Swords, wigs and sandals for Pat & Julian’s festive frolic

Julian Harries in Justin and the Argonauts, Common Ground theatre company's 2015 Christmas show

Julian Harries in Justin and the Argonauts, Common Ground theatre company's 2015 Christmas show - Credit: Archant

Pat Whymark and Julian Harries have been the architects of much Christmas laughter over the years. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke caught up with the pair as they prepare to embark on a new seasonal adventure involving Greeks and Gods

Joe Leat, Alice Mottram & Matt Jopling in Justin and the Argonauts, Common Ground theatre company's

Joe Leat, Alice Mottram & Matt Jopling in Justin and the Argonauts, Common Ground theatre company's 2015 Christmas show - Credit: Archant

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas if the theatrical partnership of Pat Whymark and Julian Harries didn’t dress up in funny clothes and present a piece of gloriously epic entertainment on a budget of tuppence ha’penny and with a wicked twinkle in their eyes.

Last year they unleashed two shows within weeks of one another; The Mystery Of St Finnigan’s Elbow, Eastern Angles’ Christmas show, and their own Christmas extravaganza The Tinder Box.

This year they have but one story to tell but it is one filled with Gods, monsters and the odd (very odd) Greek hero or two.

“It’s an epic story that will be given our own special treatment,” laughs Julian. He says that their theatre company Common Ground is starting to develop an identity of its own thanks to past Christmas shows like The Perils of Pinnochio, The Canterville Ghost and The Tinder Box and regional tours of Mary Shelley and The Curse of Frankenstein, The Prisoner of Zenda, Harriet Walker, Stranded, The Count of Monte Cristo and Stuff In The Attic.

Lorna Garside in Justin and the Argonauts, Common Ground theatre company's 2015 Christmas show

Lorna Garside in Justin and the Argonauts, Common Ground theatre company's 2015 Christmas show - Credit: Archant

“Although, people know us best from our work with Eastern Angles, I feel that they are now making the connection between us and Common Ground,” he says.

Julian, complete with dodgy wig, will be in the heart of the action but being part of a company is what Common Ground is all about. Over the past couple of years Pat and Julian have gradually recruited a number of local actors who have formed an informal Common Ground repertory company. They are talented performers who share Pat and Julian’s quirky humour and are able to leap from character to character with the removal of a hat.

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Joe Leat, Lorna Garside and Alice Mottram have all got multiple credits with Common Ground. All three were in The Count of Monte Cristo, Joe and Alice were in St Finnegan’s with Eastern Angles last year while Lorna and Alice have also been in Stranded and Mary Shelley with Julian.

This year’s newcomer is Matt Jopling who Pat and Julian spotted playing Desperate Dan in Beauty and the Beast, last year’s rock’n’roll panto at the New Wolsey.

Julian Harries and Joe Leat in The Count of Monte Cristo, Common Ground's recent autumn tour

Julian Harries and Joe Leat in The Count of Monte Cristo, Common Ground's recent autumn tour - Credit: Archant

Julian believes that stability and familiarity reassures audiences but also allows performers to ring changes in a quiet way. “You don’t want things to be the same. You do have to keep things fresh but on the other hand people like familiar things, particularly at Christmas. “So it’s a compromise. We have familiar cast members and we have a particular Common Ground or Pat and Julian approach and that seems to fulfil the criteria. People know what they are getting.”

“A Christmas show has to deliver certain elements,” Pat explains. “We tend to do genre plays. We deal with subjects where we and the audience share the same terms of reference. There’s a lot of nostalgia involved. When we did The Day The Earth Wobbled A Bit for Eastern Angles there were scores of references to those old 1950s science fiction B movies and Bats Over Bleedham Market was a love letter to the Hammer films.

“This year we are referencing those 1960s sword and sandals epics. There are number of things you feel duty-bound to include because people will be expecting to see them.

“We have a framing story set in the 1930s, so we took as our source a version of Jason and the Golden Fleece that was written in the 1920s so we could get that period feel.

Julian Harris and Pat Whymark .Picture John Kerr

Julian Harris and Pat Whymark .Picture John Kerr - Credit: Archant

“It’s important to have a framing device because we need to get Justin and not Jason into the story and also it’s a way to let the audience into our version of the story.”

Julian says the epic, overblown nature of the Greek myths means that the size of the story already dwarfs the small intimate venues they will be playing let alone the modest size of their budget.

But the challenge of creating a widescreen look on a small stage with half-a-dozen actors is what gives the shows their sense of fun.

“You invite the audience in to share the joke. Theatre is all about sharing. You are taking the audience on a journey with you. You are saying: ‘Come along, it’ll be fun,’ and because they have bought a ticket, hopefully they will want to come along for the ride.”

The story begins in 1936. Young Justin Cornelius Pendlebury is cruising the Aegean with his dysfunctional family, when a series of mishaps, including a rather dubious seafood dish, and the disappearance of his film-star uncle’s blond (some might say golden) wig, set him off on a strange and extraordinary quest.

“The characters in the framing device become the heroes of the story. Justin eats a piece of dodgy squid and is transported onto an ancient ship full of heroes on an quest for glory and adventure.”

Julian says he loves the Christmas shows because audiences love to get involved. “People do love to laugh and sometimes it’s easy to forget about enjoying yourself and what better than to laugh along with lots of other people, friends and family, and just surrender to the silliness of an evening at the theatre.”

Although the show is about having fun with the stories, Pat stresses that it’s important to stay faithful to the main narrative. “People seem to know these stories, even if they haven’t studied them, so in order to carry people along there are some characters that you have to include.”

The way that the stories were constructed in the far distant past was akin to the recruiting of The Magnificent Seven. “In the original stories, virtually every Greek hero ends up on the Argonaut at one time or another but they aren’t there at the beginning. They are recruited as they go along as they need certain heroes to defeat certain monsters. They are much heroes of convenience.”

The biggest challenge in adapting the myths for the stage is tackling the vast amounts of fighting that the stories involve.

“There’s lots of fighting in these stories,” Pat says with an exasperated look on her face.

“We’re not good at fighting,” Julian chimes in with a wicked grin.

Pat ignores him and carries on: “The challenge was how to do fighting in a comic and varied way and we’ve done them largely as songs.”

The pair have a reputation for their imagination and the theatrical nature of their inventiveness but they both say it is important that there is warmth in the shows and the audience recognise real people in their characters.

“We don’t want it to just be silly. It’s important that the audience recognise themselves and people they know in the comic mayhem – because then they care about what happens.

“In this show we felt it was important to humanise these Greek heroes. So it’s a bit like Dad’s Army where all the characters have a personal life away from the platoon. So we go: ‘here’s our group of heroes and this is what they do at home’ and we have fun with their idiosyncrasies. It’s all about personalities and relationships which is true for any drama.

“And you are trading off common links in our cultural history – particularly something like The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show when Ernie would stage these elaborate dramas which were hilariously dreadful.”

Julian adds: “And, of course, all Ernie’s plays and the recent West End hit The Play What I Wrote, always concern themselves with some important weighty drama or historic event. It’s the death of Cleopatra or The Great Escape or Oliver Cromwell and pastiche works best, our own humour works best, when the subject matter is a genre that takes itself very seriously.”

So Pat and Julian set sail next week armed with swords and sandals battling sea monsters to find the Golden Fleece, while looking to avert disaster with the Clashing Socks and hoping not to be dragged into the murky depths by the Sirens of C Deck.

n Justin and the Argonauts, by Pat Whymark and Julian Harries, the Common Ground theatre company Christmas show for 2015 opens at Seckford theatre on December 18 and tours until the New Year.