We all need a bit of light escapism around this time of year, though 2016 was so categorically awful it even marked an annus horribilis for the York pantomime family. In fact it’s a near-miracle – and testament to the Yorkshire Air Ambulance and the NHS – that Berwick Kaler’s 38th York pantomime even made it to the stage at all.
Back in August, Kaler suffered dizzy spells and was rushed to hospital where doctors found his heart to be almost completely blocked and fitted an emergency pacemaker. “I think it was a shock for everybody who just thought I was a machine,” he told the local paper. “Well now I am.”
But worse was to come. In September, Martin Barrass, who has played Kaler’s idiot son for 32 consecutive years, was critically injured in a motorcycle accident. Fortunately, his recovery is at a stage where the rest of the cast feel comfortable making jokes about it; and he even makes a cameo appearance in a filmed spoof based on the make-me-a-man sequence of The Rocky Horror Show, which also features BBC newsreader Harry Gration in woman’s underwear. Did I mention York pantomimes can be a tad surreal?
But there’s no doubt that Barrass’s absence upsets the balance of what has been a winning formula for all these years. The dame’s son is a crucial component rooted in music-hall archetypes, without which Kaler has had to cast around for other stooges to feed him lines. So he drafts in Suzi Quatro (with whom he co-starred in Annie Get Your Gun many moons ago) for another filmed segment in which they buy a used car from a dodgy salesman played by Theatre Royal director Damian Cruden. Did I mention that York pantomimes can be a touch surreal?
Like any canny manager dealing with injuries, Kaler knows best how to redistribute his squad. The introduction of lovable Brummie AJ Powell to the slapstick scene is a promotion of sorts, though he probably wishes that Barrass wasn’t indisposed in the year they brought back the freezing water-tank. Harry Hughes is no more than a placeholder as Buttons, but he is entrusted with song-sheet duties at the end. It’s left to Suzy Cooper to sparkle for all she’s worth in the title role; though Cinderella is a curious pantomime in that it splits the dame’s part three ways.
It enables Kaler to conserve some energy by slotting in as an ugly sister opposite the increasingly impressive Powell. But it is actually regular villain David Leonard’s attempts to play nice as Cinders’s stepmother that generate the most heat. And the gloves are clearly off in the false bosoms department: Kaler’s have developed an erratic life of their own, while Leonard flashes his proudly (in the electrical sense). Did I mention that – well, you get the picture.