SIX queen Jen Caldwell and Les Miserables star Samuel Wyn-Morris join Grand Opera House panto cast for Beauty And The Beast

Who’s who in Beauty And The Beast: from left, Phil Atkinson’s Hugo Pompidou, Jen Caldwell’s Belle, Dani Harmer’s Fairy Bon Bon, Leon Craig’s Polly la Plonk,  Samuel Wyn-Morris’s The Beast and Phil Reid’s Louis La Plonk

WHO will play the lead roles – the last to be announced – in the Grand Opera House pantomime, Beauty And The Beast, in York?

Producers UK Productions have confirmed that SIX The Musical star Jen Caldwell will be heading back to the Cumberland Street theatre after her fun-loving Yorkshire-voiced minx Anne Boleyn was head and shoulders the stand-out in Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s pop concert musical in October 2022.

“I am so excited to be returning to York and the beautiful Grand Opera House after having a wonderful time there with SIX back in 2022,” says Jen. “I can’t wait to meet all the wonderful panto audiences and spread some festive joy.” 

Welsh actor Samuel Wyn-Morris, whose role as Enjolras in Les Miserables brought him to Leeds Grand Theatre in November 2022, will be The Beast in the December 7 to January 5 2025 run.

New addition: Jen Caldwell’s Belle in Beauty And The Beast

“I am thrilled to be returning to Beauty And The Beast and to pantoland this Christmas,” says Samuel, who starred in the Sunderland Empire’s version last winter. “To be in beautiful York over the festive period is exciting and I’m looking forward to it greatly.”

Caldwell and Wyn-Morris will be joining the previously announced Tracy Beaker star Dani Harmer’s Fairy Bon Bon, Phil Atkinson’s villainous Hugo Pompidou, Leon Craig’s dame, Polly la Plonk, comedian Phil Reid’s Louis la Plonk and David Alcock’s Clement, the villain’s sidekick.  

Martin Dodd, UK Productions’ managing director and producer, says: “We are absolutely delighted to welcome Samuel and Jen to the company of Beauty And The Beast. Both are amazing West End musical theatre talents and bring a wealth of experience to what we can promise will be the most musical, and magical, of all pantomimes.”

Heading for a beheading: Jen Caldwell’s Anne Boleyn in SIX The Musical, on tour at the Grand Opera House, York, in October 2022. Picture: Pamela Raith

What lies in store in the first pantomime since the final curtain for Dame Berwick Kaler’s three-year residency at the Grand Opera House? “This year’s panto brings a larger-than-life range of characters together with side-splitting comedy, stunning sets and costumes, and with an award-winning script by Jon Monie, this will be a magnificent must-see musical adventure,” says the publicity machine.

“With additional morning performances for schools and suitable for all ages, this is not to be missed, with tickets from just £15.”

Laura McMillan, the Grand Opera House theatre director, says: “From the West End to York, this year our pantomime is set to be like nothing seen before at the Grand Opera House. We can’t wait to welcome families and friends to join us for this festive spectacular and I know the talented cast will wow our audiences and create memories for years to come.” 

Tickets are on sale at

Jen Caldwell: the back story

Jen Caldwell

TRAINED at London School of Musical Theatre.

Credits include: Cover/resident director in Kathy & Stella Solve A Murder (West End); Emmeline Pankhurst in Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World (UK tour); Anne Boleyn in Six The Musical (UK, Ireland & Korea tour & West End); alternate Anne Boleyn & Katherine Howard in Six The Musical (UK & Ireland tour),

Swing/cover Heather/resident director in Green Day’s American Idiot (UK and Ireland tour); swing/cover Emily in Knights Of The Rose, (Arts Theatre); Flick in The Rhythm Method workshop, (The Bush Theatre and The Landor Space); Dyanne in Million Dollar Quartet (Indian tour); cover Dyanne/resident director/resident choreographer in Million Dollar Quartet (UK and Ireland tour); cover Princess Fiona in Shrek The Musical (UK and Ireland tour) and cover Sophie and Ali in Mamma Mia! (Prince of Wales and Novello Theatres).

Samuel Wyn-Morris: the back story

Samuel Wyn-Morris in his role as The Beast

TRAINED at Guildford School of Acting.

Best known for his role as Enjolras in Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Miserables.

Theatre credits include: Beauty & The Beast (Sunderland Empire); Frederick Fleet in Titanic The Musical (China tour); Enjolras in Les Misérables (UK tour); Feuilly/Understudy Jean Valjean & Enjolras in Les Misérables (Sondheim Theatre); Feuilly/Understudy Enjolras in Les Misérables – The Staged Concert (Sondheim Theatre); Ensemble in Alan Ayckbourn’s The Divide (Old Vic Theatre).

Dani Harmer to wave fairy wand of change over Grand Opera House panto. Who’s joining her in Beauty And The Beast?

“I adore playing the loveable and slightly bonkers Fairy Bon Bon, so cannot wait to put on my wings once more,” says Grand Opera House-bound Dani Harmer

OUT with the old, in with the new, for the Grand Opera House pantomime in York, following the exit of Berwick Kaler and co after three years.

In come BAFTA award-winning Dani Harmer, Phil Reid, Leon Craig, Phil Atkinson and David Alock to star in Beauty And The Beast, UK Productions’ third panto at the Cumberland Street theatre, from December 7 to January 5. Further star-studded casting for Belle and the Beast will be announced shortly.

Best known for playing the title role in the CBBC series Tracey Beaker and its sequel Tracey Beaker Returns, from the age of 13, and later My Mum Tracey Beaker in 2021, Harmer will wave her wand as Fairy Bon Bon.

“I can’t think of a better place to be spending the Christmas period,” says Dani Harmer of her return to York

Bracknell-born Harmer, now 35, has appeared in numerous pantomimes and West End musical theatre shows, including playing the title role in York Barbican’s 2012 panto, Cinderella, when she had to miss two performances that clashed with her commitments competing in BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing that season.

In the “craziest fortnight of my life”, she had to combine rehearsing each morning at the Barbican and spending each afternoon and evening at the University of York, practising routines with partner Vincent Simone, first for the semi-final, then three for the final: a tango, jive and show dance (Bohemian Rhapsody). “It’s been the best thing I have ever done,” she said at the time.

Earlier that year at York Barbican too, she appeared as Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz, returning there in March 2015 for two performances as Beauty in the Easter pantomime Beauty And The Beast. In between, she played not-so-innocent Janet in The Rocky Horror Show at Leeds Grand Theatre in June 2013 

Dani Harmer in the role of Beauty in Beauty And The Beast at York Barbican in March 2015

Now she will star in Beauty And The Beast in York for a second time, switching from Beauty to Fairy Bon Bon. “I’m super excited to be back in my favourite panto of all time, Beauty And The Beast,” says Dani.

“For those that don’t know, I have always been completely obsessed with this story, so it is a real joy for me to be bringing it to life on stage. And I adore playing the loveable and slightly bonkers Fairy Bon Bon, so cannot wait to put on my wings once more.

“And even more exciting to be coming to the gorgeous city of York! I can’t think of a better place to be spending the Christmas period. So, bring on the Yorkshire puddings and I really hope you enjoy our magical beauty of a show.”

Phil Reid’s Louis la Plonk

Joining Dani will be award-winning comedian Phil Reid as Louis la Plonk and panto dame extraordinaire and musical theatre star Leon Craig as his larger-than-life mum, Polly la Plonk, after West End appearances in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Disney’s Aladdin.

Musical theatre star Phil Atkinson, from The Bodyguard, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Little Shop Of Horrors, will play the dastardly Hugo Pompidou, with David Alcock, from The Mousetrap and the BBC’s SAS: Rogue Heroes, as his assistant in villainy, Clement.

Producers UK Productions will be “pulling out all of the stops to bring their award-winning version of this timeless tale to York”. Managing director and producer Martin Dodd says: “We are delighted to be returning to the beautiful Grand Opera House and even more so that we can bring one of our favourite productions for the Christmas season.

Phil Atkinson’s dastardly Hugo Pompidou

“The show is filled with comedy, show-stopping tunes, a cast of top musical performers, magic and an award-winning script by Jon Monie [prize winner for Best Script in the 2019 Great British Pantomime Awards]. It’s a fantastic show for young and old and one that is sure to make your Christmas complete.”

Grand Opera House theatre director Laura McMillan says: “This year our Christmas is set to be a cross between a hilarious pantomime and a spectacular West End musical, really something for everyone.

“The audience are in for a festive treat, with a show packed full of award-winning talent and stars from the West End. There’s no doubt Beauty And The Beast will be a huge hit with something for all the family.”

Expect “larger-than-life characters, an unmissable transformation moment, slide-splitting comedy and stunning sets and costumes”, promises the panto press release.

Tickets are on sale at

Leon Craig’s dame, Polly la Plonk, in Beauty And The Beast

‘I’m just sorry that I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye,’ says retiring dame Berwick Kaler as he exits stage left after 47 years

Berwick Kaler’s dame Dotty Dullaly in his last pantomime, Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse at the Grand Opera House, York. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

BERWICK Kaler, Britain’s longest-running pantomime dame, is “bowing out gracefully after 47 years of getting away with complete nonsense” on the York stage, but there could yet be one final show.

“It has crossed my mind to maybe do a one-off performance as a thank-you, a show of appreciation to the staunch fans of our pantomime,” says Berwick.

Most likely it would be held at the Grand Opera House, host to the Kaler panto for the past three winters.

“I don’t want to say too much but the farewell has been handled wrongly,” says Berwick. “I’ll be 78 later this year [October 31], I’m ready to retire, but I would like to have made the decision in a better way.”

A seven-minute standing ovation had concluded the final night of Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse – written and directed by and starring the dowager dame as ever – but ticket sales for the December 9 to January 6 run had been underwhelming, even prompting a discounted price campaign.

“All those panto companies in the business, they need to make money,” acknowledges Berwick. “But I just thought, after the reception from the audience to that last show, which was totally amazing…

“…I’ve always said that every show I’ve done was ‘rubbish’, but that standing ovation, I don’t know if they knew something that night.

“I know it can’t go on forever. It can’t. I’ve not spoken anyone apart from [UK Productions managing director] Martin Dodds, who rang to let me know, so I’ve kept it to myself for a week.

“What I don’t want is for us to continue and for me to find that my energy levels – which were as good as ever for Robinson Crusoe – were suddenly not there. I smoke, I drink, I’m lucky to have got to the age I have!”

The last gang show: Martin Barrass, left, dame Berwick Kaler, Suzy Cooper, David Leonard and AJ Powell promoting Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse outside the Grand Opera House, York. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

That thought would seem to rule out any suggestion of a move for Kaler and co to the Joseph Rowntree Theatre for winter 2024, in favour of a farewell one-nighter.

“I’ve had a pacemaker for eight years,” says Berwick, who also had a double heart bypass operation in July 2017. “I wanted to get out of hospital the day after the pacemaker was fitted. They said ‘No’, but I did leave the next day!

“I’m just sorry that I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to our most wonderful audiences, to say ‘thank you’ on my part and everyone in the panto gang’s part too. Now it’s about just getting used to looking after my two dogs on my own in Acomb.”

And now, the end is here, the final curtain falling after panto producers UK Productions decided not to retain the services of veteran dame Berwick, who had transferred across the city after 40 years at York Theatre Royal to stage Dick Turpin Rides Again and subsequently Old Granny Goose and Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse.

“I would love to thank everyone in York for giving me a career that would not have gone on this length of time without their support, because every minute I’ve been on stage I’ve just bounced off the audience’s energy, and I’m so grateful for that,” says Berwick.

“When we went to the Grand Opera House, it continued to be ‘the York pantomime’, and that’s a reputation I hope will go on.”

Exiting panto stage left too will be Kaler’s “loyal gang”: long-serving comic stooge Martin Barrass, vainglorious villain David Leonard, principal golden gal Suzy Cooper and “luverly Brummie” A J Powell after their three-year run at the Cumberland Street theatre.

Thanking his co-stars for “putting up with me for so many years”, Berwick says: “I don’t know why UK Productions, even if they didn’t want me anymore, wouldn’t want to keep David, the best villain in the country, the amazing Suzy, Martin and AJ.”

Born in Sunderland, Berwick moved to London in his teenage years to be a painter and decorator, but the acting bug bit. Initially, in pantomime Berwick took to the dark side as a villain but 1977 found him donning his wig as Ugly Sister Philomena in Cinderella at the Theatre Royal after playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that summer.

This would be the last time: Berwick Kaler’s dame Dotty Dullaly in familiar rudimentary wig and workman’s boots with contrasting laces in Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

He would go on to play dame, write the script, ignore conventional plot lines, ad lib ad nauseam and direct “the rubbish”, year after year, bringing him the Freedom of the City, an honorary doctorate from the University of York and a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Great British Pantomime Awards.

“I came to York, not known to the Theatre Royal audience, but the thing is, they take a comic actor to their heart and that was case with me,” he says.

He retired once… “Don’t forget, when I announced my retirement from the Theatre Royal, I was ready to retire. It was that thing of marking 40 years.”

He soon regretted that decision, even more so after writing, co-directing and appearing on screen in the 2019 panto, Sleeping Beauty, and particularly so after the Theatre Royal decided to part with the Kaler gang to make way for a new partnership with Evolution Pantomimes.

The invitation to take up a three-year contract at the Grand Opera House brought about his comeback in 2021, but his finale to his last interview with The Press turned out to be prescient.

“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],” he mused last December.

“When they announce the next Grand Opera House pantomime, it will either be with us or without us.”

The reality is, “without us”, but with a new “star casting” instead for Beauty And The Beast’s run from December 7 to January 5 2025, with tickets on sale from Monday, March 11 at 4pm  at

As for that Berwick Kaler farewell show, watch this space.

Copyright of The Press, York

End of an era as Berwick Kaler hangs up his boots & wig after 47 years as York’s panto dame. “Bowing out gracefully,” he says

Ape japes: Berwick Kaler in his last pantomime, as Dame Dotty Dullally, in Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse at the Grand Opera House, York. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

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 Powell 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.

The last gang show: Berwick Kaler, second from right, with David Leonard, Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper and A J Powell, promoting Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse on King’s Staith

“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 director Laura 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

Full story to follow.

Berwick and panto crew will be all at sea in Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse at Grand Opera House

Five mates on the River Ouse: Grand Opera House pantomime stars David Leonard, left, Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper, dame Berwick Kaler and AJ Powell. All pictures: Charlie Kirkpatrick

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.

“Sometimes, when you think, ‘why’s he doing that?’, it turns out to be a brilliant show,” says Berwick Kaler as he prepares to turn Robinson Crusoe into a pantomime for the first time

“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.

Who will panto villain David Leonard be playing in Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse? How the devil should he know!

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].”

“We have an identity as ‘the crazy gang’,” says Suzy Cooper

“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.”

“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?’,” says Martin Barrass

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!”

AJ Powell: Definitely playing Luvverly Jubberly in Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse

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.

Shipwrecked! Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates Of The River Ouse pantomime stars David Leonard, left, AJ Powell, Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper and dame Berwick Kaler land on the Grand Opera House stage at Wednesday afternoon’s launch in York

“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

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

Dame Berwick and his crew all at sea as they launch Robinson Crusoe piratical pantomime for Grand Opera House

Messing about on the river: Dame Berwick Kaler, AJ Powell and David Leonard spot an incoming Grand Opera House pantomime. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

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

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.

Martin Barrass takes the wheel on the City Cruises self-drive boat as fellow Grand Opera House pantomime stars Berwick Kaler, AJ Powell and David Leonard launch Robinson Crusoe And The Pirates On The Ouse. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

“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’s panto, The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose, is on the home straight

Berwick Kaler’s dame, Mrs Plum-Duff, in The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose. Picture: David Harrison

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:

REVIEW: Dame Berwick Kaler in The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose, Grand Opera House, York, until January 8 2023 ***

Flagging, but not flagging: York pantomime dowager dame Berwick Kaler in regal attire for The Lambton Worm song sheet, from County Durham, at the Grand Opera House. All pictures: David Harrison

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).

Unspeakable dummy: Berwick Kaler’s Mrs Plum Duff and Martin Barrass’s Jessie try to work a truculent Boris Johnson in the ventriloquism scene in The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose

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.

Old Mother Goose steps: David Leonard’s Lucifer Nauseus, centre, AJ Powell’s Brum Stoker, left, and Suzy Cooper’s Cissy, second from right, in a song-and-dance routine with ensemble Villagers

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.

Old Granny ghost: Jake Lindsay and a friendly ghost at play

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.

Helping hands: A play-acting Berwick Kaler’s no longer super-annuated Mrs Plum Duff needs a lift from Elliot OJ Hutchinson’s Villager, left, and Jake Lindsay’s Jakey Lad after the dame’s big musical number

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.

“Hope you will return,” they sing: The walkdown finale in golden costumes with Berwick Kaler’s Mrs Plum Duff orchestrating the closing song

Goose on the loose as pantomime box office opens for the return of the ‘Famous In York Five’ at Grand Opera House

Just the ticket: Berwick Kaler, left, Martin Barrass and David Leonard launch box-office sales for The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose at the Grand Opera House, York. Picture: David Harrison

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.

Suzy Cooper as Donna Donut in Dick Turpin Rides Again last winter. Picture: David Harrison

“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’.

The Grand Opera House pantomime queue meets David Leonard, Berwick Kaler and Martin Barrass at Wednesday’s box-office launch. Picture: David Harrison

“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.

Berwick Kaler in the “Eric Sykes Bar” at Wednesday’s launch day for The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose

“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.

Pantomime stars Berwick Kaler, centre, Martin Barrass and David Leonard reunite for playful pantomime japes at the Grand Opera House. Picture: David Harrison

“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

‘I’m definitely doing it!’, says York panto star Martin Barrass. ‘See you at Opera House’

Berwick Kaler and Martin Barrass, pictured in last winter’s Dick Turpin Rides Again

YORK pantomime star Martin Barrass WILL be in this winter’s Grand Opera House show, he says.

Dame Berwick Kaler’s perennial comic sidekick has posted a reassuring message on social media after his name was missing from those confirmed for The Adventures Of Old Granny Goose’s run from December 10 2022 to January 8 2023.

The familiar team of dowager dame Kaler, dastardly villain David Leonard and “luvverly Brummie” AJ Powell have been signed up by the Ambassador Theatre Group theatre’s new pantomime producer, UK Productions, but yesterday’s press release made no reference to either Barrass or principal golden gal Suzy Cooper. “Further casting will be announced soon,” the announcement concluded.

This prompted spring-heeled Barrass to bounce back on social media: “I’m definitely doing it! Worry not! I think there was a blip in the publicity dept methinks. Either that or they’ve never heard of me lol. See you at the Opera House for the GRAND LAUNCH 13th April at 10!!”

Yesterday’s announcement stated Kaler and Leonard would be on hand at next Wednesday’s ticket sale launch.

The official confirmation on Barrass’s panto participation is awaited. Likewise, whether Suzy Cooper will or will not be returning.