JOSH Benson, “Just Joshing” comic star of York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime, is bored in Lockdown 3.
“Anyone up for Josh Day?” asks the York magician, actor, children’s entertainer, music hall act and Corntroller of Entertainment at York Maze, on his Facebook feed.
The online day in question is “Funday Sunday”, January 24. “Several different lil’ shows/workshops/general front room daftness, throughout the day and into the evening on Facebook Live,” he promises. “Various content/times TBC. I’m open to suggestions…!”
To make those suggestions for his full day of virtual live shows, contact Josh via facebook.com/JoshBensonEntertainer
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.
REVIEW: York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, New Earswick Folk Hall, York, 5/12/2020
NO Rolling Stones show goes by without rock’n’roll’s greatest paleontological survivor, Keith Richards, leaning into his microphone to mumble: “It’s good to be here…it’s good to be anywhere”.
Lo and behold, “It’s great to be here…it’s kind of great to be anywhere,” says York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime’s comic turn, Josh “Just Joshing” Benson, at the outset of Saturday evening’s Covid-secure, socially distanced, temperature-tested, bubble-seated pantomime.
How right he is. Saturday was day four of the new dawn of the York Theatre Royal pantomime, the first after 40 years in the wildness of the Dame Berwick Kaler era. Until Covid-19 became the joyless new villain, out to destroy the land of theatre, Cinderella was to have marked the transition from Kaler capers to a new partnership with regular Great British Pantomime Award winners Evolution Productions.
When invitations to the ball turned to cinders, chief executive Tom Bird, creative director Juliet Forster and Evolution writer-director Paul Hendy decided to tear up the script and compose three new ones instead to take the panto to the people.
Hence it is indeed great to be here, there and everywhere, because, while the Theatre Royal main stage awaits resuscitation in 2021, the Travelling Pantomime will definitely be pitching up at 16 of York’s 21 wards, possibly more if Covid-safe passage can yet be guaranteed to others. At least four more shows are being lined up for after Christmas and a recording of the second-night preview will be made available for streaming soon too.
On Saturday, New Earswick Folk Hall was transformed into a theatre for the first time, creating an impromptu stage with Hannah Sibai’s red-curtained, green-framed travelling theatre frontage and a traditional pantomime backdrop.
Everything is slimmed down – a cast of five, no ensemble, no live band, no interval, no panto cow, but less just means being more inventive and cramming so much into what we are told will be an hour but stretches gladly well beyond.
Edinburgh Fringe shows work to tight running times, and quality, not quantity, rules here too. To Paul Hendy, that means bottling up the “the essence of panto” and right now, in Covid-19 2020, that essence is Joy.
Once we are introduced not just to Just Josh’s rubber-bodied comic, but also Robin Simpson’s classic dame, Faye Campbell’s modern hero, super-tall Reuben Johnson’s villain and Anna Soden’s trumpet/guitar/bass-playing fairy, we must vote for our choice of show: Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk or Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Seven dwarves, note; there is a knock-out joke a’coming.
Jack won out on Saturday: Josh becoming, well, Josh, with the daftest streak of blond in his hair since Kevin Petersen pummelled 158 against Australia with a skunk plonked on his bonce in 2005. He is a lovably daft ball of energy, cheeky but not saucy, and if he kept his magic tricks up his sleeve this time, what an asset for the future.
Simpson, on loan from Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre, is the penniless but pun-full, mirthful Dame Trott, reaching for both a cuppa and the gin; Johnson, all in black with a dash of red to match his Russian accent, is a Flesh Creep with an amusingly dismissive air and a mischievous hint of Borat.
Campbell’s Jack must fight the old prejudices against girls being fit for purpose for heroic tasks while keeping the name Jack. Soden’s rapping, funky, blue and pink-haired Fairy is more likely to hit the bass line than wave a wand, as flashy as her lit-up boots.
Juliet Forster directs with momentum, brio and thrills rather than frills, complemented by Hayley Del Harrison’s fun, compact choreography and musical director James Harrison’s rapid-fire bursts of high-energy songs.
Yes, there is a beanstalk and a Giant called Pundemic. Above all, York Theatre Royal have hit the jackpot with Paul Hendy’s script-writing prowess, love of a double-act routine and a knowingly contrived, convoluted path to a pay-off line.
He handles the pandemic crisis with a success rate to make the Government jealous, throwing in topical references galore with witty, often unpredictable Pandemime punchlines, but nothing insensitive in such traumatic times.
A magazine title slapstick to-and-fro between Benson and Simpson is already a contender for panto scene of the year, and if there are jokes for adults, Hendy favours a Gilbert O’Sullivan song title, rather than adult material or in-jokes.
Pantomime 1, Pandemic 0, the Travelling Pantomime triumphs on its already sold-out run to December 23. Hendy will be back next winter for the full Evolution to roll out; Benson is due to return to the Victoria Theatre panto in Halifax next Christmas, alas, but his Theatre Royal day will surely come, even if he can’t magic his way out of that one.
THIS is a sentence that could not have been foreseen at the outset of 2021: all performances of York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime have sold out.
This was the year when the first Theatre Royal and Evolution Productions co-production of the post-Dame Berwick Kaler era should have been Cinderella, but Covid-19 cancelled all invitations to the ball.
Instead, in a tempestuous year like no other for theatre at large, the Theatre Royal vowed that if audiences could not come to the theatre, then now was the time to take theatre to the people.
Permitted by the Government’s Covid-secure regulations to “go to work” to rehearse behind closed doors through Lockdown 2, creative director Juliet Forster’s Travelling players have now been given the green light for the December tour by York’s Tier 2 status.
Preview performances last night and tonight on a pop-up stage at the Theatre Royal – the first shows inside the St Leonard’s Place building since the March shutdown – will warm up comic Josh Benson, dame Robin Simpson, fairy Anna Soden, hero Faye Campbell and villain Reuben Johnson for socially distanced shows in Covid-secure church halls, village halls, community centres, schools, a reading room and even an hotel.
Chief executive Tom Bird is delighted the show can go ahead, or, more precisely, each show’s audience choice from three pantomimes penned by Evolution Productions’ Paul Hendy: Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk and Snow White.
“A huge amount of work has gone into the Travelling Pantomime already, organising everything with the venues, and it’s great that every show has sold out, so people are really interested in getting back to seeing shows,” he says.
“The plan was to tour to all 21 York wards, and it’s touch and go whether we’ll do that, but we’ve added Strensall – sold out already! – to take the total to 16 and we’re still in negotiations with others.
“The venues have to be right, we have to be sure they are Covid-safe and that’s quite a challenge in some venues, but we’re still hopeful of adding a few more.”
For those unable to see a live performance, the Theatre Royal will be filming tonight’s preview on the Theatre Royal main stage for streaming from a date yet to be confirmed.
Tom watched the tech rehearsal last Friday, as the treading of boards returned to the Theatre Royal. “The whole atmosphere felt heavy with emotion,” he says. “After the year we’ve all had, it must be like a shop opening again or a pub landlord re-opening.
“Just seeing the lights on and watching Juliet directing, it’s so exciting to be back, not yet back as we knew it before, but at least we’re back. Being on home turf for the first game of the season feels good.”
Tom believes the early decision to mount a Travelling Pantomime in a year of so much uncertainty has proved judicious. “We felt basically that for a number of reasons getting out and about was the best way to go this year. We know that transport can be complicated in the pandemic, so it’s best to keep the shows local,” he says.
“We could have done shows to 344 people with social distancing at the Theatre Royal, and that would have been completely legal, but we still felt the Travelling Pantomime was the best thing for now, showing a generosity of spirit to the city.
“Mounting a Christmas show was always going to be a logistical Everest in 2020, whether at the Theatre Royal or on the road, but it just felt crucial to do it. It’s so important for us, it truly is, because you want to give people a laugh but also to remind people that we are here.”
Rehearsals have been joyful, even under the shadow of the pandemic. “Juliet has really enjoyed it; the creative team have really enjoyed it, and we have a good mix of actors, some comparatively new to pantomime, some who’ve done zillions.
“Every week in rehearsals and every second day during the production run, they’re being Covid-tested, which does put everyone at east. It costs quite a lot, but it’s absolutely been worth it.”
Tom has had to oversee a pandemic-blighted year when ticket income all but dried up until the Travelling Pantomime; the neighbouring De Grey Rooms lease was not renewed, and 16 redundancies had to be made.
In October, the Theatre Royal was awarded £230,000 from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund to help the theatre until March, having earlier received £196,493 from Arts Council England’s Emergency Response Fund in July to cover the fallow months until September.
The latter grant will facilitate the Theatre Royal looking to the future, with Tom taking on the new title of chief executive, replacing his executive director tag. “It’s more for ease of messaging within the system. It’s just for tidying things up,” he says. “Nothing more than that.”
Juliet Forster switches from associate director to creative director. “I’m not the world’s biggest fan of ‘associate’ titles, especially when Juliet is absolutely crucial to the theatre – she’s been with the Theatre Royal for 13 years.”
After focusing on Pop Up On The Patio festival and the Traveling Pantomime since summer, now Tom and the artistic planning team, including producer Thom Freeth and artistic associate John Wilkinson, are turning their attention to re-opening the Theatre Royal.
“Over the past few weeks we’ve started to arrive at a position where we’re formulating a way of re-opening with social distancing, as we’ve been in receipt of funds [from the Culture Recovery Fund],” says Tom.
“We don’t yet have a date in mind, but we’re planning to open maybe sooner than the spring. We’ll get through the pantomime first and then make an announcement not long after that.”
For full details on the York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime itinerary, go to yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
REHEARSALS are underway for York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime, the neighbourhood show that will tour to all 21 wards in York.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s confirmation that theatre rehearsals could continue behind closed doors during Lockdown 2, despite all entertainment venues being closed from November 5, has facilitated director Juliet Forster bringing the cast together for sessions in the Covid-secure billiards room in the De Grey Rooms.
“It was a huge relief,” says Juliet, the Theatre Royal’s associate director. “We anticipated he would because he’d said film and TV rehearsals wouldn’t stop, but he hadn’t mentioned theatre at that time, so there was that awful feeling of not knowing, but it was great when the news came out at 9pm that night.”
Welcoming the cast of Robin Simpson, entertainer and magician Josh Benson, actor-musician Anna Soden, Reuben Johnson and Faye Campbell, chief executive Tom Bird says: “We’ve put Covid safety measures in place and will be carefully following Government guidelines over the weeks ahead, but we’re thrilled that we can carry on with our plans to take our pantomime out to the people of York this year.”
Revised dates – moved to a later start after Lockdown 2 was announced – are now in place for a run from December 3, with more to be added. The preview night on a pop-up theatre on York Theatre Royal’s main stage on December 3 will be filmed for broadcast so anyone who misses out on a ticket can still enjoy the show, co-produced by York Theatre Royal and new pantomime partners Evolution Productions.
“Be assured, one way or another, York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime will be coming to you,” says Tom.
“Panto really benefits from the input of the live audience, so that’s why it was always our intention to do the recording in front of an audience,” says Juliet.
Joined in the production team by Pop-Up On The Patio designer Hannah Sibai, choreographer Hayley Del Harrison and musical director James Harrison, Juliet will be working on not one, but three 70-minute pantomimes written by Evolution producer Paul Hendy for each audience to vote whether to see Jack And The Beanstalk, Dick Whittington or Snow White.
Three pantomimes? Plenty to rehearse there, Juliet?! “It’s do-able, and thanks to the Government, we have a bit more rehearsal time now,” she says.
A cast of only five will help too. “Because we’re working on a small touring stage, it wouldn’t have made sense to do a big-sized show with a dance ensemble,” says Juliet. “You may lose some spectacle, but in terms of story-telling, chatting with Paul [writer Paul Hendy], we decided that having just the five key characters intensifies the story, investing in each character’s journey.”
Actor and writer Reuben Johnson will play Fleshcreep and Ratticus Flinch, the villain’s roles, after working previously with Juliet last year, appearing as the thoroughly decent Marco in the Theatre Royal’s autumn production of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge.
“It was quite a different show from doing a panto!” he says. “We met on Skype to talk about it, and it’s a perfect chance to work on something fun in such dark times.”
“Reuben has such comedic funny bones, which you wouldn’t have seen in A View From The Bridge, but even there he mined a few comic moments,” says Juliet. “Sometimes you get someone in your head when you read a script, and they keep coming back into your head, like Reuben did, even though I think of him as a very serious actor. Some of my best casting has come that way.”
Reuben may be a pantomime debutant but says: “I’m a theatre fan in general. I love Shakespeare, new plays, physical comedy, pantomime. Panto wouldn’t normally be number one, but I enjoy all theatre and we do need some big fun right now.”
Reflecting on taking on the villain’s role, he says: “I’ve played baddies quite a bit, and what I like to think I can bring to them, when playing stereotypical villains, is trying to find the humour and likeability of that character, which really contradicts the audience’s thoughts and expectations about that person.
“When I watched them as a child, I often thought that bad guys were hilarious to be around, very rowdy, exciting. Now I’ve got the chance to go to town with it in pantomime.”
One rule of acting asserts that you do not have to sympathise with the characters you play, but you should at least empathise with them. “As long as you know your motivation, it’s how you then go about playing the villain,” says Reuben.
“In pantomime, you’ll want to hear people both laughing at you and with you. It’s that love/hate thing.”
Robin Simpson was last seen on the Theatre Royal stage in Northern Broadsides’ Much Ado About Nothing in May 2019 and has Theatre Royal credits to his name in The Railway Children, The Wind In The Willows, Pinocchio and Pygmalion.
This winter he returns in the juiciest of all pantomime parts, the Dame, a role he has played for the past three years at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield. “This time feels very different because of the current situation and the nature of the show,” says Robin, who played Dame Dolly in Jack And The Beanstalk, Widow Twankey in Aladdin and Nanny Fanny in Sleeping Beauty.
“We didn’t mine that name for any humour, I can assure you! We were all very grown up about it, weren’t we!”
Defining the dame’s importance to pantomime, Robin says: “It’s like being the best kind of party host, being welcoming, over the top, ebullient, everyone’s friend, which is so nice to play.”
In dame tradition, from Dan Leno to Berwick Kaler, he has settled on his distinctive persona. “If you’ve got something that works, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Robin says of the upcoming prospect of playing three variations on Dame Dolly next month.
“My dame is like Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck rolled into one! There won’t be any variation, except trying to remember who I’m playing each time, with the different frocks denoting the character.
“It’s very much a case of the dame generally being a working-class single mother, with numerous children; hard working, straight talking and funny. I’m sort of basing it loosely on northern women when I was growing up. That Ena Sharples character [in Coronation Street], gossiping over the wall; that matriarch; that Les Dawson send-up with Roy Barraclough.
“There’s lots of love there, but she’s also as hard as nails, and you don’t see that much anymore, but hopefully it’s still recognisable. But ultimately with the dame, she comes on stage as a bloke in a dress who tells jokes.”
Lockdown in March turned the lights out on stages across the country but both Johnson and Simpson have sought to keep busy. “I’ve done OK,” says Reuben. “Fortuitously for me, I write as well, doing spoken-word, so I’ve got by on that, with a few little acting jobs as well, but I’ve been craving getting back to work on a stage and that’s not been possible until now. Returning to the rehearsal room has been like a dream.”
Robin, who is also a storyteller, working in schools, libraries and museums all over the country, says: “I don’t want to complain too much because I know people have been going through worse. I’ve worked online, recording stories, learning skills like how to record and creating little films and kids’ stories on Facebook Live for Oldham Libraries,” he says.
“I think there’s merit in recording shows as I can reach places I couldn’t do with live performances for the library service, though you’ll never beat the ‘liveness’ of a show.”
Juliet rejoins: “It all comes back to the shared experience.” “That’s what we’re all desperate for,” says Robin.
“That’s why we couldn’t let go of the need to do a Theatre Royal pantomime this Christmas, even when we knew we weren’t going to be able to open the theatre,” says Juliet. “The prospect of not doing a panto felt wrong.
“We’d talked about community touring and rural touring, and our research told us that audiences would feel more comfortable going to a show locally with their neighbours, rather than coming to the theatre with people from all over the place.
“That’s why we decided to take something so synonymous with Christmas out of the theatre into York’s community centres, church halls and schools for families to have some festive fun with Paul’s shows that are really warm, funny for all ages, packed full of good characters and not innuendo.”
For tickets, dates and more details for The Travelling Pantomime, go to yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
YORK THEATRE ROYAL’S TRAVELLING PANTOMIME schedule of performances. Confirmed so far:
December 2: Members-only preview, York Theatre Royal (pop-up theatre on main stage).
December 3: Preview, York Theatre Royal (pop-up theatre on main stage).
December 4: Tang Hall Community Centre, 4.30pm and 7pm.
December 5: New Earswick Folk Hall, 4.30pm and 7pm.
December 8: The Reading Room, Dunnington, 7pm.
December 9: Wiggington Recreation Hall, 7pm.
December 10: St Barnabas Primary School, Holgate. Afternoon school performance; public
December 11: Clifton Church Hall, 4.30pm and 7pm.
December 12: Elvington Village Hall, Wheldrake, 4.30pm and 7pm.
December 13: The Poppleton Centre, 4.30pm and 7pm.
December 15: Acomb Parish Hall, 7pm.
December 16: Carr Junior School. Afternoon school performance; public performance, 6pm.
December 18: Copmanthorpe Methodist Church Hall, 4.30pm and 7pm.
December 19: Clifton Green Primary School, 4.30pm and 7pm.
December 20: York Pavilion Hotel, 4.30pm and 7pm.
December 22: Heworth Christ Church, 4.30pm and 7pm.
December 23: Archbishop Holgate’s School, 4.30pm and 7pm.
Additional venues to be confirmed.
Tickets cost £10 for adults, £5 for children, with a maximum party size of six people in a household or support bubble.
Up to 25 per cent of tickets will be made free of charge to families in need this Christmas.
Capacity at some venues is small. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis to anyone living in a York city ward.
Did you know?
TRAVELLING Pantomime musical director James Harrison was musical supervisor/director for Evolution Productions’ award-winning 2019-2020 pantomime, Cinderella, at Sheffield Lyceum Theatre. He was awarded the Best Music prize at the Great British Pantomime Awards.
Please note: York Theatre Royal’s planned 2020/21 pantomime, Cinderella, will not go to the ball until next winter.
YORK Theatre Royal is launching Pledge Ahead, an initiative that asks audiences and the wider community for financial support, seven deeply wounding months into the Coronavirus arts crisis.
The pledge will take the form of buying vouchers that can be exchanged later for theatre tickets once the still-closed building re-opens. More details can be found at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Launching the scheme, executive director Tom Bird said: “Lots of people have been asking what they can do to help the theatre at this critical time.
“By pledging ahead, our audiences can continue to support us while our building is closed and look forward to using their vouchers as soon as we are able to re-open our doors and welcome everyone back.”
The plea comes “at this critical time” when the Theatre Royal has revealed it has cut its permanent staff by one third – seven voluntary redundancies and nine staff made redundant – after extensive consultations.
In a further cost-cutting measure, the Theatre Royal also has confirmed it will not be renewing its lease of the neighbouring De Grey Rooms, home to rehearsals, workshops, staff offices and the below-stairs costume store, as well as weddings, parties, award ceremonies and performances in the glorious ballroom.
The “hand-back” will be completed this week after 11 years of renting the Grade 2-listed neo-classical Victorian building from York Conservation Trust.
The costume hire business will be re-located and will re-open in January; further announcements are awaited on exactly where, along with long-term plans for rehearsals, workshops and staff rooms once the Theatre Royal can re-open.
Bird said: “We have been forced to take some very difficult cost-saving decisions. It has been a devastating time for everyone involved but the theatre will survive and we are now looking ahead and planning for the future.”
Along with the redundancies, many more staff have taken cuts in hours and wages, to ensure the theatre survives, and the Government’s soon-to-disappear furlough scheme has played its supportive part too.
However, 89 per cent of York Theatre Royal’s annual income is generated through selling tickets and from associated revenue streams, such as the bars and café, from the tens of thousands of people who come through the doors of a theatre that underwent a £6.1 million redevelopment completed in 2016.
The Theatre Royal – the longest-running theatre in England outside London – reopened on April 22 that year with a new roof, an extended and re-modelled front-of-house area and a refurbished, reconfigured and redecorated main auditorium, with major improvements to access and environmental impact too.
Since the Covid-enforced closure in March, the Theatre Royal has reduced its costs “significantly”, the redundancies being the most draconian step so far.
“Like almost everywhere in British theatre, we have sadly had to reduce our team in order for the Theatre Royal to survive and provide a theatre for the community.
“There was zero ambiguity that it might have to happen, but all theatres are in this situation and I’m pleased that we have not closed any department, so we maintain producing expertise across the staff.”
Since lockdown, performances have been restricted to a Pop-Up On The Patio festival of 12 shows by diverse York performers on the Theatre Royal terracing from August 14 to 29, with a maximum audience of 35 at each show.
Cinderella shall not go to the ball this winter on the main stage, but instead the Theatre Royal and new pantomime partners Evolution Productions have announced the Travelling Pantomime, starring York magician, panto comic turn, actor and children’s entertainer Josh Benson.
The dates are yet to be announced, but the small-scale tour will visit sports centres, social clubs, halls and community centres in all 21 wards in York in December and January.
At each socially-distanced, Covid-secure performance, the audience will vote whether to watch Aladdin, Jack And The Beanstalk or Dick Whittington, all scripted by Evolution director and producer Paul Hendy and directed by Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster.
Meanwhile, the Theatre Royal expects to learn on Monday (October 5) whether its bid for a grant from the Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund has been successful…or not.
The theatre received £196,493 from Arts Council England’s Emergency Fund to help to cover July to September 30’s costs, and the latest grant application is “not a million miles from that figure,” confirmed Bird.
“The problem with an old building that’s so huge and hard to heat is that it costs £475,000 a year just to keep it open, without staffing, to cover heating, lighting, water and safety.
“Under Covid restrictions, things like the patio season and Travelling Pantomime are our direction of travel right now.
“It’s been brilliant to have done the patio shows and we’re totally over the moon with how that went; it was terrific giving local artists the chance to perform. Now we’re looking at further options for outdoor shows in York until it’s viable and safe to be back indoors.
“But we’re always mindful of the risk of a local lockdown, and the main task is to safeguard the future of the theatre and that’s going well but it’s a big fight.”
The Culture Recovery Fund grant, if approved, would cover October to March 31. “It’s a little bit more about recovery this time,” says Bird. “Last time, the ACE grant was about ‘What do you need right now not to collapse?’.
“We have interpreted the guidance for a grant in the best way we can and we hope the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Arts Council will see fit to support us in the best manner possible.”
Today, by the way, is Creative Performance Protest Day, a rallying call to “to highlight the Government’s failure to support the performing arts sector throughout the Covid-19 pandemic”.
Trafalgar Square, London, at midday will be among the focal points of a campaign whose urgency has been heightened by Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s new Job Retention Scheme not accommodating freelance arts workers in its definition of “viable” jobs.
DAME Berwick Kaler’s pantomime, Dick Turpin, will NOT Ride Again at the Grand Opera House, York, this Christmas.
Faced by the Government’s decision not to remove social-distancing requirements for theatres amid the rise in Covid-19 infections, Ambassador Theatre Group and pantomime producers Qdos Entertainment are moving Dick Turpin Rides Again to December 2021/January 2022.
Dame Berwick and his regular team of villain David Leonard, comic stooge Martin Barrass, perennial principal gal Suzy Cooper and luverly Brummie A J Cooper were to have made their Grand Opera House pantomime debut this winter after their headline-making, bittersweet crosstown transfer from York Theatre Royal.
In an official statement today, Kaler said: “Having secured the backing of the world’s leading pantomime producer Qdos, and knowing their commitment to save our acclaimed panto, I’m devastated that our loyal audience is going to have to wait until next year to see what we had planned for them.
“Hence, I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to Qdos and the wonderful staff of the York Grand Opera House who welcomed myself, Martin, Suzy, AJ and David with open arms. Dick Turpin will ride again for Christmas 2021. It’s a long time to wait for a laugh but I can assure you it will be worth it, and we’ll all be at the Grand Opera House to greet you all.”
Rachel Lane, theatre director of the Cumberland Street theatre, added: “With the current Government guidance still unclear on when venues can open without social distancing in place, we have decided with our pantomime partner Qdos Entertainment to postpone the production of Dick Turpin Rides Again until Christmas 2021.
“We’re delighted that Berwick, Martin, Suzy, AJ and David are still able to join us next year. We’ll contact customers directly in due course to move their bookings on a year; they don’t need to take any action at this stage.”
Dame Berwick, who will turn 74 on October 31, had played the Theatre Royal dame over a 40-year span before making his grand exit in The Grand Old Dame Of York, waving goodbye in February 2019, but Britain’s longest-serving dame regretted his decision, even more so when he wrote and co-directed last winter’s show, Sleeping Beauty, wherein Barrass played the nearest role to a dame, The Queen.
Dame Berwick made an impromptu, emotional speech to the last-night home crowd on January 25 in an atmosphere increasingly akin to a bear pit, in the wake of executive director Tom Bird and the board’s decision to break the chain after more than four decades of the distinctive Kaler brand of pantomime comic mayhem.
Only five days later, the switch to the Grand Opera House was announced, and the familiar five assembled on February 14 to launch ticket sales for Dick Turpin Rides Again, a new beginning for comeback-dame Kaler and the Grand Opera House alike, in tandem with Britain’s biggest pantomime producer, Qdos.
On February 3, York Theatre Royal announced a new partnership with Evolution Pantomimes, regular pantomime award winners who duly chalked up another success, taking home the Best Panto award [for750 to 1,500-seat theatres] for Cinderella at Sheffield Lyceum in the 2020 Great British Pantomime Awards.
Scripted by Evolution director and producer Paul Hendy, Cinderella would have been the new partners’ debut show at the Theatre Royal until Covid-19 enforced a change of plan. Hendy will now write scripts for three pantomimes, Aladdin, Dick Whittington and Jack And The Beanstalk, for the York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime.
The tour starring York actor, panto comic turn and magician Josh Benson, will take in all 21 York wards in December and January, when audience members at each show will vote for which show they want to see.
CINDERELLA, you shall not go to the ball, because no pantomime will run at York Theatre Royal this Christmas. There will, however, be three Theatre Royal pantomimes this winter instead. Yes, three.
Rather than the traditional transformation scene of pumpkin and mice into carriage and horses, this Covid-enforced conversion will be a switch from the still-shut St Leonard’s Place building to the York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime.
In tandem with new pantomime partners Evolution Productions, this pop-up enterprise will take the Theatre Royal on the road to every neighbourhood in York – all 21 wards – during December and January.
Each location, ranging from community halls to social clubs and sports centres, will be Covid-secure, adhering to Government guidance for staging socially distanced performances with capacities ranging from 35 to 50, and at each show, the audience members can vote for whether they want to see Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk or Aladdin.
The Travelling Pantomime retains the previously announced Cinderella triumvirate of Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird, who oversaw the breaking of the chain from 41 years of Dame Berwick Kaler pantomimes, associate director Juliet Forster as director and award-winning Evolution director and producer Paul Hendy as the writer, who will pen three scripts with York references aplenty.
Their first big signing is the pocket-sized bundle of York energy Josh Benson, magician, children’s entertainer, actor and Corntroller of Entertainment at York Maze, who had signed up for a further two years as the daft-lad comedy turn in the Halifax Victoria Theatre pantomime after his debut in Beauty And The Beast last winter.
Once confirmed that Victoria devotees would not be amused by Jack And The Beanstalk this winter, however, Josh was available to play his home city, and fresh from performing his Just Josh magic show at the Theatre Royal’s Pop-Up On The Patio festival, he quickly came on board for the panto road show.
‘I’m so chuffed to be able to play a part keeping York’s panto tradition alive, in a year where it feels like the majority of traditions have pretty much gone out the window,” says Benson. “What’s really special for me personally is the ‘full circle’ that’s happened, having actually started my professional career with York Theatre Royal, aged ten, in their 2007 panto Sinbad The Sailor.
“It’ll be so great to be back home for Christmas this year, finding a way to spread some panto joy amongst the current craziness.”
Details of venues, performance times and further casting – possibly a cast of five, but more likely four, local actors – will be released in the coming weeks.
Tom Bird, who has experience of mounting travelling shows when executive producer at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, says: “Our Travelling Pantomime will be a rip-roaring Christmas treat for the whole family. Audiences can expect hilarity and chaos, music and magic as our amazing actors visit every corner of York.
“It’s called the York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime because it does exactly what it says on the tin and will travel to every York neighbourhood. It’ll be a small-scale show with a cast of four or five, where we’ll do whatever we need to do to meet the Government guidance at that time.
“We want it to be this generous offer to each community, where the audience gets to choose between three pantomimes, which gives scope for even more comedy. It’s quite a challenge for the designer [yet to be confirmed], having to design a set for three shows, but still having to taking the audience into another world.”
Bird is delighted that the Travelling Pantomime will still mark the debut of the new Theatre Royal and Evolution partnership. “We believe that Evolution are the most exciting pantomime company in the country right now: they won the Best Panto award again [for750 to 1,500-seat theatres] for Cinderella at Sheffield Lyceum in the 2020 Great British Pantomime Awards,” he says.
“Their pantomimes are dynamic, they’re electric, they’re funny and fabulous, and they’re not snooty, and Evolution are a belting company. I remain convinced that we’ll have one of the best pantomimes in the country when we do Cinderella in 2021 and, in the meantime, we have this exciting opportunity this winter.
“It’s great that Paul is writing the three scripts: his writing for pantomimes is graceful and funny and his shows are not blue, just good fun, and they’ll have a local flavour too.”
Bird is quick to stress that the Travelling Pantomime shows should not be seen as a Covid-necessitated compromise. “It’s a massive logistical enterprise, taking a show to all 21 York wards,” he says. “I have a history of doing shows like this, taking small-scale projects around the world for Shakespeare’s Globe.
“It really does give a project an artistic energy when you face logistical challenges, like we are in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic.
“Taking the Travelling Pantomime into the York communities is very direct, I hope it’s very democratic and it acknowledges the virus because there may be people that might not want to go into town on a bus but will go round the corner from their home to see a show.”
Bird is delighted to have snapped up the comedic, mischievous nuttiness of Josh Benson. “We’re very excited to have Josh in the show. When we saw him on the patio doing his Just Josh show, we thought, ‘this is exactly what we need’. He’s warm, he’s very engaging, he’s local and he’s loved by people in York, and he’ll help to shape the shows.
“It’s also important, coming out of the old panto into the new era, that we should make our pantomime a show for families and Josh helps us to do that.”
Looking forward to leading the Theatre Royal pantomime in his home city, Benson says: “It’s been said of me, ‘if you turn Josh upside down, it says ‘Made In York’, and it’ll be lovely to be in York this winter because I don’t really want to be anywhere else in this strange year.
“I’d signed for one year for the Victoria Theatre panto in Halifax and they then offered me for four more in the comic role, effectively taking over from Neil Hurst, who’d done it for five years before me, and I said, ‘let me do another two’, but when Jack And The Beanstalk had to be postponed, the Travelling Pantomime feels a lovely thing to be able to do and a real honour too.
“It’s nice to be part of a new beginning for the Theatre Royal pantomime, which I think will be great. What’s good for me is that I can dip my toe in a York panto and they can do the same with me.”
He believes it is important to spread his talent wherever possible when still on a learning curve at 22. “This summer aside, I usually do the whole season at York Maze, so you could have too much of a good thing if I do the winter season as well in panto, doing the same jokes and routines!” he reasons. “I’m very much playing the long game, working up to going to the Edinburgh Fringe with a solo show.”
Benson will have to learn not one, but three pantomime scripts. “But that’s a hugely exciting thing to be doing: a choice of three shows each performance. Tom [Bird] did that at the Globe too, and what’s clever about it is that it’ll have a rough-and ready-feel to it, like a village-hall panto, but as Tom has said, it’ll still be a York Theatre Royal panto, with the award-winning Paul Hendy writing it.
“As a pop-up panto, you can open it in that rough-and-ready style, in a conversational tone, so it’s different from the very start, with me going out there as Josh, just like with the kids’ parties I do, jumping up on stage and just talking, whereas normally with a panto in a theatre, the audience are looking at the stage, thinking, ‘Go on, impress me’.”
Doing three shows throws up extra comedic possibilities too for the comic turn with the potential for daft-lad confusion. “I love the idea that I can go, ‘Right, Dick…Jack…I mean, Aladdin’, so suddenly you’re doing that ‘times three’ thing,” he says.
Benson is restlessly creative – he had written and prepared a drive-in show for York Maze, should owner “Farmer Tom” Pearcy have decided to re-open his attraction this summer post-lockdown – and so he will not merely be turning up to rehearsals for the Travelling Pantomime.
“I would really love to be involved in suggesting ‘how about this or how about that?’ for the shows, so I’m going to meet Juliet [director Juliet Forster] in September to talk about it,” he says.
In the meantime, he will keep busy with children’s party magic shows in gardens – whatever the “Rule of Six” permits – after a multitude of lockdown shows on Zoom and Facebook.
Tickets for York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime will go on sale in November. Oh, and Cinderella, you shall still go to the ball, the glittering party merely postponed from 2020/2021 to 2021/2022.
The box-office team will be in touch with ticket holders with the option of moving tickets to next year, cancelling the booking or donating some or all of ticket cost to York Theatre Royal. Ticket holders are being asked NOT to contact the box office, whose reduced team will contact them as quickly as possible in coming weeks.
Just Josh? Just who is Josh Benson? Let him introduce himself:
“HAVING not conventionally trained in anything, 22-year-old ‘Josh of All Trades, Master of None’ is winging his way through the entertainment industry. But don’t tell his mum…she thinks he’s at university studying for a proper job!
As an actor, Josh’s credits include playing Little Ernie in the award-winning BBC Morecambe and Wise biopic Eric & Ernie; being hit by a car in BBC1’s Casualtyand a cameo in Monroefor ITV. He played Tommo in Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls musical The Girls from 2015 to 2017, both in the world premiere at Leeds Grand Theatre and The Lowry, Salford, and at the Phoenix Theatre in London’s West End.
A huge part of Josh’s work is at York Maze, where he is the Corntroller of Entertainments – genuine job title – for the summer season. There, he writes, manages and co-hosts three live-action experiences: a stage show, tractor trailer ride and pig racing. This role has sprung from Josh being a professional children’s and family entertainer for the past seven years, having proudly entertained at hundreds of children’s parties and events, on cruises and in shows.
He is a professional close-up/stage magician and comedian, having performed four seasons of The Good Old Daysat Leeds City Varieties Music Hall, later taking his act down to the Big Smoke for Players Music Hall and the Cockney Sing-Alongat Charing Cross Theatre and Brick Lane Music Hall respectively.
As a “grown-up”entertainer, Josh last year debuted his first one-man cabaret evening, It’s Not The Joshua Benson Show/Josh Of All Trades, a two-act show of all his “pointless yet entertaining” skills. This show tours the UK constantly, “whenever it can fit in between everything else”!
In pantomime, Josh’s career began in 2007, at the tender age of ten, among the babbies and bairns in York Theatre Royal’s Sinbad The Sailor. He was lucky enough to more festive fun in 2008 for Dick Turpin and in 2011 returned to York Theatre Royal as John Darling in Peter Pan,part of the In The Round summer season.
Christmas 2018 saw Josh’s panto comic debut as Buttons in Cinderellaat the Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield, and last year he took over as comic at the Victoria Theatre, Halifax, for Beauty And The Beast.
He was due to return there this year for Jack And The Beanstalk, now postponed until 2021. He is delighted – and feels incredibly lucky! – to have been offered the fantastic alternative of York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime for the winter season.”