Get in touch: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting YORK to 80360 or send an email»
Preview: Sinbad The Sailor, York Theatre Royal, December 13 to February 2
IN his 29 seasons in the York Theatre Royal pantomime, Berwick Kaler has appeared in Sinbad The Sailor only once before. The year was 1984 and pantomime times have changed, according to the domeheaded dame.
"Everything is getting banned. Try writing a pantomime today and not offending someone in the audience, " says Berwick, rolling those big, big eyes, in the quiet of a briefly deserted rehearsal room earlier this week.
"The only rule I say is, 'don't be cruel for cruelty's sake', so more and more, you resort to sending up the characters: yourselves. Go back a number of years and you won't get the laughs now for what you did then."
Nevertheless, writing a pantomime script for the relative obscure Sinbad The Sailor has given 61-year-old Berwick a free rein. "This one is a bit weird?" he says, relishing the prospect of the Theatre Royal being the only theatre to stage Sinbad this Christmas.
In what way will it be weird, Berwick, given that your panto is never exactly conventional?
"It's not a panto! Not really. Sinbad The Sailor is one of those Arabian tales, about the son of a very rich merchant, who, when he inherited his father's money, wasted it and ended up telling stories."
Berwick has taken the bare bones of Sinbad The Sailor and "made up the rest". What has he kept?
"I've used the title, " he says, triumphantly.
"I think you will be surprised. I'm determined to get a plot in there this year. I've done my research and one of the other things we know about Sinbad is that he would marry a woman in the morning, divorce her, marry again the next morning, until there were no women left in Iraq. Now that would upset people, so I've made my own plot up - and that'll teach you a lesson.
"You'll either say, 'don't give me a plot ever again' or you will like it, and I happen to think it's rather a nice little plot."
Berwick, as dame, writer and co-director, feels the need for innovation and change, despite his exaggerated protestations to the contrary on stage, where he always castigates himself for "the same old rubbish".
"You don't stay in the same city for four decades by giving them the same show every year, " he says. "I know my publicity is, 'it's written on the back of a fag packet in 15 minutes in a tea break', and that's fine, but you do have to give them something different or they're not going to come back."
Over the years, Berwick has seen a diminution in the range of pantomimes, rather like the same old big four always battling for English football's Premier League title.
"I get bored with theatre managements doing only four pantomimes. We've had three Cinderellas in this city in four years and that's not fair on the people of York. We did it once in those four years, and that was for the first time in ten years, which is fair enough.
"We did Sleeping Beauty when no one else was doing it; we've done Humpty Dumpty and Beauty And The Beast; I wrote a new pantomime for the Millennium, Old Mother Milly. We have our audience and they don't care what the title is, so we can experiment more than commercial managements.
"In a way, maybe we're lucky but we've worked for it. When we do a panto we've not done for a while or do a panto that's not well known, it fires me up? and I do need stimulating."
Sinbad The Sailor has plenty of new ingredients, and not only a new plot. "We have a new costume designer, a new set designer and a new choreographer, and I'll stick my neck out and say that Kay Shepherd is the best choreographer we've ever had for the panto. I saw her choreography for Bouncers this year and I thought, 'she can really work with actors'."
Sinbad will feature a deliberately amateurish film sequence, as has become the custom in the Theatre Royal panto, but will otherwise place great store in the traditions of the burlesque and vaudeville.
"If we can't create it on stage, we're not doing it, " says Berwick.
He also places great stock in the importance of physicality. "You can't just have someone telling gags.
It's not just what you say that has to be funny. It's the way you talk, the way you walk in panto; you have to have a funny face. Where are the Morecambe and Wises on TV now? We're missing them."
Sinbad The Sailor, York Theatre Royal, Thursday to February 2. Box office: 01904 623568 or www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk