“I don’t want to be political or anything,” says Dame Berwick as he takes to the stage again at York Theatre Royal. Who did he give the Bird last night?

Berwick Kaler, playing the dame in his last York Theatre Royal pantomime, The Grand Old Dame Of York, last winter. Picture: Anthony Robling

IT ended, as it only could, with the dame’s return to the stage. In civvies, this final time, but not in civil mood as he wouldn’t let it rest on the final night of Sleeping Beauty.

More like civil war. Us and them. Pantomime’s version of Brexit, except with a different result, the majority, if not all, in the house, wanting them to remain, not leave, when “one man” and “the board” have decided it is time to move on. Get panto done, differently, with a new 2020 vision.

Dame Berwick didn’t name the “one man” who went to mow them down, but he was referring to York Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird, newly cast as the panto villain. “I’ll give them three days” [to change their minds], the grand dame vowed in a tone harking back to the Scargill and Red Robbo days of union versus management.

“I don’t want to do him any harm…but he’s wrong”, said Mr Kaler, surrounded by “the family”, the rest of the Panto Five, Martin, Suzy, David and AJ, their fellow cast members and the crew, buoyed at each unscripted but barbed line by an adoring home crowd, who cheered and booed his rallying speech like they had throughout the show.

He even kissed the wall to express how much he loved this theatre, getting down on his knees at one point too, arms outstretched, in appreciation of his loyal subjects.

“A house does not make a home. A family does,” read one letter read out earlier by the panto Queen, Martin Barrass, in his Bile Beans can regalia in the shout-outs. “Please, Mr Bird, reconsider. Save our panto,” pleaded a second, and there were plenty more.

“Yah boo to York Theatre Royal. We won’t be back,” hissed one, read by the luverly Brummie AJ Powell.

Emotions were running high, as they had been for Martin Barrass, breaking down theatre’s fourth wall to speak from the heart at every performance since news broke a fortnight ago that Berwick Kaler, already retired from playing the dame, would not be asked to co-direct or write the 2020 show. “This cast and this band” would not be back either, said Barrass. “A decision that is nothing to do with us. If it was, we would be back each year until we drop.”

Martin Barrass in his role as Queen Ariadne in Sleeping Beauty at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Anthony Robling

Back to Dame Berwick, who found himself feeling “more emotional” now, in this house of York winter of discontent, than in his valedictory speech at The Grand Old Dame Of York last February. Not for himself, he said, but for all those on stage with him who had given so many years – “some for half their lives” – to the Theatre Royal.

“I’ve been told I can’t tell you the truth, so I can’t say the truth…but I want to because…I’m b****y furious,” he said. “I don’t want to be political or anything…but someone tell the management that this wonderful, wonderful theatre has been a repertory theatre for 275 years.

“It’s a repertory theatre and that means we put on our own shows for the local population. It’s York’s theatre.”

After reading a letter of support sent that morning to “Berwick Kaler, Acomb”, he resumed: “I just can’t understand that someone can do this to something that does not need fixing…

…We have made money for this theatre for years. How can one man do this to us? I don’t understand it.”

“Anyway, they’ve got three days,” he repeated, before leading company and audience through “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.”

The final curtain fell, as it always must, but where and when might that sunny day reunion take place? What will happen to Dame Berwick’s three-day deadline? Will he rise again on the third day, and if so, to say or do what amid this collateral dame-age? Watch this space, as newspapers are wont to say.

As for that “one man”, Tom Bird, he and the York Theatre Royal management will announce next winter’s show on February 3. The end and the new beginning all in one.