York Theatre Royal’s annual Christmas show has become more than just a pantomime – it’s akin to a real-life soap opera. Many key members of the team have been in situ since the 1980s, and faithful audience members know and love them all.
They also react when something’s amiss. A few years back, mainstay villain David Leonard was absent for two pantos in succession, having taken roles elsewhere. The York faithful weren’t impressed and thereafter Leonard returned to a volley of affection. Last year, the theatre itself was still in the midst of a refurb, and the panto relocated to the National Railway Museum, a smaller space under canvas somewhat exposed to the elements.
This year, the show is back where it belongs. However, the company’s beloved long-time stooge Martin Barrass is absent, having had a life-threatening road accident in September. Thankfully he’s on the mend, though not yet fit enough to perform. Meanwhile, the show’s head honcho, Berwick Kaler – co-director, writer and, at 70, Britain’s longest-serving panto dame (he required emergency treatment for a serious undiagnosed heart condition in August).
All of these occurences are mentioned on stage during this year’s pantomime, Cinderella, but they certainly don’t affect it. There’s no sense of a half-baked presentation here. It’s full throttle all the way. Kaler’s new pacemaker becomes a running joke, but he’s not exactly taken to his bath chair. No, it’s the same daft, spirited barrage as ever, and hooray for that.
The piece as a whole plays like a wondrous, fevered cheese dream that riffs gleefully on the Cinderella story. Of the treasured seasoned players, Suzy Cooper is as twinkly and spirited as ever as Cinderella herself. Leonard is on marvellous, outrageous form as Cinderella’s wicked stepmother Baroness Von Naff and Kaler steers proceedings forward with aplomb from his position as Hernia, one of the ugly sisters. He’s paired with relatively recent York discovery AJ Powell as Priscilla, who fills in for Barrass in the role of as Kaler’s sidekick, and acquits himself handsomely too.
It is a perennial problem that the younger cast members have quite a job following on from the old favourites when the spotlight’s on them, but by now Kaler and co-director Damian Cruden know how to assemble a cracking team and there are no serious weak links here. With its bright, cheerful design and emphasis on performances rather than effects, the whole thing’s not unlike a real-life cartoon stuffed with traditional hi-jinks, taking in a very wet slapstick scene and a host of expertly staged song and dance numbers. These range from a celebratory take on Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop the Feeling! to a terrifically catchy song about making sandwiches.
Yes, there might be times when the plot becomes spindly and garbled, but it would be churlish to criticise that too much. It would be missing the point entirely, and besides, Kaler and co are swift to send up any shortcomings right there on stage throughout. The corpsing among the cast is a huge part of the fun here.
Mind you, the trademark loopy filmed inserts, which cover for big scene changes, are seriously out there this time. One is a Carpool Karaoke spoof in which Kaler drives Suzi Quatro around York, singing all the way. Another is a dream sequence homage to The Rocky Horror Show. You could just about argue that this is the wrong sort of time warp, as these reference points might well be lost on anyone born since the 70s.
In all, though, Kaler’s Cinderella never strays far from the established (unique, freewheeling, eccentric) winning formula. In a self-deprecating sort of way, Berwick and the team often refer to their pantomimes as ‘rubbish’, but know this: it’s masterful, cherishable rubbish, which had me and my 7-year-old companion in happy raptures. For the curtain call, a recovering Martin Barrass is brought on in civvies, and instantly receives a standing ovation. Proof, if you should still need it, that this isn’t simply the show that York folk take their family to see: it’s their annual trip to see the family.
Treat yourself and go to see it. It’s been a rough year. You deserve it.
Photos by Anthony Robling
Cinderella runs at York Theatre Royal until January 28, 2017. For more information, click here.