REVIEW: York Stage in Calendar Girls, The Musical, Grand Opera House, York ****

Rosy Rowley’s Cora, centre, preparing to face her camera moment with Jo Theaker’s Annie and Julieann Smith’s Chris in York Stage’s Calendar Girls The Musical. All picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

Calendar Girls, The Musical, York Stage, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday. Performances: 7.30pm, tonight to Thursday and Saturday; 4pm and 8pm, Friday; 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York

HAVE you been struggling to buy sunflowers in York since Friday?

The reason is simple: these sunworshippers have taken up residence at the Grand Opera House, spreading all over a teenage party dress and a gloriously OTT sofa in director-producer Nik Briggs’ scenic and costume design too.

Even in the dark of the orchestra pit, a sunflower can be spotted radiating nocturnal sunshine from musical director Jessica Douglas’s stand.

Touching moment: Jo Theaker’s Annie and Mick Liversidge’s John with their sunflower seeds

Calendar Girls The Musical began life as The Girls when premiered by sons of the Wirral Gary Barlow and Tim Firth at Leeds Grand Theatre in December 2015. Now the Yorkshire sunflower power has been restored for the York premiere by Briggs’s company.

If you missed the Leeds debut, jump at the chance to remedy that error! If you loved the film or the stage play, Barlow and Firth’s musical is even better, the format suiting what is already an opera-scaled human drama of ordinary women at the centre of an extraordinary story.

What’s more, as Briggs says: “Having Yorkshire actors playing these roles in a theatre in York creates a real gravitas to the story. It could work anywhere, but it’s just a bit more special done here as it’s a proper Yorkshire tale.”

You surely know that story, the tragicomic one where gentle gent, National Park wall builder and sunflower grower John Clarke (Mick Liversidge) – spoiler alert – dies from leukaemia .

Julieann Smith’s Chris singing Sunflower in Calendar Girls The Musical

Whereupon his wife, Annie (Jo Theaker), teams up with Knapely Women’s Institute rebel Chris (Julieann Smith) to defy the new but old-school WI chair Marie (Maggie Smales) by posing with fellow members for a fund-raising nude calendar in John’s memory – and in his spirit of being inventive and not following the well-beaten track.

Firth and Barlow open with two big hitters, firstly the scene-setting ensemble anthem Yorkshire, then the character-establishing introduction to The Girls, the diverse members of the WI, in Mrs Conventional.

So, we meet not only Theaker’s grieving but resilient Annie and Smith’s agitated/aggrieved Celia, but also Rosy Rowley’s Cora, the vicar’s no-nonsense daughter; Tracey Rea’s reupholstered, flashy Celia, the former airhostess; Sandy Nicholson’s perma-knitting Jessie, the wise-owl ex-teacher, and Juliet Waters’ reserved dark horse Ruth.

One of the joys of ballad-king Barlow and witty-worded lyricist Firth’s musical structure is how every one of the Girls has a knock-out, character-revealing, storytelling solo number, each drawing cheers and bursts of clapping, especially Rowley’s rousing, big-band blast of Who Wants A Silent Night?, Smith’s assertive Flowers, Rea’s exuberantly humorous So I’ve Had A Little Work Done and Waters’ vodka-guzzling My Russian Friend And I.

Uplifting: Tracey Rea’s Celia revels in So I’ve Had A Little Work Done

Theaker, so consistently excellent in York Stage lead roles, plucks the heartstrings in the stand-out ballad Scarborough and later hits the emotional heights again in Kilimanjaro. Her chemistry with Liversidge is utterly lovely, touching too, making Clarkey’s loss all the harder to take. Likewise, Theaker and the feisty Smith capture the strains and stresses of friendship under the utmost duress.

Calendar Girls is not just about the Girls, but the men too, from Chris’s level-headed husband Rod (Andy Stone) to humorous cameos for the ever-reliable Craig Kirby (Denis) and Graham Smith (Colin), and Finn East’s how-about-we-do-it-this-way photographer, Lawrence, sensitively venturing into new territory as much as his subjects.  

Not only does Firth’s script strike the right balance of northern humour, pathos, sadness and bloody-minded defiance, but also he places the stripping-off photoshoot as the climax (mirroring The Full Monty) and brings three teenage children to the fore, both as outlets for awkward, growing-pains humour and to expose their parents in a different light.

Danny Western is lovably cheeky as deluded, cocky workshy Tommo; Izzie Norwood affirms why Mountview Academy of Theatre awaits her in September with an assured, eye-catching York Stage debut as Jenny, the WI chair’s daughter, expelled from her posh school, with her wild, rebellious outsider streak still untamed.

Izzie Norwood’s Jenny leads Sam Roberts’s Danny astray

No wonder Sam Roberts’s clean-cut, gilded path to being head boy takes a wayward turn as too-cool-for-school Jenny initiates his discovery of alcohol. Roberts’s understated performance contrasts joyfully with Western’s ebullience as the young lads eggs each other on.

Briggs’s lucid, fast-moving direction places equal stress on the potency of the dialogue and the emotional heft of the songs, while his stage design combines dry-stone walls and Dales greenery with open-plan interiors for WI meetings, homes and the hospital, thereby evoking the vast expanse of Yorkshire yet suited to intimate conversation too.

Jessica Douglas’s keyboard-led musical forces do Barlow’s compositions proud, with Robert Fisher’s guitar, Georgia Johnson’s double bass, Graeme Osborn’s trumpet and Anna Marshall’s trombone all given room to flourish.

A quick mention for Louie Theaker, who stepped in for the temporarily indisposed Danny Western for Friday’s first performance, rehearsing his part from 5pm to 6pm as he called on his experience of learning TV script re-writes pronto for his regular role as Jake in CBBC’s children’s drama series James Johnson.

Audiences have not been as big as expected, but what folly it would be to miss York Stage in sunflower full bloom in a Yorkshire story of tears and cheers, grief and loss, spirit and renewal, humour and humanity, ace songs and cracking performances.

Sunflower show: The finale to York Stage’s Calendar Girls The Musical

York Stage bring out the buns for city premiere of Calendar Girls The Musical

“We’re going to need considerably bigger buns”: York Stage’s promotional picture for Bun

THE true story of the Calendar Girls from Rylstone Women’s Institute has transferred from print to stage to screen.

Best of all is its latest conversion to a musical by composer Gary Barlow and writer and lyricist Tim Firth, two sons of a Wirral village who met as teenagers before Take That and Neville’s Island respectively shaped their career paths.

Premiered at Leeds Grand Theatre in December 2015 under the title of The Girls, the show returns to Yorkshire from tomorrow (22/4/2022) for its York premiere, now restored to the Calendar Girls moniker that leaves no room for confusion.

Calendar Girls: The Musical will be staged by York Stage under the direction of company founder, producer and artistic director Nik Briggs. “I don’t honestly remember when we applied, but it must be over a year we’ve had the performing rights, I think,” he says. 

Jo Theaker and Mick Liversidge in rehearsal for York Stage’s Calendar Girls The Musical. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

“It’s a very popular show, so companies across the country have been scheduling productions. It’s such a beautiful story that’s based on real life, so it’s a joy to explore and work on.”

That story, should you have been hiding behind sunflowers all these years, revolves around the death of a much-loved husband prompting members of a Yorkshire dales village Women’s Institute “to do things a little differently”, stripping off decoratively for their annual fundraising calendar, blissfully unaware their daring behaviour would trigger such an impact locally, nationally, even internationally.

“The story of the ‘Calendar Girls’ has always inspired me,” says Nik. “Being the only boy on my mum’s side of the family, I’ve grown up surrounded by strong women and have always enjoyed being in the rehearsal room with actresses, creating work that celebrates them and puts their stories front centre.”  

For Calendar Girls, he is doing so with a cast fronted by Jo Theaker (as Annie); Julieann Smith (Chris); Rosy Rowley (Cora); Tracey Rea (Celia), Sandy Nicholson (Jessie) and Juliet Waters (Ruth), alongside Mick Liversidge (John) and Andy Stone (Rod).

Here come the Girls: York Stage’s ‘Calendar Girls’ pose for a snap in the rehearsal room as Rosy Rowley points the phone camera. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

Nik did not make it to the Leeds Grand premiere. “I actually missed it in Leeds and the West End, so I’ve not seen it before,” he says. “I was especially gutted to miss it as the original cast included York Stage’s very own Josh Benson, but work and travel commitments just kept getting in the way when it was on! That’s the one bad thing about working in theatre; you miss a lot of shows!”

Nevertheless, Nik’s York Stage work since 2014 has given York debuts to West End and Broadway hits aplenty, and he is delighted to be adding Calendar Girls to that list. “Gary Barlow and Tim Firth have created a stunning score,” he says.

“It’s filled with pop ballads as you’d expect, but they’ve also created rousing Yorkshire anthems and jazzy big band show pieces too. Their ability to tell a story through song is really beautiful. They keep things simple and allow the emotion and acting to speak volumes.

“They’ve made a show with storytelling at its heart: there’s no big choreography or special effects, just an extraordinary story about a group of ordinary women that goes from heart-warming to heart-wrenching in an instant.”

“Having Yorkshire actors playing these roles in a theatre in York creates a real gravitas to the story,” says York Stage producer and director Nik Briggs

Calendar Girls wholly suits the musical format, Nik asserts. “It’s famously said, in musical theatre, ‘when it’s not enough to say it, you sing it’! The loss of a loved one creates some of the biggest emotions in a person, so it’s an ideal story to tell through the medium of musical theatre.

“The story is timeless too. Loss, grief and what huge life experiences like that can do to a person never changes, so audiences of all generations can relate to it.”

Nik, who is joined in the production team by musical director Jessica Douglas, has designed the set too. “It’s really evocative of Yorkshire and allows the production to move quickly and with pace, as intended,” he says.

The obligatory sunflowers will be omnipresent, but does Nik like this over-the-top flower? “I do. Who can say they don’t smile when they see one?! There must be close to 500 in this production, so it’s a good job I like them,” he says.

“The colour scheme of the marketing and the sunflowers connection to the story unintentionally now also evokes strong emotions, with the awful conflict we’re seeing in Ukraine, as the colours and flower are both national symbols of the country.”

Sandy Nicholson, left, Tracey Rea and Jo Theaker rehearsing Calendar Girls The Musical. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

Staging a Yorkshire story on home soil definitely has an impact on its telling, posits Nik. “Having Yorkshire actors playing these roles in a theatre in York creates a real gravitas to the story. It could work anywhere, but it’s just a bit more special done here as it’s a proper Yorkshire tale,” he says. 

“As a native Geordie, who has now lived ‘down south’ here in Yorkshire for nearly half of my life, I still find myself blown away by the beauty of the region. Whether I’m out in the Yorkshire countryside with the green hills and dry-stone walls, in the middle of a quaint village with babbling streams and chocolate-box houses, or in the beautiful towns and cities with their impressive, intricate architecture, I can’t help but be awestruck by the charm that surrounds me.”

Coming next for York Stage will be their York Theatre Royal debut in Little Shop Of Horrors from July 14 to 23, followed by Kinky Boots at the Grand Opera House from September 16 to 24.

“We’ll end the year with our annual youth show at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre,” says Nik. “This year it’ll be Bring It On by Lin Manuel Miranda, so that’ll be very popular with the teens who all love Encanto and Hamilton!”

York Stage in Calendar Girls: The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, April 22 to 30.  Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York.

Copyright of The Press, York

REVIEW: Elf The Musical, York Stage, at Grand Opera House, York, until December 3

Sophie Hammond’s Jovie and Damien Poole’s Buddy leading a dance routine in York Stage’s Elf The Musical. All pictures: Charlie Kirkpatrick, Kirkpatrick Photography

YOU will be lucky if any tickets are still left for York Stage’s Christmas show, and luckier still if you do see Elf The Musical.

The Christmas spirit is alive in more than those irritatingly premature TV adverts; a neighbour has put up the Christmas tree already; pantomimes are underway; the weather has turned all Jack Frost on us, and Elf The Musical is packing out the Grand Opera House, with all manner of accompanying merchandise to tempt, and Christmas jumpers on their first outing of the new season.

On first thoughts, a run nearer Christmas might have been more ideal, but judging by Saturday’s matinee, full of excited young families, a festive trip to the theatre cannot come soon enough after the misery of multiple lockdowns.

Martin Rowley’s storytelling Santa

Under the limitations of social bubbles, York Stage went ahead with their debut musical pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, last Christmas, but Elf The Musical marks the return to shows on the scale of Shrek The Musical, a huge hit for Nik Briggs’s company at the Grand Opera House. The orchestra alone numbers 16 under musical director Stephen Hackshaw’s zestful charge, to complement the cast of 20-plus.                     

Artistic director Briggs, who played the title role in that show, swaps places with Shrek’s director (and choreographer to boot), Damien Poole. Somehow, despite running Damien Poole Theatre Arts in Harrogate and teaching musical theatre at Leeds Conservatoire, he has found time to rehearse and play Buddy – and make him his own one-man national elf service. Did anyone mention Will Ferrell? No! “Damien is Buddy,” said Briggs beforehand, and now you can see why.

Elf The Musical retains the jokes and the naïve charm of the 2003 film, with a witty, playful book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, then leaves out the impractical high-speed snowball fight, and adds all the song-and-dance razzmatazz of a Broadway musical, with music by Matthew Sklar big on winter brass and lyrics by Chad Beguelin full of humour, bold statements and big sentiments.

Get your skates on…but not even that may guarantee you a ticket for York Stage’s hot-selling winter warmer Elf The Musical

Emily Taylor, long associated with Grand Opera House pantomimes, brings her choreographic brio to York Stage’s Elf, excelling in the ensemble numbers, never more so than when a multitude of Santas are letting off their after-hours steam.

Should anyone miraculously have escaped the film, Elf The Musical has Martin Rowley’s old-school Santa introducing the story of how orphan boy Buddy crawls into Santa’s sack and ends up being brought up among all the elf toy makers on a sugar-rich diet with two visits a day to the North Pole dentist. 

In the opening scenes, all except Santa and Buddy are whizzing around on their knees playing elves, immediately establishing the magical yet daft fun of Briggs’s show.

Faateh Sohail as Michael and Jo Theaker as Emily Hobbs

Poole captures this tone perfectly, full of good cheer, love, innocence, cheekiness and a desire to please, like the silly billy/daft lad/Buttons roles we associate with pantomimes at this time of year. Then add boundless energy, delightful singing and nimble dance skills, plus natural stage “likeability” (to borrow a Berwick Kaler expression), and you have the ideal Buddy.

When Buddy learns that he is not an elf after all, despite being so elfish in his thinking, off to New York he must go to try to find his real father, children’s publishing-house manager Walter Hobbs (Stuart Piper), who never knew he had a son from a long-ago relationship. 

Perma-stressed Walter is now married to long-suffering Emily (Jo Theaker), with a son, Michael (Faateh Sohail at the matinee, sharing the role with Declan Childs and Ethan McDonald). 

Elf director Nik Briggs and choreographer Emily Taylor with lead actors Sophie Hammond and Damien Poole

Briggs has cast as well as ever, Piper’s Walter walking the tightrope of being unreasonable/reasonable in his behaviour, Theaker being as lovable as always and Sohail showing bags of confidence and promise.

Like Poole, professional actor Sophie Hammond, first cast by Briggs 11 years ago as Ariel in Footloose, has moved into teaching drama skills but she has jumped at the chance to play Jovie, Buddy’s slow-burn love interest.

Initially, her Jovie is typical of the New York cynicism to be found among the Macy’s department store staff, where Buddy finds himself working as he constantly corrects everyone’s misconceptions over Santa, the North Pole and Christmas. Like the rest of us, she cannot but warm to Buddy’s innocent enthusiasm, even for going on a date. Hammond captures this transmission with more subtlety than would be first apparent in the script’s broad strokes.  

Katie Melia’s Babs and Damien Poole’s Buddy

Strong support comes from Katie Melia’s Deb, Jack Hooper’s Chadwick, and especially Craig Kirby’s grouchy publishing boss, Greenway.

Hackshaw’s band are on ace form, not only the brass section, but with Sam Johnson, Barbara Chan and violinist Claire Jowett among the ranks, the quality is high indeed for the fantastic score.

The snowy icing on the cake is Briggs’s set design, big snowflakes, open North Pole skyline, bustling Macy’s store, finale snow machine et al, as he draws inspiration from Radio City Music Hall. Will there be a magical sleigh ride? Wait and see – if you have one of those oh-so-in-demand tickets of course.

Box office on the off chance: atgickets.com/York.

York Stage Musicals’ Elf on course to sell out as Buddy brings joyful early Christmas present to Grand Opera House from tonight

Sophie Hammond’s Jovie and Damien Poole’s Buddy go green for York Stage Musicals’ Elf

AFTER The Flint Street Nativity and last winter’s debut pantomime Jack And The Beanstalk, York Stage Musicals are serving up Christmas cheer again with Elf The Musical.

Such is the anticipation for this show that the Grand Opera House run from today until December 3 has all but sold out already. “Out of the 11 performances, we have around only ten tickets left for each show,” says delighted artistic director Nik Briggs.

York Stage Musicals are presenting the York premiere of Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin, Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin’s musical, based on the 2003 film, the one with a goofing Will Ferrell.

Should Elf somehow have eluded you, the story follows orphan child Buddy as he mistakenly crawls into Santa Claus’s bag and ends up being transported to his North Pole abode.

Once there, unaware he is human, and not an elf, his enormous size and poor toy-making abilities cause him to face the truth.

Given Santa’s permission, Buddy (played by Damien Poole) must head to New York City to find his birth father, discover his true identity and help the Big Apple to remember the true meaning of Christmas.

“We love bringing big Broadway and West End musicals to York: we’ve done Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert and Shrek The Musical, and I knew Elf would be perfect for the cast we have: high energy and full of fun,” says Nik.

Elf The Musical director Nik Briggs, left, choreographer Emily Taylor and lead actors Sophie Hammond and Damien Poole at York Stage Musicals’ press launch at Sotano, Little Stonegate, York

“With The Flint Street Nativity and our musical panto, Jack And The Beanstalk, we’ve started bringing alternative Christmas shows to York and Elf perfectly fits that bill.”

How does the musical differ from the film? “The songs, obviously! It’s got a stellar songbook to go will all the comedy that people love from the movie,” says Nik. “The beautiful score is accompanied by a big, brassy band: a 16-piece orchestra directed by the wonderful Stephen Hackshaw. It sounds amazing.”

As affirmed by the ticket sales, Elf has winter winner written all over it. “People love the film; it’s a title they know, and after the past 18 months we’ve all had, it’s the perfect show too see. Pure joy!” says Nik.

“Just as Buddy helps New York to find its Christmas spirit, so Damien and the cast will be helping York to do the same.”

Enthusing over his two leads, Damien Poole, as Buddy and Sophie Hammond, as Buddy’s love interest, Jovie, Nik says: “Damien IS Buddy! He loves Christmas, he’s so full of joy, so energetic, and with his ten years of West End credentials in such shows as Grease and Groundhog Day, he can sustain that throughout the run.

“Sophie is just the most beautiful performer. I remember when she first walked in to audition for Footloose, more than ten years ago, I was just blown away, casting her as Ariel, the preacher’s daughter with the looks and rebellious attitude of a bad girl. She really takes the audience on a journey when she performs.”

After mounting Jack And The Beanstalk at Theatre@41, Monkgate, last Christmas with the requirement for social bubbles, a compact cast and the constant uncertainty over whether the show would have to be called off (only the finale was lost in the end), Nik is once more producing a show under the Covid cloud.

“After the past 18 months we’ve all had, Elf is the perfect show too see. Pure joy!” says director Nik Briggs

“We’ve kept our numbers to what would be the cast size for a tour – around 20 – and we’ve never stopped learning from the shows we’ve done since the pandemic forced changes, starting with the outdoor concerts at Rowntree Park in late-summer 2020 and the panto,” he says, as he attends to the Elf and safety requirements.

“That’s put us in a really good position to run a show like this, with all the requirements for Lateral Flow Tests and wearing masks when necessary.”

After the hit run of Shrek The Musical, directed and choreographed by Damien Poole after his return to Boston Spa from his West End work, York Stage Musicals are thrilled to be back at the Grand Opera House for Elf. “We love working with the team here, and we love the technical possibilities the stage affords us,” says Nik, who has done the set design on top of his directing duties.

“We’ve had the set built by companies and builders around the country for a brand new set design that works perfectly with the space, inspired by New York and Radio City Music Hall, in Midtown Manhattan, which I visited in 2019, shortly before Covid arrived.”

Looking ahead, York Stage Musicals will be returning to the Grand Opera House from April 22 to 30 next year for the York premiere of Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls: The Musical. Write that one down on your 2022 calendar and be sure to book early.

York Stage Musicals in Elf The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, tonight (25/11/2021) until December 3. Box office: hurry, hurry to atgtickets.com/York or ring 0844 871 7615.

Copyright of The Press, York

Damien Poole and Sophie Hammond: Actors, teachers and stars of York Stage Musicals’ Elf The Musical

SOPHIE Hammond is completing a full circle as she returns to the Grand Opera House stage in York tonight in York Stage Musicals’ Elf The Musical.

“This is my first time back in a York Stage show since playing Ariel in 2010 in Footloose. I was blonde at the time,” recalls Sophie, her hair now darker, as she takes the role of Buddy’s love interest, Jovie, in Elf.

“That was my first show with York Stage Musicals, as after Footloose I went off to London to train in musical theatre at the American Musical Theatre Academy, where I managed to get myself an agent and went into performing jobs.”

Four years into the profession, Sophie made a career change. “I decided I wanted to teach performing arts at secondary school, and I’ve been teaching at Beckfoot School, in Bradford, for three years, which have whizzed by,” she says.

Sophie performed in the second of York Stage Musicals’ outdoor concerts in Rowntree Park in Summer 2020 and now she is treading the boards once more at the Grand Opera House. “It feels like it’s a nice circle being completed, being back there after 11 years,” she says.

LIKE Sophie Hammond, Damien Poole has left London behind to make a new start.

“I’d lived there for 15 years, working in the West End, but four years ago I decided to set up my theatre school, Damien Poole Theatre Arts, which I run in Harrogate, and I also work at the Leeds Conservatoire music school, working with musical theatre degree students,” he says.

After directing and choreographing York Stage Musicals’ September 2019 production of Shrek The Musical – “an amazing experience,” he says – Damien now faces the challenge of balancing his teaching duties with playing the lead character of Buddy in YSM’s Elf.

“I try to make time by changing my times at the theatre school and Leeds, so I can rehearse on Wednesdays and Sundays and have Thursdays off,” he says.

He is relishing taking on the role synonymous with Will Farrell. “Obviously I’m not going to be able to create what Will Farrell did in creating Buddy’s character in the film, but I get to sing and dance, and you get to see more layers to Buddy in the musical,” says Damien.

Drag diva Velma Celli to host Yorktoberfest Beer Necessities marquee shows at Kavesmire and Impossible York events

Velma Celli: York drag diva will be hosting Yorktoberfest and Impossible Drag Brunch entertainment in October

YORK drag diva deluxe Velma Celli is to host the Beer Necessities marquee entertainment at Yorktoberfest, York’s newly expanded beer festival on Knavesmire.

The fabulous cabaret creation of West End musical star Ian Stroughair will be on song on October 21 and October 28 to 31, with two sittings on the Saturday (30/10/2021), but is unavailable for the sessions on October 22 and 23.

Yorktoberfest will follow in the traditions of the first Oktoberfest staged in Munich in 1810, bringing beer, bratwurst and oompah to a giant Bavarian-styled beer tent in the Clocktower Enclosure at York Racecourse, complemented by a vintage funfair.

October 29 and 30 festival sessions have sold out already but tickets are available for other sessions at the new event run by North Yorkshire co-producers Johnny Cooper, chief executive officer of Coopers Marquees, and James Cundall, CEO of Jamboree Entertainment.

Billed as “the UK’s queen of vocal drag”, with diva devotees at New York and Australian clubs, the London Hippodrome and Edinburgh Fringe, Velma Celli will be joined in Yorktoberfest’s entertainment line-up by the New York Brass Band, from…York.

They will be stepping into the de rigueur Lederhosen and Dirndls to take on a new persona as the New York Oompah Brass Band. Expect thigh-slapping, foot-stomping Oktoberfest tunes to be added to their repertoire of feel-good disco classics. 

Dancing will be encouraged, as it has been for more than 200 years of Oktoberfests, aswill be the wearing of Lederhosen, Dirndls or any other fancy dress, with nightly competitions and prizes for the best dressed.

The poster for Velma Celli’s “Halloweenish” show, Equinox, at the Impossible York Wonderbar on October 15

The Bavarian Bar will serve authentic German beer, wines, prosecco and spirits or soft drinks for those who prefer not to “hop”. German-inspired food stalls will serve sausages, schnitzels and pretzels, plus vegan and vegetarian options.

Funfairs are an integral part of German Oktoberfests. Consequently, Yorktoberfest will have its own traditional funfair with thrills on the Dodgems, Twister, Speedway and Chair-o-Plane.

Tickets for Yorktoberfest are on sale through ticketsource.co.uk/yorktoberfest, priced at £15 per person for unreserved seating, a reserved table of six for £90 and a VIP table of six for £135, situated closest to the stage with table service. Please note, a booking fee applies; tickets also will be sold at the entrance, subject to availability.

Co-producer Johnny Cooper says: “We’re looking forward to seeing one of our biggest marquees at 160 metres long, installed on Knavesmire and themed with all things Bavarian, including a stage, bespoke thatched wooden barns, flags galore and generally everything needed for a great night out.”

Co-producer James Cundall adds: “We’re determined to bring events to York that people can enjoy after the long months of Covid restrictions, and with sessions selling out already, it seems there is demand for an autumn cheer-up event. 

“Yorktoberfest promises to be an evening of hearty fun, with beer, bands and bratwurst, not to mention a drag queen.  Dust off the fancy-dress outfits and come along!”

Meanwhile, now roosting back in York since the first lockdown, rather than in his adopted home of London, Velma Celli/Ian Stroughair has a diary filling up with engagements, ranging from the Pelton Arms in London (the pub used for exterior shots in Only Fools And Horses) to the Ian Stroughair Jazz Band’s jazz and blues gigs at Nola, the new York jazz restaurant at the former Rustique in Lendal; next up on October 5.

One for the future in York? Velma Celli in Aladdin Sane make-up for Irreplaceable, Velma’s David Bowie tribute show

After a summer and September on call to fill in for star turn Betty Legs Diamond at Funny Girls shows in Blackpool – where Ian/Velma trained, “watching Betty for 20 years” – Velma will be hosting her regular Impossible Drag Brunch slots at the Impossible York Wonderbar, in St Helen’s Square, on October 2, November 6 and December 4 at 12 noon and 2.30pm each Saturday afternoon, with a Christmas theme to the December shows.

In further Impossible York outings, look out for full-scale solo performances of The Velma Celli Show on October 15, November 19 and with a Christmas flavour on December 17, all at 7.30pm.

The October gig will be a “Halloweenish” version of Velma’s Equinox show, the one with “witches, creeps and freaks”. “I’ll be doing Hocus Pocus, I Put A Spell On You, Radiohead’s Creep, A Thousand Years from Twilight, and plenty more Halloween gore,” says Velma.

Coming up for Ian will be Velma Celli shows on Atlanta Cruises’ ships to Florida and Miami and, hopefully, but yet to be confirmed, a York performance of Ian/Velma’s new tribute show to David Bowie, Irreplaceable, with a three-piece band.

“I’ve only done it in Southampton so far, but I’m looking to do a small-scale performance in York,” says Ian. “I’m meeting York Stage director Nik Briggs – I played Fleshcreep in his York Stage panto, Jack And The Beanstalk, last winter – about the possibility of presenting the show here.”

Tickets for Velma Celli’s Impossible York shows are on sale via  impossibleyork.com/wonderbar

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.