Interview: Robin Simpson Talks York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime – Oh yes he does!

When York Theatre Royal say ‘the show must go on’, they really do mean it. With the pandemic disrupting panto season, they’re improvising! From Dec 2nd – 23rd, they’re taking their Travelling Pantomime to venues across York, bringing festive cheer to locals in a year when the unfettered silliness of panto-land is needed more than ever. Here, Robin Simpson, star and panto dame extraordinaire, talks top tips, best bits and the rewards of life in theatre…

So, Mr Robin Simpson, star of York Theatre Royal’s upcoming Travelling Panto, tell me a little bit about where it all started for you – when did the acting bug bite?

I sort of fell into acting at school. I was dithering about which ‘A’ levels to take and decided to take Theatre Studies as it seemed like a laugh. I almost immediately learned to love performing on stage but I still didn’t know in which direction to go after school. I’d always been quite good at art and thought that I’d go in that direction. So, after school, I went to art college for a year to study Fine Art. Fairly quickly I realised it wasn’t for me and I applied for Drama schools. I finished my year at college and the rest is history.

And you’ve taken the Dame role at the Lawrence Batley for the last three years now, which must surely put you in a good position to give me three top tips for a tip top panto Dame… What would your three be?

Have a make-up regime that doesn’t take too long. Wear flat -soled boots and really enjoy yourself!

That seems like pretty top advice to me! You’ve also enjoyed a recent turn in Northern Broadsides’ production of Much Ado About Nothing (which I saw and loved by the way), so I have to ask, where does your heart really lie as a performer; the classics, the pantos or elsewhere entirely?

Thanks for the praise. I don’t think it has to be one or the other. I’m blessed with recently being in three large Shakespeare productions and the Panto every Christmas, plus a lot of other stuff. I think one of the benefits of this profession is the variety. It’d be a shame if I only got to do one type of theatre.

Amen to that. Now, tell me a little about your role in this travelling extravaganza of York Theatre Royal’s then – although, considering it will give audiences the choice of three pantomimes right there on the night, I guess I should be asking about your roleS here!

I’m playing Dame Dolly (insert appropriate surname here). I have to admit, my Dame character doesn’t change all that much between the three shows. It doesn’t change much from one year to the next, to be honest! My Dame is my dame and it doesn’t matter what story we’re doing, she’ll always be the same. Is that a cop-out? Yes, but that’s Panto.

Of the three pantomimes on offer, Dick Whittington, Jack and the Beanstalk and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs… which would you say is your favourite?

That’s like choosing your favourite child. (It’s Jack and the Beanstalk).

Ha! So this will be a travelling 70 minute socially-distanced extravaganza, so tell me a little bit about the rehearsal process for a show under such stipulations…have any panto traditions had to be cut or adapted significantly for the sake of safety this year?

We have had to think seriously about the amount of shouting and calling out the audience might be allowed to do. Although they will all be socially distanced, and in their bubbles, we decided that we wouldn’t be promoting the usual audience responses. We won’t tell them not to shout out, we just won’t encourage it. Instead we’ll ask them to stamp their feet, clap their hands, wave their arms in the air, etc. It’s very different for a pantomime to not encourage people to respond like that but we think our way will work just as well.

It sounds like you’ve certainly been canny with alternatives there. Now, in our current climate, panto casts could be forgiven for simply hanging up the stripy socks and the glitter for a year, but with York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Panto going ahead despite all challenges, what are you most enjoying about performing live again?

The audiences, simple as that. Live theatre is just that, live, and Pantomime is one of the ‘livest’ forms of theatre out there. After a year like this, I think our audiences will be desperate for that shared experience with their families and friends.

And panto season is notoriously challenging for actors – what would your advice be to a newbie this year?

Look after yourself. The schedules are tough and it can be hell on the body and the voice. Eat well, sleep as much as possible but, as I said earlier, it’s important to enjoy yourself too.

I like to ask this question of all actors, for better or for worse, so do you have a best ‘the show must go on’ tale you can share?

I did a huge extravaganza back in the day called ‘The March of Time.’ It was in Wellingborough and was an extremely impressive show to mark the history of the local area at the Millenium. The stage was as large as a football pitch and hundreds of people flocked to see this one-off show. We’d rehearsed for weeks. There were songs and bands playing, the Sealed Knot were involved, explosives, replica WW1 planes flew by. It was very ambitious and the creators have to be applauded for trying to do something so large. However, they were maybe too ambitious…

We’d already postponed the show by a week as we weren’t ready to go on. Then, on the night, the show overran (by a lot). I was part of a WW1 re-enactment. The front of this huge stage was a trench and the whistle went and all the other soldiers went over the top leaving me alone to read a poem. I performed the poem and climbed the ladder to the top of the trench but the machine gun fire (from actual machine gun turrets) never came. So I waited a few seconds then just fell over. I realise we had never rehearsed how to get off this huge stage, so I crawled on my belly until I got to the ramp where a replica tank was supposed to be winched into view.

It was only as I made my way backstage that I realised the show had been stopped about ten minutes previously to this anyway whilst I was crawling on my belly as the winch, to pull the tank up the ramp, had used so much power that it had shorted all the electricity in the surrounding area. We never finished the show. Like I say, I applaud the ambition but not the organisation.

Now that is a cracking tale…hats off to that level of ambition say I!

Finally then, tell me why we’d be rotten beansprouts (the kind even Jack would steer clear of) to miss this show…

Because it’s brilliant! It’s made with love and respect for the genre. It is a true family-friendly show and we all need a laugh at the moment.

So there you have it! You can catch Robin in York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime at various venues across York from the 2nd to 23rd December 2020 – more information and tickets can be found here.

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