THE LAST WORD. Will Berwick Kaler ever play York Theatre Royal’s panto dame again? No.

Dame Berwick Kaler’s final wave at the end of his 40 years of pantomimes at York Theatre Royal on February 2 2019. All pictures: Anthony Robling

“Things have not gone well and it’s not the fault of the cast. The sets do not do what the script requires.” Dame Berwick Kaler, The Press, York, January 9.

IT should not have come to this, and yet it was inevitable. Berwick Kaler told the full house on the last night of his 40-year damehood on February 2 last year that he would be “back like a shot” if the Theatre Royal came a’calling.

Now, in a move without consultation with those above him to match the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in the very same week, and always a law unto himself, he has used the pages of The Press newspaper to tell the Theatre Royal to “take me back”, backed by long-serving principal girl Suzy Cooper.

“I made the biggest mistake saying I was going to retire,” said Dame Berwick. “I want to jump out of my suit and perform.”

Let’s remember that the dame called time; he was not pushed into retirement, and a 40th anniversary show gave Britain’s longest-serving dame a right royal and loyal send-off in The Grand Old Dame Of York.

The knives are out…but from Berwick Kaler and Suzy Cooper in The Press, and not A J Powell in Edward Scissorhands mode in Sleeping Beauty.

Fully fit after his double heart bypass, Dame Berwick has “retired” but, unlike Elvis,  not left the building, writing the script for Sleeping Beauty and co-directing the show with Matt Aston, purveyor of the past three rock’n’roll pantomimes at Leeds City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds.

Like the dame, many a boxer later decides he has made a mistake by retiring, but then makes a bigger one by returning, having lost his punch or, in Berwick’s case, his punchlines.

The splash story in The Press amounts to an act of mutiny by Berwick Kaler and Suzy Cooper, openly taking on the management and the board with a series of criticisms that have been refuted swiftly by executive director Tom Bird. In doing so, they are in essence saying “Back us or sack us” and calling on the public, “our audience”, to support their case.

Berwick may have been in for a shock when The Press’s invitation to Have Your Say on whether he should be back on stage next winter evoked such responses as: “No. Big ego.” “Time for completely new blood.” “Time to move on, Berwick”. “Definitely not.” “Stay retired Berwick. The pantomime has run its course.” Or, in the words of Farmer Tom: “Time to have a completely fresh start. The Kaler days were legendary but they’re gone. New blood needed.”

What the Kaler-Cooper outburst has done is bring the debate out into the open, just as was the intention of the headline in the review:  “Sleeping Beauty awakes at York Theatre Royal but should Dame Berwick era be put to bed?”

A picture of innocence: Suzy Cooper as the young Princess Beauty, with her cuddly toy, in Sleeping Beauty

At the request of the rest of the “Not Famous But Famous Five in York”, David Leonard, Suzy Cooper, Martin Barrass and AJ Powell, Berwick was taken on once more as writer and co-director, also appearing in the brace of films and voicing, aptly, a skeleton. The effect, however, was like Banquo’s Ghost haunting this halfway house of a show.

And now, within the bubble of self-preservation, Berwick wants to be back, Suzy wants him back. However, while a bad workman blames his tools, as the saying goes, this particular workman, Berwick, blamed someone else’s tools – the “cheap sets and cheap costumes” – for “things not going well” for Sleeping Beauty. It is true Anthony Lamble’s designs did not match the spectacular heights of predecessor Mark Walters, but that slur is a cheap, inaccurate shot, and although he is right that Sleeping Beauty’s failings are “not the fault of the cast”, what of his own tools as writer and co-director?

Berwick is deluded in believing the script was not at fault either, and it is no secret that the new, experimental Aston-Kaler directorial partnership did not gel, alas.

Where does York Theatre Royal go next? Bird and board cannot answer only to the needs and wishes of Berwick, Suzy and their “loyal audience”. There is a wider audience to consider; those who do not go to a Dame Berwick pantomime, but would like to see in this new decade with a new beginning for the Theatre Royal’s winter show.

In particular, a show for the next generation of theatre-goers, children, who are noticeably outnumbered by adults at the Kaler brand of chaotic meta-panto, in contrast to the audience profile of pantomimes across the country.

David Leonard as Evil Diva in Sleeping Beauty, but will the greatest villain in pantoland return to York Theatre Royal next winter?

The CharlesHutchPress review of Sleeping Beauty on December 12 ended by pondering the Theatre Royal’s vision for 2020. “Are the days of this brand of pantomime behind you?”, it asked, “because the patented but weary “same old rubbish” won’t suffice next year.

“This is no laughing matter, and here are the options,” it went on. “Bring back Dame Berwick full on, working from the inside, not the outside, with all that goes with that; or 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…”.

The future of the Kaler pantomime is uncertain, says Suzy, who fears the axe, but the future of pantomime at York Theatre Royal is not uncertain. Will the Theatre Royal “take Berwick back” into the panto fold on stage? No. No player is bigger than the club, as the football world is fond of saying, and to continue the football analogy, Berwick and Suzy have scored an own goal in going to The Press.

If Berwick, now 73, really does want to “jump out of my suit and perform”, then how about doing so in plays for the veteran stage of acting: Lear in King Lear, Prospero in The Tempest or Sir in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser with Martin Barrass as his Norman?

Come early February, we shall know the answer to the pantomime conundrum. Is it too outrageous to suggest that if it came to a choice between who is now more invaluable to the Theatre Royal panto, it would be the villainous David Leonard, not the mutinous Dame Berwick?

Charles Hutchinson

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