REVIEW: Berwick Kaler in Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The River Ouse, Grand Opera House, York, until January 6 2024 ***

Ape japes: Berwick Kaler’s dame Dotty Dullally and a banana-thieving simian interloper in Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The River Ouse. All pictures: Charlie Kirkpatrick

BRITAIN’S longest-running pantomime dame, Berwick Kaler, had never done Robinson Crusoe until now – and he still hasn’t. Or not Daniel Defoe’s 1719 story of York-born Crusoe being cast away on a Caribbean island for 26 years.

Slave Man Friday has gone altogether, understandably in our slavery-sensitive corrective age, and Crusoe himself doesn’t make an appearance until post-interval, and a brief cameo at that for Jake Lindsay, otherwise busy in the piratical ensemble and as the perennial butt of Dame Berwick’s career advice about jacking in the stage for painting and decorating.

Crusoe does, however, feature in the first half’s back story, once York pantoland’s Infamous Five have reassembled once more after Kaler’s voiceover welcome to “sit back and enjoy the rubbish” and an opening number for ensemble Villagers and children from Dance Expression School of Dance (sharing performance with Lisa Marie Performing Arts through the weeks ahead).

Britannia rules the waves: Suzy Cooper’s fairy in Robsinson Crusoe &The Pirates Of The River Ouse

Here comes Martin Barrass’s skipping sidekick, Willy Dullaly this year, as we learn that the dame is running late, “still writing the script”, he conjectures. Cue Berwick on film, in bed at home with his dogs, as he makes a dash in polka-dotted Dotty Dullaly regalia from Acomb to box-office door via York streets and an encounter with nefarious characters at York Dungeon, looking more spooked than the dowager dame.

All the while, he is singing his variation on The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), sending up his veteran age:  77 this year, having first brought a punk spirit of rebellion to York Theatre Royal’s pantomime in 1977, the year of The Sex Pistols and The Clash.

Robinson Crusoe is writer/director/dame Kaler’s 43rd York pantomime and this third since his Sol Campbell-style crosstown transfer to the Grand Opera House after regretting his decision to retire after 40 years.

Narcissus waives the rules: David Leonard’s villain plotting world domination once more

His audience, the pointedly named York Pantomine (Berwick Kaler) Appreciation Society et al, have moved with him and he still gives them what they want, only less of it, whether in performance length, well below the two-hour mark this time, or the number of scenes with the dame to the fore.

Kaler makes a play of ageing, albeit insistent that he feels fit, but thinner of leg, body and facial feature now, he is pacing himself. That said, who else would be flying across a stage at 77, or wrapping his feet around a high wire in a slapstick scene – or tap-face scene, more accurately – with the ever-compliant Barrass?

Like his well-worn wig, the show’s structure could not be more familiar, Kaler having a gossip with ensemble faces old and new (decade-long regular Lindsay, on the one hand; York-born Henry Rhodes, among the latter, appearing for the first time since his days as a bairn in Kaler’s Theatre Royal ranks).

AJ Powell’s Lovely Jubbly, back row, centre, with the piratical ensemble of Belle Kizzy Green, Jake Lindsay, Grace Hawksworth, Benjamin Goodwin and Henry Rhodes

Later will come the dame’s rocking chair reminiscence in Willy’s Kitchen, the cue for a powder-puff slapstick routine with Barrass, and the second half staples of a ghost scene (or in this case a banana-thieving ape) and the obligatory sing-song (the Yorkshire Pudding “Better Bit Of Batter” song).

Ad-libs remain his forte, his teasing trademark, but the near-the-knuckle gags are beginning to rival those cracks, at least three in this panto, the first leaving the villain open mouthed. Even windy bottom gags, not a Kaler staple but loved by children, become a running joke.

Suzy Cooper is Polly Dullaly, 18-year-old sister to Barrass’s 16-year-old Willy, and this year she is Cooper at the double, speeding off at one point for the villain to orchestrate a Countdown-tuned costume change to Fairy Britannia, or Britney, as she is quickly renamed.

Belle Kizzy Green in one of the Villagers’ dance routines in Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The Caribbean

Dame Dotty has news for Willy and Polly: they have a stepbrother, Robinson, from her previous marriage to a Mr Crusoe. She should have gone to the Caribbean with them, but illness stopped her  travelling, never to see Robinson again. She has since lost two husbands: to lose one husband, Dotty, may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose both looks like the need to explain why she is a widow twice over.

AJ Powell will be Lovely Jubbly this time, a Brummie with a crush on Cooper’s Polly, and soon to be in service as Captain’s mate to David Leonard’s Narcissus. Their opening routine takes a godsend of an unexpected turn when Leonard’s moustache starts to detach, so much so that by the end that he removes it. Leonard is a master of such comedy opportunism, but he is somewhat under-used this year when Kaler’s panto now needs him to lift a heavier load.

Leonard’s Narcissus has the vainglorious villain’s usual plans for overthrowing the world order, this time one half of an amulet to complete a key to unlock a Book of Spells from the Tomb of Destiny. Guess who has the matching half? Lindsay’s shipwrecked Robinson on Destiny Island, even later to arrive on stage than Kaler’s dame at the start.

Martin Barrass’s Willy Dullaly

UK Productions’ sets and costumes are serviceable rather than spectacular, save for the entrance to the Tomb Of Destiny and walkdown finale. For all the potential for nautical nuttiness and the River Ouse reference in the title, the peak-era Kaler double whammy of water slapstick and ultraviolet underwater scenes make way for a first-half closing video projection of sea creatures and shark attack. Not the transformation magic you might crave.

Songs move swiftly under Richard Baker’s musical direction, cutting verses from Walking On Sunshine and giving Cooper only a taster of Kylie/Edith Piaf’s Padam Padam in the desire to keep the pace up. Kirsty Sparks’s choreography lives up to her surname.

Robinson Crusoe won’t surprise, although it might occasionally shock with Kaler’s innocent-faced sauciness, and while it will not attract new Kaler converts, if you like greatest hits shows, this one with a nod to Sinbad The Sailor and Aladdin, then this is still “the rubbish” for you, albeit fewer of you on the evidence of ticket sales so far.

Box office:

Berwick Kaler’s Dotty Dullaly with the Yorkshire Pudding songsheet