As Christmassy experiences go, there’s none Christmassier.
In St Leonard’s Place, sandwiched between Lendal Bridge and York Minster, an area festooned with bright lights and decorations, stands York Theatre Royal, one of the oldest producing theatres in the country. Inside this grand old building there’s a full choir in Santa hats singing carols and Christmas songs by the bar. At the merchandise stall, you can treat yourselves to postcards and fridge magnets, and the official YTR panto t-shirt – in bold white type on black, as is the fashion. It reads ‘Berwick, Martin, Suzy & David’.
These are the stars of this year’s show, Jack and the Beanstalk. This tells you all you need to know. Everyone present knows these stars by their first names. They may have seen them many, many times. And this year, after assorted recent ups and down, they’re all back together. Last time out, beloved stooge Martin Barrass was absent in the wake of a life-threatening motorbike accident, and head honcho / dame Berwick Kaler was recovering from major heart surgery. The cheers they receive when they walk on stage tonight warms the cockles and no mistake. In what follows, there are a whole host of gags about operations, pacemakers, bikes and broken ribs. If Christmas is all about laughing in the face of the midwinter darkness, this gallows humour seems entirely appropriate.
This year, perennial baddie David Leonard, as the inventor Dr McCarb, dazzles. His special line in camp, eye-rolling villainy is unmatchable, and his skill should never be overlooked among all the booing and hissing. Suzy Cooper gives it her usual spirited welly as Jill, and Barrass belies any concerns for his health as a sprightly, if occasionally soggy, Stanley Manley. They may not be on the t-shirt ‘A’ team just yet, but recent York fixture AJ Powell is terrific and adept as Jack while new addition Luke Adamson makes a delightfully ludicrous Eustace.
The plot of the self-styled ‘rubbish’ is ridiculed by all concerned, and this year it’s especially barmy. It is Jack and the Beanstalk but not as you know it, unless you’ve seen another version that brings in a transmogrifying machine and a strong fixation with Star Wars (the original trilogy, if you please).
It’s an absolute hoot, of course. Kaler, as writer and co-director (with YTR’s Damian Cruden) as well as dame Mandy Manley, is rightly acclaimed as a master in his field, albeit a master dressed as, variously, a cow, a rainbow and a greenhouse. He’s got the proverbial funny bones and the audience adores him.
Truth be told, it’s not exactly the company’s most inspired show of recent years, and it might be overdoing the self-referential loopiness just a touch here and there. It takes a wee while to find its feet and there are moments when the plot appears to disintegrate entirely. It doesn’t help in the second half when many cast members are rendered unintelligible under, um, stormtrooper helmets. The pop culture references are often clustered around the mid-60s mark and risk going over the heads of the assembled parents, never mind the nippers. As for the giant, he appears on screen in the form of Look North presenter Harry Gration and then, frankly, it gets really confusing.
But let’s face it, that’s missing the whole point. Undeniably there’s a long-established, highly-skilled team working hard here, complete with glorious designs and costumes and a complement of live musicians, to make the whole daft, highly idiosyncratic show seem effortless and throwaway. Not without reason has it become a tradition within a tradition for generations of local folk.
It remains an irresistible treat, and most competing pantos should just pack up their belongings in a red spotty bag, sling it over their shoulder and go home. It’s particularly delightful to see the classic team reunited on stage again this year. Don’t let’s dwell on it too much, but one day they won’t all be up there anymore and then you’ll really miss them.
Don’t start. Oh yes you will.
Images by Anthony Robling
Jack and the Beanstalk is showing at York Theatre Royal until February 3, 2018. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.