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In this interview, you get two actors for the price of one. Martin Barrass and Jonathan Race are here to talk about Robin Hood And His Merry Mam, this year’s panto at York Theatre Royal.
At the time of our encounter, they are three days into rehearsals for the annual burst of controlled mayhem under the helm of Berwick Kaler, long-running, boot-wearing panto dame.
So what’s the story this year?
“The story! Don’t you swear in the foyer of a theatre,” says Martin, jocular as you like. “It’s loosely based on the story of Robin Hood.”
“I think it’s quite accurate,” says Jonathan.
“Yes, Berwick stops us in rehearsals and says, ‘This is actually true, you know’,” says Martin, adding that the panto charts good King Richard going off to the Crusades and the arrival of bad King John.
Are you allowed to change the script? This elicits an are-you-kidding popping of the eyes from Martin.
“Berwick writes it. He locks himself away in his eyrie and only emerges to go to the shops and buy something occasionally.”
So are no changes allowed? “It’s not like a proper play,” says Martin. “We can change the script a little if it suits the character.”
One of the pleasures for an audience lies in trying to spot the ad-libs. Isn’t this ‘script instability’ tricky on stage?
“I know now what to expect and it’s a joy,” says Martin, adding that occasionally Berwick will tip him the wink. “Once he said to me, ‘Stick with it tonight, Martin, I’m in a barmy mood’.”
Jonathan is playing Sheriff Hutton and is standing in for popular baddie David Leonard, who is otherwise engaged in the West End in Matilda.
“I’m only playing the sheriff because I come from Nottingham,” Jonathan says. “I haven’t been in a panto here before, but I have seen one. I came to see Humpty Dumpty and I caught a Wagon Wheel.”
Jonathan does have panto form, having appeared in Nottingham with Kenneth Alan Taylor, another legendary dame. He has grown a convincingly evil-looking beard for the role.
“I said to Berwick that he could put in lots of references to me not being David Leonard, but he said no, and has just put in the one,” he says.
“I know some people will be disappointed and I did read a comment on your website with someone saying that they always went to see David Leonard so they wouldn’t be coming.”
“Jonathan is already known to the York audience, which helps,” says Martin.
His recent appearances in York include Blue/Orange, My Family And Other Animals and Three Men In A Boat.
Martin has spent most of this year in the West End appearing as Alfie the doddering waiter in the hit Richard Bean adaptation, One Man, Two Guvnors.
“It’s great, I have just been having a really good time,” says Martin. “Richard Bean has revived the art of the farce. It’s the biggest farce since Noises Off – what, 30 years ago.”
Originally, he too could have missed the panto as One Man, Two Guvnors is playing until August, but playwright Bean, who shares a Hull past, had a hand in swinging a deal for him.
“I said that I would have to miss the panto, but Richard Bean said ‘You have to go to York to do the panto – you can’t turn them down’.”
Bean, it transpires, is a fan and has seen them all in recent years. Martin is having a break from the play, but will return as soon as the panto ends.
Jonathan promises to be a classic villain – “like Black Adder on speed”. He has only the one costume for the entire show: “I have the biggest cape you have ever seen.” “Oh, missus,” says Martin As for Martin, he has lots of costume changes – “two more even than Berwick”. He knows from experience to look for the number of quick changes.
Do you wear costumes underneath? “Yes, under-dressing. It’s a life-saver when you see that’s possible. The fastest change I can remember was when I had about 14 seconds to change from a bear to Prince Charles.”
This is Martin’s 27th York panto, something he describes as “beyond belief”. “Berwick calls it a little local panto, but it does have national recognition too,” he says.
So what’s your character this year, Martin?
“I’m an idiot,” he says.
“No, in the play, Martin,” says Jonathan, continuing the mutual teasing.
Martin is playing Geoffrey Hood, much younger brother of Robin. You don’t ever turn up expecting to be heroic, do you? “Actually there are some heroic moments,” says Martin, all offended. “But no, I don’t.”
Read the article on The Press website.