Juliet Forster’s production of American classic Little Women confirmed for Theatre Royal autumn season. Who’s in the cast?

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster

SCREENWRITER, novelist and playwright Anne-Marie Casey’s adaptation of Little Women will lead York Theatre Royal’s autumn season. Tickets for a special fundraising gala on October 2 go on sale today.

Running on the main stage from September 21 to October 12, Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster’s production will offer a fresh take on Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 coming-of-age novel set in Massachusetts, New England, where headstrong Jo March and her sisters Meg, Beth and Amy grow up during the American Civil War.

“We are thrilled to be staging an adaptation of such a much-loved classic,” says Juliet. “Louisa May Alcott’s story of Jo and her sisters finding their way in the world is so relatable to modern audiences and Anne-Marie Casey’s brilliant adaptation really brings to life the wonderful characters. We have such a great cast lined up and I can’t wait to get started later this year!”

Leading the cast as Jo March will be Freya Parks, who this year starred as bass-playing record shop worker Fiona in the BBC television series This Town and played Logan Somerville in an episode of the ITV detective drama Grace. 

Ainy Medina will play Meg, after appearing in ITV’s Archieand Helen Chong, from Cassie And The Lights, will be Amy.

Easingwold-raised Laura Soper, once a member of York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre before training at Bristol Old Vic, will return to the stage where she appeared in Hetty Feather and Swallows And Amazons, Damian Cruden’s last Theatre Royal production in 2019 after 22 years as artistic director. Fresh from touring with Pride And Prejudice* (*Sort Of), she will take the role of Beth.

Returning to the Theatre Royal too will be York actress Kate Hampson, playing Marmee after taking the title role in the August 2022 community production of Maureen Lennon’s The Coppergate Woman. Her other stage roles include Mother/Mrs Perks in The Railway Children at Hull Truck Theatre in 2021.

A third returnee will be Caroline Gruber, linking up again with Juliet Forster to play Aunt March after appearing as Vashti in her York Theatre Royal Studio production of E M Forster’s The Machine Stops in 2016. Nikhil Singh Rai’s Laurie completes the casting by Ellie Collyer-Bristow.

The Theatre Royal show is presented in association with Pitlochry Festival Theatre, by arrangement with Lee Dean, and is designed by Ruari Murchison.

The October 2 gala performance will raise vital funds for York Theatre Royal’s continued work as a producing theatre and for the development of future community projects.

Members’ priority booking for the rest of the performances will open on July 3; tickets will go on general sale on July 8 at 1pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Did you know?

ANNE-MARIE Casey’s stage adaptation of Little Women premiered at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, in November 2011.

As Robin Simpson’s Dame Trott gallops to the finishing line, coming up in 2024: Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Aladdin

Robin Simpson: The dame with the golden pun, confirmed for fifth successive York Theatre Royal pantomime

ACTOR and storyteller Robin Simpson’s diary for 2024 is filling up already.

Now playing Dame Trott in castellated Clifford’s Tower and afternoon tea dresses in Jack And The Beanstalk at York Theatre Royal until January 7, he will return for dame duty for a fifth York winter in succession in Aladdin from December 3 to January 5 2025, once more co-produced with Evolution Productions, written by Paul Hendy and directed by Juliet Forster.

“It’s always lovely to be the first to be announced for the cast, and to be coming back again,” he says. “It’s nice to be wanted!”

On top of that, via social media ahead of official confirmation from Scotland, the Yorkshireman has revealed his audition success to be part of Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s company for the 2024 Summer Season from May 31 to September 26.

In the meantime, Robin, who lives near Huddersfield, is revelling in his latest turn at the Theatre Royal. “I’ve been performing here for nearly 20 years now in all sorts of shows,” he says. “My first-ever show in 2005 was Mike Kenny’s The Little Mermaid, which we performed in the Studio.”

After his flexible Dame at the double in a choice of shows on The Travelling Pantomime tour of community venues under Covid restrictions in 2020, followed by his Ugly Sister Manky opposite Paul Hawkyard’s Mardy in Cinderella in 2021 and Mrs Smee in All New Adventures Of Peter Pan last winter, his Dame Trott is the classic dame per se.

Robin Simpson’s Dame Trott in York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime under Covid reglations in 2020

“Jack And The Beanstalk is one of the more traditional stories that a pantomime can be based on, being an old English folktale. This is the first year at York Theatre Royal – apart from the Travelling Pantomime in 2020 – that I’m playing a traditional dame character,” says Robin.

“She’s my first ‘proper’ dame here: working class, with a couple of kids. The Sisters in Cinderella are a different concept and Mrs Smee was a henchman for Captain Hook, as Peter Pan doesn’t have a traditional dame, and instead I shared the comic role with Jonny Weldon’s Starkey! Dame Trott is the mother to the title character and that’s a very traditional role for the dame to play.”

Reflecting on the gradual progression of the Theatre Royal partnership with Evolution, Robin says: “You never want to get stale with what you do, and it’s lovely to have new people in the cast. Apart from the one-off Travelling Panto, we’re only in our third year, so it’s still quite a new partnership, and though there’s a house style developing, it will be a while before we fully find our own style.

“The pantomimes have been great, the scripts are excellent and I never worry about the changes in the cast because they’re always cast really well. It’s a joy to work with them.”

This season is not the first time that Robin has Trotted out his Dame Trott in York. How does she differ in 2023-2024 from the simpler version in the 70-minute Travelling Pantomime? “She has a different costume on. Otherwise, she’s very similar as I’m a one-trick pony. She’s slightly older,” he says.

Robin Simpson in storytelling mode

How did Robin spend his 2023? “I did a season of plays in Eastbourne over the summer and I filmed a couple of episodes of Coronation Street,” he says. “I play the vet and I put Maureen Lipman’s dog, Cerberus, to sleep [Note  of clarification: Lipman plays Evelyn Plummer]. A few years ago, I put Ken Barlow’s dog, Eccles, to sleep as well. Every few years they ring me up to put a dog out of its misery and make the nation cry. 

“I’ve also had my busiest year with regard to my storytelling. I performed at Blenheim Palace and Sledmere House [near Driffield], and over the summer I had a busy time with the Summer Reading Challenge in libraries all over England. I also performed Magic, Monsters & Mayhem at Rise@Bluebird Bakery in Acomb in September, with magical stories of monsters, lots of comedy and audience interaction. The storytelling side of things is getting bigger all the time, which is nice.”

Robin has been cruising too. Work or pleasure? “Oh, work, but only just,” he says. “Classic is a show I did at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2022 and I thought that that was that, but it was booked by Cunard Cruises for their Mediterranean trip, leaving from Naples, visiting places like Barcelona. Written by Peter Kerry and Lyndsay Williams, it’s very funny and fast paced, racing through the 42 greatest works of literature in one hour. It’s a crazy show but a lot of fun.”

Crazy show? Fun? That would sum up Jack And The Beanstalk too, a show marked by Robin’s skills of comedic interaction and improvisation. “You need to leave your ego at the door, be willing to play and not take yourself too seriously,” he says of the art of playing pantomime.

“It’s a balance between childishness and professionalism. Improvising is a really tricky thing but if you listen to your fellow actor, accept their suggestions and be willing to go with the flow, you shouldn’t go wrong. It keeps things fresh.”

Jack And The Beanstalk runs wild at York Theatre Royal until January 7; Aladdin, December 3 to January 5 2025. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Aladdin tickets are available from £15; family tickets for the best seats are £81 for a family of three and £108 for a family of four.

Robin Simpson’s Ugly Sister Manky, in the sidecar, and Paul Hawkyard’s Ugly Sister Mardy, at the wheel, in York Theatre Royal’s Cinderella in 2021

One final question for Robin

Are you hot to Trott?

“You’d have to ask my wife.”

Did you know?

ROBIN Simpson has played three roles in the ITV soap opera Coronation Street.

1. Chartered surveyor Graeme Lewis, June 2004.

2. The Surgeon, operating on pregnant Kylie Platt’s ruptured spleen, February 2013.

3. The Vet, putting Ken Barlow’s dog, Eccles, to sleep in April 2020, followed by Evelyn Plummer’s canine, Cerberus, in March 2023.

Did you know too?

PAUL Hawkyard, Robin Simpson’s fellow Ugly Sister in Cinderella and Captain Hook to his Mrs Smee in All New Adventures Of Peter Pan last winter, has painted a picture for an 80th birthday present for Robin’s mother, featuring a portrait of her dogs.

In Focus: Matthew Curnier on playing Billy Trott and his past careers as a marine biologist and science teacher

Matthew Curnier’s Billy Trott, front, left, with Robin Simpson’s Dame Trott and Mia Overfield’s Jack Trott in Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: S R Taylor Photography

How did you land the role of dim-witted Billy Trott in Jack And The Beanstalk?

“I’d actually met Juliet [director Juliet Forster] already for an audition for the UK tour of Around The World In 80 Days that she was directing. It may have been in January, and what I then didn’t realise was that Juliet worked at York Theatre Royal.

“It was only later that I learnt that Juliet had asked for my self-tape for the pantomime audition, and not the co-producers, Evolution Productions. I feel very honoured to have been chosen.”

What other roles have you played in pantomime?

“I’ve been doing panto comic for ten years now and love it every time.  I’ve always played the panto comic, because I just love being able to play the fool, especially around Christmas when you get to just be a Silly Billy! 

“When I’m a little older and a little wiser, I hope that I’ll be able to move onto playing Dame. In the meantime, I’m watching and learning, and only time will tell.”

What are the characteristics of your panto role?

“Hopefully I’m able to bring a lot of silliness and dimwittedness, and there’s the lovely relationship between the comic and the dame too. There’s something wonderful about being the comic, where you can work with the dame, and each time the dynamic is different, depending on who you play opposite. With every dame, there’s not been a single year gone by where I’ve not learned something from them.

“What I tend to do in my performance is a lot of physical comedy, falling over, slapstick, being stupid! That really plays to the kids, and with all that energy, you can bring a lot of competitiveness to the song-sheet too.  

“The ‘cleverer’ stuff can grow out of the partnership with the dame. That’s the two-tiered levels of comedy in panto: the children’s stuff and then all those double-entendres that go over the kids’ heads, and the one-liners, but I always lean to the over-exuberant, hapless dimwit.”

Where and when did you see your first pantomime and what was your reaction?

“I remember going to the theatre from time to time as a child. I think we went to see Gilbert & Sullivan shows (because I had an aunt who loved them and often performed in them) and the local village panto.  It just always looked like the actors were having a lot of fun.  And so I knew pretty early on that I wanted in.”

You were born in Paris, moved to this country at a young age and grew up bilingually. Do you do much work in France/French?

“I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to work in both countries. While most of my work is here in the UK, the last project I did in France was the recording of a beautiful audiobook; an epic novel written in Alexandrine verse – a little bit like Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter but instead of ten beats in a phrase, there are 12, which suits Latin-rooted languages a little better. It was so wonderful.

“It’s helpful being able to speak French and sound French. It also seems to get me seen for some nice projects here in the UK. For example, I often do voice work in French and play French characters. This year I had a role as a French sommelier in Industry series three for the BBC. Mais oui, mais oui!”

Before becoming an actor, you studied marine zoology and marine mammalogy. which took you all over the world. Why make the switch to acting?

“It’s true, my very first career was in marine zoology and mammology. I became a marine biologist and was able to conduct research, primarily in whales and dolphins in fabulous places like Canada, Scotland, Kenya.  The results of the research were often for conservation purposes. I absolutely loved doing this work and saw some breathtaking nature. 

“After a few years, my other burning passion – which was theatre and acting – started calling very strongly. From the age of 12, I knew that I wanted to be an actor but it never seemed ‘possible’ or ‘realistic’.

“I think I found out a little later than other people that it is, actually, a job and so once I found out that I could go to drama school and get an agent, I thought I would chance my luck, going to drama school at the age of 30.

“I trained at the London Centre, and post-drama school, I did quite a lot at the Actors Class with the wonderful Mary Doherty, who I would consider as my acting mentor, teaching young actors the professional side of being an actor: how to market yourself, how to do auditions, etc. She’s been a real guide to me.”

What prompted you to become a qualified secondary science teacher?

“Well, a very wise person (hiya Mum!) once told me that I could do whatever job I pleased in life, but it did have to permit me to stand on my own two feet financially speaking. I was living in Kenya at the time, working on a marine biology conservation project, when I had an epiphany: I just knew that I had to come home and try to be an actor. 

“But as everyone knows, there are no guarantees in finding work as an actor.  So, repeating my mum’s words in my mind, I decided to become a secondary science specialist teacher (and use my marine biology background) so that in between acting work, I could earn enough money with supply teaching and/or private tuition. 

“I planned to do two years as a teacher; the first would be my teacher-training year, the second would be my probationary year before I became fully qualified. Teaching in secondary schools was utterly fantastic; every day was a rollercoaster and I eventually ended up leaving the classroom after five years.”

Do you have any unusual interests or activities, apart from marine zoology and teaching, away from acting?

“Yes, I love doing algebra. (This is obviously untrue: I’m actually rubbish at maths). This is a great question to ask…and I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time and haven’t yet found the time or courage to do this…and so stating it here will commit me…it will force me to do it…one day I’m going to get my paraglider’s licence. Because why not?.There, I’ve said it out loud now!”

Do you have any York or Yorkshire connections?

“Well, not really. Although, having said that, my English grandparents were Yorkshire folk.  My Grandad grew up in Huddersfield and my Gran was a Sheffield lass, so maybe there are a few drops of Yorkshire blood in me after all. It’s a pleasure to become acquainted with it this year.

“The panto press launch in September was my first time in York. I walked from York station to the theatre and though I was told it would take 11 minutes, looking at all the sights on the way, it took me half an hour, on such a beautiful day too.”

Did you know?

MATTHEW Curnier’s brother is a ballet dancer.