REVIEW: Sleeping Beauty awakes at York Theatre Royal but should Dame Berwick era be put to bed?

Giving him the bird: David Leonard’s Evil Diva in Sleeping Beauty at York Theatre Royal. All pictures: Robling Photography

Sleeping Beauty, York Theatre Royal, until January 25 2020. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

UNLESS you have been asleep for 100 years, you will know Sleeping Beauty is the first York Theatre Royal pantomime since Berwick Kaler hung up his big boots after 40 years as Britain’s longest-serving dame.

Unlike Elvis, however, Kaler has not left the building. Now 73, he is still taking care of business, writing the script; co-directing with Leeds City Varieties rock’n’roll pantomime alumnus Matt Aston; appearing in two film sequences and in doll’s head form for baby Beauty, and providing sporadic voice-overs too. In other words, there is still a Kaler on the loose.

Slice-up: A J Powell’s ever-changing modes transform him into Edward Scissorhands

“You have given me a purpose to life,” he told his adoring panto public as he waved goodbye through the final curtain on February 2 this year. “I’m not going anywhere. If this theatre needs me, I’ll be back like a shot.”

Executive director Tom Bird and co decided they did need him for the first pantomime of the post-dame, post Damian Cruden directorship era. Britain’s best villain, David Leonard, perennially bouncy sidekick Martin Barrass, ageless principal girl Suzy Cooper and chameleon Brummie A J Powell said they needed him too, to write the script.

And so Berwick was back like a shot, ticket sales have passed the 30,000 mark, but how do you fill the black hole, the tornado wreaking havoc, the master adlibber, the smasher of theatre’s fourth wall that is the Kaler dame?

All rise: Martin Barrass’s down-to-earth Queen Aradne with Jack Lansbury’s King and newcomer Howie Michaels’ Funky the Flunky in Sleeping Beauty

This is the elephant in the room, a role more usually taken by Barrass in one of his animal acts. In fact, a better comparison is Banquo’s ghost, haunting this halfway house of a panto.

Sleeping Beauty retains the Kaler template, from Babbies And Bairns theme tune opening to Hope You’ll Return Next Year finale to convoluted plot, via disappointingly unfunny films (one with Berwick and Harry Gration) and a futile slosh scene.

As there ain’t no-one like Berwick’s dame, the remaining panto gang of four spread out their familiar traits without ever filling the gap. Thankfully, there’s no rest for the wicked, and so David Leonard is still fab-u-lous, with a dash of dame, or more truthfully waspish drag queen, about his Evil Diva, and his character switch with Powell’s ever-so-nice Darth Vader is the show’s one coup de theatre.

Principal girl, cuddly toy: Suzy Cooper’s Princess Beauty

Suzy Cooper’s Princess Beauty goes from St Trinian’s schoolgirl with a cuddly toy to leading song-and-dance routines, searching forlornly for better material, especially in a year when she has excelled as Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare Rose Theatre’s Macbeth at Blenheim Palace.

Without his buddy Berwick to bounce off, Martin Barrass is in no man’s land – or even no mam’s land – as Queen Ariadne, not a dame, nor a queen, one with only one good (Bile Beans) costume and only one innovation, a nod to Eric Morecambe, to go with the old Barrass tropes.

Musical theatre newcomer Howie Michaels’s Funky the Flunky, big voice, big stage presence, fares well, and Jack Lansbury’s King/Tarquin Farquhar, dance captain Danielle Mullan and the ensemble work their panto socks off in frankly difficult circumstances, their reward coming in the stand-out Teenage Dirtbag routine, Grace Harrington’s best choreography..

Beauty and the beastly: Suzy Cooper with vainglorious villain David Leonard

Was it a mere coincidence that new designer Anthony Lamble’s sets lacked the sparkle of old, just as the comedy lacked the spark, surprise, timing, topicality and magical mayhem of the peak Kaler years?

Last night felt awkward, uncomfortable, indulgent. Bird and the board have to ask: “Are the days of this brand of pantomime behind you?”, because the patented but weary “same old rubbish” won’t suffice next year.

This is no laughing matter, and here are the options. Bring back Dame Berwick full on, working from the inside, not the outside, with all that goes with that; freshen up the panto in a different way, or find a new vehicle to utilise the talents of Leonard, Cooper, Barrass and Powell. Many a theatre has moved on from pantomime, whether Leeds Playhouse, the Stephen Joseph Theatre or Hull Truck, and still found a winter winner. We await the Bird call…

Charles Hutchinson

All rise for Martin Barrass, new queen of York Theatre Royal’s pantomime

Putting the Royal into York Theatre Royal: Martin Barrass as Queen Ariadne in Sleeping Beauty. Picture: Anthony Robling

HE ain’t nothing like a dame. Instead, Martin Barrass, perennial pantomime soft lad, comic stooge and sidekick punchbag, will not so much step into Berwick Kaler’s big boots at York Theatre Royal as reinvent himself in regal mode for Sleeping Beauty.

All rise for Barrass’s Queen Ariadne as the Hull-born actor adds to his repertoire in his 33rd panto, performing once more alongside David Leonard’s villainous Evil Diva, Suzy Cooper’s Princess Beauty and AJ Powell’s Darth Diva.

Dame Berwick may have left the stage after 40 years of pantomayhem, but he has not left the building, writing the script once more and directing the morning rehearsal sessions, as he works in tandem with new co-director Matt Aston for the first time.

Kaler has not been available for interviews, concentrating his energies elsewhere at 73 and leaving the spotlight to Barrass and others, although the betting odds are shorter than for Frankel at York Racecourse in 2012 that the departed dame will make an appearance on screen.

He’s still with stupid! “There’s still a bit there that’s my familiar character, so it has shades of the idiot,” says Martin Barrass. Picture: Anthony Robling

“My Queen will be like a duck,” says 63-year-old Barrass. “Looking serene on the surface but paddling away frantically beneath the water.

“This year, it sounds very much like I’ll be in a transitional place, where the dame would have been. My Queen will be ‘alpha and unputdownable’, but there’s still a bit there that’s my familiar character, so it still has shades of the idiot.”

Rather than anyone filling the black hole of pandemonium left by Kaler, the Panto Four will share the challenge, although the most intriguing progression is Barrass’s switch. “I’m aware it’s an enormous undertaking because people stop you in the street to ask, ‘So, Martin, are you the dame this year?’, and I have to say, ‘No, I’m the Queen of all her subjects’.

“I know I’m following in the footsteps of a master, the greatest ad-libber ever, and what you have to be in this role is slightly above it, aware of what’s going on around you, being prepared for any audience heckles.

Re-united: The Panto Four, now minus retired Dame Berwick Kaler,, in familiar pose, Suzy Cooper, David Leonard, Martin Barrass and A J Powell

“Comedy like this always has to be flexible, always switched on for the unexpected, the chance to be anarchistic.

”It will be a case of calming myself down for what lies ahead, but I’m lucky to have watched a genius in operation at close hand.”

You can sense that far from being intimidated by the task, Barrass is rising to it, just as he did when playing the deformed Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man or Stan Laurel in Laurel And Hardy at the Theatre Royal; station porter Albert Perks in E Nesbit’s The Railway Children at the National Railway Museum; or the 87-year-old waiter in Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors for the National Theatre at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Or, earlier this year, excelling as band conductor Danny Ormondroyd, “the Peter Postlethwaite role”, in Brassed Off at the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Bounce back: Martin Barrass in rehearsal for Sleeping Beauty. Picture: Anthony Robling

“I loved playing Perks, blowing the whistle, controlling the engines, just as I loved playing Danny, conducting a band of 36. I don’t know how we crammed them all in!” says Martin. “Being tone deaf, I had to learn everything about conducting. Playing Danny, he’s the king of his fiefdom, his colliery brass band, and he’s to be feared in some way, when you really make people listen to you.

“So now, playing Queen Ariadne, she won’t be afraid to throw her weight around, but in a nice way, as I’m only eight and a half stone.”

Over his 33 years as the stooge, Barrass has played all manner of animals, a giant carrot, a goofy archbishop and a twist on his hapless One Man, Two Guvnors character, the venerable, if physically vulnerable Chinese philosopher Wisehopper. The Queen will be different again. “Don’t expect to see a scrap of make-up because it’s in the tradition of Old Mother and Berwick’s dame: you know it’s played by a bloke,” he says.

“But how you play it is a tonal thing: you can have a lot of fun with the ‘bunchness’ of the voice, for example. Berwick always said, ‘I don’t want to offend the men in the room’, so I won’t be veering into the realms of drag and camp. I’ll leave that to David Leonard!”

Exit the dame: An emotional Martin Barrass, for so long his comic stooge, embraces Berwick Kaler at the close of the veteran dame’s last performance in The Grand Old Dame Of York on February 2.. Pictures: Anthony Robling

Placing his Queen, as opposed to a dame, Martin says: “Normally the role is someone like a washer woman of lower status, but you don’t get any bigger than the Queen! I’ll be playing her as a cross between Eric Morecambe and Fanny Craddock.

“As Berwick would be the first to say, you should do whatever suits you, whatever you’re at ease with, though there’ll still be traces of Hull in my Queen.

“So this Queen will be as common as muck, and that’s how you have fun with it, along with assuming Berwick’s role of always having the last say.”

He’s just had it!

Martin Barrass stars in Sleeping Beauty, York Theatre Royal, December 7 to January 25. Box office: 01904 623568, at or in person from the Theatre Royal box office.

By Charles Hutchinson

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