Slick storytelling in tightly scripted traditional pantos

Jack and the Beanstalk
Jack and the Beanstalk
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Robin Hood and his Merry Mam

York Theatre Royal

It is possible to have too much of a good thing. So popular is Berwick Kaler’s panto that it has become as much part of Christmas in York as carols at the Minster. The problem is there are so many regulars, from Suzy Cooper to Martin Barrass, who demand their own introduction, that unlike the veteran dame himself the first half of this year’s offering is a little flabby.

Regardless, this still remains a hefty cut above the usual panto fare, one reliant on a deft script rather than next year’s line up for I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

The show really comes to life in the second half as Kaler, a man whose biggest talent is perhaps making the carefully choreographed dialogue look haphazardly ad-libbed, hits his stride. He is the master of perfectly organised chaos.

By the time the song sheet descends from the rigging – this year for no good reason, except perhaps to satisfy Kaler’s love of the absurd, it’s about the health benefits of carrots – Robin Hood and his Merry Mam has delivered exactly what the audience expect.

Jonathan Race has proved an admirable replacement for regular villain, David Leonard, this year away performing in Matilda in the West End, at 52, Barrass has proved he can still play the fool and Harry Gration has made his usual cameo appearance.

This is a production which gets slicker as it goes along, but having notched up his 34th panto for York Theatre Royal, Kaler is certainly nudging national treasure status.

Jack and The Beanstalk

Harrogate Theatre

You’ve never experienced true bemusement until you’ve tried explaining pantomime to a foreigner to these shores.

Watching this through the eyes of someone who had literally no idea what to expect was... educational. Even the traditions of commedia dell’arte, which still informs work on the Continent. doesn’t come close to this uniquely British form. Seeing it performed as well as this, was enough to convince even a panto-cynic like me.

Sometimes it takes a stranger from out of town to remind you what you’ve got and so it was that I realised the moments of comedy, the shape of the narrative, the sheer energy that drove the story here were actually well worth celebrating.

Harrogate avoids the cynicism that has pervaded a lot of pantomimes – and is largely responsible for my own apostasy to the form – by refusing to use star names and adhering to a resolutely traditional manner of pantomime which it transpires is little more than storytelling at a break-neck speed, told by jesters who wink and nudge their way through the action.

This means, of course, that the central unit of performers needs to be tight and, led by local hero Tim Stedman, this is something of a crack unit. Chris Clarkson’s Dame Tilly Trott could perhaps come off the stage a little more and Rachel Windsor’s Jill could do with a little more fire, but Philip Stewart’s Fleshcreep is magnetic and David Kendra’s King is surpisingly light on his feet for a big fellow. I’ve returned to the faith.