This year’s York Theatre Royal pantomime concerns the Motley family’s attempts to protect their mother Molly from the dastardly Les Miserable who means to knock her off as the last source of hilarity in a joyless kingdom, with only the help of the brave fairies of the Land of Lovely Thoughts to blah blah blah.
Oh, who cares? The truth is, the plot has never exactly called the shots here and there’s a much bigger, more significant real life fact behind this year’s show. As ever it’s written and co-directed by its star, Berwick Kaler, who has been the heart of the YTR show for 40 years. When the title The Grand Old Dame of York was announced, there were suspicions that it might turn out to be Kaler’s swansong, and sadly that’s proven to be the case. Never mind Molly Motley’s troubles, this is the end of an era, with one of the country’s best and longest-serving pantomime practitioners hanging up his mobile wig.
Fittingly, it plays as a giddy celebration rather than a downbeat leaving do. The whole regular team is present and correct, with Martin Barrass as Nobby Motley, Suzy Cooper as his sister Alexa, and David Leonard as a delightfully wicked Les Miserable. He might be a junior partner having done a mere 13 shows, but A.J. Powell more than holds his own among them as droopy-faced dim bulb AJ. The show revels in their chemistry and confidence, and while at times it appears off-the-cuff, cobbled together even, as a whole it isn’t at all and that’s a difficult trick to pull off. There’s nothing slapdash here and it works as a solidly-produced show while simultaneously sending itself up something rotten as ‘the rubbish’.
The Grand Old Dame of York plays like a fond tribute, a farewell salute, to the art of panto, kicking off with a dance number rewrite of Hooray for Hollywood as Hooray for Pantomime. There’s an uproarious doors routine involving Kaler and some rapid costume changes as Molly Motley and her own husband, and a glorious, ridiculous slop scene which doesn’t ever try to connect up to the plot of the show. You get a Spice Girls medley plus the unexpected inclusion of the Dentist song from Little Shop of Horrors and the theme from Rocky Horror sequel Shock Treatment.
The last couple of YTR pantos have been less frenetic than usual, doubtless reflecting the team’s reaction to the passing years and, in a couple of cases, major life-threatening surgery. But they’ve been no less barmy for that. Somehow, and it is an achievement, this year’s is even madder than usual. It’s not a version of one of the small canon of classic panto tales but instead a unique creation with the lack of plot and late delivery of the script fore-fronted. It takes in a fairyland Bake Off, a hot air balloon, a detour into Red Riding Hood and a filmed air chase. Does any of it make a blind bit of sense? No. But once you’ve gone with it into a completely batty wormhole, you’ll be delighted and entertained throughout. Much credit here is due to co-director and York Theatre Royal head honcho Damian Cruden for ushering Kaler’s shows onto the stage for the last 21 years.
Kaler himself has never been your standard ‘holiday camp entertainment officer in the grip of a sugar rush’ kind of panto performer. Instead he’s effortlessly (rather than exhaustingly) entertaining, a walking talking twinkle absolutely in his element, chortling away at slip-ups and holding the audience in his palm throughout. He really is the king of this. Who knows how he can possibly be replaced, though it would be a shame if this were to be the end for the whole marvellous team.
The Grand Old Dame of York is no mere lap of honour and it’s as gloriously daft as ever. At the end of the show Kaler tells the audience “don’t even try to explain it”, and he’s right. Like the best live theatre, you had to be there and we’re only too glad to say that we were. After his heart bypass operation, Kaler was quick to insist that he owed his life to the NHS. Owed his life to it? He should be available on it. His ‘rubbish’ is world-beating rubbish.
The Grand Old Dame of York, York Theatre Royal, until February 2, 2019