If you’d have said to me back in the summer, that I’d be watching a pantomime this year, I’d have said “Oh no I won’t.” In the traditional pantomime way though, York Theatre Royal had other options, yelling a resounding “Oh yes you will” as they deliver the Travelling Panto to pantomime fans across the city.
York is a city famous for its long standing history with pantomime, and just as synonymous, is the work of the York Theatre Royal in producing and showing pantomime. If there was any theatre in the land that was not going to let the effects of 2020 stop panto, it was that very theatre and this year, they decided to take the panto on the road.
In an inventive plan, the Travelling Pantomime is currently visiting every neighbourhood in York, with a pop-up show staged in community halls, sports clubs and of course, fully in line with government COVID-19 guidance. Ahead of the panto series starting, Executive Director Tom Bird said:
“Our Travelling Pantomime will be a rip-roaring Christmas treat for the whole family. Audiences can expect hilarity and chaos, music and magic as our amazing actors visit every corner of York.”
On December 5th, we attended Jack and the Beanstalk at the New Earswick Folk Hall. Each night/day, audiences get to choose the panto they want to see, and our audience duly picked the pantomime classic. Arriving at the venue, we were shown to our socially distanced bubbles, with plenty of room between other guests. With a capacity of roughly 60 people, it was intimate for sure, but with a good mix of young and old panto fans, the atmosphere was great throughout.
With a cast of local actors and a show directed by York Theatre Royal’s Associate Director Juliet Forster, this year’s panto was different to years gone by, but was still undoubtedly, a Theatre Royal-esque show. With only an hour on the clock though, this was an abridged version of Jack and the Beanstalk that saw Jack (Faye Campbell) and her brother Josh (Josh Benson) fight to keep the essence of pantomime from falling into Fleshcreep’s (Reuben Johnson) possession. Aided by the brilliant Dame (Robin Simpson) and musical Fairy (Anna Soden), the cast embarked on a Jack and the Beanstalk journey like no other.
Writer Paul Hendy said of the show, he wanted to create the essence of pantomime; the biggest challenge being making a script work for a socially distanced production. His essence of pantomime was full of joy, laughter, fun and that sense of communal spirit he was longing for through writing a script that absolutely catered for young and old alike.
The set was a clever one too; designed by Hannah Sibai, whose task of building sets for multiple pantomimes as well as sets that fit in all the venues performed was far from easy. It was scaled back from that of the Theatre itself, but took you straight into panto-land as soon as the music kicked in.
Throughout the show, the script flowed well, delivered with panto genius at times from Robin Simpson, previously Dame at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, and the music, whilst again, not the rip-roaring band the Theatre is known for, was creatively worked with a mix of recorded tracks, and Anna Soden, playing live now and again. The songs were well timed and for just an hour, I felt the show was really balanced. The scene of the show was without doubt Simpson and Benson’s magazine sketch, creative, well delivered but far too high brow for a York panto!
As Tom (Executive Director) says in his programme notes, “At the risk of over-hyping things, you’re about to watch a miracle,”; this was no mean feat. and it really is just what is needed right now. Long live pantomime, and if this is just an essence of what is to come in the coming years at the Theatre Royal, panto is in very good hands indeed.