Writer: Berwick Kaler
Directors: Berwick Kaler & Matt Aston
Seldom has there been a show where you can find so many elements to criticise, but which remains a polished, entertaining piece of theatre. The problem is that recent events inevitably force comparisons which are not to the advantage of this year’s pantomime.
The theatre had to make a decision on the future course of the panto after Berwick Kaler announced that 40 years playing the Dame was enough. The legendary reputation of the York pantomimes is based on his unique talents, as writer and director as well as on stage. So what to do in 2019? Make a fresh start or hang on to what you can of past glories? York Theatre Royal took the second option, employing Kaler to write and direct (with Matt Aston, taking over from Damien Cruden) and bringing back all the panto favourites whose longevity at the Theatre Royal is exceeded only by the Grand Old Dame of York himself.
The result is Hamlet without the Prince. It’s taking things a touch too far to say, “There is nothing like a Dame”, but Martin Barrass is only a little bit like one and David Leonard even less. A pantomime without a Dame! Appearances by Berwick Kaler in two filmed sequences are not even very funny, even when his Queen Victoria takes a walk around York, and only serve to remind us what we’re missing. Traditional features of a Kaler pantomime are often sadly lacklustre: what’s the point of throwing Wagon Wheels into the audience when you haven’t got the Dame’s deadly throwing arm? The slosh scene and the song sheet number are oddly perfunctory and genuine audience participation is limited. One good gag is David Leonard realising they haven’t done a “he’s behind you” sequence and going through it with lordly disdain and an air of “that’s got that out of the way” – funny and beautifully timed by Leonard, but a hint of something more problematic.
Yet it’s a good show in so many ways. The narrative is ramshackle, of course, but that’s part of the appeal. Kaler’s take on the Sleeping Beauty story involves Evil Diva succeeding in pricking Beauty’s finger with a record needle and Beauty’s mother, Queen Ariadne, following suit. After the interval (“of 100 years,” says the PA) the world is quite different: Evil Diva has changed gender and become King Kevin and a new character, Tarquin Farquhar, wakes Beauty and Ariadne with the aid of Superman (except it’s not really Superman, but Evil Diva’s son Darth Diva).
All the cast work hard to fill the Kaler-sized hole. David Leonard is terrific, in villainous scenery-chewing form in between nonchalant asides, moving with self-parodying athleticism and claiming, at the start of act two, that the show is all about him now – and we pretty much believe him. Probably the most joyous scenes team him with Suzy Cooper’s spirited and eccentric Princess – those who know her long career in York pantos enjoy the gag of her being nearly 18, but she carries it off with style. Martin Barrass fares rather less well. For years Kaler’s sidekick, he is given the part of a dame who’s not a Dame – hardly any personal exchanges with the audience, sticking close to the script – and at one time it seems that the story has nothing for him to do. However, he is as engaging as ever and knows how to time a gag.
A York favourite of rather more recent vintage, A. J. Powell’s innocently well-intentioned Brummie goes through multiple changes, Darth Diva going from a personification of his mother’s raven to an earnest boy scout, via a real coup de theatre turning into Evil Diva herself, before settling into Clark Kent/Superman. Howie Michaels’ loafing Funky the Flunky is transformed under King Kevin into a much weirder and more authoritative Punky while Jack Lansbury undergoes a total character change, from an amiably ineffective King to an equally amiable Prince substitute, Tarquin Farquhar.
Everything else is perfectly in place. An ensemble of six brings unrelenting energy and spot-on precision to Grace Harrington’s choreography; the four youngsters involved are wonderfully uninhibited; Anthony Lamble’s costume designs are particularly inventive; musical standards are very high, both from the cast and from Elliot Styche’s sparky four-piece pit band.
So York Theatre Royal has a jolly, enjoyable pantomime, but one that only postpones the really awkward decision.
Runs until January 25th 2020 | Image: contributed