Dame Berwick is set to ring the changes

Berwick Kaler. Photos: Kippa Matthews
Berwick Kaler. Photos: Kippa Matthews
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It’s the pantomime that’s become a staple of the Christmas diet – but it’s going to look different this year. Phil Penfold on York’s panto.

The annual mirthfest that is the York Theatre Royal pantomime will have an added ingredient this year. Berwick Kaler, well into his fourth decade of playing the dame, and who also writes and co-directs puts, his hand on his heart, and says, with a mock-solemn tone in his voice: “I promise you that this one will be unlike all the others. Because Robin Hood and His Merry Mam will have… a plot.”

Dedicated fans of the York panto – who come from all over the county, the UK and, indeed, the world, to indulge themselves in this renowned event – have always loved the more than slightly surreal Kaler scripts. The man himself confesses that: “I was once standing in the bar area after a show, and this broad (and rather dour) Yorkshireman came up to me and said ‘tha’s excelled thissen this year, lad – there were almost a story in that!’ If he turns up this year, he’ll be even more delighted, because there’s going to be a beginning, a middle and, dare I say it, a logical end!”

There may be a plot, but something (or, rather, someone) will be missing. Over the years, Kaler has gathered around him a comic acting team – the agile Martin Barrass, the squeaky-voiced and zany Suzy Cooper, and the man born to play the arch villain, David Leonard. All fine straight actors in their own right but, when given a Kaler script and a York audience, become something nearing genius.

Except that, this year, David Leonard won’t be on board. After a quarter-century of leering, leching, leather-clad villainy, David is in London, in the West End, appearing as the deeply unpleasant Miss Trunchbull in the award-winning musical, Matilda.

The news has hit some hard. “I’ll never ever forgive him! It’s treachery, that’s what it is,” says Kaler.

He then adds: “Actually, I couldn’t be more delighted that David has landed the part. It’s wonderful for him, and it is work, after all. Every actor needs to work, and you can’t miss an opportunity like this one. He’ll be back, I’m sure, and we shall all miss him dreadfully, but I am truly delighted for him – a long contract in the West End is what every actor dreams of.

“I just count myself so lucky every year that fortune seems to favour us, and that we can get our team together, but there are years when that doesn’t happen, and this is one of them.”

Hull’s Martin Barrass, who has been with the Kaler crew as long as Leonard, very nearly didn’t make it this year either.

Martin explains: “I’ve spent many of the last months in the West End as well, playing Alfie in One Man, Two Guvnors, at the Haymarket, which was written by another Yorkshireman, Richard Bean. Now Richard knows how much I love doing the York panto, and, bless his heart, he had a word with the management down there who like him so much that they arranged for me to leave the show for a couple of months, to come back to York, and then to return to it in February, when the panto ends.”

Kaler interrupts: “What Martin doesn’t tell you is that Richard actually wrote the character of Alfie in Two Guvnors specifically for Martin, and that Martin couldn’t do the first part of the run because he’d already signed his contract with last year’s panto, and he very loyally stuck to his agreement.

“When the next cast change came, in he went, and he’s been a triumph. And it’s said that Richard wrote the role of Alfie specifically for Martin because he’d seen his clowning and timing in our own show.”

Jonathan Race is the young actor replacing Leonard.
Kaler has chosen him: “For three very good reasons – he’s RADA-trained, he’s six feet tall, and… he’s cheap. Oh, all right, forget the last one.

“What happened was that I was searching around for someone to step into David’s shoes, and I went to the Royal to see their very fine production of The Guinea Pig Club, and there was this actor, Jonathan, who had an amazing stage presence, and who was thoroughly believable, and I said to Damian (Cruden) after the performance ‘Oh, if only that lad could sing – and dance – he’d be ideal…’ And Damian looked at me and said ‘Actually, he can’. He did an audition for us, and he’s in the cast, part of the team, the York panto ‘family’.”

Jonathan admits: “When Damian rang me to offer me the role, I thought ‘Oh dear, I wonder if I can do this, can I pull it off?’

“And then I remembered seeing a York panto a few years back (and catching one of the Wagon Wheels that Berwick chucks into the audience, by the way) and thinking ‘Well, it’s certainly a challenge’ and that the answer had to be ‘Yes’.”

‘Famed without becoming famous’

Despite an acting career that stretches a half-century with appearances on stage and television, it is as the long-serving panto dame that Berwick Kaler is best known. He says himself: “I’m famous for having worked very hard for a very long time without becoming famous at all.”

The 66 year-old says: “I am a realist enough to know that it will, at one point, be time to call it a day. I don’t want to be making an entrance on a Zimmer frame, believe me. But, while the Lord allows me movement in my joints...”

Robin Hood and His Merry Mam, York Theatre Royal, to February 2, 2013. 01904 623568.