Love’s labours lost for St Valentine’s Day at York Theatre Royal but love is still in the air

Love lost: The Love Season is on hold at York Theatre Royal

TODAY should have been a Happy St Valentine’s Day for York Theatre Royal, but Lockdown 3 postponed the love-match re-opening until further notice.

The Love Season launch was given the kiss-off by the third wave of Covid killjoy strictures that began on January 5, putting a red line through this evening’s York In Love special event and the February 16 to 20 run of The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…, starring Coronation Street soap alumnus Julie Hesmondhalgh.

When first announced, the season was to have run until April 21, presenting a series of plays from around the world. Socially distanced love will still out in the end, however, although no rearranged dates have yet been put in place for a season that would have a Covid-secure main-house capacity reduced from 750 to 345.

Indeed, the next show with a confirmed booking on the Theatre Royal website is for cookery writer Yotam Ottolenghi’s A Life In Flavour talk, presented by Penguin Live on April 14.

Amid the wait-and-see scenario until the Government’s February 22 update on Coronavirus containment measures, chief executive Tom Bird says: “We are committed to spreading the love and sharing the joy of live theatre with The Love Season as soon as we are able to do so safely. We’ll be announcing our revised plans and reopening date as soon as possible.

Julie Hesmondhalgh: Starring in the one-woman show The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…

“The Love Season is designed to remind us that human connection – love, sympathy, kindness, mutual understanding, warmth, equality – is what makes us the wonderful human beings we are. In 2021 we want to celebrate humanity, our own community and a sense of togetherness.  

“We want to do that with words, music, dancing, film and even food! It’s going to be fun and we can’t wait.”

Aside from two previews of York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime on a pop-up stage on December 2 and 3, the Theatre Royal auditorium has remained dark since the March 2020 shutdown.

A revised itinerary for the debut tour of The Greatest Play In The History Of The World has been announced, with only York Theatre Royal yet to rubber-stamp its dates.

After the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe premiere at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, the play transferred to Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre Studio in September 2018 and to London’s West End in December 2019. Now, the show has been adapted especially for the tour in light of these pandemic times and performances will be housed in the larger spaces of each theatre. 

York Theatre Royal’s promotional artwork in situ for the Love Season

Winner of The Stage Edinburgh Award in 2018, Raz Shaw’s production will be on the road from May 7 to July 3, pencilling in the York run for the first week in June, after the scrapping of the original January 29 to March 3 tour.

The tour will open at Hull Truck Theatre from May 7 to 15 (7.30pm and 2pm, Wednesday and Saturday), followed by a second Yorkshire outing at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, May 18 to 22 (7.30pm, 1.30pm, Thursday and 2.30pm, Saturday).

Written by Julie’s husband, the Bruntwood Award-winning Ian Kershaw, The Greatest Play In The History Of The World heads out on a heartfelt journey that starts and ends in a small, unassuming house on a quiet suburban road. Julie narrates the story of two neighbours and the people on their street, as she navigates the audience through the nuances of life, the possibilities of science and the meaning of love. 

“A man wakes in the middle of the night to discover that the world has stopped,” explains Ian, who has written for Coronation Street, Cold Feet and Shameless. “Through the crack in his bedroom curtains, he can see no signs of life at all, other than a light in the house opposite where a woman in an over-sized Bowie T-shirt stands, looking back at him.”

“A beautiful play, a love story, but a universal one,” says Julie Hesmondhalgh, introducing The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…

Recalling the play’s roots, Julie says: “I had a notion, a romantic notion, that my husband, the writer Ian Kershaw, should write a one-woman show for me and we could tour it together into our dotage, like travelling troubadours (or something).

“A couple of Christmases ago, Ian kept disappearing to the cellar for an hour at a time, wrapping presents maybe, I thought. And then he presented me with this lovely thing. 

“A beautiful play, a love story, but a universal one – literally! – about learning in time what matters in the end, about leaving a mark on the world – and maybe beyond – that shows us, the human race, in all its glorious messiness, confusion and joy.

“It was the best present I ever got. In these dark and confusing times, it offers a bit of love and light as we enter 2021 with fresh hope.”

Tickets for Hull Truck Theatre are on sale at hulltruck.co.uk; Scarborough, sjt.uk.com.

What did we learn from York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime roadshow?

Robin Simpson’s dame and Reuben Johnson’s villain in far-from-subtle disguise in York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Ant Robling

YORK Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime has been brought to a sudden stop by the Spectre of Christmas Present: the rapid rise in Covid cases in York.

Nevertheless, despite the loss of four post-Christmas shows this week, the decision to go on the road to as many of York’s 21 wards as possible has been vindicated.

Creative director Juliet Forster’s cast of Josh Benson’s rubber-bodied comic turn, Reuben Johnson’s Meerkat-accented villain, Anna Soden’s bass-playing funky fairy, Faye Campbell’s assertive hero and Robin Simpson’s droll dame played to full house after full house.

Despite no recorded transmission of the virus at any performance from December 2 to 23, the Theatre Royal has ruled the show must not go on, foregoing the resumption of its 70-minutes-straight-through, socially distanced touring production, having initially added a handful of post-Christmas shows.

Exit stage left too early, but we still learnt that Josh “Just Joshing” Benson, pocket-dynamo York magician, clown, comic, actor and children’s entertainer, is a natural fit for the silly billy/daft lad role. No magic tricks this time, but that skill is up his sleeve for the future.

Likewise, Robin Simpson’s dame, less outwardly demonstrative but more subtly sophisticated than the average panto man in a dress, is utterly comfortable, cheekily conspiratorial and joyful in the most revered of all pantomime parts.

Victory: Faye Campbell’s hero in York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Ant Robling

So far, so good, but the still-blossoming Josh is tied into a contract as the Viaduct Theatre’s pantomime comic turn in Halifax, after making his debut there in Beauty And The Beast last winter, while Robin lives in Huddersfield, where he is bedded in as the Lawrence Batley Theatre’s dame. Both are set to return to fruitful past pastures next winter.

Johnson, York actor Soden and Campbell all made their mark too in shows blessed with terrific scripts by Paul Hendy, the award-winning co-founder of Evolution Productions, the Theatre Royal’s new partner in pantomime.

The handing-over of the panto baton after last winter’s toxic severance from Berwick Kaler’s 41-year venerated damehood should have seen the triumvirate of Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird, creative director Juliet Forster and Evolution director, producer and writer Paul Hendy presenting Cinderella on the main-house stage.

However, the pestilent Coronavirus pandemic cancelled invitations to the ball, after the St Leonard’s Place building was cast into darkness on March 16. Lockdown 1 and ever-changing rules ensued but in mid-September, the panto trio made the decision to take theatre to the people in the form of the pop-up Travelling Pantomime.

Each location, ranging from church halls to community centres, the Theatre Royal pop-up stage to social clubs and sports halls, had to be Covid-secure, adhering to Government guidance for staging socially distanced performances with capacities ranging from 35 to 50.

At each show, the audience members could vote for whether they wanted to see Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk or Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.

“The one thing I always want to do is bring joy,” says Evolution Productions’ Paul Hendy, writer of York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Ant Robling

Hendy switched smoothly to this new writing task, for a cast of five, with no dance ensemble and no house band: just another challenge faced by Evolution Productions, who have still been involved in seven pantomime productions in this Covid-compromised year.

“In a strange way, I quite enjoyed Lockdown, time with the kids, and not the constant pressure of putting on shows; just the contrast of going out and listening to the birds,” says Paul.

Once the path ahead became clearer, although still shrouded in uncertainty, he and Evolution set to work on co-producing six shows, along with Paul providing the York scripts and directing Dick Whittington, The Pompey Panto at the Kings Theatre, Portsmouth.

From Operation Sleeping Beauty to Nurse Nanny Saves Panto to Damian Saves Panto, Paul penned a series of one-off new shows attuned to Covid times, while his York scripts sought to bottle and preserve the essence of pantomime.

“Awaiting the Government pandemic update on December 16, all we could do was roll with it, go ahead and start rehearsals – which qualified as ‘going to work’ and set about our aim to save pantomime,” says Paul.

“It doesn’t feel fair that the Government can say, ‘No, you can’t go ahead’, when there’s no evidence there’s been an outburst of Covid after theatres reopened with social distancing, especially as a lot of theatres have spent a lot of money on the infrastructure to make theatres a safe place to go, but what can we do?

Travelling players: Robin Simpson’s dame, Faye Campbell’s hero, Reuben Johnson’s villain, Anna Soden’s fairy and Josh Benson’s comic in the York Theatre Royal pantomime roadshow

“But then the pandemic is not fair on anyone in all sorts of industries, and that’s why, at this time, people needed pantomime more than ever.”

Thankfully, York’s Tier 2 status ensured that the Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime could roll out across York with Hendy’s scripts built around the baddie trying to steal the essence of pantomime. “The shows had to be full of laughter, community spirit and topical gags, as there’s so much material there this year,” he says.

Paul relished the opportunity to take pantomime into all manner of venues. “I’ve always said that pantomime can work in a black-box setting with just five actors because of that compact configuration and connection with the audience, and this year that’s what’s happened,” he says.

“It still works because pantomime is an interactive theatre genre – and how many other forms of theatre can you say appeal to five year olds and 95 year olds alike?”

One emotion above all others permeated through Paul’s pantos. “The one thing I always want to do is bring joy, make it funny of course, but ultimately make it a show driven by joy – and we did that,” he says. 

Josh Benson and Robin Simpson may not be back in Theatre Royal colours next winter, but Paul Hendy most definitely will, when Cinderella and York alike will have a ball.

Copyright of The Press, York

York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime stopped in its tracks by rise in Covid cases

Why the glum face, Dame Trott (Robin Simpson)? Blame the pandemic yet again as York Theatre Royal calls off the last week of performances of the Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Ant Robling

THE wheels have come off York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime within touching distance of the final curtain.

The rapid rise in York’s Coronavirus cases has brought the runaway success of the sold-out show to a shuddering halt as the Covid curse strikes yet again.

Despite no recorded transmission of the virus at any performance so far, the Theatre Royal has decided the show must not go on, foregoing the resumption its 70-minutes-straight-through, socially distanced, Covid-secure touring production, having initially added a handful of post-Christmas shows.

The rolling seven-day Covid rate for the City of York Council area in the week to December 23 was 218.4 per 100,000 population, higher than the regional average of 189.1 for Yorkshire and The Humber, and the big-city rates of 172.4 in Sheffield, 190.6 in Bradford and 184.8 in Leeds, but still much lower than the national average for England of 401.9.

The figure is higher than the average of 174.7 for North Yorkshire and 179.1 for East Yorkshire. Most disturbingly, York’s rate his risen steeply since a figure of 65 cases per 100,000 population a fortnight ago, an acceleration to which the influx of rule-breaking Tier 3 visitors and Christmas shoppers is thought likely to have contributed.

Travelling Pantomime director Juliet Forster with writer Paul Hendy, right, and York Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird. Picture: Ant Robling

Explaining the decision, Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird says: “It is with great regret we have decided that the pantomime will not resume for its post-Christmas performances. This has been a tough decision to make, but we feel it is the right one.

“I pay tribute to the whole of the York Theatre Royal team for producing so many performances under such extraordinary conditions, and their diligence and hard work is borne out by the fact that we have no recorded transmission of the virus at the pantomime.”

After two previews at the Theatre Royal, the Travelling Pantomime team took the show to community venues in Tang Hall, Dunnington, Wigginton, Holgate, Clifton Moor, Elvington, Poppleton, Acomb, Carr Lane, Strensall, Copmanthorpe, Fulford, Heworth and Guildhall, to meet the aim of visiting all 21 wards in the city.

This week’s performances by Josh Benson’s comic turn, Robin Simpson’s dame, Anna Soden’s fairy, Faye Campbell’s hero and Reuben Johnson’s villain would have taken the company close to that target by the December 31 finale.

Well travelled: York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime cast and crew for performances across a multitude of York wards this month

“The theatre wants to thank the brilliant audiences, who have supported the pantomime in their local venues, and City of York Council, who have helped to distribute over 200 free tickets to families in need on the run-up to Christmas.”

Box-office staff will be in touch with ticket holders for cancelled performances in the next few days. Those shows would have taken place at Moor Lane Youth Centre, Dringhouses, last night; Southlands Methodist Church Hall, Bishopthorpe Road, tonight, and York Theatre Royal, tomorrow and Thursday.

The York Theatre Royal pantomime, co-produced with 2020 pantomime partners Evolution Productioms, will return to the main house for Cinderella from December 3 to January 2 2022.

Now that the Traveling Pantomime van has parked up for the last time, CharlesHutchPress can reveal that each audience’s vote to pick a panto from Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk and Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs in reality came down to a choice of two.

Courtesy of writer Paul Hendy, each show’s early gag about the Rule of Six ruled out the Seven Dwarfs. “We had to lose one of the dwarfs,” said Robin Simpson’s dame. “Wasn’t Happy!” Boom! Boom!

Brought to its knees: York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime loses out to the city’s rising Coronavirus cases. No joke for comic turn Josh “Just Joshing” Benson et al. Picture: Ant Robling

YORK’S other pantomime, York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk, will continue to run at Theatre @41 Monkgate, unless the Government’s Covid briefing tomorrow pronounces a change in York’s Tier 2 status.

Writer-director Nik Briggs’s show has upcoming performances until January 3 2021 with full details at yorkstagepanto.com. Watch this space for an update tomorrow.

Travelling Pantomime is ready to roll. Next step, York Theatre Royal’s reopening will follow by springtime, confirms chief exec

YES, YES, YES! York children’s entertainer, magician and actor Josh Benson celebrates the opening of York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime, wherein he plays the comic’s role. Picture: Ant Robling

THIS is a sentence that could not have been foreseen at the outset of 2021: all performances of York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime have sold out.

This was the year when the first Theatre Royal and Evolution Productions co-production of the post-Dame Berwick Kaler era should have been Cinderella, but Covid-19 cancelled all invitations to the ball.

Instead, in a tempestuous year like no other for theatre at large, the Theatre Royal vowed that if audiences could not come to the theatre, then now was the time to take theatre to the people.

Permitted by the Government’s Covid-secure regulations to “go to work” to rehearse behind closed doors through Lockdown 2, creative director Juliet Forster’s Travelling players have now been given the green light for the December tour by York’s Tier 2 status.

Time for a cuppa: Josh Benson, the comic, and Robin Simpson, the new York Theatre Royal dame, in the Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Ant Robling

Preview performances last night and tonight on a pop-up stage at the Theatre Royal – the first shows inside the St Leonard’s Place building since the March shutdown ­– will warm up comic Josh Benson, dame Robin Simpson, fairy Anna Soden, hero Faye Campbell and villain Reuben Johnson for socially distanced shows in Covid-secure church halls, village halls, community centres, schools, a reading room and even an hotel.

Chief executive Tom Bird is delighted the show can go ahead, or, more precisely, each show’s audience choice from three pantomimes penned by Evolution Productions’ Paul Hendy: Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk and Snow White.

“A huge amount of work has gone into the Travelling Pantomime already, organising everything with the venues, and it’s great that every show has sold out, so people are really interested in getting back to seeing shows,” he says.

“The plan was to tour to all 21 York wards, and it’s touch and go whether we’ll do that, but we’ve added Strensall – sold out already! – to take the total to 16 and we’re still in negotiations with others.

York Theatre Royal creative director and Travelling Pantomime director Juliet Forster, chief executive Tom Bird and Evolution Productions director and pantomime writer Paul Hendy

“The venues have to be right, we have to be sure they are Covid-safe and that’s quite a challenge in some venues, but we’re still hopeful of adding a few more.”

For those unable to see a live performance, the Theatre Royal will be filming tonight’s preview on the Theatre Royal main stage for streaming from a date yet to be confirmed.

Tom watched the tech rehearsal last Friday, as the treading of boards returned to the Theatre Royal. “The whole atmosphere felt heavy with emotion,” he says. “After the year we’ve all had, it must be like a shop opening again or a pub landlord re-opening.

“Just seeing the lights on and watching Juliet directing, it’s so exciting to be back, not yet back as we knew it before, but at least we’re back. Being on home turf for the first game of the season feels good.”

Lights on again at last: York Theatre Royal prepares for last night’s first preview of the Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Livy Potter

Tom believes the early decision to mount a Travelling Pantomime in a year of so much uncertainty has proved judicious. “We felt basically that for a number of reasons getting out and about was the best way to go this year. We know that transport can be complicated in the pandemic, so it’s best to keep the shows local,” he says.

“We could have done shows to 344 people with social distancing at the Theatre Royal, and that would have been completely legal, but we still felt the Travelling Pantomime was the best thing for now, showing a generosity of spirit to the city.

“Mounting a Christmas show was always going to be a logistical Everest in 2020, whether at the Theatre Royal or on the road, but it just felt crucial to do it. It’s so important for us, it truly is, because you want to give people a laugh but also to remind people that we are here.”

Rehearsals have been joyful, even under the shadow of the pandemic. “Juliet has really enjoyed it; the creative team have really enjoyed it, and we have a good mix of actors, some comparatively new to pantomime, some who’ve done zillions.

Ready to travel: York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime players Robin Simpson (the dame), Faye Williams (the hero), Reuben Johnson (the villain), Anna Soden (the fairy) and Josh Benson (the comic). Picture: Ant Robling

“Every week in rehearsals and every second day during the production run, they’re being Covid-tested, which does put everyone at east. It costs quite a lot, but it’s absolutely been worth it.”

Tom has had to oversee a pandemic-blighted year when ticket income all but dried up until the Travelling Pantomime; the neighbouring De Grey Rooms lease was not renewed, and 16 redundancies had to be made.

In October, the Theatre Royal was awarded £230,000 from the Government’s Cultural Recovery Fund to help the theatre until March, having earlier received £196,493 from Arts Council England’s Emergency Response Fund in July to cover the fallow months until September.

The latter grant will facilitate the Theatre Royal looking to the future, with Tom taking on the new title of chief executive, replacing his executive director tag. “It’s more for ease of messaging within the system. It’s just for tidying things up,” he says. “Nothing more than that.”

“Mounting a Christmas show was always going to be a logistical Everest in 2020, whether at the Theatre Royal or on the road, but it just felt crucial to do it,” says chief executive Tom Bird

Juliet Forster switches from associate director to creative director. “I’m not the world’s biggest fan of ‘associate’ titles, especially when Juliet is absolutely crucial to the theatre – she’s been with the Theatre Royal for 13 years.”

After focusing on Pop Up On The Patio festival and the Traveling Pantomime since summer, now Tom and the artistic planning team, including producer Thom Freeth and artistic associate John Wilkinson, are turning their attention to re-opening the Theatre Royal.

“Over the past few weeks we’ve started to arrive at a position where we’re formulating a way of re-opening with social distancing, as we’ve been in receipt of funds [from the Cultural Recovery Fund],” says Tom.

“We don’t yet have a date in mind, but we’re planning to open maybe sooner than the spring. We’ll get through the pantomime first and then make an announcement not long after that.”

For full details on the York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime itinerary, go to yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

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 yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

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.

16 jobs cut, divorce from De Grey Rooms, as Theatre Royal launches voucher scheme

Pledge Ahead is just the ticket for audiences to support York Theatre Royal “at this critical time”

YORK Theatre Royal is launching Pledge Ahead, an initiative that asks audiences and the wider community for financial support, seven deeply wounding months into the Coronavirus arts crisis.

The pledge will take the form of buying vouchers that can be exchanged later for theatre tickets once the still-closed building re-opens. More details can be found at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Launching the scheme, executive director Tom Bird said: “Lots of people have been asking what they can do to help the theatre at this critical time.

“By pledging ahead, our audiences can continue to support us while our building is closed and look forward to using their vouchers as soon as we are able to re-open our doors and welcome everyone back.”

The plea comes “at this critical time” when the Theatre Royal has revealed it has cut its permanent staff by one third – seven voluntary redundancies and nine staff made redundant – after extensive consultations.

In a further cost-cutting measure, the Theatre Royal also has confirmed it will not be renewing its lease of the neighbouring De Grey Rooms, home to rehearsals, workshops, staff offices and the below-stairs costume store, as well as weddings, parties, award ceremonies and performances in the glorious ballroom.

“It has been a devastating time for everyone involved but the theatre will survive and we are now looking ahead and planning for the future,” says executive director Tom Bird

The “hand-back” will be completed this week after 11 years of renting the Grade 2-listed neo-classical Victorian building from York Conservation Trust.

The costume hire business will be re-located and will re-open in January; further announcements are awaited on exactly where, along with long-term plans for rehearsals, workshops and staff rooms once the Theatre Royal can re-open.

Bird said: “We have been forced to take some very difficult cost-saving decisions. It has been a devastating time for everyone involved but the theatre will survive and we are now looking ahead and planning for the future.”

Along with the redundancies, many more staff have taken cuts in hours and wages, to ensure the theatre survives, and the Government’s soon-to-disappear furlough scheme has played its supportive part too.  

However, 89 per cent of York Theatre Royal’s annual income is generated through selling tickets and from associated revenue streams, such as the bars and café, from the tens of thousands of people who come through the doors of a theatre that underwent a £6.1 million redevelopment completed in 2016.

The Theatre Royal – the longest-running theatre in England outside London – reopened on April 22 that yearwith a new roof, an extended and re-modelled front-of-house area and a refurbished, reconfigured and redecorated main auditorium, with major improvements to access and environmental impact too. 

Decked out: Hannah Sibai’s design for York Theatre Royal’s Pop-Up On The Patio festival in August

Since the Covid-enforced closure in March, the Theatre Royal has reduced its costs “significantly”, the redundancies being the most draconian step so far.

“Like almost everywhere in British theatre, we have sadly had to reduce our team in order for the Theatre Royal to survive and provide a theatre for the community.

“There was zero ambiguity that it might have to happen, but all theatres are in this situation and I’m pleased that we have not closed any department, so we maintain producing expertise across the staff.”

Since lockdown, performances have been restricted to a Pop-Up On The Patio festival of 12 shows by diverse York performers on the Theatre Royal terracing from August 14 to 29, with a maximum audience of 35 at each show.

Cinderella shall not go to the ball this winter on the main stage, but instead the Theatre Royal and new pantomime partners Evolution Productions have announced the Travelling Pantomime, starring York magician, panto comic turn, actor and children’s entertainer Josh Benson.

The dates are yet to be announced, but the small-scale tour will visit sports centres, social clubs, halls and community centres in all 21 wards in York in December and January.

Pantomime this way: Josh Benson is full of beans as he looks forward to leading the York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime to Holgate, Heworth and 19 more destinations besides. Picture: Anthony Robling

At each socially-distanced, Covid-secure performance, the audience will vote whether to watch Aladdin, Jack And The Beanstalk or Dick Whittington, all scripted by Evolution director and producer Paul Hendy and directed by Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster.

Meanwhile, the Theatre Royal expects to learn on Monday (October 5) whether its bid for a grant from the Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund has been successful…or not.

The theatre received £196,493 from Arts Council England’s Emergency Fund to help to cover July to September 30’s costs, and the latest grant application is “not a million miles from that figure,” confirmed Bird.

“The problem with an old building that’s so huge and hard to heat is that it costs £475,000 a year just to keep it open, without staffing, to cover heating, lighting, water and safety.

“Under Covid restrictions, things like the patio season and Travelling Pantomime are our direction of travel right now.

The team behind the York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime: Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster, executive director Tom Bird and Evolutions Productions director, producer and writer Paul Hendy

“It’s been brilliant to have done the patio shows and we’re totally over the moon with how that went; it was terrific giving local artists the chance to perform. Now we’re looking at further options for outdoor shows in York until it’s viable and safe to be back indoors.

“But we’re always mindful of the risk of a local lockdown, and the main task is to safeguard the future of the theatre and that’s going well but it’s a big fight.”

The Culture Recovery Fund grant, if approved, would cover October to March 31. “It’s a little bit more about recovery this time,” says Bird. “Last time, the ACE grant was about ‘What do you need right now not to collapse?’.

“We have interpreted the guidance for a grant in the best way we can and we hope the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Arts Council will see fit to support us in the best manner possible.”

Today, by the way, is Creative Performance Protest Day, a rallying call to “to highlight the Government’s failure to support the performing arts sector throughout the Covid-19 pandemic”. 

Trafalgar Square, London, at midday will be among the focal points of a campaign whose urgency has been heightened by Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s new Job Retention Scheme not accommodating freelance arts workers in its definition of “viable” jobs.

The Creative Performance Protest insignia

Dame Berwick’s Dick Turpin Rides Again held up until December 2021 by Covid-19

Highway robbery: The curse of Covid-19 strikes again as Berwick Kaler’s comeback pantomime, Dick Turpin Rides Again, will be held up until 2021. Here Dame Berwick is pictured with A J Powell, Suzy Cooper, David Leonard and Martin Barrass at the Valentine’s Day launch at the Grand Opera House

DAME Berwick Kaler’s pantomime, Dick Turpin, will NOT Ride Again at the Grand Opera House, York, this Christmas.

Faced by the Government’s decision not to remove social-distancing requirements for theatres amid the rise in Covid-19 infections, Ambassador Theatre Group and pantomime producers Qdos Entertainment are moving Dick Turpin Rides Again to December 2021/January 2022.

Dame Berwick and his regular team of villain David Leonard, comic stooge Martin Barrass, perennial principal gal Suzy Cooper and luverly Brummie A J Cooper were to have made their Grand Opera House pantomime debut this winter after their headline-making, bittersweet crosstown transfer from York Theatre Royal.

In an official statement today, Kaler said: “Having secured the backing of the world’s leading pantomime producer Qdos, and knowing their commitment to save our acclaimed panto, I’m devastated that our loyal audience is going to have to wait until next year to see what we had planned for them.

“Hence, I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to Qdos and the wonderful staff of the York Grand Opera House who welcomed myself, Martin, Suzy, AJ and David with open arms. Dick Turpin will ride again for Christmas 2021. It’s a long time to wait for a laugh but I can assure you it will be worth it, and we’ll all be at the Grand Opera House to greet you all.” 

Rachel Lane, theatre director of the Cumberland Street theatre, added: “With the current Government guidance still unclear on when venues can open without social distancing in place, we have decided with our pantomime partner Qdos Entertainment to postpone the production of Dick Turpin Rides Again until Christmas 2021.

“We’re delighted that Berwick, Martin, Suzy, AJ and David are still able to join us next year.  We’ll contact customers directly in due course to move their bookings on a year; they don’t need to take any action at this stage.”

Dame Berwick, who will turn 74 on October 31, had played the Theatre Royal dame over a 40-year span before making his grand exit in The Grand Old Dame Of York, waving goodbye in February 2019, but Britain’s longest-serving dame regretted his decision, even more so when he wrote and co-directed last winter’s show, Sleeping Beauty, wherein Barrass played the nearest role to a dame, The Queen.

Dame Berwick made an impromptu, emotional speech to the last-night home crowd on January 25 in an atmosphere increasingly akin to a bear pit, in the wake of executive director Tom Bird and the board’s decision to break the chain after more than four decades of the distinctive Kaler brand of pantomime comic mayhem.

Only five days later, the switch to the Grand Opera House was announced, and the familiar five assembled on February 14 to launch ticket sales for Dick Turpin Rides Again, a new beginning for comeback-dame Kaler and the Grand Opera House alike, in tandem with Britain’s biggest pantomime producer, Qdos.

On February 3, York Theatre Royal announced a new partnership with Evolution Pantomimes, regular pantomime award winners who duly chalked up another success, taking home the Best Panto award [for750 to 1,500-seat theatres] for Cinderella at Sheffield Lyceum in the 2020 Great British Pantomime Awards.

Scripted by Evolution director and producer Paul Hendy, Cinderella would have been the new partners’ debut show at the Theatre Royal until Covid-19 enforced a change of plan. Hendy will now write scripts for three pantomimes, Aladdin, Dick Whittington and Jack And The Beanstalk, for the York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime.

The tour starring York actor, panto comic turn and magician Josh Benson, will take in all 21 York wards in December and January, when audience members at each show will vote for which show they want to see.

York Theatre Royal goes on neighbourhood watch for three Travelling Pantomimes UPDATED

Not just Josh: York comic and magician Josh Benson and Patricia the cow team up to to go on the road with the York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime. Picture: Anthony Robling

CINDERELLA, you shall not go to the ball, because no pantomime will run at York Theatre Royal this Christmas. There will, however, be three Theatre Royal pantomimes this winter instead. Yes, three.

Rather than the traditional transformation scene of pumpkin and mice into carriage and horses, this Covid-enforced conversion will be a switch from the still-shut St Leonard’s Place building to the York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime.

In tandem with new pantomime partners Evolution Productions, this pop-up enterprise will take the Theatre Royal on the road to every neighbourhood in York – all 21 wards – during December and January.

Each location, ranging from community halls to social clubs and sports centres, will be Covid-secure, adhering to Government guidance for staging socially distanced performances with capacities ranging from 35 to 50, and at each show, the audience members can vote for whether they want to see Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk or Aladdin.

The Travelling Pantomime retains the previously announced Cinderella triumvirate of Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird, who oversaw the breaking of the chain from 41 years of Dame Berwick Kaler pantomimes, associate director Juliet Forster as director and award-winning Evolution director and producer Paul Hendy as the writer, who will pen three scripts with York references aplenty.

“We believe that Evolution are the most exciting pantomime company in the country right now,” says York Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird

Their first big signing is the pocket-sized bundle of York energy Josh Benson, magician, children’s entertainer, actor and Corntroller of Entertainment at York Maze, who had signed up for a further two years as the daft-lad comedy turn in the Halifax Victoria Theatre pantomime after his debut in Beauty And The Beast last winter.

Once confirmed that Victoria devotees would not be amused by Jack And The Beanstalk this winter, however, Josh was available to play his home city, and fresh from performing his Just Josh magic show at the Theatre Royal’s Pop-Up On The Patio festival, he quickly came on board for the panto road show.

‘I’m so chuffed to be able to play a part keeping York’s panto tradition alive, in a year where it feels like the majority of traditions have pretty much gone out the window,” says Benson. “What’s really special for me personally is the ‘full circle’ that’s happened, having actually started my professional career with York Theatre Royal, aged ten, in their 2007 panto Sinbad The Sailor.

“It’ll be so great to be back home for Christmas this year, finding a way to spread some panto joy amongst the current craziness.” 

Details of venues, performance times and further casting – possibly a cast of five, but more likely four, local actors – will be released in the coming weeks.

A sign of the panto times: Josh Benson prepares to travel all over York in December and January

Tom Bird, who has experience of mounting travelling shows when executive producer at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, says: “Our Travelling Pantomime will be a rip-roaring Christmas treat for the whole family. Audiences can expect hilarity and chaos, music and magic as our amazing actors visit every corner of York.

“It’s called the York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime because it does exactly what it says on the tin and will travel to every York neighbourhood. It’ll be a small-scale show with a cast of four or five, where we’ll do whatever we need to do to meet the Government guidance at that time.

“We want it to be this generous offer to each community, where the audience gets to choose between three pantomimes, which gives scope for even more comedy. It’s quite a challenge for the designer [yet to be confirmed], having to design a set for three shows, but still having to taking the audience into another world.”

Bird is delighted that the Travelling Pantomime will still mark the debut of the new Theatre Royal and Evolution partnership. “We believe that Evolution are the most exciting pantomime company in the country right now: they won the Best Panto award again [for750 to 1,500-seat theatres] for Cinderella at Sheffield Lyceum in the 2020 Great British Pantomime Awards,” he says.

“Their pantomimes are dynamic, they’re electric, they’re funny and fabulous, and they’re not snooty, and Evolution are a belting company. I remain convinced that we’ll have one of the best pantomimes in the country when we do Cinderella in 2021 and, in the meantime, we have this exciting opportunity this winter.

Pantomime partnership: York Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and executive director Tom Bird with Evolution Productions producer Paul Hendy

“It’s great that Paul is writing the three scripts: his writing for pantomimes is graceful and funny and his shows are not blue, just good fun, and they’ll have a local flavour too.”

Bird is quick to stress that the Travelling Pantomime shows should not be seen as a Covid-necessitated compromise. “It’s a massive logistical enterprise, taking a show to all 21 York wards,” he says.  “I have a history of doing shows like this, taking small-scale projects around the world for Shakespeare’s Globe.

“It really does give a project an artistic energy when you face logistical challenges, like we are in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic.

“Taking the Travelling Pantomime into the York communities is very direct, I hope it’s very democratic and it acknowledges the virus because there may be people that might not want to go into town on a bus but will go round the corner from their home to see a show.”

Bird is delighted to have snapped up the comedic, mischievous nuttiness of Josh Benson. “We’re very excited to have Josh in the show. When we saw him on the patio doing his Just Josh show, we thought, ‘this is exactly what we need’. He’s warm, he’s very engaging, he’s local and he’s loved by people in York, and he’ll help to shape the shows.

“I would really love to be involved in suggesting ‘how about this or how about that?’ for the shows,” says Josh Benson, as full of beans as ever

“It’s also important, coming out of the old panto into the new era, that we should make our pantomime a show for families and Josh helps us to do that.”

Looking forward to leading the Theatre Royal pantomime in his home city, Benson says: “It’s been said of me, ‘if you turn Josh upside down, it says ‘Made In York’, and it’ll be lovely to be in York this winter because I don’t really want to be anywhere else in this strange year.

“I’d signed for one year for the Victoria Theatre panto in Halifax and they then offered me for four more in the comic role, effectively taking over from Neil Hurst, who’d done it for five years before me, and I said, ‘let me do another two’, but when Jack And The Beanstalk had to be postponed, the Travelling Pantomime feels a lovely thing to be able to do and a real  honour too.

“It’s nice to be part of a new beginning for the Theatre Royal pantomime, which I think will be great. What’s good for me is that I can dip my toe in a York panto and they can do the same with me.”

He believes it is important to spread his talent wherever possible when still on a learning curve at 22. “This summer aside, I usually do the whole season at York Maze, so you could have too much of a good thing if I do the winter season as well in panto, doing the same jokes and routines!” he reasons. “I’m very much playing the long game, working up to going to the Edinburgh Fringe with a solo show.”

Benson will have to learn not one, but three pantomime scripts. “But that’s a hugely exciting thing to be doing: a choice of three shows each performance. Tom [Bird] did that at the Globe too, and what’s clever about it is that it’ll have a rough-and ready-feel to it, like a village-hall panto, but as Tom has said, it’ll still be a York Theatre Royal panto, with the award-winning Paul Hendy writing it.

“His writing for pantomimes is graceful and funny and his shows are not blue, just good fun, and they’ll have a local flavour too,” says Tom Bird of Paul Hendy’s award-winning pantomimes

“As a pop-up panto, you can open it in that rough-and-ready style, in a conversational tone, so it’s different from the very start, with me going out there as Josh, just like with the kids’ parties I do, jumping up on stage and just talking, whereas normally with a panto in a theatre, the audience are looking at the stage, thinking, ‘Go on, impress me’.”

Doing three shows throws up extra comedic possibilities too for the comic turn with the potential for daft-lad confusion. “I love the idea that I can go, ‘Right, Dick…Jack…I mean, Aladdin’, so suddenly you’re doing that ‘times three’ thing,” he says.

Benson is restlessly creative – he had written and prepared a drive-in show for York Maze, should owner “Farmer Tom” Pearcy have decided to re-open his attraction this summer post-lockdown – and so he will not merely be turning up to rehearsals for the Travelling Pantomime.

“I would really love to be involved in suggesting ‘how about this or how about that?’ for the shows, so I’m going to meet Juliet [director Juliet Forster] in September to talk about  it,” he says.

In the meantime, he will keep busy with children’s party magic shows in gardens – whatever the “Rule of Six” permits – after a multitude of lockdown shows on Zoom and Facebook.

Tickets for York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime will go on sale in November. Oh, and Cinderella, you shall still go to the ball, the glittering party merely postponed from 2020/2021 to 2021/2022.

The box-office team will be in touch with ticket holders with the option of moving tickets to next year, cancelling the booking or donating some or all of ticket cost to York Theatre Royal. Ticket holders are being asked NOT to contact the box office, whose reduced team will contact them as quickly as possible in coming weeks.

Joshing around: Josh Benson in his Just Josh magic and balloon show

Just Josh? Just who is Josh Benson? Let him introduce himself:

“HAVING not conventionally trained in anything, 22-year-old ‘Josh of All Trades, Master of None’ is winging his way through the entertainment industry. But don’t tell his mum…she thinks he’s at university studying for a proper job!

As an actor, Josh’s credits include playing Little Ernie in the award-winning BBC Morecambe and Wise biopic Eric & Ernie; being hit by a car in BBC1’s Casualtyand a cameo in Monroefor ITV. He played Tommo in Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls musical The Girls from 2015 to 2017, both in the world premiere at Leeds Grand Theatre and The Lowry, Salford, and at the Phoenix Theatre in London’s West End. 

A huge part of Josh’s work is at York Maze, where he is the Corntroller of Entertainments – genuine job title – for the summer season. There, he writes, manages and co-hosts three live-action experiences: a stage show, tractor trailer ride and pig racing. This role has sprung from Josh being a professional children’s and family entertainer for the past seven years, having proudly entertained at hundreds of children’s parties and events, on cruises and in shows.

He is a professional close-up/stage magician and comedian, having performed four seasons of The Good Old Daysat Leeds City Varieties Music Hall, later taking his act down to the Big Smoke for Players Music Hall and the Cockney Sing-Alongat Charing Cross Theatre and Brick Lane Music Hall respectively. 

Eric and Little Ernie: Josh Benson in sunshine-bringing dance mode alongside a statue of Eric Morecambe when he landed the role of young Ernie Wise in the BBC’s Eric & Ernie in 2010

As a “grown-up”entertainer, Josh last year debuted his first one-man cabaret evening, It’s Not The Joshua Benson Show/Josh Of All Trades, a two-act show of all his “pointless yet entertaining” skills. This show tours the UK constantly, “whenever it can fit in between everything else”!

In pantomime, Josh’s career began in 2007, at the tender age of ten, among the babbies and bairns in York Theatre Royal’s Sinbad The Sailor. He was lucky enough to more festive fun in 2008 for Dick Turpin and in 2011 returned to York Theatre Royal as John Darling in Peter Pan,part of the In The Round summer season. 

Christmas 2018 saw Josh’s panto comic debut as Buttons in Cinderellaat the Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield, and last year he took over as comic at the Victoria Theatre, Halifax, for Beauty And The Beast.

He was due to return there this year for Jack And The Beanstalk, now postponed until 2021. He is delighted – and feels incredibly lucky! – to have been offered the fantastic alternative of York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime for the winter season.” 

Pop-Up On The Patio heralds return of live shows at York Theatre Royal…outdoors

Top of the Pop-ups: Musician Phil Grainger and writer Alexander Flanagan-Wright in Alex’s back garden at Stillington Mill when performing Orpheus in a week of At The Mill shows. Now they head to Pop-Up On The Patio. Picture: Charlotte Graham

WHO will be popping up at York Theatre Royal’s Pop-Up On The Patio festival from August 14 to 29?

Taking part in a Covid-secure summer season of outdoor performances, on a terrace stage designed by Yorkshire theatre designer Hannah Sibai, will be “Yorkshire’s finest theatre and dance makers”.

Step forward York Dance Space; Mud Pie Arts; Crafty Tales; Fool(ish) Improv; The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre; puppeteer Freddie Hayes; Cosmic Collective Theatre; performance poet Henry Raby; Say Owt, the York outlet for slam poets, word-weavers and “gobheads”; magician, juggler and children’s entertainer Josh Benson and singer Jess Gardham.

They will perform at one end of the patio, decorated with “Glastonbury-style bunting”, performing to audiences of a maximum of 35 in demarcated bubbles.

“We’re so excited to have been able to bring live theatre back to our city this summer,” says Theatre Royal producer Thom Freeth, who has co-ordinated the festival programme of theatre, dance, music, magic, puppetry, improvised comedy, storytelling and slam poetry.

“Our building may still be closed, but we didn’t want that to stand in the way of entertaining the people of York during this difficult time. Pop-Up On The Patio gives us the opportunity to showcase the work of brilliant home-grown performers, many of whom are part of our freelance family, who have been disproportionally affected by this pandemic.”

“We wanted to go hyper-local with the festival to give a platform to York artists,” says York Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird

Looking forward to staging the first shows on the Theatre Royal premises since March 17, executive director Tom Bird says: “It’s been a short but intense preparation period: we wanted to go hyper-local with the festival, to give a platform to York artists, and we’re absolutely delighted at getting a very local, highly skilled bunch across so many genres.”

Explaining the decision to focus the festival on Friday evenings and Saturdays, Bird says: “We are easing our way back from a total stop, turning everything off in March, so we’re feeling our way in, and we want to make sure that everything is safe, for the audience, performers and staff.

“The world is changing all the time, so we wanted to give ourselves breathing space in what we’re doing by restricting ourselves to three weekends for the festival, but  who’s to say we won’t do more patio shows.”

The Theatre Royal management has implemented extra safety measures to keep visitors and staff safe during the three festival weekends, reconfiguring the patio to allow for a socially distanced audience and stage. These measures will be under constant review and apply to all the performances.

Tickets are on sale at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk and must be bought in advance.

THE FESTIVAL PROGRAMME:

Dance steps: Dance // Shorts launches the Pop-Up On The Patio festival

Dance // Shorts, August 14, 7pm

CURATED by York Dance Space, this evening of live contemporary dance theatre in an outdoor, intimate setting will be a compilation of bite-size solos and duets from “some of the most interesting and exciting young artists from across Yorkshire and the Humber”.

Performances include solo work from Alethia Antonia, from the James Wilton Dance Company; Coalesce Dance Theatre; Daisy Howell, from Brink Dance Company, and Namiuki Dance.

Look out too for a selection of Doorstep Dances from Hull artists Tamar and Jo, spanning contemporary, Northern Soul, jazz dance and physical theatre styles. Suitable for age 12 upwards.

Mud, glorious Mud: Mud Pie Arts duo Nicolette Hobson, left, and Jenna Drury

Mud Pie Arts, August 15, 22 and 29, 11am, for age 4 to 11

“WHAT is easy to get into but hard to get out of?” askMud Pie Arts drama practitioners Jenna Drury and Nicolette Hobson. “The answer? Trouble, of course!

“So, join us for Saturday elevenses in our Silly Summer Stories show. There’ll be interactive storytelling, riddles, games and all kinds of family tomfoolery.”

Have you heard the one about the old woman who lived in a vinegar bottle, or the farmer who fished for sausages? Now is the chance to enjoy those stories. “Come and find us on the patio every Saturday this month to celebrate all things daft,” say Jenna and Nicolette.

Crafty: Story Craft Theatre’s Janet Bruce, left, and Cassie Vallance

Crafty Tales, August 15 and 22, 1pm, for two to six year olds

YORK Theatre Royal’s Story Craft Theatre return with an outdoor version of Crafty Tales, presented by Cassie Vallance and Janet Bruce.

“As always, there’ll be a story to tell plus songs, games and dancing, all designed around a brilliant picture book with interactive and imaginative play,” they say. “Although Crafty Tales is aimed at two to six year olds, all children are welcome.”

Made up: Fool(ish) Improv’s poster since 1793

Fool(ish) Improv, August 15, 4pm 

FOOL(ISH) Improv is a bite-sized comedy show with absolutely no plan or permission, created by York writer and director Paul Birch.

Strap in for 60 minutes of improvised mayhem where you, the audience, provide the suggestions for the actors to make stuff happen. Instantly.

“Taking nothing seriously – and everything for granted – our merry band of charlatans and misfits will bring music, comedy and appalling levels of acting to give you a delightful hour of spontaneous comedy,” says Paul.

“You bring the ideas, we’ll bring the performance, and together we’ll make a joyous family show that has no business being indoors. Now, you have to come. We couldn’t do it without you.”

The poster for The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre’s Orpheus

Orpheus, The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre in Orpheus, August 21, 6pm

ALEXANDER Flanagan-Wright and Phil Grainger should have been heading up to the Edinburgh Fringe to present the British premiere of The Gods, The Gods, The Gods this month after its Antipodean premiere before Covid-19 intervened.

Instead, they have been presenting Orpheus in socially distanced performances in back gardens and a week of At The Mill shows in Alex’s own back garden at Stillington Mill, near York, last week.

Written by Alex, with incidental music and songs by Phil, the international award-winning Orpheus is a thoroughly modern, beautifully poetic re-telling of an ancient Greek myth.

Dave is single, stood at the bar; Eurydice is a tree nymph, and Bruce Springsteen is on the juke box in this tale of impossible, death-defying love told through hair-raising spoken word and soaring soul music, where Alex and Phil weave a world of dive bars, side streets and ancient gods.

Eurydice: “A story about a woman” with a Superman costume, a bee tattoo and a sting in the tale

Eurydice, The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre, August 21, 8pm

LENI is five years old, holding a Superman costume for her first day at school. Eurydice is five years into the rest of her life, sporting a bee tattoo on her wrist, in Alexander Flanagan-Wright’s story of someone defined by someone else’s myth.

This tale of making changes, taking leaps and being a daily superhero is billed as “a story about a woman told by women”.

That was the case when performed by Alex and Phil Grainger’s co-creators, Serena Manteghi and Casey Jane Andrews, to 2019 Adelaide Fringe Best Theatre award-winning success. Now, Alex and Phil take over to weave a world of day-to-day power and beauty and goddesses, told through heart-stopping spoken word and live electronica.

Flat caps at the double: Freddie Does Puppets puppeteer Freddie Hayes with grumpy pub landlord Fred in Fred’s Microbrewery

Freddie Does Puppets in Fred’s Microbrewery, August 22, 4pm

FRED’S Microbrewery is the world’s first Puppet-in-a-Pub theatrical experience, a modern-day Punch and Judy story courtesy of York puppeteer Freddie Hayes.

Grouchy Fred and his bitter and twisted wife Sharon are two very grumpy Yorkshire puppets cum pub landlord and landlady of the Fred’s Microbrewery, where the frank, fractious duo serve beer-infused banter to adult audiences in an afternoon of debauchery and puppet profanities. 

Fred and Sharon have sparred at York’s Great Yorkshire Fringe and had plenty to say at the Edinburgh Fringe, Shambala Festival, Moving Parts Festival and Folkestone Puppet Festival too.  

In lockdown and beyond, Fred and Sharon have been living inside a laundry bag in Freddie’s attic. Now, bag unzipped, she is ready to unleash them once more in a show with an age guide of 15-plus on account of the strong language and adult themes.

Heaven’s above: Anna Soden, Joe Feeney, Lewes Roberts and Kate Cresswell in Cosmic Collective Theatre’s Heaven’s Gate

Heaven’s Gate, Cosmic Collective Theatre, August 28, 4pm

FOUR cups of apple sauce. Four canvas camp beds. One comet. Heaven’s Gate is closing and the Away Team are ready for graduation, but whatever you do, don’t say the C-word.  ‘C’ for ‘cult’, that is.

Presented by the new York company Cosmic Collective Theatre – satirical writer Joe Feeney, Anna Soden, Lewes Roberts and Kate Cresswell – Heaven’s Gate imagines the final hour of four fictionalised members of the real-life UFO-theistic group.

As they prepare for their “graduation” to the “Kingdom of Heaven”, the excitement is palpable, but all too soon the cracks appear. Is the Heavenly Father really waiting for them on a Spaceship? Is Planet Earth soon to be recycled? Is castration compulsory? Isn’t Turkey Potpie an underwhelming last supper?

Cosmic Collective Theatre’s intergalactic pitch-black comedy comes with adult themes and strong language – but no C-word, of course – to give it a 15-plus age guide

Taking the mic: York punk performance poet Henry Raby

Henry Raby: Apps & Austerity, August 28, 6.30pm

“2010-2019. What was going on?” asks York-grown punk performance poet, activist and Say Owt artistic director Henry Raby as puts the word into sword to slice up the past decade.

From the memes and scenes, from riots to Royal Weddings to Referendums, Henry sums up a decade of technology and austerity with attitude, humour and insight.

Slam champ and Deer Shed resident poet Henry has performed across the UK, from festivals front rooms. “This is my fifth solo show, so I must have got something right by now,” he says.

Say Owt Showcase, August 28, 8pm

YORK’S lovable and raucous poetry gang proudly present an assortment of noisy slam-winning performance poets, word-weavers, and gobheads. “Spice up your Friday night with a glass-raising toast to the spoken word,” says host Henry Raby.

Say Owt word-warriors have delighted in ripping up stages at the Great Yorkshire Fringe and the Arts Barge in York, the Edinburgh Fringe and the Ilkley Literature Festival.

Manic magic: All-action York magician Just Josh

Josh Benson in Just Josh’s Ultimate Family Show, August 29, 1pm

CALLING all families! Just Josh is “hugely excited” to be back performing live with his family magic, juggling and balloon show!

If you have encountered Josh Benson previously, you will know that he is one of Yorkshire and indeed the UK’s “biggest kids”, noted for his boundless energy and shameless attempts to do absolutely anything in pursuit of a laugh from a crowd.

Josh, Corntroller of Entertainments at York Maze and regular pantomime silly billy, has taken his magic all over the UK and beyond, returning home from his P&O Cruises stint in February.

“My show is suitable for kids from four to 104, with laughs and, all being well, amazement for the whole family” says Josh.

All roads lead Jess Gardham to…the Pop-Up On The Patio stage at York Theatre Royal

Jess Gardham, August 29, 4pm

YORK pop, soul, blues and acoustic singer-songwriter, musical actress and 2018 MasterChef quarter finalist Jess Gardham closes Pop-Up On The Patio with an afternoon set.

Jess has performed all over Britain, the United States, Europe and Canada and supported the likes of Paul Carrack, KT Tunstall, The Shires, Wilko Johnson and Martin Simpson.

Her songs have been played regularly on BBC Introducing and her debut album, Beyond Belief, was picked up by BBC Radio 2.

Jess has taken lead roles in theatre productions such as Hairspray, Ghost The Musical and Rock Of Ages. “I hope to perform in theatre again when they’re open again,” she says.

SAFETY MEASURES

Arriving
YORK Theatre Royal will open the entrance to the Pop-Up patio a quarter of an hour before every performance starts.

“There will likely be some queueing, but we will do everything we can to keep this to a minimum,” says the festival website. “Please arrive in good time for any performance.”

All tickets will be digital and checked without contact at a social distance at the entrance to the patio area, where refreshments will be available.

Departing
STAFF will be managing the departure from the performance area “so that we don’t have large crowds all leaving at the same time”.

Loos
THE loos in De Grey House next to the patio will be open throughout. All loos will be stocked with anti-bacterial hand soap and stringent hand-washing guidelines are in place.

Social distancing
EACH household or social bubble will be seated at a safe distance from other households or social bubbles, in line with Government guidance at the time of the performance.

“You will be directed to a designated ‘social bubble spot’ by our staff,” says the website. “Please be patient with them and sit where they direct – they know best!”

Food and refreshments
A LIMITED range of soft and alcoholic drinks will be on sale, alongside ice creams and chocolate.

Ticketing policy
IF you have any symptoms of COVID-19, have been diagnosed with the virus or have been in direct contact with a diagnosed individual in the past 14 days, you must not attend the event.

If you are unable to attend as a result of illness, please email boxoffice@yorktheatreroyal.co.uk and a ticket transfer can be arranged. Tickets can only be refunded if the booked performance has sold out.

Additional cleaning
THE patio area will be thoroughly cleaned between each performance. “Our already high cleaning standards have been enhanced by a cleaning programme designed to clean and sanitise the high touch points,” assures the website.

More information can be found at: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/be-part-of-it/collective-acts/pop-up-on-the-patio/. 

Garden of delights: Hannah Sibai’s design for Pop-Up On The Patio at York Theatre Royal

York Theatre Royal to make job cuts to ensure future. “Devastating,” says director

Silent night: The empty York Theatre Royal stage and auditorium bathed in “emergency red” on the nationwide #LightItInRed campaign night on July 6

YORK Theatre Royal is to make “some redundancies”, faced by the need to reduce costs significantly in the Coronavirus blight.

A statement headlined “York Theatre Royal takes steps to ensure its future” was released today, announcing that, “like so many theatres around the country”, the St Leonard’s Place theatre would be entering into consultations with staff that would “regrettably lead to some redundancies due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic”.

“The theatre has been unable to open its doors for performances since March 17 and, despite Government allowing the return of socially distanced performances from August 1, the theatre’s survival will depend on it reducing costs significantly,” the statement continued.

Eighty-nine per cent of the Theatre Royal’s annual income is generated through ticket sales and from revenue streams associated with welcoming audiences. A £196,493 grant from the Arts Council England Emergency Fund, announced on July 7, will support the theatre, but only to September 30, and crucially details are yet to be announced as to how the much vaunted £1.57 billion Government relief package for cultural institutions will be distributed.

The “crown jewels” of British culture are expected to be at the top of the pecking order, although Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has talked of the need to protect small-scale theatre enterprises too.

York Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird, pictured in happier times. “It is devastating to me that in the coming weeks we are going to have to make some very difficult decisions,” he says

In the statement, Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird said: “Since 1744, the people of York have enjoyed, supported and celebrated this theatre. It is our job, as custodians of this great community asset, to do whatever we can to ensure its survival for the people of our city.

“All of the leadership team have taken big pay cuts, and we have maximised our use of government [furlough] schemes.

“It is devastating to me that in the coming weeks we are going to have to make some very difficult decisions. But the theatre can survive this and we will make sure that, when we are able to re-open our doors, York Theatre Royal will come roaring back with an epic programme to help re-energise our community’s creativity.”

Tom added: “I want to take this opportunity to thank the hundreds of people who are donating to the theatre at this time, as a result of our heightened fundraising messages. This is making a real difference.” Donations can be made online via yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Vicky Biles, the Theatre Royal director of communications and development, said: “We’re not going to add anything else at this time.”

That leaves questions aplenty. How many redundancies? When will the Theatre Royal learn if any slice of the £1.57 billion aid package is bound for York? Will Cinderella still be going to the ball in the Theatre Royal’s first pantomime collaboration with Evolution Productions from December 4 to January 10 2021? Watch this space for the answers, whenever they may come.