NICK Lane’s adaptation of Frankenstein will be staged by Blackeyed Theatre at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre from February 9 to 12 as part of a national tour.
South Yorkshire playwright Lane has reinterpreted John Ginman’s original 2016 script for the Bracknell touring company, built around Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel set in Geneva in 1816, where Victor Frankenstein obsesses in the pursuit of nature’s secret, the elixir of life itself.
Alas, nothing can prepare him for what he creates, and so begins a gripping life-or-death adventure taking him to the ends of the Earth and beyond.
Blackeyed Theatre’s highly theatrical telling combines live music and ensemble storytelling with Bunraku-style puppetry to portray The Creature. Designed and built by Warhorse and His Dark Materials alumna Yvonne Stone, the 6ft 4inch puppet is operated by up to three actors at any one time, adding a new dimension to the retelling of the Frankenstein story.
Director Eliot Giuralarocca says: “For me, the beauty and excitement of theatre is that it’s live, unfolding in front of an audience as they watch, and the decision to make the creature a life-sized puppet – beautifully and painstakingly made by Yvonne Stone – seemed to fit perfectly with this approach.
“Frankenstein is obsessed with re-animating dead matter by finding the spark of creation, the ‘elixir of life’. We bring our creature to life theatrically, animating, manipulating and breathing life into the puppet right in front of the audience, and in doing so, I hope we present a lovely theatrical metaphor for the act of creation in the story itself and give audiences the chance to share in that creation.”
Victor Frankenstein will be played by Robert Bradley (Hedda Gabler, National Theatre, Joe Strummer Takes A Walk, Cervantes Theatre, Encounters With The Past, Hampton Court Palace).
Max Gallagher (Brief Encounter, Watermill Newbury, War Horse, National Theatre, Richard III, Northern Broadsides) reprises the role of Henry Clerval, while Benedict Hastings(Wolf Hall, Royal Shakespeare Company, We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, Kenny Wax) plays Robert Walton.
Billy Irving (War Horse Tenth Anniversary Tour, National Theatre) is chief puppeteer and the voice of The Creature; Rose Bruford graduate Alice E Mayer makes her professional stage debut as Elizabeth Lavenza.
Writer Nick Lane, whose SJT winter production of Jack And The Beanstalk can be watched online until January 31 via sjt.uk.com, was associate director and literary manager at Hull Truck Theatre from 2006 to 2014.
Director Eliot Giuralarocca and puppetry creator and director Yvonne Stone are joined in the Blackeyed Theatre production team by composer Ron McAllister, musical director Ellie Verkerk, set designer Victoria Spearing, costume designer Anne Thomson and lighting designer Alan Valentine (whereas the 2016 production was lit by Charlotte McClelland).
Frankenstein is produced by Blackeyed Theatre in association with South Hill Park Arts Centre, Bracknell, with support from Arts Council England.
Performances in The Round at the SJT start at 7.30pm on February 9; 1.30pm and 7.30pm, February 10; 7.30pm, February 11, and 2.30pm and 7.30pm, February 12. Box office: 01723 370541 or at sjt.uk.com.
AFTER the all-too-familiar scenario of Covid in the cast scuppering performances up to Christmas Eve, Jack And The Beanstalk is back up and running for its last week of shows at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.
What’s more, for those unable to head to the East Coast, Nick Lane’s stage adaptation can be enjoyed at home in a film capture of the Christmas show via the SJT website until midnight on Monday, January 31.
From the SJT team that delivered The Snow Queen, Treasure Island, Alice In Wonderland, A (Scarborough) Christmas Carol and Pinocchio comes Lane’s typically imaginative take on the beanstalk-climbing story by Benjamin Tabart and others, directed by Gemma Fairlie, with music and lyrics by Simon Slater and a set design by Helen Coyston.
Lane has taken hold of the traditional fairytale, re-envisioning it as a scary rumour going round town of a meaner than mean giant building a castle above the coastal clouds of Scarborough.
In Lane’s version, Jack had started the rumour by accident, but given that he seems to know more about this monster than anyone else, he is the obvious choice to head up that weird beanstalk he grew in the garden to destroy the beast. No problem, thinks Jack. Go up the most unpopular child in school; come down a hero. After all, it is only a rumour. Isn’t it?
“My thinking is that in an era when kids, even at the age of eight and nine, some have phones, some are on social media, everyone has to grow up so quickly, but Jack is still growing up, still a boy, still using his imagination, left behind by his peer group, as he still lives in his head,” says Nick.
“When he talks about a giant in the sky, no-one believes him. The cool kid at school just thinks he’s a nerd, so the story is that whole zero-to-hero thing.”
Lane has made a significant change in the balance of the story. “It’s quite male, the original story, so I thought, ‘how would you integrate changes relevant for now?’,” he says.
“It’s become much more a tale of Jack and Jill, who’s more cool and savvier than Jack in one way, but in other ways is naïve, so they help each other, in the tradition of the buddy-buddy story.”
Two further elements are prominent in Lane’s sixth winter show for the SJT. Firstly, “Jack And The Beanstalk is just a fairytale, not a traditional Christmas show, so I have tried to ‘Christmas it up’,” he says.
Secondly, he likes to emphasise the Scarborough setting of his SJT shows. “I think that came from when I worked at Hull Truck, pushing that sense of place, when people have a long association with a building and a place,” says Nick.
“You recognise that theatre not only challenges people, but it also celebrates its community, and Scarborough is a great community. Here, it first came from A (Scarborough) Christmas, researching what people like to do at Christmas in Scarborough. It’s worth doing that so that a show feels ‘of us’.”
Adapting to changing Covid restrictions in 2020, Lane had to re-write The Snow Queen as a solo show for Polly Lister, having first written a script for a cast of five. “I’d done solo shows before, so when the decision came from on high, I was able to re-do it, and Paul [SJT artistic director Paul Robinson] was very understanding that the script would come in a little late,” says the experienced South Yorkshire playwright.
“I’d previously written A Christmas Carol as a solo show for myself and Royal Flush, a one-man play about Thomas Crapper [the South Yorkshire-born businessman, plumber and inventor of such water closet innovations as the floating ballcock and U-bend].”
Robinson directed The Snow Queen but this time he handed the reins to Gemma Fairlie, who shaped the winter play with her cast of Jacob Butler, Jessica Dennis, Sheri Lineham, Alicia Mckenzie and Loris Scarpa. “He chose Gemma after working with her before and seeing her other work, and if Paul says she’s good, then I trust him implicitly,” says Nick.
“I was given the option of contributing to rehearsals, but having directed as well as written plays, I think it’s fairer to hand it over.”
As with the rest of the audience, Lane was in for a surprise when seeing how designer Helen Coyston would create the beanstalk for a theatre in the round. “You’re thinking, ‘it can’t go in the middle of the stage, rising up into the lighting rig, blocking everyone’s view, but it’s sure to be a typically beautifully design by Helen’,” says Nick, who had only a “very brief chat” with her.
Coyston’s multi-layered stage design does incorporate a giant footprint, but as for the beanstalk…you must watch the show!
Jack And The Beanstalk runs at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until December 31. Box office: 01723 370541 or at sjt.uk.com.Tickets for the film cost £12 each or £15 for a group at sjt.uk.com/event/1294/sjt_at_home_jack.
Copyright of The Press, York
COMING UP FROM NICK LANE’S PEN IN 2022
Sherlock Holmes And The Valley Of Fear, for Blackeyed Theatre, touring from September.
A revival of The Goal at The Courtyard, Hereford, marking the 50th anniversary of Ronnie Radford’s famous FA Cup goal for Hereford United against Newcastle United in the February 5 mud at Edgar Street.
Also for The Courtyard, Hereford: a play charting the history and changing landscape of a farming family from the 1950s onwards. “In 2018, when I wrote The Goal, I thought, ‘I know four things about Hereford: cider; home of the SAS; beef farming and that Ronnie Radford goal’,” he says.
Next winter’s play in The Round at the SJT, Scarborough; title to be announced in early February.
AFTER The Flint Street Nativity and last winter’s debut pantomime Jack And The Beanstalk, York Stage Musicals are serving up Christmas cheer again with Elf The Musical.
Such is the anticipation for this show that the Grand Opera House run from today until December 3 has all but sold out already. “Out of the 11 performances, we have around only ten tickets left for each show,” says delighted artistic director Nik Briggs.
York Stage Musicals are presenting the York premiere of Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin, Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin’s musical, based on the 2003 film, the one with a goofing Will Ferrell.
Should Elf somehow have eluded you, the story follows orphan child Buddy as he mistakenly crawls into Santa Claus’s bag and ends up being transported to his North Pole abode.
Once there, unaware he is human, and not an elf, his enormous size and poor toy-making abilities cause him to face the truth.
Given Santa’s permission, Buddy (played by Damien Poole) must head to New York City to find his birth father, discover his true identity and help the Big Apple to remember the true meaning of Christmas.
“We love bringing big Broadway and West End musicals to York: we’ve done Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert and Shrek The Musical, and I knew Elf would be perfect for the cast we have: high energy and full of fun,” says Nik.
“With The Flint Street Nativity and our musical panto, Jack And The Beanstalk, we’ve started bringing alternative Christmas shows to York and Elf perfectly fits that bill.”
How does the musical differ from the film? “The songs, obviously! It’s got a stellar songbook to go will all the comedy that people love from the movie,” says Nik. “The beautiful score is accompanied by a big, brassy band: a 16-piece orchestra directed by the wonderful Stephen Hackshaw. It sounds amazing.”
As affirmed by the ticket sales, Elf has winter winner written all over it. “People love the film; it’s a title they know, and after the past 18 months we’ve all had, it’s the perfect show too see. Pure joy!” says Nik.
“Just as Buddy helps New York to find its Christmas spirit, so Damien and the cast will be helping York to do the same.”
Enthusing over his two leads, Damien Poole, as Buddy and Sophie Hammond, as Buddy’s love interest, Jovie, Nik says: “Damien IS Buddy! He loves Christmas, he’s so full of joy, so energetic, and with his ten years of West End credentials in such shows as Grease and Groundhog Day, he can sustain that throughout the run.
“Sophie is just the most beautiful performer. I remember when she first walked in to audition for Footloose, more than ten years ago, I was just blown away, casting her as Ariel, the preacher’s daughter with the looks and rebellious attitude of a bad girl. She really takes the audience on a journey when she performs.”
After mounting Jack And The Beanstalk at Theatre@41, Monkgate, last Christmas with the requirement for social bubbles, a compact cast and the constant uncertainty over whether the show would have to be called off (only the finale was lost in the end), Nik is once more producing a show under the Covid cloud.
“We’ve kept our numbers to what would be the cast size for a tour – around 20 – and we’ve never stopped learning from the shows we’ve done since the pandemic forced changes, starting with the outdoor concerts at Rowntree Park in late-summer 2020 and the panto,” he says, as he attends to the Elf and safety requirements.
“That’s put us in a really good position to run a show like this, with all the requirements for Lateral Flow Tests and wearing masks when necessary.”
After the hit run of Shrek The Musical, directed and choreographed by Damien Poole after his return to Boston Spa from his West End work, York Stage Musicals are thrilled to be back at the Grand Opera House for Elf. “We love working with the team here, and we love the technical possibilities the stage affords us,” says Nik, who has done the set design on top of his directing duties.
“We’ve had the set built by companies and builders around the country for a brand new set design that works perfectly with the space, inspired by New York and Radio City Music Hall, in Midtown Manhattan, which I visited in 2019, shortly before Covid arrived.”
Looking ahead, York Stage Musicals will be returning to the Grand Opera House from April 22 to 30 next year for the York premiere of Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls: The Musical. Write that one down on your 2022 calendar and be sure to book early.
York Stage Musicals in Elf The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, tonight (25/11/2021) until December 3. Box office: hurry, hurry to atgtickets.com/York or ring 0844 871 7615.
Copyright of The Press, York
SOPHIE Hammond is completing a full circle as she returns to the Grand Opera House stage in York tonight in York Stage Musicals’ Elf The Musical.
“This is my first time back in a York Stage show since playing Ariel in 2010 in Footloose. I was blonde at the time,” recalls Sophie, her hair now darker, as she takes the role of Buddy’s love interest, Jovie, in Elf.
“That was my first show with York Stage Musicals, as after Footloose I went off to London to train in musical theatre at the American Musical Theatre Academy, where I managed to get myself an agent and went into performing jobs.”
Four years into the profession, Sophie made a career change. “I decided I wanted to teach performing arts at secondary school, and I’ve been teaching at Beckfoot School, in Bradford, for three years, which have whizzed by,” she says.
Sophie performed in the second of York Stage Musicals’ outdoor concerts in Rowntree Park in Summer 2020 and now she is treading the boards once more at the Grand Opera House. “It feels like it’s a nice circle being completed, being back there after 11 years,” she says.
LIKE Sophie Hammond, Damien Poole has left London behind to make a new start.
“I’d lived there for 15 years, working in the West End, but four years ago I decided to set up my theatre school, Damien Poole Theatre Arts, which I run in Harrogate, and I also work at the Leeds Conservatoire music school, working with musical theatre degree students,” he says.
After directing and choreographing York Stage Musicals’ September 2019 production of Shrek The Musical – “an amazing experience,” he says – Damien now faces the challenge of balancing his teaching duties with playing the lead character of Buddy in YSM’s Elf.
“I try to make time by changing my times at the theatre school and Leeds, so I can rehearse on Wednesdays and Sundays and have Thursdays off,” he says.
He is relishing taking on the role synonymous with Will Farrell. “Obviously I’m not going to be able to create what Will Farrell did in creating Buddy’s character in the film, but I get to sing and dance, and you get to see more layers to Buddy in the musical,” says Damien.
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.
“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, he 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,” says Ian, whose “Irreplaceable. The Almighty Who Inspired Legends” show will “celebrate Bowie and the artists he inspired”.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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.”
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 May 21 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!”
“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 general manager, Stephanie [Powell], in December, meeting her between Jack And The Beanstalk shows, and then suddenly she knocked on the window saying, ‘I’ve been trying to contact you!’.
“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 monthly 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.”
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 June 5 are on sale via email@example.com or on 01904 864410.
After being London based for so long – like so many musical performers – 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 soul-singing York hairdresser Jessica Steel, leading light of Big Ian Donaghy’s fundraising A Night To Remember shows at York Barbican and salon owner of Rock The Barnet in Boroughbridge Road.
West End star Ian has appeared in such musicals as Cats, Fame, Chicago and Rent – not forgetting a sassy cameo for Velma Celli on EastEnders – but had to forego a long run in Funny Girls in Blackpool last year, thwarted by Killjoy Covid.
The pandemic strictures put paid to his international travels too, but already he has had two Covid-19 vaccine jabs to enable Ian to plan a week’s travel to Mexico for a Velma Celli show in Cancun.
“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.
In the diary too is Velma Celli’s participation in The Love Season at York Theatre Royal, performing one of Velma’s regular cabaret shows, re-titled Love Is Love: A Brief Of History Of Drag specially for the May 29 occasion.
Joining Velma that night will be two guest acts, Jordan Fox, Ian’s co-star in Jack And The Beanstalk, and Jessica Steel, backing singers Kimberley Ensor and Grace Lancaster, musical director Ben Papworth, drummer Clark Howard and guitarist Al Morrison.
“I last performed there in Kes, when I was 14, exactly 24 years ago, and sadly I’ve never been back,” says Ian. “I’ve tried to do shows there but it’s never happened, so it’s great to be back now. I love what Tom [chief executive Tom Bird] is doing there.”
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 wrote it when I was stuck in Africa for a few weeks. 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.”
Yet for all the flamboyance of the imposingly tall Velma Celli, for all of Ian’s love of performing, he has a surprising admission to make: “I don’t like fame and celebrity,” he says. “I repel it!”
Tickets for Velma Celli’s 8pm show on May 29 at York Theatre Royal are on sale 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!
YORK Stage are to present Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage from May 20 to 23 at Theatre @41, Monkgate, York, in the wake of a hit series of online shows.
Director/producer Nik Briggs and his York production company never let the first pandemic lockdown grind them down, instead bringing together their performers, musicians and technicians remotely for a streamed concert season that played out over ten weeks under the title of Songs From The Settee.
“The idea was to keep the city entertained with top-quality musical theatre while we were in uncharted territory,” says Nik. “We thought the weekly publications would last three to four weeks, but before we knew it, we were at ten!
“We were blown away and driven by our friends and followers, who were engaging with the series and sending us messages, saying how we were helping them get through the week.”
The first online recording, Heroes All Around, was released on April 9 2020. “So, it feels like the perfect date, one year later, to announce what we’ll be bringing to our audiences as theatres are set to reopen with social distancing from May 17: Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage,” says Nik.
“From May 20 to 23, we have two different concerts that will run back to back under the same title at 7.30pm each evening.
“Musical director Jess Douglas will start the ball rolling with her band and some of York Stage’s finest vocal talents on May 20 and 21, before passing the baton to Stephen Hackshaw, who will bring in a new band and showcase more of the York Stage talent pool on May 22 and 23.”
The event will be staged in the Covid-secure John Cooper Studio at Theatre@41 on Monkgate, where audiences will be seated at cabaret tables, socially distanced from other bubbles around the studio. Drinks and refreshments will be served throughout the show with a table-service offering.
“Having produced a socially distanced pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, at Theatre @41 over Christmas, we know we can bring a show with full Covid compliance to the venue successfully and very much look forward to doing so,” says Nik.
The announcement of Lockdown 3 sadly stopped Jack and his Beanstalk antics short of the early January finishing line when theatres were forced to close on December 30.
“Up to that point, I’d been thinking about what shows I could be making for January and February, but as the days passed, I realised that was not to be!” he says.
“We knew it was coming, but the real blow was not getting our New Year’s Eve shows in. It felt like we’d been robbed of something we’d fought for after the most difficult year ever; to see through to the last day of the year weirdly seemed at the time as though it would have taken the sting out of the closure.
“But it feels so good to be returning to the venue and reopening public performances with these concerts. Boris says the reopening will be irreversible, so fingers crossed that it’s the first of many events for 2021.”
Tickets can be bought online at yorkstagemusicals.com from April 10.
Here CharlesHutchPress fires off a fusillade of questions for a round of quickfire responses from artistic director Nik Briggs:
What will be the format of each concert? Will each one have a separate theme? “Songs From The Settee: Live On Stage will bring some of the our online performances to the stage for the first time, alongside lots of other musical theatre and pop songs.
“There will be some group numbers of course, but the main part of the evenings will be made up of a series of cabaret/live lounge-type sets that will see our performers take to the stage solo with a collection of songs that mean something to them!
“Throughout lockdown, we saw a lot of people setting up their ring lights and creating mini- recording studios in their homes in order to continue to create and be creative and the evenings are set to celebrate the tenacity performers showed across the industry and the work they created in lockdown.
“I often say to younger performers who I work with, ‘Sing like you sing in your bedroom mirror and now it’s time to see what that mantra brings from our older performers!”
Will Jess and Stephen decide on each concert’s content or will you be involved too?
“This one is set to be a real collaboration between the artists, musical directors and myself due to the nature of the evening.”
Who will be the singers and the musicians for Jess’s shows and Stephen’s shows?
“On May 20 and 21, Jess will be working alongside Sophie Hammond, Lauren Sheriston, Joanne Theaker and some recent graduates who are yet to be confirmed.
“On May 22 and 23, Stephen will be returning to the musical director’s chair after a year for his concerts and he’ll be working with Grace Lancaster, Conor Mellor, Damien Poole, Emily Ramsden and, again, recent grads who are TBC.
“The directors are currently working on the set lists with the singers in order to work out which instrumentalists will be best suited for their evenings. Due to Covid guidelines, we’re limited to the numbers we can have on stage and in the band, so we have to really plan these things and work out what is best for all involved.”
How will the stage be dressed for each show? What will be the dress code for the performers? “Well, we’re indoors this time, so we’ll not need as many layers as when we had our sell-out shows in Rowntree Park last August and September. Umbrellas certainly not called for! “There’s is no real dress code for this one though; our performers will be dressed to make them feel suitably fabulous and ready to entertain.”
Just wondering: will there be a settee (or ‘sofa’ as my mother has always insisted I should say) on stage?
“Of course! How could we have Songs From The Settee: Live On Stage without a settee? I joked that we should maybe have a sacrificial burning or destruction of the settee at the end of each show to symbolise Boris’s plans that these reopening will be very much irreversible.
“The venue will be beautifully lit again from Adam Moore and his Tech 24:7 team.”
What did you learn from mounting the Songs From The Settee shows online series; will “streaming” continue to play a role in York Stage’s work?
“Who knows. What I think it showed was yet again York Stage are adaptable. We responded and worked hard to ensure we continued and provided top-notch entertainment for the city, even in the darkest, hardest times for theatre.
“As you yourself have often commented in reviews, we really aim to set the bar high with everything we do as a producer in York. We are unique in that we proudly sit between others in the city where we continually mix professional performers and production teams with only the best of York’s community actors.
“That is what makes us exciting and ensures we are are able to bring huge West End and Broadway titles to the city, alongside smaller concerts, plays and studio pieces, which all have high production values, the best performances and stories that are filled with spirit and heart.”
What’s coming up next for York Stage on stage?
“We have lots planned over the coming years. We’re starting with the Christmas spectacular, ELF the Musical, at the Grand Opera House this November and December; tickets on sale soon!”
IN the original 2020 vision of York’s pantomime season, Dame Berwick Kaler made his comeback in Dick Turpin Rides Again in his newly adopted home of the Grand Opera House.
York Theatre Royal had a ball with Cinderella, bedding in a new partnership with Evolution Productions, and the Rowntree Players filled the Joseph Rowntree Theatre with community spirit as ever.
Then, however, the pandemic, rather than pantomime, became the P word on all lips, tearing up the script for the winter ahead. Dick Turpin never left the stable; the Theatre Royal took to the road with the Travelling Pantomime; Rowntree Players made plans for 2021 instead.
Along came a newcomer, however, in the form of York Stage’s inaugural pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, full of beans, routines, slapstick and musical theatre songs at the Covid-secure Theatre @41 Monkgate, under the direction of debutant writer Nik Briggs.
The post-Christmas impediment of Tier 3 status for York curtailed the panto fun and games on December 30, rather than the planned finale of January 3, but Nik can look back on a job well done with reduced-capacity, socially distanced full houses for the majority of shows since opening on December 11.
“I’ve been blown away by the response we’ve had to our panto,” he says. “The respect I have for the art form and the recognition of how panto inspires so many children every year meant it wasn’t an option for me not to have a panto with real scale and spectacle over Christmas in York.
“It’s something I’ve hopefully brought into my own productions across the years. The respect I have for the art form and the recognition of how panto inspires so many children every year meant it wasn’t an option for me not to have a panto with real scale and spectacle over Christmas in York.”
Reflecting on penning his first panto script, Nik says: “It was certainly nerve wracking putting my own script out, having never penned a show before! Especially in York, following in the footsteps of Berwick [Kaler], who I respect greatly.
“Between lockdowns, I went over for a coffee with him, talked through my ideas and came away with the confidence to put pen to paper. He was so encouraging. I’ve had so many great responses to the script, which is a big compliment.”
Described by Nik as “musical theatre with pantomime braces on” and by choreographer Gary Lloyd as a “pansical”, York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk was distinctive from past pantos in York.
“The triple-threat West End cast were probably the show’s biggest surprise to a York audience. Having all eight performers be at the top of their game, being super-talented actors, singers and dancers,” says Nik.
“I always knew my panto would be very much a musical fairy-tale, which would feature all the elements of panto that are traditional included into the mix. I cast it knowing I’d need brilliant performers who could bring the skills that the show’s structure demanded. You’ll not see songs like the ones we had in a panto any time soon again, not only in York but across the country.”
In picking his cast of May Tether’s Jill Gallop, Jordan Fox’s Jack Trott, Ian Stroughair’s villainous Fleshius Creepius, Livvy Evans’s Fairy Mary, Alex Weartherhill’s Dane Nanna Trott and an ensemble of dance captains Danielle Mullan, Emily Taylor and Matthew Ives, Nik was seeking “three things”.
“Firstly, talent: the triple-threat capability of every cast member. Secondly, strong links to the city and region, and, finally, they had to be lovely people who would be fun to work with,” he says.
“A lot of the cast I’d worked with before and all of them I’d work with again. We brought together eight actors who became a panto family in less than six weeks! They worked tirelessly to create our sensational show and were a nothing short of a beautiful, talented, naturally diverse collection of Yorkshire talent.”
Nik was adamant his panto should have a Yorkshire flavour, not least May Tether revelling in using her Goole accent in a show for the first time. “Being a Geordie import to York, having lived here for over ten years, one thing that has always blown me away about the city is the amount of talent that stems from here,” he says.
“It’s a no-brainer, therefore, that I would use talent from the area primarily! Especially at Christmas, and with what’s going on at the moment, it was always important that this was a show made in York for the people of York.”
In a coup for York Stage, Nik was able to call on the choreographic skills of West End hotshot Gary Lloyd, whose touring production of Heathers remained in hibernation. “I’ve known Gary’s work for many years [his sister is York Stage Musicals regular Jo Theaker]; I’m always knocked out by his choreography and musical staging,” he says.
“We’d spoken before about working together and this time last year I’d have laughed if you’d said we’d be doing a panto as our first show together, but it has been a brilliant experience. His storytelling through choreography is just so inspiring! As a creative, he was fantastic to work with; he really did inspire me in the rehearsal room every day.”
Given the Government’s ever-changing pandemic rules, navigating a safe passage for a show in late-2020 was a challenge like no other for a theatre director, not least the late rule change that cut the capacity from 80 to 55 (with the audience divided into bubbles divided by Perspex screens either side of the traverse stage).
“The whole process was filled with challenges, but we knew, going into the project, it was never going to be easy,” says Nik. “We took every day as it presented itself to us. I’m very comfortable with change and the need to adapt, so as producer I felt confident leading the production through the Covid storm.
“Some days were harder than others, but we knew what we were doing was too important to walk away from.”
One of the talking points of Nik’s first pantomime was the inspired marketing coup of transforming the famous Bile Beans wall sign on Lord Mayor’s Walk into Bile Beanstalk to point passers-by in the direction of Theatre @41 Monkgate.
“It summed up our production perfectly,” he says. “Something new, something well executed, something in York we’re used to, being flipped on its head and turned for a short period into something new! People’s reaction was brilliant; they understood we were having fun and being playful while respecting the landmark.”
On the subject of creating “something new” for York, what more could Nik bring to a pantomime if he could do such a show under normal circumstances? “Who knows?! Talent and spectacle will always be the main two factors in my shows,” he says.
“I’m always looking to push forward and bring the biggest and best theatre to the city. York’s got two new pantos in 2021 with Qdos and Evolution, two of the country’s biggest panto producers, going head to head at the Grand Opera House and York Theatre Royal. How will that end?”
Looking ahead, Nik’s plans for 2021 cannot be set in concrete while the pandemic still refuses to relent: “Have you got a crystal ball?” he says. “We’ve got rights secured for some brilliant titles over the next two years, but they will only be possible to stage when social distancing is over.
“The next big show we can realistically hope to stage is Elf The Musical at the Grand Opera House next November/December. Before that, we’ll be working on smaller shows with brilliant casts, which will be announced throughout the year.”
Through the year too, Nik will be busy running York Stage School, remotely while Covid regulations prevail, but then returning to Theatre @41 Monkgate. “We’ll be continuing to work with our students through 2021 and will be striving to bring them the best theatrical training possible,” he says.
“We have survived two lockdowns and created brilliant work with them and that will continue this term.”
One lasting memory of Jack And The Beanstalk will be Nik’s impromptu emotional moment at the close of the final show, urging everyone to keep supporting theatre. “I don’t do last-night public speaking: it’s not my style and I cringe at it as people don’t come to hear me speak,” he says.
“They come to be entertained and forget whatever is going on outside, but I was ambushed – while I didn’t have any shoes on – and having received notice only a few hours before that our show would have to close that night, emotions were running high around the building.
“It’s scary producing shows at the moment: Will people support us? Will they come if we stage things? Will this bankrupt me?
“The Government closing theatres in Tier 3, where thousands have been spent to keep people safe, but allowing people to still shop and go around picking up produce just doesn’t make sense. It’s idiotic!”
Nik develops his point: “There are no recorded transmissions in theatre, that’s important to stress. So, it’s important audiences do support whatever is being produced. Otherwise, things won’t be produced, things won’t happen, and that’d make for a very sad cultural landscape,” he says.
“A lot of people have said we were lucky to get to perform 40 of the 45 shows scheduled. At first, I agreed, but with hindsight I’ve re-evaluated and realised that is a very dangerous way to think.
“We all worked tirelessly and sacrificed a lot to ensure we created a brilliant show that people could enjoy safely. There was no big financial reward dangling at the end of the run to tempt us to cut corners; we simply wouldn’t have staged the show if we thought we were doing anything unsafely or were creating risk.
“Our friends and family were among the audiences; we wouldn’t have risked them. So, we were lucky we didn’t fall short sooner because of the Governments poor management but there was nothing lucky in losing our final five shows.”
The timing of the Elf production rules out a second York Stage pantomime next winter, but what are Nik’s wishes for 2021? “To get people vaccinated quickly so we can get back to sitting close together, sharing stories and experiences in theatres across the city,” he says.
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.”
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.”
YORK Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime has been brought to a sudden stop by the Spectre of Christmas Present: the rapid rise in Covid cases in York.
Nevertheless, despite the loss of four post-Christmas shows this week, the decision to go on the road to as many of York’s 21 wards as possible has been vindicated.
Creative director Juliet Forster’s cast of Josh Benson’s rubber-bodied comic turn, Reuben Johnson’s Meerkat-accented villain, Anna Soden’s bass-playing funky fairy, Faye Campbell’s assertive hero and Robin Simpson’s droll dame played to full house after full house.
Despite no recorded transmission of the virus at any performance from December 2 to 23, the Theatre Royal has ruled the show must not go on, foregoing the resumption of its 70-minutes-straight-through, socially distanced touring production, having initially added a handful of post-Christmas shows.
Exit stage left too early, but we still learnt that Josh “Just Joshing” Benson, pocket-dynamo York magician, clown, comic, actor and children’s entertainer, is a natural fit for the silly billy/daft lad role. No magic tricks this time, but that skill is up his sleeve for the future.
Likewise, Robin Simpson’s dame, less outwardly demonstrative but more subtly sophisticated than the average panto man in a dress, is utterly comfortable, cheekily conspiratorial and joyful in the most revered of all pantomime parts.
So far, so good, but the still-blossoming Josh is tied into a contract as the Viaduct Theatre’s pantomime comic turn in Halifax, after making his debut there in Beauty And The Beast last winter, while Robin lives in Huddersfield, where he is bedded in as the Lawrence Batley Theatre’s dame. Both are set to return to fruitful past pastures next winter.
Johnson, York actor Soden and Campbell all made their mark too in shows blessed with terrific scripts by Paul Hendy, the award-winning co-founder of Evolution Productions, the Theatre Royal’s new partner in pantomime.
The handing-over of the panto baton after last winter’s toxic severance from Berwick Kaler’s 41-year venerated damehood should have seen the triumvirate of Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird, creative director Juliet Forster and Evolution director, producer and writer Paul Hendy presenting Cinderella on the main-house stage.
However, the pestilent Coronavirus pandemic cancelled invitations to the ball, after the St Leonard’s Place building was cast into darkness on March 16. Lockdown 1 and ever-changing rules ensued but in mid-September, the panto trio made the decision to take theatre to the people in the form of the pop-up Travelling Pantomime.
Each location, ranging from church halls to community centres, the Theatre Royal pop-up stage to social clubs and sports halls, had to be Covid-secure, adhering to Government guidance for staging socially distanced performances with capacities ranging from 35 to 50.
At each show, the audience members could vote for whether they wanted to see Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk or Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.
Hendy switched smoothly to this new writing task, for a cast of five, with no dance ensemble and no house band: just another challenge faced by Evolution Productions, who have still been involved in seven pantomime productions in this Covid-compromised year.
“In a strange way, I quite enjoyed Lockdown, time with the kids, and not the constant pressure of putting on shows; just the contrast of going out and listening to the birds,” says Paul.
Once the path ahead became clearer, although still shrouded in uncertainty, he and Evolution set to work on co-producing six shows, along with Paul providing the York scripts and directing Dick Whittington, The Pompey Panto at the Kings Theatre, Portsmouth.
From Operation Sleeping Beauty to Nurse Nanny Saves Panto to Damian Saves Panto, Paul penned a series of one-off new shows attuned to Covid times, while his York scripts sought to bottle and preserve the essence of pantomime.
“Awaiting the Government pandemic update on December 16, all we could do was roll with it, go ahead and start rehearsals – which qualified as ‘going to work’ and set about our aim to save pantomime,” says Paul.
“It doesn’t feel fair that the Government can say, ‘No, you can’t go ahead’, when there’s no evidence there’s been an outburst of Covid after theatres reopened with social distancing, especially as a lot of theatres have spent a lot of money on the infrastructure to make theatres a safe place to go, but what can we do?
“But then the pandemic is not fair on anyone in all sorts of industries, and that’s why, at this time, people needed pantomime more than ever.”
Thankfully, York’s Tier 2 status ensured that the Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime could roll out across York with Hendy’s scripts built around the baddie trying to steal the essence of pantomime. “The shows had to be full of laughter, community spirit and topical gags, as there’s so much material there this year,” he says.
Paul relished the opportunity to take pantomime into all manner of venues. “I’ve always said that pantomime can work in a black-box setting with just five actors because of that compact configuration and connection with the audience, and this year that’s what’s happened,” he says.
“It still works because pantomime is an interactive theatre genre – and how many other forms of theatre can you say appeal to five year olds and 95 year olds alike?”
One emotion above all others permeated through Paul’s pantos. “The one thing I always want to do is bring joy, make it funny of course, but ultimately make it a show driven by joy – and we did that,” he says.
Josh Benson and Robin Simpson may not be back in Theatre Royal colours next winter, but Paul Hendy most definitely will, when Cinderella and York alike will have a ball.
THE wheels have come off York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime within touching distance of the final curtain.
The rapid rise in York’s Coronavirus cases has brought the runaway success of the sold-out show to a shuddering halt as the Covid curse strikes yet again.
Despite no recorded transmission of the virus at any performance so far, the Theatre Royal has decided the show must not go on, foregoing the resumption its 70-minutes-straight-through, socially distanced, Covid-secure touring production, having initially added a handful of post-Christmas shows.
The rolling seven-day Covid rate for the City of York Council area in the week to December 23 was 218.4 per 100,000 population, higher than the regional average of 189.1 for Yorkshire and The Humber, and the big-city rates of 172.4 in Sheffield, 190.6 in Bradford and 184.8 in Leeds, but still much lower than the national average for England of 401.9.
The figure is higher than the average of 174.7 for North Yorkshire and 179.1 for East Yorkshire. Most disturbingly, York’s rate his risen steeply since a figure of 65 cases per 100,000 population a fortnight ago, an acceleration to which the influx of rule-breaking Tier 3 visitors and Christmas shoppers is thought likely to have contributed.
Explaining the decision, Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird says: “It is with great regret we have decided that the pantomime will not resume for its post-Christmas performances. This has been a tough decision to make, but we feel it is the right one.
“I pay tribute to the whole of the York Theatre Royal team for producing so many performances under such extraordinary conditions, and their diligence and hard work is borne out by the fact that we have no recorded transmission of the virus at the pantomime.”
After two previews at the Theatre Royal, the Travelling Pantomime team took the show to community venues in Tang Hall, Dunnington, Wigginton, Holgate, Clifton Moor, Elvington, Poppleton, Acomb, Carr Lane, Strensall, Copmanthorpe, Fulford, Heworth and Guildhall, to meet the aim of visiting all 21 wards in the city.
This week’s performances by Josh Benson’s comic turn, Robin Simpson’s dame, Anna Soden’s fairy, Faye Campbell’s hero and Reuben Johnson’s villain would have taken the company close to that target by the December 31 finale.
“The theatre wants to thank the brilliant audiences, who have supported the pantomime in their local venues, and City of York Council, who have helped to distribute over 200 free tickets to families in need on the run-up to Christmas.”
Box-office staff will be in touch with ticket holders for cancelled performances in the next few days. Those shows would have taken place at Moor Lane Youth Centre, Dringhouses, last night; Southlands Methodist Church Hall, Bishopthorpe Road, tonight, and York Theatre Royal, tomorrow and Thursday.
The York Theatre Royal pantomime, co-produced with 2020 pantomime partners Evolution Productioms, will return to the main house for Cinderella from December 3 to January 2 2022.
Now that the Traveling Pantomime van has parked up for the last time, CharlesHutchPress can reveal that each audience’s vote to pick a panto from Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk and Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs in reality came down to a choice of two.
Courtesy of writer Paul Hendy, each show’s early gag about the Rule of Six ruled out the Seven Dwarfs. “We had to lose one of the dwarfs,” said Robin Simpson’s dame. “Wasn’t Happy!” Boom! Boom!
YORK’S other pantomime, York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk, will continue to run at Theatre @41 Monkgate, unless the Government’s Covid briefing tomorrow pronounces a change in York’s Tier 2 status.
Writer-director Nik Briggs’s show has upcoming performances until January 3 2021 with full details at yorkstagepanto.com. Watch this space for an update tomorrow.