REVIEW: Rowntree Players, Cinderella, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, ‘romping rollickingly’ until Saturday ****

Jamie McKeller’s Cassandra, Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Fairy Carabosse and Michael Cornell’s Miranda performing I Know Him So Well in Rowntree Players’ Cinderella. Picturee: Angela Shaw, York Camera Club

UNLIKE Cinders, you will not go to the ball…unless you have acquired a ticket already. Cinderella has sold out, reward for the ever-rising pantomime pizzazz of Howard Ella’s community capers.

Cinderella may be the most popular of all pantos, but it is the most difficult to write, he contends, on account of the need to fit in so much. “The story is so loved, so full of plot points and favourite moments, it’s very hard to put your own spin on things,” Ella says in the programme notes.

Then add “the breaking of panto norms”: the dame making way for two Ugly Sisters, baddies rather than goodies to boot. Regular dame Graham Smith decided to take a year’s sabbatical, and in his stead comes the new double act of Jamie McKeller, last winter’s Sheriff of Nottingham, re-booted as Cassandra, and Michael Cornell as Miranda, both shaving off their beards but still with a hint of stubble to go with their trouble-making in matching costumes.

Gemma McDonald: Even busier as co-writer as well as show-steering Buttons in Cinderella. Picture: Angela Shaw, York Camera Club

They know each other from bygone days, and they work in step as pleasingly as Layton and Nikita’s Strictly Charleston last Saturday.

Typically spot-on casting by Ella, who has a new writing partner by his side too in Gemma McDonald, the Players’ long-serving daft lass with the auburn bubble-perm clown’s hair and rouge cheeks.

Still on delightfully dimwit duty as Buttons, she carries the heaviest comedy load as usual, leading the slapstick shenanigans in tandem with the Ugly Sisters in the hotel spa, breaking down the fourth wall to bond with the audience, ragging them when they are too slow to respond.

Ella suggests that Buttons is “really the story lead”, and McDonald’s ever-energetic, ever-cheeky performance backs that up.

Sara Howlett’s Cinderella and Laura Castle’s wave-wanding Fairy Flo in Cinderella

The writers were keen to avoid the danger of Cinderella’s traditional story feeling dated while wanting to be respectful to tradition too: hence Prince Charming and Dandini still being played by women, on the one hand, but Barry Johnson’s Baron Hardup owning the rundown Hotel Windy End (cue bottom burp gags from Buttons and corrections on the pronunciation), on the updated other.

This is very much a Yorkshire Cinderella, playing to its York setting at every opportunity. Radio presenter Laura Castle, so impressive in John Godber’s Teechers at the JoRo in March, makes for a feisty, no-nonsense Fairy Flo, while Teechers’ co-star Sophie Bullivant brings personality to the often dry role of Dandini, especially enjoying her switch with Hannah King’s thigh-slapping Prince Charming.

King’s singing is as strong as ever, not least in partnership with Sara Howlett’s resolute Cinderella in the ensemble number Omigod (a splendid lift from Legally Blonde The Musical). Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Fairy Carabosse takes the singing honours, first in It’s All About Me, then in Three Evil Dames with McKeller and Cornell.

Fill that stage! Rowntree Players in an ensemble routine from Cinderella. Note the pun-named plumber on the backdrop. Picture: Angela Shaw, York Camera Club

Johnson’s Baron, Geoff Walker’s lackey Flunkit and Jeanette Hunter’s Queen of Hearts, the Prince’s mother, bring bags of experience and panto panache to these support roles; Bernie Calpin completes a trinity of fairies, and Ami Carter’s exuberant choreography finds the principal dancers, senior chorus and young teams in boisterous form.

Highlights? Cinderella’s transformation scene with Fairy Flo, unicorn-powered carriage et al, is a picture indeed, and what better way to open Act Two than with McDonald leading the show’s best ensemble routine, Flash Bang Wallop What A Picture, followed by Cinderella, Prince Charming and the ensemble revelling in Shut Up And Dance. The hits keep coming with Fairy Carabosse, Cassandra and Miranda sending up I Know Him So Well.

Ella gained Tommy Cannon’s permission to reprise a Cannon & Ball slapstick classic, as Cinderella, Cassandra and Miranda push, pull and drag each other off a wall while striving to sing a romantic ballad. Howlett, McKeller and Cornell look exhausted from all their exertions, the audience cheers rising with each tussle.

Spot the difference: Jamie McKeller’s Cassandra and Michael Cornell’s Miranda in matching costumes as things turn Ugly for the shopaholic sisters in Rowntree Players’ Cinderella. Picture: Angela Shaw, York Camera Club

The costume team of coordinator Leni Ella, Andrea Dillon, Jackie Holmes and Claire Newbald adds fun and flair to the finery, while set designers Howard Ella, Anna Jones, Paul Mantle and Lee Smith turn their hands to all manner of scenes with aplomb.

Musical director James Robert Ball’s band fires up pop hits and musical favourites alike with dynamic delivery, aided by fellow keyboard player Jessica Viner providing the musical orchestrations with her customary zest.

Difficult to write? Maybe, but Ella and McDonald’s setpiece-driven Cinderella is a joyous, riotous start to the York pantomime season. 

Performances: 7.30pm plus 2pm Saturday matinee, all sold out. Box office for returns only: 01904 501935.

Travelling by unicorn: Sara Howlett’s Cinderella, aboard her carriage, heads for Prince Charming’s ball

Rowntree Players freshen up cast and writing team for hot-ticket panto Cinderella

Laura Castle’s Fairy Flo, left, Gemma McDonald’s Buttons, Hannah King’s Prince Charming, Sara Howlett’s Cinderella, Jamie McKeller’s Cassandra, Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Wicked Queen and Michael Cornell’s Miranda in Rowntree Players’ Cinderella

ROWNTREE Players are heading for a sold-out pantomime run of Cinderella with only ‘limited availability’ or ‘last few tickets’ notices for each performance.

Co-written by regular writer-director Howard Ella and delightfully daft comedy dipstick Gemma McDonald in a new creative partnership, this rollicking panto romp will run from Saturday to December 16 at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, Haxby Road, York.

“When we launched our panto tickets in August, we had record-breaking sales on the first day,” says Gemma, who will be playing Buttons. “We sold the equivalent of a whole show within the first two days and they’ve just kept on selling.”

“I’ve been learning from the best,” she says of her experience of teaming up with Howard on script duties. “It’s hard work to get a script right, and you don’t realise the processes you have to go through to achieve that until you face them.”

Howard says: “For me, that awareness comes from doing repertory panto all those years ago in Harrogate when it was a traditional family show,” he says. “Writing a panto now, I want to keep the innocence for children but with those cheeky double entendres for parents and adults in the audience.

“How do you do that in 2023, keeping it relevant and challenging without it being too challenging, because you do have to get the balance right between being challenging and getting bums on seats? That’s not an easy line to tread, but we’ve managed to do it.

Picture this: Rowntree Players’ pantomime cast members face the camera in the rehearsal room

“Not forgetting that by making our panto profitable, we support Rowntree Players’ ability to put on plays each year that are challenging, rather than just doing the same old plays, and we’re proud to follow that fading principle in theatre.

“We’ve pretty much doubled our audiences over the past 12 years, and hopefully that’s down to the quality and wide appeal of our pantos, but you can never rest on your laurels, and we all know that the York panto landscape has changed over the past few years [with veteran dame Berwick Kaler’s transfer to the Grand Opera House and Evolution Productions teaming up with York Theatre Royal].”

Howard notes how York theatregoers are very supportive of community and amateur productions. “People go to all see all sorts of groups putting on all sorts of shows, which feels like a really healthy eco-system,” he says.

“For Rowntree Players, we’re lucky to have a theatre like the Rowntree Theatre with a decent capacity and good stage facilities, so we have a professional structure for staging shows, building a relationship with the theatre where we can push ourselves to the limit with the support of the theatre and all those volunteers who make it so special.”

Gemma adds:  “Over the years, we’ve built a diverse team with diverse skills to run our panto, who work so hard together, such as our engineer Lee Smith, who has welding skills to help us to design things like a magic carpet rig, which everyone else would hire in. We couldn’t do that, but with Lee, we can make things, and so our imagination grows as to what we can do.”

Cinderella has proved “the most difficult” of Howard’s pantomimes for him to write. “Coming from York and having watched Berwick Kaler’s pantos, we all like to mess with the plot, but Cinderella has so many plot points you have to cover, and culturally accepted norms you have to cover, that when you try to have fun with it, there’s not much room to do that when you have to get all that in.

Howard Ella: Rowntree Players’ pantomime director and co-writer

“In pantomime, the easiest comedy flows between the dame and the comic, but in Cinderella it’s harder to work out where the humour flows when the dame is replaced by two baddies, the Ugly Sisters. It’s the most demanding of all pantomime writing experiences but when you get there, it’s the most rewarding.”

Regular dame Graham Smith is taking a year out, and instead Ugly Sisters Cassandra and Miranda will be a partnership of last year’s villain, Jamie McKellar, alias York ghost-walk guide and spookologist Dr Dorian Deathly, and Michael Cornell. “They know each other of old,” says Howard. “That’s not why they’ve been cast together, but it clearly helped in the auditions.

“When we learned that Jamie, who’s a very experienced actor, was properly up for playing the Sheriff of Nottingham in Babes In The Wood last year, we were delighted. Panto is fun to do but it’s hard work too, where you can break the fourth wall as the villain, but you can’t be too funny, and he was clearly right for the role.

“This year it will be different again, as Graham wanted a year out, and we’ll see Jamie in a new guise as Ugly Sister.”

Sara Howlett’s Cinderella, Hannah King’s Prince Charming, Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Wicked Queen and Jeanette Hunter’s Queen of Hearts need no introduction to Rowntree Players panto regulars.

Graham Smith’s Dame Harmony Humperdinck and Gemma McDonald’s Kurt Jester in 2022’s Babes In The Wood. Graham is taking a year’s break from panto; Gemma is adding co-writing duties to her familiar role as comic in Cinderella

Look out too for Sophie Bullivant and radio presenter Laura Castle, such a hit together in Rowntree Players’ March production of John Godber’s Teechers, now playing Dandini and Fairy Flo respectively.

“What’s interesting is that everyone read the script in a way I hadn’t thought of at the first readthrough, which really shook the script up and made me look at it in a different way,” says Howard of a show also featuring 12 numbers under James Robert Ball’s musical direction and a dozen dance routines choreographed by Ami Carter.

“We’re conscious that we have a regular gang in the panto but that we always have to make sure to give others an opportunity, both in the ensemble and with two Ugly Sisters giving us an ‘extra dame’ this year, it’s been the perfect opportunity to open it up,” says Howard.

“If you just work with familiar relationships within the cast, it can make you lazy, so having new faces makes you up your game, particularly when directing.”

Gemma concludes: “We have a mixture of old and new faces in the cast this year, which is really nice,” says Gemma. “It’s a really strong ensemble and that’s exactly what Cinderella needs.”

Rowntree Players present Cinderella, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, December 9 to 16, except December 11. Performances: December 9, 2pm and 7.30pm; December 10, 2pm and 6pm; December 12 to 15, 7.30pm; December 16, 2pm (sold out) and 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 501395 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Rowntree Players pantomime players in rehearsal for Cinderella

Who is in Rowntree Players’ principal cast for Cinderella?

Cinderella: Sara Howlett

Buttons: Gemma McDonald

Baron Hardup:  Barry Johnson

Wicked Queen: Marie-Louise Surgenor

Cassandra: Jamie McKeller

Miranda: Michael Cornell

Fairy Flo: Laura Castle

Queen of Hearts: Jeanette Hunter

Prince Charming: Hannah King

Dandini: Sophie Bullivant

Flunkit: Geoff Walker

Head Fairy – Bernie Calpin

Production team

Director: Howard Ella

Choreographer: Ami Carter

Musical director: James Robert Ball

Writers: Howard Ella and Gemma McDonald

Shoe-in for success: Rowntree Players’ poster for Cinderella, heading for full houses

More Things To Do in York and beyond as temperatures drop and festive fervour rises. Hutch’s List No.49, from The Press, York

The Gesualdo Six, with director Owain Park, centre, back row: Two concerts in one evening at NCEM

CHRISTMAS music, Scrooge the farmer, artist fairs and pantomime frolics set up Charles Hutchinson for the festive season ahead.

Festival of the week: York Early Music Christmas Festival, today until December 9

YORK Early Music Christmas Festival 2023 takes the theme of Music, Minstrels and Mystery, with today’s concerts by Flutes & Frets (Bedern Hall) and The Gesualdo Six & Fretwork Viol Consort (NCEM) having sold out already.

So has December 9’s finale, the Yorkshire Bach Choir’s Bach Christmas Oratorio (Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall), but tickets are still available for The Harmonious Society of Tickle-Fiddle Gentlemen, Fiddlesticks, The Marian Consort, Ceruleo and Baroque In The North. For concert details and tickets, visit ncem.co.uk. Box office: 01904 658338.

James Lewis-Knight and Emily Chattle in a scene from Badapple Theatre Company’s Farmer Scrooge’s Christmas Carol. Picture: Karl Andre

Tour opening of the week: Badapple Theatre Company in Farmer Scrooge’s Christmas Carol, until December 30

A GRUMPY farmer? From Yorkshire? Surely not! Welcome to Kate Bramley’s rural revision of Dickens’s festive favourite, A Christmas Carol, now set on Farmer Scrooge’s farm and in his bed in 1959 in Green Hammerton company Badapple Theatre’s tour of Yorkshire and beyond.

York actors James Lewis-Knight and Emily Chattle play multiple roles in a tale replete with local stories and carols, puppets and mayhem, original songs by Jez Lowe and a whacking great dose of seasonal bonhomie. For tour dates and ticket details, visit: badappletheatre.co.uk or call 01423 331304.

South Bank Studios artist Carolyn Coles: Taking part in this weekend’s Christmas Artists Trail

Artists with Christmas in mind: South Bank Studios Christmas Artists Trail, hosted by South Bank Studios, Bishopthorpe Road, York, today and tomorrow, 10am to 4pm

JOIN artists, illustrators and makers in the South Bank area of York for a weekend of festive cheer and a chance to visit artists’ houses and studios. For sale will be paintings, illustrations, ceramics, textiles, cards and gifts.

Taking part: Jill Tattersall, at 11 Mount Parade, today and tomorrow; Marie Murphy, 38, Scarcroft Road, today; Donna Maria Taylor, Carolyn Coles, Karen Winship, Rebeca Mason (11am to 4pm, in the loft), Katie Hill (outside) and Rachel Jones (outside) at South Bank Studio, today only.

Other art events happening in York over the weekend will be PICA Studios’ open studio, in Grape Lane, today and tomorrow, 10am to 5pm, and Rogues Atelier’s open studio, in Fossgate, today and tomorrow, 10am to 5pm.

Damion Larkin: Hosting Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club at The Basement

Comedy gig of the week: Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club, The Basement, City Screen Picturehouse, York, today, 5pm and 8pm

ESSEX comedian Markus Birdman headlines Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club’s brace of Basement gigs today. Joining him will be Tal Davies, Hasan Al-Habib and promoter/master of ceremonies Damion Larkin.

In 2022, Birdman suffered a stroke and ended up with a platinum heart, the subject of his Platinum Tour show. This year he was a semi-finalist on Britain’s Got Talent. Box office: lolcomedyclubs.co.uk.

Nina Cumin, left, Jonathan Sage and Kate Ledger: York Late Music concert of Anthony Gilbert works tonight

York Late Music: Micklegate Singers, After Byrd, today, 1pm; Nina Kumin, Jonathan Sage and Kate Ledger, 7.30pm, both at Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York

MICKLEGATE Singers bring together three anniversaries, Byrd, Rachmaninov and Thomas Weelkes, in a lunchtime musical sandwich of more than 500 years of a cappella choral music.

In the evening, Nina Kumin, violin, Jonathan Sage, clarinet, and Kate Ledger, piano, mark July’s death of Anthony Gilbert by performing four of the British composer’s works, plus music by Nicola LeFanu and David Lumsdaine, who both knew him well. Box office: latemusic.org or on the door.

Kirk Brandon: Fronting Spear Of Destiny at The Crescent

40th anniversary gig of the week: Spear Of Destiny, The Crescent, York, Wednesday, 7.30pm

FORTY years on from Epic Records’ release of Spear Of Destiny’s debut album, The Grapes Of Wrath, Kirk Brandon leads his punk-influenced power rock band on a 17-date November and December tour.

On the back of American travels, Brandon will be performing with his longest-serving line-up:  Adrian Portas (New Model Army/Sex Gang Children), Craig Adams (Sisters Of Mercy/The Cult/The Mission) and Phil Martini (Jim Jones And The Righteous Mind), bolstered by Clive Osborne on saxophone and Steve Allen-Jones on keys. Support comes from former Simple Minds bassist Derek Forbes & The Dark. Box office: thecrescentyork.com.

Kate Rusby: Showcasing her new Christmas album, Light Years, at York Barbican on Thursday

Festive folk gig of the week: Kate Rusby, Established 1973 Christmas Tour, York Barbican, Thursday, 7.30pm

BARNSLEY folk nightingale Kate Rusby marks turning 50 on Monday with the release of her seventh Christmas album, Light Years, and an accompanying tour that opens in York.

In the company of her regular band, coupled with the added warmth of the Brass Boys, Kate combines carols still sung in South Yorkshire pubs with her winter songs and favourite Christmas chestnuts. Look out for the fancy dress finale. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Rowntree Players having a ball in rehearsal for Cinderella

Pantomime opening of the week: Rowntree Players in Cinderella, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, December 9 to 16, except December 11

HOWARD Ella directs Rowntree Players in a rollicking romp of a pantomime, wherein Cinderella and Buttons are fighting to save the Windy End Hotel when the Queen announces a ball to celebrate Prince Charming’s birthday.

Trouble is brewing with the arrival of a “truly horrific trio”, determined to find themselves a prince. Expect song, dance, all the traditional silliness…and a mad rush for the last few tickets for all performances. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Billie Marten: Dropping into The Crescent with her Drop Cherries album. Picture: Katie Silvester

Recommended but sold out already

RIPON singer-songwriter Billie Marten, now based in London, returns home to Yorkshire to showcase her fourth album, Drop Cherries, on which she explores the struggle with modernity versus tradition, nature, mental health, relationships and “a general voyeurism on the world as she sees it”. Clara Mann supports.

More Things To Do in York & beyond when time travel and hot dancing counters the chill. Hutch’s List No. 11, from The Press

The future, here they come: Amy Revelle, Dave Hearn, centre, and Michael Dylan in Original Theatre’s The Time Machine. Picture: Manuel Harlan

THE week ahead is so crammed with clashing cultural highlights, Charles Hutchinson wishes you could climb aboard a time machine.

Find time for: Original Theatre in The Time Machine, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees  

DAVE Hearn, a fixture in Mischief Theatre’s calamitous comedies for a decade, takes time out to go time travelling in John Nicholson and Steven Canny’s re-visit of H G Wells’s epic sci-fi story for Original Theatre.

“It’s a play about three actors who run a theatre company and are trying to put on a production of The Time Machine, with fairly limited success,” says Hearn. “But then a big event happens that causes the play to spiral out of control and my character [Dave] discovers actual time travel.” Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Curtains At Village Gallery, by Suzanne McQuade, marks the final exhibition at Simon and Helen Main’s art space in Colliergate, York

Farewell of the week: The Curtain Descends, Village Gallery, Colliergate, York, until April 15

AS the title indicates, The Curtain Descends will be the last exhibition at Village Gallery after 40 exhibitions showcasing 100-plus Yorkshire artists in five and a half years. “The end of the shop lease and old age creeping up has sadly forced the decision,” says gallery co-owner Simon Main.

Ten artists have returned for the farewell with work reduced specially to sale prices. On show are watercolours by Lynda Heaton, Jean Luce and Suzanne McQuade; oils and acrylics by Paul Blackwell, Julie Lightburn, Malcolm Ludvigsen, Anne Thornhill and Hilary Thorpe; pastels by Allen Humphries and lino and woodcut prints by Michael Atkin. Opening hours are 10am to 4pm, Tuesday to Saturday.

Singer PP Arnold: From The First Cut Is The Deepest to Soul Survivor, her autobiography is under discussion at York Literature Festival

Festival of the week: York Literature Festival, various venues, today until March 27

HIGHLIGHTS aplenty permeate this annual festival, featuring 27 events, bolstered by new sponsorship from York St John University. Among the authors will be broadcasters David Dimbleby and Steve Richards; political journalist and think tank director Sebastian Payne (on The Fall of Boris Johnson); The League Of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson; Juno Dawson, thriller writer Saima Mir and York poet Hannah Davies.

On Music Memoir Day at The Crescent, on March 18, at 1.30pm American singer PP Arnold delves into her autobiography, Soul Survivor, at 1.30pm. At 4pm, writer/broadcaster Lucy O’Brien discusses her new book, Lead Sister: The Story Of Karen Carpenter, and the challenges of writing a biography. Go to yorkliteraturefestival.co.uk for the full programme.

Too hot to handle: Strictly’s Gorka Marquez and Karen Hauer in Firedance at the Grand Opera House, York

Hot moves amid the weekend chill: Gorka Marquez and Karen Hauer in Firedance, Grand Opera House, York, Sunday, 5pm

STRICTLY Come Dancing stars Gorka Marquez and Karen Hauer reignite their chemistry in Firedance, a show full of supercharged choreography, sizzling dancers and mesmerising fire specialists.

Inspired by movie blockbusters Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge, Carmen and West Side Story, Marquez and Hauer turn up the heat as they dance to Latin, rock and pop songs by Camilla Cabello, Jason Derulo, Gregory Porter, Gipsy Kings and Jennifer Lopez. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.

Suede: First appearance at York Barbican in a quarter of a century

Gig of the week: Suede, York Barbican, Wednesday, 7.45pm

ELEGANT London rock band Suede play York Barbican for the first time in more than 25 years on the closing night of their 2023 tour. Pretty much sold out, alas, but do check yorkbarbican.co.uk for late availability.

Last appearing there on April 23 1997, Brett Anderson and co return with a set list of Suede classics and selections from last September’s Autofiction, their ninth studio album and first since 2018. “Our punk record,” as Anderson called it. “No whistles and bells. The band exposed in all their primal mess.”

Sloane danger: Ben Weir’s psychopathic Sloane, left, playing siblings Kath (Victoria Delaney) and Ed (Chris Pomfrett) off each other in rehearsal for York Actors Collective’s Entertaining Mr Sloane

Debut of the week: York Actors Collective in Entertaining Mr Sloane, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Wednesday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee

DIRECTOR Angie Millard launches her new company, York Actors Collective, with Joe Orton’s controversial, ribald comedy Entertaining Mr Sloane, the one that shook up English farce with its savage humour in 1964.

Living with her father, Dada Kemp (Mick Liversidge), Kath (Victoria Delaney) brings home a lodger: the amoral and psychopathic Sloane (Ben Weir). When her brother Ed (Chris Monfrett) arrives, the siblings become involved in a sexual struggle for Sloane, who plays one off against the other as their father is caught in the crossfire. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Classrooom comedy: Sara Howlett, left, Laura Castle and Sophie Bullivant in rehearsal for Rowntree Players’ production of John Godber’s Teechers Leavers ’22

Education, education, education play of the week: Rowntree Players in Teechers, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, Thursday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee

FAMILIAR to York’s streets at night as ghost-walk guide and spookologist Dr Dorian Deathly, actor Jamie McKellar is directing a play for the first time since 2008, at the helm of Rowntree Players’ production of former teacher John Godber’s state-of-the nation, state-of state-education comedy Teechers.

Updated for Hull Truck’s 50th anniversary celebrations as Teechers Leavers ’22, Godber’s class warfare play within a play features a multi role-playing, all-female cast of Laura Castle, Sophie Bullivant and Sarah Howlett as Year 11 school leavers Salty, Hobby and Gail put on a valedictory performance, inspired by their new drama teacher. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

David Ford: Songs and stories at The Crescent

The robots are coming: David Ford, Songs 2023, The Crescent, York, Thursday, 7.30pm

EASTBOURNE singer-songwriter David Ford might play solo stomps with loop machines and effects pedals or backed by a swish jazz trio or with a string quartet attached. Not this time.

For 2023, Ford has taken the rare decision to keep it simple, leave most of the crazy machines at home, play some of his favourite songs and share stories about where they came from. Oh, and he’ll be bringing his new DIY toy, a drum robot. Beat that. Box office: thecrescentyork.com.

Tuesday’s seated Crescent gig by The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster, promoting his new album The Candle And The Flame, has sold out by the way.

Because he cared: Comedian Bilal Fafar reflects on working in a care home for the very wealthy in Care at Theatre@41, Monkgate

Caring comedian of the week: Burning Duck Comedy Club presents Bilal Zafar in Care, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, March 19, 8pm

WANSTEAD comedian Bilal Zafar, 31, is on his travels with a new show about how he spent a year working in a care home for very wealthy people while being on the minimum wage.

Fresh out of university with a media degree, Bilal was dropped into the real world, where he was given far too much responsibility for a 21-year-old lad who had just spent three years watching films. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk; age limit,18 and over.

In Focus: Anders Lustgarten’sThe City And The Town, at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, March 15 to 17

Gareth Watkins as Magnus in Anders Lustgarten’s The City And The Town. Picture: Karl Andre

LONDON playwright and political activist Anders Lustgarten’s new play, The City And The Town, heads to the Yorkshire coast next week. 

This funny, eclectic drama brings a fresh perspective to the political divides and problems facing Great Britain and Europe today.

By way of contrast to those schisms, the tour involves a hands-across-the-water partnership: a co-production by Riksteatern, the national touring theatre of Sweden, and Matthew Linley Creative Projects in association with Hull Truck Theatre.

Lustgarten’s play tells the story of brothers Ben and Magnus. Ben, a successful London lawyer, returns home for his father’s funeral after 13 years away, only to be confronted not only by family and old friends, but also by uncomfortable truths about the past, present and future of the provincial community and family he grew up in and left behind for the metroplis.

Lustgarten, by the way, is the son of progressive American academics and read Chinese Studies at Oxford: in other words, he is an internationalist (and an Arsenal supporter to boot).

Directed by Riksteatern artistic director Dritero Kasapi, The City And The Town features Gareth Watkins as Magnus, Amelia Donkor as Lyndsay and Sam Collings as Ben, with set design by Hannah Sibai and lighting design by Matt Haskins.

Amelia Donkor’s Lyndsay in The City And The Town. Picture: Karl Andre

Kasapi is at the helm of his first UK production since Nina – A Story About Me And Nina Simone. “Even from the very first draft Anders sent us, I knew that this was a play I wanted to direct,” he says. “In fact, I’d go as far as saying it’s the play I’ve wanted to direct for a very long time.

“By exploring the rise of the right, Anders is looking at something that is happening all over Europe. But this is not just a political play, it’s also a humane one. It explores the question of if and how we belong to society, what can happen when we lose that connection and how we perceive our common history as a society.”

Kasapi was educated as a stage director at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Skopje, Macedonia, but since the early years of his professional life he has been engaged as a cultural organiser.

From 2015 to 2018, he was the deputy artistic director at Kulturhuset Stadstetern in Stockholm. He took up his present post in November 2018. 

The City And The Town follows such Lustgarten plays as Lampedusa (Hightide/Soho Theatre), The Seven Acts Of Mercy (Royal Shakespeare Company), The Secret Theatre(Shakespeare’s Globe) and The Damned United (Red Ladder/West Yorkshire Playhouse, 2016, turning Brian Clough’s 44 days as Leeds United manager in 1974 into a Greek tragedy).

The City And The Town began its UK tour at Hull Truck on February 10 and 11 and has since played Northern Stage, Newcastle, Wilton’s Music Hall, London, Mercury Theatre, Colchester, and Norwich Playhouse before its Scarborough finale. It will then transfer to Sweden for an autumn tour.

The City And The Town, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, March 15 to 17, 7.45pm plus 1.45pm Thursday matinee. Box office: 01723 370541 or www.sjt.uk.com

The tour poster for The City And The Town

Jamie McKeller returns to directing after 15 years for Rowntree Players in John Godber’s classroom comedy Teechers Leavers ’22

Classrooom comedy: Sara Howlett, left, Laura Castle and  Sophie Bullivant  in rehearsal for Rowntree Players’ production of John Godber’s Teechers Leavers ’22

ACTOR, voiceover artist, filmmaker, tour guide, pantomime villain and York ghost-walk host Jamie McKeller is turning his hand to directing.

More precisely, he is reacquainting himself with the director’s seat after a 15-year hiatus, at the helm of former teacher John Godber’s 2022 update of Teechers, his state-of-education play originally commissioned by Hull Truck Theatre for £100 in 1984.

Why now, Jamie? “I did the Rowntree Players’ pantomime last Christmas [playing the Sheriff of Nottingham in Babes In The Wood] and had a great time. Afterwards, Howard [Ella, the director] said, ‘we’re doing Teechers next’, and I thought, ‘Ooh, it’s been a while since I directed, I fancy doing that’. So, I pitched for it, and later that week the committee said yes.”

Jamie’s production of Teechers Leavers ’22 opens at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, on Thursday with an all-female cast – YorkMix radio presenter Laura Castle as Gail, Joseph Rowntree School drama teacher Sophie Bullivant as Salty and Rowntree Players regular Sara Howlett as Hobby – in keeping with Godber’s revised version for Hull Truck Theatre’s 50th anniversary last year.

Gail-force: Laura Castle as Gail in Teechers Leavers ’22

In Godber’s play within a play, they adopt multiple roles as the trio of Year 11 school leavers put on a valedictory performance, inspired by their new drama teacher but hindered by myriad obstacles and classroom poltics that vex playwright and pupils alike.

Jamie is no stranger to fellow Yorkshireman Godber’s work, both on and off stage. “I’ve been in Bouncers twice, as Judd and Les, but I’m still too young for Lucky Eric, so there’s time yet for that,” says Scarborough-born Jamie, who is 42.

“I was Salty in Teechers and did Lucky Sods in 2004, and I’ve already directed Teechers once in Scarborough in 2003 and Bouncers once too.”

In fact, whether in his university days at Hull University from 1998 or when studying Performance: Theatre at York St John University from 2006 to 2008 or working his way through Terry Pratchett stories at the YMCA Theatre in Scarborough, when doing his BTEC in theatre, he has directed more than 20 productions.

Class act: Sara Howlett’s Hobby

“But it’s now been a long time since I last directed a play. Not counting my self-directed shows that I took to the Edinburgh Fringe for five years, the last one was Danny King’s The Pornographer Diaries in 2008, here in York at Friargate Theatre, but originally I always wanted to be a director more than an actor,” says Jamie.

“I’d like people to become aware of me as a director as I’d forgotten the passion I had for it, and it’s where I feel most at home, cooking up ridiculous visuals in my head – so working with these three actors has been an absolute dream.”

6ft tall Jamie is a familiar cloaked figure on the streets of York at night, in the guise of spookologist Doctor Dorian Deathly, ghost tour guide for the award-winning Deathly Dark Tours, but he has a posse of guides to call on, enabling him to take time away from his “night job”, whether to do panto last winter or be at the helm of Teechers.

His enthusiasm for play and cast alike is writ large. “What I really like about Godber is that he’s always prefaced his scripts by saying, ‘make it work for your cast, make it work for the times, because if you don’t update it, it will be a museum piece,” says Jamie.

Match play: Sophie Bullivant’s Salty

“We’re delighted to be doing the 2022 version, where we’ve kept the politics, but eased back on the Covid material, as we’ve lived through it, though it’s still there in the dialogue, but just not at the forefront.”

Godber’s impassioned belief in the importance of the arts in the curriculum hits home with Jamie, from past experience. “The resources at York St John were being shrunk all around me. The Chapel theatre was closed in 2006, just before I went there, to become a conference hall, and I ended up rehearsing my last play there in my garden and then staging it in the quad at York St John as a sort of protest. That struggle for facilities still resonates with me,” he says.

“I make my living out of performing, but after a ghost walk tour, I’ve been asked ‘what else do you? Don’t think you should have a proper job?’. There’s still that dismissive attitude towards creativity as an occupation.”

On a positive note, Jamie loves the musicality in Godber’s writing. “When you get it right, it’s almost like Shakespeare, where if you see it performed poorly it’s an unpleasant experience, but it can be wonderful. That’s the same with Godber, which is why we’ve done lots of work on the rhythm and tempo,” he says.

Jamie McKeller’s other fella: Teechers director in his guise as Doctor Dorian Deathly, spookologist and ghost-walk host

Selected from open auditions, Castle and Bullivant are making their Rowntree Players debuts alongside Sara Howlett. “We wanted to find three actors that would instantly gel,” says Jamie. “We weren’t looking for the greatest actors, but the best combination, and they turned out to be great actors too!

“Having these three together, they’ve definitely bonded and become friends as well, meeting outside rehearsals and running their lines. They really care about getting it right and doing it well.

“The way it’s written, it requires a heightened style of performance, where you need to fill it with physicality too – and they’ve really put in the hard work for such a physically demanding play where they never leave the stage.”

Rowntree Players in Teechers Leavers ’22, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, March 16 to 18, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

One question for John Godber

Playwright John Godber

What were the biggest changes/themes you had to include in this reimagined version of Teechers, John?

“OBVIOUSLY, the language has changed, teenagers now have a whole new vernacular which had to be incorporated to make the characters seem real and authentic.

“I also changed the drama teacher character from male to female. Quite simply this is because when I wrote the play, I based that character on myself and my experience as a drama teacher.

“But now I have two daughters – one of whom [Martha] is an actress, the other [Elizabeth] has a PHD in gender studies – so I thought it’d be interesting to make that character female. Also, and this may have just been a coincidence, but many of the teachers I spoke to were women, so it made sense to write it as a female role.

“The impact of the pandemic is also a big theme as I feel it put the whole education system – and its failings, especially for working-class students – under a microscope. Digital poverty is a huge issue now and students not being able to access the internet via a computer or phone during lockdown meant for many – they couldn’t access their education for a major portion of those two years.

“The repercussions of this are huge – isolation, loss of communication skills, diminishing attention spans. However, I truly believe that harnessing the power of storytelling – whether that’s through writing or acting – is a way of overcoming these problems, which is another reason the arts should be a priority now more than ever and why this particular story resonates so much still today.”

More Things To Do in and around York in the jaws of a Jurassic invasion. Here’s Hutch’s List No. 4, courtesy of The Press, York

FROM giant dinosaurs to a heavyweight comedian, hardcore songs to a royal reading, Charles Hutchinson seeks to make life eventful.

Dinosaurs make a comeback: Jurassic Earth, Grand Opera House, York, January 28, 1pm and 4pm

JURASSIC Earth’s “live dinosaur show” roams York in an immersive, interactive, 75-minute, storytelling experience for all ages with state-of-the-art, animatronic, life-like creatures.

Audiences are invited to “bring your biggest roar and your fastest feet as you take Ranger Danger’s masterclass to become an Official Dinosaur Ranger – gaining the skills you need to come face-to-face with the world’s largest walking T Rex, a big-hearted Brontosaurus, tricky Triceratops, uncontrollable Carnotaurus, vicious Velociraptors and sneaky Spinosaurus”. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.

Tim Lowe: Cellist and York Chamber Music Festival director, performing Messiaen’s Quartet For The End Of Time at York Minster

 Holocaust memorial concert of the week: York Chamber Music Festival, Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet For The End Of Time, York Minster, Tuesday, 7pm

YORK Chamber Music Festival marks Holocaust Memorial Week – and the start of the festival’s tenth anniversary – with a performance of “one of the greatest pieces of music from the 20th century”, written and premiered in the German prisoner-of-war camp at Stalag VIIIa, Gorlitz, in 1941.

Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet For The End Of Time will be played by John Lenehan, piano, Sacha Rattle, clarinet, John Mills, violin, and festival director Tim Lowe, cello, in York Minster’s Lady Chapel under John Thornton’s restored 15th century Great East Window (the “Apocalypse Window”). Box office: tickets.yorkminster.org.

Lloyd Griffith: Comedy measured out as One Tonne Of Fun at The Crescent, York. Picture: Matt Crockett

Comedy gig of the week: Burning Duck Comedy Club presents Lloyd Griffith, One Tonne Of Fun, The Crescent, York, Thursday, 7.30pm

AFTER Covid stretched Lloyd Griffith’s last tour to “eight years or so”, he returns with his biggest itinerary to date, One Tonne Of Fun.

Since school, he has always been a show-off, and 20-odd years later, nothing’s changed, so expect stand-up, dubious impressions and a sprinkling of his (incredible) singing from the comic with Ted Lasso, 8 Out Of 10 Cats, Soccer AM, Question Of Sport, Not Going Out and House Of Games credits. Box office: thecrescentyork.com.

Ewa Salecka: Directing Prima Vocal Ensemble at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre

Choral concert of the week: Prima Vocal Ensemble, Lift Every Voice, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, January 29, 7.30pm

EWA Salecka directs Prima Vocal Ensemble in a life-affirming concert that weaves its way through diverse generations and genres with live accompaniment.

Living composers Lauridsen, Gjeilo, Whitacre and Jenkins sit alongside favourite numbers from Les Misérables and The Greatest Showman, complemented by songs by Annie Lennox, Elbow, the Gershwins and Cole Porter and a tribute to the people of Ukraine. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls: Playing York Barbican at the end of January

Hardcore York gig of the month: Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls, York Barbican, January 31, 8pm

FRANK Turner, punk and folk singer-songwriter from Meonstoke, Hampshire, will be accompanied by The Sleeping Souls in York as he draws on his nine studio albums from a 17-year solo career.

Last year, the former Million Dead frontman, 41, topped the UK Official Album Chart for the first time with FTHC (his anagram for Frank Turner Hardcore) after his previous four all made the top three. Support slots go to Lottery Winners & Wilswood Buoys. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Rosemary Brown: Author gives an insight into the remarkable life of Nellie Bly at York Theatre Royal

Who was Nellie Bly? In Conversation With Rosemary Brown, York Theatre Royal, February 4, 5.15pm, free admission

YORK Theatre Royal and Tilted Wig’s touring adaptation of Jules Verne’s madcap adventure Around The World In 80 days features not only the fictional feats of Phileas Fogg but also the real-life story of Nellie Bly, American journalist, industrialist, inventor, charity worker and globe-crossing record breaker.

In a free talk, director and adaptor Juliet Forster will be in conversation with Rosemary Brown, author of Following Nellie Bly, Her Record-Breaking Race Around The World, a book inspired by this human rights and environmental campaigner’s aim to put female adventurers back on the map. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Tony Froud: Directing York Shakespeare Project’s rehearsed reading of Edward II

The second coming of…York Shakespeare Project, Edward III, rehearsed reading, upstairs at Black Swan Inn, Peasholme Green, York, February 7, 7.30pm

PHASE Two of York Shakespeare Project begins with a staged rehearsed reading of Edward III, the rarely performed 1592 history play now widely accepted as a collaboration between William Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd, replete with its celebration of Edward’s victories over the French, depiction of the Black Prince and satirical digs at the Scots.

Rehearsed readings in February will be a regular part of YSP’s revamped remit to include work by the best of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Tony Froud’s cast includes Liz Elsworth, Emma Scott and Mark Hird, best known for his work with Pick Me Up Theatre. Tickets: on the door or via eventbrite.com.

Home work: Sara Howlett, Sophie Bullivant and Laura Castle in rehearsal for Rowntree Players’ spring production of Teachers Leavers ’22

Spring term school play: Rowntree Players in Teechers Leavers ’22, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, March 16 to 18, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee  

REHEARSALS are underway for Rowntree Players’ production of Teechers Leavers ’22, former teacher John Godber’s update of his state-of-education play, commissioned for £100 by Hull Truck Theatre in 1984.

Actor Jamie McKeller, familiar to York ghost-walk enthusiasts as Deathly Dark Tours spookologist Doctor Dorian Deathly, is working with a cast of Sara Howlett, Sophie Bullivant and Laura Castle as they “put in the hard work needed for this very physically demanding play”. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

York ghost walk host Doctor Dorian Deathly to deliver five paranormal nights of ‘face melting horror’ at Theatre@41, Monkgate

The horror, the horror: Deathly Dark Tours guide Doctor Dorian Deathly in A Night Of Face Melting Horror! at Theatre@41, Monkgate

YORK spookologist and ghost botherer Doctor Dorian Deathly moves indoors for five fright nights at Theatre@ 41, Monkgate, York, from January 24 to 28.

Visit York’s New Tourism Business Award Winner for 2022 will be revelling in scary tales, spooks caught on film and ghost stories of England’s “most haunted city” at 8.30pm nightly in his return to the stage after a December spent on the dark side in another guise as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Rowntree Players’ pantomime, Babes In The Wood, at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre.

In a run rearranged from the Halloween season when Covid “did a right number” on deadpan Doctor Deathly, the Deathly Dark Tours host swaps walking the (ghost) walk for talking the (ghost) talk to present The Complete History Of Ghosts in A Night Of Face Melting Horror! through a combination of stories, paranormal sciences, horror, theatrical trickery, original music and perhaps the odd unexpected guest.

“Together we will huddle around the stage and explore spine-chilling tales of hauntings, both local and further afield, dissemble horrors captured on film and follow the ghost story through from its origins to the Victorian classics and modern-day frights,” says the Doctor, whose face-melting macabre amusements are suitable for age 13 plus as he considers what makes spines shiver and examines our obsession with tales of death, murder and hauntings.

Doctor Dorian Deathly: Ghost walker, ghost talker

Doctor Deathly had been struck by the idea of doing a show at Theatre@41 after seeing Pick Me Up Theatre in The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ The Musical. “It sparked the bit of my brain that causes trouble!” he recalls.

“During lockdown, we’d done lots of online events, streamed on Facebook to thousands of people around the world. We came up with the show Tales From The Fireplace, where people would send in ghost stories and pictures and videos of encounters with ghosts. 

“It was essentially like a TV show, where we got a few funny ones sent in; we were coming at it from that angle, analysing them and breaking them down. Some were brilliantly well written.”

This prompted Doctor Deathly to construct A Night Of Face Melting Horror. “First and foremost, it’s entertainment. People love ghost stories and we thought, what if we flip it on its head and people have to come out to the theatre to celebrate ghost stories from the wild?” he says.

“Together we will huddle around the stage and explore spine-chilling tales of hauntings,” says Doctor Dorian Deathly

“The thread through the show is the history of the ghost story, talking about the origins of those stories, what they come from, their place in both texts and the imagination. Then we look at how it exploded in Victorian times with huge interest in these stories.”

Born in Scarborough, Deathly’s inventor, actor Jamie McKeller, moved to York in 2004/2005, first performing in A Christmas Carol at the Castle Museum and with Lee Harris and The Dreaming in Terry Pratchett’s Rincewind.

“I’d been to York on fleeting visits, then I was getting on the train here to rehearse. One day I was walking through York, and it was snowing, and I popped into a coffee shop. Looking out at the Minster, I remember thinking, ‘how can I not move here?’.”

For 15 years, he was a professional actor. “It’s exhausting, a grind,” he says, delighted to now have a constant, stable income as a ghost walker. “It’s my company too, so I can do these crazy things.”

“As it’s January now, a notoriously boring month, we really want to appeal to people’s love of Halloween and spice their post-festive season up a bit,” says Doctor Deathly’s co-star, Dede Deathly, operations manager for Deathly Dark Tours. “Halloween is for life, not just for October!”

Part of York’s Guild of Spookologists , alongside Mad Alice (Alicia Stabler), Shadows Of York (Mackenzie Crompton) and Damian Freddi’s Dark Chronicles, Doctor Dorian Deathly’s Deathly Dark Tours has taken on a second York tour guide to meet demand, Dorian being joined by Dafydd Deathly, from Wales.

“He ran virtual tours for us in Edinburgh and now he’s come back to York, I asked him if he would join me because the tour is so busy. We run six nights a week,” says Doctor Deathly, who set up his ghost walk in August 2020, having worked as a York tour guide for more than seven years until the pandemic intervened.

“It’s a very non-traditional ghost tour, very theatrical, very big, with magic tricks. It’s very tiring! 30-year-old Jamie doing that each night, fine; 42-year-old Jamie, maybe not!”

Why, Dorian, are we drawn to the horror, the horror, of ghost stories, especially in York? “It’s that obsession with fear, but why do we do that to ourselves?” he asks himself. “Why do we like putting ourselves in that situation?

The poster for Doctor Dorian Deathly’s horror show at Theatre@41, Monkgate

“The opening song in A Night Of Face Melting Horror poses a question: I directly ask, ‘what’s wrong with you, with all of us, in a world of The Great British Bake Off and The Great Pottery Throw Down, why are you here, for this show full of ghosts, in a world of such niceties? That’s the answer we’re looking for; the answer to that!”

Analysing why York so suits ghost storytelling, Dorian says: “I have friends who are tour guides around the country and sometimes I feel sorry for them because they have to talk about things that are no longer there in their city.

“But in York you can see a piece of wood dating from the 12th century, and you watch Americans blink as they take that in,” he says.

For tickets, go to: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk. For more information on Doctor Dorian Deathly’s walking tours, visit deathlydarktours.com or call 07851 032041.

Copyright of The Press, York

REVIEW: Rowntree Players in Babes In The Wood, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, until Saturday ****

Double the fun: Graham Smith’s Dame Harmony Humperdinck and Gemma McDonald’s Kurt Jester in Babes In The Wood

Babes In The Wood, Rowntree Players, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, tonight until Friday, 7.30pm (last few tickets for first three, limited availability for Friday); Saturday, 2pm (last few) and 7.30pm (limited). Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

HOWARD Ella reckons this is the best of the 13 Rowntree Players pantomimes under his writer-directorship. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he, but he does have a point. This is a case of 13th time, luckier still, for family audiences at the York community theatre.

For a start, Babes In The Wood is two shows for the price of one: weaving Robin Hood and his merry band, Sherwood Forest and the Sheriff into the fairy tale of those two poor orphans abandoned in woodland by their wicked uncle.

Don’t be hood-winked by the show title. It is rather more Robin’s story and characters that dominate,including distaff variations on a theme, while accommodating the misfortunes of Hansel (Henry Cullen/Fergus Green) and Gretel (Maddie Chalk/Ayda Mooney) in their Gingerbread House, cooked sweeter and cuter than in the dark fable of yore.

Now, Robin (Hannah King) takes on not only a rescue mission to free Maid Marion (Marie-Louise Surgenor) from the tower and the clutches of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Jamie McKeller) and sidekick Will Snatchell (Joe Marucci), but also vows to find Hansel and Gretel.

Double the trouble: Joe Marucci’s Will Snatchell and Jamie McKeller’s Sheriff of Nottingham 

For Friar Tuck, read Freya Tuck (Meg Badrick), and so on through the Merry Band of Alana Dale (Keelie Newbold) Georgie Green (Erin Willis), Jill Scarlett (Mollie Surgenor/Eva Howe) and Little Joan (Libby Roe/Charla Banks).

Put them together with King’s traditional, thigh-slapping yet somehow girl-power principal boy Robin Hood and suddenly they are aping SIX The Musical in Six, a musical number that makes great play of the sisterhood buzz musical of the decade (already booked in for June 27 to July 2 return to the Grand Opera House next summer, by the way).

Musicals are a running theme to the song-and-dance numbers in Ella and musical director Jessica Viner fast-moving show, from the opening Hairspray ensemble routine (Good Morning Sherwood Town) to Dirty Rotten’s echo of Something Rotten.

Best of all is Musical, all singing, all dancing and all seven minutes of it, led by Gemma McDonald’s cheeky, chipper, cartoonesque Kurt Jester, who lost her voice at Friday’s dress rehearsal but thankfully called on Doctor Theatre to see her through two shows on Saturday.

Howard Ella: Rowntree Players’ pantomime writer-director

The comic (bubble-haired McDonald) and the dame (Graham Smith’s slightly grumpy but lovable ‘Humpy’, alias Dame Harmony Humperdinck) are no longer chained to working in the Sheriff’s castle, but freelance travelling actors instead.

One is the greatest Shakespearean actor of her age, with an ego to match; the other is a comic extraordinaire in the daft jester tradition. Both have a licence to be loose cannons and pretty much run the show in their unruly way.

King’s Robin and Surgenor’s Maid Marion deliver a knockout Without Love in the tower by the No Exit sign, after Marion knocks back Robin’s demand to do a Rapunzel with her hair, whereupon Robin recourses to a ladder entry through the open window. Physical comedy in the classic English tradition.

Ella loves a pun, a political dig (for example, “Party?”. Correction: “Work gathering”) and partnerships too: not only the regular double act of Smith & McDonald and principal boy and girl King and Surgenor, but also a new combination of McKeller and Marucci, actors with previous form for Rowntree Players, but now venturing into the dark side, albeit to self-delusional comic effect as the topically tax-hiking Sheriff and the dimwitted, snatch-all Snatchell.

Hannah King’s Robin Hood and Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Maid Marion

McKeller is particularly inspired casting. Now making his name on the streets of York as ghostwalk host Doctor Dorian Deathly, he returns to his former stamping ground to make a big imprint with his gleefully dastardly Sheriff, eyebrows arched, voice arch, stage walk swaggering. “There’s still a touch of showbiz lurking behind the venom,” as Ella puts it and he’s spot on.

The comic and the dame nail the slapstick sludge scene; Viner’s musical band are as merry as Robin’s band; the senior chorus and young Blue/Red Team (Red on Saturday night) lap up every ensemble scene, and Ami Carter’s choreography is all dash, nothing slapdash.

Ella and his fellow set designers Paul Mantle and scenic artist Anna Jones have excelled too for the tower and forest alike. Andrea Dillon and Claire Newbold have fun with the costumes, for the pink-fixated dame as ever, but doubly so for the Merry Band in the Six pastiche.

You will love the all-action songsheet number too in a production that comes with genuine icing on the cake: a snow-topped roof from a past panto now repurposed to the dame’s mocking as the Gingerbread House.

Knocked for Six: The Merry Band mirroring SIX The Musical in Babes In The Wood 

Double the panto fun as Rowntree Players merge Robin Hood and Babes In The Wood UPDATED with Howard Ella interview 28/11

Hannah King’s Robin Hood in Rowntree Players’ Babes In The Wood

ROWNTREE Players’ rollicking romp of a pantomime, Babes In The Wood, will roll two shows into one at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, from December 3 to 10.

Let writer-director Howard Ella explain: “We’re combining the stories of Robin Hood and Babes In The Wood. Two tales in one means there’s a lot for me to play with.

“Our beautifully hand-crafted panto promises fun from start to finish with traditional characters intertwined with a modern twist. There’ll be lots of fun for the whole family with the traditional slapstick routines, audience participation and of course, a love story: everything you would expect and want from a pantomime.”

Hannah King’s Robin Hood and Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Maid Marion

Facing the challenge of writing a new panto script for each winter, Howard says: “It takes a lot of head scratching to keep an element of freshness and originality around the traditional stories and the old – but lovingly recycled – jokes.

“The constant drive and annual re-invigoration come from bringing a talented and enthusiastic team together on and off stage.”

As always, Rowntree Players promise adventurous showstopper dance numbers to “have you dancing until Christmas”, having produced dazzling routines over the years showcasing York’s dancing talent.

Cast members in rehearsal for a dance routine in Babes In The Wood

Choreographer Ami Carter says: “It’s hard to pick just one number to be my favourite routine, because there are always moments from all the routines over the years that stick out in my mind – usually because it was a crazy idea that ended up working out really well – such as making a ship from people in Sinbad or having a troupe of dancers emerge from a fireplace in Cinderella.

“So far this year, I think my favourite is ‘Musical’, simply because I love the effect of all those musical references happening one after the other. The audience are in for a real treat with this seven-minute number.”

Howard has chosen very ambitious numbers for this year’s cast to sing, but that comes naturally for newly married musical director Jessica Viner (nee Douglas), who is a regular MD on York’s musical theatre circuit and also teaches and inspires the city’s next generation of musicians.

Double act at the ready: Graham Smith’s Dame Harmony Humperdinck and Gemma McDonald’s Kurt Jester

“I’m super-fortunate that my hobby and job are all rolled up into one as a freelance MD and pit musician,” she says. “As part of that, I teach at York Stage School and I’m also a peripatetic instrumental teacher at a school in Harrogate.”

For Babes In The Wood, Rowntree Players will be utilising a nine-piece band. “They are all so talented, so audiences are in for a real treat,” says Jessica.

Hannah King’s Robin Hood will be joined by a Merry Band of Meg Badrick, Keelie Newbold, Erin Willis, Charla Banks, Libby Roe, Mollie Surgenor and Eva Howe as they take on Jamie McKeller’s Sheriff of Nottingham and his all-too-regular tax hikes with his sidekick, Joe Marucci’s Will Snatchall.

Piling on the pain: Jamie McKeller’s Sheriff of Nottingham, right, and his sidekick in tax-hiking evil, Joe Marucci’s Will Snatchall

Adding to the merriment will be the familiar sight of Graham Smith’s Dame Harmony Humperdinck and Gemma McDonald’s Kurt Jester, entertainers extraordinaire who tour the land with their cabaret double act to help to save Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Maid Marion and the Babes in the Wood (Fergus Green, Ayda Mooney, Henry Cullen and Maddie Chalk).

The prospect of silly jokes, big musical numbers, slapstick and good old-fashioned family fun has led to tickets selling well already, prompting the advice to not delay in booking.  

“It’s the perfect way to kick off Christmas,” says Howard. “Watch a show then go home and put up your tree. It’s what we all do.”

Rowntree Players in Babes In The Wood, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, December 3 to 10. Performances: December 3, 2pm (last few tickets) and 7.30pm; December 4, 2pm (limited availability) and 6pm; December 6 (limited), December 7 (limited), December 8 (last few); December 9, 7.30pm; December 10, 2pm (last few) and  7.30pm (limited). Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk. 

Babes In The Wood writer-director Howard Ella in the rehearsal room

CharlesHutchPress puts Rowntree Players writer-director Howard Ella in the pantomime spotlight ahead of Babes In The Wood’s first night

What makes Robin Hood and Babes In The Wood better for interweaving the two storylines, Howard?

“Robin Hood is a great, and ultimately, very traditional story. It’s very basic in its journey, and so being able to add some elements in the form of the Babes in the Wood helps broaden the story telling.  

“It gives Robin heroic motivation that is broader than wooing Marion and, because it involves a younger cast, it opens up opportunities to take on larger roles.  Of course, the original Hansel and Gretel story is incredibly dark, so I take a huge sidestep and some significant creative liberties!”

What will be the “new twists” you mentioned?

“There’s some twists this year in terms of casting choices and of course the plot goes off on tangents that aren’t wholly (or sometimes remotely) loyal to the initial storytelling.  It’s not irreverence that drives that, but a push to keep things fresh and fun. 

“Details on the twists?  Well, no spoilers – you need to come and see the show – but as a taster, the Dame and comic this year no longer work in the Sheriff’s castle, but are travelling actors: Dame Harmony Humperdinck, the greatest Shakespearean actor of her age (and what an age!) and Kurt Jester, comic extraordinaire.”

What will be the fresh features of this pantomime?

“It’s not just originality in the set that lets us renew every season but also our approach to set design.  We’re so lucky to be one of the few amateur companies in the country to have a full set-building store with engineers, carpenters and the most amazing scenic painter – all volunteers working year-round on our productions.

“This year, for the first time, all of our scenery, every single glittered gem of a piece, has been designed and made for us by that team.  Add to that the amazing costumes our team pull together and we have a show that really is a dazzler.”

Jamie McKeller: Change of gear for actor and ghost tour host, swapping from Doctor Dorian Deathly’s haunted streets of York to spreading evil on the JoRo boards

How important is the elixir of panto right now, given the doom, gloom and financial strictures of the winter ahead and beyond?

“It’s hard to keep positive given the doom and gloom of the wider world and financial forecasts.   Escapism, now and then, is an important rejuvenator in trying times. The magic of going to the theatre, specifically the elixir of panto, is such a good way to reboot together with friends and family, to laugh and tap your feet and be reminded of the positives there are in community, opportunity and good old fart gags!

“A night at the panto lasts far longer than two and a half hours. The kids will be talking about the characters for weeks, the adults will leave humming the tunes, and the dads will be recycling my handcrafted, yet ultimately silly jokes for years to come!”

What will be the big musical numbers in Babes In The Wood?

“There’s a phrase… ’Self indulgence is better than no indulgence at all’. Well, that’s certainly true about the choice of music in panto.  Musical theatre is a great passion of mine and so panto is an opportunity to play with all my favourite show tunes and perform some fun pastiches of various shows. 

“This year we tackle a seven minute-long beast of a number and the dame [Graham Smith] hits some dizzy heights in Act 2.  We’ve got hints of Hairspray, Something Rotten, Gypsy, Wicked.  It’s a real tour of showstoppers!”

How did you sign up Jamie McKeller, alias York ghost tour host Dorian Deathly, to play the villian?

“This year, as well as giving a lot of our younger company a chance to step into new roles, we have some exciting first-timers. The amazing Jamie McKeller and Joe Marucci have landed the roles of the Sheriff and his henchman respectively.  

“Both are Rowntree Players alumni, having been in several plays over the years, but it’s a first foray into the ludicrous for both.   It’s especially pleasing for us to have Jamie, aka Dorian Deathly, the award-winning York spookologist, playing it evil in panto.  Although there’s still a touch of showbiz lurking behind the venom.”

Forest tomfoolery: Gemma McDonald’s Kurt Jester


Plenty of familiar faces are brought back together in the cast: Hannah King’s principal boy Robin Hood opposite Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Maid Marion; Graham Smith’s dame and Gemma McDonald’s daft lass. Audiences enjoy such partnerships….Discuss!

“Of course, along with new faces are some older ones. Some older than others!  There’s a balance between keeping it fresh and building a winning team.  Pantomime is one of those genres where audiences return and enjoy familiar faces and some annual in-jokes.  

“Added to that is the relationships the cast members build.  None is as important as that between ‘Dame’ and ‘Comic’.  For us that is Graham and Gemma who, despite the rigorous audition process, have managed to be cast together for several years.  That shorthand, trust, comic timing, audience understanding and ability to let a script ebb and flow is a vital backbone to a strong pantomime.” 

What do you most enjoy about directing the Rowntree Players in pantomimes?

“Pantomime for everyone is a huge commitment and pretty all-consuming in the run-up to Christmas.  For me, it’s become a year-long process of writing, casting, then going into pre-production, directing the show and overseeing the visual and technical elements.

“It’s a stretch to balance off against work in London and actually being at home sometimes, but it feeds the creative control freak in me.

“The process is so incredibly rewarding but there are two hugely satisfying elements.   Firstly, I can invent whatever silly, nonsensical story, characters and scenarios I fancy and the team of talented, dedicated and, ultimately, incredibly patient volunteers bring it to life. We’re back to the self-indulgence thing.

“Secondly, and most importantly, we introduce a bunch of young people to the stage. Often from the age of nine or ten until they drift off into adulthood, we all get to share in their growth in confidence, talent and height and, I hope, skills they can use later on in life on or off the stage. Watching those performers get stronger every year is the ultimate reward.”

Covid curse strikes again as Doctor Dorian Deathly is forced to postpone A Night Of Face Melting Horror until next January UPDATED 1/11/2022

Doctor Dorian Deathly’s nights of face melting horror must wait until January 2023

YORK spookologist and ghost botherer Doctor Dorian Deathly was to have swapped walking the (ghost) walk for talking the (ghost) talk for Halloween season, but Covid has “done a right number on him”, in the words of Deathly Dark Tours operations manager Dede Deathly.

Moving indoors from the city streets, Visit York’s New Tourism Business Award Winner for 2022 would have been presenting six fright nights of scary tales, spooks caught on film and ghost stories of England’s “most haunted city”, to be experienced from the relative safety of a seat at Theatre@41, Monkgate, from tonight until October 31. The performances will take place from January 24 to 28 2023 instead.

When the show does go ahead, the deadpan Doctor Deathly will present The Complete History Of Ghosts in A Night Of Face Melting Horror through a combination of stories, paranormal sciences, horror, theatrical trickery, original music and perhaps the odd unexpected guest at 8.30pm each night.

“Together we will huddle around the stage and explore spine-chilling tales of hauntings, both local and further afield, dissemble horrors captured on film and follow the ghost story through from its origins to the Victorian classics and modern-day frights,” says Doctor Deathly, whose face-melting macabre amusements are suitable to age 13 plus as he considers what makes spines shiver and examines our obsession with tales of death, murder and hauntings.

Doctor Deathly was struck by the idea of doing a show at Theatre@41 after seeing Pick Me Up Theatre in The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ The Musical last December. “It sparked the bit of the brain that causes trouble!” he says. “Rather than just having our ghost walks for Halloween, which we know will sell out, I thought, ‘let’s do something here’.

“During the last couple of years, we were doing lots of online events, streamed on Facebook during lockdown to thousands of people around the world. There are only a certain number of ghost stories for York on a prescribed route, when people want to see Shambles and the Minster, and we thought, ‘how can we show different things?’.

“We came up with the online show Tales From The Fireplace, where people would send in ghost stories and pictures and videos of encounters with ghosts.  It was essentially like a TV show, where we got a few funny ones sent in; we were coming at it from that angle, analysing them and breaking them down. Some were brilliantly well written.”

The now defunct poster for Doctor Dorian Deathly’s postponed Halloween event at Theatre@41

This prompted Doctor Deathly to construct A Night Of Face Melting Horror. “First and foremost, it’s entertainment. People love ghost stories and we thought, what if we flip it on its head and people have to come out to the theatre to celebrate ghost stories from the wild?” he says.

“The thread through the show is the history of the ghost story, talking about the origins of those stories, what they come from, their place in both texts and the imagination. Then we look at how it exploded in Victorian times with huge interest in these stories.”

Born in Scarborough, Deathly’s inventor, actor Jamie McKeller, moved to York in 2004/2005, first performing in A Christmas Carol at the Castle Museum and with Lee Harris and The Dreaming in Terry Pratchett’s Rincewind.

“I’d been to York on fleeting visits, then I was getting on the train here to rehearse. One day I was walking through York, and it was snowing, and I popped into a coffee shop.  Looking out at the Minster, I remember thinking, ‘how can I not move here?’.”

For 15 years, he was a professional actor. “It’s exhausting, a grind,” he says, delighted to now have a constant, stable income as a ghost walker. “It’s my company too, so I can do these crazy things.“

Part of York’s Guild of Spookologists , alongside Mad Alice, Shadows Of York (Mackenzie Crompton) and Damian Freddi’s Dark Chronicles, Doctor Dorian Deathly’s Deathly Dark Tours has taken on a second York tour guide to meet demand, Dorian being joined by Dafydd Deathly, from Wales.

“He ran virtual tours for us in Edinburgh and now he’s come back to York, I asked him if he would join me because the tour is so busy. We run six nights a week,” says Doctor Deathly.

“Why are you here, for this show full of ghosts, in a world of such niceties?” asks Doctor Dorian Deathly

“We did two shows a night in Summer 2021, but it’s a very non-traditional ghost tour, very theatrical, very big, with magic tricks. It’s very tiring! 30-year-old Jamie doing that each night, fine; 42-year-old Jamie, maybe not!”

Why, Dorian, are we drawn to the horror, the horror, of ghost stories, especially in York? “It’s that obsession with fear, but why do we do that to ourselves?” he asks himself. “Why do we like putting ourselves in that situation?

“The opening song in A Night Of Face Melting Horror poses a question: I directly ask, ‘what’s wrong with you, with all of us, in a world of The Great British Bake Off and The Great Pottery Throw Down, why are you here, for this show full of ghosts, in a world of such niceties? That’s the answer we’re looking for; the answer to that!”

Why does York suit ghost storytelling, Dorian? “I have friends who are tour guides around the country and sometimes I feel sorry for them because they have to talk about things that are no longer there in their city. But in York you can see a piece of wood dating from the 12th century, and you watch Americans blink as they take that in,” he says.

Once back to full health, his acting side will flourish once more as Jamie takes on the role of the baddie, the Sheriff of Nottingham, in Rowntree Players’ pantomime, Babes In The Wood, at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, on December 3, 4 and 6 to 10. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Doctor Dorian Deathly’s A Night Of Face Melting Horror (or The Complete History Of Ghosts), Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, will not run from October 26 to31, 8.30pm nightly, after all as a result of illness. The new dates will be January 24 to 28 2023. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

For more information on Doctor Dorian Deathly’s walking tours, visit www.deathlydarktours.com or call 07851 032041.

Forestry commission: Jamie McKeller ventures into the dark side as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Rowntree Players’ 2022 pantomime, Babes In The Wood