AFTER 547 barren nights, the Grand Opera House, York, reopened on Monday as a ghost story blew away the cobwebs of pandemic-enforced closure at last.
Jennet Humphrey, the “Woman” in the title of The Woman In Black, has a habit of returning to this already crowded city of ghosts onregular occasions, such is the abiding popularity of Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation that began life at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in novelist Susan Hill’s home town of Scarborough in December 1987.
From that premiere, Robin Herford is still directing the award-garlanded fright-night and Michael Holt’s brilliantly atmospheric set is still adding to the chill factor with its clever use of gauze, a shadowy stairwell, passages, a mysteriously locked door and the faded grandeur of a disused theatre.
No matter how often you see the show, Rod Mead’s original sound design, now realised on tour by Sebastian Frost, unfailingly will tantalise, taunt, tease and terrify you. Every time!
Likewise, cast members Robert Goodale and Antony Eden are back in Black, albeit working in partnership for the first time on this revived tour of Mallatratt’s two-hander. Goodale was in the company for the last York visit, in November 2019, at the Theatre Royal, one of myriad old haunts for Eden too, who played there in February-March 2013 en route to notching up more than 1,000 performances.
Familiar faces were in the dress circle too. Not the Grand Opera House’s resident ghost, but the ghosts of Theatre Royal pantomimes past, now first-night guests in their new home, as Berwick Kaler, David Leonard, Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper and AJ Powell gathered ahead of this winter’s Dick Turpin Rides Again.
First, however, it was time for The Woman In Black’s pony and trap to be ridden again. I say ‘pony and trap’, but it is in fact a wicker trunk. Goodale’s Arthur Kipps, the haunted old solicitor seeking to exorcise the fear that has filled his soul for more than 50 years, looks puzzled.
Use your imagination, advises Eden’s now not-so-young Actor, employed by Kipps to help him turn his rambling book of notes into…well, don’t call it a performance, he says. “I’m not Olivier.”
However, “for my health, for reason”, his story must be told. “I cannot bear the burden any longer,” he says desperate to put his stultifying obsession to bed, to find a peace of mind at last, to end the curse on his family.
At this point, as Kipps and the Actor meet in a dusty old theatre, the tone is lightly humorous, Kipps’ lack of acting talent and sense of drama amusingly apparent; the Actor, sceptical and cocky.
And yet, as if the stage were made of quicksand, we are drawn into what becomes a celebration of the possibilities of theatre and the craft of acting, as much as a superbly executed, drip-drip telling of a ghost story.
In Mallatratt’s play within a play, the drama within takes over from the act of making it. Gradually, by now taking Kipps gravely seriously, Eden’s Actor becomes the young Kipps; Goodale’s stage novice Kipps becomes everyone else, from a convivial hotel manager to a taciturn pony-and-trap driver and an old lawyer, hollowed out by past encounters with the spectral woman in a black cape with a wasted face.
All the while, in his narrator’s role, old Kipps grows ever more paralysed by resurgent fears as the story unfolds of his ill-fated errand as a young solicitor to the haunted Eel Marsh House: an isolated place forever at odds with its wretched self.
The Woman In Black is old-fashioned, storytelling theatre-making, where not only Kipps, but we too, must engage our imaginations, as Herford eschews high-tech special effects. For example, Spider, a dog, is conjured simply with a click of a finger, a push of a stick, a hand stroke in mid-air, with no need for the distracting presence of a real mutt or puppet.
The terrifying theatrical re-enactment is rendered with only two chairs, a trunk of papers, a hanging rail of costume props, dust sheets over the stage apron and a frayed theatre curtain.
Then add smoke to create a disorientating murk that spreads over the auditorium, transforming the stalls into the eerie marshlands, allied to the restless, intrusive sound effects that thrive on surprise and sudden bursts of noise, from horse’s hooves to piercing screams. All the while, in Kevin Sleep’s lighting design, shadows and darkness wrestle with light for dominance, guaranteeing a sleepless night.
After month after month of silence, the Grand Opera House was being reawakened from its slumber with gasps, shrieks and nervous audience laughter, and we loved it. Goodale and Eden, wonderfully in control of delivering a storyline that is spinning beyond control, maybe forever, clearly love it too.
The Woman In Black will not be vanishing any time soon; the empty rocking chair will keep on rocking to big audiences, newcomers and veteran devotees alike
STRICTLY Xmas Live In The Park, with a singalong songsheet led by York pantomime perennial Martin Barrass, is off.
Organiser Lesley Jones confirmed the cancellation of Sunday’s open-air Bev Jones Music Company show at the Rowntree Park amphitheatre on Facebook.
“It is with huge sadness I have had to cancel the Xmas Concert on Sunday 13th. External circumstances forced the decision,” she revealed.
“However, we will be singing at Tesco, Askham Bar, on Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th December from 1.30pm. Look out for our 2021 calendar. Thank you all as ever.”
In an earlier post, she wrote: “For many, many reasons we are beaten in this strangest of years! We must confess that we have taken the hardest decision to cancel our Strictly Live In The Park.
“You all know how I do always my best to give you the show I promise, but Covid, Tiers, illness, personal etc etc….force the decision.
“All ticket monies will be refunded in full. Roll on 2021. Keep in touch, join our Bev Jones Music Group page to find out what’s next.”
On November 29, Lesley had expressed excitement at the upcoming show’s progress. “Only two weeks to go! Tier 2 means we have the green light and we are good to go!” she posted
Strictly Xmas Live in The Park would have added up to a “3 in 1 Xmas experience” with Christmas songs through the decades, carols by candlelight and a one-of-a-kind, specially written pantomime, Once Upon A Pud.
Martin Barrass, Dame Berwick’s stalwart comic stooge, was already missing out on the Covid-cancelled Kaler comeback in Dick Turpin Rides Again at the Grand Opera House. Now he has to forego leading the pantomime section of Strictly Xmas Live In The Park on Sunday afternoon too.
In the Covid-secure, socially distanced performance, Martin would have reactivated his first ever song-sheet in a York Theatre Royal panto – all about Yorkshire Puddings – as well as telling a few seasonal jokes.
Joining him in the festive concert’s panto sequence would have been Melissa Boyd’s Princess, Terry Ford’s villain and Charlotte Wood’s Silly Billy, plus a Dame, Fairy Godmother, Prince Charming and Jack Ass.
Favourite Christmas songs, such as Santa Baby, Jingle Bell Rock and Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?, and a visit from Father Christmas were in Sunday’s programme too. All audience members were to be temperature tested on arrival and placed into family private bubble areas.
Rehearsals were booked in for Rufforth Institute Hall, socially distanced and under a full Covid risk assessment.
MARTIN Barrass will be starring in a York pantomime after all this winter.
Dame Berwick’s perennial comic stooge may be missing out on the Covid-cancelled Kaler comeback in Dick Turpin Rides Again at the Grand Opera House, but now he will lead the pantomime section of Strictly Xmas Live In The Park.
Presented by the Bev Jones Music Company in a Covid-secure, socially distanced, open-air performance at the Rowntree Park Amphitheatre, the show will be a one-off on Sunday, December 13 at 2pm.
“I met Lesley Jones, widow of the formidable York producer and director Bev Jones, five or six weeks ago about doing a Christmas show to get people out and about on a crisp winter’s day,” says Martin.
“I’m thrilled to be taking part, and if you’re wondering why I’m wearing black and pink in the publicity picture, they were Bev’s favourite colours.”
Producer Lesley says: “We are delighted to welcome Martin into our company for this special guest appearance and he fits in so well to the company personality. He will lead the audience in the Christmas song with a drop-down song sheet.”
“I’ve chosen the first song-sheet I ever did at the Theatre Royal…about Yorkshire Puddings!” reveals Martin, as he breaks into song from memory: “‘You can’t beat a better bit of batter on your platter than a good old Yorkshire Pud!’
“I did that with Berwick in Sinbad The Sailor in 1984, and I always remember thinking, ‘Are they going to respond?’, but of course they did!” Nobody does it batter, Martin!
Expect a few seasonal jokes too from Barrass, who will be joined in the festive concert’s panto sequence by Melissa Boyd’s Princess, Terry Ford’s villain and Charlotte Wood’s Silly Billy.
“In addition, we’ll have the Dame, the Fairy Godmother, Prince Charming, Jack Ass and other characters,” says Lesley.
“The concert will include all the favourite Christmas songs, such as Santa Baby, Jingle Bell Rock and Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?, as well as the fun panto section for all the family.
“There’ll be a visit from Santa Claus for all the children, followed by a moving Carols By Candlelight finale, encouraging a sing-along for everyone.”
Rowntree Park Amphitheatre will play host to a non-alcoholic Festive Mulled Wine Van, selling hot drinks for all the family, whether tea, coffee, hot apple juice or children’s drinks, served with light complimentary snacks.
Rehearsals will be held at Rufforth Institute Hall , socially distanced and under a full Covid risk assessment.
All audience members will be temperature tested on arrival and placed into family private bubble areas.
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.
BUMPING into Martin Barrass last night beneath At The Mill’s magical open-air theatre tent at Stillington Mill set the mind to pondering the fate of his winter pantomime in York.
Will comic stooge Martin bounce back with Suzy Cooper, David Leonard and A J Powell in veteran Dame Berwick Kaler’s panto debut at the Grand Opera House this Christmas after their shock transfer to Qdos Entertainment from York Theatre Royal?
Here is the latest statement from Qdos, the pantomime powerhouse across the land, amid the continuing blight of Covid-19’s social-distancing requirements leaving theatres in the dark.
“We had been very clear that we required clarity from the Government regarding the re-opening of theatres by Monday, 3 August, in order for our pantomime season as we know it to take place,” the statement read.
“Based on the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s reiteration last week that the Government won’t be providing further guidance on theatres operating without social distancing until November at the earliest, we are left with no choice but to begin the consultation process with our partner theatres about the viability of each show. This is a complex process and will take several weeks to complete.
“We are not immediately announcing the postponement of all shows, however plans will be announced by individual theatres and communicated to ticket holders in due course.”
Watch this space for Qdos’s decision on whether Dame Berwick’s pantomime comeback, Dick Turpin Rides Again, will or will not ride again. What will it be: pantomime or pandemime?
QDOS Entertainment today cancelled their biggest pantomime outside London: the Birmingham Hippodrome production of Goldilocks And The Three Bears starring Jason Donovan.
Scuppered by the Covid-19 pandemic, the show is now re-scheduled for Christmas 2021, Donovan, co-star Matt Slack and all.
Qdos’s pantomime at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Sleeping Beauty, has been put to sleep too until 2021.
THIS morning was the official launch for Berwick Kaler’s comeback pantomime, Dick Turpin Rides Again, as the resurrected York dame handed over the first tickets to queueing fans at his new home, the Grand Opera House.
Joining him were villain David Leonard, stalwart stooge Martin Barrass, ageless principal girl Suzy Cooper and luverly Brummie A J Powell after their controversial exit and crosstown switch from the York Theatre Royal, signing on the dotted line for pantomime powerhouse producers Qdos Entertainment and the Cumberland Street theatre’s owners, the Ambassador Theatre Group.
Not joining them, however, was CharlesHutchPress, barred from the launch and the morning’s media interviews at the request of the Panto Five in a move from the Dominic Cummings rule book for Number 10 press briefings .
This has to stop.
It is time to re-build bridges, and Valentine’s Day would have been a good start, rather than continuing this Charles Hutchinson Derides Again contretemps .
BERWICK Kaler is back, as the Grand Old Dame of York transforms into the Grand’s new dame.
Now that the Grand Opera House will
be the home of his latest dame after 41 years at York Theatre Royal, both Dame
Berwick and Dick Turpin will ride again from December 12 to January 10 2021.
Kaler pulled on his big boots at the
Theatre Royal for the last time on February 2 2019 after announcing his
retirement from Britain’s longest-running panto damehood.
Giving that retirement its P45, in
favour of a re-boot, he will write and direct as well as star in Dick Turpin
Rides Again, as he takes back control [to borrow a Dominic Cummings mantra].
What’s more, he will be re-uniting on stage with sidekick stooge Martin
Barrass, villain David Leonard, ageless principal girl Suzy Cooper and luverly
Brummie AJ Powell.
This time, the re-formed Panto Five
will be on new terrain as the Grand Opera House owners, Ambassador Theatre
Group, team up with Qdos Entertainment, the most powerful pantomime brand in
Here Charles Hutchinson puts the questions to prolific theatre producer, director and Qdos Entertainment (Pantomimes) managing director Michael Harrison, Kaler’s fellow north easterner, who stands at number eight in The Stage’s Top 100 most influential people in theatre, no less.
Why bring back Berwick, Michael?
“The best things fall out of the sky and I wasn’t expecting this
“I’m from Newcastle and I travelled all over the place to see
pantomimes; first Newcastle and Sunderland, then Darlington, and then I started
venturing to York and further, and I loved York Theatre
“If you see all the pantos everywhere, they can become like wallpaper,
but stumbling across Berwick in York was like a breath of fresh air. I’d never
seen anything like it. Stepping out of the script, as he does, I just loved it.
“I never really thought there was a place for it in what I did but was
more than happy to see it in Berwick’s pantos, and I did try to put some of
that madness in my shows, like I have for 16 years at Newcastle Theatre Royal.”
What struck you most about Berwick’s pantos?
“I like the way he has catchphrases that you don’t have to spend three
minutes introducing to the audience because they already know them.
“I like how he returns to things from previous shows, how he uses wild
titles and how he has cast members returning every year.
“It’s no secret that our most successful pantos are where the stars keep
returning: Allan Stewart, 20-plus years at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh; Billy
Pearce, more than 20 years at the Bradford Alhambra; Danny Adams and Clive Webb, 16
years at Newcastle Theatre Royal; Matt Slack at Birmingham Hippodrome.
“It’s true that pantomime is a celebration of local culture and that’s
why Berwick had that long run at the Theatre Royal.”
How did you feel when Berwick retired?
“The day after The Grand Old Dame Of York finished, and I was very tired
after directing three pantomimes and producing 30 shows that winter, I got very
emotional, thinking ‘this is the end of an era’. But I was also thinking ‘why
does Berwick want to retire in his early seventies, when he doesn’t have to
travel to do the show, he can go home every night?’”
How did Berwick’s dame resurrection at the Grand Opera House come to fruition?
“Mark Walters, the designer who Qdos have signed up for the London
Palladium and Newcastle Theatre Royal pantomimes and who used to design
Berwick’s pantos in York, got in touch on January 11 to say ‘Have you heard
what’s happening to the Theatre Royal panto?’ [with the news of a new creative
team being put in place].
“I woke up the next morning thinking, ‘I don’t know if this is over’.
‘Why is Berwick not coming back? One year off, now he should come back
“I wrote to Berwick and said ‘you don’t know who I am, but I put on
pantomimes and lots of other shows and I’m a massive fan of your pantos. If I
can get the Grand Opera House, would you do it? Would you talk?’.”
What happened next?
“Berwick’s agent contacted me the following day and it developed very
quickly from there.
“I just felt that Berwick’s panto was a little bit of pantomime history
that should continue.
“Qdos produce all the other Ambassador Theatre Group pantomimes, and I was
aware that Three Bears Productions’ contract was not being renewed. Normally
it’s about ‘big’ casting, but this was different. There was Berwick and all his
“It happened quickly with Berwick and then we approached the other four
[Barrass, Leonard, Cooper and Powell], and there just seemed to be a passion to
make it happen.”
Will you want more of “the same old rubbish” as Berwick calls it, or will you be seeking fresh elements to appeal to the regular Grand Opera House panto audience, who like plot, plenty for children to enjoy and popular songs?
“We want to make it a York pantomime. We have to grasp all the best bits
that have really worked for Berwick, and we also have to work out what’s the
best recipe for this opportunity to move forward in a different way.
“I remember the advice of a member of the audience in Newcastle, who
said: ‘Don’t ever change it, but keep surprising me’, and that’s what we have
to discover each time; how to do that.
“But Berwick’s panto format is very unique, and I feel that while he
wants to do it, and they all want to do it, and there’s an audience that wants
him to do it, then let’s continue doing it.
“What I do know is that more people still saw David, Martin, Suzy and AJ
in Sleeping Beauty than went to Snow White at the Opera House, by a considerable
margin, and by adding Berwick to the mix again, it will be interesting to be in
York next winter.”
Does the feisty side of Berwick, such as his “I’m b****y furious” outburst at the finale to the last night of Sleeping Beauty, worry you?
“Anybody that is passionate about what they do can have a reputation for
being demanding, but that goes with the territory.
“You expect anyone with a mind like that is going to challenge, always
wanting things to be better. I’m sure he only does it with the audience in
mind. It’s just about doing the best job for them.”
Will there be a rivalry with the York Theatre Royal panto, now to be co-produced with Evolution Productions’ Paul Hendy and Emily Wood, presenting Cinderella for 2020-2021?
“I know Paul and Emily well. They’ve sat in my house. We might all be
panto producers but there’s no rivalry there, though I’d love to know why a
repertory theatre is teaming up with a pantomime company.
“Picking the Theatre Royal cast now, it will have to be star-driven,
otherwise who will go? But Paul is a very clever panto man, so he won’t be going
into it to get it wrong.
“Besides, there are more important things going on in the world than a panto ‘rivalry. It’s really not worth falling out when it’s only four of five weeks a year.”
Could the two theatres potentially be swapping their pantomime audiences?
“If there were 31,000 who saw Sleeping Beauty without Berwick – and there’s
no surprise that ticket sales fell when someone who’s an institution isn’t
there on stage anymore – then there’ll be those 31,000 here. I think there’s no
reason why we won’t have 40,000 people coming.
“It would be great to keep some of the regular Grand Opera House panto
audience too, if they’ve never experienced a Berwick Kaler pantomime. But I
also understand those who want something more traditional, though I think the
York audience is still stronger for a Berwick Kaler pantomime than a normal storyline-driven,
“In year one, people might go and see both.”
Will you be looking to inject young talent into the Grand Opera House pantomime, alongside the established team?
“I’m always mindful of who are the pantomime stars of tomorrow because
we’re not breeding them as we once were, like when they used to do a Blackpool
summer season or a sitcom.
“Today’s comedy stars do Radio 2 and Radio 4 shows and bypass panto, so
we have to find the new stars through other ways.”
Is there a chance that Mark Walters might design the Grand Opera House show, now that the ex-York Theatre Royal panto designer has signed to the Qdos stable?
“I’m talking to Mark about it now. If it wasn’t for Mark, I wouldn’t have
put that request in to Berwick to play dame again.
“We’ve met already about Humpty Dumpty for Newcastle Theatre Royal…and we’ll
discuss Dick Turpin Rides Again too.”
As a hugely successful pantomime producer and director yourself, with the London Palladium and Newcastle Theatre Royal to your name, what makes a good panto?
“Two things, I would say: comedy and magic. Not magic tricks, but that
sense of wonderment that you can’t put your finger on.
“The best pantomimes are the funniest ones. We can get terribly criticised
for not having as much plot as we could, but the best received shows have
always been more focused on comedy, set pieces and routines.
“The plot has to be there but the show must be funny and it has to have
a wow factor about it.”
Qdos Entertainment present Berwick Kaler in Dick Turpin Rides Again at the Grand Opera House, York, from December 12 to January 10 2021. Dame Berwick and his co-stars will launch ticket sales on February 14 from 10am at the box office. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york.