It’s fascinating to think that there will be little audience members in York’s Grand Opera House tonight who’ve not been to the theatre much before, maybe even at all. What kind of impact will it have on their young minds? Will it inspire them to forge a career treading the boards? Will they reminisce about the show to their grandchildren far in the future?
Yank all the context out and Robinson Crusoe and the Pirates of the River Ouse is – no, seriously – a strange and remarkable experience. It’s not retro as such (was that a hint of the Succession theme in the score at one point?) and it’s certainly not ‘traditional’ in the way that right-leaning Question Time audience members get frothy about, but it’s a very much a proper pantomime, the 2023 version of a form that dates back ages. Dames and villains and magic amulets? Aye. Cast members wearing outrageous costumes and flying via Kirby wires? Aye. Dance routines complete with local children beaming at their parents? Aye. A song sheet and a walk down? Aye. There’s a pleasing absence of Him off Hollyoaks or Her off Strictly in this cast. Instead, the team are dedicated panto professionals.
In fact, if it’s context you want, the behind-the-curtains story here is rich and dramatic. Berwick Kaler arrived in York to play his first dame back in the 70s, initially at York Theatre Royal, only to become the show’s regular head honcho – starring, writing and directing – as the years went on, gradually building up a beloved ‘family’ of co-stars. A few years back, Kaler had a serious brush with mortality that kept him off-stage for a season…only for his co-star Martin Barrass to have a fairly similar experience. Kaler later went on to announced his retirement, only to mastermind the following year’s show in an off-stage capacity, only for the theatre management to let the team go and take their annual panto in a different direction. Only for a neighbouring theatre, the venerable Grand Opera House, to snaffle Kaler and the team (complete with Barrass plus trusty cohorts David Leonard, Suzy Cooper and AJ Powell) for their annual panto….only for the pandemic to scupper things.
Right, get your breath. Whichever way you look at it, Robinson Crusoe and the Pirates of the River Ouse is more fun than a rum-filled barrel of monkeys. As seasoned Kaler-watchers will expect, it’s daft – self-confessed ‘rubbish’, in fact – but obviously that’s the general idea. The plot, about Robinson Crusoe (Jake Lindsay) guarding a cave containing a book of weapons-grade magic spells, is merely a spindly hook on which to hang all the barminess.
In all honestly, this is a slightly subdued show compared to some previous Kaler extravaganzas, with fewer mind-warping diversions and a tighter (sort of) narrative. No one would blame him, at knocking on for 80, for making things a touch more sedate. But it’s all relative. This is still loopy, hyperactive, all-singing, all-dancing stuff, guaranteed to make you feel like the world’s a better place and there’s Christmas joy to be had.
Is it too much to call it irresistible? Perhaps – but if you’ve a yearning to see a pantomime that gives the form a good name, that commits and does it properly, you could do far, far worse. And who knows, maybe in many years to come, grown-up versions of these audience members will be trotting around on the country’s theatre stages, larking about and making everyone laugh, fuelled by dim and distant memories of Kaler and co (tell you what, I really hope so).
Main photo by Charlie Kirkpatrick
Robinson Crusoe and the Pirates of the River Ouse, York Grand Opera House, until January 6, 2024. For more information, click here.