REVIEW: York Stage, Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage, until Sunday

Girls just wanna have fun: The first night of Songs From The Settee -Live On Stage

Review: York Stage in Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage, Theatre @41, Monkgate, York, until Sunday. Box office: yorkstagemusicals.com

SOFA, so good, that Nik Briggs decided to transfer Songs From The Settee from a streaming home service in lockdown to the John Cooper Studio for the first step in Step 3’s return to live theatre.

The York Stage producer-director had expected the home-recorded song sessions to run for maybe three weeks, instead they stretched to ten, as he told Thursday’s first-night audience in his role as master of ceremonies at the reopened Theatre @41.

Seating was cabaret-style, in social bubbles around tables, and protective Perspex screens were in place, just as they had been for Jack And The Beanstalk, the Covid-curtailed York Stage pantomime. Masks were obligatory; drink orders brought by staff to the tables.

Last summer, York Stage had resumed performing with a brace of songs-from-the-shows programmes in the open air of the Rowntree Park Amphitheatre, showcasing the singing chops of members past and present, socially distanced but able to combine solo spotlights and duets with lightly choreographed group numbers.

For Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage, nights one and two feature one company of solo singers under the musical direction of Jess Douglas; tomorrow and Sunday, different soloists under MD Stephen Hackshaw.

Across the four nights too, Nik and his two MDs are determined to turn the spotlight on recent stage-school graduates amid such difficult times for studying and breaking into the profession.

Solo performances are dominating, book-ended by group opening and closing numbers, last night being launched by Joanne Theaker, Lauren Sheriston and  Sophie Hammond in Waitress mode for What Baking Can Do, one for all those who filled lockdown hours perfecting banana bread.

Assured, chuffed-to-be-playing-to-an-audience showcases followed for graduates with a York Stage teenage past, Stephanie Bolsher and Talia Firth, and, in between, University of York music student Elodie Lawry, ahead of her degree show on the theme of the underdog in musical theatre on Monday before becoming an Army musician. Holly Smith will have her showcases too over the remaining shows.

Nik Briggs and Jess Douglas: York Stage director and musical director for the first two nights of Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage

Joanne Theaker, in a skirt of Liquorice Allsorts colours, set a very high bar, as she always does, with a superbly balanced set, from Carole King’s big hug of an opener, You’ve Got A Friend, to a singalong Shout, via a humdinger of a duet with Briggs for Written In The Stars from Aida and the haunting Maybe This Time from Cabaret.

Best of all was the character piece, the tear-inducing Scarborough from Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s musical version of Calendar Girls. York Stage have acquired the performing rights and you can bet your house on Joanne being in the cast.

Lauren Sheriston wondered how she could match up to Jo, but she has always been a stand-out in her York Stage shows, and her voice has matured wonderfully, equally at home in the contrasting Son Of A Preacher Man, Will You, from Ghost, and She Used To Be Mine, from Waitress, while Landslide from the Stevie Nicks repertoire for Fleetwood Mac was an inspired pick. We Will Rock You’s Somebody To Love was the Mount Everest of a finale, and Lauren climbed to the peaks with panache.

   
Sophie Hammond favoured the most contemporary set, one that made CharlesHutchPress feel a tad out of touch at 60, when encountering Breathe (In The Heights), Kiss The Air (Scott Alan), Issues (Julia Michaels), Ready For You (Matthew Stuart Price) and Don’t Forget Me (Smash).

Sophie’s choice would have benefited from a wider range of tempo, but Helpless, from Hamilton, was a knock-out, Monster, from Frozen, was full of Disney drama and Domino knocked spots off Jessie J’s original.

How else could the all-female bill end but with Joanne, Lauren and Sophie all smiles, happy to be back on stage, in tandem for a celebratory Girls Just Wanna Have Fun after perhaps a few too many sad songs overall.

Thanks, too, to Jess Douglas’s ensemble on keyboards, bass/double bass and drums . Over to Stephen Hackshaw for tomorrow and Sunday, when Grace Lancaster, Conor Mellor, Damien Poole and Emily Ramsden will be on the bill.

As for the “Settee” of the show title, familiar to York Stage regulars from past company service, it took a back seat. “Is it clean?” asked Joanne. “Yes,” said Nik. Anti-bac and all that, to meet the demands of presenting Covid-secure performances. No doubt it will be this way for some time yet, but step by step, theatre will revive, and York Stage will be to the fore.   

And what about your own seat for the show? Hurry, hurry, only a few were still available at the last time of checking.

The York Stage poster for Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage, the first show at Theatre @ 41, Monkgate, since late-December


York Stage take Songs From The Settee out of the home and into Theatre @41 UPDATE

TONIGHT’s opening performance of York Stage’s Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage has sold out.

Only a handful of tickets are still available across the next three nights at Theatre @41, Monkgate, York, where director/producer is staging the series in the wake of a hit series of online shows. Hurry, hurry to book at yorkstagemusicals.com.

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 felt like the perfect date, one year later, to announce what we’d be bringing to our audiences as theatres 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.

Nik Briggs: York Stage artistic director

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?

“These shows will be a real collaboration between the artists, musical directors and myself due to the nature of the evening.”  

Who will be the singers 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.

“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.

“Taking part across the four nights will be graduates Stephanie Bolsher, Holly Smith and Talia Firth, who have all performed with us previously, and Elodie Lawry, who will be graduating from the University of York this year.”

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 reopenings will be very much irreversible.

“The venue will be beautifully lit again by 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.” 

York Stage to take Songs From The Settee out of the home and into Theatre @41 in return to live shows UPDATED 16/4/2021

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.”

York Stage director Nik Briggs and musical director Jess Douglas

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.

Conor Mellor, performing at Rowntree Park last August, will take part in the Songs From The Settee: Live On Stage shows on May 22 and 23

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.”  

Joanne Theaker in the York Stage psychedelic igloo at last summer’s first Rowntree Park open-air concert

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 many faces and facets of Grace Lancaster: now singing in the Songs From The Settee: Live On Stage shows at Theatre @41, Monkgate, on May 22 and 23

“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!” 

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

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

IN the original 2020 vision of York’s pantomime season, Dame Berwick Kaler made his comeback in Dick Turpin Rides Again in his newly adopted home of the Grand Opera House.

York Theatre Royal had a ball with Cinderella, bedding in a new partnership with Evolution Productions, and the Rowntree Players filled the Joseph Rowntree Theatre with community spirit as ever.

Then, however, the pandemic, rather than pantomime, became the P word on all lips, tearing up the script for the winter ahead. Dick Turpin never left the stable; the Theatre Royal took to the road with the Travelling Pantomime; Rowntree Players made plans for 2021 instead.

Along came a newcomer, however, in the form of York Stage’s inaugural pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, full of beans, routines, slapstick and musical theatre songs at the Covid-secure Theatre @41 Monkgate, under the direction of debutant writer Nik Briggs.

The post-Christmas impediment of Tier 3 status for York curtailed the panto fun and games on December 30, rather than the planned finale of January 3, but Nik can look back on a job well done with reduced-capacity, socially distanced full houses for the majority of shows since opening on December 11.

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

“I’ve been blown away by the response we’ve had to our panto,” he says. “The respect I have for the art form and the recognition of how panto inspires so many children every year meant it wasn’t an option for me not to have a panto with real scale and spectacle over Christmas in York.

“It’s something I’ve hopefully brought into my own productions across the years. The respect I have for the art form and the recognition of how panto inspires so many children every year meant it wasn’t an option for me not to have a panto with real scale and spectacle over Christmas in York.”

Reflecting on penning his first panto script, Nik says: “It was certainly nerve wracking putting my own script out, having never penned a show before! Especially in York, following in the footsteps of Berwick [Kaler], who I respect greatly.

“Between lockdowns, I went over for a coffee with him, talked through my ideas and came away with the confidence to put pen to paper. He was so encouraging. I’ve had so many great responses to the script, which is a big compliment.”

Described by Nik as “musical theatre with pantomime braces on” and by choreographer Gary Lloyd as a “pansical”, York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk was distinctive from past pantos in York.

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

“The triple-threat West End cast were probably the show’s biggest surprise to a York audience. Having all eight performers be at the top of their game, being super-talented actors, singers and dancers,” says Nik.

“I always knew my panto would be very much a musical fairy-tale, which would feature all the elements of panto that are traditional included into the mix. I cast it knowing I’d need brilliant performers who could bring the skills that the show’s structure demanded. You’ll not see songs like the ones we had in a panto any time soon again, not only in York but across the country.”

 In picking his cast of May Tether’s Jill Gallop, Jordan Fox’s Jack Trott, Ian Stroughair’s villainous Fleshius Creepius, Livvy Evans’s Fairy Mary, Alex Weartherhill’s Dane Nanna Trott and an ensemble of dance captains Danielle Mullan, Emily Taylor and Matthew Ives, Nik was seeking “three things”.

“Firstly, talent: the triple-threat capability of every cast member. Secondly, strong links to the city and region, and, finally, they had to be lovely people who would be fun to work with,” he says.

“A lot of the cast I’d worked with before and all of them I’d work with again. We brought together eight actors who became a panto family in less than six weeks! They worked tirelessly to create our sensational show and were a nothing short of a beautiful, talented, naturally diverse collection of Yorkshire talent.”

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

Nik was adamant his panto should have a Yorkshire flavour, not least May Tether revelling in using her Goole accent in a show for the first time. “Being a Geordie import to York, having lived here for over ten years, one thing that has always blown me away about the city is the amount of talent that stems from here,” he says.

“It’s a no-brainer, therefore, that I would use talent from the area primarily! Especially at Christmas, and with what’s going on at the moment, it was always important that this was a show made in York for the people of York.”

In a coup for York Stage, Nik was able to call on the choreographic skills of West End hotshot Gary Lloyd, whose touring production of Heathers remained in hibernation. “I’ve known Gary’s work for many years [his sister is York Stage Musicals regular Jo Theaker]; I’m always knocked out by his choreography and musical staging,” he says.

“We’d spoken before about working together and this time last year I’d have laughed if you’d said we’d be doing a panto as our first show together, but it has been a brilliant experience. His storytelling through choreography is just so inspiring! As a creative, he was fantastic to work with; he really did inspire me in the rehearsal room every day.”

Given the Government’s ever-changing pandemic rules, navigating a safe passage for a show in late-2020 was a challenge like no other for a theatre director, not least the late rule change that cut the capacity from 80 to 55 (with the audience divided into bubbles divided by Perspex screens either side of the traverse stage).

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

“The whole process was filled with challenges, but we knew, going into the project, it was never going to be easy,” says Nik. “We took every day as it presented itself to us. I’m very comfortable with change and the need to adapt, so as producer I felt confident leading the production through the Covid storm.

“Some days were harder than others, but we knew what we were doing was too important to walk away from.”

One of the talking points of Nik’s first pantomime was the inspired marketing coup of transforming the famous Bile Beans wall sign on Lord Mayor’s Walk into Bile Beanstalk to point passers-by in the direction of Theatre @41 Monkgate.

“It summed up our production perfectly,” he says. “Something new, something well executed, something in York we’re used to, being flipped on its head and turned for a short period into something new! People’s reaction was brilliant; they understood we were having fun and being playful while respecting the landmark.”

On the subject of creating “something new” for York, what more could Nik bring to a pantomime if he could do such a show under normal circumstances? “Who knows?! Talent and spectacle will always be the main two factors in my shows,” he says.

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

“I’m always looking to push forward and bring the biggest and best theatre to the city. York’s got two new pantos in 2021 with Qdos and Evolution, two of the country’s biggest panto producers, going head to head at the Grand Opera House and York Theatre Royal. How will that end?” 

Looking ahead, Nik’s plans for 2021 cannot be set in concrete while the pandemic still refuses to relent: “Have you got a crystal ball?” he says. “We’ve got rights secured for some brilliant titles over the next two years, but they will only be possible to stage when social distancing is over.

“The next big show we can realistically hope to stage is Elf The Musical at the Grand Opera House next November/December. Before that, we’ll be working on smaller shows with brilliant casts, which will be announced throughout the year.”

Through the year too, Nik will be busy running York Stage School, remotely while Covid regulations prevail, but then returning to Theatre @41 Monkgate. “We’ll be continuing to work with our students through 2021 and will be striving to bring them the best theatrical training possible,” he says.

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

“We have survived two lockdowns and created brilliant work with them and that will continue this term.”

One lasting memory of Jack And The Beanstalk will be Nik’s impromptu emotional moment at the close of the final show, urging everyone to keep supporting theatre. “I don’t do last-night public speaking: it’s not my style and I cringe at it as people don’t come to hear me speak,” he says.

“They come to be entertained and forget whatever is going on outside, but I was ambushed – while I didn’t have any shoes on – and having received notice only a few hours before that our show would have to close that night, emotions were running high around the building.

“It’s scary producing shows at the moment: Will people support us? Will they come if we stage things? Will this bankrupt me?

“The Government closing theatres in Tier 3, where thousands have been spent to keep people safe, but allowing people to still shop and go around picking up produce just doesn’t make sense. It’s idiotic!”

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

Nik develops his point: “There are no recorded transmissions in theatre, that’s important to stress. So, it’s important audiences do support whatever is being produced. Otherwise, things won’t be produced, things won’t happen, and that’d make for a very sad cultural landscape,” he says.

“A lot of people have said we were lucky to get to perform 40 of the 45 shows scheduled. At first, I agreed, but with hindsight I’ve re-evaluated and realised that is a very dangerous way to think.

“We all worked tirelessly and sacrificed a lot to ensure we created a brilliant show that people could enjoy safely. There was no big financial reward dangling at the end of the run to tempt us to cut corners; we simply wouldn’t have staged the show if we thought we were doing anything unsafely or were creating risk.

“Our friends and family were among the audiences; we wouldn’t have risked them. So, we were lucky we didn’t fall short sooner because of the Governments poor management but there was nothing lucky in losing our final five shows.”

The timing of the Elf production rules out a second York Stage pantomime next winter, but what are Nik’s wishes for 2021? “To get people vaccinated quickly so we can get back to sitting close together, sharing stories and experiences in theatres across the city,” he says.

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


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

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

MONKGATE magic!

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

Men as women.

Women as men.

Two crew members as a horse.

Oh yes, it is!

Oh no, it isn’t!

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

Children’s eyes agog.

But not in 2020.

The year that the show MUSTN’T go on.

Just watch the news.

Tisn’t the season to be jolly!

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

It’ll never work.

How could it work?

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

Necessity is the Mother of Invention.

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

This had failure written all over it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Ian Donaghy

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

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

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

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

Who has been the pantomime villain and fairy of 2020? Here are York Stage’s Matthew Ives’ answers on Christmas Eve

Matthew Ives in the transformation scene in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

MATTHEW Ives, part of the all-action ensemble for York Stage’s pantomime Jack And The Beanstalk, steps up to the task of answering Charles Hutchinson’s quickfire questions.

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

“Cinderella at what was the Civic Theatre in Leeds…I think. All I really remember is that I thought a girl in Year 6 looked like whoever played Cinderella. They probably didn’t!”

What was your first pantomime role?

“Dance Captain in Jack And The Beanstalk at The Capitol, Horsham.”

What has been your favourite pantomime role?

“I actually have no clue!”

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

“I’d love to at some point play a panto villain as I think they get to have the most fun.”

Who is your favourite pantomime performer and why?

“Is it bad to say I don’t know? I’m a bit of a panto novice!”

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

“Apart from all the distancing, what is actually lovely is that it doesn’t feel too different to normal! What’s also nice is that with the more intimate venue and reduced audience, you get an even bigger connection with everyone in the audience.”

Which pantomime role should Boris Johnson play and why?

“King Rat seems apt.”

Who or what has been the villain of 2020?

“Dominic Cummings…or Trump.”

Who or what has been the fairy of 2020?

“Dolly Parton.”

How would you sum up 2020 in five words?

“Challenging, but happiness is paramount.”

 What are your wishes for 2021?

“That we can all get back to normality but that the lessons learned in this time stick.”

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

“That we can all get back to doing what we do best!”

York Stage presents Jack And The Beanstalk at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, until January 3 2021.

Show times: Boxing Day, December 26, 11am, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm (sold out); December 27, 11am (sold out), 1pm (sold out) and 6pm; December 28, 11am, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm (sold out); December 29, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; December 30, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; New Year’s Eve, December 31, 12 noon (sold out); January 2, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; January 3, 1pm and 6pm.

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

Beanstalk of the town as Bile Beans sprouts size-doubling York Stage panto banner

Beanstalk of the town: York’s landmark Bile Beans sign, in Lord Mayor’s Walk, has grown today with a banner for York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk, the pantomime where “giant magic can grow in the smallest of places”

JACK’s magical extra vegan beans at Theatre @41 Monkgate are not the only bean in York to be growing suddenly.

Today, the iconic Bile Beans sign on the side of a building in nearby Lord Mayor’s Walk has doubled in size to now read Bile Beanstalk to publicise York Stage’s debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk.

York Stage have joined forces with CSL Scaffolding, the York construction company, and Press Green, the York design and print agency in Lord Mayor’s Walk, to erect the complementary sign, advertising the show’s run with an arrow pointing in the direction of the theatre.

A sign of things to come: York Stage’s banner, made by Press Green, is ready to roll

Nik Briggs, York Stage’s artistic director and pantomime writer/director, says: “Mounting a panto in a pandemic was always going to be tricky. With lots of hurdles to overcome, we’ve really had to think outside of the box.

“I was sitting waiting at the traffic lights on Lord Mayor’s Walk a few weeks ago and chuckled to myself that we’d chosen to do Jack And The Beanstalk at a relatively unknown venue just down from a large sign that said Beans in big letters!”

Bright bean Nik promptly sowed the seeds for an eye-catching wind-permeable banner in a marketing coup on York’s most famous sign. “Nightly Bile Beans Keep You Healthy Bright-Eyed & Slim is such a large York landmark that we knew we had to bring it into play some way,” he says.

Workmen from York company CSL Scaffolding assemble the scaffolding to erect the new banner

“Obviously we didn’t want to touch the sign itself, so we again thought outside of the box and contacted Press Green, who are based in the row of properties that the sign is on, and also got in touch with the brilliant CSL Scaffolding Ltd.

“After the terrible year we’ve all had, we thought it’d be a fun thing to do to advertise where the panto is! We put our heads together and came up with the plan to do a little pop-up extension!”

York Stage have worked for a long time with Press Green, who created the banner, but “Bile Beanstalk” marks a new partnership with CSL Scaffolding. “They’re already making their mark on the city, having done some great work up at Allerton Castle, near Knaresborough, and more locally have been giving back to the community through supporting soup kitchens across the city.”

“One of our main men also dressed up for the occasion,” says CSL Scaffolding’s Facebook post earlier today. Picture: CSL Scaffolding

CSL Scaffolding have been quick to put pictures on Facebook, calling their scaffolding work “our final job of the year, helping out York Stage with their Jack In [sic] The Beanstalk pantomime”.  “One of our main men also dressed up for the occasion,” it adds, with one comment referring to Paul Wright.

Explaining the thinking behind putting up the banner, Nik says on Facebook: “People ask us where exactly is Theatre at 41?! Well, after a brainstorming session with our friends at Press Green and thanks to the generosity of CSL Scaffolding Ltd, we’ve managed to make it a bit more obvious!

“Merry Xmas from us all at York Stage. We hope this makes your journey to the theatre a little easier!”

Jack (Jordan Fox) and his beanstalk, stitched together by stage manager Lisa Cameron for York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

Jack And The Beanstalk and the banner promotion will run until January 3 2021. “We hope the sign gives people a reason to smile,” says Nik. “It’s tongue in cheek and hopefully shows that there are still some things going on in and around York!”

Show times: December 23, 7pm; Christmas Eve, December 24, 11am, 1pm (sold out) and 5pm (sold out; Boxing Day, December 26, 11am, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; December 27, 11am, 1pm (sold out) and 6pm; December 28, 11am, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; December 29 and 30, 2pm and 7pm; New Year’s Eve, December 31, 12 noon. 

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

York Stage’s poster for their debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, a show that will “grow and grow on you”

Jill and Stephen Outhwaite bow out of theatre costume hire as Dress Circle closes

The end of the clothing chapter: Jill and Stephen Outhwaite are closing their Dress Circle of York costume hire enterprise. Picture: Melissa Gresswell, Liss Photography

THE final curtain falls on costume-hire emporium Dress Circle of York after 18 years tomorrow when Stephen and Jill Outhwaite will bow out.

“I’ve counted up the number of companies, schools, film companies, event companies and more that we’ve dealt with, and I’m sure I’ve missed out some, but it must be around 160, and then there are all the individuals over the years,” says Jill.

York Stage Musicals, the Rowntree Players, Bev Jones Music Company, Helmsley Arts Centre’s 1820 Theatre  Company and Stephen Tearle’s NEMS York are but five of those companies grateful to theatre costumiers Stephen and Jill and their team of Sophie, Sue, Elaine, Caroline, Emily, Susan and Guy.

“We would like to thank all of valued customers for their support, laughs, friendliness, understanding, cakes and chocolate over the past 18 years,” says the official notice on the Dress Circle website.

“We will miss you and wish you all the very best of luck in the future. Stay safe and well as we take our final bows.”

Dress Circle of York is run in converted buildings of the Outhwaite family farm at Low Grange Farm, off Moor Lane – more and more lane, it is a long lane – in Haxby, near York. “After 0.75 miles, there is a sharp right bend in the road, continue straight down the ‘no-through road’ for 1 mile,” the website advises. “Turn left into the farm yard at white sign ‘Low Grange Farm’.”

Many a farm has diversified, whether into ice cream, maze attractions, fields for solar-heating generation or wedding party teepees, wind farms, holiday cottages, film studios, business parks, beer breweries, the list goes on…

Items for hire, in a flashback to the 1980s, at Dress Circle of York. Picture: Liss Photography

…But theatrical costume hire? Pantomimes, fancy dress, make-up and accessories too, that is another world, one of fantasy, fable and fabulous fun, where a farewell visit just had to be made to thank Stephen and Jill.

All that was missing, and the eyes could not possibly take in everything, was a Daisy the Cow, front and back end, down on this 150-acre farm.

“Dress Circle of York came into being in 2002 when Jill and I brought the theatrical costume-hire business into an empty barn,” says Stephen, who has a history of acting, directing, theatrical make-up and running a youth theatre [he founded and ran Flying Ducks Youth Theatre in York for many years].

“Combined with Jill’s experience of costuming shows and a history degree and encouraged by the Government and our accountant to diversify, when the farming wasn’t that good, we took the first step into developing Dress Circle, acquiring stock from Geraldine Jevons and Sue Morris.

“The business has grown and developed in a way not dreamt of, as we built up a team of staff with a wealth and diversity of experience in costume and the theatrical world.”

In a normal year, from the end of October through to early December would be Dress Circle’s busiest time, but this was the abnormal year where the Covid Grinch cancelled Christmas and much more besides. “Over the past few years, we have, on average, dressed 30 shows in those few weeks, but not this year of course,” says Jill.

In 2020 Dress Circle costumed 170 shows all told; in 2020, only 39, as theatres went dark and largely stayed dark. “Shows that would have been going out, until lockdown kicked in, now aren’t. Even those provisionally booked for next year, the orders couldn’t be confirmed,” says Jill.

Everything a panto dame could dream of matching with over-bold lippy and a wig” at Dress Circle of York

Not only theatre companies called on their Aladdin’s barn of costume opportunities. So too did those seeking clothes for weddings and even funerals; war-themed weekends; big parties with a dress code; bikers gathering in Helmsley for a charity Christmas ride; vintage car enthusiasts headed for the Goodwood Festival of Speed in West Sussex.

Everything could be found, from Lady Gaga and Tina Turner styles to Madonna cones; from Victorian and Edwardian clothes, through Seventies’ Glam to the modern day; from the full kit bag for Cinderella, Beauty And The Beast and Monty Python’s Spamalot to a Gruffalo; from Father Christmas outfits to The Pink Panther.

No fewer than 16,000 costumes and much more besides: hats and more hats; prop after prop; military attire; blazers and tailcoats; socks and handkerchiefs; umbrellas and swords; waistcoats up to a 60-inch chest, ties, scarves, suits-you-sir suits, dress upon dress. Aprons. Everything a panto dame could dream of matching with over-bold lippy and a wig. Anything for a Steampunk sci-fi enthusiast.

“We’re the biggest business of our type in the north east,” says Jill. “We cover as far as Blyth, in Northumberland, down to north Lincolnshire.”

So much glamour, such theatrical flourish, is promised in these most untheatrical of premises. “It was built for cattle, and over the years we had pigs and grain in it too,” says Stephen.

“We insulated all the walls, but heating-wise you don’t want gas because it puts moisture into the atmosphere, electricity is expensive, so I enquired about a wood burner.”

No ordinary wood burner, it turns out. It is as big as a fledgling dancer’s dreams. “We got it from Dowling Stoves in Scotland, though originally he was from Helmsley,” says Stephen. “It’s the only heating we need in here; it keeps a nice dry barn, really good for drying costumes.” Two washing machines can be heard too, yet tomorrow they will fall silent.

“No fewer than 16,000 costumes and much more besides: hats and more hats; prop after prop” at Dress Circle of York. Picture: Liss Photography

“When I was at school, I wanted to be either a farmer or an actor, so I started with farming – better the devil you know – but then I flipped to acting, and I did everything but opera,” says Stephen.

Not that the farming has ever had its final harvest. BSE (“Mad Cow Disease”) put paid to the beef farming, he gave up on sheep too, but pigs – “bed and breakfast weeners” – have played their part and so too have contract grass-seed drilling and diversification into growing 40 acres of miscanthus, a biofuel for greener times.

Somehow, Stephen has found time to spread his wings still further, whether into piloting Flying Ducks Youth Theatre, or providing theatrical make-up services, or building sets for theatre shows.

“The make-up work was by chance initially but then it blossomed into film work too and the Vikings Roadshow, designing the make-up,” he says. “It toured Europe, then came to the Museum Gardens in York.”

Stephen will turn 70 next year, Jill, 67, and 2020’s stultifying pandemic has pressed them into making the decision to call time on Dress Circle. “We have such good staff; we had seven, but three have left already, and that was the toughest thing,” says Jill. “We feel awful; they’re all good friends and we get on so well. We’re a costume-hire team with the personal touch.

“We tried to keep going, and the furlough scheme was a godsend, but there’s just nothing happening in the theatre world. Theatres have to get going again first, and then we could have got going again, but we’d already decided to retire anyway.”

As a reminder of a year brought to a shuddering halt, the costumes for Bev Jones Music Company’s Calamity Jane, stopped a day before opening by the pandemic lockdown, are still hanging unused on a rail.

Cleopatra Rey as Deloris and Joanne Theaker as Sister Mary Roberts in Sister Act, one of York Stage Musicals’ productions that used costumes from Dress Circle of York

“We’re trading to December 19 and then looking at the possibilities of what we can do,” says Jill. “The closure announcement is on Facebook, and ideally we’d like to sell Dress Circle as a going concern, and we’d love it to go locally preferably.”

Stephen reflects on the path ahead. “Time goes on and there comes a time when you have to say, ‘it’s time to move on’…

…“But there is room for this business still to grow if someone takes it on,” urges Jill, who can be contacted at jill­­_outhwaite@btconnect.com.

Not all theatrical enterprises will be ending at Low Grange Farm. Flying Ducks will continue to rehearse in one of the buildings and Steve will still be making set designs, keeping that wood burner alight.

Thank you to Dress Circle of York, so many shows, so many memories of nights in the theatre and contented customers beyond.   As Nik Briggs, artistic of York Stage Musicals, puts it: “Dress Circle have been a great asset to the York theatre scene. Jill and her team will be a huge miss.

“From creating Broadway-worthy sparkly nuns and a bunch of Seventies’ New York gangsters for our production of Sister Act, to creating a wardrobe for our Von Trapp children and the people of Austria on the brink of Anschluss in The Sound Of Music, their work has always been brilliant!”

REVIEW: York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk, the “musical with panto braces”

Wickedly bad, yet wickedly good: Ian Stroughair as “Fleshius Creepius” in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk. All pictures: Kirkpatrick Photography

York Stage in Jack And The Beanstalk, John Cooper Studio, Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, until January 3 2021. Box office: yorkstagepanto.com

THIS is a York pantomime season like none before.

York Theatre Royal has, like a council politician, taken to the wards seeking votes, in this case for the audience choice of Travelling Pantomime. Dame Berwick Kaler’s comeback on board Dick Turpin Rides Again, after his headline-making crosstown transfer to the Grand Opera House, has gone into Covid-enforced hibernation for a year. Likewise, Rowntree Players have taken the winter off.

Yet, what’s this? A newcomer bean-sprouting up at Theatre @41 Monkgate, courtesy of York Stage’s debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, a show stuffed with West End talent with York and wider Yorkshire roots, bedding in nicely with socially-distanced performances for maximum audiences of 55 at the Covid-secure heart of Monkgateshire.

May Tether as Jill Gallop: “Investing personality in every line”

Once temperature tested at the doors and hands cleansed, you are led up the beanstalk-clad stairway to your brightly-coloured seat in the John Cooper Studio, a black-box theatre here configured as a traverse stage, the bubble-compliant audience sitting to either side or upstairs on the mezzanine level.

Safety division comes in the form of screens, like on Have I Got News For You, giving a different Perspextive on watching a show, but in no way impeding the view. Actors are socially distanced – they exchange elbow greetings; romance is replaced by best friendships – and audience members are close to the stage in this intimate setting, but not too close. The dame does not dispense sweets and we are asked to refrain from shouting.

Not your normal panto, then, in this all-too abnormal year, except that writer-director Nik Briggs’s 2020 vision for pantomime still has all the elements: the song and dance; the puns and punchlines;  the slapstick and the transformation scene; the dame (Alex Weatherhill) and Daisy the cow; the drama-queen baddie (Ian Stroughair) and his narcissism; the topical and the local references; the daft wannabe superhero dreamer (Jordan Fox) and the fairy (Livvy Evans);  the principal girl (May Tether) and her plain-speaking principles.

Slapstuck: Alex Weatherhill’s Dame Nancy Angelina Norma Nigella Alana Trott – Nanna for short – goes nuts in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk

Then add the all-action ensemble (Matthew Ives, Danielle Mullan and Emily Taylor) and the band, a trio of musical director Jessica Douglas, fellow keyboard player Sam Johnson and York’s premier league drummer, Clark Howard, parked upstairs but omnipresent and on the button, The Great British Bake Off theme tune et al.

Briggs has called his show “a musical with pantomime braces on”; his choreographer, Gary Lloyd, a big signing from the West End and tour circuit, has coined the term “pansical”. That may suggest a slightly awkward new hybrid, but like the cult rock’n’roll pantomime at Leeds City Varieties, the musical driving force here is a winning addition to the tradition.

Danielle Mullan lights up the transformation scene in Jack And The Beanstalk

Ninety minutes straight through – intervals are so last year – Jack And The Beanstalk is full of beans, lovely to look at and lively too, loud at times but rarely lewd (blame the dame for those “innocent but guilty” moments, met with knowing laughter).

Surprise celebrity cameos pop up on video, and York Mix Radio’s morning team of Ben Fry and Laura Castle provide the pre-recorded countdown chat pre-show.

Briggs is breaking his duck as a pantomime writer, and his script is a little mannered by comparison with the highly experienced Paul Hendy’s way with words for the Travelling Pantomime, but he does know the notes, he does play them in the right order, and the jokes invariably hit home, especially those that play on the Covid conventions of 2020.

Making a cow’s head of himself: York Stage pantomime writer-director Nik Briggs steps out of character with stage manager Lisa Cameron as the socially distanced, elongated Daisy in Jack And The Beanstalk

His reinvention of the pantomime cow is a particular joy, even if the dame’s nutty slapstick routine is hampered by having to play safe.

Briggs’s characters, bold and playful and bright, will appeal to children and adults alike. The singing is the ace card. What voices, whether Weatherhill’s operatic entry; professional debutante Tether’s arrival as Yorkshire’s next Sheridan Smith with her gift for investing personality in every line or the appealing Fox’s top-notch prowess in big numbers and ballads alike.

Foxy, ladies! Jordan Fox in superhero mode as Jack Trott in Jack And The Beanstalk

Evans’s Fairy Mary is fun and feisty, especially in her battles with Stroughair’s long-fingered, stove-pipe top-hatted Flesh Creep, commanding the stage with that irrepressible swagger and spectacular singing we know from his drag diva, Velma Celli.

You will never have a better chance to see Gary Lloyd’s flamboyant, fab-u-lous choreography so close up it is almost personal, dazzlingly pretty in the transformation scene, bouncing madly on and off trampolines in Stroughair’s high point, Jump (the Van Halen anthem).

Bean there, done that? Not until you have seen this new brand of York pantomime.

Review by BARSTOW TEASDALE. Copyright of The Press, York

Fairy tale ending: Livvy Evans as Fairy Mary in Jack And The Beanstalk

Jordan Fox’s return to the stage as Jack is a dream true after anything but Beautiful year

“He’s just a dreamer, who wants to be up in the clouds,” says Jordan Fox of playing Jack. “I can get on board with that: I’m an actor; I can get lost in stories” Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

EVERYTHING should have been Beautiful for Jordan Fox in 2020.

“I was in the tour of Beautiful, the Carole King musical, at the start of the year, and then that got cancelled by the pandemic lockdown,” says the West End actor from West Yorkshire. “The tour had been such fun, but when I got back to London from Cardiff, I got the email to say ‘Don’t go to the next theatre’.”

Based in London for the past couple of years, starring in Kinky Boots and Friendsical, the Friends-parodying musical, Jordan has moved back to Yorkshire in lockdown.

Now he finds himself in the title role – Jack, not the allotment staple – in York Stage’s pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, from Friday at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York.

“Me and Nik [writer-director Nik Briggs] went to university together at Bretton Hall [the Grade 2 listed building on the Yorkshire Sculpture Park estate, near Wakefield]. It was like Hogwarts! I loved it!” says Jordan, who studied there from 2006 to 2009.

“I was in the first year when Nik was in the second year and we ended up doing some projects together and getting on really well.”

Now 32, Jordan says: “We’ve chatted a few times, but because he’s based in York and I’ve been in London we’ve kind of missed each other’s paths. So, it feels really lovely to be doing this panto.

“Nik messaged me and said, ‘I know you’re based in London but we’re looking for Yorkshire actors’, and I said, ‘well, I’m coming back, can I do it?’.”

Jordan was born in Bradford and grew up in Huddersfield and his family now lives in Holmfirth. “I’ve moved back home, living with my partner in Holmfirth, and if I get a West End show again, I’ll rent down there and keep the house up here,” he says.

He performed in Lawrence Batley Theatre pantomimes in Huddersfield in his childhood. “Then, in 2014-2015, I was Peter Pan in Peter Pan with Dean Gaffney as my Captain Hook, and now I’m doing Jack And The Beanstalk, so I’ve had a green theme to my pantos, it seems!”

Deep into tech week now for his role as Jack, Jordan says: “The great thing that Nik has done with the script is that he’s really massively acknowledged the present pandemic situation, with all the social distancing.

Feeling good to be back: Jordan Fox in an early rehearsal for York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

“We make lots of references: we can air-hug, play air guitar, without us breaking any rules. We’re using a traverse stage design too [with the audience seated in bubbles to either side], and we can really fill that space in a different way when, even though we can’t do traditional panto things, we can figure out new ways and it’s always nice to do that.”

Jordan is enjoying reacquainting himself with the pantomime world for a second time. “For me, there was a really big gap between doing it when I was young and then getting back into it for Peter Pan, and now it’s good to be doing it again,” he says.

“I love the simple fairy-tales, the silliness of it all, whereas normally [with musicals] you don’t ever have the free rein to do anything like that. With panto, if something goes wrong, it’s great to be able to include the audience in it.”

As for playing Jack, Jordan says: “As I’ve read him, he’s northern, probably sounding like I did before going to London! I’ll be letting my Yorkshire heritage take over.

“He’s just a dreamer, who wants to be up in the clouds. I can get on board with that: I’m an actor; I can get lost in stories! Jack is simplistic in his ideals, not weighed down by anything. Instead of the norms of adulthood, he’s still letting himself dream, which we can all connect with.”

Dreams have been put on hold in Covid-19 2020. “It was so disorientating when Beautiful stopped. A lot of actors, when we’re not working in shows, work in bars, teach kids, do gigs, basically anything where there’s a crowd, but because everything stopped, it was an anxiety-ridden couple of months,” says Jordan.

“It felt like the world falling from beneath you, but luckily I had some savings, and I started doing some ‘assisting engineering’ work, basically handing people tools.”

Then came Nik’s invitation to climb a beanstalk in a York theatre. “This is a dream come true and I’m so happy to be here,” says Jordan. “It’s been so frustrating for the theatre world this year, when it seems like the Government doesn’t make the effort to go and get someone like [theatre producer] Cameron Mackintosh to ‘tell us what we should be doing’.”

Treading the boards once more at last, Jordan says: “When you come to a show, you never leave the theatre the same person as when you arrived, and that’s what we’ve all been missing.”

Dare to dream, like Jack, like Jordan, of better times ahead. In the meantime, enjoy the uplift, the joy, the daftness, of pantomime.

York Stage presents Jack And The Beanstalk at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, from December 11 to January 3; show times, Monday to Saturday, 2pm and 7pm; Sundays, 1pm and 6pm; Christmas Eve, 12 noon and 5pm; New Year’s Eve, 12 noon. Box office: online only at yorkstagepanto.com. Please note, audiences will be seated in household/support bubble groupings only.