‘It’s the same old rubbish’ Berwick Kaler proudly declared – but for many it’s the rubbish they wait all year for, a dose of pantomime fun with the UK’s longest serving dame.
Berwick and the gang are back at Grand Opera House York once again, as they sail off on a new adventure in this year’s production of Robinson Crusoe and the Pirates of the River Ouse.
Robinson Crusoe and the Pirates of the River Ouse is at the Grand Opera House from Saturday 9 December 2023 to Saturday 6 January 2024.
Swap ‘Barbie’ for ‘Babbies’, as this year the production began with an injection of energy, as ‘Dance the Night Away’ opened the pantomime – choreographed by Kirsty Sparks and led by the brilliant ensemble of six.
This year they were more than just backing dancers, they were at the heart of the show and elevated the quality of the entire production. Benjamin Goodwin, Belle Kizzy Green, Grace Hawksworth, Niamh Hendron and Henry Rhodes all deserve a mention for their non-stop exceptional performance, and Jake Lindsay joined them before doubling up as the title role of Robinson Crusoe for a short moment towards the end of the show.
Whilst these professionals bring the magic, there’s one individual who brings the fans back year after year and that’s Berwick Kaler himself. As the screen came down, a return many had hoped for, the build-up began leading to Kaler’s – or should I say Dame Dulally’s – entrance, which I feel actually slowed down the otherwise fast-moving opening sequence. But he of course gained his well-earned warm reception, to fuel his unpredictable (as always) performance.
You never know what ad-lib is coming next which can both be the beauty and the deep concern behind this never-ending reign; but for the most part Berwick was back in full force after a rocky performance in recent years. After attending Berwick’s pantomimes for 20 years, I can’t help but eagerly anticipate the bedlam you know is bound to arrive.
Alongside our Dame, completing the fab five was of course Martin Barrass (Willy), Suzy Cooper (Polly/Fairy Britannia), David Leonard (Narcissus) and A.J Powell (Lovely Jubbly), that for many attending feel like a second family.
Suzy Cooper brought her usual youthful enthusiasm, flexibility and sweetness to not one but two roles this year, which she portrayed with ease – even with an under-pressure costume change, she is always a joy to watch. Powell and Barrass both supported the mayhem that ensued, adding their typical charm to the narrative.
David Leonard, who may arguably be the crowd’s favourite, returned, misbehaving moustache and all, as the familiar baddie; who this year was desperate to steal the book of spells and bring back the evil magic that lies within his family. ‘You and Me (But Mostly Me)’ gave us our musical theatre fix for act one as Leonard and Powell commanded the stage during this Book of Mormon number – and the malfunction of the moustache only helped make this number more comedic.
And as Leonard is so undeniably entertaining, I felt he had very limited stage time, which was a waste of his talent in my opinion. If and when the gang return, I believe he needs more time to do what he does best: shine.
Accompanying these stars were the bairns, out in full force as students from Dance Expression School of Dance and Lisa Marie Performing Arts joined the cast this year. These junior ensembles have been missed not just here but across York pantos.
One little one even made her debut as the Dame herself! A recycled joke from generations ago that still lands exceptionally well, with the obvious dig to Kaler’s baldness and age thrown in for good measure. There is always a full circle moment to be had with this company and having Henry Rhodes on the stage who played this same part in the sketch 17 years ago, made it even more special.
The script and direction may still be led by the leading man in a dress but this year we see the addition of executive pantomime director Anthony Williams, who I can’t help but claim to be responsible for the prompt and well put together running of the show.
There were no extra-long drawn out scenes, no unpredictable show times – yet we still got the same improvised moments of mischief; a balance that may help keep this pantomime running for some time to come. Whilst the plot itself was simple, we still got the usual pantomime essentials and lots of opportunities for audience participation.
One of my biggest criticisms in recent years was the lack of range in their musical choices, however this year they got the soundtrack right and there was something for everyone. One of my favourite moments was the use of ‘Padam Padam’ by Kylie Minogue, which was so perfectly re-written as ‘Me Mam’.
Musical director Richard Barker and his band did a great job of keeping up, especially with the initial uncertainty from the principal cast around timing, which soon improved. It would be wonderful however to have clarity in their sound balance and hear more live singing, especially those with supporting vocals where often only the pre-recorded backing could be heard.
The other saving grace for this pantomime and its improvement from recent years was the excellent set design (Jon Harris, Jason Bishop and Ian Wilson) and costume design (Elizabeth Dennis). We were transported from ship to shore, tomb to town so perfectly and the transitions were smoother than ever.
This pantomime is in a league of its own and whilst for some its hard to understand the hype, for many it truly feels like coming home! The verdict’s still out on how long Berwick and the gang will continue their reign, but one thing is for sure, they’ve still got it!
Robinson Crusoe and the Pirates of the River Ouse is a pantomime to remember, with the usual mayhem but with added glitz, glamour and talent – visit Grand Opera House York up until Saturday 6 January to witness the familiar chaos.
Tickets start from £13 and are available via the Grand Opera House website.