More than one pacemaker in this panto…

CINDERELLA at York Theatre Royal is the panto that might never have been. It is also a fine advert for our National Health Service.

In August, Berwick Kaler suffered dizzy spells and was rushed to hospital where doctors found that his heart was almost completely blocked. They fitted an emergency pacemaker, and without that there would be no Berwick and no panto, or at least not as we know it.

At the time, Berwick told my old paper: “I think it was a shock for everybody who just thought I was a machine. Well now I am.”

The previous August, Berwick told me during an interview for the Yorkshire Post that he was as fit as a flea, and never mind all the smoking and drinking. Shortly after that his cameo appearance in The Railway Children was cancelled due to a different illness.

Just before Christmas, Berwick showed me his pacemaker when we were chatting in the street, pulling down his jumper and unbuttoning his shirt. It sat there under the skin of his chest, a compact battery pack, hopefully fitted with the medical equivalent of Duracell batteries.

If Berwick can give thanks to the NHS for keeping him alive, his regular panto sidekick Martin Barrass can give equal praise to our health service for picking him up and putting him back together again.

Martin was knocked off his motorbike in September and received such critical injuries that he is only here thanks to the NHS – and the Yorkshire Air Ambulance. After a rough and mortally dangerous patch, Martin is on the mend.

As you might expect, at least if you attend every year, Martin’s recovery has a small role in this panto, although the actor himself had to miss the show after 32 years of playing dame Berwick’s put upon son. I won’t say more as it would be unfair to spoil the surprise.

This isn’t a review as such because you can go elsewhere for those. It is a tricky show to write up, something I have done in the past, because you don’t want to give too much away. A review that gives away too many secrets is like those annoying movie trailers that condense a whole film into two or three minutes – removing the need to see the film.

Berwick Kaler now has a pacemaker, and he has always been a pacemaker, too. He co-directs and writes this show, and this year had to rewrite it around the absence of his usual sidekick. Cinderella also doesn’t have a dame, but does have a plot: the York panto is big on the dame and is usually untroubled by plot.

Without too many spoilers, here is a condensed account. Cinderella is the most glittery Theatre Royal panto yet, and dangerously close to being a proper big production number, with great sets, fantastic music and enough of the usual rubbish to please those who return every year hoping for a happy sort of repeat.

Berwick is lower key than in some years, but still delivers a fine and funny show, while David Leonard attempts to sweeten his usual high-camp villainy by playing nice as Cinderella’s step-mum.

AJ Powell continues his Brummie charm offensive and is promoted to the slapstick scene, which features an icy tank of water – and Berwick’s ugly sister sporting the silliest falsies known to man. Or woman. Leonard’s fake bosoms are made of firmer stuff, while AJ cuts a slim dash in a panto frock. The big musical number where the three of them do a falsie waltz is priceless.

Suzy Cooper is the other pacemaker on stage this year. She romps with gushing gusto and glitters more than that set. Even if Berwick’s Ugly Sister does tell a young cast member early on that she can’t be Cinderella “as that part has already gone to a middle-aged woman”.

There are plenty of surreal touches, as you might expect, including a film role for a Suzy with an ‘i’. Anyone who had wondered what Harry Gration looks like in women’s underwear won’t go home disappointed either.

It’s a surreal affair this panto, and not to everyone’s taste. Berwick is not to all tastes either, but we love him and his panto in this family. Let’s thank the silly heavens for the NHS. And boo the really villain of the piece, health secretary Jeremy Hunt (apologies, a bit of politics sneaked in there).

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