Pantomime often gets a bad rap – pretty unfairly, in some cases. In York, however, it’s a different story: to add to the city’s long list of ancient artefacts, we’re home to the UK’s longest running panto dame, in the form of one Berwick Kaler. The man’s transcended to legend status, particularly after the announcement that The Grand Old Dame of York, Kaler’s 40th panto at the Theatre Royal, would be his last. Cue crowds of the dame’s “babbies and bairns” (Kaler’s greeting) flocking to the YTR to witness a night of spectacular escapism.
There’s a heightened sense of anticipation in the theatre, created by the buzz of Kaler fans who’ve introduced younger generations to the York panto scene, and this spark of magic that touches Mark Walter’s terrific set. Walters has done a sterling job of creating faraway castles, farce-perfect inns and inviting forest pieces- as well as a terrifyingly toothy dentist’s office.
Ah, yes. There is a dental practice in the panto because the villain Les Miserable (David Leonard) is a dentist.
Hm, right, I’ll go back: Les Miserable wants everyone to be sad and he’s the perfect villain for Molly Motley (Kaler), the titular dame, because she’s been blessed by the spirit of the White Rose and is responsible for York being the only place left in the UK with a sense of humour and happiness. Miserable finds this out from the dastardly witch Suzy Cooper, played by Suzy Cooper, who also plays Alexa, Molly’s daughter, but also plays herself, Suzy Cooper, as a non-baddie at the beginning of the panto.
If it helps, Kaler constantly jokes that the script makes no sense.
The YTR panto works on a comic currency of stuff going awry. It’s a time-old farce model and don’t get me wrong, when it works it works. By far the strongest sequence in the show takes place in Molly’s B&B, when her estranged “Yarkshire” hubby arrives home. Also played by Kaler, the “two” run between rooms with impressive alacrity. Whenever Kaler appears with a wig on skew-whiff we’re in on the joke. What we’re not in on is seeing the stagehand standing in the doorway whenever Molly bustles through.
That’s the downside to The Grand Old Dame of York: too often it’s not easy to ascertain if the comic currency, the jokey mess-ups, are intentional or not. Kaler is a master of the “slop” scenes, a dab hand at some sharp if not exactly slick ad-libs, and he rocks a quick costume change like nobody’s business. But those moments of glory are padded at all angles by lengthy sequences which establish little to no plot, and barely give the talented cast a chance to shine. We have a brilliantly performed song by AJ Powell about how he’s no longer going to be cast aside, trapped in joke and bit parts. It’s a strong opener, setting him up for an incredibly likeable hero’s quest – but then the panto tosses that thread aside, like it’s a leftover scene from an early draft. (The only cultural comparison I have for the wasted promise that is Powell’s character arc is when Rizzo, the best one in the Muppets, only has one line in the film Muppets Most Wanted).
I know the excuses – they’re joked about enough in the show itself. “It’s panto, it doesn’t have to make sense”. But the problem is that without a coherent story structure, the show is bound to lag between plot beats. That’s fine in the case of Kaler’s customary short film segment (my friend Harry, seeing the YTR panto for the first time at this point murmured “what the hell”) but the dreaded watch-check moment threatens to come around when watching the ensemble cast’s scenes, and I think to myself “well, they seems like they’re having fun”.
I realise that this makes me sound like a complete Grinch, by way of Scrooge, Mr Potter and those mean lawyers in Miracle on 34th Street: I’m only saying this as somebody from within the panto trap. Yes (plot twist!), I was in my uni’s panto society for three years – it was amazing, but I recognise the wearied faces of my non-panto friends when they sat through a couple of hours of in-jokes they were never going to get. That’s what’s happened here, beyond the wagon wheels and Newcastle brown ale. Kaler has this amazing grip on his audience, and their loyalty’s not a surprise at all: he’s got star quality. But these fans will sit through even the stinkers – when Molly warbles a family-oriented ballad, she’s singing out directly to that Panto Family. The uninitiated won’t get this sparkle of magic half so often, I’m sad to say.