York “tentomime” on tenterhooks as Great Yorkshire Pantomime team meet tomorrow

How the Great Yorkshire Pantomime tented palace would look on Knavesmire, York

GREAT Yorkshire Pantomime producer James Cundall and director Chris Moreno will meet tomorrow morning to “discuss our options” for the Easter holiday run, in light of the ongoing Lockdown 3 restrictions.

Billed as “a dream come true”, Aladdin is booked into a luxurious heated tented palace – a giant big top on Knavesmire – from March 19 to April 11 with an audience capacity of 976 in tiered, cushioned seating, divided into pods of three, four, five or six seats, with a minimum purchase of two tickets.

The 36 performances of Cundall and Moreno’s “tentomime” will be socially distanced and compliant with Covid-19 guidance, presented by a cast of 21, including nine principals, and a band on a 50-metre stage with a Far East palace façade, projected scenery and magical special effects.

The Great Yorkshire Pantomime production of Aladdin promises “a beautiful love story, a high-flying magic carpet, a wish-granting nutty genie, the very evil Abanazar and a magic lamp full of spectacular family entertainment”.

The imposition of the open-ended Lockdown 3, however, leaves question marks over whether Aladdin can go ahead, given that no date has been set by the Government for the easing of strictures, with only speculation that it could be “some time in March”.

It would need a return to Tier 2 regulations in York for socially distanced rehearsals to be able to take place, followed by the performance run. Hence tomorrow’s exploratory meeting for Cundall and Moreno to consider where the panto-land lies.

Both producer and director are vastly experienced in staging theatre and musical theatre productions. Cundall was the Welburn impresario behind the award-winning but ultimately ill-fated, loss-making Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, mounted in a pop-up Elizabethan theatre on the Castle car park in York in 2018 and 2019 (as well as at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, in the second summer).

He was awarded an MBE for services to the entertainment industry in the 2019 New Year Honours list, but by October that year, his principal company, Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, went into administration after the smaller-than-expected audiences for the second season of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre shows, especially at Blenheim Palace.

Creditors, among them the Royal National Theatre, claimed unpaid debts of more than £5 million pounds from companies run by Cundall globally, including in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore, where he produced such shows as Cats, The Phantom Of The Opera, Matilda and War Horse.

Moreno has produced, directed and written more than 120 pantomimes. He once owned and ran the Grand Opera House, in York, where later Three Bears Productions, the production company he co-produces with Stuart Wade and Russ Spencer, presented four pantomimes from 2016.

Moreno was the director and writer for Aladdin in 2016-2017, Beauty And The Beast in 2017-2018, Cinderella in 2018-2019 and Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs in 2019-2020.

There had first been talk around York last autumn of a “tentomime” show to be staged at Knavesmire in December, but the Great Yorkshire Pantomime then settled on Easter, with the “stellar cast” yet to be announced .

Moreno has form for such an enterprise. “I did a pantomime at, would you believe, the O2 at Greenwich, with Lily Savage as Widow Twankey in Aladdin, A Wish Come True,” he recalls. “That was in 2012 in a purpose-built tent in the grounds, when we had 1,900 in there, in the days when you didn’t have to socially distance.

“It was the same sort of tent that we’re planning to use in York: a ‘pavilion palace’ that’s totally different from a circus tent. It’s going to very exciting with the capacity of 976!”

Speaking to CharlesHutchPress on December 11, before York’s change of Tier status and subsequently the third lockdown, Moreno was in buoyant mood. “We can’t go on for the rest of our lives waiting for things to happen,” he said at the time, when he was also working on Sleeping Beauty And The Socially Distanced Witch, a show on a much smaller scale written and directed by Chris for the Grimsby Auditorium for a run from April 6 to 14.

“Aladdin is going to be different from anything I’ve done before, because, we’ll have to adhere to Covid-safety rules with all the safeguards in place, but it will be as near to a 100 per cent typical pantomime as possible,” Moreno revealed.

“Even with 21 performers on stage, it’ll be a big stage to fill, as it’s 50 metres wide, and we’re thinking that instead of a single flying carpet, we should have two for a  battle between Aladdin on one and Abanazar on the other.”

Whether such magic can take to the tent air this spring, watch this space for an update tomorrow.

Livvy returns home to cast her spell over York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk panto

Livvy Evans: Returning to her home city to wave her wand as Fairy Mary in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

MARCH 17, London. York-born musical actress Livvy Evans is one day away from the opening of her West End role in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical at the Aldwych Theatre.

“After two weeks of tech rehearsals, we were getting ready to open, but instead we got called in to say the theatre would be closing immediately,” she recalls, now sitting in a different theatre, back in the home city she left 13 years ago, as she prepares to play Fairy Mary in York Stage’s socially distanced, Covid-secure Jack And The Beanstalk at Theatre @ 41 Monkgate, York.

Livvy went from Simply The Best to simply the worst of times, as the Coronavirus pandemic left the West End deserted for month after month. “Initially, we expected to go back after a few weeks, but at the last meeting we had with the company managers they told us ticket sales were being taken off for January and February and now, as with most shows, they’re aiming for a spring reopening,” she says. In other words, at least a year of gathering cobwebs will have passed.

In her professional career, Livvy has been “lucky enough to pretty much go from theatre job to theatre job” in such shows as Soho Cinders, Motown at the Shaftesbury Theatre and UK tours of Sister Act and Ghost: The Musical. “When I have had a time where I haven’t worked, I’ve done nannying support in special needs, and I get a lot from it; it’s much more fulfilling than working in restaurants,” she says.

“But right now there just aren’t the jobs available for actors that they might otherwise tend to do in the quiet times, such as teaching or working in bars,” she adds, on top of the blow of no furlough pay. “And we’re being asked to go back for less pay and fewer shows when we do re-start.”

Glory be that Nik Briggs came a’calling, offering Livvy the chance to join his Jack And The Beanstalk company for the panto season. “It must have been the beginning of September, and at that point it still hadn’t been confirmed that Tina wouldn’t be opening this year,” Livvy recalls.

“So, I could only say ‘hopefully’, and I’d need to get permission from the Tina company, so it all took a long time. But once we knew Tina wouldn’t be opening, I said to Nik, ‘I’d love to do it’. I’ve been a professional for many years, but since leaving for London, I’ve never done a professional show in York. Leeds, yes, Bradford, yes, but not York.”

Brought up in Huntington, Livvy moved south to train in musical theatre on a full scholarship at Arts Educational, in Chiswick, London, in 2008. “I normally only spend four or five days in York, but this year it’ll be six weeks, which will be lovely,” she says.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played Fairy before, and the only panto princess I’ve done was Jasmine in Aladdin at the Grand Opera House in 2006 with Syd Little and Michael Starke, who I then did Sister Act with. I remember he used to call me his ‘little Peking duck, his little dumpling’ in the panto!”

Livvy will be performing with York Stage for the first time. “Strangely, I never did a York Stage Musicals show when I was young, but I did a lot of the summer school youth projects with Simon Barry at the Grand Opera House, doing my first professional job in Aladdin on the back of playing Audrey in Little Shop Of Horrors,” she recalls.

“I liked being put in with the older group for York Musical Theatre Company shows, working with Paul Laidlaw and Jim Welsman – and I loved playing little Kate Mullins in the British premiere of Titanic: The Musical for that company.”

As opening night of Jack And The Beanstalk approaches fast on Friday, Livvy says:  “It’s great to be in York, especially at this time of year, back in the house I grew up in, and I’ve never been so excited to be playing the Fairy, spreading joy to everyone, although she’s a no-nonsense fairy! As everyone keeps saying, I’m going to be the talk of my niece’s playground!”

York Stage presents Jack And The Beanstalk at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, from December 11 to January 3; show times, Monday to Saturday, 2pm and 7pm; Sundays, 1pm and 6pm; Christmas Eve, 12 noon and 5pm; New Year’s Eve, 12 noon. Box office: online only at yorkstagepanto.com. Please note, audiences will be seated in household/support bubble groupings only. 

BERWICK’S BACK! York’s grand old dame to ride again but you won’t believe where!

Berwick’s back: dame for a laugh once more

YORK’S grand old dame, Berwick Kaler, is back in panto. Oh yes, he is.

At York Theatre Royal, his “beloved home” for 41 years? Oh, no he isn’t.

Dame Berwick is switching to the other side, the Grand Opera House, to become the Grand’s old dame. What’s more, he will be bringing the rest of the Not Famous But Famous In York Five along for the ride in Dick Turpin Rides Again: villain David Leonard; sidekick stooge Martin Barrass; ageless principal girl Suzy Cooper and luverly Brummie A J Powell.

Tickets for the December 12 to January 10 run will go on general sale on February 14, Valentine’s Day, when fans can have a love-in with Dame Berwick in the box office, when he sells the first tickets at 10am.

 A delighted Kaler says: “Qdos Entertainment have come to the rescue of the most lauded pantomime in the country, having found us a new home at the Grand Opera House in our beloved City of York.

“To make this a success we need you – the most articulate and loyal audience in the entire country. We can go forth with a management that believes we have enhanced the reputation of a local pantomime that has caught the imagination of young and old, from all walks of life.”

Qdos Entertainment’s managing director Michael Harrison enthuses: “We are absolutely delighted to be embarking on an all-new pantomime partnership with our colleagues at the Ambassador Theatre Group, Grand Opera House and, of course, Berwick and the gang.

“Berwick is an undeniable master in the world of pantomime, with his own inimitable style and approach and we are delighted to be working closely with him and the cast to bring back the magic for which they are best known.”

Kaler, 73, retired from playing the Theatre Royal’s dame after 40 years last February, but has signed a three-year contract with Qdos Entertainment, the pantomime powerhouse of British theatre, who are taking over the Grand Opera House panto from Three Bears Productions from Winter 2020.

Dame Berwick will write and direct the show, as well as pulling on his trademark big boots, unruly wig and spectacular frocks again, after regretting his decision to retire, breaking his run as Britain’s longest-running dame, from the moment he announced it.

Fully recovered from his double heart bypass in the summer of 2018, It was a sentiment he repeated regularly, not least on the last night of The Grand Old Dame Of York on February 2 last year, saying he “would be back like a shot” if asked.

Now the veteran dame does return, but across the city, where he has chosen Dick Turpin Rides Again for his first Grand Opera House pantomime, revisiting a show that brought him his highest ever audience figures at the Theatre Royal: 54,000 for Dick Turpin in 2008-2009.

He last appeared on the Opera House stage as fey drag artist Captain Terri Dennis in Peter Nichols’ Privates On Parade in 1996.

Kaler made an emotional, provocative speech at the finale to last Saturday’s final night of Sleeping Beauty, the troubled Theatre Royal pantomime he had written and co-directed this winter, but whose progress was jolted by executive director Tom Bird’s confirmation, with a fortnight still to run, that Dame Berwick would not be back, as writer or director, let alone as dame.

BERWICKXIT: Berwick Kaler playing the dame in his last York Theatre Royal pantomime, The Grand Old Dame Of York, last winter. Picture: Anthony Robling

Suzy Cooper and Kaler in The Press splash had called for the dame to return, David Leonard later backed that campaign, while Martin Barrass addressed the audience at each show post-announcement to say “this cast and this band” would not be returning. A public petition was launched too.

“I’m b****y furious,” said the dame, back on his old stamping ground, in a highly charged Saturday atmosphere, full of cheers for Kaler and boos for new panto villain Bird.

Kaler could not reveal “the truth”, but said Bird – or “one man” as he called him throughout without naming him once – was “wrong” in his decision to move on to a new creative team when the Theatre Royal pantomime “didn’t need fixing”.

“I’ll give them three days,” he said in a cryptic ultimatum that set tongues wagging that Kaler must have something up his sleeve, while Barrass rubbed his hands when reading out  a letter in the shout-outs that suggested the Panto Five should move to “the Grand”.

Those three days passed, but now Dame Berwick rises again, linking up with Qdos Entertainment, whose production  facilities are based in Scarborough and Beverley, 100,000 costumes et al. Billed as “the world’s biggest pantomime producer”, with 37 years behind them, they present such big-hitting pantos as the London Palladium and Newcastle Theatre Royal shows, as well as, closer to York, Hull New Theatre.

Welcoming the new partnership of Qdos and the Kaler crew, Grand Opera House theatre director Rachel Crocombe-Lane says: “Qdos bring both world-class expertise and also a Yorkshire heart, being based in Scarborough; the perfect combination together with this talented cast.

“As a venue team, pantomime is our favourite time of year because of the friendship with the company and also the joy and devotion of our audience. We are proud of these new partnerships, excited for the future of our pantomime and will be ready altogether to really blow your Christmas socks off!’

Qdos Entertainment chairman, Nick Thomas, from Scarborough, is excited too. “I am thrilled to welcome Berwick, a true Yorkshire theatre legend, to the Qdos family. Qdos Entertainment has had a long association with Yorkshire, it is my home county, and with our production and wardrobe teams based in Scarborough and Beverley, forming this new relationship with Berwick and the Grand Opera House is especially exciting.”

Meanwhile, York Theatre Royal will be launching its 2020-2021 pantomime on Monday at high noon. Rather than declaring a pantomime civil war in York, executive director Bird says: “We wish the Grand Opera House the very best of luck. As we’ve always said, we’ll be announcing our new pantomime on Monday”.

On Tuesday this week, Bird told a City of York Council meeting that no performance of Sleeping Beauty had sold out, save for the traditional last night pandemonium, compounding a decline in attendances that had started 11 years ago.

He said the Theatre Royal would “build a new pantomime for the city that to some extent doesn’t rely on you having been to the pantomime for 30 years in order to get it”.

“I know how much affection there is for our pantomime in the city. What’s prompted us to make this change is that that affection isn’t necessarily translating into popularity,” he added. “It’s with a very heavy heart that we make changes but it’s not something we can leave.”

Tickets for Dick Turpin Rides Again will be on general sale from February 14 on 0844 871 3024, at atgtickets.com/york and in person from the Cumberland Street theatre’s box office. ATG Theatre Card holders can buy from February 11.