GRAND dame Berwick Kaler reunites with David Leonard, Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper and AJ Powell from today at their new pantomime home of the Grand Opera House, York.
The Kaler comeback was delayed by Covid’s dark shroud, putting Dick Turpin Rides Again back in the stable for a year, during which panto producers Qdos Entertainment have been acquired by global entertainment company Crossroads Live.
Even more so now, this is a new beginning for the familiar team and their faithful followers. “What we want to do is get people back into the theatre, gathering together to have a jolly good laugh,” says villain David Leonard.
“Earlier this year, I did A Little Night Music at the Buxton Festival, and it was just lovely to see people having a pre-show drink, laughing and full of expectation of going to the theatre once more and being entertained. There was such a lovely buzz.
“That will be the case at the Grand Opera House, where we know it will be a family show because generation after generation have come to our pantomimes, and we’ve had such a response on social media, with people saying, ‘we’ve got our tickets, we can’t wait’.”
Leonard, Barrass, Cooper and Powell last performed together in Sleeping Beauty in the winter of 2018-2019, their Theatre Royal finale in a show written and co-directed by Kaler.
“Pantomime is a bit like a drug,” says David. “I miss it when I’m not doing it, like last year and when I was doing Matilda in the West End, though I’ve missed theatre in general too.
“As [theatre director] Peter Brook said, people feel better after a show, and more so than ever this year, after the pandemic lockdowns, when people want to be together, being entertained by a live show, rather than sitting at home binge-watching Netflix.”
The “famous in York five” are delighted to be working together again. “It’s a good feeling,” says David. “When we did the launch, we hadn’t seen each other for over a year. There was Berwick, in his street clothes, chatting with the photographer, then I chatted to him, gave him a hug, and it was time to do the photoshoot.
“In those six minutes, as he put his ‘dress’ on, he becomes a different animal, the lord of misrule. I remember thinking, when he stopped after 40 years, ‘why are you retiring? You always played an old dame, even in your 30s’. Now you are the dame.’
“Berwick is witty, he’s a great ad-libber, and we revolve around his planet. He provides the energy; the drive; he has this natural performer gene, with his voice going up a notch as soon as he’s on stage.
“You can only sit at home for so long reading Dickens before wanting to get back on that stage. He’s still got that desire; he still wants to do it, even after three years of not performing. It’s natural to him, like breathing.”
Looking back at Sleeping Beauty, the pantomime with the Berwick-sized hole in the middle, David says: “Being a team, without him, it was, maybe not rudderless, but it was a different experience.
“Now Berwick’s back with his joshing, and Martin is so happy about that. As the villain, I have my own agenda, I don’t care who’s playing the dame!” You should note, at this point, his tongue is pushing deep into his cheek.
The production run for Dick Turpin Rides Again is much shorter than for the team’s long, long stretches at the Theatre Royal, and the rehearsal period is leaner too. “This time we have two and a half weeks of rehearsals, but I always felt we were twiddling our thumbs before, thinking, ‘we could probably get this on in a week because we know each other so well’; we have that shorthand,” says David.
Once praised by fellow dame Roy Hudd for “being the best dame because you play the dame as a man in a frock with no make-up”, Berwick has resumed the full reins at 75 as writer, director and grand dame.
“He sets the pace, and when you’re on stage with him, you have to be very disciplined, very solid, so that he can have some air around him to allow him to ad-lib, and Suzy and Martin know that better than anyone,” says David.
“Berwick is just himself up there, a bloke in a frock, and very few actors can do that. I can’t, Martin can’t, because we’re character actors, but he’s not afraid to be himself. He’s very honest about himself, who he is, and he’s not scared of showing that to the audience.
“That’s what people love about him; they really connect with him because he’s warm and genuine; he feels it inside, and you need that in the central character.”
Kaler and co first staged Dick Turpin in 2008. “Berwick said, ‘well, he’s a bit dark’, but I said, ‘make him a hero, good versus evil’,” recalls David. “I think it ended up being our most popular show, and yet it’s a completely original panto, like Berwick’s Millennium panto, Old Mother Millie, and Robinson Crusoe. I’m really glad he’s doing this one for his comeback.”
Dick Turpin Rides Again, Grand Opera House, York, December 11 to January 9 2022. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York
Copyright of The Press, York