‘Excited isn’t the word!’ says director Howard Ella as Rowntree Players prepare to open Dick Whittington on panto return

Rowntree Players’ principal cast members: Gemma McDonald’s Duncan, left, Hannah King’s Dick Whittington, Ellie Watson’s Alice Fitzwarren, Graham Smith’s Dame Dora and Martyn Hunter’s King Rat

DICK Whittington had to turn round and rest up for a year when Rowntree Players’ 2020 show was cancelled by Covid.

Now, however, Dick and his cat  will be on the road from York to London from Saturday (4/12/2021), when the Players take to the Joseph Rowntree Theatre stage with director Howard Ella and co-writer Andy Welch’s pantomime.

Joining Hannah King’s Dick Whittington in the cast will be Graham Smith’s Dame Dora; Gemma McDonald’s Duncan; Martyn Hunter’s King Rat; Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Ratatouille; Geoff Walker’s Alderman Fitzwarren; Ellie Watson’s Alice Fitzwarren and Bernie Calpin’s Kit The Cat.

Howard and Andy first wrote the script remotely, via a satellite link, before the 2020 show was called off. “Socially distanced writing – that was a challenge,” says Howard. “I work away a lot so there had always been an element of remote collaboration, but this was full on.

“What was missing was the ability to read and act as we wrote without a satellite delay. That one-second delay kills humour stone dead, so there was a lot of writing on instinct. Then we had to shelve the script. Totally gutting.”

Roll on a year and out came the script again. “What was great was to lift it out a year later, read it with fresh eyes and still enjoy it,” says Howard. “What’s most strange is that it really demonstrated the stasis we have been in.  It still felt relevant, if only because so much of our world of Covid and politics did not change.

“Of course, once we start blocking with the cast, then the gags change and everyone throws in their bit.”

Comedy writing as a duo, in the tradition of Galton & Simpson and Le Frenais & Clement, works well for the Players’ pantos. “I’ve written on my own and with both Barry [former dame Barry Benson] and Andy on different panto years,” says Howard.

“It’s exciting as you can bounce off each other and try things out before anyone else ever sees the script. The trick in making that writing partnership work is honesty and trust. When you don’t find something funny, when it’s not quite good enough, you have to say so and in a clear way.

Hannah King’s Dick Whittington is ready to set off from York to London in Rowntree Players’ Dick Whittington

“If you’re on the other end of the criticism, that’s where the trust kicks in. You trust you partner’s judgement and screw up the page. Sometimes tough, but you have to see it as collaboration, not compromise.”

This year’s cast is down in size by a couple of principals. “But that was story driven,” reasons Howard. “We wrote the script in early 2020 assuming Covid would drift past, so, in reality, there’s no compromises there. The script has the cast it always needed.

“That said, our chorus numbers are slightly lower to facilitate sensible spacing in dressing rooms and to deal with the [pandemic-enforced] practicalities, like not being able to share costumes between teams.”

Adapting to Covid restrictions has created extra challenges both in rehearsal and at the JoRo theatre. “We’ve had mask wearing and sanitising and spacing where we can,” says Howard.

“Everyone has been on different testing regimes through work and school, and they have been ever changing. Also, there’s double jabs where possible (and some of us oldies are boosted too!)

“What’s great is that the Joseph Rowntree Theatre is aligned with all the guidelines and so we’ve worked together, more than ever, to make it as safe as possible for everyone, both backstage and in the audience.

“But in reality we’re in the lap of the gods. From here on in, we put on a great show and hope that we all stay healthy. Otherwise, I’ll be picking up a script and donning a frock!”

As the first night approaches, what’s the mood in the camp?  “Excited isn’t the word!  We have missed the community aspect so much – and you only realise the strength of bond between the Rowntree Players company when it hasn’t been there and we all get back together.

“Stepping into the theatre on Sunday for the get-in, seeing all those familiar, yet strangely masked, faces was a delight. We haven’t done this for two years but it’s all come flooding back.

Rowntree Players’ Gemma McDonald, Hannah King, Ellie Watson, Martyn Hunter and Graham Smith dress in pantomime character on a day out at Murton Park, the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, near York

“In the company, we have a lot of returning cast and chorus, which has really helped us to short-cut through both Covid and a slightly curtailed rehearsal period because we slotted in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web in September, having delayed that production three times.

“Martyn Hunter has returned to the panto fold after a few years away and he’s done so with gusto, as has Bernie Calpin as Kit the Cat.”

Balancing work commitments with rehearsals, Howard is delighted to be bringing Dick Whittington to the stage. “At its heart, Dick Whittington has traditional pantomime roots. That’s what I love. We try and make every pantomime relevant, recognise how the world is changing and represent it in our own way.  

“But underneath all good pantomimes is a tale of right and wrong with a love story in the background and the freedom to be silly in between.

“I’ve also always liked the reminder that nowhere’s streets are paved with gold and that generally you have to work hard and you get out what you put in,” he says, “channelling his inner Yorkshireman”.

Saturday’s opening show will be emotional for cast and audience alike, given the sense of community at the core of all the Players’ work. “Everything we do at Rowntree Players aims to be inclusive of anyone who wants to take part,” says Howard, who is presenting Dick Whittington in tandem with choreographer Ami Carter, musical director Jess Douglas and production manager Helen Woodall.

“There’s a real commitment, there’s a pride in being involved with such an old society returning to the theatre where they started.

“The joy for any audience comes from the cast and their joy in being part of a production. We get so much pleasure from our hobby, we laugh an enormous amount, and I think that enjoyment flows over the pit and into the auditorium in everything we do.”

Rowntree Players present Dick Whittington at Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, December 4 to 11. Performances: 7.30pm, except Sunday; 2pm matinees, Saturday, Sunday and next Saturday. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Bean there, done that! What we learned from Nik Briggs’s debut York Stage panto

“I’ve been blown away by the response we’ve had to our panto,” says York Stage artistic director Nik Briggs. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

IN the original 2020 vision of York’s pantomime season, Dame Berwick Kaler made his comeback in Dick Turpin Rides Again in his newly adopted home of the Grand Opera House.

York Theatre Royal had a ball with Cinderella, bedding in a new partnership with Evolution Productions, and the Rowntree Players filled the Joseph Rowntree Theatre with community spirit as ever.

Then, however, the pandemic, rather than pantomime, became the P word on all lips, tearing up the script for the winter ahead. Dick Turpin never left the stable; the Theatre Royal took to the road with the Travelling Pantomime; Rowntree Players made plans for 2021 instead.

Along came a newcomer, however, in the form of York Stage’s inaugural pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, full of beans, routines, slapstick and musical theatre songs at the Covid-secure Theatre @41 Monkgate, under the direction of debutant writer Nik Briggs.

The post-Christmas impediment of Tier 3 status for York curtailed the panto fun and games on December 30, rather than the planned finale of January 3, but Nik can look back on a job well done with reduced-capacity, socially distanced full houses for the majority of shows since opening on December 11.

Losing his head: Nik Briggs emerging from the costume for the front end of Daisy the cow in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk. At the back end is socially distanced stage manager Lisa Cameron. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

“I’ve been blown away by the response we’ve had to our panto,” he says. “The respect I have for the art form and the recognition of how panto inspires so many children every year meant it wasn’t an option for me not to have a panto with real scale and spectacle over Christmas in York.

“It’s something I’ve hopefully brought into my own productions across the years. The respect I have for the art form and the recognition of how panto inspires so many children every year meant it wasn’t an option for me not to have a panto with real scale and spectacle over Christmas in York.”

Reflecting on penning his first panto script, Nik says: “It was certainly nerve wracking putting my own script out, having never penned a show before! Especially in York, following in the footsteps of Berwick [Kaler], who I respect greatly.

“Between lockdowns, I went over for a coffee with him, talked through my ideas and came away with the confidence to put pen to paper. He was so encouraging. I’ve had so many great responses to the script, which is a big compliment.”

Described by Nik as “musical theatre with pantomime braces on” and by choreographer Gary Lloyd as a “pansical”, York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk was distinctive from past pantos in York.

Alex Weatherhill as Dame Nanna Trott in Jack And The Beanstalk: part of Nik Briggs’s cast of “super-talented actors, singers and dancers”. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

“The triple-threat West End cast were probably the show’s biggest surprise to a York audience. Having all eight performers be at the top of their game, being super-talented actors, singers and dancers,” says Nik.

“I always knew my panto would be very much a musical fairy-tale, which would feature all the elements of panto that are traditional included into the mix. I cast it knowing I’d need brilliant performers who could bring the skills that the show’s structure demanded. You’ll not see songs like the ones we had in a panto any time soon again, not only in York but across the country.”

 In picking his cast of May Tether’s Jill Gallop, Jordan Fox’s Jack Trott, Ian Stroughair’s villainous Fleshius Creepius, Livvy Evans’s Fairy Mary, Alex Weartherhill’s Dane Nanna Trott and an ensemble of dance captains Danielle Mullan, Emily Taylor and Matthew Ives, Nik was seeking “three things”.

“Firstly, talent: the triple-threat capability of every cast member. Secondly, strong links to the city and region, and, finally, they had to be lovely people who would be fun to work with,” he says.

“A lot of the cast I’d worked with before and all of them I’d work with again. We brought together eight actors who became a panto family in less than six weeks! They worked tirelessly to create our sensational show and were a nothing short of a beautiful, talented, naturally diverse collection of Yorkshire talent.”

West End choreographer Gary Lloyd in rehearsal for York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

Nik was adamant his panto should have a Yorkshire flavour, not least May Tether revelling in using her Goole accent in a show for the first time. “Being a Geordie import to York, having lived here for over ten years, one thing that has always blown me away about the city is the amount of talent that stems from here,” he says.

“It’s a no-brainer, therefore, that I would use talent from the area primarily! Especially at Christmas, and with what’s going on at the moment, it was always important that this was a show made in York for the people of York.”

In a coup for York Stage, Nik was able to call on the choreographic skills of West End hotshot Gary Lloyd, whose touring production of Heathers remained in hibernation. “I’ve known Gary’s work for many years [his sister is York Stage Musicals regular Jo Theaker]; I’m always knocked out by his choreography and musical staging,” he says.

“We’d spoken before about working together and this time last year I’d have laughed if you’d said we’d be doing a panto as our first show together, but it has been a brilliant experience. His storytelling through choreography is just so inspiring! As a creative, he was fantastic to work with; he really did inspire me in the rehearsal room every day.”

Given the Government’s ever-changing pandemic rules, navigating a safe passage for a show in late-2020 was a challenge like no other for a theatre director, not least the late rule change that cut the capacity from 80 to 55 (with the audience divided into bubbles divided by Perspex screens either side of the traverse stage).

Ian Stroughair’s villainous Fleshius Creepius in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

“The whole process was filled with challenges, but we knew, going into the project, it was never going to be easy,” says Nik. “We took every day as it presented itself to us. I’m very comfortable with change and the need to adapt, so as producer I felt confident leading the production through the Covid storm.

“Some days were harder than others, but we knew what we were doing was too important to walk away from.”

One of the talking points of Nik’s first pantomime was the inspired marketing coup of transforming the famous Bile Beans wall sign on Lord Mayor’s Walk into Bile Beanstalk to point passers-by in the direction of Theatre @41 Monkgate.

“It summed up our production perfectly,” he says. “Something new, something well executed, something in York we’re used to, being flipped on its head and turned for a short period into something new! People’s reaction was brilliant; they understood we were having fun and being playful while respecting the landmark.”

On the subject of creating “something new” for York, what more could Nik bring to a pantomime if he could do such a show under normal circumstances? “Who knows?! Talent and spectacle will always be the main two factors in my shows,” he says.

Pantomime transformation scene: York Stage ‘talk’ a good show by adding to the Bile Beans sign on Lord Mayor’s Walk

“I’m always looking to push forward and bring the biggest and best theatre to the city. York’s got two new pantos in 2021 with Qdos and Evolution, two of the country’s biggest panto producers, going head to head at the Grand Opera House and York Theatre Royal. How will that end?” 

Looking ahead, Nik’s plans for 2021 cannot be set in concrete while the pandemic still refuses to relent: “Have you got a crystal ball?” he says. “We’ve got rights secured for some brilliant titles over the next two years, but they will only be possible to stage when social distancing is over.

“The next big show we can realistically hope to stage is Elf The Musical at the Grand Opera House next November/December. Before that, we’ll be working on smaller shows with brilliant casts, which will be announced throughout the year.”

Through the year too, Nik will be busy running York Stage School, remotely while Covid regulations prevail, but then returning to Theatre @41 Monkgate. “We’ll be continuing to work with our students through 2021 and will be striving to bring them the best theatrical training possible,” he says.

York Stage’s poster for Jack And The Beanstalk, the pantomime where “giant magic can grow in the smallest places”

“We have survived two lockdowns and created brilliant work with them and that will continue this term.”

One lasting memory of Jack And The Beanstalk will be Nik’s impromptu emotional moment at the close of the final show, urging everyone to keep supporting theatre. “I don’t do last-night public speaking: it’s not my style and I cringe at it as people don’t come to hear me speak,” he says.

“They come to be entertained and forget whatever is going on outside, but I was ambushed – while I didn’t have any shoes on – and having received notice only a few hours before that our show would have to close that night, emotions were running high around the building.

“It’s scary producing shows at the moment: Will people support us? Will they come if we stage things? Will this bankrupt me?

“The Government closing theatres in Tier 3, where thousands have been spent to keep people safe, but allowing people to still shop and go around picking up produce just doesn’t make sense. It’s idiotic!”

Jordan Fox’s Jack Trott, front, with ensemble trio Matthew Ives, Emily Taylor and Danielle Mullan and May Tether’s Jill Gallop in Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

Nik develops his point: “There are no recorded transmissions in theatre, that’s important to stress. So, it’s important audiences do support whatever is being produced. Otherwise, things won’t be produced, things won’t happen, and that’d make for a very sad cultural landscape,” he says.

“A lot of people have said we were lucky to get to perform 40 of the 45 shows scheduled. At first, I agreed, but with hindsight I’ve re-evaluated and realised that is a very dangerous way to think.

“We all worked tirelessly and sacrificed a lot to ensure we created a brilliant show that people could enjoy safely. There was no big financial reward dangling at the end of the run to tempt us to cut corners; we simply wouldn’t have staged the show if we thought we were doing anything unsafely or were creating risk.

“Our friends and family were among the audiences; we wouldn’t have risked them. So, we were lucky we didn’t fall short sooner because of the Governments poor management but there was nothing lucky in losing our final five shows.”

The timing of the Elf production rules out a second York Stage pantomime next winter, but what are Nik’s wishes for 2021? “To get people vaccinated quickly so we can get back to sitting close together, sharing stories and experiences in theatres across the city,” he says.

The end: York Stage’s pantomime cast bid farewell at the close of Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography


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.

REVIEW: Big Ian Donaghy’s Boxing Day visit to York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk

Ian Stroughair’s Flesh Creep: “Joyously evil-turned-up-to-11 villain”. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

MONKGATE magic!

Every year like clockwork, you wolf down the first clutch of chocolates from your Advent calendar, then panto arrives.

Men as women.

Women as men.

Two crew members as a horse.

Oh yes, it is!

Oh no, it isn’t!

Jack And The Beanstalk: “The healthy, bright-eyed and slim” bean feast of a York Stage pantomime, as promised by the newly appropriated Biles Beans sign

Children’s eyes agog.

But not in 2020.

The year that the show MUSTN’T go on.

Just watch the news.

Tisn’t the season to be jolly!

As theatres up and down the land spend Christmas in darkness, a shard of light could be seen down an alleyway off Monkgate.

It’ll never work.

How could it work?

Jack….and the beanstalk: Jordan Fox’s Jack with stage manager Lisa Cameron’s hand-made beanstalk in the York Stage pantomime. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

Necessity is the Mother of Invention.

This needed ideas, creativity and the personnel to pull it off and even then one announcement could pull its plug at any moment.

This had failure written all over it.

As we walked past the finest piece of genius marketing on Boxing Night, extending the locals’ favourite landmark – the Bile Beans sign on Lord Mayor’s Walk – to read “Bile BeanSTALK”, we were smiling even before the first line.

“Where’s the Minster?”, people ask? “It’s just over the wall from the Bile Beans sign.”

After a balanced diet of cheese and Toblerones, could this be the panto to keep us “healthy, bright-eyed and slim?”.

Alex Weatherhill’s Dame Nanna Trott: “Showing off a range to stop Mariah Carey warbling her festive favourite”. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

As we walked through the door, greenery festooned every bannister and surface.

With a tiny capacity of only 60 to meet Covid safety requirements, this was not so much a family panto as a “bubble panto”.

Jack was played by the endearing Jordan Fox, who somehow managed to be both idiot and hero at once.

Flesh Creep was played by the joyously evil-turned-up-to-11 Ian Stroughair, who was nearly eight feet tall with hat!

A three-piece dance troupe featuring dance captains from both the Grand Opera House (Emily Taylor) and Theatre Royal (Danielle Mullan) felt like a luxury as did a small house band (Jessica Douglas, Sam Johnson and Clark Howard).

Corners could have easily been cut but weren’t. Quality clearly means everything to writer-director Nik Briggs.

“Top-tier entertainment”: May Tether as Jill Gallop (on the podium) with ensemble trio Emily Taylor (left), Danielle Mullan and Matthew Ives. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

The cast faced magnetic north as a convoy of beautiful original songs and production numbers ran through the show, choreographed by West Ender Gary Lloyd .

The harmonies as all the cast sang together were spellbinding, as the hairs on the backs of your arms acknowledged this wasn’t another panto re-heat -this was fresh.

I could listen to May Tether (who played Jill) sing the terms and conditions of an insurance policy and she’d make it sound like Carole King had penned it.

Where many pantos have actors, singers or dancers with on obvious ‘also ran’ in their skill set, every cast member was a Swiss Army knife of lethally sharp talent.

Rarely do you get soulful vocals from a panto fairy (Livvy Evans) and even the Dame, played by Alex Weatherhill, showed off a range to stop Mariah Carey warbling her festive favourite.

Head’s gone: Writer-director Nik Briggs and stage manager Lisa Cameron in a revealing moment for the longer-than-usual pantomime cow, Daisy, in Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

Surprisingly, the cast showed no fatigue from the three-shows-a-day schedule but it begs the question why this wasn’t in a bigger venue with Covid measures in place. I can only imagine that the paperwork and risk assessments took more paper than the script in this impossible year. The audience were even guided to do hand gestures, as everybody desisted from shouting “Oh yes he is” all night.

Every ticket in this traverse set-up was a golden ticket as each group was separated into plastic booths. This is “in your face” theatre – but socially distanced of course – that you can feel, not just watch.

Featuring some of the most original gags I have ever heard in a panto to reflect the times, plus a couple of very well-known faces on screen who could grace any stage in the land, this is a show full of surprises: doing the same things differently. Proving that theatre can adapt to fit around the safety of its audience to give a Christmas to remember to a year many of us would like to forget.

“Soulful vocals”: Livvy Evans as Fairy Mary in Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

In 2020, when Amazon have delivered everything to your doorstep, Briggs has delivered not just a panto, but also West End-quality musical theatre, while maintaining a safe distance, and NOBODY will be writing ‘Return to Sender’ on this triple threat-laden package.

York’s Tier 2 status meant that the doors could open, but there is nothing Tier 2 about this show in Monkgate. This is top-tier entertainment for all of your bubble.

Review by Ian Donaghy

Show times: December 29, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; December 30, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; New Year’s Eve, December 31, 12 noon (sold out); January 2, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; January 3, 1pm and 6pm.

Please visit yorkstagepanto.com for an update on performances once York’s new Tier status is confirmed in the Government briefing tomorrow (30/12/2020).

Name up in lights: The traverse stage for York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk, with the audience seated in Perspex-shielded bubbles. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

Box office: online only at yorkstagepanto.com. Please note, audiences will be seated in household/support bubble groupings only. 

Beanstalk of the town as Bile Beans sprouts size-doubling York Stage panto banner

Beanstalk of the town: York’s landmark Bile Beans sign, in Lord Mayor’s Walk, has grown today with a banner for York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk, the pantomime where “giant magic can grow in the smallest of places”

JACK’s magical extra vegan beans at Theatre @41 Monkgate are not the only bean in York to be growing suddenly.

Today, the iconic Bile Beans sign on the side of a building in nearby Lord Mayor’s Walk has doubled in size to now read Bile Beanstalk to publicise York Stage’s debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk.

York Stage have joined forces with CSL Scaffolding, the York construction company, and Press Green, the York design and print agency in Lord Mayor’s Walk, to erect the complementary sign, advertising the show’s run with an arrow pointing in the direction of the theatre.

A sign of things to come: York Stage’s banner, made by Press Green, is ready to roll

Nik Briggs, York Stage’s artistic director and pantomime writer/director, says: “Mounting a panto in a pandemic was always going to be tricky. With lots of hurdles to overcome, we’ve really had to think outside of the box.

“I was sitting waiting at the traffic lights on Lord Mayor’s Walk a few weeks ago and chuckled to myself that we’d chosen to do Jack And The Beanstalk at a relatively unknown venue just down from a large sign that said Beans in big letters!”

Bright bean Nik promptly sowed the seeds for an eye-catching wind-permeable banner in a marketing coup on York’s most famous sign. “Nightly Bile Beans Keep You Healthy Bright-Eyed & Slim is such a large York landmark that we knew we had to bring it into play some way,” he says.

Workmen from York company CSL Scaffolding assemble the scaffolding to erect the new banner

“Obviously we didn’t want to touch the sign itself, so we again thought outside of the box and contacted Press Green, who are based in the row of properties that the sign is on, and also got in touch with the brilliant CSL Scaffolding Ltd.

“After the terrible year we’ve all had, we thought it’d be a fun thing to do to advertise where the panto is! We put our heads together and came up with the plan to do a little pop-up extension!”

York Stage have worked for a long time with Press Green, who created the banner, but “Bile Beanstalk” marks a new partnership with CSL Scaffolding. “They’re already making their mark on the city, having done some great work up at Allerton Castle, near Knaresborough, and more locally have been giving back to the community through supporting soup kitchens across the city.”

“One of our main men also dressed up for the occasion,” says CSL Scaffolding’s Facebook post earlier today. Picture: CSL Scaffolding

CSL Scaffolding have been quick to put pictures on Facebook, calling their scaffolding work “our final job of the year, helping out York Stage with their Jack In [sic] The Beanstalk pantomime”.  “One of our main men also dressed up for the occasion,” it adds, with one comment referring to Paul Wright.

Explaining the thinking behind putting up the banner, Nik says on Facebook: “People ask us where exactly is Theatre at 41?! Well, after a brainstorming session with our friends at Press Green and thanks to the generosity of CSL Scaffolding Ltd, we’ve managed to make it a bit more obvious!

“Merry Xmas from us all at York Stage. We hope this makes your journey to the theatre a little easier!”

Jack (Jordan Fox) and his beanstalk, stitched together by stage manager Lisa Cameron for York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

Jack And The Beanstalk and the banner promotion will run until January 3 2021. “We hope the sign gives people a reason to smile,” says Nik. “It’s tongue in cheek and hopefully shows that there are still some things going on in and around York!”

Show times: December 23, 7pm; Christmas Eve, December 24, 11am, 1pm (sold out) and 5pm (sold out; Boxing Day, December 26, 11am, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; December 27, 11am, 1pm (sold out) and 6pm; December 28, 11am, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; December 29 and 30, 2pm and 7pm; New Year’s Eve, December 31, 12 noon. 

Box office: online only at yorkstagepanto.com. Please note, audiences will be seated in household/support bubble groupings only. 

York Stage’s poster for their debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, a show that will “grow and grow on you”

Today is officially Panto Day in a winter with all too few panto days…except in York

WHO better to mark Panto Day than York Stage’s villain, Ian Stroughair, whose performance in Jack And The Beanstalk combines a craving for power with towering stage domination.

Stroughair’s intemperate character, Flesh Creep, is so hell-bent in his quest, he could spare only three minutes for these short, sharp, snappy answers to CharlesHutchPress’s equally quickfire questions.

What was the first pantomime you ever saw and what do you recall of it?

“Leeds. Not sure which, but I was frightened to death by the baddie.”

What was your first pantomime role?

“Dandini in Cinderella, The Regent Theatre, Stoke.” 

What has been your favourite pantomime role?

“Dandini.”

Who have you not yet played in pantomime that you would love to play?

“Dame. Not old enough, I don’t think, though.” 

Who is your favourite pantomime performer and why?

“Julian Clary. Utterly fabulous.” 

This year’s pantomime will be an experience like no other…what are your expectations of performing a show in these strange circumstances?

“My expectations are that it will be awesome.” 

Which pantomime role should Boris Johnson play?

“The Evil Queen.”

Who or what has been the villain of 2020?

“Trump.”

Who or what has been the fairy of 2020?

“Netflix.”

How would you sum up 2020 in five words?

“It has been a mess.”

What are your wishes for 2021?

“For theatres to boom.”

What are your hopes for the world of theatre in 2021?

“For theatres to boom.”

Happy Panto Day, Ian.

York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk runs at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, until January 3. Box office: yorkstagepanto.com

REVIEW: York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk, the “musical with panto braces”

Wickedly bad, yet wickedly good: Ian Stroughair as “Fleshius Creepius” in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk. All pictures: Kirkpatrick Photography

York Stage in Jack And The Beanstalk, John Cooper Studio, Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, until January 3 2021. Box office: yorkstagepanto.com

THIS is a York pantomime season like none before.

York Theatre Royal has, like a council politician, taken to the wards seeking votes, in this case for the audience choice of Travelling Pantomime. Dame Berwick Kaler’s comeback on board Dick Turpin Rides Again, after his headline-making crosstown transfer to the Grand Opera House, has gone into Covid-enforced hibernation for a year. Likewise, Rowntree Players have taken the winter off.

Yet, what’s this? A newcomer bean-sprouting up at Theatre @41 Monkgate, courtesy of York Stage’s debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, a show stuffed with West End talent with York and wider Yorkshire roots, bedding in nicely with socially-distanced performances for maximum audiences of 55 at the Covid-secure heart of Monkgateshire.

May Tether as Jill Gallop: “Investing personality in every line”

Once temperature tested at the doors and hands cleansed, you are led up the beanstalk-clad stairway to your brightly-coloured seat in the John Cooper Studio, a black-box theatre here configured as a traverse stage, the bubble-compliant audience sitting to either side or upstairs on the mezzanine level.

Safety division comes in the form of screens, like on Have I Got News For You, giving a different Perspextive on watching a show, but in no way impeding the view. Actors are socially distanced – they exchange elbow greetings; romance is replaced by best friendships – and audience members are close to the stage in this intimate setting, but not too close. The dame does not dispense sweets and we are asked to refrain from shouting.

Not your normal panto, then, in this all-too abnormal year, except that writer-director Nik Briggs’s 2020 vision for pantomime still has all the elements: the song and dance; the puns and punchlines;  the slapstick and the transformation scene; the dame (Alex Weatherhill) and Daisy the cow; the drama-queen baddie (Ian Stroughair) and his narcissism; the topical and the local references; the daft wannabe superhero dreamer (Jordan Fox) and the fairy (Livvy Evans);  the principal girl (May Tether) and her plain-speaking principles.

Slapstuck: Alex Weatherhill’s Dame Nancy Angelina Norma Nigella Alana Trott – Nanna for short – goes nuts in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk

Then add the all-action ensemble (Matthew Ives, Danielle Mullan and Emily Taylor) and the band, a trio of musical director Jessica Douglas, fellow keyboard player Sam Johnson and York’s premier league drummer, Clark Howard, parked upstairs but omnipresent and on the button, The Great British Bake Off theme tune et al.

Briggs has called his show “a musical with pantomime braces on”; his choreographer, Gary Lloyd, a big signing from the West End and tour circuit, has coined the term “pansical”. That may suggest a slightly awkward new hybrid, but like the cult rock’n’roll pantomime at Leeds City Varieties, the musical driving force here is a winning addition to the tradition.

Danielle Mullan lights up the transformation scene in Jack And The Beanstalk

Ninety minutes straight through – intervals are so last year – Jack And The Beanstalk is full of beans, lovely to look at and lively too, loud at times but rarely lewd (blame the dame for those “innocent but guilty” moments, met with knowing laughter).

Surprise celebrity cameos pop up on video, and York Mix Radio’s morning team of Ben Fry and Laura Castle provide the pre-recorded countdown chat pre-show.

Briggs is breaking his duck as a pantomime writer, and his script is a little mannered by comparison with the highly experienced Paul Hendy’s way with words for the Travelling Pantomime, but he does know the notes, he does play them in the right order, and the jokes invariably hit home, especially those that play on the Covid conventions of 2020.

Making a cow’s head of himself: York Stage pantomime writer-director Nik Briggs steps out of character with stage manager Lisa Cameron as the socially distanced, elongated Daisy in Jack And The Beanstalk

His reinvention of the pantomime cow is a particular joy, even if the dame’s nutty slapstick routine is hampered by having to play safe.

Briggs’s characters, bold and playful and bright, will appeal to children and adults alike. The singing is the ace card. What voices, whether Weatherhill’s operatic entry; professional debutante Tether’s arrival as Yorkshire’s next Sheridan Smith with her gift for investing personality in every line or the appealing Fox’s top-notch prowess in big numbers and ballads alike.

Foxy, ladies! Jordan Fox in superhero mode as Jack Trott in Jack And The Beanstalk

Evans’s Fairy Mary is fun and feisty, especially in her battles with Stroughair’s long-fingered, stove-pipe top-hatted Flesh Creep, commanding the stage with that irrepressible swagger and spectacular singing we know from his drag diva, Velma Celli.

You will never have a better chance to see Gary Lloyd’s flamboyant, fab-u-lous choreography so close up it is almost personal, dazzlingly pretty in the transformation scene, bouncing madly on and off trampolines in Stroughair’s high point, Jump (the Van Halen anthem).

Bean there, done that? Not until you have seen this new brand of York pantomime.

Review by BARSTOW TEASDALE. Copyright of The Press, York

Fairy tale ending: Livvy Evans as Fairy Mary in Jack And The Beanstalk

Taylor-made for panto stage from Emily’s scene-stealing impromptu debut at five

Emily Taylor: Lighting up the York Stage pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, in the transformation scene. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

EMILY Taylor was cut out for the stage from her first moment in the spotlight at the age of five.

Now the York dance tutor, regular dance captain and choreographer for myriad Grand Opera House pantomimes is starring in York Stage’s debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk.

She forms part of the all-action ensemble with Danielle Mullan and Matthew Ives in writer-director Nik Briggs’s production at the Covid-secure, socially distanced, beanstalk-staired Theatre @41 Monkgate.

Here Emily answers Charles Hutchinson’s scattergun questions on pantomimes past, present and future, heroes, villains and fairies, 2020 and 2021.

What was the first pantomime you ever saw and what do you recall of it?

“Cinderella at the Grand Opera House, York. Frazer Hines was Buttons and I was about five years old. We were seated in a box closest to the stage and in the song sheet, when they asked for children to go up on stage, my Dad lifted me over the edge so I could run up.

“We did I Am The Music Man and they kept me up as the last child to finish it by myself. That was my first ever panto experience and my first ever time on stage.” 

What was your first pantomime role?

“Grumpy the dwarf in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.”

What has been your favourite pantomime role?

“I’ve LOVED all of my years as a dancer. However, I think covering for Debbie McGee as Fairy in Beauty And The Beast when she was doing Strictly, and getting to work alongside the lovely Lynne McGranger, was a highlight. I really enjoy the acting part of things.”

Who have you not yet played in pantomime that you would love to play and why?

“I’d love to actually play the  Fairy for a full run, or at the other end of the scale, an evil queen/baddie role.” 

Who is your favourite pantomime performer and why?

“I’ve worked with so many people whose talent I admire and have learnt so much from watching how different people work. As a teenager, I worked with Michael Starke, as the Emperor of China, who was totally professional, hard working, and just a genuinely lovely person. Although, after this show, I feel like I may have some new favourites!”

This year’s pantomime will be an experience like no other…what are your expectations of performing a show in these strange circumstances?

“This year’s show is already filled with so much joy and appreciation from us all as a cast. I’m hoping the audience will share that joy with us – everyone will just be so happy to see live theatre again.

“The performance space is much more intimate here, which brings a whole new element to it.”

Emily Taylor in the York Stage pantomime slapstick scene with Alex Weatherhill’s Dame Nanna Trott. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography


Which pantomime role should Boris Johnson play and why?

“Hmmmmm…maybe the Genie of the Ring. They often have a lot of power but are not quite sure how to use it in the best way. A difficult situation to be in!”

Who or what has been the villain of 2020?

“Covid-19.”

Who or what has been the fairy of 2020? 

“Nik Briggs. 100 per cent!!!!!”

How would you sum up 2020 in five words?

“Enlightening. Chance to re-evaluate priorities.”

What are your wishes for 2021?

“For Covid to be under control or, even better, be gone completely, so that I can give my Mum and Dad a hug! I also want to perform as much as possible if I can. 2020 has certainly cemented just how much I love the theatre.”

What are your hopes for the world of theatre in 2021?

“For theatre to return quickly and safely and things to get back to normal, but with a whole new level of appreciation, as soon as possible.”

York Stage presents Jack And The Beanstalk at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, until January 3 2021.

Show times: December 15 and 16, 7pm; December 18, 7pm (sold out); December 19, 11am, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; December 20, 11am, 1pm (sold out) and 6pm; December 21, 7pm; December 22, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; December 23, 11am, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; Christmas Eve, December 24, 11am, 1pm (sold out) and 5pm (sold out).

Boxing Day, December 26, 11am, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; December 27, 11am, 1pm (sold out) and 6pm; December 28, 11am, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm; December 29 and 30, 2pm and 7pm; New Year’s Eve, December 31, 12 noon. 

Box office: online only at yorkstagepanto.com. Please note, audiences will be seated in household/support bubble groupings only. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Charles Hutchinson

May is so at home with her Yorkshire accent in professional panto debut for York Stage

May Tether as Jill in her professional debut in York Stage’s pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

MAY Tether will make her professional stage debut in Jack And The Beanstalk back home in Yorkshire after her graduation from London drama school Trinity Laban in July with first class honours. 

From December 11, she will play Jill in York Stage’s debut pantomime at Theatre @41 Monnkgate, as she rejoins the company where she became a favourite in such roles as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray, Elle Woods in Legally Blonde: The Musical and office martinet Roz in 9 To 5: The Musical: American roles all.

Back then, May was known as Maya, studying musical theatre at York College before heading from Goole to London.

“Do you know what I’m loving about the panto script?” she says on the first day of rehearsals under writer-director Nik Briggs. “It reads really well in my own accent when I’m used to playing parts with heavy American accents or Cockney character roles as I’m a character actress, but for this, when people put on a Yorkshire accent, they sound like me!

“I’ve never had the chance to use my own accent, so this will be the first role in my native tongue, which is great.”

May Tether – in her earlier York Stage Musicals days as Maya – in the lead role of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde The Musical

May, 23, has worked with Nik plenty of times previously, most recently when performing in York Stage Musicals’ first open-air concert to a socially distanced audience at the Rowntree Park amphitheatre in August post-Lockdown 1.

Exciting too is the rehearsal-room presence of West End choreographer Gary Lloyd, a Premier League signing to Briggs’s production team. “I’m thrilled to be working with Gary because doing  a show on this scale, with a cast of eight, rather than a big West End cast, gives a lovely insight into how he choreographs,” says May.

“When I was Trinity Laban, I did a piece for my dissertation about Gary’s choreography because some of his work is so abstract!”

In a year when the pandemic brought theatre to a stop, May is shaking off the dust from the quiet months. “What’s strange for me is that it does feel like riding a bike, acting again…though not the singing! With the acting, I was thinking, ‘I’m back and I’m really in my comfort zone!’,” she says.

May Tether performing in York Stage Musicals’ open-air concert in Rowntree Park, York, in August. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

“I’m known as being quite ‘belty’ as a singer, and I couldn’t do it just straight out, so I had a bit of a panic attack, but actually then it was OK for the Rowntree Park concert.

”Singing in that tent in that field, I’ve never been so happy to see everyone there, watching a show in the rain. It was unbelievable to see how much people cared about going out to see a show after so long with no theatre.”

May is looking forward to performing on a traverse stage, a configuration with the audience on either side of the performance space. “I love traverse. It’s my favourite,” she says. “I just enjoy being able to look around and taking in everyone’s gaze. You’ve got to include everyone, be unselfish and keep moving. It’s very Shakespearean and I love Shakespeare.

“With the audience sitting in bubbles, we need to make the panto feel as inclusive as possible. Where normally you have a ‘fourth wall’ to break down, this show isn’t traditional. There’s a pandemic going on, audience sizes have to be reduced, but it’s very exciting to be doing a panto in such an intimate setting. Nik has a way of making everything he does a huge spectacle and this will be no exception.”

May in December is focusing fully on her return to the stage. “Now I’m back working in the theatre, I’m not thinking about Christmas. I just want to do my job again,” she says. “It’s really nice to be thinking, ‘I’m back on my feet, doing something I love so much’. My family haven’t thought about Christmas yet either because they just want to see the show. They can’t wait!”.

York Stage presents Jack And The Beanstalk at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, from December 11 to January 3; show times, Monday to Saturday, 2pm and 7pm; Sundays, 1pm and 6pm; Christmas Eve, 12 noon and 5pm; New Year’s Eve, 12 noon. Box office: online only at yorkstagepanto.com. Please note, audiences will be seated in household/support bubble groupings only.