Review: Jack and the Beanstalk ****

At York Theatre Royal

The fact that Berwick Kaler has spent the last 32 winters dressing as a woman for York Theatre Royal's annual panto is impressive enough. The fact that he still appears to enjoy every minute of it, even more so.

The York panto doesn't follow the usual formula, and the traditional mix of out-of-work soap stars and obscure children's TV presenters are conspicuous only by their absence.

Instead, Kaler has a regular cast who when they are not in panto can be found starring in Harold Pinter plays and working with the English Philharmonic Orchestra. It's this kind of talent which marks York's annual show out from the rest.

This year it's an irreverent take on Jack and the Beanstalk, involving a Martian invasion, a homage to Laurel and Hardy and possibly the best impression of BBC's Look North presenter Christa Ackroyd you're ever likely to see.

There is no sense to the plot, but that's where the charm of the York Theatre Royal panto lies.

The audience aren't particularly bothered about seeing the guy get the girl or the villain banished in the end. What they are really waiting for is the scene where Kaler's sidekick, Martin Barrass, gets a soaking.

Like Kaler, the rest of the cast are simply the best. David Leonard as Nastridamus is as always the perfect villain. He just seems to get better with age. Suzy Cooper brings much needed humour to the role of principal boy and Barrass, a man who never tires of slapstick, is the perfect foil for Kaler's Dame.

However, this isn't quite a vintage year for York and some judicious editing is needed. They could start by losing the Shirley Bassey number which falls horribly flat and for anyone who has never been to the panto before the in-jokes could do with pruning.

All that said, Kaler takes his panto seriously and whatever the flaws, this is still one of the best shows you're likely to see this Christmas.

To January 29.