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Joshing About In Pantomime

“I’ve been in a washing machine so I’ll give it a go”… and with that Josh Benson attempts to confine himself to a large wickerwork basket in the company of assorted pantomime costumes, hats – and a false leg.

“Give it a go” might be the watchword for York’s very own Josh, something of a self-confessed ‘Josh of all trades’ in the entertainment business. Juggling, magic, jokes, acrobatics, limbo dancing – you name it and he’ll give it a go during the first photo shoot for York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime this Christmas.

On a sunny September morning on the patio beside the theatre we have Josh, we have a stage (the one used in the Pop Up on the Patio outdoor season this summer), we have rails of colourful costumes, we have piles of hats and mountains of props, and we have Patricia the cow. The stage resembles a giant dressing up box and Josh behaves like a big kid at playtime for the benefit of photographer Ant Robling.

Josh Benson in colourful panto costumes smiling at the camera

Josh Benson, photo by Ant Robling

As a youngster, Josh made his professional pantomime debut on the stage of York Theatre Royal as one of the “babbies” in pantomime. Now he’s a professional entertainer and magician who was booked to do pantomime again at the New Victoria Theatre in Halifax this Christmas. When that show was postponed thanks to coronavirus pandemic restrictions he became free to join the York theatre’s ambitious – or ‘bonkers’ as theatre Executive Director Tom Bird phrased it – intention to stage a pantomime in every one of the 21 wards in York city.

Not just one pantomime but three. Scripts for Dick Whittington, Jack and the Beanstalk and Aladdin are being written by Paul Hendy and the audience will choose which one they want to see on the night. Hence the site of Josh trying to embody embody all three titles at once. A stick over his shoulder with a red spotted handkerchief containing a lamp tied to it, and a bag of beans tied to his belt. Dick Whittington, tick. Aladdin, tick. Jack and the Beanstalk, tick.

Not many could pull off that look but Josh proves time and time again during the photo shoot that not only is he game for a laugh but has the ability, talent – call it what you will – coupled with unrelenting enthusiasm to pull off everything that is requested by the comms team. There is never a dull moment.

Josh Benson jumping off stage doing the splits

Of course he faces tough competition for the spotlight when doing a double act with the Theatre Royal’s very own Patricia the cow, who is not only a pantomime veteran but TV star who has appeared in front of the cameras in both the BBC’s Antiques Hunt and C4’s The Crystal Maze. But Josh has the measure of her – no wonder, at two metres long she’s a walking example of social distancing.

The supporting cast are made presentable (at a social distance, of course) by costume hire supremo and wardrobe consultant Pauline Rourke. She helps the comms team’s Livy and Maisie become suitably bovine and get under the skin of Patricia the cow to ensure an authentic feel to her performance in front of the camera.

Pauline milking Patricia the Cow

Pauline and Patricia the Cow, photo by Ant Robling

But it’s basically a one-person show with no sign of any costume drama. Josh laughs, Josh jumps, Josh juggles, and Josh well, Josh joshes.

York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime visits all 21 wards in the city in December.

By Steve Pratt