Ask anyone in York what makes their Theatre Royal pantomimes so special and they’ll sum it up in two words: Berwick Kaler. The long-standing Dame/writer/director/secret weapon/magic ingredient had become the heart and soul of the show. But there’s the rub. After last year’s production, his 40th, Kaler retired as Dame, leaving behind an inevitable, unenviable problem: how do you follow that?
In the event, York Theatre Royal has decided to soften the blow by retaining the ace team Kaler assembled over the years – York panto regular David Leonard as villain, Martin Barrass as comic lead, Suzy Cooper as principal girl – with a sprinkling of new faces and a new co-director in Matt Aston. Behind the scenes (mostly), Kaler is still in situ as co-director and writer. They’ve also plumped for staging a production of Sleeping Beauty, a show without a Dame, so Kaler’s colourfully laced boots don’t need to be filled just yet.
Taken entirely on its own merits, this is great fun, a superior pantomime with ripping song and dance routines (including an expected take on The Book of Mormon‘s Man Up), an enjoyably loopy plot and delightful turns by the cast. It’s skilful and well-judged. As ever for a Theatre Royal show, it looks really splendid. Wagon Wheels still get lobbed into the audience and TV’s own Harry Gration still pops up. So, is it wrong to feel slightly underwhelmed?In truth it doesn’t hit the established heights of inspired lunacy and, though never less than funny, it’s never as rip-snortingly hilarious as previous shows. Perhaps we’ve been spoilt all those years, but despite still being heavily involved, Kaler’s presence can’t help but be missed. In particular, on stage he had a knack for pushing the show forward while simultaneously sending it up something rotten. This mickey-taking looseness took some confidence, but it drew the audience in, made any accidents and shortcomings enjoyable and amplified the fun. Without it, Sleeping Beauty is still very good, but it’s a bit lopsided.
To be fair, much of the distinctive York Theatre Royal character is still there, as is the sheer daftness of it all. There’s a bit more of an actual plot this time out, albeit one in which our heroes can turn into Superman, pretend to visit France or sing Who Put the Bomp for no easily discernible reason.
Leonard’s villainous turn, this time as Evil Diva, remains an unhinged delight, and AJ Powell, as his son Darth Diva, has fast become indispensable, bless him. Cooper is still reassuringly twinkly, and Barrass is a barrage of energy as ever, although at times, notably the slosh scene, he seems a bit lost without his old oppo. Of the newcomers, Howie Michaels makes an immediate strong impression as Funky the Flunky, not least with his belting singing voice, and he’d be well worth holding on to.
Obviously, the show as a whole is in flux and its perfectly understandable that the magic, while intact, doesn’t sparkle quite so hard this year. When Kaler does pop up in little filmed cameos, it’s hard to tell whether it’s just reminding the audience what they’re missing. It comes to something when an evil demon who swapped bodies with his son and spent years as a raven comes on stage as a boy scout with a Brummie accent bearing a gramophone playing Cotton Eye Joe and it’s still just not barmy enough.
Who’s to say where this will go in future years – might Leonard, with his laconic delivery and manic gleam, make a fine Dame? For now, in spite of the Berwick-shaped hole, Sleeping Beauty is a thoroughly good, if not quite great, night out.
Sleeping Beauty, York Theatre Royal, until January 25, 2020.