AFTER two dress rehearsals in one day, York’s comeback dame, Berwick Kaler, plays to an opening pantomime crowd today for the first time since December 13 2018.
Much water has passed under York’s bridges since Berwick’s farewell 40th anniversary show, The Grande Old Dame Of York.
He exited the York Theatre Royal stage for the last time in trademark boots, unruly wig and walkdown frock on February 2 2019, that night saying he would “return like a shot” if he were asked to do so.
That return, delayed by a year by Covid’s theatre shutdown, goes ahead today at Berwick’s new pantomime home after a crosstown transfer, the Grand Opera House, as he resumes panto business with vainglorious villain David Leonard, bouncy comic stooge Martin Barrass, golden gal Suzy Cooper and “luverly Brummie” A J Powell in Dick Turpin Rides Again.
“I’ve always thought the Grand Opera House is a proper theatre, absolutely right for pantomime,” says Berwick, who has appeared on the Cumberland Street stage only once before, when he played the flamboyant Captain Terri Dennis in Peter Nichols’ musical comedy Privates On Parade.
“It’s no good asking me anymore when it was; it was a long time ago. I used to have the poster hanging in my loo, the one with me saluting.”
Should you or Berwick be wondering, the year was 1996, and now, 25 years on, he is back there, retirement plans cancelled. “You’re not going to believe this, but when I retired, I’d retired, and I’ve not earned a penny on stage since then, so I was retired,” he says.
“But we got this offer from Qdos Entertainment [now taken over by Crossroads Live], the biggest pantomime producer in the business, and the thing is I knew I had to be in it this time, not just write it and direct it, which I did for Sleeping Beauty [in 2019-2020 at the Theatre Royal].
“I took up the invitation to return for Martyn, David, Suzy and A J because they’re great exponents of the art of panto, who should be on stage in York.”
Recalling his experience of working on Sleeping Beauty, Berwick says: “At that time, I had no yearning to go back on stage,” he says. “It was a little too soon to start missing playing the dame. Even when I went in for rehearsals, I didn’t want to get up and do it.”
Later, he would say he regretted the decision to exit stage left. “But when we got the offer to return, at first, I wasn’t sure, but now, at this stage, having said yes, I believe I’m writing better than ever. I’ve got my brain back in gear.”
Panto villain David Leonard has noted how Berwick becomes a “different animal” once he pulls on the dame’s wig and frocks, his voice taking on its stage power too. At 75, four years on from heart bypass surgery, he says, “The thing is, we have to be careful because we can’t do the full-scale slapstick like before, but there can still be slapstick, and Dick Turpin is one of the most original pantomimes ever, and I’m so excited by it.
“It was a one-off when we did it before, as my 30th Theatre Royal pantomime, and it was one of these shows that forced you to really use your imagination. It’s been great to bring it back and work on creating a new version all over again.”
“The legend returns!”, declares the show poster: a reference as much to Berwick Kaler as Dick Turpin as 49 performances lie ahead, starting at 2pm today.
Crossroads Live presents Berwick Kaler in Dick Turpin Rides Again, Grand Opera House, York, today until January 9. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York.