Along with the usual Christmas concerns – have I bought an equal amount of presents for the children or will there be a riot on Christmas morning? Will any of the baubles survive the week or will the cats pull them all off and chew them to bits? – there’s a new worry for this year: will we still enjoy the York Theatre Royal pantomime now that Berwick Kaler has retired? We went along to the press night of Sleeping Beauty to find out.
As loyal York Theatre Royal panto-goers, we were heartbroken when Berwick Kaler hung up his wig last year, but the announcement that he’d still be writing the script and co-directing was welcome news. In fact, it turns out that there’s plenty that’s familiar: the wonderful Suzy Cooper, David Leonard and AJ Powell return and are reliably fantastic. Suzy shines as Sleeping Beauty (our five-year-old fell completely in love with her), David remains the best panto villain on the block, and AJ made the most of his increased stage time, with cracking comic timing that means he steals every scene.
Panto stalwart Martin Barrass takes more of a starring role this year, not as the dame but as the queen. Not replacing the dame for now is probably a wise move – Berwick’s boots (and frocks) are not easy ones to fill, and we did miss his crazy costume changes, strong stage presence and off-script banter. Like Dec without Ant, Martin seemed slightly bereft without his partner in comedy.
As for the story itself? Well, it’s the classic fairytale about the girl who falls asleep for a hundred years, but with added Theatre Royal panto silliness, from the traditional water scene (which we felt they could have made more of) to in-jokes for the locals and, of course, a dash of Harry Gration.
Sleeping Beauty was a tale of two halves: Act 1 lacked the usual sparkle and had some shockingly bad jokes. But after half-time drinks and ice cream, the energy picked up, the jokes improved and the story reached a pleasing conclusion that had all of our children grinning in their seats.
This was the first year at the panto for our youngest (five) and she loved it: her eyes lit up every time Sleeping Beauty walked on stage, she danced in her seat to all the songs, joined in with the songsheet and even seemed to follow what was going on (a Christmas miracle, given the usual crazy plot). In fact, all three of our kids really enjoyed it, especially because they know some of the children in the cast (who were all very funny and did a brilliant job). When I asked them to rate the panto out of ten, they gave it ten, ten and eleven – it doesn’t get much better than that.
As for the adults, we felt like it was a solid transition from the old era to the new, with plenty of the elements we know and love. It’s silly, entertaining and lots of fun, particularly for the younger members of the audience. Most importantly, it was a fabulously festive family night out. The York Theatre Royal panto will no doubt continue to grow and develop, and our children will want to be right there in the dress circle every year, growing with them. This pantomime is set to be part of our Christmas traditions, and the Christmas traditions of lots of other York families, for many years to come.