Over several decades, the annual pantomime production at York Theatre Royal has built up a formidable reputation for delivering the best in expertly-staged traditional family fun. For many punters, it’s become part of their festive routine.
Speaking to Northern Soul during a break in rehearsals, York panto regular David Leonard says: “When you step out on that stage, you see quite a lot of familiar faces in the audience. They book the same seats every year. Quite a lot of them they came when they were children, and now they bring their own children, which is a frightening thought. People come from all over the country to see it, and even from abroad.”
It’s not only the audience that’s full of families: the cast and the creative team are rather like a family, too. Head honcho Berwick Kaler, who plays the dame, has been in situ for nearly 40 years, and now writes and co-directs each show. His sidekick Martin Barrass has been the stooge every year since 1984; Suzy Cooper joined the team as principal boy ten years later.
Back in 2012, though, there were ructions. Leonard, who’d been playing the villain for nearly 30 years since signing up alongside Barras, was absent from the cast of Robin Hood and His Merry Mam. Instead, he took on a high-profile West End role, as the dastardly Miss Trunchbull in the Matilda musical. He was missing from 2013’s Aladdin and the Twankeys, too, due to an engagement as Billy Flynn in Chicago at the Leicester Curve. This news caused many ardent fans to post furious messages on the York Theatre Royal website, asking why Leonard wasn’t present yet again and insisting that it wouldn’t be the same without him. Dark rumours pointed to a falling out between Leonard and Kaler.
This year, though, amid great fanfare, Leonard is back at York Theatre Royal with Kaler, Barrass and Cooper for a new pantomime, Old Mother Goose. And he’s adamant that the supposed falling out with dame Kaler wasn’t behind his absences.
“Everybody keeps saying that all the time, but no, it was nothing to do with that whatsoever. I mean, when I got the part in Matilda, Berwick was absolutely thrilled. Every year, if you feel very passionate about what you’re doing, you have disagreements and arguments, but nothing of the scale that seems to have been bandied around.”
In fact, he’s rather gleeful about the idea of making a joke out of it within the show: after all, the villain’s not exactly meant to get on with the dame, is he? “Yeah, we’ll probably work it in somewhere like that. No, there’s far too much water under the bridge and we’ve known each other for too long. We’re very, very close friends, all of us. We’ve known each other since we were young – in our twenties – and now here we are nearly collecting our pension and bus passes.”
Now back in harness after his two year break, Leonard found that his panto muscles needed some toning up. “I’ve got to try and get back into the knack of doing it. I’m a bit out of practice. Because I’d forgotten – two and a half weeks to put a huge musical comedy on to that stage is quite intense. You’ve got a lot to learn: dance moves, script and what have you, and it takes quite a bit to get it going. So that’s sort of taken me by surprise again. And I’ve got to learn my lines, too. I don’t know them yet, and the dictator Kaler is on the war path…”
Leonard seems happy to confess that he’d really missed the York experience. “Ooh, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely, of course I missed it. I kept thinking about it all the time, really. I kept in touch with people up here, and during the pantomime we’d message each other constantly. On the opening night I kept thinking, ‘Oh, I’d be getting into my costume now’.”
But now Leonard is back in full evil regalia for his role as the demon The Dreaded Lurgi. Old Mother Goose – “with the stress on the ‘Old’” – is, he reveals, “a battle between fairies and demons, between good and evil, and a goose that lays golden eggs. There’s Old Mother Goose herself [Kaler], her daft son who is played by Barrass and her daft daughter, played by Cooper. It’s got all the right ingredients for pantomime: slapstick, lots of wonderful dance routines and songs, and it’s a feast for the eyes with fantastic sets and costumes”.
Now that the show is up and running (and yes, Leonard’s learnt all his lines), it’s receiving the usual rave reviews. Kaler and company have a genuine knack for delivering something which is solidly true to tradition and yet is spectacularly good, simple fun. It’s a unique theatrical experience which everyone should try at least once – or, blow it, maybe even once a year, regular as clockwork. It’s good to see Leonard back on the team, too. He’s clearly gratified that his presence was missed by so many punters, although he’s labouring under no illusions about his part in the grand scheme of things.
“Any of us can be replaced and nobody’s big-headed enough to think otherwise, really. But it’s flattering because, I suppose, after 20-odd years, people get to know you.” And does pantomime itself change? Is it, as some say, experiencing a bit of a renaissance these days? “No, it’ll always be the same, Somebody once called it ‘the strumpet of the arts’…”
By Andy Murray
Images by Anthony Robling
Where: York Theatre Royal
When: until January 31, 2015
More Info: www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk