More Things To Do in York and beyond as Dickens tales, dames and Damon drop in. List No. 59, courtesy of The Press, York

What the Dickens? Yes, James Swanton is reviving his Ghost Stories For Christmas at York Medical Society

FROM boyish Boris to Dame Edna, Christmas concerts to panto dames, Dickensian ghost stories to solo Damon, Charles Hutchinson has highlights aplenty to recommend.   

Dickensian Christmas in York: James Swanton’s Ghost Stories For Christmas, York Medical Society, on various dates between December 2 and 13, 7pm

AFTER the silent nights of last December, York gothic actor supreme James Swanton is gleefully reviving his Ghost Stories For Christmas performances of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, The Haunted Man and The Chimes.

“I’ve scheduled extra performances of A Christmas Carol: the perfect cheering antidote, I feel, to the misery we’ve all been through,” says Swanton. “But the two lesser-known stories are also very relevant to our times.”

A reduced capacity is operating for Covid safety, meaning that tickets are at a premium on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Boris: World King, under debate at Theatre@41

Political debate of the week: Boris: World King, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, tonight, 7.30pm

THE year is 1985 and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has plenty going for him, being young, posh and really rather blond. However, his efforts to become President of the Oxford Union debating society have been thwarted.

Never fear. Boris always has a cunning plan up his sleeve. Cue time travel, classical allusions and good clean banter in Boris: World King, Tom Crawshaw’s comedic exploration of a young man’s ambition and humanity explored as a half-hour one-man show. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Richard Kay: Co-directing York Philharmonic Male Voice Choir’s Christmas concerts

Harmony at Christmas: York Philharmonic Male Voice Choir and the Citadel Singers, Christmas Traditions 2021, The Citadel, Gillygate, York, Tuesday to Friday, doors 7pm

AFTER delivering an online Christmas concert via Zoom to an international audience in 2020, York Philharmonic Male Voice Choir return to live concerts for Christmas Traditions 2021.

The Citadel allows room for cabaret seating downstairs and balcony seating that can ensure safe distancing is maintained, while the show retains its format of carols old and new, Christmas songs, festive readings and sketches. Box office: arkevent.co.uk/christmastraditions2021.

The poster for Damon Albarn’s night at the double at York Minster

York gig(s) of the week: Damon Albarn, York Minster, Thursday, 6.30pm and 8.30pm

DAMON Albarn quickly added a second special intimate album-launch show at York Minster after the first was fully booked in a flash.

The Blur, Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad & The Queen leader now plays two sold-out concerts in one night in his first ever York performances, marking the November 12 release of his solo studio recording The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows.

Albarn, 53, has been on a “dark journey” making this album in lockdown, exploring themes of fragility, loss, emergence and rebirth.

Martyn Joseph: Lockdown reflections on landmark birthday on new album, showcased in concert at Pocklington Arts Centre concert

Gig of the week outside York: Martyn Joseph, Pocklington Arts Centre, Thursday, 8pm

“THE Welsh Springsteen”, singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph, will be showcasing his 23rd studio album, 1960, a “coming of age” record with a difference, in Pocklington.

Last year, amid the isolation of the pandemic, Penarth-born Joseph turned 60 on July 15, a landmark birthday, a time of self-reflection, that shaped his songs of despair and sadness, gratitude and wonder, and gave the album its title. Box office: 01759 301547 or at pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.

Alistair Griffin: Series of Big Christmas Concerts in York

Alistair Griffin’s Big Christmas Concert, St Michael-le-Belfrey, York, December 3 (sold out) and December 10, 8pm; Alistair Griffin’s Candlelit Christmas, Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York, December 11, 8pm

ON December 3 and 10, a brass band greets revellers, then York singer-songwriter Alistair Griffin’s Big Christmas Concert takes a musical journey from acoustic traditional carols to Wizzard, Slade and The Pogues. “Sing along and sip mulled wine while enjoying the fairytale of old York,” says Griffin’s invitation.

On December 11, he switches from St Michael-le-Belfrey to a candle-lit Holy Trinity Church. “Take a seat, or in this case, a medieval pew and soak in the festive atmosphere,” he says. Cue mulled wine, Christmas tunes, acoustic festive numbers and a Christmas carol singalong. Box office: alistairgriffin.com.

York playwright Mike Kenny: New production of The Railway Children with his award-winning script at Hull Truck

On the right track show of the week outside York: The Railway Children, Hull Truck Theatre, running until January 2

YORK playwright Mike Kenny has revisited his award-winning adaptation of E Nesbit’s The Railway Children – first staged so memorably by York Theatre Royal at the National Railway Museum – for Hull Truck’s Christmas musical.

Directed by artistic director Mark Babych in the manner of his Oliver Twist and Peter Pan shows of Christmases past, original music and dance routines complement Kenny’s storytelling in this warm-hearted, uplifting tale of hope, friendship and family, set in Yorkshire. Box office: 01482 323638 or at hulltruck.co.uk.

Faye Campbell: Brushing up on playing Cinderella in York Theatre Royal’s pantomime, opening on Friday

Evolution, not revolution, in pantoland: Cinderella, York Theatre Royal, December 3 to January 2

YORK Theatre Royal’s post-Berwick era began last year with the Travelling Pantomime, establishing the partnership of Evolution Pantomimes’ man with the Midas touch, Paul Hendy, as writer and Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster as director.

After the 2020 road show, here comes the full-scale return to the main house for Cinderella, starring CBeebies’ Andy Day (Dandini), last winter’s stars Faye Campbell (Cinderella) and Robin Simpson (Sister), Paul Hawkyard (the other Sister), ventriloquist comedian Max Fulham (Buttons), Benjamin Lafayette (Prince Charming) and Sarah Leatherbarrow (Fairy Godmother). Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Unmasked: Barry Humphries tells all at the Grand Opera House, York next April

Hottest ticket launch of the week: Barry Humphries, The Man Behind The Mask, Grand Opera House, York, April 13 2022

AUSTRALIAN actor, comedian, satirist, artist, author and national treasure Barry Humphries will play only one Yorkshire show on his 2022 tour, here in York.

Set to turn 88 on February 17, he will take a revelatory trip through his colourful life and theatrical career in an intimate, confessional evening, seasoned with highly personal, sometimes startling and occasionally outrageous stories of alter egos Dame Edna Everage, Sir Les Patterson and Sandy Stone. Hurry, hurry, for tickets on 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/york.

James Swanton’s Dickensian Christmas ghost stories return to familiar haunt of York Medical Society. Tickets at a premium

James Swanton: “Old-fashioned storytelling in a suitably atmospheric space”. Picture: Jtu Photography

AFTER the silent nights of last December, York gothic actor supreme James Swanton is gleefully reviving his Ghost Stories For Christmas trilogy at York Medical Society, Stonegate, York.

“What an enormous relief it is to return to live theatre,” says this former winner of the Outstanding Performing Artist prize in the now dormant York Culture Awards as he prepares for his Dickensian yarn-spinning residency on various dates from December 2 to 13.

Once more, he will be the black-clad, spindle-fingered gatekeeper for all manner of supernatural terrors after memorising three hours of wintery material for his “seasonal roulette of three Dickensian tales”.

Ghost Stories For Christmas comprises James’s solo renditions of A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Haunted Man, returning to life anew in York before transferring to the Charles Dickens Museum, in Doughty Street, London, in the run-up to Christmas.

James’s past Dickensian theatre work has met with the approval of notable fellow thesps Simon Callow and Miriam Margolyes, the former describing his West End show Sikes & Nancy as “startling and enthralling”; the latter finding his 2017 performances at the Dickens Museum “extraordinary”, “superb” and “pictorially vivid”.

‘I’m delighted to finally be getting back to live theatre in my home city of York, where it’s hard to imagine a more authentically Dickensian location than the York Medical Society on Stonegate,” says James.

“This year, I’ve scheduled extra performances of A Christmas Carol: the perfect cheering antidote, I feel, to the misery we’ve all been through over the past few years.

“But the two lesser-known stories, The Chimes and The Haunted Man, are also very relevant to our times. The Chimes is absolutely hilarious, but also overbrims with anger at the injustices done to the most unfortunate in society. And The Haunted Man is not only a chilling supernatural tale, but a portrait of a man wrestling with his mental health. These subjects have been much on our minds through the pandemic.”

James judges A Christmas Carol to be “one of the greatest things ever written”. “I’ve found there’s nothing more satisfying to perform as an actor. And there’s no story that audiences are more eager to hear to the end,” he reasons.

As in 2018 and 2019, Ghost Stories For Christmas is selling quickly. “I was shocked 36 hours ago to find that we’d sold 80 per cent of the seats – I think because York Theatre Royal put us in their email newsletter – so I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re completely sold out in the next few days,” says James.

“I’m hoping – if I give the shows next year – to do them at fuller capacity over a longer period. We’re up to seven nights this year, but I wonder if we might build on even that when we get to (I hope) post-pandemic times. Perhaps a bigger venue is something to look into too.”

James Swanton presents Ghost Stories For Christmas, by Charles Dickens, at York Medical Society, Stonegate, York, December 2 to 13. A Christmas Carol: December 2, 3, 6, 7 and 13. The Haunted Man: December 4. The Chimes, December 9. All performances start at 7pm and last approximately one hour. To book, make haste to the York Theatre Royal box office, ring 01904 623568 or head online to yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

“It’s ironic that the Victorian Christmas has come to stand for a fairytale vision of an idyllic past,” says James Swanton. Picture: Jtu Phoography

Ahead of his Dickens of a theatrical task in York, James Swanton answers CharlesHutchPress’s questions.

What form do your three shows take: a reading or rather more than that in each one-man show?

“I’m happy to say that these are fully fledged dramatisations rather than Jackanory-style readings. It is quite the Labour of Hercules: 180 minutes of text to memorise to cover the three one-hour readings! But it’s worth it to ensure these pieces are truly alive. My abridgements are closely based on Dickens’s own performance scripts, so their faith to their sources is absolute.”

Will you use a similar performance style for each tale?

“This is old-fashioned storytelling in a suitably atmospheric space. I’m hoping to use every physical and vocal trick in my repertoire to make the audience see Dickens’s pictures as clearly as I do myself.”

What are the storylines in The Chimes and The Haunted Man?

“Just like A Christmas Carol, these lesser-known works hinge on disenchanted older men who must encounter the supernatural to change for the better. The Chimes is the exuberant tale of a lowly ticket-porter who finds goblins squatting in the bells of his local church.

“Meanwhile, The Haunted Man is a Gothic chiller about a chemist who hatches a bargain with his ghostly double to remove all of his sorrowful memories.”

What have you been up to since you were last to be spotted on a York stage pre-Covid’s grim clasp?

“Continuing my supernatural association, I’ve just been back on a southern stage, thanks to the London Horror Festival, with a very delayed revival of Irving Undead – a production that of course originated at York Medical Society.

“I’ve maintained the home connection by livestreaming M. R. James and Dickens ghost stories with the wonderful York Ghost Merchants throughout the pandemic, from their premises on Shambles to a global audience.

“People would tune in from the most astonishingly far-flung places: various different states in America, Canada, Australia! It was touching to know that people were coming together to share a moment in the middle of the pandemic.’

“And I’ve bashed out horror film after horror film, including the phenomenally popular Host, in which I make the cameo of the century – to absolutely nobody’s surprise – as the demonic spirit who crashes the Zoom call. Business as (un)usual.”

How did you make the Zoom-set Host under Covid conditions?

“The actors shot it at home on their mobile phones during the first lockdown. I struggle to think of any other feature film that’s been partly shot in Acomb – never mind one that went on to reach a global audience.

“Stephen King said he enjoyed it, which was a bit of a thrill, and it was heralded by many critics as the defining horror film of 2020.”

Does the miserable impact of Covid-19’s lockdowns and its refusal to die a death gracefully put the telling of ghost stories in a different light this Christmas?

“I’m sure it does. These tales are all rather death-obsessed beneath their jollier garnishings, though perhaps it’ll make us more inclined to go to these stories for escapism now.

“We only have a very, very little time to get life right; to leave this world fractionally better than when we entered it,” says James Swanton. Picture: Jtu Photography

“It’s ironic that the Victorian Christmas has come to stand for a fairytale vision of an idyllic past. Dickens was under no such illusions: The Chimes is especially furious – an unhinged rant in places – though A Christmas Carol isn’t far behind.”

How will the theatre-going experience at York Medical Society differ from the 2019 production? Masks on? Social distancing? 

“To keep everyone safe in these uncertain times, it’s primarily been a matter of reducing capacity to give audiences that vital breathing space, so we’re on course for a sell-out much earlier than usual.

“The dividend is that this should guarantee an even more intimate and special experience for those who are able to secure a ticket. But they better rush!”

What makes York Medical Society such a good setting for your performances?

“It’s a building that feels properly immersive: travelling down that alley to the door with the knocker feels like an approach to Scrooge’s house on that fatal night when Jacob Marley’s face put in an appearance.

“I’ve also been pleased to discover that Henry Belcombe, the second president of York Medical Society, was a social acquaintance of Charles Dickens.”

Were you tempted to look at doing any new additions to your Dickens’ Christmas repertoire? Might that happen in future?

“I think the present three work rather well in concert, each one shedding light on the others. Dickens’s other Christmas books can be terribly twee; I did all five at the Dickens Museum in 2017, and Michael Slater (our foremost Dickens scholar) came to The Battle Of Life on the basis that he couldn’t believe anyone had been mad enough to attempt it.

“Of Dickens’s spookier stories, I last year had a crack at The Signal-Man with the York Ghost Merchants – but a less Christmassy tale can hardly be imagined!”

As a performer, what changes when you revisit material you have performed previously? Do you tweak the text at all?

“The material changes as I change; little details leap out or recede every year. For instance, I’ve this time been struck by how Scrooge, like almost all people who pride themselves on ice-cold rationality, turns out to be a being of emotion beyond anything. He bursts into tears at the drop of a hat throughout his story.

“More practically, the text of The Haunted Man has been in a state of flux from the word go. It’s the only one of the three that Dickens didn’t perform himself – he started preparing a script before abandoning it – so I’m determined to one day crack it.”

What can we learn as a modern society from social reformist Dickens’s ideal of a good Christmas?

“Focus on your family. The Christmas dinner served up by the Cratchits is impoverished indeed, but their delight in each other’s company makes it into a feast. 

“But Dickens also means us to acknowledge the entire human family. We are all of us connected and we only have a very, very little time to get life right; to leave this world fractionally better than when we entered it.”

The Snow Queen’s deep freeze stretches to the end of January for SJT film streaming

Polly Lister as the “silly Sorceress” in Nick Lane’s The Snow Queen, the SJT production available for streaming throughout January. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

LOCKDOWN 3 is enforcing a Stay Home policy that consigns theatres to hibernation through the winter chill and maybe beyond.

Until whenever, the arts must be a remote prospect for entertainment, and where better to start than the film version of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s five-star Christmas show, The Snow Queen.

A sell-out success in the Covid-secure, socially distanced Round auditorium last month, Nick Lane’s one-woman show for Polly Lister lost only its last day (December 31) to Scarborough’s move to Tier 3 status.

If you missed the live performances or want to re-live Lane’s magical, mischievous, moving show, The Snow Queen is available to rent until midnight on January 31. Tickets cost £12 at sjt.uk.com/SJTathome and allow online access for a week.

Lane, audacious inventor of winter wonderlands at the SJT since 2016, had been writing a five-hander version in the manner of past hits Pinocchio, A (Scarborough) Christmas Carol and Alice In Wonderland.

“Nick, could you change it to a one-hander,” asked SJT artistic director Paul Robinson, his regular partner in “sublime not-pantomime” shows for the child in all of us. Yes, he said.

Paul Robinson: Stephen Joseph Theatre artistic director, who directed Polly Lister in Nick Lane’s The Snow Queen. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“Polly, could you do it as a solo show,” Robinson asked Polly Lister, so memorably “hyper, needy, overbearing, but funny and vulnerable” as Mari Hoff in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice and “sporty and no-nonsense” as lesbian Di in Di And Viv And Rose in the SJT’s 2017 summer season.

“Yes,” said Polly, who now would be playing multitudinous characters – a Goth raven poet and a grumpy Brummie reindeer among them – rather than merely the icy blast of the Snow Queen.

On board once more too were SJT artistic associate Simon Slater, Scarborough-born composer, lyricist and sound designer; video and lighting wizard Paul Steer; movement and puppetry director Gemma Fairlie and Helen Coyston, the designer for A (Scarborough) Christmas Carol, who decided everything should go with a swing in The Snow Queen.

Nick recalls the Covid-enforced change of tack from a cast of five to a solo show. “I got the call from Paul, when I’d done two drafts of the five-hander, full bells and whistles,” he says.

“He’d already cut it to a cast of four. ‘No problem at all’, I said, but then he said, ‘I’ve had a re-think, we’re going to make it a one-woman show’.

“And while he was explaining his reasoning, having first thought he was joking, I thought, ‘I’ve done two or three one-man shows before; this can work’. But having now done a two-hander Snow Queen at Hull Truck and started on the five-hander for the SJT and now written this solo show version, I don’t want to do another Snow Queen for ten years!”

“You know the story of The Snow Queen. It’s bonkers,” says playwright Nick Lane

Nick revelled in his new task. “You know the story of The Snow Queen: it’s bonkers!” he says. “In order to make it a one-woman show, give it a strong narrative and make it locally relevant, I followed a plot that wasn’t in the play originally, as you don’t just adapt a five-hander into a one-hander, as that would be really lazy.

“It’s ended up being my furthest removed play from the source material. That’s not to say it doesn’t follow Hans Christian Andersen’s story beats, but one of the things about The Snow Queen story is that she’s not in it apart from the beginning and the end, and there’s no explanation about why she did what she did and why she isn’t in the story more, so I’ve found a way to do that.

“At Hull Truck, the two-hander show was all about following the narrative beat and being silly, whereas this version does follow the narrative path but it does meander too.”

A child’s imagination was the key to Nick’s structure. “What a child enjoys is storytelling, which is the first avenue that opens up in a child, but it has to be more imaginative to fill the stage when it’s only one performer,” he says. “It has to be high energy and it must keep pushing the narrative to make the show work.”

Nick recalled meeting up with Polly Lister in 2017 after a Theatre Mill performance of his play Frankenstein Revelations at the York Medical Society premises in Stonegate. “She was with Richard Keightley, who was playing Victor Frankenstein, and we all went to the pub down the street, when she told me she was working on a one-woman play, more serious than mine, about having been a wife.”

Polly says: “Yes, I have form with solo shows. I wrote that one in 2017 for The Dukes theatre in Lancaster. It was called I Was A Wife and was autobiographical – I was a wife but then got ‘sacked’ from that role. By the time I wrote it, I was getting divorced: I got told the locks had been changed.

Viktoria Kay and Zach Lee in Nick Lane’s Frankenstein Revelations, presented at York Medical Society by Theatre Mill in February and March 2017. Picture: Tom Jackson

“It was set in a dressing room and it interrogated my idea of roles, being cast in different roles, with the different characters I’d played taking on the roles in the play.”

Polly, from Didsbury, Manchester, was familiar with Nick’s work. “I’ve been a fan from seeing two of his Christmas shows at Scarborough and that three-hander version of Frankenstein with all his lightness of touch, but a darkness too,” she says.

“So, I’ve wanted to work with him for ages and I was thrilled to be given the chance with The Snow Queen. I love every word of his script!”

A script that takes in not only the Snow Queen and Kai and Gerda from the Hans Christian Andersen story, but the aforementioned Brummie reindeer, the poetic raven and the Snow Queen’s sister, a “silly Sorceress” with Steampunk glasses, in a transformative journey to “the Other Scarborough” that can end only in glory or grief.

“I was allowed to be involved in the show’s creation, workshopping the play with Nick, looking to bring the characters alive, seeing which ones landed and which ones would need to grow,” says Polly.

“Nick never goes for the obvious, and I love the way he creates moods. You will feel sympathy for a character, but he doesn’t spoon-feed you, so nothing is overdone and there’s real pathos.”

In the bleak midwinter: Polly Lister as the Snow Queen in the SJT’s The Snow Queen. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Once Paul Robinson had made his “brave, cavalier but sensible” decision to go with a solo show, Polly knew she would relish performing in The Round. “I’m familiar with that stage design from the New Vic and the Theatre by the Lake at Keswick, and it’s my favourite way to perform,” she says.

“It feels much more intimate; you are all going on the journey together, and as a performer every angle is on show. You have to live it, breathe it and embody it.

“The ethos goes that once you’ve performed in the round, you’ll never want to perform again in an end-on theatre. The ‘Round’ sets you free.”

One revelation came as a surprise. “Every bit of why I love what I do is because I love being part of a team, so I really don’t like being the centre of attention this much!” says Polly, whose stage career runs to 24 years.

“Having it all rest on me, I’ve not enjoyed previously. On your own on stage, it’s harder work, whereas I love that thrill of uncertainty of sharing a stage, where I know I’m one of those people who knows I can help someone fix it when something goes wrong, bridging the broken dam.

“I feel much freer when I can be the saviour for someone else, but, for The Snow Queen, I just have to save myself.”

You would never sense any such loneliness of the socially distanced actor in Polly’s performance, maybe because she moves so fast between so many characters.

Explosive impact: Polly Lister’s Brummie reindeer in The Snow Queen. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Polly had a couple of major roles lined up for 2020, in Theresa Hawkins’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s The Company Of Wolves at the New Vic Theatre and Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors at the Bolton Octagon. “Hopefully, they’ve just been postponed,” she says.

“Once we got over the ‘fear’, I went into a bubble with my parents and started painting, doing a lot of shelves and making wine racks in my flat in Didsbury. I did some little videos of what I’d been doing, and it was really nice to do some work on my flat, with it becoming a nest for the first time.”

2020 still elicited artistic output from Polly, such as an audiobook of The Snow Queen for Hello Out There Productions and playing Beatrice in a Zoom production of Much Ado About Nothing.

“We are the kings and queens of creation, and it’s just in our nature to be creative, whatever the circumstances” says Polly.

Those pandemic circumstances led to the SJT’s one-woman version of The Snow Queen, and you have until January 31 to enjoy actor Lister, director Robinson and writer Lane’s outstanding creativity in the home quiet of Lockdown 3.

Lister act: Polly Lister’s “silly Sorceress”, armed with her Flying Monkey Powder…and the magic dust of Nick Lane’s script for The Snow Queen. Picture: Tony Bartholomew