HE ain’t nothing like a dame. Instead, Martin Barrass, perennial pantomime soft lad, comic stooge and sidekick punchbag, will not so much step into Berwick Kaler’s big boots at York Theatre Royal as reinvent himself in regal mode for Sleeping Beauty.
All rise for Barrass’s Queen Ariadne as the Hull-born actor adds to his repertoire in his 33rd panto, performing once more alongside David Leonard’s villainous Evil Diva, Suzy Cooper’s Princess Beauty and AJ Powell’s Darth Diva.
Dame Berwick may have left the stage after 40 years of pantomayhem, but he has not left the building, writing the script once more and directing the morning rehearsal sessions, as he works in tandem with new co-director Matt Aston for the first time.
Kaler has not been available for interviews, concentrating his energies elsewhere at 73 and leaving the spotlight to Barrass and others, although the betting odds are shorter than for Frankel at York Racecourse in 2012 that the departed dame will make an appearance on screen.
“My Queen will be like a duck,” says 63-year-old Barrass. “Looking serene on the surface but paddling away frantically beneath the water.
“This year, it sounds very much like I’ll be in a transitional place, where the dame would have been. My Queen will be ‘alpha and unputdownable’, but there’s still a bit there that’s my familiar character, so it still has shades of the idiot.”
Rather than anyone filling the black hole of pandemonium left by Kaler, the Panto Four will share the challenge, although the most intriguing progression is Barrass’s switch. “I’m aware it’s an enormous undertaking because people stop you in the street to ask, ‘So, Martin, are you the dame this year?’, and I have to say, ‘No, I’m the Queen of all her subjects’.
“I know I’m following in the footsteps of a master, the greatest ad-libber ever, and what you have to be in this role is slightly above it, aware of what’s going on around you, being prepared for any audience heckles.
“Comedy like this always has to be flexible, always switched on for the unexpected, the chance to be anarchistic.
”It will be a case of calming myself down for what lies ahead, but I’m lucky to have watched a genius in operation at close hand.”
You can sense that far from being intimidated by the task, Barrass is rising to it, just as he did when playing the deformed Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man or Stan Laurel in Laurel And Hardy at the Theatre Royal; station porter Albert Perks in E Nesbit’s The Railway Children at the National Railway Museum; or the 87-year-old waiter in Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors for the National Theatre at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Or, earlier this year, excelling as band conductor Danny Ormondroyd, “the Peter Postlethwaite role”, in Brassed Off at the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme.
“I loved playing Perks, blowing the whistle, controlling the engines, just as I loved playing Danny, conducting a band of 36. I don’t know how we crammed them all in!” says Martin. “Being tone deaf, I had to learn everything about conducting. Playing Danny, he’s the king of his fiefdom, his colliery brass band, and he’s to be feared in some way, when you really make people listen to you.
“So now, playing Queen Ariadne, she won’t be afraid to throw her weight around, but in a nice way, as I’m only eight and a half stone.”
Over his 33 years as the stooge, Barrass has played all manner of animals, a giant carrot, a goofy archbishop and a twist on his hapless One Man, Two Guvnors character, the venerable, if physically vulnerable Chinese philosopher Wisehopper. The Queen will be different again. “Don’t expect to see a scrap of make-up because it’s in the tradition of Old Mother and Berwick’s dame: you know it’s played by a bloke,” he says.
“But how you play it is a tonal thing: you can have a lot of fun with the ‘bunchness’ of the voice, for example. Berwick always said, ‘I don’t want to offend the men in the room’, so I won’t be veering into the realms of drag and camp. I’ll leave that to David Leonard!”
Placing his Queen, as opposed to a dame, Martin says: “Normally the role is someone like a washer woman of lower status, but you don’t get any bigger than the Queen! I’ll be playing her as a cross between Eric Morecambe and Fanny Craddock.
“As Berwick would be the first to say, you should do whatever suits you, whatever you’re at ease with, though there’ll still be traces of Hull in my Queen.
“So this Queen will be as common as muck, and that’s how you have fun with it, along with assuming Berwick’s role of always having the last say.”
He’s just had it!
Martin Barrass stars in Sleeping Beauty, York Theatre Royal, December 7 to January 25. Box office: 01904 623568, at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or in person from the Theatre Royal box office.
By Charles Hutchinson
Copyright of The Press, York