TAITMAIL The Grand Old Dame of York
By Patrick Kelly
It’s always a privilege to watch a master at work, and audiences at York’s Theatre Royal were honoured to witness Berwick Kaler’s 40thand final season as panto dame. The season, as usual, has been a complete sell-out as theatregoers trampled on each other to acquire tickets for this last opportunity to see a superb craftsman go about his business.
They were not disappointed. Kaler, never knowingly understated in his extravagantly bizarre costumes, dominates the proceedings from beginning to end in his rotating wig and hobnailed boots, striding from one end of the stage of the other, ad-libbing his way through every scene. His rapport with his audience is phenomenal as he conspires with them to deconstruct the entire artifice of theatre, cheerfully pointing out the waiting stagehands and dysfunctional props, bewailing the lack of a script, bantering with the musical director and bellowing asides to people in the cheap seats. It’s not so much tearing down the fourth wall as obliterating all of them.
Berwick Kaler’s reign as the Christmas season Lord of Misrule began in 1977 when he played his first Ugly Sister, and he wrote his first panto script in 1981. He has written and directed (or co-directed) the last 21 with the theatre’s artistic director Damian Cruden. Over the years he has also built up a remarkably loyal company - his chief supporting players have racked up 85 pantos between the three of them.The Theatre Royal eschews the minor celebrities and reality stars favoured by other theatres. Instead, stalwarts like Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper and David Leonard, with 32, 24 and 29 pantos apiece, are local heroes and familiar friends to the panto audience.
A stranger to the city might see the York panto as organised chaos, the plot immaterial (“Plots are for cemeteries” says Kaler), and dismiss it as a lumpy mixture of old-fashioned music hall, slapstick comedy and the kind of dance routines that were last seen on a black and white telly with Sunday Night at the London Palladium. But it works, not just because of Kaler’s talent and stagecraft, but because he and Cruden have created a panto which, while it genuflects to the national traditions of the genre, is also unique to this city.
The cracks about York’s less favoured suburbs, the sets honouring local landmarks, the in-jokes about local personalities (a filmed sequence always includes regional TV newsreader and York resident Harry Gration) add up to an evening of entertainment which reflects the audience back at itself. Kaler says that the secret of success is to create a show of equal appeal to adults and children.
But that’s not all. He has also honed a local tradition – one which allows cynical seen-it-all students home for the holiday to sit next to granny and grandad, all of them cheering as Sunderland-born Kaler welcomes each new set of babbies and bairns to the show. Kaler says, “Our panto has been written by me and the audience. Every line is written with them in mind. It’s just become a unique part of their life and my life”.
And that’s important. The fact that the York Theatre Royal Panto is one of a kind and completely unexportable is not a flaw, it’s an asset. It’s a reminder that local theatre is of its place and time. Other institutions are succumbing to global change and losing their connections to the places where they were often nurtured, while identikit high streets proliferate, markets are dominated by multinational companies with little or no loyalty to any one locality, and global tech companies move headquarters and jobs from one jurisdiction to another at the shake of a tax demand.
In York, for example, the name Rowntrees, so long synonymous with the city, is gradually being erased from the confectionery which built the company’s prosperity because Nestlés, which now owns the brand, consider it too old-fashioned and country-centric for a company operating across continents. In the public sphere too, decision-making is consistently being removed from local or regional hands to national or international organisations. The anger that local communities felt as they watched power drain away was distilled in that Brexit vote. So it’s vital that cultural bodies like theatres not only maintain their links with the local, but act as champions for their cities and towns, telling and retelling their stories, opening their doors to residents, becoming centrepieces of local life.
It might seem odd to elevate an evening’s entertainment woven from tatty old jokes, glittering costumes and hammy performances into a protest banner against blandness and corporate monotony. But Berwick Kaler and his panto are an example of theatre at its best, when the actors on the stage and the audience have united to create a unique moment, one that is incomparably, irreplaceably, theirs.
As Kaler, now 72, retires to spend more time with his dogs, the trick for York Theatre Royal will be to find a way of keeping that marvellous relationship between the panto and its audience going. They will work hard on it, I’m sure.