theatre from January 25 to 29 and Hull New Theatre from March 1 to 5.

Harman will re-join the tour from the August 30 to September 3 dates at Leeds Grand Theatre until the Swindon run in late-October.

The casting for Robert Langdon and Sir Leigh Teabing for the York performances and Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre from November 8 to 12 is yet to be announced.

Other roles go to Hannah Rose Caton, in her British theatre debut, as Sophie Neveu; Joshua Lacy, Silas; Basienka Blake, Vernet; Alasdair Buchan, Remy; Alpha Kargbo, Fache; Leigh Lothian, Collet; Andrew Lewis, Saunière, and Debra Michaels, Sister Sandrine/Marie.

Nigel Harman in character as Robert Langdon: Appearing in Sheffield, Hull and Leeds, but not York and Bradford, in The Da Vinci Code

Should you need a quick refresher course on The Da Vinci Code’s plot, the curator of the Louvre, in Paris, has been brutally murdered. Alongside his body is a series of baffling codes.

Professor Robert Langdon and fellow cryptologist Sophie Neveu attempt to solve the riddles, leading to the works of Leonardo Da Vinci and beyond as they delve deep into the vault of history. In a breathless race through the streets of Europe, Langdon and Neveu must decipher the labyrinthine code before a shocking historical secret is lost forever.

The Da Vinci Code has been adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff (Flowers For Mrs Harris, Birdsong) and Duncan Abel (The Girl On The Train). Director Luke Sheppard, who directed What’s New Pussycatat Birmingham Rep, is joined in the creative team by set and costume designer David Woodhead, video designer Andrzej Goulding,the composition and sound design team of Ben and Max Ringham and lighting designer Lizzie Powell.

Sheppard says: “Cracking The Da Vinci Code open for the stage reveals an epic thriller steeped in theatrical potential, rich in suspense and surprising at every turn. Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel’s brilliant adaptation leaps off the page and demands us to push the limits of our imagination, creating a production that champions dynamic theatrical storytelling and places the audience up close in the heat of this gripping mystery.”

York tickets are on sale at atgtickets.com/york; Sheffield, sheffieldtheatres.co.uk; Hull, hulltheatres.co.uk; Leeds, leedsheritagetheatres.com; Bradford, bradford-theatres.co.uk.

We Will Rock You to play Grand Opera House, York, on futuristic Queen musical’s 20th anniversary tour next month

We Will Rock You: 20th anniversary tour visits Grand Opera House, York, next month. Picture: Johan Persson

WE Will Rock You’s 20th anniversary tour plays the Grand Opera House, York, from February 14 to 19 in week two of its 2022 tour, directed by the futuristic Queen musical’s writer, Ben Elton.

“I can hardly believe it’s been 20 years since We Will Rock You premiered in London, or that much of what we thought was science fiction in the script back then has turned into science fact,” says Elton, the Eighties’ godfather of political stand-up comedy, novelist and writer for stage and screen.

“I guess Queen were always ahead of the game! I’ve directed this show all over the world and I can’t wait to bring it home to the UK with a brand-new production and a fabulous cast of young Bohemians – Bohemians, most of whom were rocking in their cradles when this adventure first began.”

Since its 2002 premiere, more than 18 million theatregoers in 20-plus countries have seen the flamboyant musical hit that enjoyed 12 unbroken years at the Dominion Theatre, London, followed by multiple tours and a tenth anniversary world tour in 2013. This year’s seven-month British and Irish tour begins in Southsea, Portsmouth on February 7 before heading to York.

Powered by 24 Queen songs, We Will Rock You’s bold narrative is set in a distant, dystopian, globalised future where Earth is called Planet Mall and its inhabitants wear the same clothes, think the same thoughts and exist in a brain-dead haze.

In a system that bans musical instruments and composers, rock music is all but unknown, stirring a handful of rock rebels, the Bohemians, to fight against the all-powerful Global soft company and its boss, the Killer Queen.

Scaramouche and Galileo, two young outsiders who cannot come to terms with the bleak conformist reality, join the Bohemians to seek the unlimited power of freedom of thought, individuality and love and to set free the rebirth of rock.

“I guess Queen were always ahead of the game!” says We Will Rock You book writer Ben Elton. Picture: Trevor Leighton

Elton recalls how it became clear to him that the story needed an abstract quality “that reflected the feel of the word and music, rather than its literal content”. “This was not pop music, but rock music. Some of the most famous rock ever written, and legendary music should have a legendary context,” he says.

“I began to think of legends, both new and old, from King Arthur to The Terminator; heroic myths in which brave individuals take on the vast monolithic force of evil systems.”

The idea for We Will Rock You emerged from a meeting between Hollywood actor Robert De Niro and Queen guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor in Venice in 1996.

De Niro’s daughter was a fan of the ubiquitous British band, prompting De Niro to ask if the rock legends had ever thought of creating a musical based on their songs.

May and Taylor subsequently became musical advisors to We Will Rock You but did have early reservations about staging such a show. “We were not initially convinced, not being fans of the ‘musical theatre’ genre on the whole,” says May. “The show needed to work in a theatrical context and retain the rock, while also incorporating the spectacle, uniqueness and humour embodied by Queen.”

Taylor concurs: “We [Queen] took the music seriously, but we never took ourselves seriously. We always had the ability to laugh at ourselves. Some of the stage gear and even some of the music is quite humorous. The whole middle section of Bohemian Rhapsody was. We did a lot of daft things and a lot of experimentation.”

Doing something new was important to May. “If we were going to go into this arena, the challenge was that we would somehow try and make it our own,” he says.

“The show needed to work in a theatrical context and retain the rock, while incorporating the spectacle, uniqueness and humour embodied by Queen,” says Brian May. Picture: Rankin

“There was a point where I realised there was a whole new area of creativity opening up to us if we wanted it – a whole new canvas to paint on”.

Cue the musical’s book, scripted by Elton. “He has such a great active mind that never ever stops churning out ideas,” says Taylor.

The resulting musical is fun, light and humorous but also contains softer and, at times, heart-rending moments that allow an audience to invest emotionally. “We Will Rock You is intriguing, challenging, achingly romantic, brutally cynical and at once both sad and hilarious,” says Elton.

Taylor agrees: “It’s silly, but funny and makes quite a lot of serious points while it goes on its rather daft course,” he says.

Echoing May’s determination to create something “new in every sense”, Taylor recalls the intention was “to keep it a bit gritty and make sure it’s not a typical show”.

Roll on 20 years when today’s focus on technological advancement leaves reading and the marriage of minds looking like outdated activities, prompting May to consider the musical’s significance in 2022. “I think it’s a very good comment on the way things are going,” he says.

“Ben’s idea that individuality is being eroded every second of the day and soon it will be impossible for people to write their own music, think their own thoughts, write their own poetry, is very perceptive.”

“It’s silly, but funny and makes quite a lot of serious points while it goes on its rather daft course ,” says Roger Taylor. Picture: Rankin

To May, “Radio Ga Ga represents the malady which is taking over the world. It’s almost like that old ‘men versus machines’ thing, which we also addressed a few albums ago,” he says.

We Will Rock You explores themes relevant to those growing up in today’s world, while the 2022 tour offers younger generations the chance to discover Queen’s back catalogue.

“I had this very strange thought that it’s quite possible that this particular musical might be the thing through which people know our music in 300 years’ time,” says May, who then reflects on Queen’s relevance, 52 years on from their formation in 1970. “I’m quite shocked at how fresh this stuff still sounds and it makes me very happy, obviously.”

May says audiences should expect “a stunning state-of-the art new-look production – but of course the original story is now more relevant than ever. We’re confident We Will Rock You fans will love revisiting the world’s first true ‘Rock Theatrical’, and a whole new generation will now discover the vibe!”

The tour cast will be led Ian McIntosh as Galileo and Elena Skye as Scaramouche, with Jenny O’Leary as Killer Queen, Adam Strong as Khashoggi, Michael Mckell as Buddy, Martina Ciabatti Mennell as Oz, David Michael Johnson as Brit.

The ensemble will include Laura Bird, Kate Leiper, Joanne Harper, Anna Davey, Edward Leigh, Spin, Karen Walker, David Muscat, Damien Walsh, Laura Ava-Scott, Victoria Collins, Joseph Connor, Louis Clarke-Clare and Jacob Fearey.

We Will Rock You rocks Grand Opera Hose, York, February 14 to 19;  Sheffield City Hall, August 29 to September 3. York tickets are on sale at 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/york; Sheffield, sheffieldcityhall.co.uk.

More Things To Do in York and beyond in 2022 as the icing man cometh. List of ingredients No. 63, courtesy of The Press

Car Park Panto’s cast dishes up a Horrible Christmas to Sunday’s drive-in audience at Elvington Airfield

AS U2 once sang, all is quiet on New Year’s Day, but Charles Hutchinson has his diary out to note down events for the months ahead.

Drive-in pantomime: Car Park Panto’s Horrible Christmas, Elvington Airfield, near York, tomorrow (Sunday,) 11am, 2pm and 5pm

BIRMINGHAM Stage Company’s Horrible Histories franchise teams up with Coalition Presents for Car Park Panto’s Horrible Christmas.

In writer-director Neal Foster’s adaptation of Terry Deary’s story, when Christmas comes under threat from a jolly man dressed in red, one young boy must save the day as a cast of eight sets off on a hair-raising adventure through the history of Christmas.

At this Covid-secure experience, children and adults can jump up and down in their car seats and make as much noise as they like, tuning in to the live show on stage and screen. Box office: carparkparty.com.

Shaparak Khorsandi: Revisiting her 1900s’ experiences in It Was The 90s! at Selby Town Hall

Looking back, but not nostalgically: Shaparak Khorsandi, It Was The 90s!, Selby Town Hall, January 22, 8pm

SHAPARAK Khorsandi, the Iranian-born British stand-up comedian and author formerly known as Shappi, tackles the celebrated but maligned 1990s in her new show, It Was The 90s!.

Back then, she flew around London with hope in her heart, a tenner in her pocket and spare knickers in her handbag. “But how does the decade of binge drinking and walks of shame look now without snakebite and black-tinted specs?” asks Shaparak, 48.

“This is a show about how we ’90s kids are looking to young people to learn how to take care of ourselves, because if you survived the car crash of being a ’90s kid, then surely Things Can Only Get Better.” Box office: 01757 708449 or selbytownhall.co.uk.

Round The Horne as re-created by Apollo Stage Company at the Grand Opera House, York

Looking back, nostalgically: Round The Horne, Grand Opera House, York, January 27, 7.30pm

FROM the producers of The Goon Show and Hancock’s Half Hour tours comes another radio comedy classic, re-created live on stage by Apollo Stage Company.

Compiled and directed by Tim Astley from Barry Took and Marty Feldman’s scripts, this meticulous show takes a step back in time to the BBC’s Paris studios to re-play the recordings of the Sunday afternoon broadcasts of Kenneth Horne and his merry crew in mischievous mood.

Expect wordplay, camp caricatures and risqué innuendos, film spoofs and such favourite characters as Rambling Sid Rumpo, Charles and Fiona, J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock and Julia and Sandy. Box office: atgtickets.com/York.

Kipps, The New Half A Sixpence Musical: Making its York debut at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre in February

Heart or head choice: Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company in Kipps, The New Half A Sixpence Musical, Joseph Theatre Company, York, February 9 to 12, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee

IN the coastal town of Folkestone, Arthur Kipps knows there is more to life than his demanding but unrewarding job as an apprentice draper.

When he suddenly inherits a fortune, Kipps is thrown into a world of upper-class soirées and strict rules of etiquette that he barely understands. Torn between the affections of the kind but proper Helen and childhood sweetheart Ann, Kipps must determine whether such a simple soul can find a place in high society.

Tickets for this fundraising show for the JoRo are on sale on 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Giovanni Pernice: This is him in This Is Me after his Strictly Come Dancing triumph

Strictly winner comes dancing: Giovanni Pernice: This Is Me, York Barbican, March 9, 7.30pm

GLITTER ball still gleaming, Giovanni Pernice will take to the road on his rescheduled tour after winning Strictly Come Dancing as the professional partner to ground-breaking deaf EastEnders actress Rose Ayling-Ellis.

The Italian dance stallion will be joined by his cast of professional dancers for This Is Me, his homage to the music and dances that have inspired Pernice’s career, from a competition dancer to being a mainstay of the gushing BBC show.

“Expect all of your favourite Ballroom and Latin dances and more,” says Giovanni. Tickets remain valid from the original date of June 11 2020. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

The Script: Returning to Scarborough Open Air Theatre in July

Off to the East Coast part one: The Script, Scarborough Open Air Theatre, July 14

IRISH rock band The Script topped the album charts for a sixth time in October with their greatest hits collection Tales From The Script, matching the feats of Arctic Monkeys, Pink Floyd and Radiohead.

Those songs can be heard live next summer when lead vocalist and keyboardist Danny O’Donoghue, guitarist Mark Sheehan and drummer Glen Power return to Scarborough Open Air Theatre for the first time since June 2018.

Formed in Dublin in 2007, The Script have sold more than 30 million records, chalking up hits with We Cry, The Man Who Can’t Be Moved, For The First Time, Hall Of Fame and Superheroes. Box office: scarboroughopenairtheatre.com.

Jane McDonald: Leading the line-up at Yorkshire’s Platinum Jubilee Concert at Scarborough Open Air Theatre

Off to the East Coast part two: Jane McDonald and special guests, Yorkshire’s Platinum Jubilee Concert, Scarborough Open Air Theatre, June 4

WAKEFIELD singing star Jane McDonald will top the bill at next summer’s Scarborough celebration of Her Majesty The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. A host of special guests will be added.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to be headlining this very special concert, and where better to be holding such a brilliant event than in Yorkshire,” she says. “Everyone knows I’m a proud Yorkshire lass, so it will be so thrilling to walk on to stage in Scarborough for these celebrations.” Box office: scarboroughopenairtheatre.com.

Paul Hollywood will pour some sugar on Harrogate Convention Centre in October

The Great British Baker gets cooking: Paul Hollywood Live, Harrogate Convention Centre, October 23

GREAT British Bake Off judge, celebrity chef and cookbook author Paul Hollywood promises live demonstrations, baking tasks, sugar-coated secrets and special surprises in next autumn’s tour.

Visiting 18 cities and towns, including Harrogate (October 23) and Sheffield City Hall (November 1), Wallasey-born baker’s son Hollywood, 55, will work from a fully equipped on-stage kitchen, sharing his tricks of the trade. Tickets for a slice of Hollywood action are on sale at cuffeandtaylor.com.

What’s on the menu? More Things To Do in York and beyond, hopefully, but check for updates. List No. 62, from The Press, York

Waiter! David Leonard’s Vermin the Destroyer, left, and A J Powell’s Luvlie Limpit survey what’s left of the Ye Olde Whippet Inn menu as Martin Barrass’s Dunkin Donut offers advice in Dick Turpin Rides Again. Picture: David Harrison

GIVEN the ever-changing Omicron briefings, Charles Hutchinson has a rubber as well as a pencil in his hand as he highlights what to see now and further ahead.

Still time for pantomime unless Omicron measures intervene part one: Dick Turpin Rides Again, Grand Opera House, York, until January 9

BACK on stage for the first time since February 2 2019, grand dame Berwick Kaler reunites with long-standing partners in panto Martin Barrass, David Leonard, Suzy Cooper and A J Powell.

After his crosstown switch to the Grand Opera House, Kaler steps out of retirement to write, direct and lead his first show for Crossroads Pantomimes, playing Dotty Donut, with Daniel Conway as the company’s new face in the Essex lad title role amid the familiar Kaler traditions. Look out for the flying horse. Box office: atgtickets.com/York.

Come join the rev-olution: Stepsisters Manky (Robin Simpson), left, and Mardy (Paul Hawkyard) make a raucous entrance in Cinderella. Alas, the Theatre Royal panto is now on hold until December 30 after a Covid outbreak

Still time for pantomime but only after a week in self-isolation: Cinderella, York Theatre Royal, ending on January 2 2022

COVID has struck three cast members and understudies too, leading to the decision to cancel performances of Cinderella from today until December 30.

Fingers crossed, you can still enjoy Evolution Productions writer Paul Hendy and York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster’s panto custom-built for 21st century audiences.

Targeted at drawing in children with magical storytelling, silliness aplenty and pop songs, Cinderella has a thoroughly modern cast, ranging from CBeebies’ Andy Day as Dandini to Faye Campbell as Cinders and ventriloquist Max Fulham as Buttons, with his Monkey on hand for cheekiness.

Robin Simpson and Paul Hawkyard’s riotous step-sisters Manky and Mardy and puns galore add to the fun. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

A wintry landscape by Julia Borodina, on show at Blossom Street Gallery, York

Buy now before her prices go up! Julia Borodina, Into The Light, Blossom Street Gallery, York, until January 31

JULIA Borodina will be competing in Sky’ Arts’ 2022 Landscape Artist of the Year, set for screening in January and February. Perfect timing for her York exhibition, Into The Light, on show until the end of next month.

Bretta Gerecke, part of the design team behind Castle Howard’s Christmas In Narnia displays, stands by the 28ft decorated tree in the Great Hall. Picture: Charlotte Graham

THE Christmas tree of the season: Christmas In Narnia at Castle Howard, near York, until January 2

CASTLE Howard has topped past peaks by installing a 28ft spruce tree from Scotland in the Great Hall as part of the Christmas In Narnia displays and decorations.

 “We believe that this is the largest real indoor Christmas tree in the country, standing around eight feet higher than the impressive tree normally installed in Buckingham Palace,” says the Hon Nicholas Howard, guardian of Castle Howard. 

“It’s certainly the largest we have had, both in terms of height and width at the base, which has a huge footprint in the Great Hall – but thankfully leaves a gap on either side for visitors to walk right around it.” Tickets for Christmas In Narnia must be booked before arrival at castlehoward.co.uk.

York Community Choir Festival: Eight diverse concerts at Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York

Choirs galore: York Community Choir Festival, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, February 27 to March 5 2022

EIGHT shows, different every night, will be the format for this choral celebration of how and why people come together to make music and have fun.

At least four choirs will be on stage in every concert in a festival featuring show tunes, pop and folk songs, world music, classical music, gospel songs, close harmonies, blues and jazz.

From primary-school choirs through to teenage, young adult and adult choirs, the choral configurations span male groups, female groups and mixed-voice choirs. Proceeds will go to the JoRo theatre from ticket sales on 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

David Ford’s poster for his Interesting Times tour, visiting Pocklington Arts Centre in March

If you see one sage and rage singer-songwriter next year, make it: David Ford, Interesting Times Tour 22, Pocklington Arts Centre, March 10 2022, 8pm

EASTBOURNE troubadour David Ford will return to the road with an album of songs documenting the tumultuous year that was 2020.

May You Live In Interesting Times, his sixth studio set, charts the rise of Covid alongside the decline of President Trump. Recorded at home during various stages of lockdown, the album captures the moment with Ford’s trademark emotional eloquence and dark irony.

After the imposed hiatus times three (and maybe four, wait and see), the new incarnation of Ford’s innovative, incendiary live show promises to demonstrate just what happens when you shut such a creative force in a room for two years. Box office: 01759 301547 or at pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.

Sir Tom Jones: Playing Scarborough Open Air Theatre for a third time next summer

Amid the winter uncertainty, look to next summer’s knight to remember: Sir Tom Jones at Scarborough Open Air Theatre, July 26 2022

SIR Tom Jones will complete a hattrick of Scarborough Open Air Theatre concerts after his 2015 and 2017 gigs with his July return.

In April, the Welsh wonder released his 41st studio album, the chart-topping Surrounded By Time, featuring the singles Talking Reality Television Blues, No Hole in My Head, One More Cup of Coffee and Pop Star.

Sir Tom, 81, will play a second outdoor Yorkshire concert in 2022, at The Piece Hall, Halifax, on July 10. Box office for both shows: ticketmaster.co.uk.

Flying dreamers: Elbow showcase their ninth studio album in Scarborough next July

Deep in the bleak midwinter, think of days out on the Yorkshire coast part two: Elbow, Scarborough Open Air Theatre, July 9 2022

MAKE Elbow room in your diary to join Guy Garvey, Craig Potter, Mark Potter and Pete Turner on the East Coast in July.

Formed in 1997 in Bury, Greater Manchester, BBC 6 Music Sunday afternoon presenter Garvey and co chalked up their seventh top ten album in 2021 with Flying Dream 1.

Released on November 19, Elbow’s ninth studio album was written remotely in home studios before the lifelong friends met up at the empty Brighton Theatre Royal to perfect, perform, and record the songs. Box office: ticketmaster.co.uk.

Anarchy in the decay or the miraculous resurrection of the grandest of dames? The verdict on Berwick Kaler’s panto comeback

“Doing pantomime is a hobby now,” says comeback dame Berwick Kaler. All pictures: David Harrison

REVIEW: Dick Turpin Rides Again, The Legend Returns!, Grand Opera House, York, until January 9. Box office: atgtickets.com/york

BERWICK Kaler is at the Frank Sinatra comeback stage of his career, not the Elvis hologram with his old band taking care of business live on stage.

The panto pack has reassembled at a new home, originally at the invitation of pantomime juggernaut Qdos Entertainment, but now under the wing of Crossroads Pantomimes, Qdos’s new overlords.

This is the Berwick Kaler show as commercial pantomime in York’s commercial theatre, with costumes and set design (both uncredited) from the Crossroads stock, visual special effects by The Twins FX and pyrotechnics by Le Maitre. All such detail is of a higher quality than for the Grand Opera House pantos staged by Simon Barry’s New Pantomime Productions and Three Bears Productions.

Yet none of that matters to anyone wanting to renew acquaintances with writer-director Berwick and sidekick Martin, David, Suzy and AJ. The story here is the return to the stage of Britain’s longest-running dame for the first time since his retirement after 40 years at York Theatre Royal on February 2 2019.

Suzy Cooper’s Donna Donat

“I thought you’d retired,” comes the jest. “So did I,” replies the Wearsider, eyes looning and bulbous in that familiar way. Doing panto is a hobby now, he explains.

Berwick’s pantomimes have become as divisive as Brexit. Leave. Remain. Retire. Come back. Get Brexit Done. Get Berwick Back. Too many bridges burnt for that ever to happen at his beloved Theatre Royal, but the die-hards felt betrayed, Suzy Cooper calling it “a travesty” that such a long-running show should end so abruptly. “We are not dead yet!” she exclaimed in her interview.

Qdos and now Crossroads have made those mutual wishes of cast and devotees come true, and while pantomime may be a hobby for Berwick at 75, it is a serious business too.

His absence from the stage, when writing and co-directing Sleeping Beauty in 2019-2020, left his partners rudderless without their panto cult leader. No Berwick, no panto, and on those grounds, he had to come back if a Kaler pantomime were to retain its identity. Ironically, he has chosen to play a character called Dotty Donut, the pastry one with the hole in the middle, when he has just filled that hole.

The dowager dame and the dandy highwayman: Berwick Kaler’s Dotty Donut in discussion with Daniel Conway’s Dick Turpin

Meanwhile, across the city, York Theatre Royal and Evolution Productions are looking to create a modern, multi-cultural, topical 21st century pantomime, still oozing cheesy puns but above all with their eyes on a younger audience.

Berwick’s show is more like a greatest-hits set with the best Fleetwood Mac line-up ever back together again, albeit leaving out such big smashes as the water slapstick, the films and the Harry Gration cameo.

“Me babbies, me bairns” welcome? Tick. Rocking chair? Tick. Wagon Wheel chucking? Tick. Newcastle Brown? Tick. The fish-demanding crocodile from 2008’s Dick Turpin? Tick. Not a lot of plot? Tick. Occasional innuendos involving the show title? Tick. Dick.

Once a Berwick Kaler pantomime stood for anarchic innovation, with a waspish wag of a bossy bloke out front in big boots, an unruly wig and no garish make-up, making merry hell, full of viperish bite and joshing ad-libs.

Martin Barass, centre, returns to hapless waiter mode, as first seen in One Man, Two Guvnors, while David Leonard’s Vermin the Destroyer and A J Powell’s Luvlie Limpit survey the menu at Dotty Donut’s Ye Olde Whippet Inn

Now it is more in keeping with that cosy rocking chair, the show being nostalgic, sentimental about our shared yesterdays, slower, gentler and, like Keith Richards, just glad still to be here. It is much shorter too, at a little over two hours, with the structure being more obviously a series of set-pieces, rather than having the free-flowing unpredictably of the peak years.

Berwick’s face and frame are noticeably thinner – he even mentions it in his Dolly Parton routine – and so less comical, and you can see him reaching for the comic timing, both in his own performance and in his writing for his fellow panto players, as he re-works old jokes.

He is not helped, and nor are they, by the novel barrier of the whole audience, rather than merely Dick Turpin, being masked. This precautionary constriction in Omicron’s nascent days has a deflating impact on noise levels from the seats, on interaction too, a dehumanising device that injects an air of caution.

In the absence of excitable children to pump up the volume, the cast may well have to push harder to break down the newly extra-thick fourth wall, maybe even acknowledging the new dress code for pantomime. Berwick restricts himself to mentioning Covid once in the shout-outs.

Berwick Kaler’s Dotty Donut cracks an egg, rather than a joke, at this juncture of a recipe slapstick scene in Dick Turpin Rides Again

He takes the show very steadily, his slapstick reduced to coconuts dropping on his head and mucking around with a ball of dough, but suddenly there is a flash of the trademark Berwick when David Leonard’s microphone malfunctions, prompting the dowager dame to veer off-script with an impromptu quip.

Now, that’s timing, gold mined from a mishap, and you hope more such moments of mischief will emerge through the run when too much elsewhere has to work hard and for too long, not least the courtroom scene that was previously a high point of 2008’s Turpin premiere.

Leonard’s villainous Vermin the Destroyer is as reliably arch as ever, and his hip rap song is a riot in the company of the perky ensemble, choreographed with typical snazziness by Grace Harrington .

Suzy Cooper’s Donna Donut reprises her ditzy vampire bat from 2008, shows off her yoga moves and knowingly sends up her ageless principal girl schtick. Martin Barrass’s Dunkin Donut revisits his hapless waiter from One Man, Two Guvnors and forms a dwarf double act with Berwick, where his gift for physical comedy is frustratingly better than the script.

Devil in the detail: David Leonard’s haughty couture for his villainous Vermin the Destroyer

AJ Powell’s Luvlie Limpit is the best-developed character among the regulars, caught between good and evil as a particularly dim-witted assistant, sounding all the dimmer for that luvverly Brummie accent.

The fresh face among the regulars is Daniel Conway as an Essex lad Dick Turpin, a dandy highwayman, yes, but not so much the rogue of reputation as something of a hero keen to set the record straight. He has a lovely singing voice too, best demonstrated in the first half’s finale, You’ll Believe A Horse Can Fly!. Even a pantomime horse, in the manner of a pantomime cow.

Unlike Leonard’s errant microphone, Berwick Kaler is on best behaviour, but that is not Berwick on best form, when he has that glint in his eye for naughty interjections he can’t resist saying.

Berwick Kaler, the panto dame, is a tough act to follow. Here he is more of a tribute act to himself, and while there remains audiences for two contrasting pantos in York,  will the comeback dame saddle up again or ride off into the sunset? Box-office figures will dictate.

York Mix Radio: Hear Charles Hutchinson’s immediate post-show response to Berwick Kaler’s pantomime comeback in Dick Turpin Rides Again in a race against time to answer David Dunning’s questions before the Grand Opera House staff turn off the lights .

Head to: https://youtu.be/zRAnOa5hGp4

Suzy and Martin delighted to be back on the York panto stage in Dick Turpin Rides Again

“To be given this opportunity at the Grand Opera is like receiving a transplant,” says Suzy Cooper. Picture: David Harrison

TONIGHT is press night for York pantomime stalwarts Suzy Cooper and Martin Barrass for the first time since December 2019.

They have reunited as part of the “Famous In York Five”, starring alongside grand dame Berwick Kaler, David Leonard and A J Powell in Dick Turpin Rides Again, their first pantomime for Crossroads Live since their switch to the Grand Opera House from York Theatre Royal.

“It’s a great stage for pantomime,” says principal girl Suzy, who plays Donna Donut this winter. “It’s a wonderful stage with a proscenium arch, stalls that go all the way back, a dress circle and upper circle, and it’s exciting to be back in a theatre with such a traditional auditorium.  Acoustically, it’s fantastic too.”

Delayed by a year by Covid enshrouding the Cumberland Street theatre in darkness last winter, Suzy is even keener to be back among friends. “We wanted to be back together, which was really important to do: we have a very loyal audience and it’s lovely to bring our pantomime to this city that we love, and not just for those that live here but also for the people from further afield whose tradition has been to come to our panto,” she says.

“I was devastated to lose the Theatre Royal, but to be given this opportunity at the Grand Opera is like receiving a transplant, allowing us to continue this tradition.”

Comic stooge Martin – son Dunkin Donut to Berwick’s mam Dotty Donut this time – is no less enthusiastic. “This place is fantastic,” he says. “It’s a bit like Dr Who’s Tardis; you stand outside and you have no idea how big it is, but it turns out to be a full 1,000-seat theatre inside.

“It’s lovely to have ended up here,  with all the legacy and longevity of Berwick Kaler’s pantomimes, and he’s been champing at the bit to get on stage again!”

Suzy is enjoying re-establishing the camaraderie of the long-running team, with Berwick restored to the fore after co-directing and writing Sleeping Beauty in the wake of his retirement from the pantomime stage in February 2019.

David Leonard’s Vermin the Destroyer, left, Martin Barrass’s Dunkin Donut, in waiter mode, and A J Powell’s Luvlie Lumpit making a meal of a scene in Dick Turpin Rides Again. Picture: David Harrison

“We have the added edge within us of knowing people want to see us doing pantomime together again,” she says. “We are blessed: it’s hard work doing panto but we know how teamwork is important and how we are the sum of our parts.

“When we did Sleeping Beauty, we missed Berwick on stage, the audience missed him, and now we have a second chance to be together again. We need him.

“There’s this awful ‘cancel culture’ going on, and yes, things have to develop and have to change, but the idea that a show like ours, that’s been going on for so long, shouldn’t continue is a travesty. We are not dead yet!

“I’m genuinely delighted to be here, in a city that means so much to me. Last year, it just wasn’t Christmas, because I wasn’t in York.”

Assessing what Grand Opera House audiences can expect from Dick Turpin Rides Again, with Berwick taking the rains once more as writer, director and dame, Suzy says: “We’ve always said that we’re a family pantomime but we are anarchic. There’s nothing that won’t delight children, but we are unruly.

“What’s our USP [unique selling point]? Our pantomime is anarchic, it’s crazy, it’s madcap!”

Did you know?

SUZY Cooper played a “lesbian office worker” in BBC One soap opera EastEnders this year, filming in lockdown in late-January and early February for episodes that went out in March/April. “It got me out of the house and into London for the first time in four months,” she says.

Did you know too?

Suzy, who lives in London, is a yoga teacher, teaching both in person and online on Zoom. “To share my yoga has been an amazing thing to do,” she says. “They are very tough, my classes!”

Dame Berwick Kaler returns to York stage after three years as Dick Turpin Rides Again opens today at Grand Opera House

Leaping to it: Berwick Kaler is raring to pick up the pantomime reins from today in Dick Turpin Rides Again. All pictures: David Harrison.

AFTER two dress rehearsals in one day, York’s comeback dame, Berwick Kaler, plays to an opening pantomime crowd today for the first time since December 13 2018.

Much water has passed under York’s bridges since Berwick’s farewell 40th anniversary show, The Grande Old Dame Of York.

He exited the York Theatre Royal stage for the last time in trademark boots, unruly wig and walkdown frock on February 2 2019, that night saying he would “return like a shot” if he were asked to do so.

That return, delayed by a year by Covid’s theatre shutdown, goes ahead today at Berwick’s new pantomime home after a crosstown transfer, the Grand Opera House, as he resumes panto business with vainglorious villain David Leonard, bouncy comic stooge Martin Barrass, golden gal Suzy Cooper and “luverly Brummie” A J Powell in Dick Turpin Rides Again.

“I’ve always thought the Grand Opera House is a proper theatre, absolutely right for pantomime,” says Berwick, who has appeared on the Cumberland Street stage only once before, when he played the flamboyant Captain Terri Dennis in Peter Nichols’ musical comedy Privates On Parade.

“Dick Turpin is one of the most original pantomimes ever, and I’m so excited by it,” says Berwick Kaler

“It’s no good asking me anymore when it was; it was a long time ago. I used to have the poster hanging in my loo, the one with me saluting.”

Should you or Berwick be wondering, the year was 1996, and now, 25 years on, he is back there, retirement plans cancelled. “You’re not going to believe this, but when I retired, I’d retired, and I’ve not earned a penny on stage since then, so I was retired,” he says.

“But we got this offer from Qdos Entertainment [now taken over by Crossroads Live], the biggest pantomime producer in the business, and the thing is I knew I had to be in it this time, not just write it and direct it, which I did for Sleeping Beauty [in 2019-2020 at the Theatre Royal].

“I took up the invitation to return for Martyn, David, Suzy and A J because they’re great exponents of the art of panto, who should be on stage in York.”

Recalling his experience of working on Sleeping Beauty, Berwick says: “At that time, I had no yearning to go back on stage,” he says. “It was a little too soon to start missing playing the dame. Even when I went in for rehearsals, I didn’t want to get up and do it.”

The dame and the daft lad: Berwick Kaler and Martin Barrass reunite for Dick Turpin Rides Again

Later, he would say he regretted the decision to exit stage left. “But when we got the offer to return, at first, I wasn’t sure, but now, at this stage, having said yes, I believe I’m writing better than ever. I’ve got my brain back in gear.”

Panto villain David Leonard has noted how Berwick becomes a “different animal” once he pulls on the dame’s wig and frocks, his voice taking on its stage power too. At 75, four years on from heart bypass surgery, he says, “The thing is, we have to be careful because we can’t do the full-scale slapstick like before, but there can still be slapstick, and Dick Turpin is one of the most original pantomimes ever, and I’m so excited by it.

“It was a one-off when we did it before, as my 30th Theatre Royal pantomime, and it was one of these shows that forced you to really use your imagination. It’s been great to bring it back and work on creating a new version all over again.”

“The legend returns!”, declares the show poster: a reference as much to Berwick Kaler as Dick Turpin as 49 performances lie ahead, starting at 2pm today.

Crossroads Live presents Berwick Kaler in Dick Turpin Rides Again, Grand Opera House, York, today until January 9. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York.