REVIEW: Drag diva Velmi Celli at York Theatre Royal and Impossible, York

Velma Celli: York’s queen of vocal drag in the age of RuPaul’s Drag Race. PIcture: Kirkpatrick Photography

Velma Celli, Love Is Love: A Brief History Of Drag, The Love Season, York Theatre Royal, 29/5/2021; Velma Celli’s Impossible Drag Brunch, Impossible Wonderbar, Impossible, York, 5/6/2021

IT takes balls to be a drag act.

Velma Celli knows it, shows it and indeed sometimes them too in a leg-crossing, leg-uncrossing, let’s-sit-and-chat-on-the-stage-lip moment at York Theatre Royal.

In York drag diva deluxe Velma’s case, it takes more than balls, however. Pointedly, the fabulous, fruity, funny creation of musical actor Ian Stroughair bills herself as “the queen of vocal drag”.

“I can sing,” says Velma, throwing a ta-da shoulder shrug as she calls out the parade of kitch’n’synch acts that strut and pout on RuPaul’s Drag Race conveyor belt.

Velma Celli’s regular poster for international hit A Brief History Of Drag

Velma, or rather Ian, first sang on his home-city Theatre Royal stage in a musical version of Kes – that sounds camp!  – at the age of 14. Twenty-four years later, coinciding with theatre’s return from a long Covid quarantine, Ian/Velma is back on this stage at last, and not before time, bitches, as Velma is wont to address the throng.

“Can I just say, it must be such a privilege for you to be here tonight,” says Velma, who has wrapped a clingy, plunging little black number over his very tall, leggy frame. Although this night is not all glamour: off come the false eyelashes when they start playing up in the stinging heat.

The drag persona of Velma Celli emerged 13 years ago when Ian was playing Mary Sunshine in Chicago in the West End. Wednesday was meet-up night for the boys from Chicago, Priscilla etc at Madame Jojo’s, the legendary Soho home of burlesque and cabaret, dressing up glam to sing.

Ian went as Chicago’s nightclub star and murderess Velma Kelly, slurped on his vermacilli dish, and took to the stage. Velma Celli was born, or rather, “unleashed”, as Ian puts it.

“When you’re good to Velma, Velma’s good to you,” promises Velma Celli in her signature showstopper

This is but one story from A Brief History Of Drag, a show that Ian put together when stuck in Tanzania and has since taken to Australia and the USA, as he celebrates “burlesque, debauchery, defiance and…shoes”. Velma duly points to a silvery pair that glisten even more than Dorothy’s heel-clickers in The Wizard Of Oz.

“Unleashed” is exactly the right word for a Velma Celli performance: a tornado, a toreador in vocal form, here stirred to ever greater heights by super-talented musical director Ben Papworth, high-heeled boots tucked beneath his keyboards.

This is a proper, proper show: Velma, up front and out there; three-piece band (Papworth, keys, Clark Howard, drums and gold lamé jacket; Al Morrison, guitar); two backing singers, Kimberley Ensor and rising York talent Grace Lancaster; two guests, soul queen Jessica Steel, York partner in lockdown streamed concerts, and musical actor Jordan Fox, partner in pantomime for York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk.

When Velma takes the stand beneath a rockabilly quiff, she can not only sing the sing and dance the dance, she can talk the talk too, witty and waspish, as we learn of drag’s history, Velma and Ian’s past, her staging posts, the abiding influence of unloving mothers and the importance of the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, New York in 1969 and the Stonewall LGBT charity over here.

The poster for the first Impossible Drag Brunch on a York Saturday afternoon

For the Theatre Royal’s Love Season, love is in the air and in the one-off prefix to the show title: Love Is Love. Omnipresent is the love of song and those who take risks: for example, Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Show’s Sweet Transvestite); Freddie Mercury and David Bowie – the latter, Velma’s astute choice for her next show – for a spectacular Under Pressure and La Cage Aux Folles’ Albin for the climactic I Am What I Am.

Mind you, Velma can be picky, not liking Culture Club’s hits, but loving Boy George’s musical, Taboo, and its signature number, Stranger In This World. Gorgeous, Georgeous.

Velma loves a duet too, taking a seat side by side with Jess for a stand-out Always Remember Us This Way (from Lady Gaga’s A Star Is Born), accompanied on guitar by Stuart Allan. Later, in the latest update to the show in a nod to the impact of Russell T Davies’s devastating series It’s A Sin, Velma is joined by Fox for the Pet Shop Boys’ anthem, poignant yet celebratory too.

Velma’s voice warms, expands, stretches and strengthens as the show progresses, shown off to the max in a set-piece send up of lip-synching acts on RuPaul’s Drag Race, mimicking their physical impersonations while accentuating the vocal tics and mannerisms of Britney, Bjork, Bassey, Gabrielle, Cher et al.

Ending with an encore medley from Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, Velma/Ian will surely not have to wait for another 24 years to return to the Theatre Royal.

Fancy a Shambles Mule? The cocktails list at the Impossible Drag Brunch

In the meantime, Velma is bedding in a new monthly residency for The Velma Celli Show in the big-windowed first-floor Wonderbar at Impossible, York, and last Saturday afternoon Velma Celli’s Drag Brunch was launched there too. Covid-safe; socially distanced; no masks needed when seated, but yes if you want to stand to dance around.

Judging by the support for the two sittings at 12.30pm and 2.30pm, it is likely to become a monthly fixture too as part of Impossible’s cabaret and comedy portfolio.

The show is fast-moving, fizzy and fun, with “bottomless cocktails, small plates and a side order”  (Halloumi Bites and Truffle Chips for CH) and two sets by Velma, introduced by DJ Zoe on afternoon release from Funny Girls in Blackpool, armed with a potty mouth, party-igniting disco classics and the backing tracks for Velma’s vocal tour de force.

It may not surprise you to learn that, looking around, the debut Drag Brunch partygoers are predominantly female, but the smattering of men are having a fab time too (but need to be willing to be the butt of DJ Zoe’s bawdy humour).

York, 3.50pm, June 5: Velma Celli and her ladies at the climax to the Impossible Drag Brunch

The Wonderbar, with its profusion of plants, wood and glass, recalls the conservatories and cocktail bars of the 1930s and makes for a fabulous cabaret setting. The cocktails list embraces the classics and the up to date (Salted Caramel Espresso), the Mojito and the No-jito (for the mocktail option).

General manager Stephanie Powell’s staff are everywhere, busy, busy, busy with their table service of drinks and choice of Chicken Skewers/Halloumi Bites/Cauliflower Wings/Hotdog (mini-version) with Skinny Salted Fries/Truffle Chips/Salad.

Gliding down the stairs, Velma is in sparkly black and silver, topped off in the second set with a shimmering silvery bob wig, and as she promises: “When you’re good to Velma, Velma’s good to you”. From Feeling Good to the obligatory Divas-meets-Drag Acts setpiece, I Want To  Break Free to “torches out” for Bowie’s Starman and a ruder lyric for Queen’s Somebody To Love, Velma walks the room as she works the  crowd. Everything is drag, nothing drags.

Girls, and boys, make sure to be in Velma’s camp for your Saturday afternoon pleasure.

Cheers! Another “bottomless” cocktail hits the rocks at the Impossible Drag Brunch

Twenty four years after Kes, Ian Stroughair returns home to York Theatre Royal stage in guise of drag diva alter ego Velma Celli

“I feel over-excited! I cannot wait! Get me on that stage!” says Ian Stroughair/Velma Celli ahead of Saturday’s Love Is Love: A Brief History Of Drag show at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

YORK musical actor Ian Stroughair will return to the York Theatre Royal stage for the first time in 24 years on Saturday, in the guise of his cabaret alter ego, drag diva deluxe Velma Celli.

“I last performed there in Kes, appearing in the ensemble, and sadly I’ve never been back,” says Ian, 38, who has settled back into his home city since Lockdown 1, leaving London behind.

“I’ve tried to do shows at the Theatre Royal but it’s never happened, so it’s great to be back now. I love what Tom [chief executive Tom Bird] is doing there.”

Love is the drag for Ian this weekend when Velma Cella takes part in the Theatre Royal’s spring-reawakening Love Season, performing one of Velma’s regular shows, re-titled Love Is Love: A Brief Of History Of Drag specially for the 8pm occasion.

Ian has taken A Brief History Of Drag to New York and Australia and on a British tour, as well as staging performances in London and York. “I’ve been doing it for four years now on and off, and I’m so glad the Theatre Royal wants the show,” he says. “I feel over-excited! I cannot wait! Get me on that stage!”

Ian created the show when he was in “stuck in Africa for a few weeks”. “I was in Dar Es Salam, in Tanzania,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘let’s write a show’ and it ended up being about how I got into drag and a celebration of the impact of drag in theatre, music, film and popular culture.

The regular poster for Velma Celli’s A Brief History Of Drag, retitled with the precursor Love Is Love for The Love Season at York Theatre Royal

“It’s part-story, but most definitely a celebration, and it’s an ever-changing show. I find new nuggets and add them in all the time. There’s so much stuff to cover in our story.”

Should you be wondering how and why the term “drag” was coined, let Ian explain: “Shakespeare! It’s a script/stage direction abbreviation. ‘Man enters stage dressed as a girl’. D.R.A.G.”

The drag persona of Velma Celli emerged 13 years ago when Ian was playing Mary Sunshine in the West End run of Chicago. Did she arrive fully fledged or bloom gradually?  “Progression. Like developing any role or idea, time is needed,” says Ian, who remembers exactly how he felt when he first took to the stage in drag. Confident? Nervous? Born to play the role? “Unleashed,” he says.

Velma Celli, who made a sassy cameo appearance in EastEnders, draws inspiration from “the greats”. “Lily Savage, Dame Edna Everage, Bowie, the movies, musicals and many unknown queens who blazed the trail,” he says.

Now, Ian is planning a Velma Celli show built around David Bowie: singer, songwriter, actor, artist, cultural icon, iconoclast, fashion shaper and androgynous shape-shifter. “I think Bowie is a master at illusion and character development but also reinvention. Something I completely relate to as an artist,” he says.

Meanwhile, Velma Celli’s regular York residency is on the move. Out goes the Covid-suspended monthly camp cabaret Friday nights at The Basement, City Screen, York.

“Velma loves the limelight; Ian enjoys the anonymity,” says Ian Stroughair, who “repels fame”

In comes a resplendent residency from last Friday at Impossible, York, Tokyo Industries’ new tea-room, cocktail bar, restaurant and speakeasy enterprise in the old Terry’s café in St Helen’s Café, latterly home to Carluccio’s restaurant.

“The first show was incredible,” says Ian. “The atmosphere was electric. I’ll never forget it. The new venue is so plush and the staff are excellent.”

The Velma Celli Show residency will not be Velma’s only gig in the first-floor Impossible Wonderbar. “On June 5, we’ll be holding the first Drag Brunch, with Velma, surprise guest drag queens, bottomless cocktails and brunch,” says Ian, looking forward to hosting the “ultimate diva brunch in homage to all the queens”, from Whitney to Tina Turner plus many more besides.

That day, there will be two 90-minute sittings, the first from 12 noon, the second from 2.30pm. Tickets are on sale via info@impossibleyork.com or on 01904 864410.

Last year, Ian had to forego a long run in Funny Girls in Blackpool, thwarted by Killjoy Covid, and the pandemic strictures put paid to his international travels too.

Already he has had his two Covid-19 vaccine jabs to enable Ian to take a week’s travel to Mexico for a Velma Celli show in Cancun, however. “Thank god for that because the next cruise is not until October. I lost all the cruise-ship shows last year, and I’d already lost five cruise bookings this year, when in one day I lost three more cruise bookings,” he reveals.

Ian Stroughair on the balcony outside his new abode In York after moving back to his home city from London

The ships may be down, but Ian has shown resilience throughout the pandemic, streaming Velma Celli concerts, first from a Bishopthorpe kitchen and later from a riverside abode by the Ouse Bridge. Last December was spent playing the villainous Flesh Creep in York Stage’s debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, at Theatre @41, Monkgate.

Just as this interview moves freely between Ian and Velma, where does Ian, son of Acomb, stop and Velma, drag diva alter ego, start? “She arrives during the make-up process and getting into costume. But human interaction is where it clicks in,” says Ian. “I need my audience.”

Repelling fame, Ian defines the distinction as “Velma loves the limelight; Ian enjoys the anonymity”. “Fame isn’t necessary for me,” he says. “In fact it makes me uncomfortable. I like my private life with my loved ones and I’m very protective of that and mostly them. A stage: that’s where I come alive.” 

Tickets for Velma Celli’s Love Is Love: A Brief History Of Drag can be booked at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or on 01904 623568. For the latest Velma Celli trailer, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a005o6eGZWI. Hit it!

Just One More Thing…

What do you think of the RuPaul’s Drag Race TV shows? Good news for drag?
“It’s made it more mainstream but I don’t think it’s the essence of drag. Gentrification, for sure, but a celebration, of course. That can only be a good thing.”

Copyright of The Press, York

Mission Impossible! Velma Celli finds new wonderbar home for York drag residency

“It’s happening!” says Velma Celli as York cabaret star moves residency to Impossible, York, from next month. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick, Kirkpatrick Photography

YORK’S drag diva deluxe Velma Celli is on the move.

Out goes the Covid-suspended monthly camp cabaret Friday nights at The Basement, City Screen, York.

In comes a resplendent residency from next month at Impossible, York, Tokyo Industries’ new tea-room, cocktail bar, restaurant and speakeasy enterprise in the old Terry’s café in St Helen’s Café, latterly home to Carluccio’s restaurant.

“It’s happening!” says an excited Velma Celli, the exotic international drag alter ego of musical actor Ian Stroughair, last seen on a York stage in December as the villainous Fleshius Creepius in York Stage’s debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, at Theatre @41, Monkgate.

“Velma has a new residency!! My very first live gig at the utterly fabulous Impossible, York. May 21st.  Doors 7pm. Show 8pm! My very special guest is [York soul sister] Jessica Steel (obvs). More special West End guests to be announced! Grab those tickets as it will sell out!”

Take that advice, Velma insists. “50 per cent of tickets have gone! If you want to come to opening night, don’t wait to book! This baby is flying!!!!”

Tickets are on sale at https://www.ticketweb.uk/event/the-velma-celli-show-impossible-york-tickets/10900325, priced at £22 for VIP front cabaret table seats and £16.50 for reserved seating.

“Basically, it’s replacing the shows at The Basement, where we don’t know when it will reopen for shows under Covid guidance as it’s a small space,” says Ian, as he switches from the impossible to Impossible, York.

“I met the Impossible manager, Stephanie, in December, meeting her between Jack And The Beanstalk shows, and then five weeks ago she knocked on the window saying, ‘I’ve been trying to contact you!’.

How the other half lives: Exit alter ego Velma Celli, enter Ian Stroughair, musical actor, playing Fleshius Creepius in York Stage’s pantomime Jack And The Beanstalk

“And so the first Velma Celli Show there will be on May 21, up the stairs, in the fabulous Impossible Wonderbar setting overlooking the square, with more shows to be announced later. This one will be fun, comedic, with stand-up, impressions, the usual mix of rock, pop and the blues, plus Jess and guests.”

Ian first moved back to York for Lockdown 1 when the pandemic sent him home from a Velma Celli Australian tour and he plans to settle back in his home city permanently from May, travelling to London for three days a week when necessary.

Streamed concerts, first from a Bishopthorpe kitchen and latterly from a riverside abode by the Ouse Bridge, have kept Velma Celli’s voice in spectacular working order, sometimes accompanied by Jessica Steel, leading light of Big Ian Donaghy’s fundraising A Night To Remember shows at York Barbican.

“Jess is reopening her salon [Rock The Barnet in Boroughbridge Road] from Monday, so we did our last stream together last night, Last Online – A Grand Finale, that ticket holders can see until Sunday,” says West End star Ian, who has appeared in such musicals as Cats, Fame, Chicago and Rent, but had to forego a long run in Funny Girls in Blackpool last year, thwarted by Killjoy Covid.

For the latest Velma Celli trailer, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a005o6eGZWI. Hit it!

Velma Celli and Jess Steel to serve up streamed show from Earl Grey Tea Rooms

LOCKDOWN cabaret streaming duo Velma Celli and Jess Steel are going on location to the Earl Grey Tea Rooms for their Showbizzy Shambles show in York tomorrow (5/2/2021).

After the camply nautical, naughty fun of their water-themed Fabulously Flooded online gig last week, they are vacating the riverside abode of Ian Stroughair, drag diva Velma’s creator, by Lendal Bridge for light relief and camp cabaret belting.

“We’re getting the keys to the Earl Grey Tea Rooms in Shambles and filming it there,” says Ian/Velma. “We’ll be going vintage, so join in with your apparel, peeps, if ya feel like it. Not essential but fun.”

Tickets for Showbizzy Shambles grant access to the streamed show any time from 5pm tomorrow to Sunday evening (7/2/2021). Go to http://bit.ly/3pAtBAF for all the details. “Please feel free to invite all your mates,” says Ian/Velma.

Here, everything stops for tea questions and more besides as Charles Hutchinson grills Ian Stroughair/Velma Celli.

How is your house now, post-flooding?  Fully recovered?

“Yes! Thank RuPaul (God)! It took a lot of scrubbing, but I got there!” 

Where did you end up recording your January 22 show when water had seeped in through the front door and back door?

“Still in the house. The kitchen is lower than the living room, so we were cool.” 

What songs on a water theme did you perform in last week’s Fabulously Flooded show? Something by The Waterboys?  Peter Gabriel’s Here Comes The Flood?  (Lendal) Bridge Over Troubled Water, maybe? So many possibilities!

“Ha ha, so many! It’s Raining Men (obvs). Waterloo. River Deep Mountain High. Cry Me A River. You get the drift.” 

No! No song by The Waterboys featured in Velma and Jess’s water-themed cabaret show

How has the streamed gig at the Earl Grey Tea Rooms come about?

“Clare and Howard [Proctor] are very good old friends and they’re fabulous supporters of all my Velma and Ian appearances.

“I adore this place as much as its owners and it’s been a real struggle over the past year, as you’d imagine, so I wanted to raise them up.

“Not only because it’s such a fabulous tea room – to get you all chomping at the bit to visit, as soon as we move tiers – but also to highlight just how hard it is right now, not just in my sector of live performance but in the hospitality industry too!

“Clare and Howard have worked so hard for years, so I wanted to use my platform to shine a spotlight on them.”

Velma Celli and Jess Steel’s social-media artwork for their Fabulously Flooded show last week

In which room will you record the show?

“Undecided. Each one is so quaint. Will depend on lighting, darling.”

Water theme last week.  Any tea and cake songs this week? Can’t think of a crumpet song….

“We are going vintage. From the 1940s, but all the way up to Lady Gaga and everything in between.

“Why not prepare yourself an afternoon tea with scones, finger sandwiches, tea pots filled with fizz, and let us entertain you, direct and safely in your own home.”

What is your perfect afternoon tea and where? 

“Earl Grey Tea Rooms of course! Best scones ever. I love their Coronation Chicken jacket, followed by a cream tea with English brekky! You must all go as soon as they reopen. Such quality and atmosphere.”

Jess Steel: Showbizzy Shambles will be the sensational singing hairdresser’s last streamed concert with Velma Celli “for a few weeks”

Earl Grey, Darjeeling or Lapsang Souchong?

“All. But my favourite is English Breakfast in the morning and Orange Pekoe on an afternoon.” 

Cream first or jam first on a scone?

“Cream!!!!!!!!” 

Favourite cake?

“Traditional Victoria Sponge.” 

Have you ever left a cake out in the rain, a la MacArthur Park?

“No. Come rain or shine, Velma never neglects confection.” 

What’s coming next?

“Tomorrow is the last show with Jess and me for a few weeks as I have some solo live- stream bookings to perform.”

Come Hell or, in this case, high water, Velma Celli and Jess Steel WILL play streamed gig

Jess Steel and Ian Stroughair (aka Velma Celli) will defy a flooded house to perform their streamed gig in York

NOT even a flooded house will stop York drag diva divine Velma Celli and sensational singing hairdresser Jess Steel from recording their latest streamed gig.

“Streamed”…what an ironic word that is right now, as Velma’s creator, musical actor and international cabaret star Ian Stroughair, and “work bubble” Jess survey the “carnage” in Ian’s riverside pad by the Ouse.

Exit Storm Christoph, re-enter the defiant duo, who will follow up last Friday’s double bill with the second instalment of An Evening With Velma & Jess, put back from today (22/1/2021) to tomorrow, with the recording having had to be delayed.

Tickets are on sale at https://www.ticketweb.uk/event/an-evening-with-velma-and-live-stream-tickets/10829655 until 5pm tomorrow, when the link to watch the show will arrive moments later. Please note, the recording will remain available for viewing for 48 hours.

The show must go on for Velma Celli, even when the floodwater calls for wellies

Looking forward to still making a splash this weekend, Ian/Velma wades through Charles Hutchinson’s snappy questions.

How are you coping in the flood, Ian? What’s the latest state of play?

“It’s been a long, semi-sleepless couple of days. Fortunately, it hasn’t increased overnight but the kitchen is flooded and I cannot leave by either door. The back door is up to five feet in water and the front is inaccessible. It’s windows and wellies at the moment.”

Without giving the precise location, where is your riparian abode?

“I am right by Ouse Bridge. So, pretty much at the worse possible area but I have food and gin, so I’m gooooood!”

In which room will you now record the streamed gig?

“I think we may be OK to stick to the living room. If not, the four-poster master suite will be perfect!” 

Will you adjust the setlist to take in songs about rain and flooding?

“Ha ha! Of course! Titanic meets Babs meets Abba.” [Water-loo?, editor ponders].

Have you ever had to cancel a gig (other than for killjoy Covid) and, if so, what was the best reason for a gig not going ahead?

“It’s never fun to cancel. I did once get stuck in Oz longer than expected and had to cancel a London date.”

Can you say anything at this stage of your plan to play gigs in York restaurants?

“Not too much yet! We are sorting the finer details. As soon as York goes into a tier where we can eat in restaurants, I’ll be shouting it from the rooftops.” 

Velma Celli and Jess Steel bubble up for York lockdown streamed concert tonight

A midwinter night’s stream: The poster for An Evening With Velma & Jess tonight

AFTER last Friday’s Large & Lit In Lockdown Again solo show online, York drag diva Velma Celli forms a bubble double bill with powerhouse singing hairdresser Jess Steel tonight.

Together they will be presenting An Evening With Velma & Jess, streamed from the riverside abode of Ian Stroughair, the musical actor inside the fabulous international cabaret creation.

Jess, leading light of Big Ian Donaghy’s fundraising A Night To Remember shows at York Barbican, runs the Rock The Barnet salon in Boroughbridge Road, where her clientele can listen to their favourite vinyl on a classic record player while having their hair styled or enjoying a beauty treatment.

Tonight’s 8pm show is the second in a new series of hour-long Velma Celli streamed gigs in lockdown. “It’s the day of the show, ya’ll,” says Velma on Facebook. “So much work and love has gone into this, so if you fancy some lockdown fun, please tune in and support Jess and I.

“Tickets come off sale at 5pm and you have 48 hours to watch it just in case ya busy, Barbra’s.” To book, go to: http://bit.ly/2XxMqrG.

Here Ian/Velma answers Charles Hutchinson’s rapid-fire questions ahead of showtime.

How did last week’s show go? What were the highlights?

“It was SO much fun and camp. I loved singing all new songs and just having a laugh… with myself!”

Having moved from Bishopthorpe to a riverside house, how did the new location work out?

“Lovely! I am living in my friend’s dreamy townhouse at the moment. Posh!” 

What will you be singing tonight?

“OOOOOO, Cilla, Disney, ’60s, ’70s, ‘80s, ‘90s. It’s a real mixed bag this time.”

What will Jess be singing?

“Dolly. Gaga. Amy.” 

How come you can perform together in lockdown?

“I am in Jess’s bubble. Yes!”

How would you sum up Jess in five words?

“Talent. Kind. Hilarious. Generous. Fabulous.”

How did you celebrate your birthday yesterday in lockdown?

“With snacks. Facetime. Gin.”

What’s the best birthday present you have ever received?

“Another year to have a go at being better.”

Bean there, done that! What we learned from Nik Briggs’s debut York Stage panto

“I’ve been blown away by the response we’ve had to our panto,” says York Stage artistic director Nik Briggs. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

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.

Losing his head: Nik Briggs emerging from the costume for the front end of Daisy the cow in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk. At the back end is socially distanced stage manager Lisa Cameron. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

“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.

Alex Weatherhill as Dame Nanna Trott in Jack And The Beanstalk: part of Nik Briggs’s cast of “super-talented actors, singers and dancers”. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

“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.”

West End choreographer Gary Lloyd in rehearsal for York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

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).

Ian Stroughair’s villainous Fleshius Creepius in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

“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.

Pantomime transformation scene: York Stage ‘talk’ a good show by adding to the Bile Beans sign on Lord Mayor’s Walk

“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.

York Stage’s poster for Jack And The Beanstalk, the pantomime where “giant magic can grow in the smallest places”

“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!”

Jordan Fox’s Jack Trott, front, with ensemble trio Matthew Ives, Emily Taylor and Danielle Mullan and May Tether’s Jill Gallop in Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

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.

The end: York Stage’s pantomime cast bid farewell at the close of Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography


Drag diva Velma Celli kickstarts 2021 with Large & Lit In Lockdown streamed show

Velma Celli: Large & Lit In Lockdown Again but from a new location

AFTER his “Fleshius Creepius” panto villain in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk, Ian Stroughair planned to pull on his drag rags for a live Velma Celli show on January 15 at his adopted winter home of Theatre @41 Monkgate.

He anticipated more shows would have followed too, but then came York’s new impediment of Tier 3 status post-Christmas, and inevitably tighter restrictions still to come until the jabs make their point.

Consequently, he announces instead: “Darlings, as we head back into a lockdown in York, Velma Celli is back on the streaming! My first show, Large & Lit In Lockdown Again, is on Friday (8/1/2021) at 8pm. I would love you to join me for an hour of camp cabaret fun! Get those requests and shout-outs in!”

In 2020, Velma hosted a series of streamed shows from Case De Velma Celli, alias the drag diva’s Bishopthorpe kitchen. Firstly, on April 29, a fundraiser for St Leonard’s Hospice, followed by Large & Lit In Lockdown and virtual versions of the cabaret queen’s hit shows Equinox, Me & My Divas and A Night At The Musicals.

Usually to be found once a month gracing The Basement stage at City Screen, York, Velma returned to live performance in York by signing up for a rugby club – York RI Rugby Union Football Club, in New Lane, Acomb, to be precise – for An Evening Of Song outdoors under the September stars.

Jack And The Beanstalk saw Ian turn to the dark side as the vainglorious “Fleshius Creepius”, and now, newly moved into a riverside abode in York, he is ready to return to Velma Celli mode from Friday.

Tickets for Virtual Velma start at £10 via http://bit.ly/3nVaa4N. Watch this space for news of an online show every Friday from Ian’s new HQ.

Here, Ian answers Charles Hutchinson’s quickfire questions at the outset of a new year still shrouded in uncertainty for the arts world.

From where will you be streaming the January 8 show?  Still as a kitchen-sing drama or from a different room at your new riverside pad?

“The living room.”

On a technical level, what did you learn about doing digital streams from your earlier series of shows?

“That tech is stressful but once you have a system, it’s a piece of cake.” 

Ian Stroughair as Fleshius Creepius in York Stage’s pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk

What will the new show feature: any songs making their debut?

“Expect lots of divas as per. I’m gonna whack in some classic Amy Winehouse too: Back In Black.”

Will a remote guest be joining you?

“Not this time. You get Velma all to yourself.”

Your 2020 ended on a high with the villainous Fleshius Creepius in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk.  How did it feel to be back on stage in a show with a proper run to it?

“It was EVERYTHING. Such a joy and a wonderful experience. Feel so lucky and positive for a return of theatre as a whole!” 

What did you enjoy most about performing this pantomime – a new hybrid of “pansical” or “musical theatre with pantomime braces on” – in your home city?

“Working with the entire team. Everyone was sensational. The most talented cast I’ve ever worked with.” 

What were your highlights of 2020, aside from the pantomime?

“Reconnecting with York. I’ve fallen in love with it big time. Growing up here was a very different place and time, especially for the LGBTQIA+, but now it’s SO much more diverse.”

What realistic hopes do you have for yourself in 2021?

“That I can stay afloat until venues can open. It’s hard but, my lord, I’ll plod on.”

What hopes would you still have for 2021 in an ideal world?

“That theatre and the arts in general would have a boom and rebirth. I’m hopeful but realistic it may take longer than I dream.”

If you could address the Government, why do the arts matter?

“We need the arts more than we ever thought. It’s entertainment. It’s escapism. It’s culture. We all need it.” 

REVIEW: Big Ian Donaghy’s Boxing Day visit to York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk

Ian Stroughair’s Flesh Creep: “Joyously evil-turned-up-to-11 villain”. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

MONKGATE magic!

Every year like clockwork, you wolf down the first clutch of chocolates from your Advent calendar, then panto arrives.

Men as women.

Women as men.

Two crew members as a horse.

Oh yes, it is!

Oh no, it isn’t!

Jack And The Beanstalk: “The healthy, bright-eyed and slim” bean feast of a York Stage pantomime, as promised by the newly appropriated Biles Beans sign

Children’s eyes agog.

But not in 2020.

The year that the show MUSTN’T go on.

Just watch the news.

Tisn’t the season to be jolly!

As theatres up and down the land spend Christmas in darkness, a shard of light could be seen down an alleyway off Monkgate.

It’ll never work.

How could it work?

Jack….and the beanstalk: Jordan Fox’s Jack with stage manager Lisa Cameron’s hand-made beanstalk in the York Stage pantomime. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

Necessity is the Mother of Invention.

This needed ideas, creativity and the personnel to pull it off and even then one announcement could pull its plug at any moment.

This had failure written all over it.

As we walked past the finest piece of genius marketing on Boxing Night, extending the locals’ favourite landmark – the Bile Beans sign on Lord Mayor’s Walk – to read “Bile BeanSTALK”, we were smiling even before the first line.

“Where’s the Minster?”, people ask? “It’s just over the wall from the Bile Beans sign.”

After a balanced diet of cheese and Toblerones, could this be the panto to keep us “healthy, bright-eyed and slim?”.

Alex Weatherhill’s Dame Nanna Trott: “Showing off a range to stop Mariah Carey warbling her festive favourite”. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

As we walked through the door, greenery festooned every bannister and surface.

With a tiny capacity of only 60 to meet Covid safety requirements, this was not so much a family panto as a “bubble panto”.

Jack was played by the endearing Jordan Fox, who somehow managed to be both idiot and hero at once.

Flesh Creep was played by the joyously evil-turned-up-to-11 Ian Stroughair, who was nearly eight feet tall with hat!

A three-piece dance troupe featuring dance captains from both the Grand Opera House (Emily Taylor) and Theatre Royal (Danielle Mullan) felt like a luxury as did a small house band (Jessica Douglas, Sam Johnson and Clark Howard).

Corners could have easily been cut but weren’t. Quality clearly means everything to writer-director Nik Briggs.

“Top-tier entertainment”: May Tether as Jill Gallop (on the podium) with ensemble trio Emily Taylor (left), Danielle Mullan and Matthew Ives. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

The cast faced magnetic north as a convoy of beautiful original songs and production numbers ran through the show, choreographed by West Ender Gary Lloyd .

The harmonies as all the cast sang together were spellbinding, as the hairs on the backs of your arms acknowledged this wasn’t another panto re-heat -this was fresh.

I could listen to May Tether (who played Jill) sing the terms and conditions of an insurance policy and she’d make it sound like Carole King had penned it.

Where many pantos have actors, singers or dancers with on obvious ‘also ran’ in their skill set, every cast member was a Swiss Army knife of lethally sharp talent.

Rarely do you get soulful vocals from a panto fairy (Livvy Evans) and even the Dame, played by Alex Weatherhill, showed off a range to stop Mariah Carey warbling her festive favourite.

Head’s gone: Writer-director Nik Briggs and stage manager Lisa Cameron in a revealing moment for the longer-than-usual pantomime cow, Daisy, in Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

Surprisingly, the cast showed no fatigue from the three-shows-a-day schedule but it begs the question why this wasn’t in a bigger venue with Covid measures in place. I can only imagine that the paperwork and risk assessments took more paper than the script in this impossible year. The audience were even guided to do hand gestures, as everybody desisted from shouting “Oh yes he is” all night.

Every ticket in this traverse set-up was a golden ticket as each group was separated into plastic booths. This is “in your face” theatre – but socially distanced of course – that you can feel, not just watch.

Featuring some of the most original gags I have ever heard in a panto to reflect the times, plus a couple of very well-known faces on screen who could grace any stage in the land, this is a show full of surprises: doing the same things differently. Proving that theatre can adapt to fit around the safety of its audience to give a Christmas to remember to a year many of us would like to forget.

“Soulful vocals”: Livvy Evans as Fairy Mary in Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

In 2020, when Amazon have delivered everything to your doorstep, Briggs has delivered not just a panto, but also West End-quality musical theatre, while maintaining a safe distance, and NOBODY will be writing ‘Return to Sender’ on this triple threat-laden package.

York’s Tier 2 status meant that the doors could open, but there is nothing Tier 2 about this show in Monkgate. This is top-tier entertainment for all of your bubble.

Review by Ian Donaghy

Show times: December 29, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; December 30, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; New Year’s Eve, December 31, 12 noon (sold out); January 2, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; January 3, 1pm and 6pm.

Please visit yorkstagepanto.com for an update on performances once York’s new Tier status is confirmed in the Government briefing tomorrow (30/12/2020).

Name up in lights: The traverse stage for York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk, with the audience seated in Perspex-shielded bubbles. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

Box office: online only at yorkstagepanto.com. Please note, audiences will be seated in household/support bubble groupings only. 

Today is officially Panto Day in a winter with all too few panto days…except in York

WHO better to mark Panto Day than York Stage’s villain, Ian Stroughair, whose performance in Jack And The Beanstalk combines a craving for power with towering stage domination.

Stroughair’s intemperate character, Flesh Creep, is so hell-bent in his quest, he could spare only three minutes for these short, sharp, snappy answers to CharlesHutchPress’s equally quickfire questions.

What was the first pantomime you ever saw and what do you recall of it?

“Leeds. Not sure which, but I was frightened to death by the baddie.”

What was your first pantomime role?

“Dandini in Cinderella, The Regent Theatre, Stoke.” 

What has been your favourite pantomime role?

“Dandini.”

Who have you not yet played in pantomime that you would love to play?

“Dame. Not old enough, I don’t think, though.” 

Who is your favourite pantomime performer and why?

“Julian Clary. Utterly fabulous.” 

This year’s pantomime will be an experience like no other…what are your expectations of performing a show in these strange circumstances?

“My expectations are that it will be awesome.” 

Which pantomime role should Boris Johnson play?

“The Evil Queen.”

Who or what has been the villain of 2020?

“Trump.”

Who or what has been the fairy of 2020?

“Netflix.”

How would you sum up 2020 in five words?

“It has been a mess.”

What are your wishes for 2021?

“For theatres to boom.”

What are your hopes for the world of theatre in 2021?

“For theatres to boom.”

Happy Panto Day, Ian.

York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk runs at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, until January 3. Box office: yorkstagepanto.com