It was back in 2004 that I became the Yorkshire Post Arts Correspondent. Which by my reckoning makes 14 years in a row that I have written about the region’s annual pantomime offerings and I don’t mind telling you – I’m still not bored of it.
No, really. If anything, my love for the form is increasing. It’s easy to be sniffy about pantomime, that odd combination of theatre, commedia dell’arte and stand up comedy which is peculiar to this isle, but quite apart from it being the place where many of us first see theatre and not forgetting it is an often desperately needed cash injection for our theatres, it is also an extraordinary spectacle in and of itself.
For a panto, you need a dame, a lead boy, a scene to inspire the audience to scream out: “He’s behind you”, and a final singalong. Within the confines of that structure, the theatres of our region are doing some hugely inventive things.
Today I’m going on a whistlestop tour of some of them.
York Theatre Royal: As you will have read in the Yorkshire Post a couple of weeks ago, we all knew it was coming, but it still arrived as something of a shock when it came. It’s Berwick Kaler’s final curtain as the all-conquering pantomime dame. What he has achieved over 40 years as the York Theatre Royal pantomime dame, as well as being writer and co-director for over two of those decades, is phenomenal. At 72-years-old, with a pacemaker, he and the team have decided the time has come for him to hang up the wig and gown for the final time. The Grand Old Dame of York comes to a close on February 2, 2019, as will an incredible run of form for the grand old dame of York, a man who has perfected the art form. I expect it will be seriously emotional for everyone in the theatre on the last night – and every performance leading up to the final bow. He’s earned the rest, and the applause that will ring for him around the building every night up until February.
Alhambra Theatre, Bradford: I’m not going to pretend that all the theatres in the region staging pantomimes are doing so for reasons that are pure of heart, but some of them stage them with the help of commercial companies who really are interested in little above the bottom line. Qdos, the co-producers of the annual Bradford pantomime, the longest-running in the country, are no smash-and-grab merchants. They care about this pantomime, as do the loyal audience and the good people who run the theatre. One person who cares above any other is the Alhambra pantomime’s own Berwick Kaler, Billy Pearce who hits his own milestone this year, 20 years with the city’s panto. He is a warm, funny, consummate entertainer. Pearce gives it his absolute all for every performance – which sometimes means three a day. It has the most spectacle of all the region’s pantomimes, but it has a huge heart at the centre in Pearce. This year he is joined on stage by Christopher Biggins, another stage legend. It makes Aladdin quite the show.
I often find that I only go to one pantomime a season – it’s a busy time of year for theatre critics and writers. A couple of years ago I got to the Wakefield Theatre Royal panto and I was absolutely delighted to have done so. It doesn’t have the budget of a Bradford or the team of a York, but that is a significant part of the charm of this theatre’s offering. Locals will know of course that this pantomime has regular Chris Hannon, playing the baddy in Cinderella. Expect proper, old fashioned pantomime fun in Wakefield.
That will also be on offer at Harrogate Theatre’s pantomime. The theatre is the scene of one of my personal favourite pantomime memories: the year I took a Spanish friend without asking if she had the first idea what pantomime was. She didn’t. This year sees Jack and the Beanstalk, a real favourite story of traditional pantomime fans, come back to the stage. Last year the theatre had a record-breaking year and is expecting more of the same this year. Howard Chadwick is returning after playing Dick Whittington in 2016’s panto and Polly Smith, a member of the Harrogate Theatre Rep Company is playing both Fairy of the Forest and Morag the Cook. The theatre’s chief executive David Bown and Phil Lowe are co-writers for the tenth year running, with Lowe directing for the twelfth time. And Tim Stedman returns playing Jack’s silly brother, his 19th panto with the theatre.
I have space for only one more and it’s not a traditional pantomime, but it’s important to mention. It’s Wizard of Oz at the Bradford Playhouse. It stars Chris Rankin, who played Percy Weasley in the Harry Potter movies and EastEnders’ Lucy Beale as Dorothy. It’s being made by some very good people trying to do a good thing in Bradford; it’s worth your support.
More pantos around the region
Sheffield Lyceum, Peter Pan: Starring Wendi Peters from Coronation Street and Sheffield legend Damian Williams. To January 6, 0114 2496000.
Leeds Carriageworks, Beauty and the Beast: Starring Jez Edwards in his tenth pantomime and Emmerdale’s Mia Macy. To December 31, 0113 3760318.
Leeds City Varieties, Cinderella, the Rock and Roll Panto: One for the grown-ups. Great fun. To January 13, 0113 2430808.
Halifax Victoria Theatre, Snow White: Neil Hurst returns for his tenth panto season, this time as Jingles the Jester, joined by Jolyon Dixon as Dame Dolly Mixture. To January 5, 01422 351148.