Interview with... York Theatre Royal Panto baddie Jonathan Race

Robin Hood and his Merry Mam

Interview by James Eaglesfield

Passers-by in the streets of York may be forgiven for thinking that actor Jonathan Race has taken Movember to an extreme and is reluctant to let go. However, his strangely impressive facial hair, complete with pointy sideburns, is all in the name of art – well, panto – as he joins Berwick Kaler’s established team at York Theatre Royal for this year’s Robin Hood And His Merry Mam.

“For the last three years I’ve had facial hair around November. I do get looks from men who just have a regular moustache who think I’m just trying to outdo them and show off but I’ve got it for work! I grew a full beard and then on the first day of rehearsals I met with the designer and said ‘Right, what do you want to do with it?’. So this is the final incarnation.” 

Photo by Edward Sunman
Despite having appeared at York Theatre Royal before, Jonathan understands that the slightly bemused looks may continue in to the theatre’s auditorium as he takes to the stage as the villain, replacing long term regular David Leonard who is currently appearing in the West End production of Matilda The Musical.

So how is the new boy fitting in with the gang?

“It was slightly odd being familiar with the building and some of the staff but being aware that I was the new boy in terms of the company. They’ve made me very welcome, very quickly. We’re all in the same boat at the end of the day because, as much as they have been together for years, it’s a new script and we’ve got to make it work freshly.”

“I said to Berwick before we started rehearsals ‘please make the most of me not being David Leonard’ but he’s very graciously made one reference to it relatively near the beginning and then left it alone and got on with it. I think he’s said that he found it quite difficult to write the villain for someone that he didn’t really know at all but he’s been really generous.”

“You are very aware of all of the traditions, and not just in the writing and in the relationship with the audience, but also the gags that go on with the crew and that sort of stuff but you just get on with it, get stuck in and join in with it all.”

Maybe the role of the Sherriff Hutton of Nottingham (a reference to a local village) was always destined for Jonathan. Along with the useful ability to grow a menacing beard, he currently lives in Nottingham and his family have links with the Northeast, giving him a head-start on understanding Kaler’s madcap Geordie Dame. Not that taking the part, and taking on the associated responsibility, was an easy decision. 

Photo by Edward Sunman
“I’d been to meet my agent to have a chat about Christmas shows and was just about to get on the train when Damian (Co-Director Damian Cruden) rang me. He explained why David wasn’t doing it and I had to think long and hard for a good 2 or 3 weeks. But I’m glad that I decided to do it.” 

“You can’t work at this theatre at any point of the year and not be aware of the significance of the panto. Having worked with Martin (Martin Barrass, Kaler’s annual slapstick sidekick) a lot, you hear stories about Berwick and you are aware of the madness that ensues. I was aware of its reputation, aware of Berwick and how fondly the city has ownership of it. That’s why it made it quite a difficult decision. I haven’t thought as hard about a job as I did when Damian asked me if I’d like to do it.”

Having decided to join the team in York though, Jonathan is relishing the role and the prospect of getting in front of a passionate York Panto audience.

“The panto baddie is a great part because it is always well written, and regardless of the character it is nice to have a well written part, so the villain as a whole tends to have some good scenes, some good set pieces. I love all those things like heckles, it’s one of the things I like about panto, that immediate relationship you have with an audience. I am steeling myself to be onstage with Berwick but enjoy that part of it all and I’m aware of what might happen.”

“I think enjoying it and caring about your audience makes all that possible. If you don’t care about your audience then that kind of ‘mucking about’, though you are doing it seriously but with a smile, gets very cringe worthy but if you care about your audience then those ad libs include them and that makes it enjoyable for both the performers and the audience.”

And, with what sounds like a break with tradition, Jonathan promises that this year’s script is full of plot as well as the usual array of gags and visual jokes.

“I’ve only seen one York panto and that was Humpty Dumpty so plot-wise I haven’t got a huge amount to compare this year’s to but I think the story and the plot this year is really strong. I’ve come in on a good one.”

“We’ve got a proper sword fight. It’s great. I haven’t done a proper sword fight before, they’ve tended to involve vegetables or other things that aren’t swords but this is a proper, old school swash buckling sword fight.“

So Jonathan’s second experience of a York Panto (on the last occasion he caught a much-prized Wagon Wheel whilst watching in the gallery) will be a bit different for both him and the audience alike as a new baddie is formed, relying less on racy, hip-thrusting moves of the usual incumbent but promising to be Racey none-the-less!

Robin Hood and his Merry Mam runs at York Theatre Royal from Thursday 13th Dec 2012 until Saturday 2nd February 2013