If ever there was a year that we needed comfort, joy and a bit of a laugh, it’s 2020. How unfair, then, that so many of the things that cheer us up – festive catch-ups with friends (indoors!), school Christmas plays, carol services, close-quarter meetings with Santa – have been put on the naughty list.
With so many Christmas traditions cancelled, it felt like nothing short of a Christmas miracle to be taking our seats for the York Theatre Royal pantomime this week. A firm fixture in the Little Vikings festive family calendar, it’s something we usually look forward to all year. When York Theatre Royal announced back in the summer that they were planning to go ahead with a pantomime of some sort, I was hopeful but sceptical. With endless ever-changing rules and last-minute lockdowns, how could they possibly pull it off? But pull it off they have, and it’s coming to a venue near you (unless you’re one of our handful of national and international readers: hola! And feliz navidad!).
It’s not so easy to get out and about this year – to put it mildly – so the theatre has set itself the challenge of taking the pantomime to the people. The Travelling Pantomime will be spreading the panto love all over York, from Heworth to Acomb, New Earswick to Wigginton, and it’s proving a hit: tickets for most of the shows are now sold out. We went along to our local venue, which happens to be York Theatre Royal itself, excited by the prospect of some much-needed festive entertainment.
It wouldn’t be 2020 if there weren’t some changes to the usual way of doing things: there’s temperature-taking at the door, a track and trace check-in, reduced audience numbers to allow for social distancing and compulsory face mask-wearing (unless you’re eating or drinking). We’re all so used to this sort of thing by now that neither I nor my 8-year-old batted an eyelid, and it’s reassuring to see the lengths that they’re going to to make it a safe experience.
The show takes place on a set that’s been painstakingly designed to fit into every venue that it’s going to and, while it might be small, it focuses the action well. The costumes and props, too, are a world away from what we’ve come to expect, but the essential elements of pantomime are all there and delivered enthusiastically by the five-person cast. There are songs, dancing, silliness, a dame, a fairy godmother and a brilliant baddie. Josh Benson leads the charge, channeling his enviable energy into squeezing as many laughs out of the audience as he can with good comic timing and even a backflip or two.
Unusually, the audience is given a vote on which story they would like to see: Jack and the Beanstalk or Dick Whittington. Also unusually, for a York Theatre Royal pantomime, there is something approaching a plot. The shorter running time (just over an hour) means that it’s a tighter performance with fewer, erm, deviations than we’ve been used to. It’s a pun-heavy script that’s big on one-liners: most of them work, some of them don’t but all of them will be hilarious after a glass of mulled wine.
Most importantly, The Travelling Pantomime is a big-hearted show that brings a sparkle of positivity and joy at the end of a gloomy year. The fact that they’ve managed to pull it together and send it safely on its way across York is hugely impressive and massively appreciated. My daughter loved everything about it, from the fairy’s light-up trainers to the baddie’s transformation into a Cornish girl and, of ourselves, all the toilet roll jokes. She gave it 10 out of 10, and it doesn’t get better than that. After the show we wandered home through York, looked at the pretty lights and even did a bit of Christmas shopping. It was lovely and felt almost – whisper it – normal. Huge thanks to York Theatre Royal for pulling off this festive feat.