CASTING an eye over the cast list for Harrogate Theatre’s pantomime, Aladdin, what a delight to espy the name of one Michael Lambourne.
Once a mainstay of the York professional theatre scene, whether at York Theatre Royal or in Alexander Flanagan Wright’s work with The Flanagan Collective and the Guild of Misrule’s immersive The Great Gatsby during eight years of living in the city, he had since returned to his native Fenlands with wife Katie Posner, co-artistic director of Paines Plough, and daughter Heidi.
Now, at the behest of Harrogate Theatre pantomime director Marcus Romer (founder and former artistic director of York Theatre Royal company-in-residence Pilot Theatre), Michael’s unmistakable voice – the “Lam-boom” – can be heard across North Yorkshire as he takes on the villainous role of Abbanazar. Yes, you read that right, Abbanazar with a double B. More of that later.
But first, “I’d worked with Marcus on The Twits at Bolton Octagon and Fungus The Bogeyman at ArtsDepot in London, written while he was at Pilot,” recalls actor, director, teacher and writer Michael.
“That was the show where I met Katie, when I was painted green! Ebony [Feare] did both those productions with me as well, so Marcus has brought to Harrogate two people who he knows will thrive in the pantomime here.”
He first experienced pantomime as a child at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, and he has seen plenty since, but maybe surprisingly, given his outlandish stage presence and natural bond with young audiences, Aladdin will be only his third panto production.
“I did Alice In Wonderland at Darwen, near Blackburn, in the early 2000s, a loose pantomime, rather than a classic one, where I played the Mad Hatter. Later I was Igor, the evil henchman, and Daddy Bear in Goldilocks And The Three Bears at the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond,” he recalls.
“Harrogate Theatre’s show is very much in the classic pantomime style, like the villain always entering from the left. There’s a sense of legacy too, after Phil Lowe, the long-time director and co-writer, died last year, and what you try to foster with your audience is a sense of community, as we did at York Theatre Royal.”
He is relishing the villain’s role. “I love playing the baddie, because the audience straightaway knows what you’re up to,” says Michael. “I have that sense of what they expect from me, want from me, and as a performer I can really play off that.
“To already have that dialogue with the audience and to know how they’re going to respond is a wonderful feeling, whereas a comedian worries about how they’ll react. With the baddie, you know they’re going to boo, and it’s all the better if the booing gets louder and louder.
“I’m naturally positive, but Abbanazar is definitely not, so that means I can luxuriate in the boos, especially at the children’s shows, where I’ve just lapped up the wall of sound. The more they give, the more I’m going to give back!”
Michael “doesn’t really like insulting people”. “That’s why you insult the collective as the baddie, rather than picking on any individual,” he says. “It’s about them all being idiots, all being fools. Why take on one person? I’ll take on 500.”
Back to that name, Michael, Abbanazar with the double B. How come? “Well, he’s the brother of the Emperor of Peking, relocated to Scandinavia, and he’s now Abba’s number one fan,” he reveals.
“So there are ‘subtle’ references to Sweden’s best pop export, and there’s an Abba number in there that’s very appropriate to Abbanazar – Money, Money, Money – as he’s so materialistic.” No opportunity for a reference to an Abba song title is knowingly turned down in the script too.
This year, Michael has appeared in Shakespeare’s The Comedy Of Errors at Colchester’s Mercury Theatre and filmed his role as The Messenger in Warchief, Stuart Brennan’s fantasy feature film, made in Bury St Edmunds and set for release next September.
For now, his acts of deception and the dark arts are focused on Abbanazar. “This is the longest I’ve ever grown my moustache! I’ve gone from the baddie [a Victorian whiskered Chief Weasel] in The Wind In The Willows at York Theatre Royal to now playing the ultimate panto baddie with more curl to the moustache, still using Captain Fawcett’s moustache wax to shape it!” says Michael.
“If you think of what a baddie should have, a curly moustache is a must. Twiddling a moustache in that vaudevillian way tells you ‘he must be the villain’!”
Looking ahead to next year, walking and cycling enthusiast Michael will be turning his attention to running. Running the London Marathon, more precisely, in aid of Lymphoma Action, having come successfully through chemotherapy and radiotherapy for the blood cancer at 40.
Donations can be made at https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/michael-lambourne3
Michael Lambourne is appearing in Aladdin at Harrogate Theatre until January 15 2023. Box office: 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk.
REVIEW: Aladdin, Harrogate Theatre, until January 15 2023 *****
PANTOMIME matters to Harrogate Theatre, all the more so after the “disappointment” – I would have used a stronger word – of Arts Council England’s bewildering decision to drop this high-achieving theatre from National Portfolio funding status for 2023 to 2026 after many years.
This is the northern home of a comedy festival with headline names, the wonderful HT Rep season of three plays in three weeks, a big community play on a topical theme, concerts, touring shows, children’s theatre and performances by long-established Harrogate thespian troupes, overseen by the canny management of chief executive David Bown and the increasing artistic input of ever-progressive Pilot Theatre founder Marcus Romer as associate producer.
Oh, and the pantomime, THE pantomime, the one that Bown and the late Phil Lowe have made so special with wit, inventiveness and the magic ingredient of daft lad Tim Stedman (who set the benchmark for fast-rising Pannal-raised comedian Maisie Adam, she says, never one to miss a show each Christmas, by the way). What more do you want, ACE?
Anyway, clear-headed thinking by the board is assured, as testified by chair Deborah Larwood’s November statement: “Following this news, the board and leadership team will take some time to reflect and reimagine our plans from April 2023, as we continue to support the Let’s Create agenda and ensure that Harrogate Theatre continues to deliver a vibrant cultural offer for people of all ages across the Harrogate district.”
In the meantime, Harrogate Theatre has been delivering the Harrogate Theatre pantomime at its best, 78 performances in all by the time it closes on January 15.
For the 2021-2022 season, experienced hand Joyce Branagh stepped in to direct Cinderella after the sudden death of long-time director and co-writer Phil Lowe, and did so with panache.
This time, Marcus Romer is at the helm, steering a script that retains a credit for Phil Lowe alongside regular writing cohort David Bown. Romer, who has written additional material alongside Stedman, has made one decision that struck a false note, changing the walkdown song from the long-standing exhilaration of Let Me Entertain You to a reprise of the opening number. Symmetry, yes, but finale impact lessened.
On the other hand, however, as soon as he heard Sam Ryder’s Eurovision galactic belter, Space Man, Romer knew he had found the song for Aladdin’s carpet-ride out into the Harrogate night sky.
Beautiful, magical and unexpected – your reviewer has seen no other panto use 2022’s most uplifting big number – it is sung with a lovely sense of wonder by Colin Kiyani, modern-day principal boy par excellence in his fifth Harrogate panto.
Christina Harris returns too for her third Harrogate show – “a place that feels like home,” she says – now playing a not-so-shy Princess So-Shy with plenty of principal girl pluck.
Romer has called on two trusted lieutenants from his past shows to make their Harrogate panto bows: Ebony Feare’s fun, high-energy Caribbean-accented Genie and A Line Of Duty-spoofing DCI Kate, and Michael Lambourne, he of the booming voice so cherished over the years by York audiences.
The “Lam-boom” is in mighty good form here, venturing deep into the dark side for a rumbustious, roaring Abbanazar, an Abba-loving, humanity-hating villain since his exile to Sweden.
Mamma mia, no chance to dig out an Abba song title is knowingly missed in the script (until the titles run out), and of course he sings Money, Money, Money, although his thunderous, rock-god rendition of George Thorogood & The Destroyers’ Bad To The Bone surpasses it.
In his 22nd Harrogate show – where have those years gone? – the clowning Tim Stedman’s Wishee Washee is anything but wishy-washy. From his strawberry cheeks to a voice that somehow combines a state of near-constant perplexity with the not-so-daft-after-all wit of a Shakespearean Fool, he is the crowd-pleasing, crowd-teasing lead yet totally the team player too.
The cracker jokes may be absent this time, but this is a crackerjack of a Stedman performance, all the better for being reunited for slapstick with Howard Chadwick, a stalwart actor with Richard III in his repertoire but so comfortable in the roly-poly guise of the unruly, frolicsome dame, Widow Twankey in his 11th Harrogate winter of panto contentment. His costumery, courtesy of costume designer Morgan Brind, is fab-u-lous throughout.
Look out too for topical Harrogate references, nods to I’m A Celebrity, dance captain Stephanie Costa’s lovable panda Pandora and David Kar-Hing Lee’s zesty choreography.
Roll on next winter when Dick Whittington and his cat will head to London from November 22 to January 14 2024. Box office: 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk.
Abigail’s Party, HT Rep, Harrogate Theatre/Phil & Ben Productions, at Harrogate Theatre, 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk
HARROGATE Theatre’s HT Rep 2022 season of Three Plays, Three Weeks, One Cast opens with Mike Leigh’s caustic comedy Abigail’s Party, written in 1977, the year of The Queen’s Silver Jubilee and now revived in the year of her Platinum Jubilee.
Director Marcus Romer, Harrogate Theatre’s associate producer, had planned to have the Sex Pistols’ 1977 anthem God Save The Queen seeping through the walls from Abigail’s punk and booze-fuelled party next door, but the events of last Thursday afternoon saw a respectful change to Anarchy In The UK.
Romer has form for Abigail’s Party, having steered York Theatre Royal’s 2005 repertory production. Now the spirit of rep theatre is being repeated in a third such autumn season at Harrogate, the cast piggy-backing from one play to the next, rehearsing Abigail’s Party for a week, and now rehearsing Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight by day and staging Leigh’s suburban comedy of awkward social-climbing manners by night.
The same process will follow next week, when Paul Hawkyard, Robin Simpson and Janine Mellor will knock John Godber’s Men Of The World into shape in the daytime rehearsal room under Amy Burns Walker’s direction before Harrogate-born Faye Weerasinghe, Simpson, Harrogate pantomime regular Katy Dean, Mellor and Ian Kirkby form co-producer Ben Roddy’s cast each night for Gaslight.
In rep tradition, there is a familiarity to the cast, not only Dean, but also Mellor from the 2019 HT Rep season’s On The Piste and Deathtrap and her dual roles as Dandini and a Snugly Sister in last winter’s Cinderella, while rising star Weerasinghe played the lead in Full English at Harrogate Theatre in June.
York audiences, meanwhile, will need no introduction to Hawkyard and Simpson, whether from Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre or their Mardy and Manky double act in Cinderella at the Theatre Royal last winter. Captain Hook and Mrs Darling await them in All New Adventures Of Peter Pan this winter.
Now put them all together in surely one of the most destructive yet indestructible of English comedies. Your reviewer is yet to see a duff production and Romer’s return to Leigh is another winner.
It is Katy Dean’s turn to behave appallingly in the Alison Stedman-patented lead role of gauche Beverly, dark haired this time rather than bottle-blonde but still over-dressed for cheese and pineapple-stick nibbles in her fuchsia party dress.
Embroiled in a stultifying game of one-upmanship with dyspeptic, workaholic property-agent husband Laurence (Simpson), their latest playground for point-scoring is a soiree for their new neighbours, taciturn ex-professional footballer Tony (Hawkyard) and nervous nurse Angela (Weerasinghe) in their oh-so Seventies’ North London living room.
Joining them with reluctance written all over her face is Sue (Mellor), banished from her 15-year-old daughter’s party, fretful that it will get out of hand. as it inevitably does.
Leigh depicts a Britain heading towards the acquisitive Thatcherite era of material greed. Already the status-symbol fibre-optic lamps, drinks cabinet and brown sofas are in place in Geoff Gilder’s design.
Tensions rise, tempers flare, the polite veneer gradually erodes under the influence as Dean’s monstrous Beverly has her sport at the hands of her guests and mocked husband amid the surfeit of gin top-ups and chain-smoked “little cigarettes”, with her recourse to Donna Summer, Demis Roussos and Elvis records failing to break the awkwardness.
For all her restless noise and surface swagger, the tactless and tasteless Beverly is lonely behind the perma-cigarette haze, frustrated by the absence of bedroom action, empty too, for all her superficial possessions and on-trend kitchen gadgets. Full of aspiration yet desperation.
Simpson’s Laurence is sullen and sunken in Beverly’s loud, crushing shadow, stewing at his shallow wife’s dismissal of his tentative, self-improving interest in art.
New to your reviewer, wide-eyed Weerasinghe is outstanding as the effusive, chatterbox nurse Angela, talking ever looser as the gin kicks in, then dancing as out of time as a stopped clock.
Hawkyard, meanwhile, maximises minimum words as the humourless Tony, whose imposing demeanour goes from monosyllabic indifference to not-funny wound-up menace to sudden snapping point.
Mellor’s Sue is Leigh’s quiet voice of excruciating middle-class discomfort, stuck in the middle yet desperate to be elsewhere, having to put up with Beverly’s insensitive inquisition about her marriage breakdown and Angela’s well-meant over-fussing.
Very 1977 and yet full of English characteristics that have not changed, and probably never will, Leigh’s writing is as sharp as a punk safety pin, his contempt unconfined for values so anathema to him, his humour merciless and deeply wounding.
Romer squeezes Leigh’s sour lemon to the max, knowing just how far to go for the juiciest bitter comedy when Beverly keeps going too far. One hell of a party, one hell of a play, one hell of a knockout production.