Drag diva Velma Celli to host Yorktoberfest Beer Necessities marquee shows at Kavesmire and Impossible York events

Velma Celli: York drag diva will be hosting Yorktoberfest and Impossible Drag Brunch entertainment in October

YORK drag diva deluxe Velma Celli is to host the Beer Necessities marquee entertainment at Yorktoberfest, York’s newly expanded beer festival on Knavesmire.

The fabulous cabaret creation of West End musical star Ian Stroughair will be on song on October 21 and October 28 to 31, with two sittings on the Saturday (30/10/2021), but is unavailable for the sessions on October 22 and 23.

Yorktoberfest will follow in the traditions of the first Oktoberfest staged in Munich in 1810, bringing beer, bratwurst and oompah to a giant Bavarian-styled beer tent in the Clocktower Enclosure at York Racecourse, complemented by a vintage funfair.

October 29 and 30 festival sessions have sold out already but tickets are available for other sessions at the new event run by North Yorkshire co-producers Johnny Cooper, chief executive officer of Coopers Marquees, and James Cundall, CEO of Jamboree Entertainment.

Billed as “the UK’s queen of vocal drag”, with diva devotees at New York and Australian clubs, the London Hippodrome and Edinburgh Fringe, Velma Celli will be joined in Yorktoberfest’s entertainment line-up by the New York Brass Band, from…York.

They will be stepping into the de rigueur Lederhosen and Dirndls to take on a new persona as the New York Oompah Brass Band. Expect thigh-slapping, foot-stomping Oktoberfest tunes to be added to their repertoire of feel-good disco classics. 

Dancing will be encouraged, as it has been for more than 200 years of Oktoberfests, aswill be the wearing of Lederhosen, Dirndls or any other fancy dress, with nightly competitions and prizes for the best dressed.

The poster for Velma Celli’s “Halloweenish” show, Equinox, at the Impossible York Wonderbar on October 15

The Bavarian Bar will serve authentic German beer, wines, prosecco and spirits or soft drinks for those who prefer not to “hop”. German-inspired food stalls will serve sausages, schnitzels and pretzels, plus vegan and vegetarian options.

Funfairs are an integral part of German Oktoberfests. Consequently, Yorktoberfest will have its own traditional funfair with thrills on the Dodgems, Twister, Speedway and Chair-o-Plane.

Tickets for Yorktoberfest are on sale through ticketsource.co.uk/yorktoberfest, priced at £15 per person for unreserved seating, a reserved table of six for £90 and a VIP table of six for £135, situated closest to the stage with table service. Please note, a booking fee applies; tickets also will be sold at the entrance, subject to availability.

Co-producer Johnny Cooper says: “We’re looking forward to seeing one of our biggest marquees at 160 metres long, installed on Knavesmire and themed with all things Bavarian, including a stage, bespoke thatched wooden barns, flags galore and generally everything needed for a great night out.”

Co-producer James Cundall adds: “We’re determined to bring events to York that people can enjoy after the long months of Covid restrictions, and with sessions selling out already, it seems there is demand for an autumn cheer-up event. 

“Yorktoberfest promises to be an evening of hearty fun, with beer, bands and bratwurst, not to mention a drag queen.  Dust off the fancy-dress outfits and come along!”

Meanwhile, now roosting back in York since the first lockdown, rather than in his adopted home of London, Velma Celli/Ian Stroughair has a diary filling up with engagements, ranging from the Pelton Arms in London (the pub used for exterior shots in Only Fools And Horses) to the Ian Stroughair Jazz Band’s jazz and blues gigs at Nola, the new York jazz restaurant at the former Rustique in Lendal; next up on October 5.

One for the future in York? Velma Celli in Aladdin Sane make-up for Irreplaceable, Velma’s David Bowie tribute show

After a summer and September on call to fill in for star turn Betty Legs Diamond at Funny Girls shows in Blackpool – where Ian/Velma trained, “watching Betty for 20 years” – Velma will be hosting her regular Impossible Drag Brunch slots at the Impossible York Wonderbar, in St Helen’s Square, on October 2, November 6 and December 4 at 12 noon and 2.30pm each Saturday afternoon, with a Christmas theme to the December shows.

In further Impossible York outings, look out for full-scale solo performances of The Velma Celli Show on October 15, November 19 and with a Christmas flavour on December 17, all at 7.30pm.

The October gig will be a “Halloweenish” version of Velma’s Equinox show, the one with “witches, creeps and freaks”. “I’ll be doing Hocus Pocus, I Put A Spell On You, Radiohead’s Creep, A Thousand Years from Twilight, and plenty more Halloween gore,” says Velma.

Coming up for Ian will be Velma Celli shows on Atlanta Cruises’ ships to Florida and Miami and, hopefully, but yet to be confirmed, a York performance of Ian/Velma’s new tribute show to David Bowie, Irreplaceable, with a three-piece band.

“I’ve only done it in Southampton so far, but I’m looking to do a small-scale performance in York,” says Ian. “I’m meeting York Stage director Nik Briggs – I played Fleshcreep in his York Stage panto, Jack And The Beanstalk, last winter – about the possibility of presenting the show here.”

Tickets for Velma Celli’s Impossible York shows are on sale via  impossibleyork.com/wonderbar

Twenty four years after Kes, Ian Stroughair returns home to York Theatre Royal stage in guise of drag diva alter ego Velma Celli

“I feel over-excited! I cannot wait! Get me on that stage!” says Ian Stroughair/Velma Celli ahead of Saturday’s Love Is Love: A Brief History Of Drag show at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

YORK musical actor Ian Stroughair will return to the York Theatre Royal stage for the first time in 24 years on Saturday, in the guise of his cabaret alter ego, drag diva deluxe Velma Celli.

“I last performed there in Kes, appearing in the ensemble, and sadly I’ve never been back,” says Ian, 38, who has settled back into his home city since Lockdown 1, leaving London behind.

“I’ve tried to do shows at the Theatre Royal but it’s never happened, so it’s great to be back now. I love what Tom [chief executive Tom Bird] is doing there.”

Love is the drag for Ian this weekend when Velma Cella takes part in the Theatre Royal’s spring-reawakening Love Season, performing one of Velma’s regular shows, re-titled Love Is Love: A Brief Of History Of Drag specially for the 8pm occasion.

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 feel over-excited! I cannot wait! Get me on that stage!”

Ian created the show when he was in “stuck in Africa for a few weeks”. “I was in Dar Es Salam, in Tanzania,” he recalls. “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.

The regular poster for Velma Celli’s A Brief History Of Drag, retitled with the precursor Love Is Love for The Love Season at York Theatre Royal

“It’s part-story, but most definitely a celebration, and it’s an ever-changing show. I find new nuggets and add them in all the time. There’s so much stuff to cover in our story.”

Should you be wondering how and why the term “drag” was coined, let Ian explain: “Shakespeare! It’s a script/stage direction abbreviation. ‘Man enters stage dressed as a girl’. D.R.A.G.”

The drag persona of Velma Celli emerged 13 years ago when Ian was playing Mary Sunshine in the West End run of Chicago. Did she arrive fully fledged or bloom gradually?  “Progression. Like developing any role or idea, time is needed,” says Ian, who remembers exactly how he felt when he first took to the stage in drag. Confident? Nervous? Born to play the role? “Unleashed,” he says.

Velma Celli, who made a sassy cameo appearance in EastEnders, draws inspiration from “the greats”. “Lily Savage, Dame Edna Everage, Bowie, the movies, musicals and many unknown queens who blazed the trail,” he says.

Velma Celli in David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane trademark make-up

Now, he is planning a Velma Celli show built around David Bowie: singer, songwriter, actor, artist, cultural icon, iconoclast, fashion shaper and androgynous shape-shifter.

“I think Bowie is a master at illusion and character development but also reinvention. Something I completely relate to as an artist,” says Ian, whose “Irreplaceable. The Almighty Who Inspired Legends” show will “celebrate Bowie and the artists he inspired”.

Meanwhile, Velma Celli’s regular York residency is on the move. Out goes the Covid-suspended monthly camp cabaret Friday nights at The Basement, City Screen, York.

“Velma loves the limelight; Ian enjoys the anonymity,” says Ian Stroughair, who “repels fame”

In comes a resplendent residency from last Friday 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.

“The first show was incredible,” says Ian. “The atmosphere was electric. I’ll never forget it. The new venue is so plush and the staff are excellent.”

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.

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

Last year, Ian had to forego a long run in Funny Girls in Blackpool, thwarted by Killjoy Covid, and the pandemic strictures put paid to his international travels too.

Already he has had his two Covid-19 vaccine jabs to enable Ian to take a week’s travel to Mexico for a Velma Celli show in Cancun, however. “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.

Ian Stroughair on the balcony outside his new abode In York after moving back to his home city from London

The ships may be down, but Ian has shown resilience throughout the pandemic, streaming Velma Celli concerts, first from a Bishopthorpe kitchen and later from a riverside abode by the Ouse Bridge. Last December was spent playing the villainous Flesh Creep in York Stage’s debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, at Theatre @41, Monkgate.

Just as this interview moves freely between Ian and Velma, where does Ian, son of Acomb, stop and Velma, drag diva alter ego, start? “She arrives during the make-up process and getting into costume. But human interaction is where it clicks in,” says Ian. “I need my audience.”

Repelling fame, Ian defines the distinction as “Velma loves the limelight; Ian enjoys the anonymity”. “Fame isn’t necessary for me,” he says. “In fact it makes me uncomfortable. I like my private life with my loved ones and I’m very protective of that and mostly them. A stage: that’s where I come alive.” 

Tickets for Velma Celli’s Love Is Love: A Brief History Of Drag can be booked 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!

Just One More Thing…

What do you think of the RuPaul’s Drag Race TV shows? Good news for drag?
“It’s made it more mainstream but I don’t think it’s the essence of drag. Gentrification, for sure, but a celebration, of course. That can only be a good thing.”

Copyright of The Press, York

REVIEW: York Stage, Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage, until Sunday

Girls just wanna have fun: The first night of Songs From The Settee -Live On Stage

Review: York Stage in Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage, Theatre @41, Monkgate, York, until Sunday. Box office: yorkstagemusicals.com

SOFA, so good, that Nik Briggs decided to transfer Songs From The Settee from a streaming home service in lockdown to the John Cooper Studio for the first step in Step 3’s return to live theatre.

The York Stage producer-director had expected the home-recorded song sessions to run for maybe three weeks, instead they stretched to ten, as he told Thursday’s first-night audience in his role as master of ceremonies at the reopened Theatre @41.

Seating was cabaret-style, in social bubbles around tables, and protective Perspex screens were in place, just as they had been for Jack And The Beanstalk, the Covid-curtailed York Stage pantomime. Masks were obligatory; drink orders brought by staff to the tables.

Last summer, York Stage had resumed performing with a brace of songs-from-the-shows programmes in the open air of the Rowntree Park Amphitheatre, showcasing the singing chops of members past and present, socially distanced but able to combine solo spotlights and duets with lightly choreographed group numbers.

For Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage, nights one and two feature one company of solo singers under the musical direction of Jess Douglas; tomorrow and Sunday, different soloists under MD Stephen Hackshaw.

Across the four nights too, Nik and his two MDs are determined to turn the spotlight on recent stage-school graduates amid such difficult times for studying and breaking into the profession.

Solo performances are dominating, book-ended by group opening and closing numbers, last night being launched by Joanne Theaker, Lauren Sheriston and  Sophie Hammond in Waitress mode for What Baking Can Do, one for all those who filled lockdown hours perfecting banana bread.

Assured, chuffed-to-be-playing-to-an-audience showcases followed for graduates with a York Stage teenage past, Stephanie Bolsher and Talia Firth, and, in between, University of York music student Elodie Lawry, ahead of her degree show on the theme of the underdog in musical theatre on Monday before becoming an Army musician. Holly Smith will have her showcases too over the remaining shows.

Nik Briggs and Jess Douglas: York Stage director and musical director for the first two nights of Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage

Joanne Theaker, in a skirt of Liquorice Allsorts colours, set a very high bar, as she always does, with a superbly balanced set, from Carole King’s big hug of an opener, You’ve Got A Friend, to a singalong Shout, via a humdinger of a duet with Briggs for Written In The Stars from Aida and the haunting Maybe This Time from Cabaret.

Best of all was the character piece, the tear-inducing Scarborough from Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s musical version of Calendar Girls. York Stage have acquired the performing rights and you can bet your house on Joanne being in the cast.

Lauren Sheriston wondered how she could match up to Jo, but she has always been a stand-out in her York Stage shows, and her voice has matured wonderfully, equally at home in the contrasting Son Of A Preacher Man, Will You, from Ghost, and She Used To Be Mine, from Waitress, while Landslide from the Stevie Nicks repertoire for Fleetwood Mac was an inspired pick. We Will Rock You’s Somebody To Love was the Mount Everest of a finale, and Lauren climbed to the peaks with panache.

   
Sophie Hammond favoured the most contemporary set, one that made CharlesHutchPress feel a tad out of touch at 60, when encountering Breathe (In The Heights), Kiss The Air (Scott Alan), Issues (Julia Michaels), Ready For You (Matthew Stuart Price) and Don’t Forget Me (Smash).

Sophie’s choice would have benefited from a wider range of tempo, but Helpless, from Hamilton, was a knock-out, Monster, from Frozen, was full of Disney drama and Domino knocked spots off Jessie J’s original.

How else could the all-female bill end but with Joanne, Lauren and Sophie all smiles, happy to be back on stage, in tandem for a celebratory Girls Just Wanna Have Fun after perhaps a few too many sad songs overall.

Thanks, too, to Jess Douglas’s ensemble on keyboards, bass/double bass and drums . Over to Stephen Hackshaw for tomorrow and Sunday, when Grace Lancaster, Conor Mellor, Damien Poole and Emily Ramsden will be on the bill.

As for the “Settee” of the show title, familiar to York Stage regulars from past company service, it took a back seat. “Is it clean?” asked Joanne. “Yes,” said Nik. Anti-bac and all that, to meet the demands of presenting Covid-secure performances. No doubt it will be this way for some time yet, but step by step, theatre will revive, and York Stage will be to the fore.   

And what about your own seat for the show? Hurry, hurry, only a few were still available at the last time of checking.

The York Stage poster for Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage, the first show at Theatre @ 41, Monkgate, since late-December


Manic Street Preachers…pretentious or what? Up for Chalmers & Hutch debate in Two Big Egos In A Small Car episode 43

WHAT’s up with chatty art podcast duo Chalmers & Hutch? We need to talk about two steps forward, but Step 3 stumble? Deer Shed at Base Camp. LIVE theatre at last! Marc Bolan & T Rex: 21st Century Boy. Street art & what makes a “hero” fit for a mural?

Oh, and yes, Manic Street Preachers…pretentious or what?

Here’s the link: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1187561/8550398

York Stage take Songs From The Settee out of the home and into Theatre @41 UPDATE

TONIGHT’s opening performance of York Stage’s Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage has sold out.

Only a handful of tickets are still available across the next three nights at Theatre @41, Monkgate, York, where director/producer is staging the series in the wake of a hit series of online shows. Hurry, hurry to book at yorkstagemusicals.com.

Briggs and his York production company never let the first pandemic lockdown grind them down, instead bringing together their performers, musicians and technicians remotely for a streamed concert season that played out over ten weeks under the title of Songs From The Settee.

“The idea was to keep the city entertained with top-quality musical theatre while we were in uncharted territory,” says Nik. “We thought the weekly publications would last three to four weeks, but before we knew it, we were at ten!

“We were blown away and driven by our friends and followers, who were engaging with the series and sending us messages, saying how we were helping them get through the week.”

The first online recording, Heroes All Around, was released on April 9 2020. “So, it felt like the perfect date, one year later, to announce what we’d be bringing to our audiences as theatres reopen with social distancing from May 17: Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage,” says Nik.

“From May 20 to 23, we have two different concerts that will run back to back under the same title at 7.30pm each evening.

“Musical director Jess Douglas will start the ball rolling with her band and some of York Stage’s finest vocal talents on May 20 and 21, before passing the baton to Stephen Hackshaw, who will bring in a new band and showcase more of the York Stage talent pool on May 22 and 23.”

The event will be staged in the Covid-secure John Cooper Studio at Theatre@41 on Monkgate, where audiences will be seated at cabaret tables, socially distanced from other bubbles around the studio. Drinks and refreshments will be served throughout the show with a table-service offering.

“Having produced a socially distanced pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, at Theatre @41 over Christmas, we know we can bring a show with full Covid compliance to the venue successfully and very much look forward to doing so,” says Nik.

Nik Briggs: York Stage artistic director

Here CharlesHutchPress fires off a fusillade of questions for a round of quickfire responses from artistic director Nik Briggs:

What will be the format of each concert? Will each one have a separate theme?
“Songs From The Settee: Live On Stage will bring some of the our online performances to the stage for the first time, alongside lots of other musical theatre and pop songs.

“There will be some group numbers of course, but the main part of the evenings will be made up of a series of cabaret/live lounge-type sets that will see our performers take to the stage solo with a collection of songs that mean something to them! 

“Throughout lockdown, we saw a lot of people setting up their ring lights and creating mini- recording studios in their homes in order to continue to create and be creative and the evenings are set to celebrate the tenacity performers showed across the industry and the work they created in lockdown.

“I often say to younger performers who I work with, ‘Sing like you sing in your bedroom mirror and now it’s time to see what that mantra brings from our older performers!”

Will Jess and Stephen decide on each concert’s content or will you be involved too?

“These shows will be a real collaboration between the artists, musical directors and myself due to the nature of the evening.”  

Who will be the singers for Jess’s shows and Stephen’s shows?

“On May 20 and 21, Jess will be working alongside Sophie Hammond, Lauren Sheriston, Joanne Theaker and some recent graduates.

“On May 22 and 23, Stephen will be returning to the musical director’s chair after a year for his concerts and he’ll be working with Grace Lancaster, Conor Mellor, Damien Poole, Emily Ramsden and, again, recent grads.

“Taking part across the four nights will be graduates Stephanie Bolsher, Holly Smith and Talia Firth, who have all performed with us previously, and Elodie Lawry, who will be graduating from the University of York this year.”

How will the stage be dressed for each show?  What will be the dress code for the performers?
“Well, we’re indoors this time, so we’ll not need as many layers as when we had our sell-out shows in Rowntree Park last August and September. Umbrellas certainly not called for! “There’s is no real dress code for this one though; our performers will be dressed to make them feel suitably fabulous and ready to entertain.” 

Just wondering: will there be a settee (or ‘sofa’ as my mother has always insisted I should say) on stage?

“Of course! How could we have Songs From The Settee: Live On Stage without a settee? I joked that we should maybe have a sacrificial burning or destruction of the settee at the end of each show to symbolise Boris’s plans that these reopenings will be very much irreversible.

“The venue will be beautifully lit again by Adam Moore and his Tech 24:7 team.”

 
What did you learn from mounting the Songs From The Settee shows online series; will “streaming” continue to play a role in York Stage’s work?

“Who knows. What I think it showed was yet again York Stage are adaptable. We responded and worked hard to ensure we continued and provided top-notch entertainment for the city, even in the darkest, hardest times for theatre.

“As you yourself have often commented in reviews, we really aim to set the bar high with everything we do as a producer in York. We are unique in that we proudly sit between others in the city where we continually mix professional performers and production teams with only the best of York’s community actors.

“That is what makes us exciting and ensures we are are able to bring huge West End and Broadway titles to the city, alongside smaller concerts, plays and studio pieces, which all have high production values, the best performances and stories that are filled with spirit and heart.” 

York Stage to take Songs From The Settee out of the home and into Theatre @41 in return to live shows UPDATED 16/4/2021

YORK Stage are to present Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage from May 20 to 23 at Theatre @41, Monkgate, York, in the wake of a hit series of online shows.

Director/producer Nik Briggs and his York production company never let the first pandemic lockdown grind them down, instead bringing together their performers, musicians and technicians remotely for a streamed concert season that played out over ten weeks under the title of Songs From The Settee.

“The idea was to keep the city entertained with top-quality musical theatre while we were in uncharted territory,” says Nik. “We thought the weekly publications would last three to four weeks, but before we knew it, we were at ten!

“We were blown away and driven by our friends and followers, who were engaging with the series and sending us messages, saying how we were helping them get through the week.”

The first online recording, Heroes All Around, was released on April 9 2020. “So, it feels like the perfect date, one year later, to announce what we’ll be bringing to our audiences as theatres are set to reopen with social distancing from May 17: Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage,” says Nik.

“From May 20 to 23, we have two different concerts that will run back to back under the same title at 7.30pm each evening.

“Musical director Jess Douglas will start the ball rolling with her band and some of York Stage’s finest vocal talents on May 20 and 21, before passing the baton to Stephen Hackshaw, who will bring in a new band and showcase more of the York Stage talent pool on May 22 and 23.”

York Stage director Nik Briggs and musical director Jess Douglas

The event will be staged in the Covid-secure John Cooper Studio at Theatre@41 on Monkgate, where audiences will be seated at cabaret tables, socially distanced from other bubbles around the studio. Drinks and refreshments will be served throughout the show with a table-service offering.

“Having produced a socially distanced pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, at Theatre @41 over Christmas, we know we can bring a show with full Covid compliance to the venue successfully and very much look forward to doing so,” says Nik.

The announcement of Lockdown 3 sadly stopped Jack and his Beanstalk antics short of the early January finishing line when theatres were forced to close on December 30.

“Up to that point, I’d been thinking about what shows I could be making for January and February, but as the days passed, I realised that was not to be!” he says.

“We knew it was coming, but the real blow was not getting our New Year’s Eve shows in. It felt like we’d been robbed of something we’d fought for after the most difficult year ever; to see through to the last day of the year weirdly seemed at the time as though it would have taken the sting out of the closure.

“But it feels so good to be returning to the venue and reopening public performances with these concerts. Boris says the reopening will be irreversible, so fingers crossed that it’s the first of many events for 2021.” 

Tickets can be bought online at yorkstagemusicals.com from April 10.

Conor Mellor, performing at Rowntree Park last August, will take part in the Songs From The Settee: Live On Stage shows on May 22 and 23

Here CharlesHutchPress fires off a fusillade of questions for a round of quickfire responses from artistic director Nik Briggs:

What will be the format of each concert? Will each one have a separate theme?
“Songs From The Settee: Live On Stage will bring some of the our online performances to the stage for the first time, alongside lots of other musical theatre and pop songs.

“There will be some group numbers of course, but the main part of the evenings will be made up of a series of cabaret/live lounge-type sets that will see our performers take to the stage solo with a collection of songs that mean something to them! 

“Throughout lockdown, we saw a lot of people setting up their ring lights and creating mini- recording studios in their homes in order to continue to create and be creative and the evenings are set to celebrate the tenacity performers showed across the industry and the work they created in lockdown.

“I often say to younger performers who I work with, ‘Sing like you sing in your bedroom mirror and now it’s time to see what that mantra brings from our older performers!”

Will Jess and Stephen decide on each concert’s content or will you be involved too?

“This one is set to be a real collaboration between the artists, musical directors and myself due to the nature of the evening.”  

Joanne Theaker in the York Stage psychedelic igloo at last summer’s first Rowntree Park open-air concert

Who will be the singers and the musicians for Jess’s shows and Stephen’s shows?

“On May 20 and 21, Jess will be working alongside Sophie Hammond, Lauren Sheriston, Joanne Theaker and some recent graduates who are yet to be confirmed.

“On May 22 and 23, Stephen will be returning to the musical director’s chair after a year for his concerts and he’ll be working with Grace Lancaster, Conor Mellor, Damien Poole, Emily Ramsden and, again, recent grads who are TBC.

“The directors are currently working on the set lists with the singers in order to work out which instrumentalists will be best suited for their evenings. Due to Covid guidelines, we’re limited to the numbers we can have on stage and in the band, so we have to really plan these things and work out what is best for all involved.”

How will the stage be dressed for each show?  What will be the dress code for the performers?
“Well, we’re indoors this time, so we’ll not need as many layers as when we had our sell-out shows in Rowntree Park last August and September. Umbrellas certainly not called for! “There’s is no real dress code for this one though; our performers will be dressed to make them feel suitably fabulous and ready to entertain.” 

Just wondering: will there be a settee (or ‘sofa’ as my mother has always insisted I should say) on stage?

“Of course! How could we have Songs From The Settee: Live On Stage without a settee? I joked that we should maybe have a sacrificial burning or destruction of the settee at the end of each show to symbolise Boris’s plans that these reopening will be very much irreversible.

The many faces and facets of Grace Lancaster: now singing in the Songs From The Settee: Live On Stage shows at Theatre @41, Monkgate, on May 22 and 23

“The venue will be beautifully lit again from Adam Moore and his Tech 24:7 team.”

 
What did you learn from mounting the Songs From The Settee shows online series; will “streaming” continue to play a role in York Stage’s work?

“Who knows. What I think it showed was yet again York Stage are adaptable. We responded and worked hard to ensure we continued and provided top-notch entertainment for the city, even in the darkest, hardest times for theatre.

“As you yourself have often commented in reviews, we really aim to set the bar high with everything we do as a producer in York. We are unique in that we proudly sit between others in the city where we continually mix professional performers and production teams with only the best of York’s community actors.

“That is what makes us exciting and ensures we are are able to bring huge West End and Broadway titles to the city, alongside smaller concerts, plays and studio pieces, which all have high production values, the best performances and stories that are filled with spirit and heart.” 

What’s coming up next for York Stage on stage?

“We have lots planned over the coming years. We’re starting with the Christmas spectacular, ELF the Musical, at the Grand Opera House this November and December; tickets on sale soon!” 

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


Drag diva Velma Celli kickstarts 2021 with Large & Lit In Lockdown streamed show

Velma Celli: Large & Lit In Lockdown Again but from a new location

AFTER his “Fleshius Creepius” panto villain in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk, Ian Stroughair planned to pull on his drag rags for a live Velma Celli show on January 15 at his adopted winter home of Theatre @41 Monkgate.

He anticipated more shows would have followed too, but then came York’s new impediment of Tier 3 status post-Christmas, and inevitably tighter restrictions still to come until the jabs make their point.

Consequently, he announces instead: “Darlings, as we head back into a lockdown in York, Velma Celli is back on the streaming! My first show, Large & Lit In Lockdown Again, is on Friday (8/1/2021) at 8pm. I would love you to join me for an hour of camp cabaret fun! Get those requests and shout-outs in!”

In 2020, Velma hosted a series of streamed shows from Case De Velma Celli, alias the drag diva’s Bishopthorpe kitchen. Firstly, on April 29, a fundraiser for St Leonard’s Hospice, followed by Large & Lit In Lockdown and virtual versions of the cabaret queen’s hit shows Equinox, Me & My Divas and A Night At The Musicals.

Usually to be found once a month gracing The Basement stage at City Screen, York, Velma returned to live performance in York by signing up for a rugby club – York RI Rugby Union Football Club, in New Lane, Acomb, to be precise – for An Evening Of Song outdoors under the September stars.

Jack And The Beanstalk saw Ian turn to the dark side as the vainglorious “Fleshius Creepius”, and now, newly moved into a riverside abode in York, he is ready to return to Velma Celli mode from Friday.

Tickets for Virtual Velma start at £10 via http://bit.ly/3nVaa4N. Watch this space for news of an online show every Friday from Ian’s new HQ.

Here, Ian answers Charles Hutchinson’s quickfire questions at the outset of a new year still shrouded in uncertainty for the arts world.

From where will you be streaming the January 8 show?  Still as a kitchen-sing drama or from a different room at your new riverside pad?

“The living room.”

On a technical level, what did you learn about doing digital streams from your earlier series of shows?

“That tech is stressful but once you have a system, it’s a piece of cake.” 

Ian Stroughair as Fleshius Creepius in York Stage’s pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk

What will the new show feature: any songs making their debut?

“Expect lots of divas as per. I’m gonna whack in some classic Amy Winehouse too: Back In Black.”

Will a remote guest be joining you?

“Not this time. You get Velma all to yourself.”

Your 2020 ended on a high with the villainous Fleshius Creepius in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk.  How did it feel to be back on stage in a show with a proper run to it?

“It was EVERYTHING. Such a joy and a wonderful experience. Feel so lucky and positive for a return of theatre as a whole!” 

What did you enjoy most about performing this pantomime – a new hybrid of “pansical” or “musical theatre with pantomime braces on” – in your home city?

“Working with the entire team. Everyone was sensational. The most talented cast I’ve ever worked with.” 

What were your highlights of 2020, aside from the pantomime?

“Reconnecting with York. I’ve fallen in love with it big time. Growing up here was a very different place and time, especially for the LGBTQIA+, but now it’s SO much more diverse.”

What realistic hopes do you have for yourself in 2021?

“That I can stay afloat until venues can open. It’s hard but, my lord, I’ll plod on.”

What hopes would you still have for 2021 in an ideal world?

“That theatre and the arts in general would have a boom and rebirth. I’m hopeful but realistic it may take longer than I dream.”

If you could address the Government, why do the arts matter?

“We need the arts more than we ever thought. It’s entertainment. It’s escapism. It’s culture. We all need it.” 

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. 

What are York Stage pantomime fairy Livvy Evans’s wishes for 2021?

Walking in a winter wandland: Livvy Evans as Fairy Mary in Jack And The Beanstalk. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

LIVVY Evans is back home in York for the winter, playing Fairy Mary In York Stage’s pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk.

Here she waves her magic wand at Charles Hutchinson’s quickfire questions.

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

“First panto I can remember going to, I think, was Jack And The Beanstalk at the Grand Opera House, starring John Altman (Nasty Nick Cotton in EastEnders) as the baddie, I just remember him and being terrified!”

What was your first pantomime role?

“I played Happy the dwarf in Snow White at the Grand Opera House.”

What has been your favourite pantomime role?

“Princess Yasmin in Aladdin: my first professional job, also at the Grand Opera House. Playing Fairy Mary is shaping up to be a contender too!”

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

“When I’m a bit older, I’d love to play the Wicked Queen. And, although traditionally male characters, I’ve always wanted to play a Buttons/Simple Simon-type character too.”

Who is your favourite pantomime performer and why?

“Being from York, I’d have to say Berwick Kaler, of course. His Dame is legendary!”

“Just feeling the excited presence of an audience is wonderful for us performers,” says Livvy Evans. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photography

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

“It will be strange at first, especially with the discouragement of vocal participation from the audience. However, I think they will get used to it very quickly, once they get engrossed in the magic. Just feeling the excited presence of an audience is wonderful for us performers.”

Which pantomime role should Boris Johnson play and why?

Boris doesn’t have the skill set to be an actor. He can just carry on playing the part of ‘Bumbling fool No. 1’.”

Who or what has been the villain of 2020?

“There are definitely more than a handful of villains this year. For me, personally, it’s Rishi Sunak. His comments surrounding the ‘non-viability’ of actors were pretty low. I would love to see him last a week in my profession!”

Who or what has been the fairy of 2020?

“It’s definitely a toss-up between Captain Sir Tom Moore and Marcus Rashford. Both have done incredible, selfless things this year and it proves that a big old heart is all a true hero needs.”

How would you sum up 2020 in five words?

“Exceptionally strange yet surprisingly adaptable.”

Butterfly wings: Livvy Evans’s costume for Fairy Mary from behind. Picture: Kirkpatrick Photogrphy

What are your wishes for 2021?

“I hope that everyone stays safe and continues to treat each other with some of the kindness and compassion we discovered this year.”

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

“I hope that the theatre industry gets back on its feet ASAP and that people support it as much as they can.”

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

Show times: December 28, 11am, 2pm (sold out) and 7pm (sold out); 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.

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