AT 76, York’s grand dame of pantomime, Berwick Kaler, is never too old to try something new.
After 41 years in his big boots and misbehaving wig at York Theatre Royal and now newly confirmed for a third season following his crosstown transfer to the Grand Opera House, he will write, direct and star in Robinson Crusoe for the first time.
Or, to give this “swashbuckling panto adventure” its full title with a nod to a certain Johnny Depp film franchise, Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The River Ouse will be afloat from December 9 to January 9 2024.
Martin Dodd, pantomime producer for UK Productions’ second year at the Cumberland Street theatre, says: “Following last year’s success with The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose, we are delighted to return with another legendary Berwick Kaler pantomime in York. Ahoy me hearties…grab your tickets quick!”
Those tickets – £13 and upwards – will go on sale to ATG TheatreCard and Groups Presale today (March 23) from 10am and on general sale from tomorrow (March 24) at 10am in person at the box office or at atgtickets.com/york.
Dame Berwick and fellow piratical panto hearties David Leonard and AJ Powell launched Robin Crusoe in suitable costume in the Tuesday morning rain aboard a City Cruises self-drive boat, steered by comic sidekick Martin Barrass, making an impromptu appearance in his civvies.
Only regular co-star Suzy Cooper was not on board, but she too has been confirmed as part of the crew for the famous-in-York five’s winter return.
Laura McMillan, theatre director for the Grand Opera House York, says: “We are delighted to welcome Berwick and the wider family back this year for what will certainly be a swashbuckling family adventure. The Berwick panto is a York tradition, and we can’t wait to welcome audiences to the theatre.”
What can they expect? Dame Berwick as writer? Tick. Director? Tick. Dowager dame? Tick. The dame’s name and role? How she fits in? Er, nothing decided yet, although any variation of “Mrs Crusoe” is the odds-on favourite.
“But there definitely won’t be a Man Friday,” he says of the slave character from Daniel Defoe’s 1719 seafaring tale, The Life And Strange Surprizing Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner.
“You’ve got to get round that. I’m not ‘woke’, but for 50-odd years we’ve never insulted anybody. If we like to take the mick, we take it out of ourselves, but when you get to adapt fairy tales – or a novel, like this one – there’s a lot you have to change.”
What is promised, to quote the Grand Opera House press release, is an “hilarious take on the classic story of the sailor from York who finds himself marooned on a desert island, but he’s not alone”. Expect a “captivating tale of magic, mayhem and misunderstanding”…and mystery at this stage, because Dame Berwick’s panto is among the very first in the UK Productions stable to be announced for 2023/24.
“Man Friday isn’t necessary to the story, and I’m used to changing things anyway. I’ve always done that in my pantomimes, changing names, or the plot, to give it some spontaneity, to make it something different.
“The problem for pantomime is that if you make it ‘woke’, it just won’t be funny, I promise you.”
The challenge is to make it work, not make it woke. “To do that, it’s about playing to the strengths of the cast, how they play their characters each year. I still have my imagination and it’s a young imagination for my age, and that’s vital for panto,” says Dame Berwick.
“We love to make it a little different, but at the same time, I don’t think anyone would go away from having ‘He’s behind you!’ in there, but we even change that a bit.”
In the first instalment of Defoe’s nautical trilogy, Robinson Crusoe introduces himself thus: “I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, tho’ not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull.”
Defoe’s hero does not stay long in York, however, the call of the sea soon luring him to his shipwrecked fate. “In my story, I have to decide how far does he get up the Ouse before he meets the pirates,” says Dame Berwick. What about Hull, the book’s starting point. “No, not in our panto!”
Kaler’s pantomimes are no stranger to taking to the waters, whether in Dick Whittington or 2011’s The York Family Robinson or indeed the many bygone years of water slapstick for Dame Berwick and Barrass.
Will water slapstick or aquatic mishaps make a Kaler panto comeback? “You’ll be the first to know,” says Dame Berwick. “I’ve got to get water into it somehow, so I think you will see water, but I’m governed by the commercial pantomime producers and the space.
“To do a proper water scene, you do need the whole of the floor to be covered. At the minute, I’m trying to get them to do something new and hopefully get a rocking cabin on the stage.”
Perennial panto villain David Leonard was dressed in a rather dandy wig for the City Cruises launch. “It’s a pirate theme, so they thought, ‘let’s have me looking like Captain Hook, AJ like Smee and Berwick as…well, looking like a ‘Mona Washboard’,” he says of that familiar harassed washer woman look.
As for his role, details are sketchy because Kaler will be writing “from scratch”. “He’ll be someone tall, a 6ft 3 ponce in a wig,” David speculates. “And evil,” says dame Berwick. “Oh yes, very evil.”
“Luvverly Brummie” AJ Powell has set his sets high. “I’m hoping for the title role this year. Robinson Crusoe,” he says. “But he never appears. He’s only spoken of,” jests David. “A bit like Berwick’s Mrs Fitzackerley, always mentioned but never seen!”