“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.
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 charleshutchpress.co.uk review: “Sleeping Beauty awakes at York Theatre Royal but should Dame Berwick era be put to bed?”
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.
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?