Friday 14th December 2018 at York Theatre Royal.
Berwick Kaler’s panto has been a York staple for the last 40 years. This is the last of his shows for the Theatre Royal as retirement is on the horizon, and that gives this show a unique atmosphere of great sentiment and celebration amidst the fun fun fun.
As a late newcomer to this 40 year old family tradition, it can feel a little daunting to have in-jokes pass you by, but what’s so beautiful about this production is the appreciation and great affection for this star giving his last hurrah. It’s like being invited to dinner at your friend’s whacky family home where everyone in attendance is brilliantly entertaining and full of warmth. They draw you in very quickly.
Kaler plays Molly Motley. She’s the dotty mother of Nobby and Alexa and as she’s batty-bonkers, she’s not quite made up her mind about which Panto story the gang will perform tonight. This unprepared chaos underpins the whole performance, with the cast frequently mentioning the need to crack on and establish the story to be performed and that sense of uh-oh, we’ve been caught out and everyone’s watching is a classic and bountiful source of comedy.
While the Panto story is on the back burner of mother’s mind, there is a good, loose plot running here. Local fun-hating, laughter-loathing baddie Les Miserable is fed up of all the laughter Molly brings to the village. He sets himself the mission of ridding the land of Molly and all her joy to establish himself as number one on the leader board of villains.
David Leonard is frankly the most perfect of villains. His Les Miserable has fantastic voice abilities and physicality which raise belly laughs throughout – laughs redoubled by the way excellent costume designs give his physical contortions greater spectacle. It comes as no surprise to me that Leonard should master a role like this when I realised he was the Trunchbull I raved about after seeing Matilda in the West End a good few years ago. The man could write the book on how to play villainy with comic flair and his performance alone is worth your hard-earned pennies.
Speaking of comic flair, Suzy Cooper is a pure delight to watch. As spirited ‘dotty daughter’ of Molly, she has a permanent twinkle and a tongue in cheek delivery which gives the production a real spark. Martin Barrass is pretty much Kaler’s sidekick and comic, lovable whipping post. As the energetic Nobby Motley, he’s often the butt of jokes and Barrass takes all the slapstick hard knocks in his stride as all the best ‘butts’ do. As a fabulous four they carry the production with a winning seasoned confidence which makes any and all loose plot points forgivable.
Other great comic talents arrive in the shapes of A.J Powell, playing a hilariously very hard done by A.J and Jake Lindsay as Va Va Voom, a prematurely doddery character who happens to be incredibly speedy. Voom’s always a beat or two behind and always managed to have me grinning. It’s a cracking ensemble too, who create some great visuals when performing Grace Harrington’s fast-paced choreography.
Set and costume from Mark Walters captures the fun of panto beautifully with larger than life gaudy dresses and some brilliant set designs. Not content to simply offer a great traditional Panto, this production also features a thoroughly random but amusing extended film clip starring the cast because…well because it’s Berwick’s panto and why the heck not?
Everything’s here and then some. From an early upbeat performance of the very current You Don’t Even Know It from West End hit Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, to various other ditties old and new (Musical director Elliot Styche), music is covered. More interested in slapstick and slime? Covered. Silly jokes and playful jibes amongst the cast? Covered. Sing along and shoutouts? Covered. I could go on, but with a running time of three hours including interval, I’m sure you get the picture!
As in previous years, Kaler writes, stars and co-directs with Damian Cruden, making the entire show a testament to how much of a loss his impending departure to retirement will be. Yes, it’s a Panto; a festive fun treat, but it’s also a heartfelt farewell from the uniformly wonderful cast along with the city of York. The knowledge that this is the last stint of York’s much loved Dame was quite clearly at the fore of the minds of the long time returning audience; it’s clear that they were basking in the great performances but also savouring this as a special memory and that’s something very unique to be a part of. I left the theatre sorry to have been such a latecomer to a great party – it may be whacky and largely without a neat little narrative, but it’s great fun to watch a fantastic cast colour outside the lines with great glee.
The Grand Old Dame of York plays at York Theatre Royal until February 2nd 2019 and you can find tickets here.