REVIEW: Dick Turpin Rides Again, The Legend Returns!, Grand Opera House, York, until January 9. Box office: atgtickets.com/york
BERWICK Kaler is at the Frank Sinatra comeback stage of his career, not the Elvis hologram with his old band taking care of business live on stage.
The panto pack has reassembled at a new home, originally at the invitation of pantomime juggernaut Qdos Entertainment, but now under the wing of Crossroads Pantomimes, Qdos’s new overlords.
This is the Berwick Kaler show as commercial pantomime in York’s commercial theatre, with costumes and set design (both uncredited) from the Crossroads stock, visual special effects by The Twins FX and pyrotechnics by Le Maitre. All such detail is of a higher quality than for the Grand Opera House pantos staged by Simon Barry’s New Pantomime Productions and Three Bears Productions.
Yet none of that matters to anyone wanting to renew acquaintances with writer-director Berwick and sidekick Martin, David, Suzy and AJ. The story here is the return to the stage of Britain’s longest-running dame for the first time since his retirement after 40 years at York Theatre Royal on February 2 2019.
“I thought you’d retired,” comes the jest. “So did I,” replies the Wearsider, eyes looning and bulbous in that familiar way. Doing panto is a hobby now, he explains.
Berwick’s pantomimes have become as divisive as Brexit. Leave. Remain. Retire. Come back. Get Brexit Done. Get Berwick Back. Too many bridges burnt for that ever to happen at his beloved Theatre Royal, but the die-hards felt betrayed, Suzy Cooper calling it “a travesty” that such a long-running show should end so abruptly. “We are not dead yet!” she exclaimed in her interview.
Qdos and now Crossroads have made those mutual wishes of cast and devotees come true, and while pantomime may be a hobby for Berwick at 75, it is a serious business too.
His absence from the stage, when writing and co-directing Sleeping Beauty in 2019-2020, left his partners rudderless without their panto cult leader. No Berwick, no panto, and on those grounds, he had to come back if a Kaler pantomime were to retain its identity. Ironically, he has chosen to play a character called Dotty Donut, the pastry one with the hole in the middle, when he has just filled that hole.
Meanwhile, across the city, York Theatre Royal and Evolution Productions are looking to create a modern, multi-cultural, topical 21st century pantomime, still oozing cheesy puns but above all with their eyes on a younger audience.
Berwick’s show is more like a greatest-hits set with the best Fleetwood Mac line-up ever back together again, albeit leaving out such big smashes as the water slapstick, the films and the Harry Gration cameo.
“Me babbies, me bairns” welcome? Tick. Rocking chair? Tick. Wagon Wheel chucking? Tick. Newcastle Brown? Tick. The fish-demanding crocodile from 2008’s Dick Turpin? Tick. Not a lot of plot? Tick. Occasional innuendos involving the show title? Tick. Dick.
Once a Berwick Kaler pantomime stood for anarchic innovation, with a waspish wag of a bossy bloke out front in big boots, an unruly wig and no garish make-up, making merry hell, full of viperish bite and joshing ad-libs.
Now it is more in keeping with that cosy rocking chair, the show being nostalgic, sentimental about our shared yesterdays, slower, gentler and, like Keith Richards, just glad still to be here. It is much shorter too, at a little over two hours, with the structure being more obviously a series of set-pieces, rather than having the free-flowing unpredictably of the peak years.
Berwick’s face and frame are noticeably thinner – he even mentions it in his Dolly Parton routine – and so less comical, and you can see him reaching for the comic timing, both in his own performance and in his writing for his fellow panto players, as he re-works old jokes.
He is not helped, and nor are they, by the novel barrier of the whole audience, rather than merely Dick Turpin, being masked. This precautionary constriction in Omicron’s nascent days has a deflating impact on noise levels from the seats, on interaction too, a dehumanising device that injects an air of caution.
In the absence of excitable children to pump up the volume, the cast may well have to push harder to break down the newly extra-thick fourth wall, maybe even acknowledging the new dress code for pantomime. Berwick restricts himself to mentioning Covid once in the shout-outs.
He takes the show very steadily, his slapstick reduced to coconuts dropping on his head and mucking around with a ball of dough, but suddenly there is a flash of the trademark Berwick when David Leonard’s microphone malfunctions, prompting the dowager dame to veer off-script with an impromptu quip.
Now, that’s timing, gold mined from a mishap, and you hope more such moments of mischief will emerge through the run when too much elsewhere has to work hard and for too long, not least the courtroom scene that was previously a high point of 2008’s Turpin premiere.
Leonard’s villainous Vermin the Destroyer is as reliably arch as ever, and his hip rap song is a riot in the company of the perky ensemble, choreographed with typical snazziness by Grace Harrington .
Suzy Cooper’s Donna Donut reprises her ditzy vampire bat from 2008, shows off her yoga moves and knowingly sends up her ageless principal girl schtick. Martin Barrass’s Dunkin Donut revisits his hapless waiter from One Man, Two Guvnors and forms a dwarf double act with Berwick, where his gift for physical comedy is frustratingly better than the script.
AJ Powell’s Luvlie Limpit is the best-developed character among the regulars, caught between good and evil as a particularly dim-witted assistant, sounding all the dimmer for that luvverly Brummie accent.
The fresh face among the regulars is Daniel Conway as an Essex lad Dick Turpin, a dandy highwayman, yes, but not so much the rogue of reputation as something of a hero keen to set the record straight. He has a lovely singing voice too, best demonstrated in the first half’s finale, You’ll Believe A Horse Can Fly!. Even a pantomime horse, in the manner of a pantomime cow.
Unlike Leonard’s errant microphone, Berwick Kaler is on best behaviour, but that is not Berwick on best form, when he has that glint in his eye for naughty interjections he can’t resist saying.
Berwick Kaler, the panto dame, is a tough act to follow. Here he is more of a tribute act to himself, and while there remains audiences for two contrasting pantos in York, will the comeback dame saddle up again or ride off into the sunset? Box-office figures will dictate.
York Mix Radio: Hear Charles Hutchinson’s immediate post-show response to Berwick Kaler’s pantomime comeback in Dick Turpin Rides Again in a race against time to answer David Dunning’s questions before the Grand Opera House staff turn off the lights .
Head to: https://youtu.be/zRAnOa5hGp4