It has become a statement of the obvious to say that Berwick Kaler's pantomimes at the York Theatre Royal are a great theatrical institution. Even measured solely on longevity, they are remarkable in that this year's Aladdin and the Twankeys is the 35th time he has combined the roles of writer and Dame at the Theatre Royal!
Almost as impressive a record is that of Martin Barrass who has served 28 times as his idiot son, this year Mankee Twankey, Aladdin's much much younger twin! Martin first appeared in the York pantomime in 1984 and has never missed one since then, though in the 1980s there were two panto-less years when Berwick Kaler was appearing in West End musicals.
Even when appearing in One Man, Two Guvnors for the National Theatre at the Haymarket London in 2012, Martin obtained 11 weeks leave of absence to get insulted and drenched with water at York. His first appearance came when director Andrew McKinnon noted his talent for physical comedy in Cider with Rosie at the Theatre Royal, but Martin already knew the York pantomime by reputation and as an audience member: he came to see his friend from drama school, Gary Oldman, in 1980 – and confesses, "It just blew me away." So who better than Martin Barrass to sum up the perennial appeal of panto Kaler-style?
"It's got tradition and it's also got zaniness – Monty Python-esque. You never know what you're going to get with Berwick's ad libs. Production values are very high. The costumes are made individually for every single person, we use professional dancers, not pupils at a stage school, we don't stint on the slapstick – a half-ton tank, firehoses and the rest! –, we include film sequences where we have a backdrop of York itself, there's a full band. There's so much effort and work goes into it, but it sounds as if we're making it up as we go along. We have to be careful not to be carried away with technology: there have to be the traditional elements – cross-dressing and transformation scenes – so there's something for absolutely everyone. I'm a parent and, if there was anything too near the knuckle which would make me blush for my kids, I wouldn't be happy with that. What you can have is sauciness, seaside postcard-style, Two Ronnies-style – in a pantomime you've got to appeal to everyone from toddlers upwards.'
As an example of the pantomime's appeal to all ages, Martin cites the local Young Farmers who regard their visit to the Theatre Royal as the highlight of their year. He also regards it as "a great compliment" that many people say they like to see the pantomime at the beginning, then come back at the end of the run to see how it's developed, this even before the traditional last-night mayhem which the stage crew plan for four weeks beforehand to create a series of massive gags.
The success of the York pantomimes depends in part on combining innovation with stability and at the heart of the company is a quartet of regulars: Berwick Kaler, Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper and David Leonard. By my reckoning between them they have comfortably reached a century of York pantos, with Suzy joining in 1994 and David joining at the same time as Martin: "We were petrified, we just wanted to be good and we'd heard that Berwick could wipe the floor with you with his ad libs." Last year York's favourite villain David Leonard found himself in a similar position to Martin – in a long London run, Matilda – and had less accommodating management. This year the run continues and pantomime villainy is in the capable hands of Jonathan Race.
Amid his enthusiasm for appearing in the York pantomime Martin confesses it's still scary working with Berwick Kaler: "It's like playing cricket and you're standing in the slips, you have to expect the ball to come to you every single time and be ready to react. Berwick's said to me after a scene, ‘I don't know where it comes from.' I've got a bit of licence to ad lib, but definitely the pecking order is: the Dame has full licence."
And, as for the audience at long leg or deep mid wicket, who knows what's going to arrive? Wagon Wheels, perhaps?