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Preview: Dick Whittington at York Signal Box Theatre

Berwick Kaler’s 37th panto to be staged in 1000 seat theatre at the National Railway Museum

Dick Whittington (and his Meerkat) 
York Signal Box Theatre (at The National Railway Museum)
Thursday 10 December 2015Sunday 24 January 2016

Berwick Kaler Photo: Colin Richardson
Berwick Kaler’s 37th writing and starring role in Dick Whittington (and his Meerkat) will take place at the 1000 seat purpose built theatre at the National Railway Museum this Christmas. The theatre has been named The Signal Box Theatre. York Theatre Royal have announced the news after recent discoveries at the historic theatre site on St Leonards Place have led to a delay to the major refurbishment of the auditorium and stage.

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The tight 27 week schedule always had a back-up plan, and archaeologists and builders are working extended hours to complete necessary work. Over the last few weeks the archaeological finds under the stage and in the auditorium have been staggering and bigger than previously predicted.

It was previously thought that the Victorians destroyed the foundations of St Leonard’s Hospital (one of the largest and most important hospitals in medieval England) when building the theatre on the site. Last week these foundations have been uncovered. They are still intact and located underneath the stalls. This is an important find of great significance to the city.

The City of York archaeologist has confirmed further excavation is needed. York Archaeological Trust are therefore continuing the required excavation on this unprecedented find. A longer time-frame has now been set to excavate an area of the stalls floor. Architects, De Matos Ryan, are now working on ideas for incorporating the archaeology into the new design of the theatre.

Ben Reeves, Chief Archaeologist on the site said: "It is amazing that, considering all the alterations to the theatre since 1764, so much of the medieval hospital has survived under the stalls and elsewhere within the building. The remains are an exciting and important discovery for both archaeologists and the public, offering an opportunity to investigate and understand more about one of the City's most fascinating and little understood sites."

The in-house panto production team usually begin work on set design and special effects in April and therefore a decision needed to be made to ensure the show is as spectacular as panto-goers expect. By making the decision now it means the set designers can start planning for the new space and the UK's longest running dame, Berwick Kaler can start writing the script knowing that the environment will be different.

It will be York's one and only opportunity to see the master of Panto take the well-loved formula, and apply it to this brand new space. After 36 years performing on the York Theatre Royal stage Berwick acknowledged it will be a challenge but said he is raring to go:
"Artistic Director Damian Cruden has gone to great lengths to try and get rid of me but his latest effort is quite ingenious. However the laugh is on him because I have found a substitute theatre just a couple of hundred yards away from my beloved Theatre Royal – the one thousand seat NRM’s Signal Box Theatre. So while Cruden is looking for his ancestors below ground, me and ‘me bairns’ will be enjoying Dick Whittington and his Meerkat which promises to be a one-off hilarious and unique experience."

Located at the National Railway Museum, the Signal Box Theatre is a 1000 seat, heated, semi-permanent, purpose built auditorium. This venue, shipped from Toronto, is also hosting the York Theatre Royal, National Railway Museum and Pilot Theatre production In Fog and Falling Snowwith George Costigan in the lead role, and the award-winning The Railway Children.  We are also delighted to announce that joining The Railway Children team, which includes Martin Barrass as Mr Perks, will be Berwick Kaler as the Old Gentleman. Berwick says: The reason I have taken on this classic cameo role is to annoy Damian Cruden who wanted a professional actor to play the part. Even before rehearsals begin I have a shock for Cruden – I’ve already learnt my LINE!"

A similar structure is currently being used at Kings Cross, London where York Theatre Royal’s The Railway Children is currently running.  This show opened in December 2014 and has been very warm over the winter months. The theatre will be insulated using a bespoke fabric that will help to keep the space cool during the summer and warm over the winter months. It has an integrated foyer where audiences will be able to purchase drinks at the bar, sweets, programmes, ice creams, cakes and nibbles. There will be space to wait inside and an enchanted entrance way will be created especially for the show. Paul Kirkman, Chief Executive at the National Railway Museum said: "We can’t wait to welcome scores of dedicated panto fans to our amazing new addition to our site, the Signal Box Theatre, this Christmas. We’re currently working with the theatre to put together a truly magical festive day out for all the family.  With free entry to our museum, audiences will also be able to steep themselves in the spirit of Christmas past through a collection spanning more than 300 years of social history. With all this to enjoy under one roof, plus lots of available car parking, and some die-hard panto aficionados amongst our own staff, it will certainly be the season to be jolly here at the National Railway Museum."

13500 people have already bought tickets to the popular production. All will receive a personally addressed letter explaining the situation and being asked to trust Box Office staff to ensure they are transferred to a seat of the same value and quality in the Signal Box Theatre.

Liz Wilson, Chief Executive of York Theatre Royal said; "Our audience are one of the most loyal I have known and I ask them to bear with us during this period of change. Our official name is ‘York Citizens Theatre Trust’ and we take our role of serving the people of York very seriously. York wouldn’t be York without its annual panto and I’m pleased to confirm Berwick and the panto family are all excited about the new location."

Whilst capacity has increased by moving location, other costs have also risen. Running a temporary theatre space means there are new overheads to consider, and Royal will also need to continue to pay for the extension of work at its regular site. The panto run will also be shortened from 7 to 6 weeks, to cope with the extra capacity per performance, and also to ensure the re-opening of the theatre’s auditorium for early Spring productions. Prior to this the theatre’s cafĂ© and bar area, which has also undergone a major transformation, will open in the new year.

The original closure period gave building landlords York Conservation Trust a limited opportunity to carry out much needed work to the external fabric of the building. Now the extension to development work gives further opportunity to complete work to additional areas not included in the original plans, such as the dressing rooms. Philip Thake, Chief Executive of the trust, said "Recent discoveries by York Archaeological Trust further confirm the importance of this historic site, and our responsibility to look after the Grade II listed building. Whilst we understand the delay will come as a surprise for theatre-goers we are also pleased that the archaeological work can continue, and that this allows us to make further improvements to the building for York Theatre Royal staff and to ensure its sustainability into the future."

Meanwhile, at the Signal Box Theatre, the infamous Last Night of Panto, in which the crew get their own back on cast, will also be moved to a Sunday evening with increased capacity. Dick Whittington (and his Meerkat) will therefore run from Thursday 10 December 2015Sunday 24 January 2016. People who already have tickets are being asked to please be patient and wait for their new tickets before contacting the theatre. Those yet to book should note that the show will not be on sale for several days until all bookers have been transferred.


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