REVIEW: Theatre Royal’s travelling show for the people rescues the essence of panto

Switched on at all times: Robin Simpson’s joke-generation dame lights up York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime. All pictures: Ant Robling

REVIEW: York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, New Earswick Folk Hall, York, 5/12/2020

NO Rolling Stones show goes by without rock’n’roll’s greatest paleontological survivor, Keith Richards, leaning into his microphone to mumble: “It’s good to be here…it’s good to be anywhere”.

Lo and behold, “It’s great to be here…it’s kind of great to be anywhere,” says York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime’s comic turn, Josh “Just Joshing” Benson, at the outset of Saturday evening’s Covid-secure, socially distanced, temperature-tested, bubble-seated pantomime.

How right he is. Saturday was day four of the new dawn of the York Theatre Royal pantomime, the  first after 40 years in the wildness of the Dame Berwick Kaler era. Until Covid-19 became the joyless new villain, out to destroy the land of theatre, Cinderella was to have marked the transition from Kaler capers to a new partnership with regular Great British Pantomime Award winners Evolution Productions.

On his knees but not for long: York Theatre Royal’s inexhaustible pantomime comic turn Josh Benson

When invitations to the ball turned to cinders, chief executive Tom Bird, creative director Juliet Forster and Evolution writer-director Paul Hendy decided to tear up the script and compose three new ones instead to take the panto to the people.

Hence it is indeed great to be here, there and everywhere, because, while the Theatre Royal main stage awaits resuscitation in 2021, the Travelling Pantomime will definitely be pitching up at 16 of York’s 21 wards, possibly more if Covid-safe passage can yet be guaranteed to others. At least four more shows are being lined up for after Christmas and a recording of the second-night preview will be made available for streaming soon too.

On Saturday, New Earswick Folk Hall was transformed into a theatre for the first time, creating an impromptu stage with Hannah Sibai’s red-curtained, green-framed travelling theatre frontage and a traditional pantomime backdrop.

It’s all about the bass: York Theatre Royal’s multi-tasking fairy, singing captain and musician Anna Soden

Everything is slimmed down – a cast of five, no ensemble, no live band, no interval, no panto cow, but less just means being more inventive and cramming so much into what we are told will be an hour but stretches gladly well beyond.

Edinburgh Fringe shows work to tight running times, and quality, not quantity, rules here too. To Paul Hendy, that means bottling up the “the essence of panto” and right now, in Covid-19 2020, that essence is Joy.

Once we are introduced not just to Just Josh’s rubber-bodied comic, but also Robin Simpson’s classic dame, Faye Campbell’s modern hero, super-tall Reuben Johnson’s villain and Anna Soden’s trumpet/guitar/bass-playing fairy, we must vote for our choice of show: Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk or Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Seven dwarves, note; there is a knock-out joke a’coming.

Hitting the Jack-pot: Faye Campbell’s super hero in Jack And The Beanstalk

Jack won out on Saturday: Josh becoming, well, Josh, with the daftest streak of blond in his hair since Kevin Petersen pummelled 158 against Australia with a skunk plonked on his bonce in 2005. He is a lovably daft ball of energy, cheeky but not saucy, and if he kept his magic tricks up his sleeve this time, what an asset for the future.

Simpson, on loan from Huddersfield’s  Lawrence Batley Theatre, is the penniless but pun-full, mirthful Dame Trott, reaching for both a cuppa and the gin; Johnson, all in black with a dash of red to match his Russian accent, is a Flesh Creep with an amusingly dismissive air and a mischievous hint of Borat.

Campbell’s Jack must fight the old prejudices against girls being fit for purpose for heroic tasks while keeping the name Jack. Soden’s rapping, funky, blue and pink-haired Fairy is more likely to hit the bass line than wave a wand, as flashy as her lit-up boots.

Kill-joy: Reuben Johnson’s Flesh Creep in Jack And The Beanstalk

Juliet Forster directs with momentum, brio and thrills rather than frills, complemented by Hayley Del Harrison’s fun, compact choreography and musical director James Harrison’s rapid-fire bursts of high-energy songs.

Yes, there is a beanstalk and a Giant called Pundemic. Above all, York Theatre Royal have hit the jackpot with Paul Hendy’s script-writing prowess, love of a double-act routine and a knowingly contrived, convoluted path to a pay-off line.

He handles the pandemic crisis with a success rate to make the Government jealous, throwing in topical references galore with witty, often unpredictable Pandemime punchlines, but nothing insensitive in such traumatic times.

Writer Paul Hendy: Bottling the essence of pantomime, labelled with joy

A magazine title slapstick to-and-fro between Benson and Simpson is already a contender for panto scene of the year, and if there are jokes for adults, Hendy favours a Gilbert O’Sullivan song title, rather than adult material or in-jokes.

Pantomime 1, Pandemic 0, the Travelling Pantomime triumphs on its already sold-out run to December 23. Hendy will be back next winter for the full Evolution to roll out; Benson is due to return to the Victoria Theatre panto in Halifax next Christmas, alas, but his Theatre Royal day will surely come, even if he can’t magic his way out of that one.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

21 wards, three shows, prepare for York Theatre Royal pantomime like no other

Just Joshing: York entertainer and magician Josh Benson larks around on the York Theatre Royal stage as rehearsals begin forThe Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Anthony Robling

REHEARSALS are underway for York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime, the neighbourhood show that will tour to all 21 wards in York.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s confirmation that theatre rehearsals could continue behind closed doors during Lockdown 2, despite all entertainment venues being closed from November 5, has facilitated director Juliet Forster bringing the cast together for sessions in the Covid-secure billiards room in the De Grey Rooms.

“It was a huge relief,” says Juliet, the Theatre Royal’s associate director. “We anticipated he would because he’d said film and TV rehearsals wouldn’t stop, but he hadn’t mentioned theatre at that time, so there was that awful feeling of not knowing, but it was great when the news came out at 9pm that night.”

Welcoming the cast of Robin Simpson, entertainer and magician Josh Benson, actor-musician Anna Soden, Reuben Johnson and Faye Campbell, chief executive Tom Bird says: “We’ve put Covid safety measures in place and will be carefully following Government guidelines over the weeks ahead, but we’re thrilled that we can carry on with our plans to take our pantomime out to the people of York this year.”

Revised dates – moved to a later start after Lockdown 2 was announced – are now in place for a run from December 3, with more to be added. The preview night on a pop-up theatre on York Theatre Royal’s main stage on December 3 will be filmed for broadcast so anyone who misses out on a ticket can still enjoy the show, co-produced by York Theatre Royal and new pantomime partners Evolution Productions.

“Be assured, one way or another, York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime will be coming to you,” says Tom.

“Panto really benefits from the input of the live audience, so that’s why it was always our intention to do the recording in front of an audience,” says Juliet.

York Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and chief executive Tom Bird with Paul Hendy, producer of pantomime partners Evolution Productions

Joined in the production team by Pop-Up On The Patio designer Hannah Sibai, choreographer Hayley Del Harrison and musical director James Harrison, Juliet will be working on not one, but three 70-minute pantomimes written by Evolution producer Paul Hendy for each audience to vote whether to see Jack And The Beanstalk, Dick Whittington or Snow White.

Three pantomimes? Plenty to rehearse there, Juliet?! “It’s do-able, and thanks to the Government, we have a bit more rehearsal time now,” she says.

A cast of only five will help too. “Because we’re working on a small touring stage, it wouldn’t have made sense to do a big-sized show with a dance ensemble,” says Juliet. “You may lose some spectacle, but in terms of story-telling, chatting with Paul [writer Paul Hendy], we decided that having just the five key characters intensifies the story, investing in each character’s journey.”

Actor and writer Reuben Johnson will play Fleshcreep and Ratticus Flinch, the villain’s roles, after working previously with Juliet last year, appearing as the thoroughly decent Marco in the Theatre Royal’s autumn production of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge.

“It was quite a different show from doing a panto!” he says. “We met on Skype to talk about it, and it’s a perfect chance to work on something fun in such dark times.”

“Reuben has such comedic funny bones, which you wouldn’t have seen in A View From The Bridge, but even there he mined a few comic moments,” says Juliet. “Sometimes you get someone in your head when you read a script, and they keep coming back into your head, like Reuben did, even though I think of him as a very serious actor. Some of my best casting has come that way.”

“I’m trying to find the humour and likeability of the villain, which really contradicts the audience’s thoughts and expectations,” says Reuben Johnson as he prepares to play Fleshcreep and Ratticus Flinch. Picture: Anthony Robling

Reuben may be a pantomime debutant but says: “I’m a theatre fan in general. I love Shakespeare, new plays, physical comedy, pantomime. Panto wouldn’t normally be number one, but I enjoy all theatre and we do need some big fun right now.”

Reflecting on taking on the villain’s role, he says: “I’ve played baddies quite a bit, and what I like to think I can bring to them, when playing stereotypical villains, is trying to find the humour and likeability of that character, which really contradicts the audience’s thoughts and expectations about that person.

“When I watched them as a child, I often thought that bad guys were hilarious to be around, very rowdy, exciting. Now I’ve got the chance to go to town with it in pantomime.”

One rule of acting asserts that you do not have to sympathise with the characters you play, but you should at least empathise with them. “As long as you know your motivation, it’s how you then go about playing the villain,” says Reuben.

“In pantomime, you’ll want to hear people both laughing at you and with you. It’s that love/hate thing.”

Robin Simpson was last seen on the Theatre Royal stage in Northern Broadsides’ Much Ado About Nothing in May 2019 and has Theatre Royal credits to his name in The Railway Children, The Wind In The Willows, Pinocchio and Pygmalion. 

This winter he returns in the juiciest of all pantomime parts, the Dame, a role he has played for the past three years at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield.  “This time feels very different because of the current situation and the nature of the show,” says Robin, who played Dame Dolly in Jack And The Beanstalk, Widow Twankey in Aladdin and Nanny Fanny in Sleeping Beauty.

“We didn’t mine that name for any humour, I can assure you! We were all very grown up about it, weren’t we!”

“It’s like being the best kind of party host,” says Robin Simpson, summing up the joy of playing the dame in York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Anthony Robling

Defining the dame’s importance to pantomime, Robin says: “It’s like being the best kind of party host, being welcoming, over the top, ebullient, everyone’s friend, which is so nice to play.”

In dame tradition, from Dan Leno to Berwick Kaler, he has settled on his distinctive persona. “If you’ve got something that works, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Robin says of the upcoming prospect of playing three variations on Dame Dolly next month.

“My dame is like Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck rolled into one! There won’t be any variation, except trying to remember who I’m playing each time, with the different frocks denoting the character.

“It’s very much a case of the dame generally being a working-class single mother, with numerous children; hard working, straight talking and funny. I’m sort of basing it loosely on northern women when I was growing up. That Ena Sharples character [in Coronation Street], gossiping over the wall; that matriarch; that Les Dawson send-up with Roy Barraclough.

“There’s lots of love there, but she’s also as hard as nails, and you don’t see that much anymore, but hopefully it’s still recognisable. But ultimately with the dame, she comes on stage as a bloke in a dress who tells jokes.”

Lockdown in March turned the lights out on stages across the country but both Johnson and Simpson have sought to keep busy. “I’ve done OK,” says Reuben. “Fortuitously for me, I write as well, doing spoken-word, so I’ve got by on that, with a few little acting jobs as well, but I’ve been craving getting back to work on a stage and that’s not been possible until now. Returning to the rehearsal room has been like a dream.”

Robin, who is also a storyteller, working in schools, libraries and museums all over the country, says: “I don’t want to complain too much because I know people have been going through worse. I’ve worked online, recording stories, learning skills like how to record and creating little films and kids’ stories on Facebook Live for Oldham Libraries,” he says.

York actor-musician Anna Soden, who will play Fairy and Sea Captain and a multitude of musical instruments in The Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Anthony Robling

“I think there’s merit in recording shows as I can reach places I couldn’t do with live performances for the library service, though you’ll never beat the ‘liveness’ of a show.”

Juliet rejoins: “It all comes back to the shared experience.” “That’s what we’re all desperate for,” says Robin.

“That’s why we couldn’t let go of the need to do a Theatre Royal pantomime this Christmas, even when we knew we weren’t going to be able to open the theatre,” says Juliet. “The prospect of not doing a panto felt wrong.

“We’d talked about community touring and rural touring, and our research told us that audiences would feel more comfortable going to a show locally with their neighbours, rather than coming to the theatre with people from all over the place.

“That’s why we decided to take something so synonymous with Christmas out of the theatre into York’s community centres, church halls and schools for families to have some festive fun with Paul’s shows that are really warm, funny for all ages, packed full of good characters and not innuendo.”

For tickets, dates and more details for The Travelling Pantomime, go to

Here, there and everywhere: York Theatre Royal’s poster for The Travelling Pantomime

YORK THEATRE ROYAL’S TRAVELLING PANTOMIME schedule of performances. Confirmed so far:

December 2: Members-only preview, York Theatre Royal (pop-up theatre on main stage).

December 3: Preview, York Theatre Royal (pop-up theatre on main stage).

December 4: Tang Hall Community Centre, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 5: New Earswick Folk Hall, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 8: The Reading Room, Dunnington, 7pm.

December 9: Wiggington Recreation Hall, 7pm.

December 10:  St Barnabas Primary School, Holgate. Afternoon school performance; public

Performance, 6pm.

December 11: Clifton Church Hall, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 12: Elvington Village Hall, Wheldrake, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 13: The Poppleton Centre, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 15: Acomb Parish Hall, 7pm.

December 16: Carr Junior School. Afternoon school performance; public performance, 6pm.

December 18: Copmanthorpe Methodist Church Hall, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 19:  Clifton Green Primary School, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 20: York Pavilion Hotel, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 22: Heworth Christ Church, 4.30pm and 7pm.

December 23: Archbishop Holgate’s School, 4.30pm and 7pm.

Additional venues to be confirmed.

Brushing up on his role: Josh Benson goes to work at York Theatre Royal

Tickets cost £10 for adults, £5 for children, with a maximum party size of six people in a household or support bubble.

Up to 25 per cent of tickets will be made free of charge to families in need this Christmas.

Capacity at some venues is small. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis to anyone living in a York city ward.

Did you know?

TRAVELLING Pantomime musical director James Harrison was musical supervisor/director for Evolution Productions’ award-winning 2019-2020 pantomime, Cinderella, at Sheffield Lyceum Theatre. He was awarded the Best Music prize at the Great British Pantomime Awards. 

 Please note:  York Theatre Royal’s planned 2020/21 pantomime, Cinderella, will not go to the ball until next winter.

From York’s Snow White to London’s Musical Theatre Academy, Louise Henry vows to take next step

Louise Henry: From Liesl and Snow White to the musical theatre diploma at MTA in London

“FINALLYYYY the day has come that I can say this… I got into drama school!!!!!” So read Louise Henry’s ecstatic Facebook announcement that she has been accepted for the fast-track diploma course at the Musical Theatre Academy (MTA), in London, from October.

Louise, you may recall, made her professional debut in December as “York’s very own” Louise Henry – in reality from Knaresborough – playing Snow White in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at the Grand Opera House, York. From 30 auditionees, she had landed the part while working at the Hoxton North café bar in Royal Parade, Harrogate, 

In the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown, she secured her MTA place through a Zoom audition – “how bizarre,” she says – and now comes the challenge of raising the finance for her two years of musical theatre studies in Tottenham Green.

First, however, let 22-year-old Louise celebrate her good news. “Anyone who knows me will know this has been my dream forever,” she wrote at

“Some of the most vivid memories of my childhood are centred around shows and performing, the earliest being chosen to play Whoops A Daisy Angel in Year 1 – a role I played with absolute conviction, I’ll have you know.

Louise Henry as Shelby in York Stage’s Steel Magnolias at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, her last role before securing her place at MTA

“If I were to ask you what your wildest dream was, beyond all imagination, what would you say? Genuinely, what would it be? Mine would be to perform for a living. My heart is so happy on stage.”

Now, the bad news. “To attend this phenomenal school and receive the training I have long yearned for, I must fund the £32,000 fees with no government funding,” she revealed on Facebook.

“The MTA is not linked with a university and therefore I cannot apply for a student loan in the same way other courses can. Yes. I know. BUT, and humour me here, if every one of my 1,481 Facebook Friends generously donated £20 (or £21.70 to be precise), I would make the amount in full.”

Louise understands that such a proposal is “wishful thinking on my part”, but her Facebook post added: “However, if, by chance of incredible generosity, half, a third, or even a quarter, of said friends donated anything possible, I would be in a much more promising position to be able to attend this school.

“If people kindly donated even £1, I’m £1 closer! If you could share it to reach your friends and family further afield, my chances are immediately increased.”

Louise Henry, back left, in her role as Liesl von Trapp in York Stage Musicals’ The Sound Of Music at the Grand Opera House, York, in 2019

CharlesHutchPress is delighted to spread the word, having enjoyed Louise’s performances in such York Stage Musicals roles as 16-year-old Liesl von Trapp in The Sound Of Music and 40-year-old Jane in Twilight Robbery, as well as a young Australian woman, Gabrielle York, in Rigmarole Theatre Company’s When The Rain Stops Falling last November.

Since then, there have been her dark-wigged Princess Snow White in pantoland and her latest York Stage outing as plucky, resolute but physically fragile Louisiana bride-to-be Shelby in Steel Magnolias in February.

“We are living in such strange, difficult times,” her Facebook open letter continued. “Everything is uncertain for everyone I know and the world is suffering every day. I’m hoping, by this point in the post, that you can appreciate that I simply have to continue as if we aren’t in the middle of a global pandemic.

“Please believe me, I wish I wasn’t asking for help at a time like this. I understand and agree that there are far more worthy and important causes but I feel I have to consider the potential of my future career.

“Of course, I have spent every minute since I received my offer considering how I could logistically, carefully and respectfully raise money under the current circumstances. But making sure I abide by the Government’s restrictions is leaving me with little I can offer by way of help in exchange.

Louise Henry after she learnt she had been picked to make her professional debut as Snow White in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, last winter’s Grand Opera House pantomime .Picture: David Harrison.

“Saying this, if there really is anything – walking dogs with my gloves on, helping in the garden, an online singalong or bedtime story for your children – I will help in any way I can! Equally, if you have any suggestions, please send them my way! Once these restrictions are lifted and we are all much less at risk I will, of course, help in any way possible.”

Summing up her situation, Louise says: “I have to be optimistic in that I don’t know who’s hands/Facebook timeline the post might fall into. I’m doing all I can to make this dream a reality, and that means, for me personally, asking kindly for any help I can get.”

To assist Louise, go to

“My first love has always been musical theatre,” says MTA-bound Louise

Charles Hutchinson puts the questions to Louise Henry as she chases her acting dream and the means to secure that future

WHAT attracted you to MTA in particular? How long will you be studying there and what are your hopes and expectations with this course, Louise?

“MTA’s diploma is only a two-year course and so your training is intensified throughout this time.  

“The school only accepts 22 students per year and, therefore, you’re in a very elite group of performers, and the contact time, as with many drama schools, is incredibly high at 40 hours per week.

“Equally, the course is split 50/50, 50 per cent focused on stage and 50 per cent on screen acting, which is always something I have wanted to study alongside musical theatre. Everything I read about MTA made me feel as though the course would fully prepare you to be a triple-threat musical theatre performer, but also be trained thoroughly as a screen actor.” 

Louise Henry as a young Australian woman, Gabrielle York, in Rigmarole Theatre Company’s When The Rain Stops Falling at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, last autumn

What steps did you have to go through to land a place at MTA?

“The audition process was obviously very different to that I’m used to: the lockdown implemented by the Government on the outbreak of Covid-19 meant that travelling to the audition would be impossible and potentially very dangerous.

“I soon received an email from Annemarie [Lewis Thomas], the school’s principal, who stated that the auditions would go ahead regardless and instead be held over Zoom, which I was actually very excited about as it would be a totally different experience!

“When the day came, I set up my laptop in my bedroom and had prepared the monologue and song I’d have taken to the audition anyway and from then on it was actually very simple!

“It felt much less daunting than actually being in the room, and I suppose if that translates through people’s auditions it would make the panel’s decision much easier in that it’s based off a very true and honest performance.

“We were even able to do some improv over Zoom with the other auditionees, which was such an interesting experience, led by their head of acting, Tilly Vosburgh, and a group vocal workshop with the head of voice, Josh Mathieson.

“They work very quickly there and so once I had sent in a dance audition – to a song of my choice – I heard back within about 24 hours actually! It was record timing and meant I didn’t spend two anxious weeks refreshing my emails – a feeling I’d grown used to over the past few years’ auditioning.”

Louise Henry playing Liesl von Trapp in York Stage Musicals’ The Sound Of Music

Over the past year, you have done a variety of roles on the York stage – musicals, a pantomime, an Aussie play, an American play – showing an all-round talent. Why pick a musical theatre course?

“My first love has always been musical theatre and was initially what I wanted to study straight out of A-Levels. However, it felt as though my dance ability was always letting me down and so I spent a few years going to dance classes with Lyndsay Wells in Harrogate and instead chose to audition for a few years for straight acting. “That being said, singing and acting have always been my strong point and so musical theatre was always my preference.

“Working with Nik Briggs’s York Stage has been invaluable and being able to perform in a few predominantly acting roles has been a great opportunity to exercise that skill without relying on song and dance.

“Equally, working in the Grand Opera House pantomime over Christmas only intensified my drive to pursue musical theatre and so, on being recommended the MTA, I felt led to audition.” 

Louise Henry’s Princess Snow White lies prone after biting the poison-drugged apple in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at the Grand Opera House, as the distraught dwarfs and Martin Daniels’ Muddles, right, look on. Picture: David Harrison.

What did you learn from making your professional debut in the 2019-2020 Grand Opera House pantomime?

“Performing in the pantomime was such a brilliant insight to the kind of life I could be working towards. Every day I would try to remind myself that actually soon it would be over and everyday life would assume, and in actual fact you don’t go through every day singing and dancing and dressing up!

“I constantly allowed myself to feel grateful for each performance and despite the intense hard work put into every show, I never tired of performing it. In fact, I really wish we could’ve had more shows somehow crammed into that mad month!

“It taught me that performances can be put together under your very nose and all of a sudden your show is ready and you’re opening. It also taught me that the illusion of a show is one of the most magical and fulfilling experiences for both the performer and the audience member.

“There was no better feeling than getting to the end of the show and being able to see our audiences dancing in the aisles and singing along with us. I’m just really grateful I had that experience and insight to what my life could be like – with a lot of hard work and luck obviously!”

Louise Henry as Princess Snow White, before the dark wig was added, at the press day to launch Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Picture: David Harrison

How did it feel playing the title role in your professional debut in Snow White?

“Playing the title role was a little bit of a shellshock experience every day really; everyone else I was working with – even the incredible children playing the dwarves – had worked a panto run previously, so I was a total newbie.

“The cast and crew made me feel so welcome and I learnt so much from the friends I made. There was also something pretty lovely in that, because I wore the black wig, which was in total contrast to my hair at the time, very few people recognised me leaving the stage door. This was nice as it kind of protected the magic of the show for the kids who had come to watch.” 

Louise Henry, right, front, with fellow Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs cast members Mark Little, left, Steve Wickenden, Martin Daniels, Jonny Muir and Vicki Michelle at the Grand Opera House, York. Picture by David Harrison.

Did you pick up any good tips from the old pros in the company such as Vicki Michelle, Martin Daniels and Mark Little?

“Working so closely with Vicki, Martin and Mark was incredibly insightful and I got so many opportunities to chat with them about their experiences with performing and acting.

“Mark and I were interviewed by BBC Radio York at the same time and so we had a good chat that morning about his career and I spoke to him about how different things are now, in terms of getting into performing.

“Everyone was so encouraging and supportive, they were always spurring me on to try and keep working for this career. It was incredible watching the show being put together and acting with them was a real joy.” 

Louise Henry as Shelby in Steel Magnolias: “Probably my favourite show I’ve ever been involved with,” she says

How had your year gone before lockdown, on stage and off?

“Before lockdown, I was applying to any auditions I could find via the National Youth Theatre member’s board, having been a member since 2015 when I was lucky enough to be invited to attend their intensive summer-school course.

“I sent off applications for a film in which I was cast as an extra, so drove down to London to film for a couple of days in February. That was a fab experience and something I’d never done before.

“I auditioned to attend a workshop with Katie Greenall, a National Youth Theatre associate, and was asked to go down and work for three days on an idea of a performance she is devising.

“I had a couple of auditions and recalls for National Youth Theatre’s REP company, and throughout all the trips to and from London I was working on Steel Magnolias back in York with York Stage.

“This was probably my favourite show I’ve ever been involved with, from the incredible cast I was lucky enough to work with, to the direction and production of the play.

“I just feel so grateful that it came together and we could perform before this  lockdown was implemented. So, actually, I had quite a busy few months!”

“I’ve been training my family in ‘bootcamp’ sessions three times a week, then one big workout on a Sunday morning,” says Louise of her lockdown routine

How are you coping with lockdown?

“Lockdown has been a little bizarre and definitely an adjustment. But I really do love a routine, so once I’d established my routine at home, I got comfortable very quickly! “I love exercise and training in different ways, so I’ve been training my family in ‘bootcamp’ sessions three times a week, then one big workout on a Sunday morning.

“I’ve been creating workouts for three friends separately and doing many Zoom dance classes and yoga sessions. It’s probably the most active I’ve ever been! “Alongside this, I’ve been trying to learn a new song each week, focusing on songs that I wouldn’t usually go for. I try and sing these when my family are out walking, so I don’t deafen them with a loud belt!

“Obviously, I had a lot of preparation for my audition and also was asked by Nik [Briggs] at York Stage to get involved with his Songs From The Settee, singing Doctor’s Orders from Catch Me If You Can.

“I’m really glad to have the offer from MTA, so it feels like I have something to work towards once this is all over.”

Louise Henry, top left, in a promotional picture for York Stage’s Steel Magnolias

What would going to MTA mean to you after all the work you have put in already to develop your skills?

“I’m not going to lie… it’s been a long few years, auditioning to train at drama school, and it has always felt really gutting to have not secured a place despite usually getting to final recalls.

“Every time you feel so close and then can’t help but wonder what it is you were lacking? Or if they already have ‘x’ amount of 5’6 females with brunette hair? You hear that it can be down to issues that small, and it becomes really frustrating trying to pinpoint what it was about you that they didn’t want.

“So, this year, to finally secure a place, in the middle of so much uncertainty, I really feel overwhelmed by it! I know it is so clichéd but this is really my one dream to try and achieve making a career of performing, so the place at MTA, I believe, is the first step towards that dream becoming reality.

“I can’t put into words what it was like finally seeing ‘we are delighted to inform you…’ on my acceptance email. I ran downstairs screaming; I feel bad for my neighbours!”

“Your whole chest is just full and you feel like you might just ‘Mary Poppins’ it at any second and take off,” says Louise Henry, describing her love of performing

It may be an obvious question, but what makes you want to be an actor?

“Not at all an obvious question as I have absolutely had moments over the years of ‘oh god, why am I doing this?’. ‘Why am I putting myself through this?’. But quite simply, there’s no better feeling to me than being on stage and performing.

“I don’t know how I can describe this concisely, but there’s a feeling I get when I’m taking my bow or at the end of a run or in the ‘big bit’ of a song and it’s just like you’ve won the marathon or the lottery or you’re reunited with someone, and your whole chest is just full and you feel like you might just ‘Mary Poppins’ it at any second and take off.

“And that feeling to me makes everything else worth it. It’s massive lows but MASSIVE highs and for some peculiar reason the highs make you forget all the lows.

“It’s all I could ever see myself doing, and I would regret it forever if I didn’t throw myself at it and give it everything I have.” 

Grim question: If you can’t get the money together, what happens to your plans to go to MTA?

“Interesting. I suppose I can’t really answer this, as that simply isn’t an option for me. I will, and am, doing everything I possibly can, given the current circumstances, and I truly believe I will make this work.

“To me, there is really no alternative: this training is all I have longed for over the past four years. Obviously, so far, I have received some wonderful and incredibly generous help from friends and family, and alongside that I’m saving every penny and plan to work alongside my course.”

No turning back: Louise Henry, pictured in the promotional shots for Steel Magnolias, is determined to take up her place at the Musical Theatre Academy in London in October

“I plan on creating a series of videos, mini-performances of songs or spoken word to post online hopefully for the viewer’s enjoyment – which might encourage people to donate whatever they can.

“The payments are termly and so that breaks down the sum, and I’m incredibly lucky as the MTA are very keen on not letting money be an issue between you attending the course.

“As I said, they choose only 22 students per year and so they have spent a lot of time in selecting who they truly want to train. Not only is this a real honour to have been offered a place, but it also reassures me that the school wants me there. There’s no better feeling after working so hard over the years.”