“Well looks like you put the nail in our coffin. Cheers for that.” So, what exactly was Charles Hutchinson’s verdict on the first post-Dame Berwick pantomime at York Theatre Royal?

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 yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

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 (December 11) 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

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