ONCE upon a pantomime season, the ubiquitous Covid curse of cancelled shows had somehow evaded Dick Turpin Rides Again at the Grand Opera House in York.
York Theatre Royal had to cancel invitations to Cinderella’s ball from December 23 for traditionally the busiest box-office week of the year before reopening on December 30.
Leeds Playhouse, Leeds Grand Theatre, Hull Truck Theatre and Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre all lost performances as Omicron turned chronic.
Not only Covid had played its unsanitised hand this winter. A leaking roof put a thankfully temporary dampener on Cinderella at Harrogate Theatre, and a performance of Bedknobs And Broomsticks at Leeds Grand was derailed by the flying bed’s unfortunate impact on electric cabling.
“The legend’s return” at 75 in Dick Turpin Rides Again had survived unscathed, however, as grand dame Berwick Kaler’s comeback with his longstanding partners in panto, Martin Barrass, David Leonard, Suzy Cooper and comparative whippersnapper AJ Powell, clocked in for performance after performance from December 11 to December 31.
Happy New Year? New Year’s Day was a day off, but come January 2, “Covid-enforced absences within the company” led to the cancellation of that day’s 2pm show at only 20 minutes’ notice, with some panto punters already in their seats, and the 5pm performance had to follow suit.
“Guests affected by this change will be contacted by their point of purchase in the coming days with alternative options,” read the official announcement.
“We apologise for any disappointment or inconvenience this may have caused and thank you for your continued support.”
By Monday, it became apparent those absentees were none other than Berwick Kaler – quel dammage – and his perennial comic sidekick, Martin Barrass, given that the man in the coarse wig and scruffy boots on stage was Scotsman Alan McHugh, in Kaler’s guise as Dotty Donut, and Barrass’s understudy, Jack Buchanan, had stepped up from the ensemble to bounce around as Dunkin Donut.
McHugh had just finished pulling on his boots as Dame Bella Buchan in Beauty And The Beast, continuing his unbroken run as Qdos/Crossroads Pantomimes’ dame and writer at His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen since 2004, albeit that Covid had brought a premature end to the show on December 24, when it should have run to January 2.
Now it was time to wear Kaler’s frocks instead. Kaler and Barrass, meanwhile, awaited their PCR results.
Tuesday was already in the diary as a rest day, before Dick Turpin Rides Again was due to climb back in the saddle with a relaxed performance on Wednesday evening. Would you believe it, now Jack Buchanan was not all right, Jack. He too had tested positive.
No relaxed show, but relax, Alan McHugh knew just the fellow Scot to step into Martin/Jack’s shoes: his very own sidekick in Beauty And The Beast, Paul-James Corrigan, who readers may know from his BBC role as Stevie in River City or recall from The Proclaimers’ musical, Sunshine On Leith, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Off to the Granite City went McHugh, returning with Corrigan by his side to complete a Scottish invasion of York. Forget ever having played Boabby this winter, now Corrigan had 12 hours to dip into Dunkin Donut’s lines for Thursday’s brace of shows, while retaining Boabby’s attire.
Not unreasonably, he was still on the book for the matinee, but by 7pm, whoosh, the fresh Donut was rising fully to a challenge: the latest makeshift triumph in a winter when theatre’s old adage that The Show Must Go On has never rung truer.
Understudies and swings have stepped out of the shadows across the nation, their importance to productions being newly appreciated, amid the extra rehearsals and revisions needed to ensure shows could continue.
That said, Omicron’s omnipresence had played havoc with Dick Turpin’s ensemble: originally six, and then there were three as the curtain rose on last night’s opening number. Jack Buchanan. Gone. Ben MacGillivray. Off. Gabriella-Rose Marchant. Out.
“Life’s not a dress rehearsal,” chirped Emily Taylor, Jake Lindsay and Charleigh Scott, who later received a special round of applause for ploughing on through this strangest of experiences. Another day, another day in the theatre trenches, but who will still be beside you?
Enter Alan McHugh’s dame, part Berwick, in “script” and wardrobe and trim build, but part his own “man in a frock” too: botched lipstick; broken front teeth; cartoon skinny legs with protruding lumps; more Mother Shipton than Old Mother Riley.
There ain’t nothin’ like Berwick’s dame? Well, Aberdeen Alan not only looked the part, flung the Wagon Wheels with elan, bonded cheekily with the regulars and matched him in donning glasses for the shout-outs, he also made references aplenty to the absent Berwick and ad-libbed in a post-modern, knowing way.
Breaking down theatre’s fourth wall, he relished moments of direct address with his new audience, once correcting himself for saying “he” rather than “she” – “I’ll get the gender right by the weekend,” he quipped – and playing the outsider looking in as he commented on the absurdity of a York panto plot that by now had Powell dressed as a shrove of garlic from the Planet Garlictica.
For all the limitations of Kaler’s half-baked script for the second half, McHugh’s oven-ready partnership with Corrigan clicked in new kitchen surroundings, especially when daft lad Corrigan forgot his line for the only time. Cue improvisation, sudden memory of the line, and a putdown from McHugh when that line turned out to be nothing special after the big build-up.
As York lore has it, the presence of a Scotsman at night – on the city walls – can be met with the firing of an arrow, but these two interloping Scots have ridden to the rescue of Dick Turpin. David Leonard led the cast and audience’s gratitude at the finale, and more applause will follow.
Kaler and Barrass’s PCR test results, when they eventually came through, were positive. McHugh and Corrigan were back in action this afternoon and will be filling in the Dotty and Dunkin Donut holes again tonight and tomorrow.
Barrass is definitely out for the rest of the run, but should Dame Berwick have negative lateral flow tests on Saturday and Sunday morning, might he yet make an appearance on Sunday? Watch this space.
Dick Turpin Rides Again, Grand Opera House, York, remaining performances: 7pm tonight; 2pm and 7pm, tomorrow; 1pm and 5pm, Sunday. Box office: atgtickets.com/york
UPDATE: 1pm, 8/1/2022
DAME Berwick Kaler and Martin Barrass are both OUT for the rest of the run, still self-isolating. Scottish duo Alan McHugh and Paul-James Corrigan will continue to stand in.
DAME BERWICK KALER’S LAST WORDS ON DICK TURPIN RIDES AGAIN
UNABLE to perform the last week of shows after testing positive for Covid, despite feeling “not even a headache”, Berwick Kaler asked for a letter to be read out to the last evening’s audience on January 9. Alan McHugh, the Scottish actor, comedian and writer who stood in as Dame Dotty Donut, did the honours.
Dame Berwick wrote: “We are one of the few pantos in the country that have managed to complete their scheduled run. The show must go on. And thanks to this amazing cast, musicians, stage management, backstage crew and front-of-house staff, this panto has survived what nature has thrown at us.
“Having experienced no symptoms whatsoever, it has been devastating for me to be forced to isolate this past week. But on a personal note, this is the only thing Martin Barrass has ever given me.
“Alan McHugh has been an ardent follower of our rubbish for many years and I cannot praise him enough. Likewise – PJ [Barrass’s stand-in, Paul-James Corrigan], my love and admiration to you both.
“But it is to you, the most loyal and long-suffering audience, that I heap the most praise on. Thanks to your continued support over more years than we’d care to remember, we have laughed together as one huge extended family. You are part of our lives and here’s to a few more years of belly laughs at the Grand Opera House, York.”
A decision on who will perform next year’s Grand Opera House pantomime is yet to be announced by producers Crossroads Pantomimes.