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

3 Replies to “THE LAST WORD. Will Berwick Kaler ever play York Theatre Royal’s panto dame again? No.”

  1. I’m torn, on one hand I do feel Berwick has had his day, he left on a glorious high and is I’ll-advised to try get back under the table when there is clearly scope for some fresh talent. But then the fresh talent brought in, from production to script writing (yes I know Berwick did contribute) to set and costume design has let the audience down massively this year. I do feel Suzy and Martin, true professionals, have had their best days and would like to see new (GOOD, not cheap) talent added and working alongside this cast without their Berwick shadow. And age has no quarrel with David Leanard (or AJ Powell). I do feel public loyalty is shading its objectivity somewhat, Berwick at 73 cannot last indefinitely… but that said, I’m one of the countless loyal fans and would follow this crew anywhere rather than lose them. I do observe in particular the comment about audience composition and how it bucks the trend of pantos everywhere usually being full of children not adults… and wholeheartedly echo that, but for very different reasons. Most of this audience have been coming for years and and they like me, start bringing their own children, who grow and keep coming, brining, in time, THEIR children. Don’t allow the demographic make up to let you conclude it’s not hitting it’s target market… it has hit its target market so well, so consistently and enduringly that the market NEVER grows up and just keeps returning from 3 years old to 4 and 5 generations of family. If ticket sales are suffering, look to wider issues, Brexit, recession, austerity on a national level. Of course people trim away at life’s disposable luxuries (theatre, cinema and dining), nothing to do with this production or cast!
    I support what you have said and agree TOM Bird should not be held to ransom by Berwick, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater is an ill-considered and misinformed reaction to an over-reaching retired performer seeking his glory days. Yes, sweep with a new broom, dust off the ‘same old rubbish’ attitude, it is and I for one crave some new material but please don’t throw out our favourite fixtures and fittings with the spring clean. AJ Powel would be an excellent dame and given new material and an actual rational plot he and the remaining cast are still fool proof revenue cash cows.
    I do think this review is objective but coming from a rather narrow vantage point

  2. What a nasty, vitriolic and slightly jealous article. Berwick and the team mean a lot to York and the theatre should be thanking him for keeping them afloat.
    With the likes of Steve Pratt and Tom Bird, two of the most villainous and deceitful people in theatre, I can only wish the poor theatre good luck. Berwick, Martin, Suzy, David and all of the hard working team, people power will speak volumes. And as for this article, Charlie, you should do some digging at the theatre, you’ll find more than ruins!

  3. Excellent summary. ‘The king is dead, long live the king’……. a new era is needed

Comments are closed.