Lawrence Batley Theatre’s pantomime is something quite special. Nick Ahad spoke to director Joyce Branagh.
This is not going to be a popular article.
The people in charge of the Bradford Alhambra pantomime will be wondering why it’s not about Billy Pearce’s 20th annual performance with the theatre. The folk in York will wonder why not dedicate these pages to Berwick Kaler in his swan-song performance as the Theatre Royal dame. The Wakefield cast of Cinderella at the city’s Theatre Royal will be asking why not them.
The list goes on and those pantomimes are all worthy of recognition and I will indeed recognise them and others in next week’s Culture, but this week I want to write about a pantomime that is more than a pantomime: it is in fact the symbol of a quiet revolution that has been taking place in one of Yorkshire’s theatres.
It is a pantomime that really matters to the people behind it – like they all do – but I don’t know if every person I interviewed about their panto would be moved to tears while extolling the virtues of their particular show. Joyce Branagh was.
“This is so silly, I feel ridiculous. I am very tired,” she says, through tears as she answers the question of why staging a pantomime in Huddersfield matters so much to her. The Todmorden-based writer, actor and director, has been at the helm of the Lawrence Batley Theatre (LBT) panto for the past three years and to call it a labour of love is to understate just how much it means to her. It started when Branagh began speaking with actor and writer Andrew Pollard, who audiences may know from his work with Northern Broadsides. They both live in Todmorden and were lamenting the fact that Huddersfield’s LBT, which they consider their local theatre, didn’t have a big festive pantomime.
It transpired that the woman in charge of LBT, now outgoing artistic director Victoria Firth, had been thinking the same thing.
While LBT supports local artists quite brilliantly, it doesn’t make its own work and certainly not to the scale of a pantomime. Which is a shame because these shows can be a money-spinner for a theatre and help finance the rest of the year.
“It had taken them a few years to save up the money to be able to afford to put on a panto and we came along with the idea just at the right time,” says Branagh.
In December 2016, for the first time in 23 years, the Lawrence Batley Theatre staged its first professionally produced pantomime, Cinderella. It was a huge success. The following year the creative team of Branagh, Pollard and musical director Bex Hughes were back with Jack and the Beanstalk. When we talk, Branagh is in technical rehearsals for this year’s offering, Aladdin, which opens tonight. “It’s a very Huddersfield pantomime with lots of jokes and references for the local audience,” she says. “Andy’s script does that thing that great panto does in that it has lots of gags for children, but also jokes for adults – nothing rude of course, just things referencing politics and that sort of thing.”
It’s at this point that I ask Branagh why this matters and it is her answer that leads to tears. Pantomime is back-breaking hard work and she admits she spends pretty much all year planning this one show. Why? “You are all in that room together and it will never be the same again because the audience bring so much to it and that audience will never be that same collection of people again. It makes you really feel as though you are a part of something, you leave thinking that you just sang and shouted and danced with a whole room full of strangers. We hear that word inclusivity a lot and it doesn’t matter what background you’re from, what race or class you are, you can all come together in that room and all be included.”
In case you’re wondering about Branagh’s surname, by the way, yes she is the sister of Kenneth.
“Growing up working class in Belfast, theatre just wasn’t something that was a part of my mum and dad’s lives. It was only when my brother got into theatre that they took an interest. Their interests were bingo and the pub, and theatre wasn’t for us, it was for other people,” she says. “If that’s where you come from, theatre can feel like an intimidating thing, but pantomime is an arms-wide open thing that is part of the theatre and that makes a difference.”
I understand why Branagh gets emotional about this. Theatre isn’t supposed to be for the likes of us: which is of course nonsense, but it can feel like that.
“If you come in the building for pantomime then you might feel comfortable being there,” says Branagh. “Then you might pick up a brochure and try something else and then maybe you suddenly have someone who loves theatre.”
And that is the small revolution Branagh and LBT are creating.
It’s Panto time in Huddersfield
The cast of seven performing in this year’s panto are Robin Simpson, the popular local actor returning as the dame, and Thomas Cotran as Aladdin.
Stephanie Hackett and Richard Hand return in the roles of Genie and Abanazar with Huddersfield’s Alyce Liburd, Barnsley’s Nicola Jayne Ingram and Krissi Bohn, who audiences will recognise from Coronation Street joining the cast. There will also be a supporting company of local performers from across Kirklees.
Aladdin, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, to January 6. Tickets from the box office on 01484 430528 or online via www.thelbt.org