Review: The Grand Old Dame Of York, York Theatre Royal, until February 2. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

IT began as a celebration of 40 years of the Grand Old Dame of York, and it still is, but York's favourite adopted son from Sunderland has now called time on pantomime at 72, and so the impromptu standing ovation for Berwick Kaler was inevitably suffused with sadness too.

Ever the ground-breaking pantomime writer, the dowager dame chose to mark his ruby anniversary by coming up with an entirely new panto, a challenge that he took to the wire in delivering the script as rehearsals progressed, albeit built around the familiar structure: brisk opening songs to each half; introductions; "plot development"; villain's grandstanding entrance; rocking chair scene; slapstick scene; the "filum"; villain's fall; shout-outs and song sheet; thank you and goodnight.

York Press:

The Grand Old Dame Of York company for Berwick Kaler's final pantomime

Kaler and co-director Damian Cruden's show ran to two hours and 50 minutes on press night, three hours the night before, but the running time is sure to shorten still more for a bonkers pantomime full of set pieces and short bursts of "plot" that, in a nutshell, revolve around David Leonard's ever thwarted villain, Les Miserable, seeking to banish Kaler's Molly Motley to Lancashire, beyond the boundary of Yorkshire, the last place on earth to retain a sense of humour in these Brexit days. Leonard, his comic timing par excellence, excels in a dentist's chair scene, later as a French Max Wall, later still as the Big Bad Wolf.

After entering on a stair-lift slide, Kaler starts sending up his reputation for never writing a (coherent) plot by having the cast play characters in search of one; Martin Barrass's Nobby Motley, Suzy Cooper's Alexa Motley and AJ Powell's AJ moving from pantomime to pantomime, from Peter Pan to Dick Turpin, with Kaler's dame promising them he will let them know by the end which panto they are doing this year.

York Press:

Bewitching: another side to Suzy Cooper in The Grand Old Dame Of York

answer is, they are dipping in and out of plenty, but never settling on one for too long: the scenes pass as interlinking, often daft sketches with cast members playing to familiar guises: Powell constantly showing off his shapely legs in assorted frocks while also playing Dick Turpin; Barrass suffering humiliation as always; Suzy Cooper mimicking Kaler's accent and dipping into the dark side in a couple of bewitching cameo scenes with Leonard; Danielle Mullan's effervescent Fairy Mary and Jake Lindsay's dim Essex lad Va-Va Voom relishing more time centre stage. York dancer Joseph Poulton, meanwhile, shines in the ensemble in his Kaler panto debut.

The show would have benefited from more extended send-ups of pantomimes, to match the climactic Little Red Riding Hood scenes with their witty use of shadow play, but there is much to enjoy in Kaler switching between Molly and her blunt husband; the film that takes to the skies and hits the humorous heights; the delightful costumes and set designs of Mark Walters; the musical panache of Elliot Styche and the swishing choreography of Grace Harrington.

York Press:

Evil triumphs: David Leonard in magnificent form in The Grand Old Dame Of York

So, what happens next year? The pantomime must go on, says the management. There ain't nothing like Berwick's dame, but just as he switched from playing villain 40 years ago, might David Leonard follow suit? Lest we forget, he did play headmistress Miss Trunchbull in Roald Dahl's Matilda in the West End not that long ago...

...In the meantime, let the final word go to Dame Berwick, as it always has on his Theatre Royal stage. "No-one else understands what we laugh about, and don't you try to explain it to anyone," he said. "Thanks for the laughs, thanks for the love. I really will miss you."

Grand exit stage left, Britain's longest-running pantomime dame. Exit his Queen Victoria; Mrs Fitzackerly; Savage the toy dog; the rocking chair; the wobbly wig; the reading glasses; one red legging, the other yellow; the Wagon Wheels; the Newcy Brown bottles; the big boots to fill. Irrepressible, yes; irreplaceable, yes, but a new, different age will now begin.

Charles Hutchinson