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Find out the link between the LBT's first-ever professional panto and stage icon Kenneth Branagh

After 21 years in business, the Lawrence Batley Theatre is staging its first-ever professional pantomime

Director and actor Sir Kenneth Branagh

After 21 years in showbusiness, Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre is commissioning its first-ever professional panto. At the helm of the new production will be Joyce Branagh, from one of Britain’s most famous theatrical families

It was perhaps inevitable that Joyce Branagh would go into the theatre. As a child she watched her older brother Kenneth appear in school plays. Later she was to follow his career on both the West End stage and in film. She even worked as a runner on set when he was directing.

Today, the Calderdale resident is a well-established director and writer in her own right with an impressive CV that includes everything from directing works by Shakespeare to seasonal panto. And it’s panto that will bring her to Huddersfield later this year when she directs the Lawrence Batley Theatre’s first-ever foray into the genre, Cinderella.

The show is being written by Andrew Pollard, who lives near Joyce in Todmorden. They have worked together on three previous pantomimes and are looking forward to collaborating once again.

Joyce said: “I call him Mr Panto and he writes a lovely blend of proper, traditional panto that still feels modern – and that’s quite tricky.”

To serious thespians panto might seem a lesser art form. But Joyce says she will “defend it to the hilt”.

She explains: “It can be looked down on as a bit naff but when they are done with heart and attention to detail they are brilliant. The reason I think they are so popular is you can go as a family and have a good time. It’s not a kids’ show at which the adults are bored.”

The LBT has always resisted the idea of professional panto, preferring instead to host an annual children’s Christmas show.

Theatre director and writer Joyce Branagh - she will direct the Lawrence Batley Theatre's first-ever professional panto

 

It’s fair to say that over the years some of these productions have failed to inspire audiences and critics often found them to be too minimal and arty for a family audience. It was up to the amateur Huddersfield Light Opera Company to provide an annual, glitzy, slapstick sell-out panto at the theatre. During the 2016/17 festive season the amateur show will follow the professional show, so Huddersfield will have two pantos.

Theatre Director Victoria Firth says it’s hoped the professional panto will become an annual event.

She explained: “We have never had a professional pantomime before but we did a survey last year in schools among those that didn’t come to our Christmas show. There are a lot of people who only go to the theatre at Christmas and we want to give them what they want. And what they want is panto.

“We are the only professional stage in Kirklees. We don’t have the budget for a star cast but this will be a panto made in Huddersfield and we have put together a brilliant team of experienced people. Joyce has written and directed pantos; Andrew Pollard used to write children’s shows for Northern Broadsides and the musical director Rebekah Hughes is best known for her work with Mikron.”

She’s also hopeful that the professional panto, running throughout December, will not affect audiences for Huddersfield Light Opera’s version of Dick Whittington, which opens on January 7, 2017.

“One of the reasons we had held off having a panto was because of them,” said Victoria. “But we think there’s room for both of us.”

Andrew Pollard, writer and performer, creator of the Lawrence Batley Theatre's first-ever professional panto Cinderella

 

Cinderella will have a cast of professional actors, a small chorus of local young people, live well-known music and a script tailored to a Huddersfield audience. It will be a bespoke production.

Joyce has directed – and written – several pantos and has worked everywhere from London and Cornwall to Harrogate and Rochdale.

She has even directed at Vienna’s English Theatre.

Brought up in London to Irish parents, she was initially interested in acting but found her niche as a trainee director at the Bristol Old Vic and Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond.

Despite the fact that her brother Kenneth, who is 10 years older, has enjoyed a successful career in showbusiness, she says her parents weren’t terribly encouraging when it looked as if she intended to go down the same path.

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She explained: “Ken was really into theatre and I went to see him in his school plays and amateur dramatics before he got into RADA. Our family was not really theatrical or bookish; our roots were working class Belfast. But Ken had a very avid drama teacher and I had my big brother doing it. I was very interested in acting, although I went to university to do English rather than drama – but joined the drama society within seconds.

“Although Ken was directing, my parents were very much at pains to tell me he was the exception being able to make a living at it. I did office work and was a PA and my parents thought this was a proper job. In my late 20s when I was directing a play I remember them asking me if I had any temp work to keep me going and I had to tell them that I got paid more for the directing.”

Joyce came to live in Calderdale when her husband Andy, who formerly worked in IT but is now studying for an MA in archaeology, got a job in Manchester. She’d seen the area before and loved its rugged beauty. They’ve been in the Calder Valley for nine years now.

The classic rags to riches story of Cinderella will open on December 9 and is on until New Year’s Eve.

Tickets are now on sale and the first performance is already sold out. For details visit www.thelbt.org

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