First Martin Barrass loses one panto, now he loses another as outdoor show is off

Martin Barrass, attired in the late Bev Jones’s favourite colours of black and pink, is pictured publicising the now-cancelled Strictly Christmas Live In The Park

STRICTLY Xmas Live In The Park, with a singalong songsheet led by York pantomime perennial Martin Barrass, is off.

Organiser Lesley Jones confirmed the cancellation of Sunday’s open-air Bev Jones Music Company show at the Rowntree Park amphitheatre on Facebook.

“It is with huge sadness I have had to cancel the Xmas Concert on Sunday 13th. External circumstances forced the decision,” she revealed.

Charlotte Wood in the role of Silly Billy for Bev Jones Music Company’s Strictly Christmas Live In The Park

“However, we will be singing at Tesco, Askham Bar, on Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th December from 1.30pm. Look out for our 2021 calendar. Thank you all as ever.”

In an earlier post, she wrote: “For many, many reasons we are beaten in this strangest of years! We must confess that we have taken the hardest decision to cancel our Strictly Live In The Park.

“You all know how I do always my best to give you the show I promise, but Covid, Tiers, illness, personal etc etc….force the decision.

The cast of Strictly Christmas Live In The Park, with Marin Barrass, front, centre, gathers for a socially distanced early rehearsal

“All ticket monies will be refunded in full. Roll on 2021. Keep in touch, join our Bev Jones Music Group page to find out what’s next.”

On November 29, Lesley had expressed excitement at the upcoming show’s progress. “Only two weeks to go! Tier 2 means we have the green light and we are good to go!” she posted

Strictly Xmas Live in The Park would have added up to a “3 in 1 Xmas experience” with Christmas songs through the decades, carols by candlelight and a one-of-a-kind, specially written pantomime,  Once Upon A Pud.

Martin Barrass, Dame Berwick’s stalwart comic stooge, was already missing out on the Covid-cancelled Kaler comeback in Dick Turpin Rides Again at the Grand Opera House. Now he has to forego leading the pantomime section of Strictly Xmas Live In The Park on Sunday afternoon too.

What? No show? Alas not for Melissa Boyd’s Princess and Terry Ford’s villain in the pantomime section of Bev Jones Music Company’s Strictly Xmas In The Park

In the Covid-secure, socially distanced performance, Martin would have reactivated his first ever song-sheet in a York Theatre Royal panto – all about Yorkshire Puddings – as well as telling a few seasonal jokes.

Joining him in the festive concert’s panto sequence would have been Melissa Boyd’s Princess, Terry Ford’s villain and Charlotte Wood’s Silly Billy, plus a Dame, Fairy Godmother, Prince Charming and Jack Ass.

Favourite Christmas songs, such as Santa Baby, Jingle Bell Rock and Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?, and a visit from Father Christmas were in Sunday’s programme too. All audience members were to be temperature tested on arrival and placed into family private bubble areas.

Rehearsals were booked in for Rufforth Institute Hall, socially distanced and under a full Covid risk assessment. 

More Things To Do in York and at home in what’s left of Lockdown 2020 and beyond. List No. 18, courtesy of The Press, York

We face the second wave…but somewhere on the horizon….

AFTER the tiers of a clown, now comes the even greater frustration of Lockdown 2 from today, knocking the growing revival of arts, culture and life in general back into hibernation.

Nevertheless, in one chink of light, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has decreed that theatre companies can continue rehearsing shows in Covid-secure workspaces, behind closed doors, with a view to lockdown being lifted in early December.

Whether that turns out to be a mere fairytale, only time will tell, so please forgive the unpredictability of what may or may not be happening.

Charles Hutchinson picks through the debris of Lockdown 2 to find signs of artistic life for now and the months ahead.

Films, films and yet more films: Aesthetica Short Film Festival has a feast of film to enjoy while being stuck at home in lockdown

It’s started and it won’t finish until November 30: Aesthetica Short Film Festival online

YORK’S tenth anniversary Aesthetica Short Film Festival opened on Tuesday, switching from a spread of historic and modern locations to a digital and live-streamed festival for home entertainment, enlightenment and education on phones, TV sets, tablets and computers.

Films in competition at ASFF 2020 will span animation, documentary, drama, dance, fashion and thriller. This year they will be released in six strands this week, with no fewer than ten programmes per day under the strand titles of Just Another Day On Earth; Humans And Their Environment; Connections: People, Places and Identity; Breaking Down Barriers; Reclaiming Space: Universal And Personal and Keep On The Sunny Side Of Life.

Masterclasses, guest speakers, panel discussions, guest film programmes and an industry market are further highlights of an online festival unimpeded by the new lockdown. Go to asff.co.uk for tickets and to download the full programme.

Kate Bramley’s latest podcast: “Some strange and wonderful goings on at the allotment”

Fighting off the new lockdown blues: Badapple Theatre’s Theatre On Your Desktop podcast

GREEN Hammerton’s Badapple Theatre Company has added a new Kate Bramley play to its Theatre On Your Desktop series as it extends its lockdown season of free podcasts. 

Click on https://badappletheatreonyourdesktop.podbean.com/ for The World Is Still Next Door, artistic director Bramley’s account of some strange and wonderful goings on at the allotment as Mo and her young son search for a place to fight off the lockdown blues.

Set during four sunny days in May in deep lockdown, Bramley’s play seeks to capture the power of soundscapes to inspire imagination. “I got really interested in the idea of creating a new short piece with many voices of varying ages and accents, as well as delving into sound montages that evoke settings from our local Yorkshire all the way to Watamu Beach in Kenya,” says Kate. “With a bit of Badapple signature magic-realism thrown in for good measure.”

All roads lead to…21 York wards for York magician and entertainer Josh Benson in York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime next month

Travelling Pantomime, not travailing pantomime, as the show must go on…hopefully: York Theatre Royal’s alternative neighbourhood watch

YORK Theatre Royal began rehearsals in the billiards room on Tuesday for associate director Juliet Forster’s Travelling Pantomime production.

It could still be pot luck whether the first collaboration between Evolution Pantomimes and the Theatre Royal will go ahead, everything hanging on Lockdown 2’s fate, but plans are taking rapid shape to cement the itinerary for a tour of 21 York wards from December 3, plus York Theatre Royal performances too.

Just Josh magician and entertainer Josh Benson, Robin Simpson’s Dame Dolly, Anna Soden’s Fairy/Singing Captain, Faye Campbell’s Jack/Dick and Reuben Johnson’s villainous Fleshcreep/Ratticus Flinch will rehearse three pantomimes, Jack And The Beanstalk, Dick Whittington and Snow White, all scripted by Evolution’s Paul Hendy, for each show’s audience to vote for which panto they want to see.  

Bean team: top row, from left, Jordan Fox, May Tether, Ian Stroughair and Livvy Evans; bottom row, Alex Weatherhill, Emily Taylor, Matthew Ives and Danielle Mullan

The other Jack And The Beanstalk in York this Christmas: York Stage at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, December 11 to 30

YORK Stage are going full team ahead with their inaugural pantomime, to be staged in the Covid-secure John Cooper Studio, where Perspex screens will be in place for the first time for the traverse staging.

Writer-director Nik Briggs has added West End choreographer Gary Lloyd to his production team, proclaiming: We’re taking our West End-worthy panto to the next level with the addition of Gary to our company.”

Jordan Fox, May Tether, Livvy Evans, Alex Weatherhill, Ian Stroughair, Danielle Mullan, Emily Taylor and Matthew Ives will be the cast bringing life to Briggs’s debut panto script.

Yorkshire Pudding Song: Martin Barrass will lead the Song Sheet singing at Bev Jones Music Company’s Strictly Xmas In The Park concert

Barrass is back: Bev Jones Music Company in Strictly Xmas In The Park, Rowntree Park, Amphitheatre, York, December 13, 2pm

MARTIN Barrass will be starring in a York pantomime after all this winter. Dame Berwick’s perennial comic stooge may be missing out on the Covid-cancelled Kaler comeback in Dick Turpin Rides Again at the Grand Opera House, but now he will lead the pantomime section of Strictly Xmas Live In The Park.

As part of Bev Jones Music Company’s Covid-secure, socially distanced, open-air performance, Barrass will tell a few jokes and orchestrate the song-sheet rendition of You Can’t Put A Better Bit Of Batter On Your Platter Than A Good Old Yorkshire Pud.

Barrass will wear black and pink to honour the late Bev’s favourite colour combination.

Helen Charlston: Performing at the York Early Music Christmas Festival

Early notice: York Early Music Christmas Festival, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 4 to 13

AS the NCEM website states: “We are planning for these concerts to go ahead and are still selling tickets. If the situation changes, we will of course be in touch.”

Fingers crossed, then, for a socially distanced festival in St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, featuring Palisander, The Marian Consort, Illyria Consort, Joglaresa, The York Waits and Bethany Seymour, Helen Charlston, Frederick Long and Peter Seymour.

Among the highlights, on December 9, festival favourites The York Waits will present The Waits’ Wassail: Music for Advent and Christmas: Carols, songs and dance from across medieval and renaissance England and Europe, played on shawms and sackbuts by York’s Renaissance town band.

Duran Duran: Making their Scarborough Open Air Theatre debut next summer

A hat-trick of new shows on the East Coast: Duran Duran, Lewis Capaldi and Snow Patrol at Scarborough Open Air Theatre

IN quick succession, Duran Duran, Lewis Capaldi and Snow Patrol have been confirmed for Cuffe and Taylor’s ever-expanding programme at Britain’s biggest purpose-built outdoor concert arena.

Booked in for July 7, Birmingham glam pop band Duran Duran will introduce their first new material since 2015, alongside such favourites as Save A Prayer, Rio, Girls On Film and The Reflex.

Lewis Capaldi: “Buzzing” to be back at Scarborough Open Air Theatre in 2021

Glaswegian singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi sold out two nights at Scarborough OAT in 2019 and says he is “buzzing” to be returning on July 25 next summer. “It’s a great venue, the crowds there are always unreal and so here’s to another unforgettable night,” he says.

Snow Patrol’s sold-out 2020 Scarborough show had to be scrapped under Covid restrictions but Gary Lightbody’s band are now booked in for July 3 2021. Tickets for all three shows go on sale tomorrow morning at 9am via scarboroughopenairtheatre.com.

Kate Rusby at Christmas…now online

And what about?

THE Kate Rusby At Christmas tour will not be happening, ruling out her South Yorkshire pub carol concert at York Barbican on December 20.

However, in response to the Covid restrictions, the Barnsley folk nightingale has decided to go online instead, presenting Kate Rusby’s Happy Holly Days on December 12 at 7.30pm (GMT). Expect all the usual Rusby Christmas ingredients: sparkly dress, twinkling lights, her regular folk band, her “brass boys”, Ruby the reindeer and a fancy-dress finale.

Tickets go on sale on Friday (6/11/2020) via https://katerusby.com/happy-holly-day/

Martin Barrass WILL star in a York panto this Christmas, but what’s the show? UPDATED

Martin Barrass: Back in pantoland for Strictly Xmas Live In The Park

MARTIN Barrass will be starring in a York pantomime after all this winter.

Dame Berwick’s perennial comic stooge may be missing out on the Covid-cancelled Kaler comeback in Dick Turpin Rides Again at the Grand Opera House, but now he will lead the pantomime section of Strictly Xmas Live In The Park.

Presented by the Bev Jones Music Company in a Covid-secure, socially distanced, open-air performance at the Rowntree Park Amphitheatre, the show will be a one-off on Sunday, December 13 at 2pm.

Martin Barrass as Queen Ariadne in his last York Theatre Royal pantomime, Sleeping Beauty, last winter

“I met Lesley Jones, widow of the formidable York producer and director Bev Jones, five or six weeks ago about doing a Christmas show to get people out and about on a crisp winter’s day,” says Martin.

“I’m thrilled to be taking part, and if you’re wondering why I’m wearing black and pink in the publicity picture, they were Bev’s favourite colours.”

Producer Lesley says: “We are delighted to welcome Martin into our company for this special guest appearance and he fits in so well to the company personality. He will lead the audience in the Christmas song with a drop-down song sheet.”

Martin Barrass, right, with AJ Powell, Berwick Kaler, Suzy Cooper and David Leonard at the February 14 launch of their debut Grand Opera House pantomime, now put back to 2021. PIcture: David Harrison

“I’ve chosen the first song-sheet I ever did at the Theatre Royal…about Yorkshire Puddings!” reveals Martin, as he breaks into song from memory: “‘You can’t beat a better bit of batter on your platter than a good old Yorkshire Pud!’

“I did that with Berwick in Sinbad The Sailor in 1984, and I always remember thinking, ‘Are they going to respond?’, but of course they did!” Nobody does it batter, Martin!

Expect a few seasonal jokes too from Barrass, who will be joined in the festive concert’s panto sequence by Melissa Boyd’s Princess, Terry Ford’s villain and Charlotte Wood’s Silly Billy.

“In addition, we’ll have the Dame, the Fairy Godmother, Prince Charming, Jack Ass and other characters,” says Lesley.

Charlotte Wood as Silly Billy for Strictly Xmas In The Park

“The concert will include all the favourite Christmas songs, such as Santa Baby, Jingle Bell Rock and Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?, as well as the fun panto section for all the family.

“There’ll be a visit from Santa Claus for all the children, followed by a moving Carols By Candlelight finale, encouraging a sing-along for everyone.”

Rowntree Park Amphitheatre will play host to a non-alcoholic Festive Mulled Wine Van, selling hot drinks for all the family, whether tea, coffee, hot apple juice or children’s drinks, served with light complimentary snacks. 

Melissa Boyd’s Princess and Terry Ford’s villain for the Bev Jones Music Company’s Strictly Xmas In The Park

Rehearsals will be held at Rufforth Institute Hall , socially distanced and under a full Covid risk assessment. 

All audience members will be temperature tested on arrival and placed into family private bubble areas.

Tickets cost £5 for children and £10 for adults in bubbles for two to six people, on sale  on 01904 501935 or online at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/concert/strictly-xmas-live-in-the-park/1342/#schedules

Bev Jones Music Company to stage Strictly Christmas Live show at Rowntree Park

The Bev Jones Music Company in a socially distanced rehearsal for last Sunday’s Strictly Live In The Park at Rowntree Park, York

THE Bev Jones Music Company will return to the Rowntree Park Amphitheatre, in York, for shows at Christmas and next Easter.

“Further to the overwhelming success of our musical theatre show there last Sunday afternoon, we’ve booked a Christmas date and Easter date for the park,” says producer Lesley Jones.

September 13’s Strictly Live In The Park concert featured more than 20 socially distanced singers and a five-piece band in a “spectacular show for all the family, with popular show music, pop music, dance and comedy”. 

“Sunday was hot and sunny, whereas December will be scarves and hats, fairy lights and hot mulled wine (non-alcoholic),” says Lesley.

Strictly Christmas Live In The Park will take place on Sunday, December 13 at 2pm. “Our Christmas programme will be a mix of modern popular festive music in a spectacular song and dance show, then will culminate in an audience-led Carols By Candlelight at 5pm. Two shows in one,” says Lesley.

“Our production will be staged and directed by Nathan Lodge and Jordan Langford, two former York stage performers with Bev’s company, who turned professional and have been performing and choreographing all over the world. 

“We’re delighted we’ll be welcoming back other familiar names from our company past, plus our current company, resulting in our most talented cast ever.” 

Looking ahead to next spring too, Lesley says: “Easter’s show will have a different musical focus, culminating in our own Jesus Christ Superstar tribute in the park in traditional style.” 

Tickets for Strictly Christmas Live In The Park will go on sale for social bubbles on October 1 at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk or on 01904 501935. 

Only One Question for…York Stage Musicals’producer and director Nik Briggs

Chairing the event: Richard Upton in a moment of high drama in York Stage Musicals At Rowntree Park in August. Picture: Jess Main

SHOULD theatre companies be more adventurous, like you, and crack on with finding ways of getting out there and performing, despite Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s caution over when theatres can reopen fully, Nik?

“AS long as people are being sensible, following the guidelines and keeping safe, then, yes, of course people should be pushing forward! It’s not easy, there is a hell of a lot of risk, but it’s certainly worth it.

“People can go sit in restaurants and bars, so I really dont see why, with social distancing and if it’s financially viable, we shouldn’t be producing?

“If any city can produce work in these weird times, it’s York, where we have a strong history of successfully mixing professional and community casts. Damien Cruden really led the way with this in the city, when he was artistic director at York Theatre Royal, and in fact was the inspiration for the way I have ran York Stage over the past seven years.

“There really is enough professional talent locally to make it work in some way, as shown by our Rowntree Park concerts, York Theatre Royal’s Pop-Up On The Patio series and Engine House Theatre’s Park Bench Theatre shows!

“My biggest fear for the future, though, is that we are going to be sat with our larger venues sitting empty and artists all around the city desperate to work.” 

York Stage Musicals present Jukebox Divas at Rowntree Park Amphitheatre, York, September 18 to 20, 7pm. Box office: www.yorkstagemusicals.com

Bev Jones Music Company to perform Strictly Live In The Park at Rowntree Park

The Bev Jones Music Company cast in rehearsal at York Maze for Strictly Live In The Park

THE Bev Jones Music Company will stage a full-sized musical theatre concert with more than 20 socially distanced singers and a five-piece band at the Rowntree Park Amphitheatre, York, on September 13.

Strictly Live In The Park promises a “spectacular show for all the family, with popular show music, pop music, dance and comedy” from 3pm to 5m.

“York deserves this fun Sunday afternoon,” says producer Lesley Jones, Bev’s widow. “We just want to give the public, mainly families, the chance to enjoy entertainment once more.

Bev Jones Music Company cast members maintaining social-distancing at the Rowntree Park Amphitheatre

“The cast are so happy to be performing once again, especially when our big spring production, Calamity Jane, was cancelled by the lockdown in March, just four days before the curtain would have gone up.”

The first York community theatre company to stage a musical theatre concert on this scale since the easing of lockdown, the Bev Jones Music Company will perform “typical Bev Jones spectacular music”.

“All the music was arranged by Bev, the company mentor, so we’ll have a huge variety with numbers from Adele to Robbie Williams, Cabaret to Hairspray, Mack & Mabel to South Pacific, The Full Monty to Chess, Miss Saigon to the finale, Les Miserables,” says Lesley.

The Strictly Live In The Park poster for the September 13 concert

“Every number has been changed to suit the current guidelines regarding singing and live music. The huge dance numbers are limited but we’re adapting what we can.” 

The company rehearsed at York Maze for the first time last week. “We only get three rehearsals to put this show together, because we cannot rehearse indoors yet, and thankfully the Maze allowed us those three rehearsals,” says a grateful Lesley.  

“We have directed the show ourselves; John Atkin is the musical director with his five-piece band; Claire Pulpher is the choreographer and all our usual cast members are performing.”

Taking shape: First day of rehearsals for Strictly Live In The Park at York Maze

Among the company for this Not For Profit production will be Chris Hagyard, Sally Lewis, Larry Gibson, Terry Ford, Kelly Bolland and two returning members, who had moved on to become full-time professional performers, Nathan Lodge and Jordan Langford.

“Our concert has been risk assessed thoroughly and all audience members will have hand sanitisers and temperature checks, plus all seating will be in socially distanced, marked-out bubbles. All the cast will be checked too,” says Lesley. 

“Picnic blankets, rugs and chairs are welcome, as are picnics as there’ll be no public refreshments on sale, in line with Government guidelines. We’ll have a large number of stewards to offer assistance and all safeguards will be in place to ensure that people feel happy and safe in every way.” 

Strictly Live In The Park is strictly an all-ticket event, with tickets on sale on 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk. Seats will be sold in bubbles for two (£15) or up to six people (£30).

York Stage Musicals return to Rowntree Park igloo for Jukebox Divas concerts UPDATED

From Caribbean cruise-ship crooning in spring to York igloo in late-summertime: Conor Mellor performing at the August 23 performance of York Stage Musicals at Rowntree Park. Picture: Jess Main

YORK Stage are heading back to the Rowntree Park Amphitheatre from September 18 to 20, building on the sold-out success of last month’s debut open-air concerts by staging Jukebox Divas.

York Stage Musicals at Rowntree Park marked the company’s first ever outdoor venture, when six professional performers with YSM history, Joanne Theaker, Ashley Standland, May Tether, Richard Upton, Emily Ramsden and Conor Mellor, performed with Jessica Douglas’s band from August 23 to 25.

Conor, back in York from singing on the international cruise-ship circuit, returns for YSM show number two, joined by Dan Conway, Sophie Hammond, Grace Lancaster and Eleanor Leaper.

York Stage Musicals performers aglow with the joy of performing to an audience at last, after the lockdown hiatus, at the Rowntree Park Amphitheatre. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

Producer and director Nik Briggs says: “We really were blown away by the reaction to our York Stage Musicals at Rowntree Park concerts last month. To bring live musical theatre back to the city really was an honour and to sell out so quickly and feel the buzz that surrounded the concerts was just crazy!

“I knew, stood there watching the show, that we had to keep going, we had to do more…especially as we’d joked originally that we’d been compelled to do a thing, something, anything. This time we feel the need to do another thing.”

Jukebox Divas will celebrate the art of the Jukebox musical. “With music from shows such as We Will Rock You, Mamma Mia! and more modern releases like & Juliet and Moulin Rouge, audiences will be entertained with vocal tributes to artists such as Elvis Presley, Queen, Meat Loaf, Katy Perry, Carole King and many more,” says Nik.

York Stage director and producer Nik Briggs and musical director Jessica Douglas

York Stage musical director Jessica Douglas again will lead a live band on stage from her keyboards, backing the latest line-up of professional performers. “One of my hardest things to do last time was to decide who to choose to perform from all the professional talent that has worked with York Stage over the past few years; there are so many brilliant performers who I wanted to bring back!” says Nik.

“I had hoped to do two shows originally but only having three nights at first, this wasn’t possible, so when we were able to secure a second slot I knew straight away who to ask.”

Step forward Dan Conway (York Stage: Ghost; UK tour: Kinky Boots, where he understudied and played the male lead); Sophie Hammond (York Stage: Footloose;  now back from training in musical theatre in New York), Grace Lancaster (York Stage: Footloose and Whistle Down The Wind; UK tour: Footloose; Watermill: Assassins; Eastbourne: Return To The Forbidden Planet); Eleanor Leaper (York Stage: Joseph; BBC’s Pitch Battle finalist) and Conor Mellor (York Stage: Rock Of Ages; international cruise vocalist).

“I knew, stood there watching the show, that we had to keep going, we had to do more,” says producer Nik Briggs, explaining why York Stage Musicals will perform in Rowntree Park again this month. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

Delighted with how well the first show went after three fast-moving weeks of preparation and rehearsal, followed by stage assembly in only two hours on a Sunday afternoon, Nik says: “Audiences can again expect to be wowed by brilliant sound and lighting from Adam Moore and his Tech247 team. The giant igloo stage covering will be back to glow like a Technicolor beacon in the heart of the park once more.

“We’re again working to ensure the safety of our performers, staff and of course audience in the planning of this event. We’re remaining up to date and working to ensure everything we do is guided and informed by City of York Council and the current Government guidance as the event approaches.

“We’ve had so many compliments about the brilliant front-of-house team and a lot of audience members messaged to say how safe they felt watching the show. This was one of the biggest compliments of all. We know for lots of people it was their first outing in months, so for them to feel safe and comfortable was great.”

Hitting the heights: Richard Upton leaps onto a chair in a high spot of the York Stage Musicals at Rowntree Park concert last month. Picture: Jess Main

As with last month’s shows, to ensure they can seat everyone and maintain suitable social distancing of two metres between groups, York Stage have taken the decision to sell spaces for a “Bubble Blanket” for families or support bubbles to sit in, rather than sell individual tickets.

“These spaces are positioned to make sure there’s a two-metre gap minimum between the spaces in every direction while keeping the audience three metres away from the performers,” says Nik. “We’ve created two sizes of ‘Bubble Blanket’ spaces: one holds up to three people and a larger one holds four to six people. Please note, no physical blanket is provided, but you can bring your own or a camping chair.”

Performances will start at 7pm and run for 90 minutes without an interval.  Tickets: available only online at www.yorkstagemusicals.com;  Bubble Blanket Space for 1-3 people, £40; for 4-6 people, £65.

Emily Ramsden performing at last month’s York Stage Musicals at Rowntree Park. Picture: Jess Main

Five questions for producer and director Nik Briggs

What did you learn from mounting your first outdoor venture last month?

“Working outside was a daunting prospect, having not done it before. Doing it , while also ensuring we were working within the ever-changing Covid guidelines, was a whole other ball to juggle.

“One thing we were certain about was we knew we wanted to give audiences the same high-quality production and performance standards that they have come to expect from a York Stage show.

“But with that comes a lot of wires, lights, instruments and of course electricity…in an outdoor area, where we can’t stop weather!

“When we arrived at our outdoor rehearsal venue in Leeds to tech the show, the weather was nothing short of torrential. Driving across the A64, my heart was sinking but, with the brilliant team of theatre professionals we work with, we came away from that day knowing that our planning and preparation had left us ready to succeed: ,we could do this in (nearly) all weathers!

Ashley Standland in the solo spotlight at last month’s open-air concert. Picture: Jess Main

“We were lucky to have great weather up to the final show when it was raining all day through to ten minutes into the show, but the audience were brilliant! They all showed up with waterproofs and wellies and really got into what we renamed our festival version of the concert! So the biggest lesson was to not be scared of rain!”

Are you doing anything differently this time?

“It’s a whole new set of songs, nearly a full set of new singers – Conor [Mellor] managed to wangle his way back in again – and a new band. We really wanted to reach out and help as many people as possible with the concerts when those who work in our industry have had such a tough time. There may be a few extra surprises this time around but we’re still working on those at the moment!”

How are you conducting rehearsals? On Zoom? In a room, socially distanced?

“Like last time, rehearsals are happening in a range of ways. There is lots of independent learning of harmonies etc, where we have sent out recordings to the performers, so we only have to come together to piece all the parts together and keep contact to a minimum.

“When we are together social distancing, temperature checks and hand sanitiser are all aplenty! We keep at least two metres apart and never sing face to face to also mitigate any risk.”

Joanne Theaker centre stage at York Stage Musicals’ first outdoor performance. Picture: Jess Main

Should other theatre companies be more adventurous, like you, and crack on with finding ways of getting out there and performing, despite Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s caution over when theatres can re-open fully?

“As long as people are being sensible, following the guidelines and keeping safe, then, yes, of course people should be pushing forward! It’s not easy, there is a hell of a lot of risk, but it’s certainly worth it.

“People can go sit in restaurants and bars so I really don’t see why, with social distancing and if it’s financially viable, we shouldn’t be producing?

“If any city can produce work in these weird times, it is York, where we have a strong history of successfully mixing professional and community casts. Damien Cruden really led the way with this in the city – when he was artistic director of York Theatre Royal – and in fact was the inspiration for the way I have ran York Stage over the past seven years.

Emily Ramsden, left, Joanne Theaker and May Tether keep their distance in the Rowntree Park igloo

“There really is enough professional talent locally to make it work in some way, as shown by our Rowntree Park concerts, York Theatre Royal’s Pop-Up Patio On The Patio series and Engine House Theatre’s Park Bench Theatre shows.

“My biggest fear for the future, though, is that we are going to be sat with our larger venues sitting empty and artists all around the city desperate to work.”

The definition of ‘Diva’ is: noun: ‘a famous female singer of popular music’…or ‘a self-important person who is temperamental and difficult to please (typically used of a woman)...but your Jukebox Divas show brazenly has a cast of three women and three men. Outrageous! Explain!

“Charles, it’s 2020, you can be whatever you want to be…and looking back, the men I’ve worked with are often way bigger divas! And no, I’m not naming any names!”

York Stage head outdoors for first time for three musical nights in Rowntree Park UPDATED

On fire: Emily Ramsden, when playing the Dragon in York Stage Musicals’ Shrek The Musical. PIcture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

YORK Stage are bringing musical theatre back to life this summer with their first ever outdoor show, taking over the Rowntree Park Amphitheatre for three nights from August 23 to 25.

“Combining a live band with a team of sensational professional singers, this socially distanced outdoor event will provide you with the musical theatre fix you’ve been craving,” promises producer and director Nik Briggs.

“Presenting a programme filled with all of your favourite movie-musical songs, be prepared to be amazed as our vocalists perform songs from Grease, Hairspray, Cats, Cabaret, The Greatest Showman, West Side Story and many more.”

Explaining the choice of programme, Nik says: “We decided to stay away from anything ‘niche’, although we’re renowned for bringing new pieces, as well as ‘blockbusters’, to the York stage.

“We wanted to keep it light, with singers of great quality singing songs of great quality, and a band of great quality, performing songs we all know so well, presented as a concert rather than as a staged performance, so it’s very much about the music. With lovely lighting, it’s going to look beautiful too, with Adam Moore, Lisa Cameron and Daniel Stephenson handling the technical side of the show.”

Joanne Theaker as Maria in York Stage Musicals’ production of The Sound Of Music. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

Looking forward to restoring the sound of live music to Rowntree Park, Nik says: “We’re  so excited to be creating the city’s first musical theatre event post-lockdown. We have built up a reputation of leading the way with our programming and bringing the latest show titles to the city in spectacular fashion, and so when the go ahead for outdoor performances was given, we knew we had to make theatre somehow and somewhere!”

The Rowntree Park Amphitheatre, with its bandstand and grass bank, is a long-standing presence in York’s outdoor performance portfolio, but really should be utilised more often.

Nik holds up his hands. “I’ve never lived in that part of York, so I’ve not used Rowntree Park a lot, and because the amphitheatre is tucked away in the far corner, it’s almost a hidden gem,” he says.

“During lockdown, I thought, ‘‘I’m sick of all the bad news, I need to create some good news, and find a good way of working outdoors this summer’, and it was my partner who suggested this beautiful space.

“When we came upon it, my reaction was, ‘why are we not using this space already?’.  It’s perfect, surrounded by trees. It’s crazy that it’s not used more often when other performance spaces are over-subscribed.

Richard Upton as Stacee Jaxx in York Stage Musicals’ Rock Of Ages. Picture: Robin May

“So, we set about creating a concert of songs that will be the tonic we all need right now: family favourites from across the generations”. 

Under the guidance of York Stage’s regular musical director, Jessica Douglas, York Stage are assembling “some very special performers” who have all trained and worked professionally in musical theatre and have a wealth of British and international credits to their names.

All five have performed in York Stage Musicals shows too. Step forward Emily Ramsden, Ashley Standland, May Tether, Joanne Theaker and Richard Upton.

“We saw this show as an opportunity to support actors left out of work by the Coronavirus shutdown of theatres, who would previously have been making their money from performing,” says Nik.

Musical director and pianist Jessica Douglas will be complemented by keyboards, guitar, bass and drums in the band of five. She is leading rehearsals too. “We’re doing a mix of outdoor rehearsals, along with some things pre-recorded they’ve all been sent online to rehearse,” says Nik.

Ashley Standland as Phantom in The Phantom Of The Opera. Picture: Richard J Tampion

“When they get together, it will be for the least time possible, with two of three rehearsals per person, with the joint rehearsals being socially distant, singing at least three metres apart.”

Be assured, the safety of performers, staff and audience is “paramount” in York Stage’s planning of this three-day event.

“We’re remaining up to date and working to ensure everything we do is guided and informed by City of York Council and the current Government guidance as the event approaches,” says Nik. 

“We want to ensure we can provide audiences with a brilliant night of musical theatre, while keeping them safe and comfortable.

“Under Government guidelines for public performances, for this venture, we’re only able to work with performers who have trained and work professionally, so although the total number of performers may be reduced from our usual blockbuster shows, we can still guarantee a host of powerhouse vocals.” 

May Tether as Tracey in York Stage Musicals’ Hairspray. Picture: Tim Clarke

In order to make sure they can seat everyone and maintain suitable social distancing of two metres between groups, York Stage have taken the decision to sell spaces for a “Bubble Blanket” for families or support bubbles to sit in, rather than sell individual tickets.

“These spaces have been positioned to ensure there’s a minimum gap of two metres between the spaces in every direction, while keeping the audience three metres away from the performers,” says Nik.

York Stage are creating two sizes of “Bubble Blanket” spaces: one will hold up to three people; a larger one will accommodate four to six people. Please note, no actual blankets will be provided, so bring your own or a camping chair. “You can bring a picnic too, as long as you take away your rubbish,” requests Nik.

A one-way system will be in operation and the show will be 90 minutes straight through. “With no interval, we avoid any possibility of congestion,” reasons Nik.

The ticket price is £40 for the smaller Bubble Blanket; £65 for the bigger one, available online only at yorkstagemusicals.com and they MUST be bought in advance of the 7.30pm shows.

York Stage director Nik Briggs and musical director Jessica Douglas

York Stage have been anything but dormant through lockdown and beyond. “We’ve been doing Songs From The Settee online,” says Nik. “We thought there’d be four or five, but there were 11 in the end – we made a rod for our own back, but it was lovely to work with professional singers and musicians, and now we’re thanking them, and the technicians too, by doing the live shows.”

Meanwhile, York Stage School has continued to run through lockdown and beyond with online sessions. “We’re doing a summer school too, with sessions last week and this week,” says Nik.

“We’ve even had one student calling in from Estonia! Normally she stays with her grandma in York in the summer, but not this year, so she’s joining in from Estonia. We have just short of 30 students taking part, and we’re creating a ‘Zoomsical’, an online performance under licence, to show to family and friends in a premiere on YouTube on Saturday.

“The show’s called The Big One-Oh!, composed by Doug Besterman with lyrics by Dean Pitchford, and it’s an American high school piece that the licencees have managed to adapt to do on Zoom.”

Looking ahead, Nik says: “Hopefully, we can return to York Stage School lessons as normal in September, pending Government guidance.”