Review: Rowntree Players in Dick Whittington, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, until Saturday

“Let’s remember what it feels like to come together to sing, to dance, to perform, to laugh,” enthuses Rowntree Players’ pantomime director, Howard Ella

FIRST came the announcement: “In the interests of everyone’s safety, please ensure masks are worn at all times”.

“Ensure”. Good word, that one, stopping all the wishee-washeeness that has prevailed so far, when there is a new variant in town.

Major London theatres are making masks compulsory (for all but children); York theatres really should be singing from the same panto song-sheet too. Anything that helps to keeps theatres open is not an unreasonable request to make.

Hannah King’s Dick Whittington and the ensemble in Rowntree Players’ Dick Whittington

Rant over. If masks are one emblem of pantomime-in-pandemic times, it is comforting to have familiarity too. Look at the sign in Rowntree Theatre’s London street scene: Ivor Leak, Plumber. Ho, ho.

Or look at the cubs and brownies filling row after row at the JoRo, bouncing up and down on their seats on a Monday night. It was ever thus at this community show.

“Let’s make the most of it and remember what it feels like to come together to sing, to dance, to perform, to laugh,” says director Howard Ella in his programme notes. How right he is.

Belting performance: Ellie Watson’s Alice Fitzwarren

Perish the thought that any theatre should ever rehash an old pantomime script – no names, no pack drill – but Rowntree Players have every right to revisit Ella and regular co-writer Andy Welch’s Dick Whittington, last year’s cancelled panto. Now it is the equivalent of a Christmas pudding becoming all the richer for having had to be put back in the larder for a year.

Hannah King’s resourceful, sprightly Dick Whittington and the ensemble set the tone with the opening Here I Am, establishing the Yorkshireman abroad in London Town vibe, grappling with a strange place of rhyming slang and “Oy, oy, Saveloy”.

Ami Carter’s choreography is superb throughout, knitting principal actors, principal dancers and the young team together so assuredly, and she hits her stride early in Money, marking Martyn Hunter’s return to the Rowntree panto ranks as mayoral candidate and rodent villain King Rat as he leads this irresistible number from Cabaret with panache.

In the pit: Musical director Jessica Douglas, centre, and guitarist Georgia Johnson

The song-and-dance list will go on to draw heavily on musicals, some well-known, some rather less so (Love Is Your Legs, from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, for example), but all well chosen and delivered with musical-theatre oomph by musical director Jessica Douglas’s band.

Pantomimes need to combine the tried and tested with the fresh, and here Ella’s regular trouble-making comedy double act of Graham Smith’s saucy, head-strong, sometimes brusque dame, Dora Di Sorderlie, and Gemma McDonald’s daft, accident-prone, lovable, ginger-nutted Duncan Di Sorderlie, must play hapless security guards at Alderman Fitzwarren’s bank. 

Their verbal interplay is always a joy, their physical slapstick peaking as they are drenched in coins, but to be pernickety, on occasion they could pick up the pace a tad, especially in the long first half.

Rat-a-tat-tat: Martyn Hunter’s King Rat and Mary-Louise Surgenor’s Ratatouille in a musical number in Dick Whittington

One stretched-out discussion between Hunter’s King Rat and Mary-Louise Surgenor’s sidekick Ratatouille had the cubs and brownies fidgeting, but otherwise this is a second partnership of highly experienced principals that clicks, albeit Hunter could have had a more poisonous bite to his ratty demeanour.

Company stalwart Geoff Walker’s Alderman Fitzwarren is suitably avuncular and the show’s knockout vocal award goes to singing teacher Ellie Watson for a belting My Hero in the role of Alice Fitzwarren.

Bernie Calpin’s sassy Kit the Cat is an unusually chatty moggie and all the better for it, when so often Dick’s companion merely meows.

Gemma McDonald’s Duncan Di Sorderlie and Mary-Louise Surgenor’s Daisy duetting on Love Is Your Legs

Adding to the pleasure are the uncredited set designs, and even more so the costumes, especially for Smith’s dame (look out for the Chocolate Whip!).

Smith relishes one joke in particular. When McDonald’s Duncan talks of “not making a scene” after losing a job as a set builder, the dame waspishly adds: “Unlike someone”. Who could Graham possibly mean?!

Rowntree Players present Dick Whittington at Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, until December 11, 7.30pm plus 2pm, Saturday. Ticket availability: tonight and Friday, widest choice; Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday night, limited; Saturday matinee, last few. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk. 

Shocking pink: Graham Smith in saucy mode as Dame Dora Di Sorderlie

Review by Charles Hutchinson

‘Excited isn’t the word!’ says director Howard Ella as Rowntree Players prepare to open Dick Whittington on panto return

Rowntree Players’ principal cast members: Gemma McDonald’s Duncan, left, Hannah King’s Dick Whittington, Ellie Watson’s Alice Fitzwarren, Graham Smith’s Dame Dora and Martyn Hunter’s King Rat

DICK Whittington had to turn round and rest up for a year when Rowntree Players’ 2020 show was cancelled by Covid.

Now, however, Dick and his cat  will be on the road from York to London from Saturday (4/12/2021), when the Players take to the Joseph Rowntree Theatre stage with director Howard Ella and co-writer Andy Welch’s pantomime.

Joining Hannah King’s Dick Whittington in the cast will be Graham Smith’s Dame Dora; Gemma McDonald’s Duncan; Martyn Hunter’s King Rat; Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Ratatouille; Geoff Walker’s Alderman Fitzwarren; Ellie Watson’s Alice Fitzwarren and Bernie Calpin’s Kit The Cat.

Howard and Andy first wrote the script remotely, via a satellite link, before the 2020 show was called off. “Socially distanced writing – that was a challenge,” says Howard. “I work away a lot so there had always been an element of remote collaboration, but this was full on.

“What was missing was the ability to read and act as we wrote without a satellite delay. That one-second delay kills humour stone dead, so there was a lot of writing on instinct. Then we had to shelve the script. Totally gutting.”

Roll on a year and out came the script again. “What was great was to lift it out a year later, read it with fresh eyes and still enjoy it,” says Howard. “What’s most strange is that it really demonstrated the stasis we have been in.  It still felt relevant, if only because so much of our world of Covid and politics did not change.

“Of course, once we start blocking with the cast, then the gags change and everyone throws in their bit.”

Comedy writing as a duo, in the tradition of Galton & Simpson and Le Frenais & Clement, works well for the Players’ pantos. “I’ve written on my own and with both Barry [former dame Barry Benson] and Andy on different panto years,” says Howard.

“It’s exciting as you can bounce off each other and try things out before anyone else ever sees the script. The trick in making that writing partnership work is honesty and trust. When you don’t find something funny, when it’s not quite good enough, you have to say so and in a clear way.

Hannah King’s Dick Whittington is ready to set off from York to London in Rowntree Players’ Dick Whittington

“If you’re on the other end of the criticism, that’s where the trust kicks in. You trust you partner’s judgement and screw up the page. Sometimes tough, but you have to see it as collaboration, not compromise.”

This year’s cast is down in size by a couple of principals. “But that was story driven,” reasons Howard. “We wrote the script in early 2020 assuming Covid would drift past, so, in reality, there’s no compromises there. The script has the cast it always needed.

“That said, our chorus numbers are slightly lower to facilitate sensible spacing in dressing rooms and to deal with the [pandemic-enforced] practicalities, like not being able to share costumes between teams.”

Adapting to Covid restrictions has created extra challenges both in rehearsal and at the JoRo theatre. “We’ve had mask wearing and sanitising and spacing where we can,” says Howard.

“Everyone has been on different testing regimes through work and school, and they have been ever changing. Also, there’s double jabs where possible (and some of us oldies are boosted too!)

“What’s great is that the Joseph Rowntree Theatre is aligned with all the guidelines and so we’ve worked together, more than ever, to make it as safe as possible for everyone, both backstage and in the audience.

“But in reality we’re in the lap of the gods. From here on in, we put on a great show and hope that we all stay healthy. Otherwise, I’ll be picking up a script and donning a frock!”

As the first night approaches, what’s the mood in the camp?  “Excited isn’t the word!  We have missed the community aspect so much – and you only realise the strength of bond between the Rowntree Players company when it hasn’t been there and we all get back together.

“Stepping into the theatre on Sunday for the get-in, seeing all those familiar, yet strangely masked, faces was a delight. We haven’t done this for two years but it’s all come flooding back.

Rowntree Players’ Gemma McDonald, Hannah King, Ellie Watson, Martyn Hunter and Graham Smith dress in pantomime character on a day out at Murton Park, the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, near York

“In the company, we have a lot of returning cast and chorus, which has really helped us to short-cut through both Covid and a slightly curtailed rehearsal period because we slotted in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web in September, having delayed that production three times.

“Martyn Hunter has returned to the panto fold after a few years away and he’s done so with gusto, as has Bernie Calpin as Kit the Cat.”

Balancing work commitments with rehearsals, Howard is delighted to be bringing Dick Whittington to the stage. “At its heart, Dick Whittington has traditional pantomime roots. That’s what I love. We try and make every pantomime relevant, recognise how the world is changing and represent it in our own way.  

“But underneath all good pantomimes is a tale of right and wrong with a love story in the background and the freedom to be silly in between.

“I’ve also always liked the reminder that nowhere’s streets are paved with gold and that generally you have to work hard and you get out what you put in,” he says, “channelling his inner Yorkshireman”.

Saturday’s opening show will be emotional for cast and audience alike, given the sense of community at the core of all the Players’ work. “Everything we do at Rowntree Players aims to be inclusive of anyone who wants to take part,” says Howard, who is presenting Dick Whittington in tandem with choreographer Ami Carter, musical director Jess Douglas and production manager Helen Woodall.

“There’s a real commitment, there’s a pride in being involved with such an old society returning to the theatre where they started.

“The joy for any audience comes from the cast and their joy in being part of a production. We get so much pleasure from our hobby, we laugh an enormous amount, and I think that enjoyment flows over the pit and into the auditorium in everything we do.”

Rowntree Players present Dick Whittington at Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, December 4 to 11. Performances: 7.30pm, except Sunday; 2pm matinees, Saturday, Sunday and next Saturday. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

REVIEW: : Rowntree Players in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web, ends tomorrow

Jake Botterell as Oliver Costello in Rowntree Players’ modern-day account of Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web

Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web, Rowntree Players, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm, 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk

AGATHA Christie wrote Spider’s Web at the request of its star turn, Margaret Lockwood, during West End rehearsals for Witness For The Prosecution.

Now, director Howard Ella has “re-written” Christie’s 1954 murder mystery for Rowntree Players’ return to the stage after the pandemic hiatus.

More accurately, he has updated Christie’s manor-house setting of Copplestone Court to 2021, with cultural references to Harry Syles, Daniel Radcliffe and the local Aldi, a Nike bag and trainers for dodgy Oliver Costello and a photographic portrait of lady of the house Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, rather than an austere oil painting.

At the same time, a butler in formal attire, a rather old-school child with hair clips, a protective guardian, an eccentric gardener and games of bridge evoke the earlier era, while Graham Smith’s Hugo Birch appears to be dressed for a shooting party.

There are worse crimes – often in a Christie story – than tampering with a text, and Ella’s decision is born as much out of necessity as in the spirit of fun that pervades Agatha’s second most-performed play.

Ella’s production ends up with a foot in both camps, rather than in no man’s land, as do his cast’s accents, but the dialogue stubbornly betrays its Fifties’ roots, like that tell-tale tramline of black in bleached blonde hair.

In the absence of programme notes and indeed a programme – another concession to Covid times, with only a cast list available – Ella explained his reasoning afterwards in response to a late-night CharlesHutchPress email question: “Was there a reason for the modern setting? Was it to do with costume non-availability after the Rowntree Players’ store fire?”

Martyn Hunter’s permanently concerned guardian, Sir Rowland Delahaye

“It was less about the store fire but more about Covid and costumes and control,” Ella responded. “Both from a costume and a propping point of view. Very dull but a necessary evil in these times.     

“It actually was a decision when we thought we could perform in early 2021. But it pushed and pushed.   

“I like the idea of playing it contemporary, although, of course, the challenge sits in balancing that against how faithful you should be to the original dialogue.”

So that clears that up. Now, to the play, wherein diplomat’s wife Clarissa (Gemma McDonald) is spinning tales of adventure and stepdaughter Pippa (Katelyn Banks) is permanently hungry and restless but tired.

Guardian Sir Rowland Delahaye (Martyn Hunter), fellow old sport Hugo Birch (Smith) and young buck Jeremy Warrender (Andrew Roberts) are passing the time, trying to identity different glasses of port in a taste test, waiting for dinner at the nearby golf club, although Warrender looks strangely interested in trying locate a drawer in the desk.

Craig Kirby’s sonorous, stone-faced butler, Elgin, is doing what impenetrable butlers used to do; Jeannette Hunter’s perky, if mysterious, Mildred Peake keeps traipsing in from the garden.

Clarissa’s husband, the something-hush-hush-at-the-Foreign-Office Henry (Rory Mulvihill), has to pop out to a meeting. In pops Jake Botterell’s malevolent Oliver Costello, up to no good with a vow to take Pippa away to her flaky mother.

Spinning stories like a spider’s web: Gemma McDonald’s Clarissa Hailsham-Brown

Suddenly, there’s murder on the drawing-room floor, but whodunit and how does far-fetched fantasist Clarissa cover it up? Desperate to dispose of the body before Henry arrives with a very important politician, she enlists the help/hindrance of her house guests .

Enter the detective, in this particular case Mark McDonald’s heavily-bearded, somewhat heavy-handed Inspector Lord, a wry, if blunter, instrument of interrogation than Christie’s Poirot, assisted by the frank Constable Jones (Sara Howlett, lovely Welsh accent et al).

Christie revels in a “conscious parody of the detective thriller”, leavening all the familiar tropes with knowing humour, while still tightening the suspense ever tauter, albeit over a long stretch of nearly three hours, replete with dropped clues and plot contrivances aplenty.

Add drug addiction, ham sandwiches, invisible ink, a very valuable rare stamp, a secret drawer, a hidden doorway and an unusual corner-turn for a second stage entrance, and Ella oversees a spirited production full of heightened drama, humorous confrontations and murky mystery.

Hunter, Mulvihill, Smith and Kirby are the ballast; Hunter is comedy gold; McDonald and Howlett form a resourceful double act; Roberts could have escaped from a Noel Coward comedy, and the menacing Botterell and precocious Banks bring freshness to the Players’ ranks.

In the lead role, Gemma McDonald’s Clarissa is full of fun and games, but has a few hiccups with her mountain of intricately-spun lines that hopefully will not repeat on her tonight and tomorrow.

Suffused with surprises, some new to Christie’s story, this modern-day yet retro Spider’s Web makes for an enjoyable evening’s entanglement.