Anarchy in the decay or the miraculous resurrection of the grandest of dames? The verdict on Berwick Kaler’s panto comeback

“Doing pantomime is a hobby now,” says comeback dame Berwick Kaler. All pictures: David Harrison

REVIEW: Dick Turpin Rides Again, The Legend Returns!, Grand Opera House, York, until January 9. Box office: atgtickets.com/york

BERWICK Kaler is at the Frank Sinatra comeback stage of his career, not the Elvis hologram with his old band taking care of business live on stage.

The panto pack has reassembled at a new home, originally at the invitation of pantomime juggernaut Qdos Entertainment, but now under the wing of Crossroads Pantomimes, Qdos’s new overlords.

This is the Berwick Kaler show as commercial pantomime in York’s commercial theatre, with costumes and set design (both uncredited) from the Crossroads stock, visual special effects by The Twins FX and pyrotechnics by Le Maitre. All such detail is of a higher quality than for the Grand Opera House pantos staged by Simon Barry’s New Pantomime Productions and Three Bears Productions.

Yet none of that matters to anyone wanting to renew acquaintances with writer-director Berwick and sidekick Martin, David, Suzy and AJ. The story here is the return to the stage of Britain’s longest-running dame for the first time since his retirement after 40 years at York Theatre Royal on February 2 2019.

Suzy Cooper’s Donna Donat

“I thought you’d retired,” comes the jest. “So did I,” replies the Wearsider, eyes looning and bulbous in that familiar way. Doing panto is a hobby now, he explains.

Berwick’s pantomimes have become as divisive as Brexit. Leave. Remain. Retire. Come back. Get Brexit Done. Get Berwick Back. Too many bridges burnt for that ever to happen at his beloved Theatre Royal, but the die-hards felt betrayed, Suzy Cooper calling it “a travesty” that such a long-running show should end so abruptly. “We are not dead yet!” she exclaimed in her interview.

Qdos and now Crossroads have made those mutual wishes of cast and devotees come true, and while pantomime may be a hobby for Berwick at 75, it is a serious business too.

His absence from the stage, when writing and co-directing Sleeping Beauty in 2019-2020, left his partners rudderless without their panto cult leader. No Berwick, no panto, and on those grounds, he had to come back if a Kaler pantomime were to retain its identity. Ironically, he has chosen to play a character called Dotty Donut, the pastry one with the hole in the middle, when he has just filled that hole.

The dowager dame and the dandy highwayman: Berwick Kaler’s Dotty Donut in discussion with Daniel Conway’s Dick Turpin

Meanwhile, across the city, York Theatre Royal and Evolution Productions are looking to create a modern, multi-cultural, topical 21st century pantomime, still oozing cheesy puns but above all with their eyes on a younger audience.

Berwick’s show is more like a greatest-hits set with the best Fleetwood Mac line-up ever back together again, albeit leaving out such big smashes as the water slapstick, the films and the Harry Gration cameo.

“Me babbies, me bairns” welcome? Tick. Rocking chair? Tick. Wagon Wheel chucking? Tick. Newcastle Brown? Tick. The fish-demanding crocodile from 2008’s Dick Turpin? Tick. Not a lot of plot? Tick. Occasional innuendos involving the show title? Tick. Dick.

Once a Berwick Kaler pantomime stood for anarchic innovation, with a waspish wag of a bossy bloke out front in big boots, an unruly wig and no garish make-up, making merry hell, full of viperish bite and joshing ad-libs.

Martin Barass, centre, returns to hapless waiter mode, as first seen in One Man, Two Guvnors, while David Leonard’s Vermin the Destroyer and A J Powell’s Luvlie Limpit survey the menu at Dotty Donut’s Ye Olde Whippet Inn

Now it is more in keeping with that cosy rocking chair, the show being nostalgic, sentimental about our shared yesterdays, slower, gentler and, like Keith Richards, just glad still to be here. It is much shorter too, at a little over two hours, with the structure being more obviously a series of set-pieces, rather than having the free-flowing unpredictably of the peak years.

Berwick’s face and frame are noticeably thinner – he even mentions it in his Dolly Parton routine – and so less comical, and you can see him reaching for the comic timing, both in his own performance and in his writing for his fellow panto players, as he re-works old jokes.

He is not helped, and nor are they, by the novel barrier of the whole audience, rather than merely Dick Turpin, being masked. This precautionary constriction in Omicron’s nascent days has a deflating impact on noise levels from the seats, on interaction too, a dehumanising device that injects an air of caution.

In the absence of excitable children to pump up the volume, the cast may well have to push harder to break down the newly extra-thick fourth wall, maybe even acknowledging the new dress code for pantomime. Berwick restricts himself to mentioning Covid once in the shout-outs.

Berwick Kaler’s Dotty Donut cracks an egg, rather than a joke, at this juncture of a recipe slapstick scene in Dick Turpin Rides Again

He takes the show very steadily, his slapstick reduced to coconuts dropping on his head and mucking around with a ball of dough, but suddenly there is a flash of the trademark Berwick when David Leonard’s microphone malfunctions, prompting the dowager dame to veer off-script with an impromptu quip.

Now, that’s timing, gold mined from a mishap, and you hope more such moments of mischief will emerge through the run when too much elsewhere has to work hard and for too long, not least the courtroom scene that was previously a high point of 2008’s Turpin premiere.

Leonard’s villainous Vermin the Destroyer is as reliably arch as ever, and his hip rap song is a riot in the company of the perky ensemble, choreographed with typical snazziness by Grace Harrington .

Suzy Cooper’s Donna Donut reprises her ditzy vampire bat from 2008, shows off her yoga moves and knowingly sends up her ageless principal girl schtick. Martin Barrass’s Dunkin Donut revisits his hapless waiter from One Man, Two Guvnors and forms a dwarf double act with Berwick, where his gift for physical comedy is frustratingly better than the script.

Devil in the detail: David Leonard’s haughty couture for his villainous Vermin the Destroyer

AJ Powell’s Luvlie Limpit is the best-developed character among the regulars, caught between good and evil as a particularly dim-witted assistant, sounding all the dimmer for that luvverly Brummie accent.

The fresh face among the regulars is Daniel Conway as an Essex lad Dick Turpin, a dandy highwayman, yes, but not so much the rogue of reputation as something of a hero keen to set the record straight. He has a lovely singing voice too, best demonstrated in the first half’s finale, You’ll Believe A Horse Can Fly!. Even a pantomime horse, in the manner of a pantomime cow.

Unlike Leonard’s errant microphone, Berwick Kaler is on best behaviour, but that is not Berwick on best form, when he has that glint in his eye for naughty interjections he can’t resist saying.

Berwick Kaler, the panto dame, is a tough act to follow. Here he is more of a tribute act to himself, and while there remains audiences for two contrasting pantos in York,  will the comeback dame saddle up again or ride off into the sunset? Box-office figures will dictate.

York Mix Radio: Hear Charles Hutchinson’s immediate post-show response to Berwick Kaler’s pantomime comeback in Dick Turpin Rides Again in a race against time to answer David Dunning’s questions before the Grand Opera House staff turn off the lights .

Head to: https://youtu.be/zRAnOa5hGp4

Suzy and Martin delighted to be back on the York panto stage in Dick Turpin Rides Again

“To be given this opportunity at the Grand Opera is like receiving a transplant,” says Suzy Cooper. Picture: David Harrison

TONIGHT is press night for York pantomime stalwarts Suzy Cooper and Martin Barrass for the first time since December 2019.

They have reunited as part of the “Famous In York Five”, starring alongside grand dame Berwick Kaler, David Leonard and A J Powell in Dick Turpin Rides Again, their first pantomime for Crossroads Live since their switch to the Grand Opera House from York Theatre Royal.

“It’s a great stage for pantomime,” says principal girl Suzy, who plays Donna Donut this winter. “It’s a wonderful stage with a proscenium arch, stalls that go all the way back, a dress circle and upper circle, and it’s exciting to be back in a theatre with such a traditional auditorium.  Acoustically, it’s fantastic too.”

Delayed by a year by Covid enshrouding the Cumberland Street theatre in darkness last winter, Suzy is even keener to be back among friends. “We wanted to be back together, which was really important to do: we have a very loyal audience and it’s lovely to bring our pantomime to this city that we love, and not just for those that live here but also for the people from further afield whose tradition has been to come to our panto,” she says.

“I was devastated to lose the Theatre Royal, but to be given this opportunity at the Grand Opera is like receiving a transplant, allowing us to continue this tradition.”

Comic stooge Martin – son Dunkin Donut to Berwick’s mam Dotty Donut this time – is no less enthusiastic. “This place is fantastic,” he says. “It’s a bit like Dr Who’s Tardis; you stand outside and you have no idea how big it is, but it turns out to be a full 1,000-seat theatre inside.

“It’s lovely to have ended up here,  with all the legacy and longevity of Berwick Kaler’s pantomimes, and he’s been champing at the bit to get on stage again!”

Suzy is enjoying re-establishing the camaraderie of the long-running team, with Berwick restored to the fore after co-directing and writing Sleeping Beauty in the wake of his retirement from the pantomime stage in February 2019.

David Leonard’s Vermin the Destroyer, left, Martin Barrass’s Dunkin Donut, in waiter mode, and A J Powell’s Luvlie Lumpit making a meal of a scene in Dick Turpin Rides Again. Picture: David Harrison

“We have the added edge within us of knowing people want to see us doing pantomime together again,” she says. “We are blessed: it’s hard work doing panto but we know how teamwork is important and how we are the sum of our parts.

“When we did Sleeping Beauty, we missed Berwick on stage, the audience missed him, and now we have a second chance to be together again. We need him.

“There’s this awful ‘cancel culture’ going on, and yes, things have to develop and have to change, but the idea that a show like ours, that’s been going on for so long, shouldn’t continue is a travesty. We are not dead yet!

“I’m genuinely delighted to be here, in a city that means so much to me. Last year, it just wasn’t Christmas, because I wasn’t in York.”

Assessing what Grand Opera House audiences can expect from Dick Turpin Rides Again, with Berwick taking the rains once more as writer, director and dame, Suzy says: “We’ve always said that we’re a family pantomime but we are anarchic. There’s nothing that won’t delight children, but we are unruly.

“What’s our USP [unique selling point]? Our pantomime is anarchic, it’s crazy, it’s madcap!”

Did you know?

SUZY Cooper played a “lesbian office worker” in BBC One soap opera EastEnders this year, filming in lockdown in late-January and early February for episodes that went out in March/April. “It got me out of the house and into London for the first time in four months,” she says.

Did you know too?

Suzy, who lives in London, is a yoga teacher, teaching both in person and online on Zoom. “To share my yoga has been an amazing thing to do,” she says. “They are very tough, my classes!”

Dame Berwick Kaler returns to York stage after three years as Dick Turpin Rides Again opens today at Grand Opera House

Leaping to it: Berwick Kaler is raring to pick up the pantomime reins from today in Dick Turpin Rides Again. All pictures: David Harrison.

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.

“Dick Turpin is one of the most original pantomimes ever, and I’m so excited by it,” says Berwick Kaler

“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.”

The dame and the daft lad: Berwick Kaler and Martin Barrass reunite for Dick Turpin Rides Again

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.

New home, familiar faces, as Berwick, David and co return in Dick Turpin Rides Again

Ride on time: AJ Powell, left, Suzy Cooper, Berwick Kaler, David Leonard and Martin Barrass return in Dick Turpin Rides Again. Picture: David Harrison

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.

“Pantomime is a bit like a drug,” says David Leonard. “I miss it when I’m not doing it.” Picture: David Harrison.

“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.

“Berwick is just himself up there, a bloke in a frock, and very few actors can do that,” says David Leonard. Picture: David Harrison

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

Dame Berwick’s Dick Turpin Rides Again held up until December 2021 by Covid-19

Highway robbery: The curse of Covid-19 strikes again as Berwick Kaler’s comeback pantomime, Dick Turpin Rides Again, will be held up until 2021. Here Dame Berwick is pictured with A J Powell, Suzy Cooper, David Leonard and Martin Barrass at the Valentine’s Day launch at the Grand Opera House

DAME Berwick Kaler’s pantomime, Dick Turpin, will NOT Ride Again at the Grand Opera House, York, this Christmas.

Faced by the Government’s decision not to remove social-distancing requirements for theatres amid the rise in Covid-19 infections, Ambassador Theatre Group and pantomime producers Qdos Entertainment are moving Dick Turpin Rides Again to December 2021/January 2022.

Dame Berwick and his regular team of villain David Leonard, comic stooge Martin Barrass, perennial principal gal Suzy Cooper and luverly Brummie A J Cooper were to have made their Grand Opera House pantomime debut this winter after their headline-making, bittersweet crosstown transfer from York Theatre Royal.

In an official statement today, Kaler said: “Having secured the backing of the world’s leading pantomime producer Qdos, and knowing their commitment to save our acclaimed panto, I’m devastated that our loyal audience is going to have to wait until next year to see what we had planned for them.

“Hence, I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to Qdos and the wonderful staff of the York Grand Opera House who welcomed myself, Martin, Suzy, AJ and David with open arms. Dick Turpin will ride again for Christmas 2021. It’s a long time to wait for a laugh but I can assure you it will be worth it, and we’ll all be at the Grand Opera House to greet you all.” 

Rachel Lane, theatre director of the Cumberland Street theatre, added: “With the current Government guidance still unclear on when venues can open without social distancing in place, we have decided with our pantomime partner Qdos Entertainment to postpone the production of Dick Turpin Rides Again until Christmas 2021.

“We’re delighted that Berwick, Martin, Suzy, AJ and David are still able to join us next year.  We’ll contact customers directly in due course to move their bookings on a year; they don’t need to take any action at this stage.”

Dame Berwick, who will turn 74 on October 31, had played the Theatre Royal dame over a 40-year span before making his grand exit in The Grand Old Dame Of York, waving goodbye in February 2019, but Britain’s longest-serving dame regretted his decision, even more so when he wrote and co-directed last winter’s show, Sleeping Beauty, wherein Barrass played the nearest role to a dame, The Queen.

Dame Berwick made an impromptu, emotional speech to the last-night home crowd on January 25 in an atmosphere increasingly akin to a bear pit, in the wake of executive director Tom Bird and the board’s decision to break the chain after more than four decades of the distinctive Kaler brand of pantomime comic mayhem.

Only five days later, the switch to the Grand Opera House was announced, and the familiar five assembled on February 14 to launch ticket sales for Dick Turpin Rides Again, a new beginning for comeback-dame Kaler and the Grand Opera House alike, in tandem with Britain’s biggest pantomime producer, Qdos.

On February 3, York Theatre Royal announced a new partnership with Evolution Pantomimes, regular pantomime award winners who duly chalked up another success, taking home the Best Panto award [for750 to 1,500-seat theatres] for Cinderella at Sheffield Lyceum in the 2020 Great British Pantomime Awards.

Scripted by Evolution director and producer Paul Hendy, Cinderella would have been the new partners’ debut show at the Theatre Royal until Covid-19 enforced a change of plan. Hendy will now write scripts for three pantomimes, Aladdin, Dick Whittington and Jack And The Beanstalk, for the York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime.

The tour starring York actor, panto comic turn and magician Josh Benson, will take in all 21 York wards in December and January, when audience members at each show will vote for which show they want to see.