Mission Impossible! Velma Celli finds new wonderbar home for York drag residency

“It’s happening!” says Velma Celli as York cabaret star moves residency to Impossible, York, from May 21. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick, Kirkpatrick Photography

YORK’S drag diva deluxe Velma Celli is on the move.

Out goes the Covid-suspended monthly camp cabaret Friday nights at The Basement, City Screen, York.

In comes a resplendent residency from May 21 at Impossible, York, Tokyo Industries’ new tea-room, cocktail bar, restaurant and speakeasy enterprise in the old Terry’s café in St Helen’s Café, latterly home to Carluccio’s restaurant.

“It’s happening!” says an excited Velma Celli, the exotic international drag alter-ego of musical actor Ian Stroughair, last seen on a York stage in December as the villainous Fleshius Creepius in York Stage’s debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, at Theatre @41, Monkgate.

How the other half lives: Exit alter-ego Velma Celli, enter Ian Stroughair, musical actor, playing Fleshius Creepius in York Stage’s pantomime Jack And The Beanstalk last winter. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

“Velma has a new residency!! My very first live gig at the utterly fabulous Impossible, York. May 21st.  Doors 7pm. Show 8pm! My very special guest is [York soul sister] Jessica Steel (obvs). More special West End guests to be announced! Grab those tickets as it will sell out!”

Tickets are on sale at https://www.ticketweb.uk/event/the-velma-celli-show-impossible-york-tickets/10900325, priced at £22 for VIP front cabaret table seats and £16.50 for reserved seating.

“Basically, it’s replacing the shows at The Basement, where we don’t know when it will reopen for shows under Covid guidance as it’s a small space,” says Ian, as he switches from the impossible to Impossible, York.

The debut poster for Velma Celli’s new residency

“I met the Impossible general manager, Stephanie [Powell], in December, meeting her between Jack And The Beanstalk shows, and then suddenly she knocked on the window saying, ‘I’ve been trying to contact you!’.

“And so the first Velma Celli Show there will be on May 21, up the stairs, in the fabulous Impossible Wonderbar setting overlooking the square, with more monthly shows to be announced later. This one will be fun, comedic, with stand-up, impressions, the usual mix of rock, pop and the blues, plus Jess and guests.”

The Velma Celli Show residency will not be Velma’s only gig in the first-floor Impossible Wonderbar. “On June 5, we’ll be holding the first Drag Brunch, with Velma, surprise guest drag queens, bottomless cocktails and brunch,” says Ian, looking forward to hosting the “ultimate diva brunch in homage to all the queens”, from Whitney to Tina Turner plus many more besides.

Brunch date: Velma Celli will be joined by guest drag queens at Impossible, York, on June 5

That day, there will be two 90-minute sittings, the first from 12 noon, the second from 2.30pm. Tickets June 5 are on sale via info@impossibleyork.com or on 01904 864410.

After being London based for so long – like so many musical performers – Ian first moved back to York for Lockdown 1 when the pandemic sent him home from a Velma Celli Australian tour, and he plans to settle back in his home city permanently from May, travelling to London for three days a week when necessary.

Streamed concerts, first from a Bishopthorpe kitchen and latterly from a riverside abode by the Ouse Bridge, have kept Velma Celli’s voice in spectacular working order, sometimes accompanied by soul-singing York hairdresser Jessica Steel, leading light of Big Ian Donaghy’s fundraising A Night To Remember shows at York Barbican and salon owner of Rock The Barnet in Boroughbridge Road.

West End star Ian has appeared in such musicals as Cats, Fame, Chicago and Rent – not forgetting a sassy cameo for Velma Celli on EastEnders – but had to forego a long run in Funny Girls in Blackpool last year, thwarted by Killjoy Covid.

Ian Stroughair: Musical actor, drag queen , pantomime star

The pandemic strictures put paid to his international travels too, but already he has had two Covid-19 vaccine jabs to enable Ian to plan a week’s travel to Mexico for a Velma Celli show in Cancun.

“Thank god for that because the next cruise is not until October. I lost all the cruise-ship shows last year, and I’d already lost five cruise bookings this year, when in one day I lost three more cruise bookings,” he reveals.

In the diary too is Velma Celli’s participation in The Love Season at York Theatre Royal, performing one of Velma’s regular cabaret shows, re-titled Love Is Love: A Brief Of History Of Drag specially for the May 29 occasion.

Joining Velma that night will be two guest acts, Jordan Fox, Ian’s co-star in Jack And The Beanstalk, and Jessica Steel, backing singers Kimberley Ensor and Grace Lancaster, musical director Ben Papworth, drummer Clark Howard and guitarist Al Morrison.

“I last performed there in Kes, when I was 14, exactly 24 years ago, and sadly I’ve never been back,” says Ian. “I’ve tried to do shows there but it’s never happened, so it’s great to be back now. I love what Tom [chief executive Tom Bird] is doing there.”

When the ships are down: As it stands, Velma Celli will not do a cruise gig until October

Ian has taken A Brief History Of Drag to New York and Australia and on a British tour, as well as staging performances in London and York. “I’ve been doing it for four years now on and off, and I’m so glad the Theatre Royal wants the show,” he says.

“I wrote it when I was stuck in Africa for a few weeks. I thought, ‘let’s write a show’ and it ended up being about how I got into drag and a celebration of the impact of drag in theatre, music, film and popular culture.”

Yet for all the flamboyance of the imposingly tall Velma Celli, for all of Ian’s love of performing, he has a surprising admission to make: “I don’t like fame and celebrity,” he says. “I repel it!”

Tickets for Velma Celli’s 8pm show on May 29 at York Theatre Royal are on sale at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or on 01904 623568. For the latest Velma Celli trailer, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a005o6eGZWI. Hit it!

Love is the drag: Velma Celli’s celebration of the art of the drag queen

Feel the love as York Theatre Royal marks May reopening with season from the heart

Love letter to theatre: The reopening season at York Theatre Royal

MUCH ado about nothing but love is promised when York Theatre Royal reopens with two nights of letters from the heart from May 17.

Love Bites will turn the spotlight on the creativity of artists from in and around York, whether poets, performers, singers, dancers or digital artists, who have been commissioned to write love letters celebrating the return to live performances after the easing of the Government’s pandemic restrictions.

More names will be announced nearer the time for the 8pm performances on May 17 and 18, but confirmed already from 200 proposals are Alice Boddy and Leanne Hope’s piece, A Love Letter To Female Friendship, and Japanese-English actor Erika Noda’s semi-autobiographical account of growing up dual heritage, entitled Ai.

Magic trio: writer Bethan Ellis, illustrator Elena Skoreyko Wagner and composer James Cave

Contributing too will be the Magic combination of illustrator and papercut artist Elena Skoreyko Wagner, composer and York Minster choir member James Cave and writer and editor Bethan Ellis, finding magic and meaning in the mundane, and York-based Zimbabwean playwright Butshilo Nleya, who combines words, music and dance in works centred on place, home and the multiplicity of cultures, this time presenting Ekhaya, Love Them Both?.

Juliet Forster, the Theatre Royal’s creative director, says: “Love Bites is really a love letter to live performance, put together by York artists. It’s a celebration of what we have been missing for over a year now: the chance to come together under one roof and share our stories and experiences. There was no one single theatre production that felt enough to mark the reopening of theatres, the lifting of restrictions, so we decided that we needed multiple ones.”

Selecting 20 commissions from more than 200 proposals was “extremely difficult, but really inspiring too,” she reveals. “There are so many talented, inventive, creative people in York – we could have filled the night several times over. The selection of short pieces that you will see on our stage represent a wide range of voices, artforms and approaches to the theme of love, created by both well-established artists and those who are newer to the scene,” she says.

“We hope Love Bites will turn out to be ‘a many-splendored thing’,” says York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster

“Love Bites will explore the idea of love letters, dedicated to people, places, things, actions, occupations and much, much more in a multitude of ways, all presented in five-minute specially commissioned bite-sized chunks. We hope Love Bites will turn out to be ‘a many-splendored thing’”.

After these two nights introduced by Look North alumnus Harry Gration with a Pay What You Feel ticket policy, The Love Season’s focus on human connection, the live experience and a sense of togetherness will embrace solo shows by stage and screen luminary Ralph Fiennes [Four Quartets} and Coronation Street star Julie Hesmondhalgh [The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…]; a new Ben Brown political drama about writer Graham Greene and spy Kim Philby, A Splinter Of Ice,  and Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, transposed to 1940s’ Hong Kong by writer Amy Ng and director Dadiow Lin.

Performances will be presented to socially distanced audiences, adhering to the latest Government and industry Covid-19 guidelines to ensure the safety of staff and audiences with a reduced capacity of 344, but should Step 4 of the roadmap roll-out go ahead as planned on June 21, there is scope for more seats to go on sale for shows later in the season. Over to you, Mr Johnson.

“We’re so chuffed to have Ralph Fiennes coming to York. We can’t believe it,” says Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird

Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird says: “The last thing we want to do, given our mission and the trouble in keeping theatre alive, is to put up more barriers to people coming, but we have to be Covid-safe, and that’s the bottom line. We did it for the Travelling Pantomime we took around York wards, and we will do it again from May 17.’”

The number one talking point is Ralph Fiennes’s Theatre Royal debut, in six performances from July 26 to 31, directing himself in the world-premiere tour of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets: a solo theatre adaptation of Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Giddings, a set of poems first published together in 1943 on the themes of time, nature and the elements, faith and spirituality, war and mortality.

Tom says: “The link to bring the show here is James Dacre, artistic director of Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatres, who co-produced A View From The Bridge with the Theatre Royal in 2019.

Ralph Fiennes rehearsing T S Eliot’s Four Quartets

“He’s co-producing this tour, helping Ralph put the show together. Ralph is rehearsing in London, opening at the Theatre Royal, Bath, from May 25 and then touring. We’re so chuffed to have Ralph coming to York. We can’t believe it!

“We’re thrilled that Ralph’s show became a possibility for us, and it’s a huge credit to him to recognise the need to support theatre around the country at this time.

“Let’s say it, it’s rare for an actor of his profile and standing to do a regional tour, but he’s seen that he can help to save some incredibly important producing houses, like this one, by doing a tour – and it’s not an act of charity; it’s an important and really exciting piece of work.”

“It’s a huge credit to him to recognise the need to support theatre around the country at this time,” says Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird

Tom is delighted by Fiennes’s choice of material too. “There’s a massive tradition of actors doing Eliot poems, like Fiona Shaw doing The Waste Land,” he says. “They lend themselves to performance, and it’s really telling that Ralph has chosen to take Four Quartets on tour at this moment because they’re rooted in life and death; the past and the future; human relationships and a love of place.

“For that reason, it fits into our programme for a season built around love, connection and being rooted in a place. As an American coming to England, Eliot was trying to root himself here by looking for his ancestors in Somerset.”

For full details of The Love Season, go to: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Tickets can be booked at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk; on 01904 623568, Monday to Saturday, 12 noon to 3pm, and in person, Thursday to Saturday, 12 noon to 3pm.

Ready for love at York Theatre Royal

Copyright of The Press, York

Cupid, draw back your bow and let your beer flow on York Theatre Royal’s patio

Cupid’s Bar this way: A new poster points to York Theatre Royal’s outdoor space for for residents and visitors to socialise safely. Picture: Livy Potter

LOVE is in the Step 2 air, and soon will be on the York Theatre Royal stage too for The Love Season from May 17.

What better time to launch Cupid’s Bar on the Theatre Royal patio, open from tomorrow (14/4/2021) for five weeks.

The bar will run from midday to 9.30pm every Thursday to Sunday, providing an outdoor space in the heart of the city for residents and visitors to socialise safely. Working with regional suppliers, Cupid’s Bar will offer a range of drink options, such as draught beer from Black Sheep Brewery, Masham, and York Gin from, er, York.

York Theatre Royal’s new patio bar

Freshly spruce after an eight-hour wait for a lockdown-easement haircut on Monday, Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird says: “We’re thrilled to be opening Cupid’s Bar on our patio. It’s the perfect space to enjoy the picturesque delights of the city with family and friends, just a stone’s throw from York Minster and the Museum Gardens.

“We think it’s important to offer our community a chance to visit us ahead of our full reopening for live performances on 17 May with The Love Season. And we’re delighted that we can work with some of York’s best independent businesses and suppliers, so our customers can enjoy a range of great drinks.”

The bar will be socially distanced, with table service and card payments only. Tables will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Hannah Sibai’s terrace design for last summer’s Pop-Up On The Patio festival at York Theatre Royal

The Theatre Royal patio was last used for the Pop-Up On The Patio festival from August 14 to 29 last year in a Covid-secure summer season of outdoor performances by “Yorkshire’s finest theatre and dance makers”, presented on a terrace stage designed by Yorkshire theatre designer Hannah Sibai.

Taking part were 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.

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 Culture 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 Culture 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 year with 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.