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There's nothing like a panto Dame

By Tim Dale
BBC York & North Yorkshire

Martin Barrass, Berwick Kaler, Suzy Cooper. York Theatre Royal pantomime
York's Theatre Royal pantomime is "the usual rubbish" every year

Over the last 30 years York Theatre Royal's annual pantomime has reached cult status. Critics and the audience agree that it's one of the best in the country.

It doesn't rely on star names to pull in an audience, instead it relies on a group of regular actors; 'the lad' Martin Barrass, 'the villain' David Leonard, 'principal girl or boy' Suzy Cooper and, in particular on one man, Berwick Kaler.

Born in Sunderland, Berwick was first asked to play the Dame at York Theatre Royal in the 1970s. Over the years he's put his own stamp on the show, taking over writing and directing the production. It's an awful lot of work, "I keep my fingers crossed that I've got everyone. I just thank God if I've got Susie, Martin and David, it makes it a lot easier."

The standing joke amongst the group is that it's "just rubbish", but that disguises their huge commitment to ensuring they deliver the best possible show. "Yes I might joke that it's the same old rubbish with a different title, but I think the audience know that's just our humour and that an awful lot of effort goes into it every year.

Berwick Kaler
Berwick Kaler first played the Dame in York in the 1970s

"We deliver a brand new script, full-scale slapstick routines that you'll never see anywhere else in the country, no-one does slapstick anymore. A transformation that you won't believe, around 14 new sets and 140 new costumes all made here. That's what the audience expect. If I wore a dress that I'd worn seven years ago, someone would notice."

Tickets go on sale in March with panto regulars queuing from the early hours of the morning to ensure they get the seats they want. "It's a wonderful sight and very humbling. They are queuing for something that's not even been written yet."

Berwick is very knowledgeable about the history of panto and knows what will and won't work, "This panto is all about the audience. Here in York, I believe, we've got some of the best exponents of the art of panto. The whole of the script is written for York and its people. It's their panto."

He's also scathing of the many pantos touring the country, with the same gags, scripts and second-hand costumes. "I can't stand going to a panto where no money has been spent. Ours isn't the cheapest but the audience can see where the money's gone. They can see it on the stage, in the sets, in the costumes. I hate pantos where all you can expect is; "He's behind you". It drives adults round the bend, they dread it.

"We get loads of adults coming to our show, they don't have to drag a child along. They love it, they aren't embarrassed and we're not smutty.

"Contrary to popular belief, there is a script and a story. You do have to have discipline, you can't do just what you like. Panto is an art form and I will go to my grave believing that."

Berwick has this piece of advice for anyone planning a visit to one of his pantomimes, "You do have to come through the doors, regardless of what age you are, as a bairn. For two and a half hours, including the interval, just pretend there's a little bairn inside you. Lose your inhibitions and join us in a bit of good humour."

Berwick is appearing in Humpty Dumpty at York Theatre Royal from 10 December 2009 to 30 January 2010. Visit the theatre's website for more information.




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