Harrogate Theatre unveils Joyce Branagh as its new panto director after traumatic week

The spirit that has made Harrogate Theatre great for so many years has been on display in recent traumatic days for this cherished arts hub as it has battled against tragedy and adversity.

Thursday, 21st October 2021, 10:20 am
Former Harrogate Theatre board member and seasoned director Joyce Branagh, sister of Kenneth Branagh, will be directing this year's panto, Cinderella.

Although the theatre is set to welcome back audiences to its popular family this November for the first time since lockdown with the magical adventures of Cinderella, in light of the tragic death of panto director Phil Lowe last week, taking the helm for the first time will be seasoned director, writer and actor Joyce Branagh.

The former Harrogate Theatre board member, and sister of Kenneth Branagh, will bring her expertise to this essential part of the Harrogate calendar despite ongoing work on the theatre building itself as part of £1 million roof repairs.

Joyce has a wealth of pantomime experience having directed for Watford Palace Theatre, Salisbury Playhouse and most recently at the Lawrence Batley Theatre.

She is also a well-respected writer of pantomime having written for South Hill Park Arts Centre and Cast in Doncaster. She was nominated for Best Script at the British Pantomime Awards in 2018.

Joyce served on Harrogate Theatre’s Board from 2013 to 2019 was also the Chair for the final year so knows what the pantomime means to our audiences.

Joyce Branagh’s appointment has been made following the devastating sudden death of Harrogate Theatre’s pantomime director and co-writer, Phil Lowe on October 13.

David Bown, Harrogate Theatre's chief executive said “Joyce has a pantomime pedigree that speaks for itself, and we are hugely grateful to her for stepping in.

"She will be able to bring her own flair to a magical script from Phil Lowe.”

Joyce Branagh, panto director said “I know what a huge shock this is for the theatre to lose such a talented colleague and friend, especially at this time of year.

"However, Phil has left us an amazingly funny script, and I feel honoured to be able to step in and help the cast and team here bring his wonderful gags to life.

"In the words of Phil’s heroes Morecambe and Wise, we’ll bring some sunshine, laughter and love back into the theatre. It’ll be our tribute to him.”

Cinderella will mark the reopening of Harrogate Theatre for its first performances since theatres were closed in the first lockdown back in March 2020.

Cinderella opens on November 24 and runs through to 16 January 16, 2022.

Harrogate Borough Council first began essential work to replace the roof of Harrogate Theatre in May of this year with the hope of completing the job by December on what is the biggest building project at the theatre since it first opened in 1900.

But the complexity of the project and the historic significance of the theatre mean the project is now scheduled to be completed in March 2022.

In addition to being a complex piece of work, there have been commercial challenges in accessing materials and obtaining the right staff to work on parts of the project.

Staff shortages have also been impacted by the virus and isolation requirements in place since the first lockdown in March 2020, although the theatre has successfully won substantial financial support from Arts Council England during the pandemic.

Work is now under way to make the building weather-tight ready to welcome audiences back to Cinderella in late November - the theatre’s first event since lockdown began.

The project work will continue into the new year, but will work around scheduled performances, including community groups which are eagerly waiting to returning.

Coun Graham Swift, Harrogate Borough Council’s deputy leader, said: “Like any heritage building of this age and complexity, there will always be a level of conservation and investment required to ensure the building is fit for another 120 years.

“Our significant investment in this local asset will allow the fantastic performances to continue, promote cultural activity in the town, attract visitors and support the local economy at a time when it is needed the most.

“Although the scaffolding will be up until the new year, while we complete these delicate and complex restoration works, the theatre is very much safe to use.”