After 16 years of covering theatre for the Yorkshire Post, it’s impossible to find a new way to introduce a feature taking a look at this year’s pantomimes in the region. In fact, it’s probably best to not even try, just succumb, and instead simply declare that with Christmas less than a fortnight away, it is definitely time for panto.
While it is firmly in the not-everyone’s-cup-of-tea camp of theatre, there is no denying that not only is panto wildly popular, there is also something about it that keeps bringing audiences back.
We’re awash with panto once again – there’s rock ‘n’ roll at Leeds’ City Varieties, all-the-family appeal at the Carriageworks and in Bradford and York the star attractions of Billy Pearce and Berwick Kaler respectively.
At York Theatre Royal Kaler is the dame who reigns over all. Kaler is an extraordinary talent. He returns this year with his core cast of Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper and a returning David Leonard back together for the first time in a little while, with Leonard having been otherwise engaged over the festive period in recent years.
Kaler, who writes and co-directs the show, says: “I consider Old Mother Goose to be the mother of all pantomimes. It’s rarely seen these days, probably because no-one can find a dame old enough to play the title role. However, thanks to a modern digital enhancing ageing process I can add 20 years to my youthful looks and you’ll believe I’m 70 years old.
“As always it will have the York Theatre Royal’s traditional hallmark of madness, a touch of anarchy, surrealism, good old fashioned belly laughs and brand new visually stunning sets and costumes.”
In Sheffield at the Lyceum, Dick Whittington stars Eastenders’ Samantha Womack and dame Damian Williams and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is at Leeds Carriageworks with G4’s Jonathan Ansell.
In Bradford returning for his sixteenth pantomime is Billy Pearce. If you want to see the secret of what it takes to make a pantomime work perfectly, Pearce is a perfect example – his stagecraft and ability to connect with an audience of over 1,000 is something special.
Adam Stafford returns for a second year to the Bradford production to play Dame Betty Blumenthal.
“It’s Billy. It’s him first and foremost that makes this such a special pantomime,” says Stafford. “I think to do a good job in pantomime you have to have natural comic timing. You also have to have a real warmth and immaculate stagecraft. Billy has all those things, he’s just got funny bones.”
Stafford has worked widely in musical and children’s theatre, working with Britain’s unofficial National Children’s Dramatist David Wood on adaptations of Roald Dahl.
“The story has to work, that’s something we all care about,” he says. “It’s fine it’s all funny and appealing to everyone, but the story at the heart of the show has to be clear and simple and strong.”
Last year Jenny Gayner played the princess, this year she’s back as the wicked queen.
“It’s such a brilliant and juicy role,” she says.
“There are shows in the West End where the performers do eight shows a week and they find it really hard work – we do two a day. It’s hard work but it’s never a slog. Billy leads that attitude – he never gives any less than 100 per cent at every performance.”