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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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