Long-standing actors from York Theatre Royal’s annual pantomime – some of whom have worked with the venue for more than 40 years – are at risk of losing their jobs, following the executive team’s decision to overhaul its Christmas offering.
In between last weekend’s performances of the current panto, Sleeping Beauty, the cast were told the show would be “taking a different direction” and that their roles next year would not be guaranteed.
A new writing and directing team will be appointed, replacing Berwick Kaler, who has written and co-directed the show, and starred as the dame for 40 years.
Martin Barrass, David Leonard, Suzy Cooper and AJ Powell, who play the principal characters, will not receive automatic contracts as in previous years. Barrass has starred in the pantomime for 41 years, while Cooper has appeared in it for 27 years.
The theatre’s artistic director Tom Bird told The Stage: “A change is needed. The reason we’re doing it is because, sadly, although the pantomime is loved here, there has been a decline in terms of sales and bums on seats. From 2008 to [now] there’s a been a decline from around 54,000 to 30,000, and that’s something we have to [address].”
“We have to do something about it, and try and welcome an even wider section of the community,” he added.
In an interview with BBC Radio York presenter Jonathan Cowap, Barrass said the decision was “like shooting the goose that lays the golden egg”.
He added: “I was told by proxy […] Tom said: ‘We are not going to be asking you back, so this means it’s the final year because we are taking a different direction. We don’t know what the entertainment will be. We don’t know what the future [is], but the future won’t be with you.'”
Bird has since confirmed the theatre will “absolutely be doing a pantomime – we are going to create a brand new exciting one”.
“It will be very York, very exciting and spectacular but we will be using a new creative team. The pantomime is not going to be cut,” he said.
He added: “The cast who have been involved in the pantomime won’t necessarily be involved again in the future. We’re not slamming the door on them but if whoever is creating the show next year wants to work with different people, then we will support that.
“Equally, if they want to work with them, that’s fine too, [but] there won’t be an automatic offer in the way there has been in the past.”
More than 1,500 people have signed an online petition to stop the theatre axing the traditional cast.
Cooper told the York Press: “It’s hard to go out there singing and dancing knowing the carpet is being pulled from underneath you. I love that theatre and I feel like I’m coming home every year. There’s a bond, and I’d do anything for that place.”
Details of next year’s Christmas pantomime are set to be announced early next month.