YORK theatre-maker Matt Aston will co-direct this winter’s York Theatre Royal pantomime, Sleeping Beauty, with retired dame Berwick Kaler.

Aston has directing credits for pantos at Theatre Clwyd, Theatre Royal, Wakefield and Leeds City Varieties Music Hall and has worked with panto legend Kenneth Alan Taylor, the Kaler of Nottingham Playhouse.

In York, his production of Benji Davies’s Grandad’s Island for Engine House has played two seasons in the Theatre Royal Studio.

As well as co-directing Sleeping Beauty, Aston will write and direct The Storm Whale, based on another of Davies’s children’s stories, for the Studio over Christmas. This will be a co-production between York Theatre Royal, Little Angel Theatre and his company Engine House.

As usual, the Theatre Royal pantomime is being written by Berwick Kaler, his first script since hanging up the dame’s big boots after 40 years.

“York is my home town now and directing the pantomime was an opportunity too good to miss,” says Matt, who first saw a Kaler pantomime a decade ago and has caught up with more recent shows on DVD.

“Since moving to York two years ago, everyone I speak to, when they know I work in the theatre, says, ‘Do you know the pantomime?’ and everyone seems to have a pantomime story. So I know how popular it is.”

Aston has directed the past three cult rock’n’roll pantomimes at Leeds City Varieties, as well as taking the panto director’s seat for two years at Wakefield’s Theatre Royal.

“I grew up with more commercial pantomimes,” he recalls. “I used to go with my mum’s local social club: it was an annual trip. I saw Les Dawson play Baron Hardup and he was just magnificent. I saw Little and Large. I saw John Inman. Lots of the big names of the 1980s.”

What annoys him, however, is people who talk of pantomime in derisory terms, “as though it’s an inferior form of theatre”. “To be able to be good at pantomime, you have to be a good actor, a good designer, a good lighting designer, because it’s really hard," says Matt. "It’s a really hard skill to make a shambles look brilliant. For me, first and foremost, be good – and then the experience of pantomime will be good.”

Aston looks forward to working with Dame Berwick for the first time, sharing directorial duties. “He’s a really good actor and to get that kind of experience and input is brilliant. Why wouldn’t you want to tap into that massive wealth of knowledge and information. Whatever happens, I’m going to learn loads from him,” says Matt.

“We’ve had two or three initial meetings and have got on really well. We’re already bouncing ideas around and I think that’s going to continue. He’s really open for me to put in ideas. As the director of a new play – which this pantomime is essentially – the director always has input and conversations, and we’ve had really good chats so far. That will continue for weeks and months – and see what we end up with.”

Perhaps Aston’s harshest critics will be his sons, George, seven, and Frank, four. “They are the best/worst critics because they will tell you if it’s rubbish. They haven’t seen a York pantomime yet but I’m sure they’ll be fine with it,” he says.

New to the 2018-2019 creative team are set and costume designer Anthony Lamble, from Harrogate, and lighting designer Mark Jonathan. Returning for Sleeping Beauty are Elliot Styche as musical director and Grace Harrington as movement director and choreographer.

As announced already, Theatre Royal panto family members Martin Barrass, David Leonard, Suzy Cooper and A. J Powell all are returning for Sleeping Beauty. Further casting is to be announced.

Sleeping Beauty will run from the new earlier starting date of December 7 to January 25 2020 in the Main House; The Storm Whale will splash around in the Studio from December 14 to January 4 2020.

Charles Hutchinson