York-based theatre-maker Matt Aston will co-direct this year’s pantomime Sleeping Beauty with Berwick Kaler.
Matt, whose production of Grandad’s Island has played two seasons at York Theatre Royal, has previously directed pantomimes at Theatre Clwyd, Theatre Royal Wakefield and City Varieties, Leeds. He has also worked with Nottingham pantomime legend Kenneth Alan Taylor.
As well as co-directing Sleeping Beauty, he will write and direct The Storm Whale, based on the Benji Davies children’s stories, in the Studio over Christmas. This is a co-production between York Theatre Royal, Little Angel Theatre and Matt’s company, Engine House.
As usual this year’s pantomime is being written by Berwick Kaler, although he has stepped down as the Theatre Royal’s legendary Dame after 40 years.
“York is my home town now and directing the pantomime was an opportunity too good to miss,” says Matt, who saw a Theatre Royal pantomime a decade ago and has caught up with more recent shows on DVD.
“Since moving to York two years ago everyone I speak to, when they know I work in the theatre, says, ‘do you know the pantomime?’ and everyone seems to have a pantomime story. So I know how popular it is.”
He has directed the last three rock’n’roll pantomimes at City Varieties Leeds as well as directing the pantomime for two years at Wakefield’s Theatre Royal.
“I grew up with more commercial pantomimes. I used to go with my mum’s local social club. It was an annual trip. I saw Les Dawson play Baron Hardup and he was just magnificent. I saw Little and Large. I saw John Inman. Lots of the big names of the 1980s.”
What annoys him is people who talk about pantomime in derisory terms as though it’s an inferior form of theatre. “To be able to be good at pantomime you have to be a good actor, a good designer, a good lighting designer because it’s really hard. It’s a really hard skill to make a shambles look brilliant. For me, first and foremost be good – and then the experience of pantomime will be good.”
He’s looking forward to working with Berwick. “He’s a really good actor and to get that kind of experience and input is brilliant. Why wouldn’t you want to tap into that massive wealth of knowledge and information. Whatever happens I am going to learn loads from him,” says Matt.
“We’ve had two or three initial meetings and have got on really well. We are already bouncing ideas around and I think that is going to continue. He’s really open for me to put in ideas. As the director of a new play – which this pantomime is essentially – the director always has input and conversations, and we’ve had really good chats so far. That will continue for weeks and months – and see what we end up with.”
Perhaps his harshest critics will be his sons, George, seven, and Frank, four. “They are the best slash worst critics because they will tell you if it’s rubbish. They haven’t seen a York pantomime yet but I’m sure they’ll be fine with it,” says Matt.
New to the creative team are set and costume designer Anthony Lamble, who is based in Harrogate, and lighting designer Mark Jonathan.
Returning for Sleeping Beauty are Elliot Styche as musical director and Grace Harrington as movement director/choreographer.
As previously announced York Theatre Royal panto family members Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper, A. J Powell and David Leonard are all returning for Sleeping Beauty. Further casting to be announced.
Sleeping Beauty opens on 7 December and runs until 25 January in the Main House.
The Storm Whale is in the Studio from 14 December to 4 January.
Box office 01904 623568. Online yorktheatreroyal.co.uk