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The Grand Old Dame of York review at York Theatre Royal – ‘Berwick Kaler’s anarchic swansong’

Berwick Kaler in The Gard Old Dame of York at Theatre Royal York

This year’s panto is one long bow for writer, director and long-running dame Berwick Kaler. Marking 40 years of what he calls the “annual rubbish”, The Grand Old Dame of York is a wonderfully chaotic swansong, saying goodbye as only Kaler can. As the cast sing, “there’s no panto like this panto”.

Unlike celebrity vehicles elsewhere, the stars of the York Theatre Royal’s Christmas offering are local heroes – familiar faces who come back year after year. Stalwarts Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper and David Leonard, with 32, 24 and 29 pantos apiece, are all on brilliant form this year, with Leonard’s baddie soaring to new heights of hammy villainy.

The story, if you can spot it amidst the slapstick and in-jokes, concerns a threat to the laughter that Kaler’s panto has been bringing to York audiences for four decades. We’re in the last bastion of humour – a fiction that’s easy to believe as Brexit chaos engulfs the country. But someone wants to stop the giggles and guffaws: dastardly Les Miserable, part-time dentist and full-time villain.

It’s all precisely as ridiculous as it sounds. The running gag is that the script hasn’t yet been written, and the action is even more anarchic than usual. One moment we’re in a dentist’s surgery, the next the dame is flying away in a hot air balloon. But in a rare quiet moment, as Kaler sings alone while the set is dismantled around him, it’s apparent just how much this “rubbish” means to both creator and community.

York’s panto legend Berwick Kaler: ‘Playing the dame is terrifying, you know you have to deliver’

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Anarchic Christmas offering marks the end of an era for York Theatre Royal panto