Well-loved Wales panto opts for the magical glass slipper
The year was 1944 and as the Second World War drew to an end a group of teenagers keen to do their bit for Red Cross fundraising were rehearsing a charity pantomime round the back of Wales Methodist Church.
When the Sunday School superintendent went to investigate what was happening, however, he invited them into the warmth of the building – and inadvertently helped to start what was to become a South Yorkshire panto tradition.
Heading that original small company of enthusiastic amateurs was 15-year-old Roy Staniforth, who had decided that his first attempt at festive theatre fun would be an adaptation of classic castaway adventure Robinson Crusoe.
What even he could have had no way of knowing, though, was that well into the 20th century, the group he created would still be going strong.
The only time since that debut performance of the Crusoe story that there has been a break for Wales Methodist Church Pantomime Players was the couple of years in the late ’40s when Roy was away completing his National Service.
Every year Roy would not only be writing and directing but also taking the starring role as an increasingly outrageous Dame.
Those first productions were always held at the church and there were a three-month stint of Friday and Saturday performances before a tour of other chapels in the area, with scenery and costumes precariously transported on pushbikes.
By the end of the 1960s the entertaining show had become such a favourite that it had outgrown its roots and transferred to the Montgomery Theatre in Sheffield city centre.
It was the last show on stage at the Montgomery before fire swept through the building in 1970 and the company were back as soon as the auditorium had been rebuilt.
Easily one of the region’s biggest pantos – the average show would regularly feature more than 50 speaking parts as well as a full chorus.
For the company’s 50th anniversary Roy even managed to squeeze an extraordinary 120 people onto the Montgomery Stage – no mean feat for such an intimate venue.
At 88, Roy has now retired from duty and handed the reins to a new author and director, Nick Challenger.
Like his mentor before him, Nick has also starred as the Dame for the past five years.
This year he will be on stage as the Wicked Stepmother, Baroness Hardup in Cinderella.
It’s the first time that the company has staged the world’s most popular pantomime since the 1950s.
Roy always insisted there were too few parts for so big a company and that he couldn’t take the dramatic liberties he would have liked with so well-loved a tale.
Now though, Cinderella will go to the ball and Nick is promising a spectacle to match anything Wales audiences will have seen in the past.
This Cinderella may not have real ponies pulling her coach – livestock isn’t easy to get into a theatre with so many steps to negotiate – but there will be plenty of Wales magic on offer to the audience as the Fairy Godmother waves her wand and the tale of a social climbing girl and her glass slipper begins again.
Cinderella runs at the Montgomery Theatre from January 13 to 21.
For tickets call 0114 3030376 or 01909 770278.