BERWICK Kaler, Britain’s longest-running pantomime dame, is “bowing out gracefully” after 47 years on the York stage.
The final curtain has fallen after Grand Opera House panto producers UK Productions decided not to retain the services of veteran dame Berwick, 77, who had transferred across the city in 2021 after 40 years at York Theatre Royal.
Exiting panto stage left too will be long-serving comic stooge Martin Barrass, vainglorious villain David Leonard, principal golden gal Suzy Cooper and “luverly Brummie” A J Leonard after their three-year run at the Cumberland Street theatre.
In his quote at the very bottom of the Grand Opera House’s official announcement of Beauty And The Beast as the 2024-2025 pantomime, Berwick says: “After 47 years of getting away with complete nonsense, it’s time to bow out gracefully and I couldn’t have wished for a better production than Robinson Crusoe [And The Pirates Of The River Ouse].
“I’d like to thank all of the audiences over the years, and particularly those who came to the Grand Opera House this year for making it so memorable. I’d also like to thank the producers UK Productions for their support, and for bringing to life my frankly mad ideas so spectacularly.
“Last and of course not least, my loyal gang, David, Suzy, Martin and AJ, for putting up with me for so many years.”
The official statement reads: “Also announced today is the departure of Berwick Kaler from the Grand Opera House pantomime.
“Berwick has been a beloved Dame in York since 1977 and it has been a privilege for the Grand Opera House to host Berwick and the gang for the last three years. Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper, AJ Powell and David Leonard will also not be returning.”
UK Productions took over the Grand Opera House pantomime after only one year of Berwick and co performing for Qdos Entertainment/Crossroads Live in his comeback show Dick Turpin Rides Again.
Managing director Martin Dodd, always an enthusiastic advocate for Berwick Kaler’s pantomimes, nevertheless makes no mention of the parting of the ways in the Grand Opera House announcement.
Instead, he looks to the future, as the pantomime partnership with the York theatre is retained but in a new form with “star casting”. “We are delighted to continue our relationship with the Grand Opera House and bring one of the most popular fairy tales of all time, our award-winning Beauty And The Beast, to audiences in York,” he says.
“The production is spectacular and contains all the elements that young and old will love, and we look forward to announcing the star casting very soon.”
Likewise, Grand Opera House theatre directorLaura McMillan, focuses on the new era: “The annual pantomime is the biggest show in the theatre’s calendar and to be welcoming Beauty And The Beast to our stage is incredibly exciting.
“There’s nothing like pantomime to introduce children and young people to Theatre and I have no doubt that Belle, The Beast and the rest of the characters will bring so much joy this winter.”
Beauty And The Beast will run from December 7 2024 to January 5 2025.Tickets, from £15, will go on sale on Monday, March 11 at 4pm at atgtickets.com/york.
TRUE to form, dowager dame Berwick Kaler has advice for Jake Lindsay, the long-serving Essex lad in his York pantomime ensemble in Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The River Ouse.
“Ah, Jakey lad. I keep telling you, take up painting and decorating,” teases the dowager dame, who earlier told The Press in his panto interview: “Every year I tell him, ‘go and get another career’ and he never listens. Anyway, it’s a while before you see him as Robinson Crusoe!”
It is indeed: not until the second half on Destiny Island in fact, but for all those years as the butt of Kaler’s jesting, Jake has enjoyed a gradual graduation from ensemble to “Jakey Lad” character parts, now crowned by playing the title role as well as being the leading light of the ensemble of Villagers and Pirates at the Grand Opera House.
“I’ve done 11 pantos for Berwick now, and he’s always really lovely to me off stage,” says Jake. “He’s really seen me grow up. I would have been 20-21 when I started at the Theatre Royal, when you’re like a vortex or a mirror, taking in everything. Now I don’t think I could go and do any other panto after being part of this pantomime spectacular for a decade.
“There’s a certain magnificence and magic that Berwick captures that’s in keeping with classic panto; the details that he can zoom in on. He’s always watching from the wings when he’s not on stage; he never misses a trick.
“When he directs us, he’s very clear what his vision is, and now we’re working with commercial pantomime producers [UK Productions], he’s a maestro of walking that tightrope of what we can say on stage with a certain savvy.
“It’s a delicate dance…where you have to keep up with the times, when it’s tough to know what’s too much, but that commercial edge is useful because it keeps us aware of what the boundaries are now.”
Relishing the “Jakey Lad” panto persona that “has kind of stuck”, Thurrock-born Jake enjoys adding to the diversity of a Wearside dame (Kaler), daft Yorkshire sidekick (Martin Barrass), luverly Brummie lackey (AJ Powell), pucker principal gal (Suzy Cooper) and devilishly thespian villain (David Leonard).
“It’s wonderful to be part of the team; I’ve learned so much from them,” says Jake, 31. “This style of pantomime is such an art in itself; how they carry things from year to year while embodying a new character, retaining the essence the audience first loved all those years ago. And it’s an audience where it feels like they are on stage with you.”
Trained in musical theatre, heavily focused on dance, at CPA Studios in Romford, Jake recalls his early on-stage encounters with Kaler’s dame. “Initially, when he introduced me to the audience at each show, there was genuine fear on my part! Like a father-and-son fear, more respect than fear, but let’s call it fear!” he says. “It was a genuine reaction because Berwick is such a character, but we’ve kept that going over the years.”
A switch to painting and decorating, however, will not be happening. “An apprenticeship is not on the cards but I wouldn’t rule anything out. I’ll try anything,” says Romford-based Jake.
“I’m retraining at the Collective Acting Studio to become a television actor, and I’ve been doing that since Covid. I thought I’d fallen out of love with acting at that time, but as I’ve progressed there’s a lot I want to showcase in different ways.
“Theatre is such a beautiful medium to broaden perspectives, so I’d like to broaden out into writing too, and there are a few projects that I’m exploring at the moment. I’d like to incorporate dance into that: it was my first love, more than acting. I suppose I’m a dancer first and foremost.”
In the meantime, as the pantomime programme reveals, Jake is Berwick Kaler’s understudy as the dame – Dotty Dullaly this time – in Robinson Crusoe. What does his preparation for that role entail?
“In honesty, Berwick’s ability to see what an audience likes in the first few scenes, to gauge and then respond to that, is something that can only be learned from observing him, side of stage,” he says. “Of course, they know each other so well and they have grown together, so it isn’t something that could ever be replicated.
“Prep looks like taking note from the wings and hoping I never have to practise being ready on stage in front of an audience! But knowing the core audience would always be supportive and understanding in that scenario, with a plus being that there isn’t much of a script to learn!”
If the call came to be Dotty, “I would have to give Berwick’s accent a go for a laugh – or perhaps I wouldn’t put people through that, but the beard would probably have to go.”
Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The River Ouse heads for Destiny Island at Grand Opera House, York, until January 6 2024. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.
One last question, Jake
Have you had any memorable understudying experiences?
“Last year, rehearsing for the flying scene, it took a few more of the tech team to get me in the air!”
Copyright of The Press, York
In Focus: Relaxed Performance of Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The River Ouse at Grand Opera House, York, on January 4
AS Christmas Day approaches, many feel rushed, but the new year could be the perfect time to relax and enjoy a pantomime show in a less formal environment.
The Grand Opera House, York, will be holding a Relaxed Performance of Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The River Ouse on Thursday, January 4 at 2pm.
“This year’s panto is popular with all ages but anyone who is very young, new to the theatre environment, or struggles with staying in their seats, may find the Relaxed Performance just the thing,” says Grand Opera House theatre director Laura McMillan.
“The performance, which fits in perfectly with school holidays, enables those who would normally find a trip to the theatre daunting or stressful to come to the show and suits those with an autism spectrum condition, a learning disability or anyone who would benefit from a more relaxed environment.
“Loud bangs are removed, the lighting and sound are adjusted, and everyone is free to move around as they wish. While the environment is more calm, there will still be plenty of panto excitement to enjoy. We also create a chill-out room for anyone who would like to have time out of the auditorium.”
Ahead of this theatre visit, if any audience member would like to be prepared for what to expect, the Grand Opera House can provide a visual story via firstname.lastname@example.org
The parent of a child who visited the pantomime with his school last week said: “As a result of having it [the visual story], our son was able to sit through his first-ever full pantomime today and he loved it so much.
“I can’t explain to you how much that means to him or to us when so many things aren’t accessible and he has so many struggles. For a couple of hours, apparently he was belly laughing, booing and hissing and cheering, and knowing what was going to happen massively reduced his anxiety.”
Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The River Ouse has two performances most days of the run until January 6, including a BSL (British Sign Language) interpreted show on Wednesday, December 27 at 5pm and an Audio Described performance on Thursday, December 28 at 1pm.
The Grand Opera House aims to be as accessible and inclusive as possible for all visitors, so that everyone can enjoy live entertainment at the Cumberland Street theatre.
Relaxed Performance: Thursday, January 4, 2pm
Show length: Approximately 1 hour 50 minutes, including interval
Box office: Open 90 minutes before the performance
BERWICK Kaler first performed in a York pantomime in 1977. Now he is 77.
“I feel fit,” says the grand dame, ahead of Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The River Ouse setting sail on Saturday with the usual crew on board. “When I get on stage, I don’t feel any different. I’ve just been doing the flying sequence, and they worry for me, but I was fine. I didn’t think twice about doing it. It felt the same as ever.
“Yes, I do see changes in my dame, but it’s only age.” Physically, however, Dame Berwick has shrunk from his prime panto fighting weight of 11 stone, thinner in the face and legs, wiry of frame, eyes as big as a spaniel’s, as he sits in Dressing Room One at the Grand Opera House for this lunchtime chat.
He breakfasts on porridge, smoked salmon and two poached eggs, but has not recovered any of the two and a half stone he lost in a year when his long-time partner, David Norton, died.
“The doctors have checked me over, and no-one can find anything wrong with me. It’s driving me mad,” says Dame Berwick, who had a double heart bypass operation six years and relies on “Gerry”, his pacemaker, to keep him ticking over.
Not only does he feel fit, but he feels Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The River Ouse is fit too for its public bow this weekend – even if Daniel Defoe’s 1719 tale of adventure and survival is not the easiest fit for pantomime service.
“I’ve never done Robinson Crusoe before,” says writer-director Dame Berwick, who will be appearing in his 43rd year York panto. “It’s not a pantomime; it never has been! But now, yes, it is a pantomime, but I’ve had to mix a lot of ingredients into it because it’s essentially a one-man story – and Man Friday has had to go.
“What was I on to have made that decision to do it,” he asks himself. “But I do like picking at bones to make a show.”
Robinson Crusoe does have York links: born in the city in 1632 to a middle-class upbringing, he set out from here on his travels. That fact alone gave Dame Berwick the bones on which to flesh out his script. “I blame Martin Dodd for the title!” he says, referring to the managing director of UK Productions, producers of the Grand Opera House pantomime for a second year. “He suggested pirates for the show, and so we have the Pirates Of The River Ouse.”
Those pirates will be played by the dance ensemble, while Jake Lindsay, so often the butt of Kaler’s jesting in his gradual graduation from ensemble to character parts over the past decade, will take the title role. “Every year I tell him, ‘go and get another career’ and he never listens,” says Dame Berwick. “Anyway, it’s a while before you see him!”
As ever, Dame Berwick’s regular partners in pantomime are reassembling. “I’m playing Dotty Dullaly, and we’re getting very modernistic as she was married before, to Mr Crusoe. Robinson is her son,” he explains.
“She was going to go on a cruise with Mr Crusoe and Robinson, but at the last minute she was taken ill and it was the last time she saw them. Then she got married to Mr Dullaly, and they had two children: 18-year-old Suzy Cooper [Polly Dullaly] and 16-year-old Martin Barrass [Willy Dullaly]!
AJ Powell will be appearing in trademark Brummie mode as Luvverly Jubberly, while inveterate villain David Leonard will revel in the vainglorious name of Narcissus. “He has to come to York to acquire half an amulet before sailing to the Island of Destiny – it’s not called that in the book! – to extract the other half from around Robinson’s neck,” says Dame Berwick.
“You can’t do anything with the real story of Robinson Crusoe, so I’ve introduced magical elements, like a book of spells that Robinson is in control of. Since he was shipwrecked on the island, he’s been made into an idol, but Narcissus, whose mother was a good witch, who never wanted him to get his hands on that book, is determined to force Robinson into the Tomb of Destiny to retrieve it.”
Echoes of Aladdin’s Cave and the arch antagonist Abanazar in Aladdin, you ask. “There are hints of Aladdin, hints of Sinbad The Sailor, in there, but it’s not a copy of them. It’s my new twist on them,” he says.
After Dick Turpin Rides Again and The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose, Dame Berwick is enjoying creating his third Grand Opera House panto. “Why keep doing it? I don’t need to do it, and I’ve told my agent I don’t want do to TV, films and stage shows any more. I’ve done all that. Just panto,” he says.
“I’m not a writer but I have to say I quite like the process of writing. Would I miss panto? Yes. I’d just be sitting at home with the dogs watching rubbish TV, which would be bliss, but I prefer to be doing this.”
Familiarity breeds content that suits long-serving company and York Pantomime (Berwick Kaler) Appreciation Society devotees alike. “It’s the only pantomime where you can get away with in-jokes, as it’s the audience that laughs, not the actors, because they’ve been following us for so long,” says Dame Berwick.
“We are five performers who know each other inside out; we can talk on common ground; we know how to work together; I know what to write for them all, though it gets more difficult over the years! I could bring others into the cast but no, this is a staunchly loyal group that has served York so well, doing great deeds in the world of panto.”
The core team remains intact, but Dame Berwick has had to adapt to the age of cancel culture. “Up to the last couple of years I wrote with a sense of humour that we’d had since I can remember, where nothing was taken as an insult to anyone,” he says. “But lately, if anyone said, ‘oh that’s a bit naughty’, I’d have to say, ‘no, I wrote it in innocence’.
“The last two years I’ve learned that it’s a lot safer if we laugh at ourselves on stage, taking the mickey out of each other, but that does take away from a lot of things that worked before and that’s a shame. There still has to be a shock element to comedy.
“I’ve always found that people come away from our shows saying, ‘I didn’t expect your panto to be so different from all the others’. You still have to have ‘he’s behind you’ in there, but come on, let’s keep surprising people.”
Contemplating the future, Dame Berwick says: “I’m not going to announce my retirement. I’ll just go quietly, whenever. I’ve had my big send-off already [after 40 years at the Theatre Royal]
“When they announce the next Grand Opera House pantomime, it will either be with us or without us.”
Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The River Ouse, Grand Opera House, York, December 9 to January 6 2024. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.
STOCKTON Foresters Drama Group will perform Andrew Hull’s little-known gem, Being Of Sound Mind, from November 30 to December 2, much to the approval of York pantomime legend Martin Barrass.
Dame Berwick Kaler’s stalwart sidekick visited last week’s rehearsal of Hull’s murder mystery with all the twists of a corkscrew.
“The Foresters provide the highest standard of any amateur drama society I’ve ever known,” enthused Martin, ahead of the run at Stockton on the Forest Village Hall, near York. “Forget the telly. This is real live entertainment that will have you captivated from start to finish!”
Foresters’ chair Karen Ilsley responded: “Martin has been so supportive of our thriving company, encouraging our talented actors and crew, and letting us in on a few trade secrets! We are honoured to welcome him into our fold and look forward to a long and fruitful association.”
Foresters’ newcomer Jasmine Lingard will play Penelope Asquith, who is eager to discover the truth as to why her late aunt haunts the Goodchild residence. Will the household survive the night to inherit Edward Goodchild’s fortune? Or are the inhabitants destined to succumb to supernatural forces?
Jasmine will have a further role as Eleanor, joined in director Louisa Littler’s cast by Stuart Leeming as Martin Bodmin; Martin Thorpe, as Marshall; Pete Keen, Stephen Asquith; Lynne Edwards, Rebecca Lockhart; Nicky Wild, Jane Brunt, and Russell Dowson, Shaun.
“I have hugely enjoyed working with the Foresters on this production,” said Louisa. “The cast are really responding to the challenge of creating a suspense-filled piece that will have our audience intrigued to the end.”
Stockton Foresters present Being Sound Of Mind from November 30 to December 2 at 7.30pm nightly. Doors open at 6.30pm. Stockton on the Forest Village Hall is on the Coastliner bus route and there will be plenty of accessible parking and a bar. Tickets are on sale at thelittleboxoffice.com/stocktonforesters or Stockton on the Forest Village Shop.
Did you know?
STOCKTON Foresters are teaming up with The Fox Inn for this production. £9 tickets include a voucher for ten per cent off a meal at the village pub in January and February 2024. Vouchers will be available at the village hall.
What will panto favourite Martin Barrass and co be doing this winter at the Grand Opera House?
MARTIN Barrass will star alongside Dame Berwick Kaler, David Leonard, Suzy Cooper and A J Powell in the swashbuckling pantomime adventure Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The River Ouse at the Grand Opera House, York, from December 9 to January 6 2024.
Today, by the way, is Berwick Kaler’s 77th birthday. This winter, Britain’s longest-serving dame will be starring in his 43rd pantomime and second for producers UK Productions.
Meanwhile, the dowager dame’s costume and boots are on display at the V&A Museum, Cromwell Road, London, taking pride of place in the Theatre and Performance galleries until at least February 2024.
Writer-director Dame Berwick will lead his groundbreaking take on Daniel Defoe’s 1719 story of the sailor from York who finds himself marooned on a desert island, but on this occasion, Crusoe will not be sailing solo. Expect the unexpected as the familiar gang assembles again from December 9. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.
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
AT 76, York’s grand dame of pantomime, Berwick Kaler, is never too old to try something new.
After 41 years in his big boots and misbehaving wig at York Theatre Royal and now newly confirmed for a third season following his crosstown transfer to the Grand Opera House, he will write, direct and star in Robinson Crusoe for the first time.
Or, to give this “swashbuckling panto adventure” its full title with a nod to a certain Johnny Depp film franchise, Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates Of The River Ouse will be afloat from December 9 to January 9 2024.
Martin Dodd, pantomime producer for UK Productions’ second year at the Cumberland Street theatre, says: “Following last year’s success with The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose, we are delighted to return with another legendary Berwick Kaler pantomime in York. Ahoy me hearties…grab your tickets quick!”
Those tickets – £13 and upwards – will go on sale to ATG TheatreCard and Groups Presale today (March 23) from 10am and on general sale from tomorrow (March 24) at 10am in person at the box office or at atgtickets.com/york.
Dame Berwick and fellow piratical panto hearties David Leonard and AJ Powell launched Robin Crusoe in suitable costume in the Tuesday morning rain aboard a City Cruises self-drive boat, steered by comic sidekick Martin Barrass, making an impromptu appearance in his civvies.
Only regular co-star Suzy Cooper was not on board, but she too has been confirmed as part of the crew for the famous-in-York five’s winter return.
Laura McMillan, theatre director for the Grand Opera House York, says: “We are delighted to welcome Berwick and the wider family back this year for what will certainly be a swashbuckling family adventure. The Berwick panto is a York tradition, and we can’t wait to welcome audiences to the theatre.”
What can they expect? Dame Berwick as writer? Tick. Director? Tick. Dowager dame? Tick. The dame’s name and role? How she fits in? Er, nothing decided yet, although any variation of “Mrs Crusoe” is the odds-on favourite.
“But there definitely won’t be a Man Friday,” he says of the slave character from Daniel Defoe’s 1719 seafaring tale, The Life And Strange Surprizing Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner.
“You’ve got to get round that. I’m not ‘woke’, but for 50-odd years we’ve never insulted anybody. If we like to take the mick, we take it out of ourselves, but when you get to adapt fairy tales – or a novel, like this one – there’s a lot you have to change.”
What is promised, to quote the Grand Opera House press release, is an “hilarious take on the classic story of the sailor from York who finds himself marooned on a desert island, but he’s not alone”. Expect a “captivating tale of magic, mayhem and misunderstanding”…and mystery at this stage, because Dame Berwick’s panto is among the very first in the UK Productions stable to be announced for 2023/24.
“Man Friday isn’t necessary to the story, and I’m used to changing things anyway. I’ve always done that in my pantomimes, changing names, or the plot, to give it some spontaneity, to make it something different.
“The problem for pantomime is that if you make it ‘woke’, it just won’t be funny, I promise you.”
The challenge is to make it work, not make it woke. “To do that, it’s about playing to the strengths of the cast, how they play their characters each year. I still have my imagination and it’s a young imagination for my age, and that’s vital for panto,” says Dame Berwick.
“We love to make it a little different, but at the same time, I don’t think anyone would go away from having ‘He’s behind you!’ in there, but we even change that a bit.”
In the first instalment of Defoe’s nautical trilogy, Robinson Crusoe introduces himself thus: “I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, tho’ not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull.”
Defoe’s hero does not stay long in York, however, the call of the sea soon luring him to his shipwrecked fate. “In my story, I have to decide how far does he get up the Ouse before he meets the pirates,” says Dame Berwick. What about Hull, the book’s starting point. “No, not in our panto!”
Kaler’s pantomimes are no stranger to taking to the waters, whether in Dick Whittington or 2011’s The York Family Robinson or indeed the many bygone years of water slapstick for Dame Berwick and Barrass.
Will water slapstick or aquatic mishaps make a Kaler panto comeback? “You’ll be the first to know,” says Dame Berwick. “I’ve got to get water into it somehow, so I think you will see water, but I’m governed by the commercial pantomime producers and the space.
“To do a proper water scene, you do need the whole of the floor to be covered. At the minute, I’m trying to get them to do something new and hopefully get a rocking cabin on the stage.”
Perennial panto villain David Leonard was dressed in a rather dandy wig for the City Cruises launch. “It’s a pirate theme, so they thought, ‘let’s have me looking like Captain Hook, AJ like Smee and Berwick as…well, looking like a ‘Mona Washboard’,” he says of that familiar harassed washer woman look.
As for his role, details are sketchy because Kaler will be writing “from scratch”. “He’ll be someone tall, a 6ft 3 ponce in a wig,” David speculates. “And evil,” says dame Berwick. “Oh yes, very evil.”
“Luvverly Brummie” AJ Powell has set his sets high. “I’m hoping for the title role this year. Robinson Crusoe,” he says. “But he never appears. He’s only spoken of,” jests David. “A bit like Berwick’s Mrs Fitzackerley, always mentioned but never seen!”
DAME Berwick Kaler, David Leonard, Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper and AJ Powell are into the final week of their second pantomime at the Grand Opera House, York.
The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose ends on Sunday in Berwick’s first variation on a Mother Goose theme since his Millennium pantomime, Old Mother Millie, at York Theatre Royal.
“That one gave me a panic attack,” he admitted. “There was no story, and it wasn’t based on a fairytale. To my surprise, we ended up being the only theatre doing a millennium-based panto!”
No such palpitations this time: Berwick completed his script by 6am on December 1, giving the writer, director and dowager dame plenty of rehearsal time to hone it with his regular team.
“It will either work or it won’t, but I still feel as fit as a fiddle, though I can’t jump through any more windows, but we make sure routines are properly done,” he said that day.
“I’m ageing up for the part,” joked Berwick, 76, as the Old Mother turned into the Old Granny. “I just think we can have a lot of fun with the audience about getting older. They know my age, Martin and Suzy’s age, playing my son and daughter, so each year I make them younger,” he says.
Surrounded by familiar faces, Berwick does have one new factor this year: the role of UK Productions as the Grand Opera House panto producers for the first time. “They’re the second largest panto company in the country, and they do know the history of our pantomime,” he says.
No Covid restrictions, no masks, means Berwick can revel in interaction with the audience once more. “Last year, we could only hear the laughter, not see the smiles,” he said. “But this year, I can go down the steps from the stage, get out to the audience, and I’m only interested in doing the show if I can still do that because there has to be ad-libbing.”
The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose runs at Grand Opera House, York, until Sunday. Performances: 2pm and 7pm, Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 1pm and 7pm, Sunday. Box office: atgtickets.com/York
THIS is as much The Misadventures Of Old Granny Goose as The Adventures of the aforesaid ageing old bird.
Berwick Kaler and his ex-York Theatre Royal gang are back together, re-grouping like The Rolling Stones or the Friends cronies to recall the old hits – Berwick and a dummy, Berwick flying (twice), Berwick and a pool with powers that take years off his dame and, above all, Berwick going off-piste, off script – for the faithful.
Those moments, at liberty to ad-lib, are the ‘misadventures’, the ones that most delight, Berwick wandering off to the stage apron to take in the audience with mischief in his eyes, Berwick apologetically and rough-handedly correcting his misplaced stage spot, Berwick making a political jibe, Berwick winding up his fellow regulars and teasing his ensemble newbies.
What’s fresh this year? The Grand Opera House, the comeback dame’s adopted panto home for a second year, has undergone a refurbishment, new seating et al; the panto has new producers, UK Productions, overseeing costumes (an upgrade on last year), set design (standard panto scenery, smart, proficient, no York detailing) and lighting (hi-tech with a dash of pop-concert glitz).
What else? Lovely fairy lights adorning the proscenium arch; a welcome revamp of the stock ghost scene with beds disappearing and reappearing and a host of ghosts; puppy-keen Jake Lindsay’s upgrade to a more prominent role as Jakey Lad, still the butt of Berwick’s putdowns after a decade in the ranks.
And what’s more? The three lads in the dance ensemble (Spencer Hardy, Elliot OJ Hutchinson and dance captain Samuel Lithco) aping Matthew Bourne’s all-male chorus in a brief burst of Swan Lake, plus ensemble debuts for Leeds-trained Lucy Churchill and Niamh Hendron, and a new intake of children from York Stage School for babbies’ sweetness in ensemble scenes.
What’s old this year? The Grand Dame, of course, sending himself/herself up at 76, aware that unlike his character, Mrs Plum Duff, the Granny Goose of the title, he cannot turn back panto-time by taking a magical pool dip.
Instead, the drama-queen dame mock-collapses at the end of big number Barmy Girl in mock-exhaustion, play acting as he demands to be helped up. He adamantly says he can’t deliver his lines any faster when urged to do so and deliberately turns his balletic flight landing into an inelegant tumble.
What’s the (lack of!) plot this year? Well, no, Berwick hasn’t lost the plot, but it’s brief. Or, correction, devilish David Leonard’s dandy villain, the goose-fearing Lucifer Nauseus, says it is. He has to find a fairy. That’s it. The plot.
Well, like on an allotment, there’s plot aplenty, or at least by writer-director Berwick’s infamous plot-resistant standards, there is. But yes, in essence, the villain must find a fairy to do his evil bidding for him. Oh, and the dame has to be under the misconception that the Goose is a dog.
What ticks over this year? Kirsty Sparks’s choreography; Rob Thorne’s band, and especially Berwick’s double act with comic fall guy Martin Barrass (dippy son Jessie Plum Duff), partner in the ghost scene, The Lambton Worm song sheet, and rocking-chair ventriloquism routine with Boris Johnson as the dummy.
That Tory old boy scene defines the dip in madcap mayhem since peak Kaler years, being laboured (not Laboured, unlike this pun), where it needs to make more of Johnson’s blustering vocal schtick and boot him with sharper barbs about his mendacious character.
What works best this year? No surprises. Leonard’s fab-u-lous vainglorious villainy, with his devil’s swishing tail that turns into a phone, his stage-vamping swagger, that Shakespearean lead thespian voice and his comic timing. Everything done with aplomb amid the Plum Duffs.
His rendition of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day with first Suzy Cooper, then AJ Powell, is the show’s comic high point, anything but a perfect day, but witty and physically funny too.
What about Cooper and Powell this year? On good form, principal gal Suzy doubling up as both a classic Fairy and plummy Cissy Plum Duff, who is all doe-eyed over Powell’s would-be novelist, Brum Stoker (the pick of Kaler’s cast names for 2022).
What’s missing this year? The film; the water splosh scene; old-school physical slapstick; topical references (save for yesterday’s men, Johnson and Matt Hancock), and an animal costume for Barrass.
What replaces them? The jousting banter between the familiar players; the greater emphasis on song and dance (Leonard going from one song immediately into another); the comforting constant sense of nostalgia for Dame Berwick devotees.
The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose does not lay a golden egg of cracking comedy but is more of a curate’s egg, sunny side up at times, flat as a pancake on occasion. There is more than enough for the loyal legions, not enough for new converts.
“We’ve never, ever taken you for granted,” said Dame Berwick at the finale, both grateful and hopeful of a return. After all, this Kaler – and his goose – on the loose is not the oldest dame in town this Christmas.
A certain Sir Ian McKellen’s Caroline Goose, aged 83, is in residence in Mother Goose at the Duke of York’s, London, from tonight (15/12/2022) until January 29, then on tour until April 1.
GRAND dame Berwick Kaler will step on a York stage on Wednesday for the first time since Covid ruled him out of the last week of his comeback show, Dick Turpin Rides Again, last December.
Last winter had marked his crosstown transfer to the Grand Opera House after four decades at York Theatre Royal, bringing his trusty cohorts, vainglorious villain David Leonard, spring-heeled comic stooge Martin Barrass, golden principal gal Suzy Cooper and “luverly Brummie” AJ Powell, along for the ride.
Roll on a year, and all the team are back once more after protracted contract negotiations for 49 performances of The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose, Dame Berwick’s 42nd York panto.
Some things have not changed: at 76, and five years on from his double heart bypass operation and having his pacemaker fitted – or “Gerry” as he calls it – Dame Berwick is still directing the show, as well as performing the dame’s role, Mrs Plum-Duff this year.
He completed writing the script at 6am last Thursday, as close to the “deadline” as ever for rehearsals at a new location for 2022, Theatre@41, Monkgate.
“I have to say the management has been as good as gold,” says Dame Berwick. “I’ve ended up by concentrating on what I consider good old-fashioned pantomime values, so I’ve put the emphasis on the verbal exchanges.”
Other things have changed, however. Last year’s partners in the Grand Opera House pantomime, Qdos Entertainment/Crossroads Live, have made way after only a year for UK Productions, whose musical theatre shows and pantomime play across Britain and Ireland, London’s West End, mainland Europe, Turkey, Malta, Malaysia and New Zealand.
Berwick, meanwhile, has suffered the loss of his partner, David Norton, after 40 years together. “It’s the loneliness. Suddenly you’re alone,” he says of the grief he has experienced. “We couldn’t have got this show on if I didn’t have the team around me. There’s no way I could have done it otherwise.
“I’ve lost a way of life,” he reflects. “I have to do everything now. There are two dogs [spaniels, should you be wondering]; they’d go out two or three times a day with David, so they were always looked after during my pantomime commitments.
“Now I’ve had to bring my sister and her husband up from Ilkley to look after them, let them out, during Old Granny Goose, and they’re in their 80s.”
Berwick’s weight has dropped to nine and a half stone, his face and legs thinner at 76. “I’d always been around 11 stone. That was my fighting weight for pantomime,” he says. “I can’t afford to lose any more.”
He once said he lost as much two stone during those long, long pantomime runs at York Theatre Royal, an endurance test of heavy costumes and even heavier workloads when three performances a day were not uncommon over weekends and the festive holidays in bygone days.
The fighting spirit still burns inside, coupled with the need to entertain, to savour the roar of the crowd. “If I can get through this year, then I can get through anything in life,” says Berwick.
He may have vowed to retire at 70 or after 40 years of pantomimes, settling for the second route out, but he quickly regretted that decision. “I still think I can give people a laugh, and I think this show will be a laugh,” he says.
“I’ve always worked, and anything I’ve got, I’ve always worked for. I’ve just worked and worked from the age of 15 [when he headed from Sunderland to London to be a painter and decorator]. I still need that fix of performing every year – and I’m feeling fit.”
As for the content of The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose, Dame Berwick says: “I hope you think the humour is all natural. I take the mick out of myself about my age, like when I do this Barbie Girl number – I’m calling it ‘Barmy Girl’ – where I collapse at the end.
“The good thing is that we can all take the mick out of each other on stage after all these years, and audiences love that.
“But there’ll be no mention of Covid or the hardships that people have had to go through. They don’t want that right now.
“Mind you, it’s so difficult, especially now in these woke times, when I’ll write something that I don’t think will offend anyone, but then someone says, ‘you can’t say that’. Though I’m all for woke progress, it’s suffocating comedy.”
Slapstick will still play its part. “I can do some lovely slapstick, like a decorating scene, making Martin do all the physical stuff!” says Dame Berwick. “But I can’t throw buckets of water. That’s just not practical anymore. When you ‘move house’ [to the Grand Opera House], you have to adjust.
“But I’ve still got sections in the script where I’ll go down the steps to the stalls to banter with the audience. That was something we really missed under Covid restrictions.”
Dame Berwick wants to continue tapping into the inner child, the one devoid of a sense of embarrassment when throwing off the shackles of English reserve in pantoland. “That’s why there’ll be no retirement. I’ve had one very big retirement and that’s it,” he says. The boots with one yellow lace, one red, are not ready for hanging up.
Berwick Kaler in The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose, Grand Opera House, York, December 10 to January 8 2023. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/york.
THEY’LL be back. All of them. Not only Dame Berwick Kaler, dastardly David Leonard and luvverly Brummie AJ Powell, but comic stooge Martin Barrass and principal gal Suzy Cooper too in The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose.
The Famous In York Five will resume pantomime business after all at the Grand Opera House after the initial pantomime ticket-launch press release left out Martin and Suzy, saying only that “further casting will be announced soon.”
“I was just finalising my contract through my agent,” clarified Martin after Wednesday’s meet-and-greet with the loyal queue that had begun forming at 3.40am outside the Cumberland Street theatre’s box office. “It was the same with Suzy, who doesn’t use an agent and does her own negotiations.”
Neither Suzy, nor AJ, was present on Wednesday but Dame Berwick, Martin and David pressed the flesh, then met the press to discuss their second year at the Opera House after their crosstown move from York Theatre Royal.
“I’m so glad Suzy will be back because I think she’s going to give us a run for our money as she’ll be playing two parts,” said Berwick.
“I gave you that idea,” interjected David. “She’s the fairy but she’s also my daughter and I don’t know she’s a fairy,” Berwick ploughed on. “Yes, that was my idea,” insisted David.
After last winter’s Dick Turpin Rides Again was produced by Crossroads Pantomimes [“the world’s biggest pantomime producer”], the Opera House panto has switched to new producers, UK Productions [“one of the country’s leading producers of musical theatre and pantomime, both nationally and internationally”].
“They’re a very good company, good on costumes and design, and they have The Kite Runner opening on Broadway,” said David.
“They’re a nice company, like a family,” said Berwick. “They were full of praise for the work we’ve done in pantomime, and I say ‘we’ because I had one discussion with Martin [producer Martin Dodd], where he thought he could easily find a replacement for one cast member…
“Martin!” interjected David. Berwick’s tongue had been in his cheek until this point, but he turned more serious to emphasise: “They’d come to York, and l’d said to them, ‘you can’t put a price on that rapport and how we’re just ordinary actors who’ve built up a reputation, and you can’t put a price on the way we work together. It’s taken us years’.
“I think the audience wouldn’t accept not having us in the show, and these Grand Opera House shows wouldn’t have happened without us all being in them.”
Berwick misses having a trapdoor for its potential comic mayhem, but describes the Opera House as “a great theatre for pantomime”. “It’s a joy to play here,” said David. “I love the vista of the seating,” said Martin. “That massive sweep of stalls, dress circle and grand circle. It’s like the West End theatre of York, and there are no bad seats.”
Covid restrictions prevented Kaler and co going walkabout in Dick Turpin Rides Again. “We couldn’t go down the steps for Covid-safety reasons,” said Berwck. “But hopefully that will be different this year.”
“The band had to be under the stage last time so that we weren’t spitting on them, but all being well they’ll be back in view in the pit.”
Berwick will be in triple threat mode once more at the age of 76 [his birthday falls on October 31], writing and directing the show as well as playing the venerable dame. Already he is bouncing script ideas off David and Martin and, as for the directorial role, he said: “I don’t have to do that much with this lot, so I can concentrate on the chorus and anyone new, if we have a ‘guest’ join us.
“They’re all family in the ensemble and they all want to come back. They had a good time with Dick Turpin Rides Again and they want another good time.”
Last winter’s pantomime played to audiences advised to wear masks. “You stopped thinking about it because you got used to it, and it didn’t affect the laughter,” said Berwick.
“I decided not to mention Covid because what would have been the point? There’s nothing funny about it.
But what I will do is never get away from being edgy in what I say on stage, though I will never insult anyone’.” Martin and David act out their mock surprise at this comment, but maybe ‘jests’ is a better word than ‘insults’ for Kaler’s adlibs and asides.
“You’ve never taken the easy line of picking on someone in the audience for what they’re wearing,” noted David.
“We’ve always taken the mick out of ourselves instead,” said Berwick. “But no in-jokes; there’s no place for those.”
Kaler and co last staged Mother Goose in 2014-2015 at York Theatre Royal under the title of Old Mother Goose. “I want it to be different. I don’t want it to be Old Mother Goose again,” said Berwick.
“Or even Mama Goose?” said David. “It’ll be The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose,” said Berwick. “The parents can tell their bairns, ‘yes, there will be a goose in it’. ‘Yes, there’ll be an old Mother Goose in it’. ‘Yes, there’ll be a goose egg in it’, but after that, leave me alone to come up with ideas.”
Whereupon Berwick, Martin and David started to recall their past encounters with Mother Goose, like the one with the motorised duck with a life of its own and…
“I remember in the first Mother Goose, we had an 8ft goose that we had to hide from the audience,” recalled Martin. “So, we put a pair of dog’s ears on it!”
The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose will run at Grand Opera House, York, from December 10 2022 to January 8 2023. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York