EVEN after five decades of pantomayhem, York dowager dame Berwick Kaler is still setting himself new challenges at 76.
“I’ve never done a Robinson Crusoe pantomime, and now I’m discovering why!” jokes the writer and director of…Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse, his third pantomime for the Grand Opera House following his crosstown transfer after 41 years at York Theatre Royal.
Dame Berwick and his regular crew launched this winter’s sea-faring adventure at the Cumberland Street theatre at Wednesday’s press day, where perennial sidekick Martin Barrass, villainous David Leonard, golden principal gal Suzy Cooper and luvverly Brummie AJ Powell completed York pantoland’s infamous five once more.
Why tackle Robinson Crusoe now, Berwick? “I’m blaming Martin Dodd,” he says, attributing his 2023 choice of pantomime to the managing director of UK Productions, producers of the Grand Opera pantomime for a second year.
“He caught me off-guard, which made me say ‘I’d like to do something a bit different this year’, and somehow that became Robinson Crusoe! But I’ve no regrets about taking it on. It’s a challenge, and fortunately I’m still up for it.”
Dig deeper and another reason emerges for Berwick’s panto pick. As with Dick Turpin, whose life ended in a flash white suit and a noose around his neck on the Tyburn gallows on April 7 1739, Robinson Crusoe has his York connections. Turpin and his horse Black Bess have twice stood and delivered in a Kaler pantomime, most recently in his Grand Opera House debut, Dick Turpin Rides Again, in 2021.
As for Robinson Crusoe, the lead character in Daniel Defoe’s 1719 tale of adventure and survival was born in York in 1632 to a middle-class upbringing. The son of a German immigrant, his surname Crusoe is an anglicised version of Kreutznaer, an amalgam of his parents’ surnames.
That much we know, but as for the rest of Crusoe’s York story, the cupboard is bare, says Berwick. “We only know that Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked, not how his story began [in York] or how he got to the island,” he notes.
Cue Kaler coming up with his nod to Johnny Depp’s swashbuckling Caribbean capers in his title, Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse, for the story of “the sailor from York who finds himself marooned on a desert island…but he’s not alone”.
Who will be these “Pirates of the River Ouse”? Wait and see, but just as Berwick’s 2011 Theatre Royal pantomime, The York Family Robinson, bore little relation to its 19th century source material, Swiss army chaplain Johann David Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson, so Berwick will find a framework for his partners in panto in a nautical setting.
For research, “I’ve re-read the story, and when I was going through some old VHS tapes I was throwing out, I found the old Peter O’Toole film, which I’ve now watched,” he says.
Have crew members David, Suzy, Martin and AJ ever read Defoe’s story? “No, but I remember the TV series,” says David. “No, but I remember the TV series,” says Martin, breaking into the theme tune. “And I know Crusoe set off from Hull [Martin’s home city].”
“I’m the only one with a character name so far,” says AJ. “I’ll be playing Luvverly Jubberly, which I only found out from Berwick just before the press launch.” And no, he has never had Robinson Crusoe on his bookshelf.
You can imagine David Leonard’s villain in swaggering piratical garb in the Adam Ant meets Captain Hook style, but who might that character be? “I haven’t the faintest idea who the baddie is,” he admits, still in the dark about his latest venture to the dark side.
“I don’t yet know who I’ll be playing, but I don’t think I’m playing the fairy,” says Suzy, another member of the non-Robinson Crusoe reading club.
“What’s important, even more so now, is that we are family – performers and audience – and people want to celebrate that. We make those connections each year; they make them with us and with each other and that’s why Berwick’s pantomime works.”
Berwick and co are enjoying the partnership with UK Productions. “They let us get on with it,” says Suzy. “They found that it worked last year [The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose) and they’re happy to let us do that again, saying that they’d never seen a pantomime like ours!
“They know that we have an identity as ‘the crazy gang’. What they get when they get us is they’re buying into the history of who we are and what kind of pantomime we do.”
Berwick chips in: “They’re not used to someone ad-libbing, even at rehearsals, but what I’m doing is always trying to find a better line.”
Suzy rejoins: “It must be a very tough job for whoever is on the book each performance, because the cue will come, but they really have to listen because the dialogue will change every day!”
The same applies for the signer doing the sign language, prompting Martin to recall: “When I was dressed as a seal one year, standing next to the signer, I remember saying, ‘oh, signed and sealed’!”
Also confirmed for the cast is the returning Jake Lindsay, along with Henry Rhodes, who once appeared as a bairn in a Kaler panto at the Theatre Royal and has been starring in the musical Newsies this year.
AJ Powell, by the way, has been filming for the latest series of Father Brown, “doing a bit of ballroom dancing,” as he puts it.
Come rehearsal time in November, Robinson Crusoe and those pirates will be heading for ship shape and York fashion. “Berwick hates the constraints of traditional pantomime and he’s in his element when he’s creating,” says Suzy.
“He does like to use these random titles,” says AJ, recalling 2016’s Dick Whittington And His Meerkat, for example.
“Sometimes, when you think, ‘why’s he doing that?’, it turns out to be a brilliant show,” says Berwick, as he adds Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse to that list.
“We often find people don’t care what the show title is; they just want to come and see us as they always have,” says Martin.
“People will say to us, ‘we’ve booked for such and such a night’, and then they’ll say, ‘by the way, what’s the title?’.”
Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse will run at Grand Opera House, York, from December 9 to January 6 2023; tickets are on sale at atgtickets.com/York.
Launch date: Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse panto stars Martin Barrass, left, Berwick Kaler, Suzy Cooper, David Leonard and AJ Powell announce their return by the Grand Opera House stage door