York has seen plenty of Ian Stroughair this year, online largely, from his Bishopthorpe kitchen in his cabaret guise as drag diva divine Velma Celli.
From Friday (11 December), the West End musical actor, singer and dancer can be enjoyed in his home city like never before, making his York pantomime bow in York Stage’s Jack And The Beanstalk at the Covid-secure, socially distanced Theatre @41 Monkgate.
Given his glamorous, glorious-voiced alter ego as Velma, you may have expected Ian to slip into the dame’s costumes, but “perhaps I’m a little young for dame,” he says.
Instead, 6ft 5ins in his boots and hat, Ian will be switching to the dark side, entering stage left as Flesh Creep in writer-director Nik Briggs’s 90-minute production on a traverse stage.
“Yeah, finally I’m doing a panto in York,” he says, wiping away the face paint from his photo-call session.
“Before the pandemic lockdown changed everything, I was supposed to be auditioning for the York Theatre Royal pantomime [Cinderella, pre-lockdown], but that didn’t happen.
“Just like I was going to be doing Funny Girls for three months, taking over from Betty Legs Diamond, so I should have been going up to Blackpool for that, but then all the theatres shut suddenly. So instead I got on the train and came home to York.”
At large in lockdown
In globe-strutting Velma Celli mode, Ian had been performing in Australia before the escalating Coronavirus pandemic sent him packing back to Blighty, quarantining in York from a week before lockdown.
He refused to be downtrodden, instead writing and cycling to keep show-fit and embracing the nascent possibilities of steaming concerts live and sparkly from the improvised Case De Velma Celli kitchen stage.
“It was tricky at first because we were trying to navigate the technology to make it look and sound good, so it was a big learning curve.
“But so many friends were just sitting at home moaning, and I thought, ‘no, there are still ways to be artistic and you just have to think outside the box and work harder than everyone else,” recalls Ian, who began with an April 29 fundraiser by Velma for St Leonard’s Hospice, York.
Later, for his kitchen-sing dramas, he presented Velma in Large & Lit In Lockdown and virtual versions of the cabaret queen’s hit shows Equinox, Me & My Divas and A Night At The Musicals.
Berwick ‘my idol’
Usually to be found once a month gracing The Basement stage at City Screen, York, Velma returned to live performance in York by signing up for a rugby club – York RI Rugby Union Football Club, in New Lane, Acomb, to be precise – for An Evening Of Song outdoors under the September stars.
Velma playing to playing a rugby club crowd in York on a Friday night…that’s brave, Ian? “Someone suggested there and I went down and met the lovely Caroline Knight and I was sold. Lovely people there and I grew up in Acomb, so it just felt right,” he says.
“The crowd turned out to be mainly people who come to my shows at City Screen, but we did have a LGBTQ rugby team in!”
Jack And The Beanstalk reunites Ian with West End choreographer Gary Lloyd, who has headed north to York, where his sister, Jo Theaker, is a leading light with York Stage.
Ian has previous form in pantomime, playing Dandini in 2015/16 in Cinderella at the Regent Theatre, Stoke. “I loved every minute. We were fortunate to win a couple of Great British Pantomine Awards,” he says.
Now comes the sinister sidestep to playing the baddie Flesh Creep in Jack And The Beanstalk. “I’ve never done baddie before, so I’m going to take out Velma’s ‘potty’ mouth and replace it with some sinisterly articulated elocution,” says Ian, elongating his words.
Looking to the day when he may yet emulate his “idol and a living legend”, York’s long-running dame Berwick Kaler, Ian says: “Panto producers do keep trying to get me to play Ugly Sister, and should I ever play dame, it’s a role where it’s all in the rhythm and instinctive comedy timing. That’s something you can’t teach but you can get better at it.
“It’s an exhausting role and should be the heart of every great panto. I prefer the dame to not be too polished aesthetically; a tad rough around the edges ideally.”
York Stage presents Jack And The Beanstalk at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, from December 11 to January 3; show times, Monday to Saturday, 2pm and 7pm; Sundays, 1pm and 6pm; Christmas Eve, 12 noon and 5pm; New Year’s Eve, 12 noon. Box office: online only at yorkstagepanto.com. Please note, audiences will be seated in household/support bubble groupings only.