ComedyFamilyFestive 18/19North East & YorkshirePantomimeReview

The Grand Old Dame of York – York Theatre Royal

Writer: Berwick Kaler

Directors: Damian Cruden, Berwick Kaler

Designer: Mark Walters

Musical Director: Elliot Styche

Choreographer: Grace Harrington

The Grand Old Dame of York is less a pantomime than an occasion – a unique one at that; celebratory, thoroughly entertaining and often very funny, though somewhat unstructured to a fault.

Berwick Kaler’s achievement is remarkable, as is the devotion he has built over several generations of fans. In 1977 he played his first Dame at York (an Ugly Sister) and, with a couple of years missed for other commitments, he is now chalking up 40 Dames, most of them in pantos written and directed (or co-directed) by him, the last 21 with Damian Cruden as co-director. 

So what is a man to do, when, after assorted health problems referenced in the programme and the panto script, he decides to hang up his frock? He is more than entitled to present himself centre-stage as “The Grand Old Dame of York”, being pursued to the death by the villainous Les Miserable.

The story-line, such as it is, has two main strands. The Dame has failed to write this year’s panto, so her loyal sidekicks are in a state of some panic – her first costume is adorned with unfinished scripts – and hints surface of Dick Whittington, Cinderella and others, while Red Riding Hood gets quite an extended run-out. Secondly, the village of Laffalott is the only place where laughter remains – the Miserables have wiped it out elsewhere – so the Dame must be killed or transported to Lancashire, where presumably they don’t have a sense of humour anyway.

Beside Berwick Kaler’s longevity, an equally remarkable feature of the past three decades has been the loyalty of his chief supporting players who have racked up 85 pantos between three of them. David Leonard’s Les Miserable is a fine villain – physically and verbally flexible and mightily terrifying – but his boo quotient is surprisingly low. Clearly, he shares in the general audience affection. Martin Barrass and Suzy Cooper are officially son and daughter of the Dame, but carry much of the action in various personae, both as spry as you could wish, he – invariably ending up on the wrong end of a custard pie, she – even cropping up as Les Miserable’s spooky partner in evil! A.J. Powell, himself a veteran of 13 Kaler pantos, is extremely likable and engagingly grumpy when forced to wear a series of female costumes.

As Berwick Kaler notes in the programme, “we are not the Palladium”, but no doubt because of years of full houses, production values are a touch higher than other local theatres: a four-piece band (excellent) and a talented adult ensemble, Danielle Mullan (Fairy Mary), Jake Lindsay (Va Va Voom, fairy in training) and five others, giving the song and dance numbers plenty of polish.

However, the evening inevitably, and rightfully so, belongs to Berwick Kaler. His Dame, a little less energetic than of yore, retains her drollery, her anarchistic eye for chaos and speed of costume change, even including gender-hopping. The celebrated film insert (inevitable and amusing guest appearance by Harry Gration) enables Kaler to go shopping in York as Queen Victoria – all too convincing! – and the audience messages and greetings that follow the traditional hurling of Wagon Wheels focus strongly on what York will miss next year, rather sentimental and very funny – the impression of a public trained up, over four decades, in a similar sense of humour is inescapable!

Runs until February 2, 2018 | Image: Anthony Robling

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