By Graham Chalmers
If there’s one thing which symbolises the well-being of Harrogate Theatre, it’s the panto.
It’s not so much the substantial contribution it makes to its finances, though many of the dates for this year’s production of Cinderella have nearly sold out before it even begins its seven-week run on Tuesday, December 2 until January 18.
What’s more significant is who has written it, or co-written it, rather – the theatre’s own chief executive, David Bown.
In this age of tables, targets and spin, Harrogate Theatre is one place where ‘hands-on’ is the norm.
And its annual panto comes from the heart.
David said: “The first panto I ever saw was Dick Whittington starring Vince Hill at the Bradford Alhambra in 1969 with my grandma. I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.
“Things don’t change. I see grandparents in the audience at Harrogate Theatre watching the panto now with their grandchildren.”
A seasoned team, it’s the sixth time David has co-written the script with the theatre’s associate director Phil Lowe.
As always, they’ve got a secret weapon – panto acting legend Tim Stedman.
In this year’s production of rags to riches fairytale Cinderella, this charismatic actor is playing another classic role - Cinder’s besotted best friend, Buttons.
David said: “I think it’s the 14th year Tim has appeared, perhaps the 15th. I think he’s a genius. His rapport with children is incredible and adults love him, too.
“Within minutes of the start of the show he’s got the audience shouting out and the catch phrases going.”
It helps, of course, that David and Phil are serving up such good lines.
Ignoring the trend for celebrity fluff, Harrogate’s panto is renowned for its traditional nature.
This, in itself, can present a challenge.
David said: “Coming up with a two-and-a-half-hour show with action and gags and songs and sets from scratch is a huge commitment. The pantos are done in cycles of six. There are only that number of classic storylines.
“Each March Phil and myself sit down together to decide on the basic scene structure but we’ve already been researching routines and ideas before that, seeing what other pantos are up to.
“The trick is to keep these well-known stories fresh each time.”
Both members of this panto dream team are experienced writers.
Phil, who will also direct the panto once again, learnt his craft at Derby Playhouse.
Before David became chief executive at Harrogate Theatre, he had been a professional stage writer and actor, his talent spotted by John Godber while he was teaching drama at Northampton University.
In fact, one of his previous plays, Loaded, is enjoying a hit revival in London right now in a new production by Alter Ego.
David said: “It couldn’t be more different from what I do with the panto.
“It’s a challenging piece but it’s been getting great reviews. I’m pleased its success in London is being linked with Harrogate Theatre.”
While last year’s panto was set in Knaresborough Castle, this year’s is set in Harrogate.
Work on the sets began in the summer, a time when the panto’s ‘skeleton’ storyline has to be settled in stone if the job is to get done.
There’s pressure for sure but it’s a lot of fun, too, working with Phil.
David said: “He’s so easy to work with. He absolutely understands the genre. It’s hard work but he’s so brilliant with the music and lyrics, in particular. He’s such a calming presence when there’s so much going on.”
As always, the emphasis in this year’s show will be on family-orientated fun.
David said: “The theatre has a great relationship with local schools and we hold special performances of the panto for children during term-time.
“We do include modern references for adults but we don’t go for a great deal of innuendo. Believe me, I travel around the country a lot and there are some very innuendo-laden pantos out there. That isn’t us.”